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Conversation  |  Director, Whitechapel Gallery, London

Iwona Blazwick

In Conversation with
Stephanie Bailey
London, 29 May 2014
Image: Iwona Blazwick, Director Whitechapel Gallery. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery
Image: Iwona Blazwick, Director Whitechapel Gallery. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

In May 2014, Dimitris Daskalopoulos’s NEON organisation opened a public exhibition at the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece. The project, titled A Thousand Doors

after Borge’s Library of Babel, was curated by Iwona Blazwick, Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, and marks another step in an ongoing collaboration between Daskalopoulos’s, NEON, and the UK institution. The exhibition features over 30 artists spanning generations and countries, from Juan Muñoz, Giuseppe Penone, Michael Rakowitz, Annie Ratti, Meriç Algün Ringborg, Daniel Silver, Francis Upritchard, and Jannis Kounellis. In this interview, Blazwick discusses the exhibition, the works, and the ideas that emerge from the interaction with the Gennadius Library, while reflecting on the experience of inter-institutional collaboration.

Let’s pick up on some of the general themes coming out of this exhibition, starting with the inter-institutional collaboration between NEON and the Whitechapel, and the idea of the museum moving out of the museum, and even out of the country…

Well, NEON and the Whitechapel first worked together when we presented the collection of Dimitris Daskalopoulos in London in a three-part exhibition titled Keeping it Real. Out of that came a desire to create curatorial dialogues between Athens and London, and so we started a curatorial exchange programme where curators from Athens came to us, since we run a Master’s for young curators with the London Metropolitan. So the MA programme hosted the Greeks, and students curated their visit as it were, and vice versa: curators went over to Athens. So, already we’d had this dialogue, which is now continuing today, when NEON has now constituted itself as a particular foundation. Rather than build a museum, which is the case with other foundations and institutions that are building-based, they decided to do something different. They are reaching out to build an audience and produce a sense of access.

How does this relate to your own experience in working with institutions in the UK?

The interesting thing is London 25 years ago was a very conservative place. I remember when I was at the ICA, we struggled to get London audiences to pay attention to art, and particularly to foreign artists. This has transformed phenomenally and now there is a real appetite for global art in Britain. I think there have been a number of factors that contributed to this: things like the Turner prize, which became a form of betting—William Hill actually run a bet on it, which started about a year after the prize was launched. After all, we are a nation of betters, and this played right into that, which was of course hard for the artists, but it did popularize the prize itself.

The Tate Modern also had a huge impact: it was free, it was a spectacle, it was this vast building, and the press also applauded it. And I think in the past they had a default position that if it was contemporary it was a con, or a slap in the face of the public. So it was a very hostile press for decades. But then gradually new writers began to get involved, the internet opened up a new platform for discussion, there was a huge proliferation of new forums and magazines, so there was a much more positive and engaged reaction to contemporary art. Then you had things like the Fourth Plinth on Trafalgar Square, which I am involved in, which is very high profile and potentially controversial. But sure enough, because it’s temporary, people don't think the works that get installed on the Fourth Plinth are forever, so they are more open to the art being presented and are more curious.

In terms of the interaction between the Whitechapel and NEON, what are you learning from each other? How do the two institutions interact within their specific contexts of London and Athens?

From an institutional standpoint, we are locked in our building at the Whitechapel and it’s quite striking; we don't actually have windows in the gallery—it’s very much a white cube and I love that. This collaboration with NEON has given us an opportunity to step outside and it has also enabled us to make an experiment. Part of this exhibition deals with the question of what happens to site-specificity after a work of public art has been finished and presented. So curatorially it was an exciting challenge to bring works from different parts of the world into the specific context of Athens, and the Gennadius Library.

