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"Art’s Meaning is is always produced anew…"
A Conversation with Daniel Birnbaum


The 53rd Venice Biennale is awaited with great anticipation. At the heart of the event is Biennale director Daniel Birnbaum’s curated exhibition "Making Worlds," which includes a project by the architectural visionary Yona Friedman. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf spoke with Daniel Birnbaum shortly before the opening.


To be sure, he has every reason to feel stressed. In just about two weeks, the Venice Biennale opens under his directorship; after documenta, it’s probably the most important art exhibition in the world. Yet Daniel Birnbaum seems extraordinarily relaxed. This must have something to do with his many years of experience—including with Venice, as he co-directed the international section of the Biennale in 2003. The Swede, who was born in 1963, is rector of the Städelschule in Frankfurt as well as the director of the Portikus; he is considered one of the most influential figures on the international art scene. With his exhibition Fare Mondi/Making Worlds at this year’s Biennale, he calls attention to the process aspect of art from the sixties to the present day—particularly art’s interdisciplinary nature and the manner in which things arise.

An important project in the show is The Ville Spatiale—Visualisation of an Idea by architectural visionary and urban planner Yona Friedman, born 1923 in Budapest. Together with his students, Friedman has installed a grid structure of wire cable; hovering above the exhibition, participants have inserted their own models into it. The materials are simple and the ideas democratic: the installation refers back to Friedman’s Ville Spatiale, a kind of megastructure stretching over existing cities that he developed in the nineteen-fifties. His architectural utopias have made Friedman into an art star: he was invited to documenta 11 in 2002 and participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time in 2003. In 2008, together with students of the Städelschule, he realized a site-specific installation at the Portikus in Frankfurt that was sponsored by the Deutsche Bank Foundation. His latest work in Venice continues this collaboration and is once again supported by Deutsche Bank.

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: Wonderful, Mr. Birnbaum, that you found time to talk about Yona Friedman so shortly before the opening. It must be all very stressful right now for you with setting up and everything.

Daniel Birnbaum: It is, actually. But the Friedman work is in fact already installed. Often everything here is done in the final week, but I'm familiar with that already. I participated in a Biennale once before, as a curator. It can be really shocking to walk through the exhibition spaces ten days before the opening, because in some areas there is nothing installed yet, but that is how it is. Here in Venice, right now during the final run-up everything is a little hectic.

In this year's Biennale exhibition Making Worlds, the architect Yona Friedman will play a very central role. What makes Friedman's work so relevant for you?

Yona Friedman will soon turn eighty-seven, and he is somebody in whom many young artists take a great interest right now. He was working in the then young state of Israel in the 1950s. But then he increasingly became a critic, author, and visionary who developed very important approaches to architecture and to the idea of new cities - to the question of what the built world might be in the future and the role technology and communication will play in it. Actually, I'm not quite sure what his position in the current architectural debate is, but in art, his current impact is very clear indeed: Olafur Eliasson is very influenced by him, but also younger artists like Thomas Saraceno from Argentinia, who came to Frankfurt to study with the British architect Peter Cook at the Städelschule.

So we are dealing with a current that goes far beyond traditional thinking in architecture.

Precisely. Friedman doesn't stand alone. For example, the group Archigram and Cedric Price were also very influential. They, like Friedman, are not just concerned with architecture in the classic sense, but also with what a city can be, how one can built with new, simple materials, and also whether a tree is also a piece of architecture. So these are very broadly conceived questions that were debated. Many of the most important sources of inspiration were people who are no longer alive today. But that is fortunately different in Friedman's case. Although he is of course quite an old gentleman, he is completely enthusiastic and really likes working with young people. And it was particularly nice to see how he did that here in Venice. He was here for only a few days, but he was right in the middle of things, and the students built the installation with him.

And contributed their own ideas.

Friedman is the anti-totalitarian architect par excellence. He doesn't want to dictate to people how they should live. That is actually difficult for an architect who normally simply builds a house for somebody. In contrast to that, Friedman develops a kind of vocabulary, an alphabet, or a toolbox that helps you to realise your own ideas.

