Charles Esche is the head-curator of the Jakarta Biennale 2015 – Maju Kena, Mundur Kena: Bertindak Sekarang (Neither Forward nor Back: Acting in The Present). Since 2004, he has been Director of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. He has co-curated the following international exhibitions: the 31st São Paulo Bienal, 2014 with Galit Eilat, Pablo Lafuente, Nuria Enguita Mayo and Oren Sagiv; It doesn’t always have to be beautiful, unless it’s beautiful, National Art Gallery of Kosovo, Prishtinë, 2012; Strange and Close, CAPC, Bordeaux, 2011 with Galit Eilat; 5th U3 triennial, Ljubljana, 2010; 2nd and 3rd Riwaq Biennale, Ramallah, Palestine, 2007-9 with Reem Fadda and Khalil Rabah; the 9th Istanbul Biennial 2005 with Vasif Kortun, Esra Sarigedik Öktem and November Paynter, and the Gwangju Biennale 2002 in Korea with Hou Hanru. Since 1999, he is also Editorial Director of Afterall Journal and Books based at Central St.Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts, London.
A conversation with Charles Esche, the Director of the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven) and the Head-Curator of the Jakarta Biennale 2015
Conversation transcription below
Michela Alessandrini: Thank you very much, Charles Esche, for participating in this interview. I would like you to introduce the Jakarta Biennial. Can you give us some insights and share your thoughts about what it’s going to be?
Charles Esche: I was invited about a year ago to do the Jakarta Biennale, which will open on the 14th of November 2015 and run until the 17th of January 2016. I’ve known the situation in Indonesia for some time – I first went there in 2001, so I have some sense of how the whole art situation developed in the country, as well as how the country was developed economically and politically, particularly since the overthrow of Suharto in 1998. It seemed to me that one of the important things was to look at the responsibility of an international curator in those situations. So, structurally, we made a commitment to put together a group of emerging curators, which now consists of 6-7 people, and, basically, I would take them through the process of making the Biennale with me.
Also I wanted to leave a lot of the decisions on the artists; not exactly up to them but to decide in an equal discussion with them. So, I would have one voice among the group of people. So, we would be able to discuss artists – particularly artists from Indonesia and from the wider South-East Asia region but also internationally – as a group of people that are thinking what it would mean to bring them to Jakarta, and what it would mean to invite them to make new works in this situation. That’s how the structure started. We picked up quite rapidly some important fundamental aspects of what is going on in Jakarta and why it might be interesting to focus on certain questions. One of the questions was water: the issue of flooding, as well as the issue of water quality and how people are using it, which always touches on many things, such as the environment and how we exploit it; or what city and urban development is, and how you make sense of that as an artist; how you make sense of your environment if you live there or you come from outside; how you make sense of the city and its kind of scale, the dimension of Jakarta, which is the reality for a huge percentage of the world’s population living in cities like Sao Paulo or Shanghai, which are polluted and have either too much or too little water, but never quite enough, and for whom the environment is becoming increasingly hostile to live there, and yet more and more people still come.
So, this question of Jakarta became something that was interesting for me to experience from the point of view of the curators and also of the artists. And then the Jakarta question of Indonesia. Its relationship to the environment is a very interesting one: the way it has been exploited by big multinational corporations: the development of palm oil plantations, for instance, the exploitation of local knowledge that is going on, the movement of populations. It’s very brutal. In places like Indonesia you see the brutality of the global capitalist system that we have at the moment.
That’s interesting to bring into the picture. Also in relationship to that there are other questions around identity in Indonesia; so we came to the second topic. The first topic is water, in general; the second one is history. How do we use history today? So really — bringing in a Benjaminian analysis for history: what history do we need for the present into the Indonesian situation? We decided that it was particularly interesting to look at the 80’s in Indonesia, because it has been less explored and it is an interesting decade — it’s falling into history, it’s moving beyond living memories to a certain extent, at least for the majority of the population — and it’s also moving into a history where the stories of the 80’s will become fixed quite soon. It will become a historical period; it will move to being an antiquity rather than contemporary history.
