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Interview with MCA Senior Curator Francesco Bonami

going global
while remaining rooted

By Irmgard Hemelhainz

Francesco Bonami is an internationally known curator, writer and critic. He is the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago. From 1990 to 1997, he was the United States editor of Flash Art International, Italy; a contributing writer for numerous art periodicals and international publications, and author of many museum and artist's catalogues.

In 1998 he curated the exhibition Unfinished History, bringing together contemporary artists from 16 countries, whose work deals with economic, historical, social and political contemporary issues, blurring the boundaries of nationality, race, and gender. A central part of the exhibition was to question the concepts of center and periphery and the boundaries of Western culture and their relationship to non-Western cultures. The artists represented different languages and theories, raising questions about the dichotomy in the relationships between the East and the West. Such is the case of Gabriel Orozco, a Mexican artist on whom Bonami has written extensively. Orozco is one example of a global artist who is neither quoting nor being inspired by Mexican history, but who constantly reinvents and reinterprets his roots, which could have been nourished by any part of the globe.

This interview took place at the MCA Chicago, on October 22, 2001.

In "The Mere Interchange," your essay for the catalog for Aperto 1993, you wrote: "Each individual and each artist is aware of the pack that surrounds him and of which he is a member. He senses the directions and hurls himself in the face of destiny. In this pack, salvation means losing one's identity through [an] undertaking of exchange with other identities." What happens then to the artist's identity? How does this exchange take place?

The identity problem is rooted in the fact that in the past 10 years there has been a shift from a local or ethnic division in terms of groups of artists that have been entering into a broader ground, which before we used to call "international." Now we call it the "global state of the arts," and the issue about the exchange of identity is a very difficult one to establish. As I went to the Yokohama Triennial, I noted that there is still a clear division between the international artists and the global artists. There is a group of international artists who are moving from one exhibition to the other and they have a specific language. They say that they adapt to each circumstance (exhibition) but, in fact, I think that their work is much the same. And then you have all these other artists, for example from Vietnam or China, who developed an autonomous identity that is also international, and has become international with the use of international information and means of production, like technology. So you have now these two parallel worlds that I believe are merging at times and are also being separated. There are artists who have maintained [their] own ways of speaking and their own language in terms of aesthetic production, and then there are other artists who have a kind of international style (sort of like in the architecture [of] the ' 50s); one is from Iceland, one is from Thailand, and another is from China, but in fact they all have this kind of international style that is very easy to transplant from one place to the other without really rooting itself within the context of where it is presented.

Could we speak about context specificity? How important is it and how important has it become in presenting the work of an international artist?

Within the matter of concept specificity it varies. There are artists who work in a given context and build the work according to it; other artists are in a way adapting an existing language when the context changes. We have here in the exhibition The Short Century an artist from Benin, Georges Adeagbo, who has a room that is moving from one exhibition place to the other: from Munich to Berlin, from Berlin to Chicago. And the space is, as most of the material, the same. But it is adapted to the place where the exhibition takes place, as he uses things from the local newspaper, so in a way visually and contextually the work manipulates the impact depending on the viewer.

Do you think that for the artists, to make themselves global, they have to defer to Western culture?

In the past I think it was a kind of a requirement, in the sense that mostly Western curators, or curators working in the West, were trying to fill the gap of different local realities, looking for artists that were, to a certain extent, mirroring the way Western artists were producing their art. Now, as I saw in Yokohama, there are people who work in their own countries and develop an autonomous language without the need to refer to Western models, which are absolutely parallel, and have the same quality as any work produced in the West.

How do you think Mexican artists, who were considered before as "Mexican curious" or "exotic," were perceived when there was a tendency (before the 1990s) of the West to look for the "other" in works of art?

