Tom Eccles questions the Van Abbemuseum director about nationality, activism, curatorial education and whether art can have any real social effect
By Tom Eccles originally published at ArtReview
Charles Esche. Photo: Judith WarringaDocumentation of Li Mu’s Qiuzhuang Project, 2010–15, courtesy the artistLibia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, Avant-Garde Citizens, 2008. Photo: Peter Cox. Courtesy Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
A curator, writer and educator, Charles Esche has been director of the Van Abbemuseum, in Eindhoven, since 2004. Last year he curated the Jakarta Biennale, while in 2014 he was one of the curators of the 31st São Paulo Bienal. That same year he was also awarded the CCS Bard Award for Curatorial Excellence. Prior to that, in addition to curating a number of other international biennales, Esche cofounded the Afterall Journal and Afterall Books. He is a frequent guest on ArtReview’s pages
ArtReview In your introduction to the compendium of artist writings Art and Social Change , you stated that ‘at moments of revolutionary success, there is a subtle elision between inside and outside positions that has produced some of the most powerful work effecting social change’. Given the current conditions of Europe, do you see any possibilities for revolutionary success or even for artists to effect social change?
Charles Esche To answer the question, I’d have to describe what I think is happening in Europe. It seems to me that we have a full-blown paradigmatic transition going on of the kind that takes at least a generation. I’d say it started with the collapse of socialism in the eastern part of the continent and will end with the collapse of neoliberal capital in the western half. The extent to which this will affect the rest of the world is not clear because part of the transition is that Europe is ceasing to be the dominant continent that determines the rest. The twentieth century, for all of the USA’s economic and cultural success, was still defined in Europe. The two World Wars, the Revolution, the Holocaust and the Cold War were all essentially European disputes that spilled over far and wide. US and Asian decisions were significant, but the key determinants were played out in Europe. That world has come to an end. The outlines of what is emerging is less clear. This is normal, as a paradigm shift is always barely visible until it has already happened. But the economic decline of Europe, the decay of the European Union’s modernist vision and the breakup of the old, powerful nation-states are part of the coming conditions. In this situation, revolution cannot mean what it once did; left and right become empty signifiers; and life reconfigures. It’s not easy, and the role of art is also changing as part of it.
We see part of what it might become in the growing demand to be transdisciplinary and to break out of known protocols; to embrace the margins and deviance as forms of thinking. The early-twenty-first-century centre is no longer attractive. Its continued privileging of white supremacy, the old modern avant-garde (think blockbuster art exhibitions), its tired transgressions and its cult of personality/celebrity look yucky and tired. In response, there is a kind of quiet and casual ‘demodernisation’ in some art that I find inspiring. For me, it’s closely connected to decolonial thinking and how the European legacy across the world can be come to terms with. This is close to a much-extended form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (poorly translated as coming to terms with the past) that some Germans went through after 1945. I suspect it’s also connected to some forms of what might loosely be called ‘indigenous’ thinking and new relations to ecology too. We need to learn how to construct plural truths and yet manage consistent ethics. We need to move away from monotheism. The different communities engaged with art have a potentially revolutionary role to play in this, especially if they again elide its old claim to autonomous action within the artistic field, with a real stake in a change in thinking about and acting in society. One thing is for sure: any future revolutionary art will look and sound different. It will be focused neither on aesthetics nor politics in the modern understanding of these words. It may not be made by self-identified artists. That would already be a social change, I guess.
AR In 2008, you organised an exhibition that seems particularly prescient now. Be(com)ing Dutch focused the museum on questions of what have become sensitive issues of identity, nationality, citizenship and social cohesion in the context of the Netherlands. You invited not only artists but also politicians, intellectuals and the people of Eindhoven, where the Van Abbemuseum is based, to ask some tricky questions: ‘What does “being Dutch” or “becoming Dutch” mean in the twenty-first century? Who are “the Dutch” anyway, and how do we want to be seen by ourselves and others?’ What came out of this project? It couldn’t have been easy, being a foreigner yourself.
CE It’s always hard to know precisely what emerges out of an art project. I think that Be(com)ing Dutch set a new tone in the Dutch artworld. Before I came to the Van Abbemuseum, in 2004, Dutch museums were dominated by populism in the sense that they were largely delivering what the mainstream bourgeois public wanted. Such adventure as they retained was still confined to the Euro-American canon and to what was then called a postmodernist aesthetics. It felt regressive to me, and I had a fair share of conflict with my colleagues (most of whom have since moved on or retired) in other museums then.
That postmodern, strongly white-supremacist rhetoric has more or less retired too. I wouldn’t say that Be(com)ing Dutch was responsible, but it made politics in Dutch museums and art circles more possible in a way that had been absent since the 1980s. It established the idea that something cultural was at stake in Dutch contemporary identity. Of course, general cultural and political discourse is harsher now than then, but that’s part of the transition process I talked about before. Be(com)ing Dutch was certainly a moment to take account of in the history of the Van Abbemuseum and Dutch art more generally.
