Sean O’Toole: When you were appointed curator of Frieze Projects in late 2015 you listed ‘diversity, transformation, hospitality and otherness’ as aspirations. To lightly paraphrase American politician Sarah Palin, how’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?
Raphael Gygax: Let me give you an example. British artist Julie Verhoeven’s project in 2016 was an intervention in the fair’s restrooms: she changed the carpeting, played with gender-codified colours, played music, hung colourful vinyls – creating a gender neutral environment full of pleasure. On the afternoon of the opening day I saw several elderly collector couples be slightly confused at first, giggle like teenagers and then enter the toilet together. They had fun! Now I don’t think that they will become activists for gender-neutral toilets. But I’m pretty sure that they will reflect back on this special moment later in their life. It’s inevitable. I would call this ‘transformational’. There were plenty of those moments last year. Though with her profound interest in international politics Sarah Palin would have probably been more interested in the presentation of the Operndorf Afrika (Opera Village Africa), an arts project initiated in Burkina Faso by German filmmaker and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief (1960–2010). He proposed ‘Learning from Africa,’ by which he meant that we should try to find a new approach to life by engaging with Africa.
SO: Schlingensief’s proposal reminds me of another, Adam Szymczyk’s motto of ‘Learning from Athens’ for documenta 14. Learning involves crossing many different boundaries. What have you learnt from Frieze Projects that you will take back and use at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich, where you’re a curator?
RG: Learning is linked to flexibility. As we know today from neuroplasticity, the brain is not a fixed organ but a flexible structure that is capable of ‘growing’ and ‘changing’. To work for different institutions, which all have their own parameters, requires flexibility, but it also means your brain is constantly challenged. Eventually you might even learn something! Learning is often a reciprocal process, and I have had such a great privilege to work with such a fantastic team. Maybe it’s not what I learnt ‘from’ Frieze Projects, but ‘with’.
SO: The eleven artists at Frieze London this year come from Angola, Argentina, Columbia, South Africa, South Korea, Switzerland, United States and United Kingdom. Diversity is an important theme for you, but what connections and links are you hoping audiences will make between the respective methods and practices of the invited artists?
RG: All of this year’s artists deal with questions around the idea of ‘communitas’ (which anthropologist Victor Turner defined as an acute spirit of togetherness), the construction of collective identities, and how we can stay ‘ourselves’. An important idea for me was German migration researcher Mark Terkessidis’s term Interkultur, meaning something like cultural accesibility for the individuals of a pluralist society, which he introduces to counter the washed out idea of ‘intergration’ as assimilation. In an iteration of their long-term project Antarctica, British-Argentine artist couple Lucy + Jorge Orta discuss questions of nationality, environment and peaceful coexistence. Swiss artist Marc Bauer’s drawing installation is informed by a series of workshops he conducted with the Young People’s Programme from Peckham Platform, a non-profit here in London. South Korean artist couple MOON Kjungwon & JEON Joonho’s new body of work is based on artistic research into Taesung, a small farming community known as Freedom Village, based in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, an isolated no-man’s-land measuring four-kilometres wide that came into being at the end of the Korean War in 1953. There will be plenty of connecting moments.
SO: Bogota-born Carlos Motta and Leeds-born Georgina Starr will both stage performance interventions. What in particular draws you to their respective practices?
RG: Every one of this year’s Projects has a performative character, in different gradations. In Georgina Starr’s case, her work has this strong narrative moment, which is nourished by the perception of everyday life and the image of the artist’s role in society. I think she’s a seminal figure for a younger generation of artists – especially British ones – that work in the field of performance art; paradoxically, her work has had almost no exposure in London over the last few years. When I invited Carlos Motta he suggested collaborating with art writer John Arthur Peetz and choreographer-dancer Carlos Maria Romero for a bigger performance piece inspired by queer manifestos from the 1960s to the present. At Frieze London the artist collective SPIT! will do a performance that includes several performers and dancers addressing sexual and gender identity and politics. I think there’s an absolute urgency to such discussions right now.
SO: Performance has energised the scope and meaning of art as a practice. Thinking about the art fair context, though, how does one meaningfully insert performance without it lapsing into ephemeral entertainment or theatre?
RG: Honestly, I don’t think I can make these clear distinctions. Or let me say, I think that performance practice as we can experience it within the ‘visual arts system’ today can also embrace elements of theatre and entertainment (and many other things). Starr’s performance includes some theatrical elements, but they definitely help to create a very dense atmosphere. South African artist Donna Kukama will create an outdoor-installation, which resembles a pop-up herbal garden-republic. Visitors are invited to participate, discuss their emotions and will be rewarded. It can be read in terms of the spectre of neoliberalism and its techniques of power/control – so called ‘psychopolitics’. Kukama’s work however embraces these serious topics in a playful and entertaining way. I try to view these things more like spices in cooking. You can’t cook a dish just with a single spice.
I try to view these things more like spices in cooking. You can't cook a dish just with a single spice.
SO: You are part of the jury that decides the Frieze Artist Award. What drew you to the 2017 winner, Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda?
RG: The Frieze Artist Award is an international open call for artists at the beginning of their career who want to make a major site-specific work at the fair. This year we had over 500 applications from over 50 countries. I read them all and was amazed by the creativity of proposals. This year’s jury – Cory Arcangel, Eva Birkenstock, Tom Eccles and myself – awarded Kiluanji Kia Henda who repeatedly raises the issue of personal identity and heritage in his critical practice. His work often re-examines and negotiates the wounds left in Africa by European domination, particularly in his home country Angola, which was occupied until 1975 by Portugal, and then became mired in a cruel civil war that only ended in 2002. For Kia Henda it will be the first time that he is able to realize such a big installation – and it’s also the first time the award goes to an artist from a peripheral art region.
SO: In 1989 interview with curator Jean-Hubert Martin, art historian Benjamin Buchloh remarked how ‘the question of cultural decentralization’ had emerged as ‘increasingly important’. Nearly three decades on, how is the art world doing with the project of cultural decentralization?
RG: I don’t want to go into numbers – I recommend sociologists Ulf Wuggenig and Olav Velthuis for anyone who does – but we all know that the situation is far from equal. Larger galleries still don’t represent as many female as male artists, and the ones they do are already well advanced in their careers (or dead). The proportions drop even more drastically when you look for non-white artists, and, I am sure, non-heteronormative sexualities too. I think it’s great that many galleries have started to represent more African-American artists, but this needs to prove itself as more than a gesture, and show continuity. I don’t think the latent pressure for quotas is a bad thing; insofar that it creates more visibility and diversity, it is positive. But correction in the imbalances won’t be achieved by a one-off action. To change cultural hegemony requires a big breath, and the project never ends. Obviously the increasingly conservative political climate at this time will also have an impact on the art field.
SO: People talk about this political era as one of ‘post-truth’. You were an early promoter of Cory Arcangel, whose practice has variously been described as ‘post-conceptual’ and ‘post-internet’. Will this year’s Frieze London and its Projects mark any other kind of ‘post’?
RG: As an art historian by training I have this tendency to contextualize an artist’s work, understand their historical roots and form ‘family trees’. So of course I can understand this urge to ‘name’ and label. But today, after the end of the big narratives, art history is viewed as a flexible structure that needs to be constantly revised. In the end all that exists is plurality: art histories – not a single (hi)story. Still, to quote Joan Didion, we tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Frieze Projects, supported by the LUMA Foundation, take place at Frieze London every day of the fair. Find out more about this year's commissions.
Main image: Georgina Starr, Moment Memory Monument, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Alcantra. Image: © Andrea Fasani