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An interview with Martí Manen, curator of the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Bienale


01 June 2015
This month's topic: The Biennale in layers

An interview with Martí Manen, curator of the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Bienale

Martí Manen, (Barcelona, 1976) is the curator of the Spanish Pavilion in the Venice Biennale 2015. His project, titled Los sujetos (The subjects), reconsiders the figure of Dalí as the invention of a public image, through new productions by Cabello / Carceller, Francesc Ruiz and Pepo Salazar. We talk to him about the production process and “what next?” after the adventure of the Biennale.

The selection committee calls for a project for Venice, what’s your point of departure? Was it a project you were already thinking about?

I didn’t have anything pre-prepared for something as particular as the pavilion in Venice. I’d been going over Dalí in my mind for ages and it seemed to me the best place to work on it in the way I wanted. I was aware it would be problematic and could even be considered polemical, but then Venice already has something of that. It’s the pavilion, but it’s also Spain and you can’t avoid a crisis situation. It’s also a Europe in question, an international context for art, with the Biennale’s historic past and the pavilion’s imminent past. Imminent in Venice being 15 years.

Once Dalí became the point of departure, why these artists? What is their common nexus?

I’m interested in their work and in the type of asynchronous dialogue that can be produced with Dalí. There are no doubt artists who fall much more within his line, but I wanted to propose a subject around possible bastardised genealogies, to think of connections even though they might not be apparent. I’m not interested in tranquillity. There is no evident nexus between these three artistic proposals and that’s something I was also looking for: the idea was not to make a homogenous pavilion so much as to show paradoxes and differences, to show complexity and power from different angles. So we have Dalí who sets the tone, wagering with the sensuality of the complex and the dark in the social construction of his image –that serves to generate a context of private liberty – and then three projects that enable a contemporary reading of this first subject precisely for what they are. Dalí is read in a contemporary key and Cabello/Carceller, Francesc Ruiz and Pepo Salazar are read in the present as well as in relation to a possibly resituated past. You can like it or not, but the general tone of the pavilion is distinct from many others where a significant conservatism reigns.

For me the title is very much a statement. It says a lot about Dalí as a machine of difference, of multiplicity, although contradictory and politically contemptible. What does he mean for you?

For me it’s a lot of possibilities (to start off it’s plural), but also something focussed. The subjects are the ones who perform the story they are the ones who define it, even though they later disappear in the “objective” distance of their narration. The subjects are also the characters that move in a plot, who are psychologically charged. It is no doubt somewhat stupid, but I’m fascinated by the construction of certain types of character and their presentation in the North American narrative of postmodernity up until today. There is also something of this, this idea of construction, the idea of being someone observed, accepting the distance this implies, something akin to the relation of power marked by scientific investigation. A subject is also a theme. And yes, Dalí interests me as a subject, as something unstable to be observed. A subject can be contemptible and you can carry on regardless, a contemptible person is something else.
I find it interesting that for you it’s a machine of difference. It’s important, as it’s something I’m passionate about in Dalí and also in Cabello/Carceller, Francesc Ruiz and Pepo Salazar: they all have something like a foot that falls outwith everything, something that really irritates others.

The time for production has been tight. What’s it like working in Venice? How is the Pavilion managed and how does it function?

With the artists, we decided right from the start we would enjoy the process and wouldn’t fall into endless griping. Working in Venice is an adventure and you have to be patient, as time there runs differently. A city where any transport needs to be done by boat, with low bridges and rising and falling water levels to bear in mind, with levels of humidity that obliges one to really think about what materials to use, in a pavilion which when it’s closed doesn’t exist…

The form of management has changed slightly in the last few editions but in our case the structure has been the following: the pavilion is run by AECID. One person there, who passes part of the year in Venice (so they have the on site know-how) is responsible for production; another person deals with administration and production from Madrid; another person, an intern, supported these tasks, in Madrid, and one person directed and defended the project institutionally. This is the working nucleus, to which one has to add my role as curator, which out of necessity is a very active one. Then there is an agreement with AC/E that participates economically in the project and entrusts the publication of the catalogue to an editorial, in this case Turner. So there is a small, centralised team, where everyone works really hard and evidently ends up exhausted. You have to be really careful with the emotional part and understand the constant emotional strain. Add to this the charming animosity of the context and the desire of many to stick their oar in. I’m not saying the pavilion can’t be criticised but I do believe it’s amazing that it comes through and is a worthwhile result. In fact we handled the setting up quite well and in the end were sufficiently calm. The night before the opening, the personnel of the German pavilion worked all through the night. Russia didn’t make it, the large piece by Carsten Höller for the Giardini also didn’t make it… it’s not easy for to things turn out right when there are so many loose ends that aren’t under your control. Venice is a city of traders, who know you need them, so they always win

The transparency of realizing several presentations beforehand is surprising: on the one hand the pavilion has always played with secrecy or mystery. On the other, to choose independent spaces for the presentations reveals sensitivity towards the frameworks from where the proposals arose, towards involving other sectors not legitimated by the high spheres of contemporary Spanish art.

For me it was important to create links with the context and generate some previews that would also form part of the pavilion. Thanks to Francesc Ruiz his preview was able to take place in El Palomar and afterwards we continued with the Salón. Madrid and Barcelona from their most independent places. And in Venice the people from El Palomar also formed part of Francesc’s performance in the Giardini. It’s true there was the idea to exercise transparency and share through difference. Those who were in those prior moments had a lot of information regarding the ways we were working, the way the budget functioned, what issues we were dealing with…much of the lack of knowledge I see in some of the people of more traditional criticism doesn’t appear in these people who have a less public voice or who came to these prior moments that formed part of the project.

