I’m deeply honored to be here. The first thing I would like to do is to commend the professional staff of the Biennale and all the work that they have done to make this happen. Theirs is truly a very lively institution and theirs is a very difficult job. It has been done exceedingly well. I would also like to thank the artists for their contribution. Too often I think it is taken for granted that artists will automatically participate in the exhibitions of this kind. In fact, though, their participation must be measured in relation to the commitment of resources that the things they make will undoubtedly entail, and so can never be taken for granted. I would like to say that it is also a testament to Biennale that for this exhibition, many of the artists have risen to the occasion and made entirely new works at a considerable expense, not in only money, but in effort, concentration, and time. I think the Biennale as an exhibition has benefited enormously from this, and we should acknowledge that extra effort.
There are, needless to say, many patrons and many sponsors and many other participants in this project, and of course many colleagues —curators, art historians, critics, and others—who I have relied on for their insights or through whom I gained access to artists. So, in that sense also, this has been a collective effort.
In the art world these days, there’s a tendency to talk about money only; to assume that all the art world is now is a competition of the possession for a few objects that in fact only a few people can dream of possessing. In truth, the art world is a very far-flung network, and is not just a network in the business sense of the word—it is a community consisting of artists from all over the world. And that community comes together on the occasion of the Biennale, and it is also out of that community that such occasions are made possible. For example, one artist in particular, Sun Yao, drove me all over Shanghai to various artists’ studios. He did this because he was a participant in this community, even though, unfortunately, at this time he is not in the Biennale.
My special thanks goes to Francesca Pietropaolo, my assistant on this project, who was a colleague at the Museum of Modern Art and who is Venetian to the core. It is because of her that I have come to understood many of the city’s mysteries. In addition I am deeply indebted to her knowledge of art community here in Italy, and this helped enormously to make this exhibition work as well as it has done.
Now a couple things. Much has been made of the fact that I am the first American to be invited as a curator. I appreciate this and am grateful for the honor, but I would also like to put a little spin on what it means to be the first American or how this might possibly have affected how I go about things. And I would not start with the typical view of America that is promoted by the media and by the entertainment industry, but with another, I believe truer view of America, at least as I understand it. I see America as a continent, or a series of continents—two continents—settled by diverse populations. It is an America where many native peoples lived, where many waves of immigration came, some of them voluntary and some compulsory, some driven by the desire to make a new life for themselves, and others by extreme hardship, and far worse made captive by slavery and transported. People have asked why Africa is a large part of this exhibition; the fact is that Africa is a large presence in the Americas in general and the United States especially and increasingly it is a large presence in Europe. To honor African culture, to look into the background of African culture, is a natural response to the reality with which we live. There are men from Mali selling bags on the streets of Venice. In that context, it makes a particular kind of sense that the Malick Sidibe should get the Lion d’Or. We need to know about the culture of those around us.
I also believe that the world is truly international so far as the art community is concerned. When we look at Modernism, it is not just something that happened in Paris and then moved to New York, as some people seem to think. As Italians know, of course, it happened in Italy very early on. One of the first pieces in this exhibition is by a young Italian artist, Luca Buvoli, which looks back on the first Italian Modernist movement, namely Futurism, and at all of its complicated history: its failures, its dreams, its dynamism, and its collapse. However, it looks back on it in a way that is a very bittersweet but also very well-informed. The Modernist avant-gardes and ideals have been badly damaged by the experience of the 20th century. On the other hand, we do not live in a totally cynical world as some people seem to think. Those ideals persist but in different ways and survive in different ways and are communicated in different ways. Furthermore Modernism has happened everywhere from the beginning of the 20th century on, not just in a few places, and artists and lots of people knew this, even if it is still not publicly understood. Thus, for example, the Futurist manifesto that Marinetti he rained out onto the streets of Venice from the campanile—there’s an image of this in Luca’s piece—was an attack on what he thought of as arriere-garde culture and all that Venice represented. A year before he did this it was published in Paris in a general-circulation newspaper, and then republished in Japan in a matter of weeks. And an Argentine friend has told me that later, in 1924, Marinetti read it aloud in Buenos Aires. So if you think that Marinetti was active in three places in the first decade or so of the 20th century, the global art world that we have now is not so different in terms of its creative impulses, it is only different in terms of its institutions and disseminations of ideas.
