Charles Esche on the Ljubljana Triennial, and Beyond (Interview)

Charles Esche. Image courtesy of Charles Esche.s Esche works at the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, NL) and Afterall Journal and Books, based at Central St.Martins College of Art and Design, London. In 2010, he curated the 5th U3 triennial in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He is a visiting lecturer at NABA, Milano and De Appel, Amsterdam a.o. Over the last few years, he has curated the 3rd Riwaq Biennale, Ramallah, Palestine, 2009 (with Reem Fadda); the 2nd Riwaq Biennale (2007, with Khalil Rabah); the 9th  Istanbul Biennial 2005 (with Vasif Kortun, Esra Sarigedik Öktem and November Paynter); and the 4th Gwangju Biennale (2002, with Hou Hanru and Song Wang Kyung).

ARTMargins: Please tell us about your relationship with the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana, and perhaps with Slovenia more generally. As a national museum, the Ljubljana institution has a very different set of priorities from your home institution, the van Abbemuseum. Do you see any parallels or common challenges nevertheless?

Charles Esche: My relationship with Moderna Galerija is, as always, a relationship with people and in particular the director Zdenka Badovinac. Together with other European museums and archives, we are part of an informal network called L’Internationale that is in the process of rethinking how museum collections and artists’ personal archives can be shared in a common European public cultural space. This transnational form of collaboration means that the two museums in Ljubljana and Eindhoven are trying to move closer to each other in terms of policy, purchasing and programming. You are right that Van Abbemuseum avoids the burdens of representing a nation state, though it is still anchored in a provincial city and region with its own demands for identity and city marketing. I do see common challenges though. Predominantly, they are connected to the legacies of modernism and its association with modernity. Art museums are creatures of a modernity that arguably either never arrived in the present or is long since past. This creates a problem which is only partially solved in the big cities by satisfying consumer culture. As it becomes clear that Enlightenment-based societies can long longer lean on their common understandings of how the modern world works, then the institutions of modernism come up for question. I think this is something Van Abbemuseum and Moderna Gaerija absolutely share. It manifests itself in a confused sense of what our mission is, both trying to offer comfort to a public that relies on the old truths for their sense of themselves and anxious to find out what really lies beyond modernity.

AM: You have participated as co-curator in several other international biennials. Please help us situate the Ljubljana triennial in that context.

The boundaries of the U3 were traditionally twofold. The artists should be Slovenian or based in the country, and they should be ‘young’, though without a strict age limit. These two very simple limitations were not present in the biennales I have curated elsewhere.  I have to admit that I broke one of those two conventions by including work from the Moderna Galerija collection from the 1920s onwards but I stuck to the national definition and I enjoyed this imposed rule. Focusing on a single national community, however imagined, allowed me to look slightly more broadly at art practice and include extraordinary initiatives such as Domestic Research Society or Workers and Punks University. It also meant pragmatically we could invite the artists fairly regularly to the museum and work on the installation together without incurring huge expenses. I think projects like Jaša or Marko Poga?nik would not have been possible without this easy access over a number of months. Clearly, U3 will always be more interesting within Slovenia than outside, given its subject matter, but I was personally not so interested in curating a big global event given the way I am working now. This modest but hopefully still controversial project was perfect for me.

The triennial seems to make a case for a certain Slovenian exceptionality. The argument, if I understand it correctly, is that Slovenia offers more possibilities for artists to partake of political power than elsewhere but that such participation does not lead to the kind of co-option we might witness elsewhere when artists are given political influence. Could you explain this position a bit more? What is it specifically that allows Slovenia to play this exceptional role?

I am not sure it is a Slovenian exceptionalism so much as a product of a small body politic. With only a few million people in the country, the gap between leaders and led is smaller, especially within Ljubljana. This means that artists can interact with politicians without it seeming unusual or a threat to their “autonomy” as critical thinkers. In turn, politicians need to listen and react. This seems normal in small democratic states where large ones filter out aberrant opinions before they get so far as the ministers’ ears. I am not sure that this doesn’t lead to co-option however, just that it feels a more genuine exchange than when art is aggressively instrumentalized by city marketing campaigns or social work objectives without having the chance to answer back.

What is perhaps exceptional for Slovenia is the extent to which this small country produced a spectacular generation of artists in the 1980s such as IRWIN, Laibach, Marko Peljhan, Vuk ?osi?, Marjetica Potr? and others. There has to be a danger that their achievements would overawe their younger peers and while this may have happened, I was really inspired by some of the youngest group of artists who are neither rejecting nor accepting the 1980s tradition, but simply using it or ignoring it to their own ends.

AM: The triennial makes 1989 an explicit reference point for its curatorial program. Can you explain the relevance of that date for you today? What’s your take on the thesis that “the transition has ended” – a crucial reference point for many artists in Slovenia (and the region) today that is often taken to mean that the traumatic legacy of socialism has been “worked through?”