So it’s still on that edge, between being something that has, for people of my age and beyond, more or less a lived experience: it was contemporary; and for the majority of people in the world, who are younger than me, it’s actually something that’s already finished and it’s part of their genealogy — it’s part of how they came and how we came, as a society, to where we are. But we also went wider, to look at how the histories of Indonesia, from the colonial period onwards — through the Japanese occupation, the Dutch occupation and then independence, and then the histories of Sukarno and Suharto — how those affect the current situation and how those might be useful for us today. Then the third one was the position of women, again unfolding from the history question. We started with water, and then, in order to understand water, you need to understand something of history; and then, in order to understand why history played out in that way, you need to understand the role of and the relationships with women, particularly in Indonesian society. And of course, all these questions — feminism, women, history, water — all have international repercussions, they all have equivalent parallels in different parts of the world as well. So that’s basically how we then started to bring the artists together.
MA: How will this be reflected into the Biennial, from the visual point of view?
CE: Visually, we have one big — actually huge — 2000 square meters warehouse space, more or less in an accessible part of Jakarta. We are going to build a kind of urban plan, an urban footprint into it. Village is called “kampong” in Indonesian, so there are many urban “kampongs”, sub-urban villages, in the middle, that are quite low rise and often built in rather difficult lands, subject to flooding for instance, quite poor in relationship to certain parts of Jakarta that are for the elites and have much better infrastructures. But they have their own self-built constructions behind it: you see this in many cities, this kind of self-built areas. But the kampongs also relate to the old village identity of rural Indonesia, so it’s like the urban village, this is the way we can see it, but they also recall the favelas: it’s all related to both these traditions. In a way, we are actually going to build our own mini- kampongs in our warehouse space. Each of the mini-kampongs will have some degree of focus on water, history, on the question of women and the feminist history of Indonesia, then supplemented by international stories.
The focus is on the Indonesian question in general and on Jakarta, so about 60-65% of the artists will be Indonesian, and also international artists will make some projects in Indonesia; then we will have some examples of works from outside of Indonesia. Therefore, there will be three levels that will grow from the local to the planetary.
MA: How did the research behind the biennial grow?
CE: The curatorial group working on this obviously has its own network – and it’s important to say that all the members of the group come from all over Indonesia, not only from Jakarta but also from Makassar, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Banda Aceh, and from different parts of Java. Of course, Indonesia is a huge country, bigger than the USA, for instance. But, in a way, we have more diversity represented than is usual in this situation. I’m quite interested in seeing the different positions, histories and networks that each young curator brings to the party. So, in a sense, the research has been in their hands and then in their networks. I myself have travelled a little bit, I’ve been in some of the cities that the curators are from, and there we’ve been talking to people in the universities, students of the local situation. The research has been done collectively, but some of it has been done from these individuals and it has been located in their very cities. Some projects will actually happen entirely outside Jakarta, in Surabaya, in Makassar.
MA: What is the main difference between this Biennial and the other biennials you’ve previously curated? And also — this is a big question — between curating a biennial and curating an exhibition in a museum, institutionally speaking?
CE: I think it’s a good question to ask, the relationship between this biennial and the other biennials, because I’ve recently done the São Paulo Biennial and others in the past, in Palestine or in Istanbul. The core difference to me is that I’m much more having a role as a mentor, as somebody who’s guiding a group of younger curators through the process, trying to use whatever experience or knowledge I have to help them through that process.
I don’t know the artists in the same way I did for example for the São Paulo biennial or for Ramallah. It has been slightlier more removed, which is, in a way, very interesting, because it means that I’m getting to know the art works through the curators; but also it means that I have a different role, because it’s not necessarily about working directly with the artists so much as seeing whether we can make a coherent story overall, bringing together these three elements that seemed important in our research and discussion — water, history and feminism – in something that will make sense for the public, the users of the biennale. That’s quite different from other roles that I had in previous Biennales, I think. This mentoring role is new and I quite enjoy it.
