THE SPECIAL VALUE OF ART. American born, London based curator Ralph Rugoff is director of London’s Hayward Gallery and artistic director of the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. He is the first UK-based curator to hold this prestigious role, and the first American since 2007. This Biennale Arte runs from May 11th to November 24th.

You are the director of the Hayward Gallery in London and you also curated the 2015 Biennale de Lyon. How did you become curator of this Biennale Arte?

Paolo Baratta, President of La Biennale di Venezia, called and invited me to have lunch with him in Rome. He didn’t say what we were going to talk about until we were having dessert. Then he invited me, with the stipulation that his board had to approve it. I had no advance notice, and it came as a nice surprise.

You have titled this Biennale ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’, and you have 79 artists. Plus, there are 90 national pavilions and 21 collateral events. How is the Exhibition structured?

National pavilions are independent exhibitions and have their own curators. Of all the many biennales that take place, about 300 in the world, the thing that makes the International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia unique is that it is the only one which has national pavilions. Many events apply for collateral status, and I have to decide which ones are accepted and approved by the board, but the main thing I am doing is the International Exhibition with 79 artists in the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale venues. This is not national.  It has a broad international scope, and a theme, and has much more active curatorship involved juggling many different artists.

When we see the work of these 79 artists, is this the number they gave you?

No, I can choose as many as I like. In recent years there were more artists, maybe 125 or 135, but because it is very hard for visitors to take in so many different artists I hope that one day someone manages to do a show with only 50 artists. I couldn’t quite get that low, but it’s a good idea.

What made you decide ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ as the title?

Things have changed a great deal in the last five and ten years, sometimes in ways that are alarming or worrying. I didn’t want to have a pessimistic tack, and living in interesting times is an offering that could be a positive statement, or an ancient Chinese curse as it was mistakenly referred to by people from Camus to Hillary Clinton. That turns out not be the case, fake news, an ‘alternative fact’, but the first time it appeared in print was in a newspaper in England in 1936, when a Member of Parliament was warning against the rise of Hitler, so historically it is associated with a warning against fascism.

“I looked for complexity, because this is what makes art so different and gives it a special value.”

Liu Wei Microworld, 2018
Aluminium plates, Dimensions variable. Courtesy Liu Wei Studio & Faurschou Foundation Beijing. Photo: © Jonathan Leijonhufvud

Once you found the title did you commission work or look for artists whose work has to do with this theme?

I also wanted a title that wasn’t too specific, but framed the times we live in. This Biennale responds to this moment in time, and that is what is interesting about Biennales, they give you a form to think again about what happened in the last two years and what new ideas are changing the future we are moving towards. What I was really interested in was artists whose work is very open-ended, and is more about asking questions than providing answers, and experiments with the way we look at images and think about stories. A lot of this came from the ideas of Umberto Eco in his 1962 ‘The Open Work’ where he gives a perfect description of what the culture of contemporary art has been for the last 60 years and continues to be and why it has value for society.

Today there are no defined art movements like arte povera, abstract, surrealism, and the medium of expression varies a lot?

We have a virtual reality work, and an augmented reality work, but what counts is not the medium but how the artist is thinking. A lot of artists work in many different media. In this Biennale there is a large group of painters including George Condo, Julie Mehretu, Nicole Eisenman, so painting is a very important part, as much as video or any other medium.

Your choice of artists includes, for example, French people living in New York or Mexicans living in Madrid. Is there a lot of international movement among artists?

A lot of artists are nomadic and move around. Sometimes they move to the cities where the art scene is most interesting, just as Picasso who went to Paris.

Which are the interesting art places nowadays?

New York and Berlin are very important; in China, both Beijing and Shanghai; London to some extent, and Paris; these are places that attract artists from many different countries.

How did you proceed in your choice of artists?