ANY FUTURE REVOLUTIONARY ART WILL LOOK AND SOUND DIFFERENT. IT WILL BE FOCUSED NEITHER ON AESTHETICS NOR POLITICS IN THE MODERN UNDERSTANDING OF THESE WORDS
In specific terms, I think it’s hard to see the development of other projects – [long-running transnational research project] Former West or the [project space] Stedelijk Museum Bureau, for instance – without it. For some artists, too, I think it gave an institutional baseline for certain ways of working or thinking. Would Jonas Staal, Nicoline van Harskamp, Renzo Martens, Yael Bartana and Ahmet Öğüt be making the same work without it? Probably, but it helped to give their practice some space, I think, and they continued to work with the museum.
Directly, it affected subsequent projects in the museum, from Strange and Close  at CAPC Bordeaux, which took its title from a talk by Homi Bhabha during the Be(com)ing Dutch caucus, to the current contemporary displays in the collection. We are also planning to repeat the formula of the caucus in 2017 – four weeks of mayhem and meeting in the museum.
More generally, it opened up space for a dialogue with politicians. That discussion was very hard at times, especially when the financial crisis hit, but it gave them a new sense of what the museum is for. Recently, one political critic said to me that ‘you should do more blockbuster exhibitions like Be(com)ing Dutch if you want our money’. I’m happy to take him at his word.
AR More recently, you worked with the Cuban artist/activist Tania Bruguera on the Museum of Arte Útil (or ‘useful art’), ‘a place where art’s use value and social function would be analysed and questioned’. Bruguera suggests that art is both a tool and a device, and this is certainly true of her actions in the face of the authorities in Cuba, where she has been arrested and her work suppressed. Did you find this project ‘transformative’, as the project initially claimed it would be? Or do you find these projects episodic, fleeting moments before museums return to business? Are artists like Bruguera the exception rather than the rule? How might you respond to a critic who charges you with championing one kind of artist and artistic practice rather than offering the public a broader reflection of artistic production today?
CE There are a few issues mixed up in this question that I’ll try to tease apart, though I understand why you put them together.
Museum of Arte Útil was indeed an exhibition project, but I always hoped it would be able to develop into a longer-term trajectory for the museum. I’m happy to say I’ve not been disappointed, but you are right to question it. If it had only been a singular event without consequence, then I would not do it again. On an institutional level such experiments have to contribute to a change in the internal politics and power divisions if they have any value. Fortunately, that has in part occurred, and though it needs to go further, I’d like to take a moment to outline some of the consequences of taking Tania’s Arte Útil gambit to heart.
THERE IS STILL SOMETHING ISOLATIONIST ABOUT ART HISTORY AS A WHOLE, PARTICULARLY HOW THAT ART HISTORY IS THEN PRESENTED IN MUSEUMS
Firstly, the idea of a nomadic Office of Arte Útil grew out of the exhibition and is taking on a rounded life of its own with appearances in London, Middlesbrough in England, the Canary Islands, Warsaw and San Francisco so far. There are plans to situate a semipermanent office in the Granby Street area of Liverpool, where [restoration work by architecture collective] Assemble won last year’s Turner Prize. These offices are based on the Arte Útil open web archive that the museum maintains together with two curators, Gemma Medina Estupiñán and Alessandra Saviotti, based in Eindhoven and San Francisco respectively. They work independently but closely with Tania and the museum. The Office gathers information about Arte Útil projects and puts selected ones into effect locally.
As a museum, we initially thought to bring the archive into the museum, but it made no sense, because it is not something anyone should own. Tania proposed that we use acquisition money to support one Arte Útil initiative per year, and we are still looking at how to do that legally, but the basis is now so broad that we can do that in combination with others.
The exhibition [in 2013] was also always seen as part of a longer research trajectory together with our international partners that included the exhibition Really Useful Knowledge in Reina Sofía [Madrid, 2014] and Confessions of the Imperfect  at the Van Abbemuseum. All this culminated in a recently produced reader called What’s the Use? that we launched on 16 April this year. I hope and trust this will have some further implications as the book circulates, but what I can say for the future is that the new presentations of the museum collection will be inspired by Arte Útil and hopefully include many aspects of what we have learnt since 2013. So it was, I feel, as transformative as I had initially hoped, and it’s still working its way into our thinking at many levels, especially how we work together with people in our immediate Eindhoven neighbourhood.
Finally, in answer to your question about the Van Abbemuseum’s partisanship, I don’t think there’s a neutral or unbiased option for curating a museum programme. The question is what you choose to show and where you draw the line. I’m mostly concerned that we make a break with the narrow modernist ideology of enclosed white-cube autonomy and isolated visuality. I believe it no longer serves to give art a meaningful role in the world but has become a pastiche of what it once was. Given that position, I feel there are a sufficient variety of approaches in our activities, from modes of interpretation to temporary exhibitions and different ways of narrating the collection.
