We felt it was important to reflect on what identity questions might mean today. I don’t want to relativise identity at all, I think it is hugely important to tackle it but we should find ways to approach it in such a way that we don’t end up with a caricature or the opposite of what we want. The hypothesis of the project is our intuition that young artists today are no longer dealing with this question in the way that art has been dealing with it in the past decades. There has been a kind of global reorganisation of the art world based on identity politics and the clearest example of this has been the kind of political correctness in places like the United States which sort of allowed people from different cultures and gender–because it is not just about culture—to open up spaces for their views. Of course, there were those who opted out of that trend, but it opened up space anyhow.
Then you have artists like the Kabakovs, Huang Yong Ping, or Cai Guo-Qiang: great artists, who are now valued way beyond the cliché that initially both supported and limited the perception of their work. So there was also this use of this identity question as a battering ram to enter into the international artistic space. We felt that young artists are not working like that at all anymore and in a certain way this exhibition is inviting a lot of these artists to consider what the question of identity might mean now.
We explicitly did not want to take a specific frame like young artists from the Arab world, for instance. We wanted to avoid something so clear or visible.
Well, we as an institution find that approach problematic, though at the same time, I find that this mode of exhibiting still raises urgent questions, too, because the question of framing remains unresolved. Therefore, it is important to tackle this approach to exhibition making as a problem. I think in the past we’ve been able to do this a couple of times in exceptional ways. Our Intertidal exhibition was a landmark in the assessment of the art scene in Vancouver, starting from the halting of time in the intertidal zone on the Canadian east coast, and our ‘Santhal Family’ project has been considered an important moment in relation to India, departing from the academy of Santiniketan, founded by Rabindrath Tagore, or rather still, from the first modern public sculpture on the campus of that academy. But for me, engaging with these kind of projects is less obvious than it used to be. Today, there are more and more artists who are living this kind of global existence: you have artists who have a kind of double or even triple life: living in Europe, for instance, and also in Africa. Things are much more fluid; the world has a more ambiguous topography now in that sense. You cannot really expect artists to be as involved as they used to be twenty years ago in their local situations, since localisation has become more multilayered and things have become more global. Of course, you do have outstanding artists who engage in their local situations and who are key to establishing these contexts and becoming references in it. But I think this relates to those are from a slightly older generation.
It opens a space for art that is not really related anymore to the teleological space of contemporary art as it has been operating. What this exhibition does is similar to the first series of exhibitions we produced for L’Internationale in 2012, the Museum of Affects show which we curated in Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana and the Spirits of Internationalism exhibition which took place at the same time in M HKA and in the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, for which I now want to make a reiteration for the 2015 Biennial of Moscow I’m curating, focused on the postwar avant-garde between the mid nineteen fifties and the mid eighties. In this, we made alternative mappings of that period by focusing on the affects and the aspirations of artists that are referential for that time. I feel these were important projects, because we basically said, ‘this avant-garde is not what you told us it was!’ In other words, the exhibition illustrated how the canon was not only situated in New York, but was actually something that happened everywhere. It also highlighted the fact that the avant-garde and the history of it is something you can only get close to if you approach it through a certain sense of localisation. This is not a relativistic approach, though. On the contrary, it is an aspiration towards a more precise and open system that may enhance our understanding. Multinational institutions are buying into this approach now…
Right, as if trying to re-correct the encyclopedia by adding something that has been missed! If you think about this moment in holistic terms, there are at least two viable museological contemporary art projects happening. The first is that of the multinationals, such as Tate, Beaubourg or MoMA, which I respect because they are clearly effective, re-establishing the canon in a more open way. The second is what we are trying to do through the L’Internationale museums: a museological project that tries to relate in an intelligent way to historicity and localisation within a larger frame. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, divided the world in two. That meant that the western part of Europe was also colonised, but it was self-colonised. For example, in the sixties and seventies at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, there were only American artists presented in the central space: there was not a single European artist there! At the time, if you were not an artist from New York, you could be somewhere, but not at the top: It was an absolute hegemony. And what does hegemony mean? It means your narrative is the reference and the rest becomes a variation on that.
Then came the eighties and even if diversification happened in many ways, the old categorisations implicitly continued. What you see here now in this exhibition and with these artists is a generation that is completely beyond that. What they are doing essentially, though their work is formally very different, is thinking about where they are in the world. They are taking elements of their identity in some way—highly specific, very concretely where they come from, very concretely what they see around them—and they reflect that into an image that is offered like you would offer something about yourself in a conversation: you express yourself with a phrase, because that’s what it takes to encounter people. It’s very generous and feels quite different from what came before.
So through this exhibition, Don’t You Know Who I Am?, we are expressing what is our aspiration as a museum, which is related to this wider image of what we can do and how we deal with our collection. Because for us, what we are trying to continue is the tradition of the museum of contemporary art in Europe, which emerged as a specific model. It views museums of contemporary art as places that have to be radically connected to the urgencies of the time, while also being serious about their relationship to longevity. The heyday for this was the 1960s and 70s with museums such as Moderna Museet in Stockholm or the museums here, such as Mönchengladbach, the Van Abbe Museum or the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. But when I say “here,” I don’t only mean Antwerp. I am also referring to the wider Eurocore area. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has analysed this area and calls it ‘Hollowcore’ because its governments carve it up: the Dutch speak of their ‘Randstad’, the Flemish of their ‘Flemish Lozenge’—but actually, the whole area from the north of France to the Rhineland is one huge urban area. The sub-cultures from any place within this area know where the other places are and in the 60s and 70s, avant-garde contemporary art got its first public acceptance in this area.
Antwerp is a vivid part of that legacy, even if there was no contemporary art museum: it was one of the hubs of avant-garde contemporary art with a gallery like Wide White Space, for example: at that time one of the most important contemporary galleries in Europe.
After creating Office Baroque, Matta-Clark basically went to Documenta 6 from here! And when Matta-Clark passed away, this was the only remaining architectural installation. The director of the ICC at the time, Flor Bex, tried to turn it into a museum, which would have been amazing, but in the end this didn’t happen, though it did lead to the founding of M HKA.
Well, this was a hub! When Laurie Anderson came to Europe for the first time she was invited to Germany, and she wrote a letter to the I.C.C, even though she didn’t know the name of the director, and asked to come to Antwerp to do a project. This was one of the places to be, and so we have a lot of stories like this— Yves Klein offered for the first time his ‘zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility’ for sale in Antwerp, Daniel Spoerri made his very first artwork ever here: the remake of which M HKA now takes care of. Then you have Beuys, who performed Eurasienstab in 1968 at Wide White Space, and James Lee Byars, for whom Antwerp was nearly home turf, as well as people such like Manzoni, Carl André, Dan Graham: they all passed by and remained connected.
Yes, and that’s a very beautiful thing for a contemporary art museum to start from because this was a kind of expression for a huge desire for openness. So what we are doing now at M HKA is to remember this legacy, because it can be used as a basis upon which to open up to the multipolar world of today.—[O]