AB Can you tell me something about the two shows Marc-Olivier Wahler asked you to curate in New York and in Paris?
JA I consider it a sort of double exhibition, first at the Swiss Institute in New York, then at the Palais de Tokyo, titled “None of the Above” (2004) and “All of the Above” (2011), respectively, which are each a line to be checked while filling out a form; it is the same idea on principles of equivalence. When Marc-Olivier asked me to do this exhibition in New York, I told myself that we could gather a few things, with the idea that it is not necessary to be able to see in order to see things. So we invited people and asked them to make miniature works, no bigger than, let’s say, a cell phone. Today, the artist list is quite impressive, because in the meantime the world has changed, and artists become famous instantly.
AB I saw the show; I remember the space was empty and there was a little Maurizio Cattelan sculpture climbing a window.
JA Cattelan’s piece has a long story. It was a figure of me that was originally made with my students in Braunschweig. My work there was to organize projects around the world. With the students, especially foreign students, we would gather our networks to find a space to organize an exhibition and invite artists. Then we would manage to find money, to fund the trips, and so, each time, it was self-produced. The exhibition in which the Cattelan was shown happened when I started working in
Braunschweig, in a large hall on the ground floor that does not exist today. It was a little town and so we asked every garage to let us borrow some of their cars; four or five garages each lent us about ten cars for the duration of the show. I then asked students to do projects themselves or with invited artists such as Maurizio, but also Ugo Rondinone and Olivier Mosset. They each sent a project to realize; some of them came in person to make them. Maurizio asked that we make a figurine like a Garfield glued to the back of a car, but that looked like me. So, one of the students made a figurine but it did not look like me at all. He then came with Sylvie Fleury, whose aunt used to make figurines for Caran d’Arche in train station windows around Switzerland, and she made the figurine. We first showed it in Braunschweig, and as I kept it, we also showed it at the Swiss Institute where you saw it.
AB “None of the above” was kind of funny.
JA Because you could not see a thing and a lot of people did not get it. In 2011, Marc-Olivier asked me to do another exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo; there, I remember an opposite situation: the works are present but no one can see them because they are present. It was inspired by two things. I went to Egypt as a child and I remember the Egyptian Museum in Cairo that had a room with sarcophagi standing in front of one another, so that I could not see those in the back. But it was not easy to see those at front either; the presence of the ones behind was just as effective as the ones at front. Another experience happened in temples in Asia, where after you pass a first door, you pass by religious figurines on the sides, which filter you but that again you cannot see. When Marc-Olivier asked me to do a project, I wanted to do something in that direction. So I used this strategy and asked to build platforms on different levels for the pieces. I invited many artists and again, the exhibition’s economy was really simple: no need to look for impossible pieces, they had to choose what was available. Again, an exhibition that was built on availability rather than a list of names.
AB The exhibition system was interesting and surprising, mostly because there did not seem to be a hierarchy between the works; they did not contradict one another.
JA There are several possible interpretations. But the structure that I chose is the opposite of being formatted and limited—it opens all possibilities. Years before, I had hung works for Pierre Huber at Art Basel, where the entire booth was covered in mural paintings; I chose a lot of works to hang on the wall the way I wanted to, and it created a general confusion. It was interesting because the invited artists were enthusiastic to exhibit their works under these conditions, which they could have rejected in another context. I do not know why, but I am very happy when I am pushed to make a mistake.
AB As you were saying, you have more freedom as an artist-curator than a professional curator. Artists seem to have a positive attitude towards your distinct curatorial practice.
JA Absolutely, I may provide some opportunities that other people do not. However, some artists work as traditional curators. When I do a show, like when I make a painting, I want to forget everything I think I know—create space, rather than closing it. How does an artist have more agency to make mistakes than a professional curator? As if someone who has an art history background does something wrong, the mistake is more noticed; but if the artist does it wrong, we say it is a signature, a conscious choice.
AB What kind of exhibition do you really not like?
JA Well there are many things I have prejudices against, like everyone else. It happens when I see a show that I’ll consider it a bad one, but afterwards I realize that there must be something interesting that I have missed. Unfortunately I did not see Vittorio Sgarbi’s exhibition at the 2011 Venice Biennale that no one liked, so I cannot say anything bad about it.
AB Essentially you are saying that is impossible to fail at an exhibition.
JA Fundamentally yes, it’s impossible. I do not think one can fail in anything; a complete failure is too ambitious. Curatorial practices contribute to knowledge, provide evidences for knowledge. We say that the world is an artist and that art is life. I think that it is the same for curators; we are all curators from the start. The curator’s advantage is that he or she enters a system of knowledge that is inherently collective.