Interview with Daniela Zyman, co-curator of Passages

17 de noviembre de 2010

From October 6th 2010 to February 21st 2011, LABoral hosts the exhibition Pasages. Travels in Hyperspace, curated by Benjamin Weil and Daniela Zyman. The exhibition puts together a selection of works from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (T-B A21) collection, mainly installations and large-scale sculptures by some of the most outstanding artists of the first decade of the 21st Century: Ai Weiwei, Doug Aitken, Haluk Akakçe, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Maurizio Cattelan, Olafur Eliasson, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Florian Hecker, Jeppe Hein, Carsten Höller, Los Carpinteros, Ernesto Neto, Carsten Nicolai, Olaf Nicolai, Paul Pfeiffer, Sergio Prego, Pipilotti Rist, Monika Sosnowska and Cerith Wyn Evans.

Passages proposes an unusual sensory experience, in which the visitor is taken to question his or her own perception of reality and to establish a different relationship with the artworks. As Benjamin Weil states, one of the main objectives of this exhibition is “to offer its visitors the opportunity to consciously slow down, and slowly be immersed in a new time/space dimension (…) creating a kind of landscape – both mental and physical” [1]. The show also implies a different form of presenting the artworks in the context of the room: the curators have decided to avoid any kind of scenography and allow the artworks to establish a dialogue with the arquitecture of the building. Reality, space, architecture and the relationship between the artwork and the visitor, as well as between the artwork and its surrounding space, are key elements of this exhibition.

I had the opportunity to exchange some thoughts with Daniela Zyman about these subjects. Daniela Zyman is the Chief Curator of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (T-B A21), a foundation initiated in 2002 by Francesca von Habsburg, whose purpose is to commission and collect works and live projects by contemporary artists and architects.

Do you think that foundations, museums and institutions should commit to produce and support large-scale artworks that usually do not fit in the art market?
I find production or commissioning being one of the primary roles of public and/or private arts institutions today. The larger question is: how does ambitious artistic production get realized, financed and distributed today. There are not that many channels, and one of them is the commercial sector, ie producing for the market, which requires very specific formats, rules and objectifications, and one is the exhibitions sector which includes the hundreds of Biennales that exist around the world. This is a very interesting context, but often driven by many constraints as well (way different from the commercial ones) such as budget, timeframe, context. I consider the productions we do at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary like allowing for very wide range R&D – research and development – to take place. Artists work on projects and commissions with us which would be impossible for them to realize in an other contexts. Mostly, they are «free of constraints» in the best sense of the word – that is beyond the parameters of media, size, geography, complexities, duration, etc… We (co-) produce «impossible» works and end up being the custodians of these works. They enter the collection after being commissioned by us, that is the responsibility for their safeguarding and upkeep and for all future installations of the work are with us. That is a very difficult task- because each work has so many complexities and issues, each requiring incredible skills and know-how. And that brings us to the next question: how does an institution document, evaluate and archive the productions and artworks it owns and is responsible for…


TB-A21 supports both architectural and site-specific artistic projects. What is, in your opinion, the current relationship between contemporary art and architecture? Can the practice of site-specific installations be seen as an approach of the visual arts to architecture? Do architects approach the artistic object in their current conception of the building?
In past years Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary has acquired architectural objects as part of its collection of contemporary art, but more importantly it has also produced and supported full-scale architectural projects such as The Morning Line by aranda/lasch and Matthew Ritchie, Your black horizon pavilion by David Adjaye and Olafur Eliasson, or R&Sie(n)’s concept for the gardenofearthlydelights (unrealized) Hernan Diaz Alonso’s T-B A21 Pavilion for Patagonia (unrealized). What we have noticed and what we possibly even create through our programmatic amalgamation of art and architecture is the systematic shift within the discipline of «architecture» from it being invested in the production of heteronomous objects into the domain of (contemporary) visual industry and more specifically art. This shift is of course very symptomatic – and I encourage everyone to go see the latest version of the Venice Architecture Biennale which not only juxtaposes artists, filmmakers and architects but also presents a «form» of architectural production, which can be described as producing mainly atmospheric installations and more specifically autonomous objects. In other words: what happens today – not only in this year’s Biennale but in the field of architecture in a more general sense – is a shift in context from the architectural (which is invested in the functional, social and material amongst other) to the aesthetic (which operates on the level of sign production and has a long history of resistive practices). This condition of ambivalence of the architectural is of course quite interesting, because it reveals an incredible dilemma- namely architecture’s role with the social realm and in the formation of subjectivities within a late capitalist market economy which tends to absorb and cannibalize all sign production and meaning. My interpretation of the rapprochement between art and architecture is the attempt of architecture to search for the «protective» zone of the aesthetic to resist these mechanisms. Within the zone of significatory production which is called the «art world», the architectural can reinstate itself as meaningful in the sense of producing meaning and content, when at the same time it sheds itself from such meanings through the assimilative tendencies of branding and commodification. As you can see, I am somewhat critical of these processes.
Which does not mean, that I don’t find that artists and architects have a lot to share and think about, but not in the ways this has happened -most visibly in the building of iconic museum space by starchitects or the atmospheric artsy installations produced by architects, which speaks to the senses rather than tries to cope with the urgencies of spatial production and practices of resistance today.

