In this conversation Charles Esche talks about his upcoming commitment in Brazil, but he mostly reflects on the present cultural and political situation in Europe. Charles Esche is Director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands. He has been appointed curator of the 31st São Paulo Biennial opening in 2014.
A conversation with Charles Esche, Director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and Curator of the 31st São Paulo Biennial 2014
Conversation transcription below
Tiziana Casapietra: Could you tell us something about the news you just posted on Facebook?
Charles Esche: There are two big things that have happened in the last ten days. One is that we received an award from the European Union for the Internationale Confederation as we are calling it (Internationale is a new European museum confederation which has been awarded €2.5 million by the European Union for the five-year program “The Uses of Art – The Legacy of 1848 and 1989” which will include exhibitions, symposia, publications, magazines, an online forum, an education platform and staff exchange. Ed.). The second is that I was invited to curate the 2014 São Paulo Biennial. Both are tremendous opportunities I think, for Van Abbemuseum, for my colleagues and myself.
TC: Do you already have an idea about how you would like to approach the São Paulo Biennial? Do you already have a vision?
CE: Let me say that I have intuitions. First of all, I am going to do the reverse of what every curator of the São Paulo Biennale has done in the past. They have known more or less the Brazilian situation, and they have gone into that world to research what should be brought to São Paulo’s relevance. In a sense I am doing exactly the opposite. Obviously I do not know that world, but I know more or less the artists and the kind of work that I want to bring here. Of course I will do some research and there will be some new names and some new projects added; but in the 60, 70% of the cases, I will be working with people I have already worked with, people I trust and I admire. I will try from my outsider perspective to figure out what is going on here culturally – but also politically and socially and then reflect it back into the exhibition. To try and make an exhibition that is relevant to Brazil according to my and my collaborators’ point of view. And to bring artists from elsewhere that seem to add to that dialogue.
TC: In Europe we all refer to Brazil as one of the largest emerging and developing economy. How do you see it?
CE: There are two things to say – one about Europe, the other about Brazil. It seems to me that Europe is provincializing itself in certain ways. It is feeling very sorry for itself, feeling wounded, and this would be something interesting to analyze. On the other hand, Brazil still has huge challenges, for instance in terms of infrastructure and education. Certainly globalization has helped Brazil and produced a fairly large elite – we are talking about millions of people who are pretty well off, not to say extremely well off in some cases, and that are committed to the cultural field as well as to the capitalist field. And those people of course are making a difference. There is also a very interesting politics of the left that relates to Lula and Chávez and to various things that are happening in South America. I am not sure whether those movements are not running out of energy now. I am not sure whether they are more a phenomenon of the last 10 years then they will be of the next ten. And therefore it’s an interesting moment for Brazil, it seems. What is the continuation of this political change, that was the first to reject the hard core neoliberal model and where is it now going to lead? And of course there are lots of people also in Brazil who like to go back to that hardcore neoliberal model. It is not that the battle is over, it is not that the battle is won.
To go back to Europe, I think that it is becoming incredibly cynical and there are many problems in the spirit of Europe. But the infrastructure still functions, the education system still, to a degree, functions. I am not sure whether there are possibilities in the way the Europeans want possibilities, that is to dominate the world, to control the world and feel that they are the most important. But there are still possibilities by being a part of the world and to contribute something useful. I do not think we should lose sight of that within the widespread cynicism that has been produced by neoliberalism. If you look at Italy, Berlusconi is a phenomenon of cynicism.
TC: We must remember that at the last elections, 30% percent of the Italian population voted for him again.
CE: Yes, but he is a phenomenon of a general cynicism. It is cynicism in the cultural elite as well. He is a phenomenon of all of us, he is not just a phenomenon of the 30%, sorry. Every Italian has to bear the responsibility for Berlusconi and for a cynical reaction to the situation of neoliberalism, and to the response to the changes after ’89, after the end of the ideological battle. It is true that in Europe we are witnessing the collapse of the post second war settlement, or the post-fascist period in Iberia or Greece. That settlement is closing down, failing, and people do not know what is going to happen afterwards. This consensual agreement made in Europe over the last sometimes 70 sometimes 40 years is cracking and that of course produces a huge degree of insecurity and therefore fear. I have a great deal of sympathy for how people feel. But at that point we also have to remember also that there are still possibilities in Europe.
TC: How are culture and contemporary art facing and representing this situation in Europe?
CE: Most of the world, whether it is political, economic, or cultural, is running around like headless chickens. In Europe, we have absolutely no orientation where we are going. There is no direction, no arrow, there is nothing which points to anywhere. But this is the situation that we created out of a shared cynicism about what might be possible, a cynicism which also existed on what used to be called the left that went along with the idea that ‘there is no alternative’. We created it out of an approach to criticality, which said: it does not really matter what you do as long as you have a critical position towards it. You can work with whoever you like, and your ethics can go out of the window.
All those things were produced by the intelligentsia of Europe as well as by the superrich class. So, of course the intelligentsia has no answer to the questions now being posed by the failure of capital because they partly produced its omnipotence in the first place. Neoliberalism has produced a kind of cynicism towards thinking of resistance which says: it does not really matter anymore what we do, it doesn’t really matter anymore what we say, it doesn’t really matter what our ethics are as long as we can sit comfortably in our little clubs and say how terrible the world around us. I was part of this as well, but it is clear it was not effective. Any reasonable reaction to the state we are in must involve a huge self-critique therefore. And where is the self-critique of the artistic community in the face of the financial crisis? It is beginning to emerge, it’s starting and I am not hopeless. I am an optimist.
TC: How can we, in Europe, change the course of this stream? Do we have chances?
CE: How did we build socialism in the first place? There were people knocking on doors, there were people working on education initiatives, people thinking about the excluded, people thinking about mental illness, about poverty and working on the ground in micro communities trying to educate people to think about the world differently. We need to start establishing that there is a genuine alternative to neoliberalism, that we can change our value system, that social justice is not something to be cynical about. That’s the job of a cultural elite that wants to be engaged in emancipation struggles.
When I first went to the Netherlands, what I found was basically a decadent, lazy and unengaged artistic society. Artists and others that took their subsidies for granted, who even decided to be artists and curators because there were subsidies. That’s the world that I saw. And I was part of it, we were all part of it. But that has changed. Now we have to construct propositions about how the world can be otherwise and not just be critical about the world we have today. I can see this developing in certain initiatives, such as Casco in Utrecht and the work they are doing with domestic workers. This is an interesting example, but of course it is not sexy for the art market but it is important in showing what can be done. It will not appear in any meaningful way in an art fair but that is part of its strength. Why we have all these intellectuals talking at art fairs? They are just a decoration for the selling of products. When you work with domestic workers in Utrecht, not many superrich people are drawn in it, but that seems to me where you are going to find optimism, at least more there than at the Frieze art fair.