What’s more, I thought the intensity of the working time also needed some moments of interim presentation, in order to be able to evaluate what stage we were at, and how the proposal might be received. And here there was a major clash: one part of the sector really understood and participated in it; another part didn’t want to see what was happening. And what was happening was that the code was on the table, the transparency was total and we were moreover voluntarily vulnerable, something far removed from the habitually entrenched positions of strength. This relates to something nuclear in the pavilion, in the sort of approach to the content, from a feminist optic and parallel to the theories surrounding gender. For a while now I’ve been insisting on intersectional reconciliation. It’s also on the screen in the pavilion: the idea of the archive is another, how to work with historical trajectories is different, the presence of the voices is also distinct.

The central space has been polemical; it’s the one that converts Dalí into a deformed mirror and brings together the curatorial reading of the pavilion. I personally liked the fact it wasn’t a thesis or a narrative or a documentary, so much as a choral, almost vernacular display. This is risky, a bit like mixing red with pink, as they rarely go well together.

Imagine this white room with a grey floor: it’s an archive exhibition, with the rigour the archive calls for in approach. No, here the desire is another, the desire is there be a sort of sensual approach that implies an emotional contact. Pink and red don’t function together… so pink and red. In this way we see what we take for granted as well as what we’ve self-imposed on ourselves on an aesthetic level. And it’s all very transparent it’s almost a conceptual form of montage. There are mixtures of times past and gazes towards the present, the Dalí of American television and NODO appear, the critical gaze from institutional positions appears, as well a more intimate gaze from these same positions. And in the central part the questioning of Dalí by a feminist writer over a week in New York. As well as a series of objects/documents that I’m particularly interested in, such as the Dalí News, Gala’s invitation card so that Dalí could enter the castle of Púbol, or not, a historic image of Dalí with Amanda Lear, as well as the declaration of independence of the imagination that Dalí wrote after various problems in New York. It’s not as if it its very full of material, they are simply a few clues to carry on following the variability of the subject.

Francesc Ruiz realizes a very strong piece, something I can’t imagine without the debate about censorship in a Spanish public institution. On the other hand, it’s the most contextualised piece, attacking corruption in Italy head on.

Francesc Ruiz manages to enter by way of a tangential history to analyse at the same time a contextual and global situation: the relation of the economy with the media, the relation of this combination with the definition of identity. And through a subjective layer in which it’s possible to manipulate the contents. Its politics, but it is an advanced politics. It’s history but a lost history. It’s the Internet but is pre-internet. It was also important that he developed a performance during the first week occupying the whole Giardini. We were outwith the territory and it worked really well.

Cabello y Carceller formalised the most classic of the projects, in the sense of filming in situ and the display of the devices they used to make it. Their pre-recorded performance contaminated with queer the whole pavilion as an institution.

Cabello/Carceller in some way make a manifesto. They put everything they want to say in their piece and here lies the need for the lack of definition in identity, there’s a coloured person sneaking by night into the pavilion (if we think in terms of representation: how many coloured people are there in Spanish art? What imaginary are we constructing? And the same can be said of parliament, which is basically mono-racial). There are the frontiers, there is the relation between politics and the party, between identity and the struggle, there are various positions at the margins of the norm and there is the pavilion itself and its history as a representational context.

Pepo Salazar manages to abridge everything his production. I believe it’s audacious in his capacity to bring together everything from his recent production in the sense of a machine of representation that negates the very possibility of representing anything.

Pepo Salazar makes a condensed piece, with layers and layers of material and information. With no need to seek a narrative but working in an almost linguistic manner. And once again it’s an advanced politics, outwith what we traditionally know as politics. It’s about consumption, a typology of content, of mixing references and moments without no holds barred; its about generating a situation not to be understood so much as to be noted, which is extremely brave. There is a conceptual, emotional and perceptive explanation for why each artist is in a specific place in the exhibition. The queer contamination, you comment on with Cabello/Carceller regarding the pavilion, has to appear in a second instance and act like a boomerang, as such, it is launched from behind. The difficulty of access in Pepo Salazar has to be evident in the first moment, the voluntary disintegration of Francesc Ruiz and the time the brutality of the information in his work calls for, requires an intermediate state…

Curiously, the first criticism prior to its realisation was that it was selected for being the least political of the projects presented. What does a queer pavilion as a form of national representation mean? Or, to put it another way, what is queer here?

There is a change –or the possibility of a change – in the political. And queer is key. As is feminism. It’s about elements that have always been left out of traditional politics as in this there are many more important things than the people situated outwith the framework. So whatever has a political vocabulary that is other than the one that has always been is scorned from supposedly political positions. The queer, responding to your question, is therefore as much a way of looking at history as a way of defining and selecting. It’s to be found in a series of subjects that appear, as well as in the general mood of the pavilion. It’s to be found in understanding performativity as a political decision, in assuming complexity as a point of departure and negotiation, in not permitting preconceived ideas and in not accepting typical modes of functioning, as what’s “normal”. Evidently, to open the code before opening the pavilion in itself falls into this same pack, as does giving an answer to anyone who questions forms part of this attitude.

Manuel Segade is an independent curator from Spain, who despite having managed to work more beyond Spain than in it, still passesone month a year, at least, reduced to rice. Lately he’s been really interested in the way the performativity of curating can trigger new forms of institutionalism.

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