Quoting Mark Wigley, you define the museum as a “sanitised space both visually and physically”. The museum and gallery thus create a particular perceptual space for the artwork. To what extent does the artwork depend on this space? Could it “lapse into secular status” once outside the white cube, as Brian O’Doherty states? And then do things become art inside this space? For instance, works such as Jeppe Hein’s Reflecting Object Janet Cardiff’s and George Bures Miller’s Telephone would be perceived differently outside of a gallery space: do you think that works such as these need to be placed in a particular context to be seen as art?
Wigley has written a seminal book about the color white – which is not just a color but the expression of an ideology. What we normally call «neutral» or in a position of disengagement is in fact heavily involved in the production of meaning and ideology. I have used this reference to make us think about all the material and immaterial elements we see or use in the museum context by convention- whether is the gypsum wall, the partition, the pedestal, the wall labels, the descriptive texts, the lighting or the color white (which white?) Not only does the museum or gallery create a particular perceptual space but more importantly it creates a semantic field, in which all these elements symbolize and constitute very specific meanings– And as we know from the practices of institutional critique, we must consider the material relations as well as the biopolitical circumstances of power relations – so who is on the board of directors, what type of visitors are encouraged to come, how gendered is the museum space, etc…
I personally think that the O’Doherty paradigm is outlived. The artistic object no longer needs to be «elevated» by the white cube or placed within the anomaly of the museum space. Art has a privileged position and is a privileged site of value production and the production of signs. At present, the visual industries which have been generated by the aesthetic realm are omnipresent within the symbolic order.

What happens today is rather the opposite: the aesthetic gets plagiarized and instrumentalized BECAUSE it so eloquently (re)presents our contemporary condition. It becomes totally commodified and liquified again because it no longer needs pedestals and white walls or white cubes – the fact that it is a «Struth» or a «Koons» suffices to assert value and to transcend all other market parameters. What resonates – at the bottom of the money rush – are eternal values and immaterial qualities that are not equated through calculable algorithms. So, to answer the specifics of your questions: Cardiff/Miller or Hein’s work have long broken out of the box, they circulated the aesthetic imaginary and the cultural markets and can persist their «secular lapsus» because they circulate within economies (discourse, market, institutional circuit) that defines their status, well beyond O’Doherty’s white walls.



Quoting Frederic Jameson’s description of hyperspace, you consider this concept as a paradigm of our current assimilation of instability, fragmentation and uncertainty. Therefore, the exhibition is conceived as a “meandering exploration”, breaking with the usual notion of the exhibition as a narration or organised display of works. Do you consider that contemporary art exhibitions should not “tell a story” but rather leave the viewer to make sense of his or her own experience?
Exhibitions – especially group shows or thematic shows such as Pasajes – outline a field of tension between works of art created by diverse authors. This is really what makes them very special, as they generate a semantic field that allows for correspondences, interactions, reinforce certain meanings and pose questions. Never in a direct way, but rather by approximation and difference. Any «assimilative» approach is very difficult, as it generates an overriding principle which collides with the ideas and meanings of singular works. In that sense, I do prefer fragmentation over cohesion, uncertainty over defined organization of meaning. Works of art always have a resistive potential, some form of ambivalence, antagonism, they can never be «fully explained» or exhausted in their signification. So, an interesting exhibition for me, leaves room for these destabilizing moments and aspects, rather than build upon a proclamatory statement (from a curator or interpreter) who asserts a self-authorized position vis a vis the way art is to be viewed or understood.