There is the tendency to look for the exotic, still, I think, but less than before. But I believe that sometimes it is the fault of the artist, this kind of artist is everywhere, from Italy to Germany, to Mexico, to China. These artists are refusing to accept that the language is changing, so they keep insisting that their language relates to their identities and they don't update the language from the transforming society. It is a kind of mental provincialism that they have within themselves. I also believe that many artists have an obsolete frame of mind; there are many artists who insist on using a certain way of relating with their reality. It is like a writer insisting on writing in ancient English or in Latin because they think it is a better way to talk about the world, but in the world the way we communicate with people is through common language. It is not necessarily because of the people looking for ethnic artists.

Is that what keeps them outside of the mainstream in art?

Yes, they stay isolated within their own mind, I mean; it is a form of psychopathy.

Can we speak about the magazine, Flash Art International, and the way global art was starting to be perceived in the early 1990s?

When I was the American editor of Flash Art I don't remember the way the idea came about to do a section called "Global Art." It was before we were even beginning to talk about globalism in art, in the way we talk about it now. I think it came after 1993, after the Aperto 1993, where there were group shows with a lot of curators from different parts of the world who brought different artists from different contexts. By producing this little section [inside the magazine] we were not really aware of the implications of using this "global" term. It didn't have the relevance it has now and the way we define globalization within the arts today.

What makes Gabriel Orozco and his work achieve the status of "Global Artist"? We spoke about there being a common language: Can we say that he has developed this ability? What is his relationship to Western civilization and its codes of representation? Could that be part of his Mexican roots in the way that they have become more "Westernized" since he moved to the United States?

Well, I think that his way of working is very interesting. When he moved away from Mexico and based himself in the United States, he transformed his language, not changed it. [He] transformed it according to a different context maintaining certain characteristics related to the place where he was coming from. And then after he matured [to] a certain language he felt the necessity to look backwards and go back into the origins of his production and [then he] started to get his balance. I think that he has a global style, he is definitely one of the artists, and better than others. He has been able to carry on a certain identity and adapted it, without simply capitalizing on the Mexican identity, but trying to insert it in a larger context, in a larger discourse.

What do you believe are the implications of Okwui Enwezor being chosen to curate Documenta XI within this global context that we are living in now?

Well, Documenta was created after the Second World War, to regenerate the culture of Germany and for them to start talking to the world differently through the language of culture. It started as a very Eurocentric exhibition and has been carried on in retrospect for a long time. Then, with the show of Catherine David, it was the first time Documenta opened up the discourse to more worldwide issues. With Okwi Enwezor as the first non-European curator, and as the first African curator, I think that the message has become obvious: Documenta has upgraded itself [from being thought of as] just an international show, to a show that addresses the convergence of issues that concern the whole world. And so, with the appointment of a young African non-European curator, I think that it is clear that the Documenta people and the committee who selected the curator understood the importance of the step in that direction, and it became both a step in a direction of quality and an intellectual direction. It was also a marketing decision, because quality, content and a broader discourse were joined with the impact that Enwezor has in the media. All these things together raise the level of the curatorial challenge.

Could we speak about making a parallel between English being used as a global tool for communicating and the global language developed by artists?

We were mentioning this argot, a kind of slang that Victor Hugo spoke about and that was used by the low class when speaking to each other. I think that artists are constantly hybridizing English ... reaching always different purposes, within a more personal and a more identity-specific direction. The same is with the language of the arts. People are using more and more elaborate ways of using different mediums, different ways of talking about different contents. So, more than an international global language, you have more of a hybrid language that is not less strong than the pure language, but is actually more interesting. It creates a different level of communication; people are more outside their families and more in contact with each other [this way]; they forget about their own territory and try to be more open.

Do you think hybridization of languages is going all the ways, that the Western influence on the non-Western, and the non-Western influence on the Western is increasing?

You know, the West has a little more [of an] aggressive attitude toward the other realities, but in spite of that, we can see that there is a broader dialogue. People in different places of the world, as in Brazil, with the Antropofagia movement, they cannibalize different cultural aspects to create their own music, language, literature... I think that there is a way to absorb different aspects from distinct cultures and transform what we get, and the non-West is being more and more aggressive in taking things from the West. We talked about being timid, about feeling intimidated by the fact of borrowing elements from different cultures, but I think that is changing.

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