Öppna historien

– Att utmana biennalformen genom det ambivalenta och ofärdiga har varit en vägledande idé, berättar Elvira Dyangani Ose, curator för Göteborgsbiennalen som invigs på lördag.

Bouchra Khalili, Stillbild från Foreign Office, 2015.
Bouchra Khalili, stillbild från Foreign Office, 2015.

På lördag invigs den åttonde upplagan av Göteborgsbiennalen, som i år curateras av Elvira Dyangani Ose och kommer att utforska «hur olika maktsystem har använt glömska och tystnad som politisk strategi». Biennalens titel A Story Within a Story har lånats från de inledande orden i antropologen och historikern Michel-Rolph Trouillot studie Silencing the Past, som argumenterar för icke-historikers betydelse för formandet av historien, något som Dyangani Ose vill utveckla genom de verk som visas i utställningen, men också genom en vidare process av kollektivt deltagande och handlingar som uttrycker en «medveten frihet».

Biennalen äger rum på Röda Sten, Göteborgs konsthall och Hasselblad Center, samt i en tillfällig paviljong för samtal och möten som har uppförts i anslutning till Röda Sten. Paviljongen – House of Words – är utformad av arkitektgruppen Recetas Urbana, och programmet är sammanställt av Dyangani Ose och konstnären Lolou Cherinet. Under utställningens gång kommer här att ske utbyten av «mikrohistorier» om sådant som tenderar att «förbises i den etablerade historieskrivningen».

Kunstkritikk mötte upp Elvira Dyangani Ose för några snabba frågor om biennalen, och hennes bakgrund och praktik som curator. Intervjun genomfördes på engelska, och publiceras på sitt originalspråk.


Firstly, can you tell us something about your background, and how you got into contemporary art?

Elvira Dyangani Ose.
Elvira Dyangani Ose.

In the early 1990s, I was studying my BA in Art History in Barcelona when I joined the curatorial group Espai B5-125. It was a student collective platform—conceived by one of our teachers, Teresa Camps— that produced art exhibitions and performances across the university’s empty spaces—at the UAB [Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona] there was no degree in Fine Art, so bringing art to campus was a decisive political gesture. That particular encounter with artists and art, from Barcelona and elsewhere, encouraged me to take part in the local art scene and made me aware of the sociopolitical implications of art and the crucial role of public and private institutions in social engagement. Later in life, I realized that the same teacher, with a subtle exercise of reverse psychology, encouraged me to interrogate myself and grow into the curator I have become.

What classes do you teach at Goldsmiths?

I have recently joined the Department of Visual Cultures, where I co-teach the core seminar on Modernities and a couple of modules that examine how the museum has evolved from an object-centred educational institution and a colonial tool, into an idea-oriented site for the production of experience. I am currently in the final stages of finishing my doctoral degree at Cornell University, so hopefully after that I will be able to contribute fully to the department’s research on Globalization and Transcultural practices, with my knowledge on modern and contemporary African Art and Culture.

Can you mention one large-scale art exhibition that has been of great importance for you?

It would be much easier to mention exhibitions I never visited, that I have only studied. In my imagination, they were challenging, provocative… When I explained some of their facts to my students, these exhibitions hold a nuance I would have never noticed myself as a student. I’m sure visiting them would have been a different experience altogether.

Could you name some of those imaginary exhibitions? 

One thing I recall vividly, though even more the conference than the show—for what it meant to me encountering some of those artists at that moment in time, the early 2000s—is the conference organized by Pep Subirós accompanying his show, Africas: The Artist and the City.  Some of those artists, El Antasui, Moshekwa Langa, Kansi (Amadou Kane Sy from Huit Facettes), Penny Siopis, among others, were telling stories that I identified with. The way that art challenged their view of their societies, their cities and themselves, struck me. That is probably the moment I decided to study in depth the role of African artist collectives in the formulation of notions of public space and public sphere —my current research. There were many encounters with African art and artists throughout the 1990s, but that conference bears a special place in my memory.

In the curatorial statement of GIBCA 2015 – A story within a story… you write about the notion of «open work»formulated by Umberto Eco in 1962. Could you please give an example of how you use this concept in your reading of a contemporary art work?

Kerry James Marshall, Lost Boys: AKA Black Johnny, 1995.
Kerry James Marshall, Lost Boys: AKA Black Johnny, 1995.

One may imagine that «openness» in direct connection to any participatory experience, to define works of a social or activist nature, a public intervention, a happening, a performance… However, that would limit enormously the sense of «suggestivenness» proposed by Eco, who claims that the artwork that suggests is also one that can be performed or be perceived with the full emotional and imaginative resources of the interpreter or the addressee. Whereas that resonates easily with the interpretation of a musical composition or the reading of a poem, one can project oneself and her or his inner worlds in the underlying narrative of a video installation, a drawing, or a photograph. In GIBCA 2015, House of Words (HoW) provides that experience in a more vivid and explicit way, but I can’t wait to see the response of the audience to works such as those of Kerry James Marshall, Anna Lundh and Phoebe Boswell, just to mention a few.

How were the artists in the exhibition chosen?

Curating this project has been an insightful journey. I have invited artists that I have always wanted to work with; artists whose work I have seen in recent years and admired; and artists whom I have met during my research in the Nordic countries this past year and a half. I have interviewed extremely talented individuals, whose work — even though ultimately are not part of the biennial — has struck me in unexpected ways.

In the statement, you write: «Taking the notion of open work as both a conceptual backdrop and curatorial methodology, GIBCA 2015 will question the structure of biennials themselves as systems of power and propose instead to engage with a ’series of acts of conscious freedom’.»Could you please explain in practical terms what this means for your work in Gothenburg, and what it means for our understanding of the large-scale exhibition as a form?

«A series of acts of conscious freedom» is also part of Eco’s definition of the «open work». Reading the essay again in the process of contextualizing this project made me believe that there was a possibility of challenging aspects of the biennial model, presenting «uncertainty»as an organizing principle. I asked myself, what would occur if one assumes a certain level of incompleteness, a certain ambiguity? In HoW, «embracing uncertainty» has been the subconscious motto, having more than 80 volunteers over four weeks deliver an architecture that I’m sure Santiago Cirugeda and his studio, Recetas Urbanas, never imagined as such, even when there was a clear plan to follow. There are so many aspects of its form that tell us about the individuals that made it, about the conversations we have had while doing so…This will continue during the biennial with the roundtable conversations that Loulou Cherinet is activating with communities and organizations from Gothenburg city and elsewhere. «Suggestiveness» here is materialized in the most beautiful way!

In the gallery spaces, on the other hand, uncertainty is subtler. There are artworks talking about history, but not in a nostalgic sense; works that seem analytic at the time, and are always poetic; there are works that are political and documentary in their presentation, and yet personal in their materialization of that particular historical event; projects that are seductive and engaging, but bear a distressing story behind… That sense of ambiguity led my curatorial perusal and, hopefully, would be prompted in your experience of the biennial. In fact, it will take you further, as most of the proposals have exceeded my expectations, both as a curator and as an individual.

What will you do when GIBCA is over? Any new exhibition projects?

I have recently joined the Thought Council at the Fondazione Prada — a prospect that thrills me — and I’m collaborating with Andrea Bellini and others as part of the curatorial team for the Biennial of Moving Images 2016. But, honestly, I think that come December I will rest for a while!

The Propeller Group, stillbild från The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014.
The Propeller Group, stillbild från The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014.