The difference with a museum is that, of course, with the Biennale you are very location-dependent, in a way that the museum is less so; I wouldn’t want to do every project about Eindhoven in Eindhoven. This would be inadequate. You wouldn’t do that in Jakarta either, if you had a museum there.
You really have a different set of questions. I also think that Biennales are allowed to understand that the aesthetics of their choices are related to ethics: ethics of funding — we had many issues in São Paulo, around the question of getting the money from the oligarch class and diverting it somehow to other activities, which the oligarch class felt very unhappy about. This process, the ethics of a Biennale, is something I’m interested in. The ethics of museums are, to some extent the same, but we still have this luxury — I suppose — of the collapsed socio-democratic system in a country like the Netherlands, which still survives sufficiently in that most of the money comes through taxation, so through an idea of public accountability rather than being dependent upon the oligarch class. That’s not going to last very much longer — I think that the ethics of Brazil will come to the Netherlands rather than the other way round relatively soon — but at the moment, the discussion feels very different around the relationship between aesthetics and ethics in a situation like São Paulo. In Jakarta, we actually have mostly public money, because there isn’t so much private money, or the private money is spent outside of a forum like the biennale. This actually makes it ethically much easier. In São Paulo, for sure we wouldn’t actually have been able to do the things we are doing.
MA: Now I have a question I’ve also asked to a lot of your colleagues: what will the museum of the future be like? And, in particular, what will the biennial of the future be like? How will biennials change in the next future, in the way we conceive biennials, the way we go to biennials, the way we curate biennials?
CE: If we talk about the future, it’s hard to see a future because of the climate crisis.
I think we are at a point where things are fundamentally going to change. Therefore, the idea of an international biennale, the simple fact of flying to Jakarta, is probably not going to be possible within 10 years — not for the same cost and not considering the kind of damage that this is doing to the environment. Of course, this is difficult to explain to myself and certainly difficult to explain to my son, in a certain way… The kind of irresponsibility that it involves. I don’t see this being sustainable. What we are doing at the moment is not simply going to roll on. Modernity itself is grinding to a halt, I think Immanuel Wallerstein said it with “the last but one crisis.” We just live through the last but one crisis. The last crisis will be when the nation state goes bankrupt. Now we had the banks being bankrupt, and in Greece we see that, once the nation state goes bankrupt, then it stops functioning entirely, and we have to build another system. That’s the future. So I don’t think there is a future for Biennales.
The dystopian future, the apocalyptic future is a future that I suppose we sketched out in “Brazil”: the future of a small elite that completely protects itself. The future is in the “Hunger Games”. I’m sure that for that elite there will be a role for museums: probably privately funded, probably closed more or less to the mass of the public, but with this huge division between a small elite — which continues more or less the civilizational discourse of the Enlightenment and believes itself to be still connected to it — and a huge underclass that exists completely removed from that.
That’s maybe going back to the 19th, 18th century or even to a sort of medieval social division. We can make a connection between these two ages, but of course, as we have been through modern history, through democratic and revolutionary politics, it will appear much, much worse than it did before that happened, because the notion of progress or of democracy doesn’t look to be too much in prospect, in that apocalyptic version of the future.
I think that there is also another version of the future, which I think certain artists and institutions can sketch out, which is to try and build a common future, trying to understand that the elite is damaging, and while we might have to accept quite dramatic drops in our level of incomes, public museums, public space, common endeavour and common capacity are the things that we have to build on. The future of the museum might be to transform itself into that place where the common, in general, can be expressed; where people can come together and meet, which can be inclusive of different narratives; where the curators increasingly become somehow facilitators; where the museum would have its general position in favour of the commons, in favour of public ownership and of shared histories and narratives that are inclusive: that would allow those narratives and those histories to be determined by other people and not only by itself, and which tries to take a distance from the elite. That would be the optimistic future. It would still mean a reduction in terms of resources that we had, but it would mean trying to retain a notion of society that was not this completely divided “Hunger Games” version of society.
MA: Thank you very much for sharing your point of view, Charles, and giving us some answers.