Arguably, the density of art institutions in the Netherlands and Belgium offers us a better opportunity to specialise, but even in an area with less cultural provision, I think an institution should stand behind the artists and positions it believes in. I can’t imagine doing anything else just to serve the demand for an imagined breadth of artistic practice. There’s an awful lot of decorative modernism and worse being made as art, and as a museum, none of us want to put ourselves at its service.
AR You have been active in the area of curatorial education over the past 20 years and have put an emphasis on the study of exhibition histories. Once somewhat scorned by art historians and the art press, curatorial programmes have continued to expand and are now part of ‘the system’, so to speak. What do you think are the benefits of a curatorial education rather than, say, traditional art history?
CE I have some doubts about the discipline of art history. It always runs the risk of isolating forms of artistic expression from what is happening around them. Most of my work has been about connecting aesthetics to social, political and emotional change in society. How we see and what is seen influences how the world turns. I appreciate that many art historians also feel this and work hard to develop other strategies, but there is still something isolationist about art history as a whole, particularly how that art history is then presented in museums. Look at the Tate Modern art timeline, for instance, which is a way many English people and London tourists first encounter art history. It is partially a prolongation of Alfred Barr’s abstract art family tree of 1936, but the Tate chose to do away with all links to the world beyond art, something that Barr did include tangentially. Art becomes a simple succession of styles and names with no connection to what is going on in the world. That’s simply not how we should be presenting art to people in general. It gets them off on the wrong foot. As for the art press, I am still amazed at the resistance of many art journalists to curatorial gestures. At least in the Dutch press, they seem to interpret any deviation from the white-cube presentation or the solo exhibition as a restriction on their sovereign right to commune with the artwork, without seeing how much the white cube and solo protocols are themselves curatorial devices. It becomes a little bit absurd when they accuse museums like the Van Abbemuseum of having too many opinions, as though an opinionless museum would be possible.
IT’S IMPORTANT THAT WE CONSTANTLY STRETCH THE DEFINITION OF WHAT ‘MAKING ART PUBLIC’ MEANS IN TERMS OF EXHIBITIONS
So, I am happy if exhibition histories challenge that classical form of art history. I like the fact that ‘exhibition histories’ is in the plural and also that it focuses on the moment when an artwork becomes public, defining that as the key step in an artwork’s significance. With that simple gesture, you immediately have to include all the manoeuvring, negotiations, personal relations and institutional politics behind an exhibition. Art becomes entangled in its social and power system instantly, and this seems to me a more pertinent and interesting way of writing about art and artists – especially if we want to talk about art’s impact on people and role in society. Another risk will be the emergence of an exhibitionary canon like the artistic canon we already have. This is probably unavoidable, but it’s important that we constantly stretch the definition of what ‘making art public’ means in terms of exhibitions. The value of the study of exhibition histories will be much greater if we can leave these definitions open to actual practice and to regular expansion or contraction, depending on the urgencies of the moment. I have to say that I am enjoying being in at the beginning of this area of study and helping to shape its boundaries. It is also good to see how it is being picked up around the globe, and I hope in the near future we can come together to compare notes and to learn from each other.
CURATORIAL EDUCATION CAN FIND A GOOD BALANCE BETWEEN THEORY AND PRACTICE WITHOUT DENIGRATING EITHER
If we turn to the more established emergence of curatorial studies, I see one great advantage over art history already in that it does not have to carry around the baggage of modern art history and its bogus claim to artistic autonomy. Instead, by looking at the history of curating, you have to become engaged with the compromises and the contingencies. What is certainly important is to avoid simply replacing the figure of the artist with the figure of the curator. Rather we need to ensure that both are discussed within their context and in terms of what an individual or group could make possible in any given circumstance. And I see that happening in many courses. Like exhibition studies, studying curating does focus on an inclusive and contextual view of making art public, but it adds a strong practical aspect that I appreciate. It is much easier to grasp the system by practising it at the same time as you are being asked to analyse it critically. This in-between status of doing and thinking is still something I enormously enjoy about curating, and I hope that pleasure is what we can pass on to our students. It also feels to me an appropriate position at a time when modernist disciplinary divisions and the frequent snobbism of expert culture and intellectual labour have less and less authority. Curatorial education can find a good balance between theory and practice without denigrating either. I am also enthusiastic about how artists are increasingly interfering with the curatorial as a trope for them to deconstruct. One of the most important artists of our time is the janitor at the Museum of American Art, among other things, and that feels entirely of a piece with the moment. I am also thinking of a recent project we did at the Van Abbemuseum with the artist Li Mu, where he ‘curated’ his home village in China with copies of work from the Van Abbemuseum collection. The project resulted in numerous outcomes, including fascinating film of the whole year-long public ‘exhibition’. Putting such projects as these into curatorial education will become more and more crucial in the future.
This article was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of ArtReview.
6 July 2016