Thierry Raspail, Director of the MAC (Contemporary Art Museum) in Lyon

RaspailSince its opening in 1984, the Lyon MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art) was always managed by Thierry Raspail. In 1991, Raspail co-founded the Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale, of which he is the current artistic director. An art historian, he began his curatorial career at the Grenoble Museum of Contemporary Art and curated the solo exhibitions of Robert Morris, Joseph Kosuth, Dan Flavin, Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Ben, Robert Combas, Cage-Satie, Huang Yong Ping, Latifa Echakhch and Gustav Metzger.
In this interview, Raspail talks about the evolution of the Lyon Biennale, which will take place this year from the 10th of September 2015 to the 3rd of January 2016.
Conceived as a complementary extension to the Contemporary Art Museum, the Lyon Biennale questions its collection and purposes, within a constant exchange developed by thematic cycles. Discussing Szeemann’s edition, which in 1997 revolved around the the notion of The Other, and that of Jean Hubert Martin, who in 2000 pondered his famous 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la Terre delving deeper into the concept of the “exotic”, Thierry Raspail tells us about how the Lyon Biennale is progressively and solidly taking root on a local and global scale.

A conversation with Thierry Raspail, Director of the MAC (Contemporary Art Museum), Co-founder and Artistic Director of the Lyon Biennale