By doing a lot of research. I began without a list and travelled 5 continents and in 25 countries I looked at about 2,000 different artists for work that was serious but also playful, and had different levels of meaning and was able to entertain. It might mix abstraction and representational imagery, might provoke contradictory emotions. I looked for complexity, because this is what makes art so different and gives it a special value. So much information in mass media is created to simplify, but art is a place where the complexity of human beings finds a home. If you want to discover something about yourself, you have a better chance of doing that with art than with reading the front page of a newspaper.

What are your criteria for selection? Is age important?

Age is not important, we range from 29 to 79. The idea is that the work touches you in some way, because it speaks to the multi-dimensional aspects of human experience. We rarely feel things in only one way, emotions are very complex things, generally linked, even if they are named to sound like opposites. To me, the idea of ambivalence, of being able to see things with different points of view and also connect ideas and histories that we don’t normally connect, is the great gift of art.

Does each artist have only one work on show?

No, one artist has 70 photographs, another 14 paintings, but each artist shows in two different places, all show in the Arsenale with one type of work and then with a different type of work in the Central Pavilion. These are different works, often with different subject matter, often in different media, but in two parallel exhibitions.

“Contemporary art can be difficult to understand because it is using a new language that it can be uncomfortable not to know.”

Do the artists you select have to come from all over the world?

I am encouraged by the unwritten code of the Biennale to make it international, but that is not literally one artist from each country. The US has the most, but a lot of the artists who live in the US were not born there, just as there are a lot of artists living in Berlin who are not German. This year there is a fairly large number from Asia: Japan, Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, Bhutan, China.

Are there Africans?

Yes, wonderful African artists, from Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa.

And South America?

A few South Americans, not as many as usual; and one Mexican artist.

Did you visit their studios?

Yes, I met lots of people and visited artists and talked with them. Many are very interesting but are not right for the subject. I was looking for some connection to what is going on today and speaks to this particular moment. I could easily have put 150 artists in this exhibition, it was harder to narrow it down.

How did you find out about them?

Once I had an idea of a core group of artists I asked them who they would like to see in the room next to theirs at the Biennale. I wanted connections between them which work at different levels, even if sometimes they recommended people I wasn’t interested in, sometimes it worked out and I found out about new artists. I tried to use the artists in the show to help me curate it.

On the eve of the Biennale how would you describe the final result?

Some works I haven’t even seen yet, because the artists are making them especially for the exhibition.

Who does the layout?

I do, sometimes with the artists, but I decide where they go, and it can be very difficult.

What would you like the visitor to the Biennale’s journey to be?

The Biennale is not a cultural statement, but a thought-provoking encounter that stays with you and makes you curious. I hope it’s an experience that people want to talk about with their friends, and have questions and wonder that come out of it. These 79 artists brought together from around the world have a conversation with the visitor, communicating through the medium of the art world.

Am I coming to the Biennale to discover one or two artists?

Hopefully 79 artists! It’s a whole, but rather than one story line it’s like a novel that has six or seven different storylines, and you might like one more than the other. It is a journey, but not a straight journey. You have detours here and there. It is unpredictable, and I also hope it gives people pleasure. We need pleasure in life.

Some curators wanted to create discomfort in the visitor?

Watching movies that are thrillers makes you uncomfortable but can still be pleasurable. The title is mixed. It is interesting, but our times can also be devastating, like just what happened in Paris. It is difficult to make a more extraordinarily powerful image than Notre Dame destroyed by flames. We live in a media culture and when we experience these things through images we don’t just see them once.

Nowadays many more people are interested in contemporary art?

There are different types of audience, a mix, some more or some less knowledgeable. Some see a single image in a newspaper and want to see more. I am interested in every audience and only hope that people can keep an open mind without judging them too quickly. Contemporary art can be difficult to understand because it is using a new language that it can be uncomfortable not to know, so you have to pay attention to what you are feeling or what it makes you think. If you don’t understand it, it can make you feel resentful because you feel stupid. I wanted an exhibition that people feel welcomes them and they can respond to.