In Art Power, Boris Groys states: “[the] installation has become accepted as an art form and increasingly assumes a leading role in contemporary art. So even though the individual images and objects lose their  autonomous status, the entire installation gains it back.” Do you think that, as Groys suggests, as artists increasingly work with commonplace objects, it is by means of the installation that artworks can be seen as art? The AB-A21 Foundation supports, among others, large installation works: does this entail that you consider the installation to have a leading role in contemporary art?

If I understand Groys’ argument correctly, he is interested in the transitional moment of art becoming part of mass culture and the ramifications of this process. In some sense, the installation has a specific role in this process of transition as it remains an auctorial space created by a private auctorial act. Within the space of the installation, the artist reasserts his/her unconditional freedom, it remains the symbolic space of the artist. And to throw in some quotes that he formulated in a speech recently delivered (in 2008) at the Whitechapel: «sovereign freedom is a necessary precondition for the emergence of any democratic order. The true visitor to the art installation is not an isolated individual, but a collective of visitors. (…) More than anything else, what the installation offers to the fluid, circulating multitudes is an aura of the here and now. The installation is, above all, a mass-cultural version of individual flânerie, as described by Benjamin, and therefore a place for the emergence of aura, for “profane illumination.”

Personally, I do underwrite his analysis to some degree, as I do consider the exhibition space as the emergence of a public space of sorts. It is – as Groys also states, a hyper-regulated space, and yet a space of self-empowerment and alternative expression. But I would also argue that the installation – as a preferred topos of this specific spatial recuperation, is also permeated by the logics of the spectacle, by a form of agrandissement and enlargement, that relies more on the capitalization of markets and the entertainment value of BIG versus the more intimate or casual. It is the industrialization of the means of production – also within the realm of art of course – and the free circulation of artists, collectors, and ideas that create the seedbed for the reliance on and acceptance of installation art. I am not so much interested in that quality, I favor the aspect of potential complexities that one can achieve through durational, multi-channel, inter-disciplinary and and complex works. Through an orchestration of the visual, tangible, acoustic and other sensory means, installations can affect our motor-sensorial perception and intellectual capacities beyond the known.


You mention that at the Kunsthaus Graz the works were installed and de-installed as form of exhibition in perpetual change. How was this process perceived by the visitors? Did they understand it? Do you know if there were people who visited the exhibition several times in order to see the evolution of this process?
The exhibition at the Kunsthaus was definitely an experimental setting in the sense that it tried to offer a view behind the scenes of the museum’s work and the production logics of an exhibition, Revealing the installation processes and displaying the «making of» had a performative, theatrical character which is something I am very interested in. I think the performative is the privileged space of encounter between producer and recipient and challenges the commodity aspect of art. It allows us to see things in real time, here and now, rather than providing us with the illusion of the perfect object. It is of course a certain infringement upon the status of a work of art, especially when this work is not created out of a performative impetus. We were aware of the risk but collaborated with the artists and expressed our interests clearly.

Visitors were informed of the processes of change and alteration through the exhibition materials. I really dont know how many people have understood that process and whether or not they were interested in the offer we made – that is to come back and see the show in a new permutation. As you know, the point of departure was The Aleph by Borges, which narratizes the locus of vision as an omnivoyant, labyrinthic experience. In the sheer endless spectrum of visualizations Borges’s protagonist gazes at everything in the universe at the same time, without distortions and confusion. The Aleph was a metaphor for The collection, not really TBA21’s collection, but the collection of art in a larger sense. So the narrative which we had offered was one of the forking paths, rather that the linear, encyclopedic or generational representation of artistic production.


[1] Text published in the handbook for the exhibition Passages, which can be downloaded at LABoral’s website.

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