Conversation transcription below

Michela Alessandrini: Mr. Raspail, in 1991 you were the founder of the Lyon Contemporary Art Biennale, and since then you were always its artistic director. How did you see it evolve up to now? What were its most important moments and the editions that characterized it the most?
Thierry Raspail: I was called in Lyon a long time ago to conceive the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was the end of the Eighties and the discussions were about new museums and Postmodernism. It was immediately clear that the museum we were about to create — even if smartly conceived — would have been relatively limited, as it would have been almost exclusively focused on Western art.
We were fully immersed into reconsidering the concept of biennials and, on a more general scale, that of openness, which also lies at the base of current visual culture. It immediately came to our minds to find a structure, whatever it might be, to expand the institution we were thinking about. A concurrence of circumstances — among which the end of the Paris Biennale in 1985 due to complex economical reasons and maybe also to the artistic project itself — created space for another possible event of a similar nature in Paris and, more generally, in France.
That was when we proposed the project that was then materialized in the first Lyon Biennale, opened in 1991. At the beginning, there was no intention of opening a biennial to extend the museum’s purposes, but I have to say that the idea was in our thoughts. The connection between the city of Lyon and the French State, the main financial backer of the Paris Biennale, came to be in a harmonious way. This is the story that led to the Lyon Biennale.
The first edition was very important for the territory, and brought to being a seemingly enormous project for those times. There were three exhibition areas, one of which of 17.000 square meters. This initiative was fuelled by the issue of art in France, and was the reason for which we didn’t initially announce it as a biennial. Rather, we wanted to create an administrative and political structure that would naturally lead to the biennial format.
I was personally interested — for entirely French-centric reasons — in understanding France’s inability to promote its artists abroad. I had the presumption to believe that we were at the centre of the world, while this was actually never true. Luckily enough, many things have changed. Thus, as hesitant as it was, the first Biennale was very important for the territory: it lasted five weeks and had little less than 80.000 visitors, even if the chosen period of the year — the end of the school holidays — wasn’t the best possible option.
The first edition had no ambition to invade, invest and investigate the international scene; it was an operation that wanted to observe what was happening in France before taking on what was happening abroad. The 1997 edition was one that greatly influenced the history of the Lyon Biennale: I had invited Harald Szeemann for it, who was lucky enough – it was lucky for him! – of not having been yet invited to the Venice Biennale or to Documenta. He would have therefore been able to concentrate on creating a project for a very small biennial that did not exist in the biennials map, such as the Lyon Biennale.
Szeemann wanted to prove that we could grow with great speed, and his presence did actually accelerate the integration of the Lyon Biennale in the international scene. Even in those days, there was the idea that concentrating on triennial thematic exhibition cycles would have been preferable. The first three Biennale editions had focused on a reflection on history; me and Harald wanted to concentrate on the notion of “the global”, a term that is currently so fashionable. He had called his Biennale L’autre (The other, editor’s note). He said that in his mother tongue, German, the other was the das, the neutral. I believe he thought himself to be The Other. With Harald, we then inaugurated a path on the theme of “the global”.
The latest Biennale that was held in the Halle Tony Garnier, the 17.000-square meters area I was mentioning earlier on, should have been a a reprise, a reconsideration of, a statement on the importance of Jean Hubert Martin’s project, which had been strongly criticized: few of us had supported his exhibition Magiciens de la Terre in 1989. The intention was to rethink and develop Jean Hubert’s exhibition, obviously in a symbolic manner because this edition of the Biennale was taking place in 2000, as it had been postponed by one year.
It should also be said that, starting from the 4th edition, I expressed the desire to step down as curator of the Biennale and to only be involved indirectly, as it seemed to me that taking care of a biennial every two years was extremely difficult. With Jean Hubert Martin we had split the geographies: my initial discovery of China – a completely different world in those days – dates back to this period. This reformulation of roles allowed me to fully appreciate the globalization phenomenon. Jean Hubert Martin’s project for the Biennale was very interesting and was called Partage d’exotismes (Sharing of exoticisms, editor’s note) in the plural, and therefore investigated on the phenomenon of reciprocities. Later on, I would increasingly dare to refer to a trilogy, while at the beginning, it seemed to me rather naive to talk about the Biennale in these terms, in this triennial thematic and exhibition cycle.
The great change happened when we left the Halle Tony Garnier. It happened for several reasons, but basically because we were realizing that all other biennials, which in the meantime had began structuring themselves, were placing importance on the fact of being able to move around the city while exploring the event.
This openness towards the city space is the difference between a biennial and an exhibition. This was when the Lyon Biennale took more or less its current structure, which is to say when it began to take place between an old sugar warehouse (the Sucrière, editor’s note) and the MAC. This allowed me to maintain, within a very European context, that if a French biennial did not take place in Paris, there were no alternatives to connecting it to a museum. In France, infrastructures are very weak from a museological standpoint. We might have a magnificent museum in Bordeaux, Nantes or Paris, but we haven’t got a generic and structural one such as the MoMa or the Tate Modern.
It was important for the permanent structure of the museum to preserve something of the biennial; to be able to contribute to it everyday without becoming a conventional museum, in order to affirm such a presence of visual arts on a biennial cadence.
As from now, the question is how to have this biennial interact with the local scene rather than how to export its image abroad because, meanwhile, the news was spreading and the structure of biennials had been defined: among other things, connections were being established with the Gwangju Biennale. The network of the Biennale was starting to be multi-layered, and this is when the question “What do we do with the artists?” became a central one.
While amongst us, in “classic” Europe, we have no problems in associating a Bolognese artist with a Neapolitan one to then hang a Flemish artist fifty centimetres away, with the impression that the collection is recomposing a history. With biennials, it’s more complicated, because artists come from all over the world and we move from capitalized History, even if it’s just a pretence, to histories that are lower-cased tales. It’s only natural that the importance of the art historian diminishes with respect to that of the narrator, the curator. When everything happens in places like Italy, Germany, Belgium or Los Angeles, we are amongst Westerners. The interesting thing is to see how things are conceived in the Middle East or within another cultural frame, such as that of China, Shanghai, Japan or Singapore, the latter increasingly determined in becoming the centre of South East Asia. One begins to understand that a whole part of the world that we were leaving aside is on the contrary very interesting in a very practical way, with no Western mea culpas of the colonialist West, or authority issues.
A dialogue is established between works of art, without it becoming a problem in terms of rooting, identity and cultural area. A simultaneity is established that surely comes from many other histories, but – and this is the point – also creates new ones.
Back to the initial topic, this is how the Lyon Biennale was developed; there have been better and worse editions, as is the case with any biennial. In any case, I believe an important work is being carried out on the Lyon territory.
Within the Biennale, we have given birth, little by little, to a section called Veduta, which has no ambition to become an exceptional laboratory: we simply ask the artists to think about an artistic project that we then introduce to all the people that are not familiar with works of art. It’s peculiar work. To give you a caricature example of a project, I could mention the Création permanente (Permanent creation, editor’s note) by Robert Filliou.
Developing such an initiative requires turning to the museum’s collection, which binds us to the territory and allows us to connect with a certain number of artists that will be invited to the subsequent Biennales.
This enables us to extend the Biennale’s network and to involve “amateurs”, an ambiguous term that we had coming from its seventeenth-century meaning, even though we believe in the plurality of visual culture and in its inclusive – rather than exclusive – abilities. This is how Veduta began its development: with laboratories and residencies, but especially through interventions that might have been not that original but were definitely effective, such as the sudden encounter with a work of art at a bus stop, the door-to-door approach or an installation in a market. Basically, it’s about a way to use everyday elements to enter the everyday life of people.
Simultaneously, we created Résonance, another section of the Biennale, a network of associated and collateral projects that we can find in any biennial, which is not something you can say about Veduta. All these small art centres that carry out an exemplary work on the Lyon territory can thus take part in the Biennale project by organizing parallel exhibitions.
Therefore, I would refer to two poles: the one that can be found in any biennial, which comes from the need to pay attention to the current artistic trends, and this local network, which I hold very dear.

MA: According to you, what’s the meaning of a biennial today? I’m thinking about the sustainability of the increasing production of works of art, for example.
TR: There are as many meanings as there are biennials. This phenomenon of expansion, the simultaneous presence of important artists on a global scale – which is definitely well distributed, as they appear on the art market, in exhibitions and in museums – returns the complexity, the profusion, the need that lies at the base of the very idea of a biennial. I find it consistent with the era we are living in. I wouldn’t know what else to say.

