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Philippe Van Cauteren

In Conversation with
Laura Thomson
1 April 2015

Philippe Van Cauteren is artistic director of S.M.A.K. Museum for Contemporary Art in Ghent. He co-curated the Belgian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 and is curator of the National Pavilion of Iraq for the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015.

Previously Van Cauteren has worked as a freelance curator in Germany, Mexico, Chile and Brazil. In 2002 he was curator of the first Biennal Ceara America in Fortaleza (Brazil). He regularly writes and lectures on contemporary art.

The Ruya Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq (RUYA) was established in 2012 with the goal of promoting culture in Iraq and to build a platform that will enable Iraqis in the arts, the young in particular, to benefit from, and participate in international events. RUYA is commissioner of the National Pavilion of Iraq at the 56th Venice Biennale.

Ocula talks to Philippe Van Cauteren about contemporary art in Iraq and the challenges of mounting an exhibition from one of the world’s worst conflict zones.

How did you become involved with RUYA and the Iraq Pavilion at Venice?

The Ruya Foundation made an international call out asking about ten curators from different countries to make proposals. I was one of those asked to make a proposal for the Iraq Pavilion at Venice. Apparently the Ruya Foundation considered the project I suggested meaningful. 

People may ask why is a Belgian curating the Iraq Pavilion and I guess a simple answer is that there are no Iraqi curators. You recently undertook a trip to Baghdad to prepare for Venice. Can you share with us some of your observations about the current state of the arts in Iraq? How are artists operating and how is contemporary art regarded within society?

It is indeed a fact that there are no Iraqi curators so that is one reason why the Ruya Foundation approached international ones. On the other hand the Ruya Foundation operates with an international perspective in general, working towards making a network of connections between Iraq and the rest of the world.  This network is especially meaningful as one can hardly speak about a contemporary art scene in Iraq. Artists are active around the country and in Baghdad, but most of them still glorify an artistic paradigm that incorporates the nostalgic past of the country with a formalistic approach to art. Painting is and remains the main paradigm, the notion of the decorative the only function art should answer to. Other artistic developments are difficult due to the orthodox educational curriculum at the academies and due to the absence of ways for artists to exchange critical thoughts about their work. Ignorance and the need for daily survival are two of the main elements that characterize the artistic landscape in Baghdad. 

Were there any particular experiences or encounters that surprised you?

I had plenty of particular experiences, of course. But maybe one striking one is when a poet of Najaf said to me, “How can one look for beauty in a country where beauty does not exist anymore?” He was wondering how an artist would be able to work as an artist in a context that was so tragic and devastating. That said something to me about how people in Iraq were looking at art, but also indicated the impossibility to act. 

Other than the RUYA Foundation where is support for the arts in Iraq coming from?

I am not able to give an exact answer to this question, but from my experience I think that the support is limited. The unique element of the Ruya Foundation is that they have an international scope where the focus on professionalism and change are key elements. I did not see this elsewhere in Iraq.

You must have faced many challenges in mounting the exhibition – working in a conflict zone, limited resources, minimal cultural infrastructure, and an aesthetic tradition bound by classical education. In the face of so many competing priorities, how is the Venice project regarded?

Even though I had to face many challenges, I did believe from the beginning that it was possible to make a necessary and significant exhibition. The rise of ISIS really only added to the significance of making the Pavilion. The Iraqi context did ask for a different approach, however. One has to forget the comfort curators are used to working in on an exhibition, and I mean this not only in terms of the practical and logistical aspects of the show. I also mean that the notion of ‘contemporary’ means something different in Iraq than in, for instance, a country like Sweden or Belgium. Years of cultural isolation has meant that the notion of the contemporary has had to be stretched in time. That’s why the work of the photographer Latif Al Ani from the ‘50s and ‘60s can still be seen as extremely contemporary. 

Iraq’s rich cultural history has been overshadowed by years of conflict and turmoil. You have called the exhibition Invisible Beauty and said that you will be focused on “curating a pavilion that resonates with the rich scope of Iraqi identity that extends beyond the country’s fragile borders”. Can cultural heritage be restored and what role does Iraq’s participation at Venice play in achieving this?

I don’t think that a Pavilion at Venice could restore the cultural heritage of a country, and that should not even be the goal of a Pavilion. I do strongly believe that the Iraq Pavilion could change the perception of Iraq and could give attention to a group of artists who believe that their artistic languages are tools of communication that can deal with the conditions they live in. The Iraqi Pavilion will show the courage of artists who address the current complex situation of their country with a visual language that has a universal appeal.

In reference to the very successful Iraqi presentation at the 55th Venice Biennale, Welcome to Iraq (which travelled to the South London Gallery), I read some observations that the works showed little direct engagement with the current political situation in Iraq. Have you found this to be the case? And what about the artists you have selected – do they confront historical realities in their work?

The title ‘Welcome to Iraq’ was an invitation to discover different notions of a country that was basically being looked at from the perspective of conflict and violence. It was a tool to change or alter stereotypes about Iraq and its artistic scene. With, Invisible Beauty the focus is different. First of all the number of artists has been halved, to five instead of 11. Furthermore I will show artists spanning three generations. The intention was to make an exhibition that has a relevance for the international global audience of Venice, but which can also be meaningful for the Iraqi mainland. The title is a provocation for most of the Iraqi artists, as none of the artists that will be on show in the Pavilion address the classical notion of how beauty is being defined nowadays in Iraq by artists. The exhibition does stress the attitudes of the artists, however – the way in which, as artists, they look at and judge their identities and the contexts in which they live. Although I never inspired the artists to deal with the current situation with ISIS, I can see in retrospect that some of the artists did make work about the situation. As a curator I can only be happy that the artists have the sensitivity to deal with their historical realities.

Did you have any particular goals in curating the exhibition and have you achieved these?

Every curator has particular goals he wants to achieve. I will know if I achieved mine after the Venice Bienniale is over. I do consider it an extreme honour to be able to work with these great artists. It is only thanks to their work and effort that I can make the exhibition Invisible Beauty. —[O]

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