Walker Art Center

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Pondering “America”
Two European transplants discuss curating the country’s top survey of art

By Paul Schmelzer

“It’s impossible to be bound by national borders when one talks about aesthetics. Nationality is not an aesthetic category, and I truly hope it never will be.” —Philippe Vergne

This year’s edition of the Whitney Biennial, opening in New York City on March 2, is a historic one: it’s the first to be titled and the first organized without an American-born curator. Subtitled Day for Night, the survey is organized by the Walker’s French-born chief curator and deputy director Philippe Vergne and, from the Whitney, British-born curator Chrissie Iles. During an e-mail interview with Walker editor Paul Schmelzer, the pair discussed what to expect in this signature exhibition of American art, starting with its name, which was inspired by the title of François Truffaut’s 1973 film La Nuit américaine.

Day for Night: The title has an “up is down” quality, which to me fits these times marked by the realities of war and terrorism, and when government torture and spying are actually open for debate. You’ve explained the title in terms of “false light,” but is there merit to my interpretation? Or is it also about contrasts—about how biennial viewers will be led through moments of darkness and light?

Truffaut’s original title was La Nuit américaine, which refers to the artifice of shooting a night scene during the day. Literally it means “the American night,” but if you look at it metaphorically, it could mean “American dark ages”—a time before the enlightenment and modernity, when, for example, religion was a higher authority than scientific logic or any philosophy that embraced doubt. If you apply that to the present times, it might become a question, one that [French sociologist] Bruno Latour in his philosophy of science voiced by writing “We have never been modern.”

We picked this title because of how Truffaut, part of the Nouvelle Vague, was commenting on the antagonism between Hollywood film culture and the more independent French film culture (or, generally, the non-American one) that was politically heading in a different direction. Since we’re both European, it’s our way of signifying, between the lines, a cultural difference instead of an antagonism. American and European cultures have been sleeping together for too long now—pretending that they are not constitutive of each other would be disingenuous.

And Truffaut’s film is about the making of a film. It’s a work of art that contains, in its making, the critique of its own “being” and format. In one way it clearly matches attempts by many of the exhibition artists to reconsider aesthetic models and strive to identify other ways of processing a cultural practice.

Has the fact that neither of you are American affected the exhibition?

It probably has, but the goal was not to go against the grain. We’ve both decided to live here, so being anti-American would be to admit that we are absolute morons. If you can consider us American—one of us has been in New York for nearly 10 years, and the other in Minneapolis for the same amount of time—we are American differently. So we’re providing two very different ways of discovering and understanding America. In Philippe’s case, more than a French person curating the biennial, he might be the first “Minnesotan” to curate it. And that’s very exciting.

In discussing the biennial, Chrissie has described the artifice of an American culture preoccupied with things dark, lurid, and somehow primal. It sounds a bit dreary. Will the biennial be any fun?

Fun? Why not cool? Fun and cool might be overrated. But it might be about pleasure. One of the problems with Western culture right now is that we killed pleasure by thinking that fun and cool were better. Now we’re waking up with a bad hangover, frustrated and still thirsty, to realize that the party was a promotional event for a new, cheap, ambient fragrance.

Often the biennial showcases emerging U.S.–based artists, but this time you’ve got older artists (Marilyn Minter, Ed Paschke) as well as European artists. What was your rationale? Is it an homage to older artists or is there a link between their work and the work of younger artists?

In terms of the “footprint” of their work, these artists are still young. But in a way, it is a tribute. If you take Paschke or Steven Parrino, it‘s a testament to the influence they had on both of us first and on a younger generation. It also recognizes those “artists’ artists” who weren’t getting the visibility we think they deserved. We tried to identify aesthetic families. So when listening to younger artists telling us how this or that artist was important to them, we decided to include them. Again, it helps to give younger artists a larger context to read their work.

Regarding non-American artists, it’s impossible to be bound by national borders when one talks about aesthetics. Nationality is not an aesthetic category, and I truly hope it never will be. It‘s even more relevant to think this way when America is involved, lest this country become more a “nation” than an “ideal.”

Your process differed from past biennials because you traveled together instead of independently, and you went beyond the usual art-world hot spots to visit artists in Tijuana, San Juan, Dallas, and elsewhere. What did you learn from those trips?

We’ve learned a lot from each other. It’s a blessing to work with a curator who has such broad and unique knowledge and who is willing to share it. We have very different methodologies, and I think we fed off each other. It was fascinating during studio visits. We’ve done more than 300 over five months, and 95 percent of them we did together. It was the best way to know each other and to have nonstop conversation about the project. Also, we learned about America, and as the title says, it’s “day for night,” with bright light at one moment and pitch-black darkness the next.

We also joked that we learned a lot about each other. Chrissie doesn’t drive, so one day, lost somewhere in the San Fernando Valley in California, I told her that I will call the biennial “Driving Miss Chrissie.” She replied, “If you do that, then I’ll call it ‘Driving Miss Chrissie Crazy’!”

The biennial is notorious for being controversial. Will you deliver on that count this time around?

It all depends on what you mean by controversial. We didn’t attempt to. It shouldn’t be a goal. If it was, it’d be a disingenuous, tired, over-cooked 20th-century strategy. But if questions and discussions emerge from it, we’ll have done our job.

Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne, co-curators of the 2006 Whitney Biennial

Photo © 2005 Charles Eshelman