MA: So you see a need for biennials?
TR: I don’t know if a biennial is needed in France, but at a certain point it was important to have one for our friends in Gwangju, in Korea. Why in Gwangju? It depends on issues of opportunity, on people, on financial support, on politics. Obviously we mustn’t be naive: there are political strategy games, there are intentions behind it. It is clear that Korea needed to exist on the cultural plane, with respect to China, Singapore and Japan. Strangely enough, Japan had no biennials, perhaps because it was already far too westernized and had no need to show itself to the West; it should also be said that it was already doing it in other segments, such as literature and economy. As such, the two Japanese Triennales, Fukuoka and Yokohama – especially the latter, aiming as it was at becoming an international event – came a little later.
The Gwangju Biennale was extremely important for Gwangju, for both artistic and cultural reasons.
Is a biennial needed in Berlin? I don’t know, I cannot reply for others.

MA: Is a biennial needed in Lyon?
TR: I think there’s a need for a biennial in France. It doesn’t really matter whether it is in Lyon, in Bordeaux, in Tolouse or in Paris. What matters is that it should be a good one.
Why did Malraux decide to create a Biennale for young artists in Paris in 1959? For the context, not only that of globalization but also because Europe, and especially Paris – which believed itself to be a world capital – were losing speed. It probably had been a world capital, but for an inconsequential period of time. This idea was to affirm, in the face of the phenomena such as market, images and creation, that Paris should have been revitalized by young people. Moreover, its geographical position would have allowed showing something never been seen before: the artists from the Eastern block.
Let’s take the Venice Biennale and Documenta, for instance: they certainly date back to before World War II, but they completely restructured themselves after the war. Why?
Because Italy’s misfortune was that of being one of the defeated, therefore, it was important to prove that conflicts had been forgotten, that reconciliation was on the way, in order to get up again. The same goes for Documenta in Germany. All these machines are supported by ideological thinking. All cultural production is connected to a context, and biennials are as well, especially the Lyon Biennale.
Talking about France – thus of a smaller scale with respect to the global one – if there should be a biennial in this country, I don’t think it should be in Paris. Even if it was it just to say that, indeed, we do consider ourselves a completely centralized and verticalized, “Louis-the-fourteenth-ized” country, we should remember that this isn’t important if seen from Fukuoka. The fact that a biennial should be in Bordeaux or in Lyon only depends upon logistic needs and opportunities.
Certainly, a biennial should stand on its own feet, by means of collateral programs or work-arounds. As I said, there are better and worse editions.
95% of the visitors at the Venice Biennale say they were disappointed, but two years later, they’re back, because they can’t do without it. So, were they really disappointed? What are we talking about? I am digressing into mediocre sociology, but voilà
Today we have forgotten the history of these four fundamental events, which is to say that of Germany, Italy, Paris and São Paulo, which at the time perfectly matched the rhythm of artistic creation: two years were a long period of time, which allowed understanding the sudden growth not of a generation but of a reflection.
Why was a biennial established in São Paulo do Brazil? It seems logical to me that it was to bring the American continent into existence. I find the intelligence of countries that were subjected to colonization extraordinary: they get their inspiration from European literature, they produce a better one and they export back to Europe and the world. The same admirable gesture was performed in art.

MA: What do you see in the future of this Biennale? How will it evolve in the next years?
TR: I don’t know. I only hope that the structure of biennials in general – and of the Lyon Bennale in particular – is maintained and further developed. International biennials should increasingly improve the way they reflect on connections, information and exchanges, but I have no idea of how this will happen.
The difference between a biennial and an institution such as the MoMa is that there are few possibilities of the latter closing, because it’s a museum sculpted in marble and part of a tradition. Biennials have a harder life: currently, Singapore is protecting its Biennale because it’s right at the centre of a geographical, artistic and aesthetic device that is spreading knowledge and cultures, and it will surely still be important in five years. The first cultural instrument South Africa equipped itself with to be acknowledged at in international level was a biennial. Yet, the Johannesburg Biennale  only had two editions. Where was the problem? Was it in creating a biennial or rather in setting it up based on the Western model? It’s clearly an extreme example, but the fact remains that this biennial had no future.
I believe that the structure of biennials will evolve; maybe it will become more academic, but it still has a strong future. About fifteen years ago, we saw experiments that were aimed at revising the very notion of a biennial, for example by creating itinerant ones. This was mainly a curating exercise that started on very weak grounds: there was a white cube and the goal was to break it, rebuild it, disturb continuities. This already happened in literature a long time ago.
It’s a legitimate experiment, but I believe that the classical biennial structure will survive against all odds.
We’ll see, I think that in some fifteen years something might have to change, for now it’s good enough as it is.