Secondly: that world is polycentric. There is no capital of the art world. I am asked about this repeatedly, but I am asked about it in two ways. Conservatives are nervous that there is no center, and that they fear losing their bearings because they don’t know the one place that they should go for all their information. The answer is, you don’t get good information if you only go to one place. On the other hand there are people who fear polycentrism it’s because they are concerned that they will be forgotten, or because they have in fact been forgotten. But the truth of the matter is that there has, for example, been vital Modernist art in Brazil from early on in the 20th century; in Argentina from early on in the 20th century; in Japan, there’s been an incredibly lively scene from the middle of the 20th century on. And so forth. And when one looks at how a Gutai artist might look at what was happening in Paris or Milan and then how their ways of thinking might take hold in New York or Vienna as happened in the late 1950s and early 1960s—only then does one get some sense of the patterns that are out there. What international exhibitions allow the public to do is to make those latent concentric and non-concentric circles of activity overlap in a visible form, and it allows the public to consider individual works and where the correspondences among them really exist and where they are already visible and manifest.
There’s a great deal of cynicism about Biennale exhibits being simply part of a system of art marketing. A Biennale is not an art fair. Art fairs are all well and good, but art fairs are by and large for people who can afford to buy art. A Biennale welcomes those people, but as a part of a larger community of people who can only buy tickets, who only wish to buy tickets. People who want to have the experience of art directly for themselves, for the cost of relatively few Euros.
The press often discusses the art scene and the art world and Biennale exhibits as if they were an inside conversation among those of you and those of us who are professionals. I am far more interested in something I learned this from the Museum of Modern Art, where I spent lots of time in the galleries listening to crowds talk about the work, and that is in what the general public thinks, and I assume that that public is sufficiently well-informed and certainly smart enough to understand what they’re looking at.
It is in that spirit that I organized this Biennale and it’s in that spirit that I think many of my colleagues responsible for other parts of the Biennales worked on it. What they do by their acts, by their selections, by their choices, is to make exhibitions which are interpretive, which are understood to be incomplete but are also understood also to have a point of view. In putting them together, we are in a sense trying to offer to the general public access to something that otherwise only a relatively small public has access to. Whereas, the social barrier to going to a gallery is enormous. The social barrier to coming to a Biennale is not.
Many cities do not have museums of contemporary art, or even museums of historical art, but they may have, or have proximity to, an equivalent, to a Biennale. On balance Biennales are in fact a democratic forum for art. While anyone can buy a DVD or buy a book, not everybody can get access to art. The internet does not or cannot offer this same experience. The internet only gives you images of works of art that exist but it does not give you the real object or the experience of it. But to be able to confront an actual work, a painting; to be able to walk through an actual installation; to be able sometimes even to touch an actual work—a sculpture—is something that people would not have if the works themselves were not brought together in a place where they could, in a sense, meet their natural public.
In addition I would like to simply say two things: one is that interpretation is not the same thing as indoctrination or lecturing. In playing the role of an exhibition director I bring together diverse works of art based on my experience and my understanding of them, on the maximum use of my consciousness in relation to them. In having that experience, in becoming conscious of them I do not make artificial distinctions between cognition and sensation, between intellectual and the emotive, between conceptualism and perceptualism. One makes use of all one’s faculties and all art that is worthy of the name demands just that. And more than a few of the artists in this exhibition make the limits of that demand very vivid. Bruce Nauman is a conceptual artist, yet what you hear, feel, and see is intensely visceral. The same thing is true of the late Sol LeWitt. Actually in this exhibition commemorates a number of key artists who died too young, but by virtue of what they did they remain—and will remain—our contemporaries and he is among them. LeWitt was an “idea” artist in that sense: He started with an idea, but his drawing, made by many individual hands, is so incredibly subtle, it is an emblem of everything in the world that is visual and tactile.
Lastly, we are living in quite terrible times. Not too long ago, an American political scientist talked about the period after history. (I think he has now regretted this; we have nothing but history, and most of it is awful.) This exhibition has in it reflections of that history: the war in the Balkans, the war in the Middle East, the migrations forced and otherwise from Africa, and so on down the line. However, it is not a political exhibition in that it sets out to make a single point or argue a single position; rather it represents as much disagreement as agreement among the artists on these issues. It is only political in the sense that to be alert today is to take account of how dangerous the world is, and how much culture is threatened by those dangers. On the other hand, culture is capable of responding to, articulating, and shedding light on those dangers and on the violence of all around us. By design it is a sober show in a time when lots of people are intoxicated by money. The money will go away some day, but I hope that the art, including the works in this exhibition, will not. Thank you.