He also speaks of recipes.

Exactly. He presents possibilities in a democratic spirit and supports people in putting something together for themselves. This democratic and self-determined approach is of course difficult to realise in the real world, where people usually deal with houses and buildings that are tied to very limiting planning requirements and a high degree of logistics. But in the experimental context of an exhibition, it becomes possible to develop completely different ideas much more independently. And then Friedman comes in and says, 'Well, I wouldn't have done it like this at all, but I think it is very good'. (Laughs) So the twelve students realised the project very freely.

Were all the participants from Frankfurt, where Yona Friedman had realised a similar project with students at Portikus in 2008?

Not all of them, but several. Funnily enough, there were quite a few Italians. Friedman's close colleague Hanna Hildebrandt knows a lot of people, even here in Venice. Fortunately Deutsche Bank supports us, but even with that support, such a project with ten to twelve young people would have been extremely expensive. We couldn't have realised it if the students had not been able to stay with friends for very little money. Due to the material and the necessary infrastructure, the installation was very costly. So the project was carried along very much by the enthusiasm and dedication of the participants; they simply lived their dreams for two weeks and built the installation together. This actually resulted in a kind of second floor in the Arsenale that also fulfils a function in the exhibition. Although the Arsenale is monumental, in a certain way it is also a bit monotonous if you have been there often - you walk through this drawn-out building from room to room.

How did Friedman react to this?

With this installation floating above the exhibition, Friedman and his team created a new situation that is advantageous for works of art that have somewhat more intimate formats. So we created a space that is not just a Friedman space, but a space full of associations. Underneath his work, there are works by the Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna or Carsten Höller that also contain architectural references. This is a section with a great many works, all of which in their different ways have something to do with the world of Yona Friedman, without however merely illustrating it. It is wonderful that we have this second floor in one of the largest spaces of the Arsenale. Of course you can't climb up there, but we will illuminate it in such a way that it will be at least as important as the ground floor.

Friedman, whose ideas of a flexible architecture exerted great influence on the Centre Pompidou, once said in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist: 'A museum is also an image of the world.' If that were also to apply to a project like "Making Worlds", which state of the world does this exhibition depict?

I wouldn't say that the exhibition tries to draw an image of the world. Rather, my team and I want to offer spaces to the artists where they can build or design their worlds. I think this is a rather constructive and optimistic exhibition - but hopefully not a naïve one. There have been too many exhibitions - some of them curated by me - that exuded a rather melancholy mood. There have been a lot of shows, books, and theories that addressed the end of history, the end of the subject, the end of art, the end of painting. Perhaps this is an exhibition that addresses both our current world and a future world we don't know yet.

A special focus at this year's Biennale is on artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, Yoko Ono, John Baldessari, or Blinky Palermo, who all in very different ways helped to expand our notion of art. At the same time, these positions became relevant in the politically agitated 1960s and 1970s - a time when art had not yet become a mass phenomenon, but when the extended notion of art still stirred people and caused agitated public debates. Does such a look back also speak of a yearning for a stronger social impact of art?

I can answer that with a very clear 'yes'. We all know that over the last few years, art has received much more publicity through the media. But it also clearly became a lifestyle phenomenon, and especially the financial aspect had a very strong effect on the entire art world. This is changing right now. And that raises the question, 'What will become of art now? What role will it play?' Of course we can't answer that with one single exhibition. But we can remind the public of positions that embodied not just the hope of an art with social and political impact, but where that actually worked. I hope that these positions will not just be seen as a nostalgic part of the exhibition. Rather, the point is that a work of art cannot be reduced once and for all to one meaning. The meaning is always produced anew. Not by curators, art historians, or critics, but mainly by artists. Somebody like Gordon Matta-Clark, who God knows is not unknown and whose works are very present today, is re-read and reinterpreted by subsequent generations. These retroactive processes are especially interesting. Not only is Gordon Matta-Clark important for Rirkrit Tiravanija, but Rirkrit Tiravanija is also important for Gordon Matta-Clark.




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