Korakrit Arunanondchai in collaboration with Alex Gvojic No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5, 2018

Video with boychild: 3 channel video, 30:44 min. Installation: Mixed seashells, tree branches, laser harp, hazer, resin, LED lights, fabric pillows

Copyright: Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic. Courtesy: Carlos/Ishikawa, London, C L E A R I N G, New York/Brussels, Bangkok CityCity Gallery, Bangkok

Alex Da Corte Rubber Pencil Devil, 2018

Video, color/sound; 2:39:52 min.

Courtesy of the artist, Karma, NY and Gio Marconi, Milan

Mari Katayama Cannot Turn the Clock Back #005, 2017

C-Print, 150 x 100 cm. Courtesy of Mari Katayama, rin art association © Mari Katayama

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster & Joi Bittle Cosmorama, 2018

Diorama, Dimensions variable. Exhibition view: Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig, 2018

Courtesy the artist, Corvi-Mora, London; 303 Gallery, New York; Esther Schipper, Berlin. Photo: © Nicholas Knight

Jill Mulleady The fight was fixed, 2017

Oil on linen, 165 x 126 cm

Courtesy the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick, Los Angeles / Paris

Avery Singer Self-portrait (summer 2018), 2018

Acrylic on canvas stretched over wood panel, 241.9 x 216.5 x 5.1 cm. Courtesy the artist. Photo: © Lance Brewer

“I would rather that people pay attention, not to who’s who, but to what they are experiencing.”

You have long experience curating at the Hayward but this is the first time you have done such a broad survey of art all over the world. What is your feeling about art globally?

Art is amazingly lively, all over the world, and audiences are growing because people are tired of the formulaic art of commercial medium, like Hollywood movies, TV shows. Art offers something different, and good artists reject every formula.

What makes a good artist?    

Someone who has to be very rigorous even if very playful and creative, who takes risks and is adventurous and not afraid of contradictions. Interesting art embraces contradictions.

Where is art going?

We used to have a linear history of movements, but that is no more. There became too many different types of practice, and also instead of reacting to the previous generation artists began to look more at what was happening in the rest of the culture, not just art, but movies and cartoons and politics. Most artists I know look at YouTube and Instagram, sources of imagery that having nothing to do with art history, and rather than being a vertical line like a family tree art’s development is much more horizontal now, more of a mix of images, so the field of references for artists has become wider. And art has become much more international. China didn’t have much of a contemporary art scene in the mid-1980s, now it has a huge one; now every country has a contemporary art scene and there are two artists in this Biennale from Thailand. 90 national pavilions says that there are contemporary artists coming from all over.

Artists who are not well known have a chance to exhibit next to well-known names at the Biennale. As a result do commercial art galleries come and look for new people to launch in the market?

Possibly, but just because an artist appears at the Biennale does not necessarily mean they appeal to the people who buy art at auctions. There are artists with different careers. In the 80s Ed Ruscha had three shows in a row and didn’t sell a single painting. People forgot about George Condo for a while. At the end of the day the market is not so interesting. The artists whose work sold for the most money 100 years ago are not necessarily the artists we remember now and each country has its own version of the history of modernism.

Is the Biennale a contemporary happening which is a mirror to the world?

It is not literally about the world. Sometimes it’s about how people’s response to the world is changing. Artists are very sensitive to that.

Among all the international artists on show is there a uniting common thread?

Yes, there is. Artists from all these different cultures are all working in the same way, the way Umberto Eco describes, unresolved, but not in a negative sense, ambiguous with different competing meanings, mixing things up from different sources, and sitting in between our normal categories. These artists are all working to leave us wondering what category does this go in, and each artist makes more than one statement.

Do you want the public to recognise an artist by their style?

Hopefully not. I would rather that people pay attention, not to who’s who, but to what they are experiencing.

Venice, April 2019