Then there was learning in terms of discovering Greek artists: I’m ashamed to say I didn't know enough about the scene. Of course, this relates to there being a whole world out there, so where do you begin? One thing we do is trust local knowledge. We have a programme at the Whitechapel called Artists’ Film International, which very much picks up on the fact that there is so much great moving image work, and we have a consortium of 14 partners, each of whom sends us work from local artists, which is then sent to the consortium. But this collaboration with NEON is of course different because we had to travel here and engage with the city, the art scene, and the weight of history in Athens itself.

This relates to the question of history you pose in this exhibition, taking the title A Thousand Doors from Borges’s Library of Babel, which imagines a library as a universe. This relates to the questions on knowledge and the production, distribution and experience of it as posed through the works included in the show.

The focal point for the show was the library, thinking about how things like the Athens Biennale and the Berlin Biennale have really been flashpoints for protest. They've provided a platform for that disenchantment and that demand for change we’ve heard in the last few years. But also, and in a way, such exhibition platforms have perhaps been looking back over lost histories, documenting what’s happening through different popular uprisings and thinking about the geopolitics of where we are today.

But with this exhibition, I felt it was time to look forward. And the library has this capacity of being for both the past and the future, since knowledge is compiled here. But it is also not just the knowledge of the 100 years of the library that is stored: it is about ancient Greek civilization, too, so the library has this double function. But through that the exhibition also asks: what does the library tell us about what we should be doing? It goes back to that question: what is to be done?

This relates to how public art is being treated on multiple levels in this exhibition. Here, the library is a closed space, though it is public. And though the exhibition works both with the interior and the exterior spaces, there are gates around the entire complex, which raises the issue of how space today seems to be somewhere between public and private, not to mention the question of art’s connection to the public at large.

Going back to your point about institutions, there is a knee jerk reaction we have to them in that that they are perceived as spaces of containment, control, rules and so on. But I suppose this project asks: what if there is another way of understanding institutions as spaces of freedom and research leading to the production of knowledge and social change? And of course, the idea of coming out to a public is of course intensely political, and one thing that struck me is that a lot of the work here is narrative and figurative, so it is very accessible to a non-initiated public because it does engage you in a kind of story-telling. If you look at Adrián Villar Rojas, his work here, taken from the series Return of the World (2012), he references manga, comics and animation, so he’s really tapping into a language that is meaningful to his generation.

And in thinking about the Greek artists that we selected here, there is a kind of optimism to what they are doing. Valentina Karga for instance, in her performance that invokes the peripatetic school of philosophy, is not walking around discussing the Greek crisis. She’s talking about something positive: action through education, and inviting others to participate in thinking about what is needed and what can be done. Then you have Kostas Ioannidis, whose sound piece, Dawn Chorus, seems to be asking us to move towards a new beginning. A lot of this is about the death of something and the beginning of something new.

This relates to what you have observed amongst artists you selected in this exhibition, which is this return to materiality…

The tactility and insistence on materiality is very striking in some cases. They are very much about the human gesture, the making, and the hand, and I think this also asks us to reconsider our relationship to nature and to confront historical trauma so as to come into the present. For example, Nikos Navridis’s work, which is books produced out of Greek filo pastry, is about consuming knowledge and getting nourishment from it. Of course, I don't want to instrumentalize this turn, but perhaps there is a desire here to go beyond formalism. Of course, in the show we have included the work by Elizabeth Price, The Tent (2012), which is about systems and how systems might have a political function. This goes back to that moment in art when it was about minimalism, geometry and abstraction – even then this move came from a deep-seated desire to be a part in society and have an impact on it.

The other thing I have noticed in general is that the business of commissioning has been such a huge force. Curators are now co-producers and they are working with artists in very particular situations. And there is this paradox that these works produced live and die. We currently have a Chris Marker exhibition at the Whitechapel in London and there is a film called Statues Also Die. It talks about African sculpture and how it loses its meaning in the museum. So here the question is also about what happens when a work made for one historical context, moves out of it? Does it still resonate? Is the hallmark of a work’s success its ability to leave its origins and produce meaning in a different context? —[O]

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