This is a complex question and I am not sure I can answer it adequately here. Maybe I can point out of few paradoxes that seem to me to keep 1989 and the events in that year hot, or at least warm, in cultural terms. It could be said that the immediate transition period is over but I increasingly hear people applying post-colonial discourse to the post-communist period. Given that post-colonialism begun 50 years ago and is still relevant this makes me wonder if legal conformity to Western European norms is sufficient to forget a past of radical difference. Equally, I would say that the “former West” is today even more in a state of transition that is largely a result of the global changes symbolized by 1989.  That year saw the beginning of the end of European social democracy and the welfare state, a process which is having big effects in places like Slovenia and is currently in a new phase of acceleration as we speak. Thirdly, the issue of how to discuss the commonalities within the former Yugoslavia, and how the former Yugoslav states that are now independent will ally or not within the European Union, are questions for the future that will be profoundly influenced by the socialist past. Finally, the insistent demand for a renewed form of emancipatory communism at academic levels is striking for its use of not only the terms but also the experiences of former Yugoslavia, for instance in its self-management phase. In these terms, communism is not over but merely resting after a hard run through most of the 20th century. When it wakes up again, the countries that lived real existing communism could find themselves in great demand for their experience and how to avoid the same mistakes a second time around.

As a footnote, I have to say that having been an advocate for new communism, I am increasingly nervous about what it really means. I feel more and more that we need to focus on the idea of the withering of the state rather than new forms of state control. This has to be done in terms of planetary justice and emancipation as well as environmental awareness. Does this process have to be called communist then? I am not so sure. Perhaps we need a more fundamental reinvention of an old tradition that starts with a different name.

Your triennial ties together a large amount of different artistic practices and media. How important is it, in your mind, for a triennial like the one in Ljubljana to adopt programmatic positions vis-à-vis certain types of practice or artistic media? And what is the function of the curator here?

I doubt that the curatorial answers lie in any form of media specificity and would question whether they ever did. That kind of focus strikes me as modernist, even Greenbergian, in its dogmatism and I am uninterested in applying such thinking to art practices. If art is still useful as a tool for thinking things otherwise, this moment is found in its promiscuousness and playfulness in the face of demands for discipline. The task of the curator then is not to announce new tendencies in media but to seek to entangle positions, times, genders and subjectivities and try to create a coherent whole. That whole should be made up of parts but also communicate an atmosphere and a potential to a third force, namely the many different publics to whom art wants to appear.

AM: The key term that helps unify the broad range of artists and practices is surprising: “realism.” My understanding is that realism, for the purposes of your work in Ljubljana, is a contested term that should not be taken for granted. Slovenian artists have long struggled with the legacy of realism and its cooption by various forms of totalitarianism. Is it time, in your mind, to revisit realism and its politics? What would a new definition of realism look like?

I do think we have to move away from the dichotomy between social realism and individualist modernism. I am not sure this was ever a true description of how artists understood themselves but today it seems only to be useful in defending that old idea of Enlightenment modernity which produces so many of our current problems. The title of U3 is actually “An Idea for Living: realism and reality in Slovenian art”, so it does make a difference between realism and reality and attempts to deal with both. When I use the term “realism” I am conscious of its roots in an idea that art should communicate to a large proletarian public and therefore refuse the obscure experiment, but at the same time I am not so sure the kind of public for realism exists any more. The reality of the internet, of globalization and of 24/7 mass media has squeezed the life out of the old battles between the realists and the modernists. Googling is much more a surrealist experience than anything else, and any of the innumerable works that collage modernist film and design as an expression of the contemporary environment seem to be to be very close to social realism. So, as you ask me what a new definition of realism would be, I will attempt one: realism is what remains after all the other ‘-isms’ have been used up. It is how artists try to come to terms with and reflect on the world today in its current confused and transitional state.

CE: It may seem to some as if with your Triennial – focused on habitat and “living” as it is – illustrates a shift away from the critique of representation that many people outside of Slovenia associate with art from the region (NSK) towards a less stringent approach to art as ideological critique. Here the focus would be less on totality than on community, group formation, inter-subjectivity, etc. If that’s a global trend, do you see the Slovenian art scene as part of that trend, or is this more a matter of correcting reductive outside perceptions of contemporary art from Slovenia?

For me what is interesting about NSK is less their critique of representation and more their methodology of over-identification. That seems to have real relevance in any form of totalitarian system, whether communist ideology or consumerist mind control. This is for me the heart of their ideological critique but it is never done tongue-in-cheek, rather it takes the state at face value and reflects that face back to itself and its subjects. An artist like Sašo Sedla?ek seems to me to be doing a very similar thing in relation to corporations. As for the idea of inter-subjectivity, I would agree that this becomes much more important because the methods of neo-liberal consumerist control touch on personal identity, choice and focus their efforts on limiting our capacity to imagine the world otherwise than it is. This kind of work is, I hope, part of a minor global trend, the major one still being the understandable seduction by the market, the less-than- sympathetic celebration of celebrity.

AM: The Ljubljana triennial includes many names of artists – both of the younger generation and older – who are well-known beyond the borders of Slovenia, but also many who are not. Please tell us a little more about the selection process, and to what extent it could said to represent a “archeology” of the current art scene in East-Central Europe.

CE: The process was very traditional. I met artists and saw shows. I was guided by Igor ?panol who is a curator at Moderna Galerija and by a number of other curators including previous U3 selectors. I knew from almost the beginning that I wanted to include the Moderna Galerija collection, partly because I am fascinated by museums naturally, but also because the Moderna Galerija  had not shown the collection for a long time before U3 as it was closed for refurbishment.  I wanted also to show that even given the modernist license that Yugoslavia gave artists, there were still many who wanted to communicate to a broad public or simply enjoyed painting and shaping realist subjects. I do not really see this as an archeology of anything outside Slovenia, however, or at least that is for others to say. My focus was on breaking open assumptions about a national tradition rather than anything more expansive.