Jean-Hubert Martin on His Upcoming Moscow Biennale (Interview)

Jean-Hubert Martin. Image courtesy of the author.Formerly director of the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Kunsthalle Bern, and the Paris Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, Jean-Hubert Martin is perhaps still best known for his 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la terre, which featured fifty artists from the art world’s “center” and fifty from its “margins”, including many far removed from what is commonly thought of as “contemporary art”. A member of the Kandinsky Prize jury, Martin has been deeply involved in Russian art for over thirty years. He curated a major Kazimir Malevich exhibition at the Pompidou in 1978, the groundbreaking Paris-Moscou exhibition in 1979, and the first-ever Ilya Kabakov solo exhibition outside of Russia in the 1980s, when the artist was still an underground figure in the USSR. Martin’s latest project is the 3rd Moscow Biennale, Against Exclusion, which opens in Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture on September 24th. In keeping with Martin’s efforts to expand the art world’s parameters, marquee artists like Anish Kapoor and Spencer Tunick are to be joined by underappreciated Russians such as Valery Koshlyakov and Alexandr Brodsky, as well as artists from African villages, aboriginal tribal chieftans, and Afghan carpet weavers. Full information about the Biennale and the 50-strong exhibitions in its parallel program can be found at

Max Seddon: Russia has particularly marked problems with racism and xenophobic violence. Did you have any of this in mind when you were putting the show together?

Jean-Hubert Martin: Yes, well, “Against Exclusion” is the show’s title. It is quite clear, I hope. I think that it’s time for Moscow to be part of the art world and to cope with globalization. Also in terms of art here in Moscow they have seen many exhibitions in the last fifteen years since perestroika but mostly art coming from Northern America and Europe. I think it’s time to have a debate that opens up a discussion, including African artists. Of course they’ve seen some Chinese art here because it’s fashionable but the market brings them very few African artists or artists from the Pacific. My selection goes beyond the usual circle of what is called contemporary art and I include what is usually called – though that is a very bad name – traditional artists, artists working locally for the communities and having very little or no connection with the art market.

M.S.: Your approach seems to be directed against the exclusion of Moscow from the art world. How do you see its potential for cultural growth?

J.H.M.: The potential is enormous because obviously Moscow is one of the major capitals in Europe and everybody looks to Moscow and I can see that even for the artists. If I said, well we’ll have a biennale I don’t know where, in a city somewhere in central Europe, you know they wouldn’t be so excited, but with Moscow there’s a certain excitement coming from the artists. I have a feeling that it is just starting. Russian art started to be supported by a few collectors. Two years ago you could see that it was really growing but now, because of this crisis, it has stopped for a while, nobody knows for how long, but I think the potential is really enormous. Of course it requires probably not only an evolution in terms of economy, of the market, but also an evolution in civil rights, in democracy. What is not helpful is what we’ve seen recently, with important curators being put on trial here and things like that.

M.S.: Among the Russian artists in the exhibition, there is a strong slant toward those associated with or influenced by second-generation Moscow Conceptualism. Was it a deliberate choice on your part to favor them?

J.H.M.: A deliberate choice because I know them, that’s probably the first reason. I know a bunch of them quite well and I always have the feeling that these guys – most of whom are very talented – are not recognized on the international scene on the level that they deserve. That’s the first reason. And then it’s of course a little bit difficult for me to have this real global, international panorama of artists. At the same time I want to emphasize both Russian art and the rest of the world. I know that some people will say: you should pay more attention to Russian artists because they need support, and they do, but at the same time there’s no need to say, well we want only to support Russian artists and we’ll see about the rest of the world and other continents in the future. It’s a difficult fight because it happens on several levels at the same time but, as I said, I am quite confident that these Moscow artists can be much more a part of the international scene in the next few years than they were in the past.

M.S.: There’s a school of thought that what Russian art needs is a kind of equivalent to Guus Hiddink, the manager of the famous Russian national soccer team. What they mean by that analogy is a “foreign specialist” to “raise the level of play” in Russian art. When I hear that sort of talk your name is one of the one’s that comes up most frequently. Do you think Russia needs this? Do you see yourself in that role with your work on the biennale and the Kandinsky prize?

J.H.M.: Well, I hope I can play a certain role. This is why I promote a few artists and I included them in my selection. But art always needs a sort of consensus, I mean things are going better for a local scene when you have all the actors playing at different levels but working in the same direction. I am thinking of curators and intellectuals, critics, the market, museums, collectors – when they all work in the same direction, then it works. But one isolated person or action cannot do anything. So I hope I can help a little bit, but it’s probably because I’m known here, I’ve come here regularly for quite a long time, since the 1970’s, so I have a feel for the situation that probably many of my colleagues are missing.

M.S.: It’s been twenty years since your Magiciens de la terre, and you have quite a few artists who where in that show and who are also in this exhibition. How do you feel the attitude at the center of the art world has changed since then and are we going to see that reflected in the biennale?

