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Conversation  |  Director, Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, Belgium

Bart De Baere

In Conversation with
Stephanie Bailey
Antwerp, 23 December 2014

Since 2012, writer and curator Bart De Baere has been the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (M HKA), which is also the co-publisher of the contemporary art journal Afterall.

With a background in archeology and art history, De Baere’s experience is broad and impressive. Between 2003 and 2007 he served as chairman of the Flemish Council for Culture, which advises the government on cultural policy, and from 1999 to 2001, he was advisor for cultural heritage and contemporary art to the Flemish Minister of Culture. Before this, from 1986 to 2001, he was curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent (now S.M.A.K.), during which time he organised and curated events for several venues abroad including Documenta IX in Kassel. He co-founded the Brussels Kunsthalle Wiels, and as consultant to the City of Johannesburg, he was also involved in establishing a biennial in South Africa. He was a member of the International Advisory Council for the network of Soros Centres for contemporary art in Eastern Europe, and in 2015, De Baere will curate the Moscow Biennial.

In this interview, De Baere discusses a recent group exhibition staged at MHKA curated by Anders Kreuger and Nav Haq titled Don’t You Know Who I Am? – Art after Identity Politics. The show proposed new ways with which to present contemporary art practices from around the world within the framework of the museum without succumbing to historical discourses surrounding identity politics. By amassing an impressive roster of artists—from Iman Issa to Imran Qureshi to Guan Xiao—the exhibition dealt with notions of self within the context of the globalised twenty-first century, thus opening up a space in which art might transcend rigid cultural readings. 

The exhibition was staged as part of a larger project, “The Uses of Art,” initiated by the European museum confederation L’Internationale, which proposes ‘a space for art within a non-hierarchical and decentralised internationalism, based on the value of difference and horizontal exchange among a constellation of cultural agents, locally rooted and globally connected.’ The confederation, along with associate academic and artistic organisations, includes six European museums: Moderna Galerija (MG, Ljubljana, Slovenia); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS, Madrid, Spain); Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA, Barcelona, Spain); Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA, Antwerp, Belgium); SALT (Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey) and Van Abbemuseum (VAM, Eindhoven, the Netherlands).

Don’t You Know Who I Am? – Art after Identity Politics proposed a move beyond identity politics in art—or at least how we understand the discourses around identity politics—by considering how artists today are dealing with identity in their work. What does this exhibition mean for MHKA as an institution and its aims as a museum?

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.

Exhibition view, Don't You Know Who I Am? with works from Haegue Yang, Blind Curtain - Flesh Behind Tricolore and Katja Novitskova, Approximation XIV, XVI and XVII , Branching X, XI, 2014. Photo MHKA

And what kinds of questions does the exhibition raise when it comes to how we might deal with culture today, particularly within the context of the museum survey exhibition. Here I’m thinking about the New Museum’s recent survey of contemporary art from the Arab World, Here and Elsewhere, and how the approach with this exhibition at MHKA  tried to move away from such a framing.

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.

Do you find this kind of regional framing when it comes to organising group shows problematic today?

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.

Eloise Hawser, Velopex and 100 KEV, 2014. Exhibition view, Don't You Know Who I Am? Photo MHKA

In this sense, by acknowledging this kind of generational shift, the show offers a proposal in terms of how to think about contemporary art now.

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…

You mean institutions like the Tate Modern: this kind of recuperation of the past by bringing in new artists from outside the traditional ‘West’ so as to expand on local and global art histories.

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.

Imran Qureshi, And They Still Seek The Traces Of Blood, 2013 - 2014, courtesy the artist photo M HKA

And of course Antwerp lays claim to being the place where Gordon Matta realised his largest project and last European site project in 1977, Office Baroque, through the International Cultural Center (I.C.C) which is M HKA’s predecessor institution.

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.

Can you talk about how Antwerp was a hub during this time? As it relates of course to the general region Antwerp is situated in and the flux of artists who passed through: you had Beuys and Paik in Dusseldorf, for example…

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.

Right, this was a moment in which multiple centres existed on a more horizontal plain…

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]

Hedwig Houben, The Hand, the Eye and It, 2013 performance lecture, 20 mins approx, courtesy the artist

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