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ARTNOTES: Interview with Okwui Enwezor, curator of BIACS2


Okwui Enwezor, photo by Lolo Vasco

The II Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla (BIACS2) has been formally opened under the title Lo Desacogedor. Escenas fantasmas en la sociedad global. The locations selected for the biennial are two of the most emblematic architectural composition in the city, some artists exhibit their pieces in the Reales Atarazanas, an old 13th century shipyard in which the brick walls and the dirt roadway provide an optimistic context for the works of art as if it was an ad hoc scenography. In the Cartuja island where the old convent used to be located, you can only see the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, a very beautiful composition of spectral white rooms where the artists show their pieces.
The biennial’s curator, Okwui Enwezor, enjoys a great prestige within the international art field and he has directed, among other important events, the Documenta 11 (2002), and for that reason his presence in Spain generates great excitement. The point of view Okwui Enwezor suggests both in his texts and in his curatorships is characterized by the formal sobriety and rigorous precision, some aspects which he does not overlook in this event in Seville. His reflection around the conflicts in the globalized world which swing between the pluralities and the fundamentalisms, resulted in an analysis of the current problems by means of the works by these 91 artists who find inspiration in the concepts of intimacy (the maternal house), proximity (the Euro American or the Hindu Moslem relation with Africa) and neighbourhood (the urban relation or the Israelites and Palestinians relation).


I just wanted to know your general opinion on how everything has turned out as you had expected after the opening?

Indeed, the project turned out quite well, despite a few anomalies that need to be worked out. But this is to be expected since, as you know it is a very big project, and a huge challenge which I have developed with a very small and young organization. The organization has done an amazing work, not only to bring the exhibition about, but also in the support it has given the artists. Few people can imagine and appreciate what it takes to put together this huge complexity of people, with works coming from all different parts of the world and making the exhibition function as a coherent statement of the disparate intentions of the artists. It has been an incredible experience and a great opportunity to work in Spain. And to accomplish this in a context with limited spaces and resources for contemporary art is great credit to what BIACS represents for both Seville and Spain. So to do this job here with the immensely commitment to the artists and with the result we have is simply tremendous.

What elements from previous exhibits did you bring with you to Seville and what new things did come to your mind when seeing of the locations and the city?

Well, number one is that you always carry your intellectual world along with you. I am never a curator who works with the presumption that I´m going to bring anything new always. I am interested in making exhibitions that sit within a particular context. As you know there are many, many serious questions – political, cultural, social, economic: one issue being the difficult problem of immigration and the rights of immigrants - going on in Spain today, as well as all over the rest of the world, these questions should make one circumspect about the prospect of continuously generating new artistic models in response to these varied disturbances and the various teleologies that drive them. So this is not the time to make exhibitions that is entertaining, that is easy to understand and consume through the irritating fixation on newness. I have therefore chosen to focus on things that I know and to invite those artists whose work I have only recently become aware of, but whose works respond in imaginative and challenging ways to the questions the exhibition wanted to address. So the challenge we have is always to push forward in the work we do with a certain degree of clarity and an amount of real critical interrogation of both the limits of art and the limits of the audiences that come to view art, and the prejudices people bring with them and at the same time the preconceptions that they bring with them, so these are all the things that people might want a response to. So in my view I think I´ve made an exhibition that is really about a response to today but not from a dogmatic approach but from a way of reconsidering the itinerary of what contemporary art can be in the matter of the world.

Which are the main criteria you have followed for the selection of these artists present in the Biennial?

This is always the most difficult question. There is not only a criterion but several factors. I tend to work in advance of any exhibition through active collaboration with artists.

Okwui Enwezor, photo by Jeff Weiner

Have you ever asked the artists for any specific work?

No, I’ve never asked for site specific works, but many of the artists have selected works based on the construction of questions. So, for example, Thomas Schütte’s One man houses is very much close to this idea of Absalon, this white sculpture is also related you know, to the conditions of enclosure or isolation of people in the building. For example in the Church what I really wanted was silence and punctuating this silence with a bit of sound from time to time.

Is there any specific symbol or these things, one work like the icon of the exhibition?

No, there is not one icon, it is more a prismatic work; the exhibition unfolds very slowly, so there is not one icon.

When you say that the execution unfolds slowly, should you let us know whether there is a dialogue in between each individual piece of art?

No, this is something that you have to know… the dialogue is there, that’s what an exhibition is about.

What is the itinerary you would recommend to the visitor? Is there a beginning and an end or is there a marked walk or…?

No, I think it’s a network of ideas, a network of positions, each having soft borders between them.

You´ve always been socially conscious in your job, while making a project in Spain did you think at all about the terrorism problem that we have in Spain, to put it in relation with the art creation?

Not exactly because I think that this situation in Spain cannot be isolated from larger problematic that exists elsewhere and that ´s why I say that The unhomely is not an exhibition that is really about terrorism, but the way in which we live in a context that is now sort of darkened by all kinds of questions of struggle, contestations of place… Spain has certainly had its share of this question but I think it must not be isolated, it must be put within a larger context. We have so many societies that are threatened with so many contradictions. These contradictions raise very important issues and I think that there are many artist considering them and I think that ´s what I wanted to articulate as part of the logic of the Unhomely.

Were you able to combine your theoretical points of view and some new elements that would be entertaining for people visiting the exhibition so that they could enjoy it?

I´m very sure that people will enjoy visiting the exhibition
What I always say to people when they come to exhibitions is to give it time, I think it is important to give the works some time, to inhabit the space between the artwork and the world of the artist. The propositions made by artists often need sometime to receive something from them, to understand them people must give them some time.

What´s your next project?

I don´t know (laugh) just sleep!




Román Padín interviewed Okwui Enwezor in the Reales Atarazanas in Seville during the opening of the BIACS2 on October 26th 2006. This interview was published in ART NOTES 13.

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