J.H.M.: I think it has both changed a lot and at the same time not. Today there is no major exhibition without a certain amount of, say, black or Asian artists. So globalization is there, but if you look carefully its artists are always those who are part of the Western modern or postmodern trend who have accepted to work within the gallery system. My statement with Magiciens de la terre was much broader. It was then only partly understood and maybe still now it is not completely understood. This is why I insist on what I said before – I have nothing against any African artist who decides to be a modernist – that’s absolutely okay for me. I am against any exclusion, I have nothing against an artist who is working in his little town, in his community and who decorates voodoo chapels or sanctuaries or whatever – if I think he’s an interesting and innovative artist, then why not include him in the biennale? Most of the contemporary art world suffers from a sort of blindness, it doesn’t want to see part of the world because it doesn’t fit into the system.

M.S.: Don’t you think there is that danger, even with an exhibition like yours, that someone who is a tribal artist can fall into the art market trap?

J.H.M.: There’s that danger, but this is up to everybody individually. I’m not, how should I say, directing the artists. Any individual is free to do whatever, but what you were describing is something I was very worried about twenty years ago. Remember it was 1989, the art market was very powerful, it was its first peak. And my exhibition team said, well, what about these little-known guys, I can say we really discovered them, we brought them out from nowhere. And then we put them into a major show in Paris and the market jumped on them and just grabbed them, but it still didn’t happen for them. It happened only for the ones who were prepared for all that and who wanted to connect with the market, like the Chinese Huang Yong-Ping. Cyprien Toukoudagba, on the other hand, who will be here in the Moscow biennial, was in Magiciens de la terre twenty years ago. The problem is that he is absolutely unable to work with the market because he cannot produce. If you come to this guy and say: you know, I would like a painting, well he will do it but once you leave he has forgotten it and he gets interested in his local life again. He will never produce things in advance for a gallery. A gallery needs production, it needs people who regularly deliver things and so on, but there are artists who just don’t fit with this system.

M.S.: You have more than one tribal chieftain in your biennial exhibition…

J.H.M.: It’s about being curious, looking at things, traveling to the spot and checking out some work that can be found there. And then I meet the people and try to talk to them, I check out who they are and what they do. As I said, it’s not only about the manufactured art object, it’s about people and about meeting them – it’s about personalities and they are what matters.

M.S.: Since you’ve been coming here since the late 1970’s I’m sure you’ve noticed how dramatic the shift has been in terms of the exhibition-going public in Moscow over the past few years. Young people are starting to take an interest in contemporary art that was never there before. And there’s a sense with Garage’s size, status, its financial backing and famous director that it attracts a public you don’t really see even at Winzavod. How do you think the general public will react to this biennale, and how important is that for you?

J.H.M.: It’s very important for me because we’re not only talking about the crowd at the opening. I would like to attract as many visitors as possible. One thing that was very difficult for me to understand was that even after perestroika the art world here is very small. When you talk with professionals they tell you there are about 300 artists or something like that and not many more. But at the same time when you’re in it you have the feeling that it’s so strong, that there are interesting debates and discussions going on, and on a very sophisticated level. But somehow this doesn’t reach a larger public, it stays within the small intelligentsia. Garage can be a very important place because it’s big, it’s powerful – you can see what’s happening at Winzavod as well. Every weekend it’s full of young people and this is really what I would like to have at the biennale, to attract as many people as possible, and many young people. They can see things that they don’t see normally; it’s very different to see something on television or in a book and then in reality. This is why museums and exhibitions still exist today. It’s the contact, visual and otherwise. I hope that the exhibition will give pleasure to people and that it will help them change their ideas of the world.

M.S.: In Russia, unless you are very seriously interested in art already as a young person, there aren’t the kind of avenues you have in the West to learn about contemporary art. The general level of knowledge is very low. Even some art history students think that contemporary art is about searching for beauty. One common reaction to gallery exhibitions is to ask the gallerist where the exhibition is – without realizing that it is right in front of them. Do you think you’re going to get that kind of reaction?

J.H.M.: Some people may think that some works are nothing or whatever, but this is normal, this happens all the time and it happens also in Europe. It doesn’t happen only here. Probably a certain amount of visitors will not come back, they’ll say we know that, it’s rubbish, too intellectual, whatever, but a certain amount of them will come again and be curious and ask themselves why, they will ask questions. I think this is a normal process. It’s proof of good health. Art is made to be reacted to, not to be loved all the time, it has to be criticized in order to set off discussions and debates, and we have nothing against this kind of attitude if it doesn’t lead to complete denial.

M.S.: In a sense you are positing your artists against the likes of Zurab Tsereteli and Ilya Glazunov – what you could call official art. That is a confrontation, an opposition, a dialogue that you are quite happy to bring about, no?

J.H.M.: Yes, absolutely.

Moscow, August 2009

For related texts, please see: Moscow Diary: What to Make of this Year’s Biennale (Article) and: The 3rd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (Exhib. Review)

Max Seddon is the art critic for the Moscow Times, and frequently contributes to a number of other publications.

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