What can we expect from The Shed, the soon-to-open $500 million new cultural center on the far west side of Manhattan? The stated mission of the nonprofit is to commission, develop, and present original works of art across all disciplines, including projects that combine art forms in new and unexpected ways.
Like anything truly new, it’s hard to imagine what it will look like until it arrives. Amid intense curiosity—and no small amount of skepticism about the loftily-funded organization—the single biggest factor that seems to be driving fascination with and confidence in the project is CEO and artistic director Alex Poots, the forward-thinking veteran of the Manchester International Festival and Park Avenue Armory. Ahead of The Shed’s grand debut, we spoke to Poots about his ambitious plans and the big ideas behind the program.
The Shed CEO and artistic director Alex Poots (center) with staff. Image courtesy of The Shed.
1. Separating art into high and low is corrosive.
The Shed’s eclectic inaugural lineup includes contributions from figures as diverse as musician Björk, indie film director Boots Riley, and German painting legend Gerhard Richter. Poots says his childhood played a big role in shaping his view that art is no place for artificial distinctions between the elite and the masses. When he was learning to play the trumpet, “I was trained classically, but I played pop and jazz. They were all important to me, so there wasn’t a sense that one style was more precious than another. That’s something that has interested me through my entire career,” he says. “This idea of high art and low art I find really corrosive and patronizing.”
Poots also isn’t interested in making decisions based on what format artists are working in, how old or young they are, or how advanced they are in their craft. What’s important is their talent and how their work resonates in society—that holy communion between an artist, their work, and the public. “You can be a place for early career as well as more established artists,” he says. “Everything we do is seen through the prism of making work, commissioning it, and presenting it. There is a fluidity to that which is becoming more and more important… Things are not black and white.”
Founding artistic director and CEO of The Shed, Alex Poots. Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Shed.
2. True artistic freedom comes when one isn’t responsible to anyone in particular—other than the public.
The Shed famously began as a pet project of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was part of the original deal struck between the city and developers in 2005, when the city paved the way for the private Hudson Yards development of apartments, office space, and retail. Part of the agreement involved staking out city land for a non-profit cultural facility.
Poots remembers hearing Bloomberg and former deputy mayor of economic development Daniel Doctoroff, who is now The Shed’s board chair, say that they wanted an art center that would be unlike anything else in the city. “It should keep New York on the cutting edge and it should be complementary,” he recalls. “So from my perspective, that was a hallelujah moment. Because this wasn’t city leadership trying to come up with a vision for an arts center, which probably would not have been a good idea because it’s not their métier. It wasn’t a playground for private development. It was a civic responsibility to the city.”
The support from the city (which also came in the form of a $75 million grant) was supplemented by hundreds of millions of dollars in private donations. And the sum allowed the architects—Liz Diller, with David Rockwell—to create “the first building I’ve ever seen that really has almost everything you could ever want,” Poots says. The eight-story structure contains a movable outer shell that can create flexible indoor and outdoor event spaces, as well as a creative lab for artists, gallery spaces, and a theater and rehearsal space.
3. The best projects don’t follow an existing model.
Two and a half years ago, Poots asked Turner Prize-winning artist and Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen, who he has known and worked with for decades, to think of an idea for The Shed. McQueen, who works across media and slips seamlessly between big-budget Hollywood and the rarefied art world, seemed like a natural fit. Poots didn’t offer any restrictions. In turn, McQueen raised the notion of trying to imagine what the history of African American music would sound like. (“He hears very visually,” Poots explains. “He had this idea that he could see and hear a family tree.”)
While some curators might have pushed McQueen toward slightly more well-trod terrain, Poots instead consulted Maureen Mahon, an associate professor of music at New York University. Together, the trio built out a team for the project, including 27-time Grammy Award-winner Quincy Jones, producer Dion ‘No I.D.’ Wilson, A&R executive Tunji Balogun, and music director Greg Phillinganes. This all-star lineup will support 25 emerging musicians and special guests who kick off the performances on April 5. “Soundtrack for America,” the five-night concert event, “does encapsulate a lot of our ambitions,” Poots says. “It’s not binary.”
4. Prioritize outreach. It won’t just help the community—it will make your program better, too.
Poots describes it as a “gift of an opportunity” that when he arrived at The Shed three and a half years ago, “we had no building, no office, no staff, no checkbook.” One of his first hires was Tamara McCaw (who is now chief civic program officer), with whom he developed a program with a group of performers from Brooklyn who are experts in flxn, a form of street dance with roots in Jamaican bruk up. Working with the 16-person collective, whose members range in age from 18 to 26 years old, Poots and McCaw developed a three-year program that taught students in schools across the five boroughs this particular style of dance activism. They quietly expanded the program to ten, then 20, and now 30 schools. “We’re trying to show or enable these young people to realize the power that the arts can have not only on their own bodies and talents but also on their own destiny,” Poots says. And what resonates in schools helps him understand what might work back at The Shed.
Poots is under no illusions. Of The Shed’s admittedly ambitious programming, he says: “I know we’re going to fail sometimes.” But he’s optimistic anyway. “Approaching what we do in a rounded and wide ranging way, I have to believe will have some positive effects.”
A lot has changed since 2017 and curator Ralph Rugoff’s upcoming edition of the Venice Biennale will greet a rapidly evolving public consciousness when it opens this May. For one thing, the art world has grown tired of the relentlessly multiplying art fairs and biennials. Then there’s the #MeToo movement, which was just beginning to go viral at the end of the previous biennale, and has now ballooned into a global rallying cry.Postcolonial discourses and labor wars have also reached a fever pitch.
At the same time, right-wing movements are also pushing ahead. While the US president remains fixated on building a US-Mexico border wall, Brazil elected a far-right leader, and Brexit is still teetering. Meanwhile, a wave of nationalism is sweeping Europe, including the biennale’s host country of Italy.
Enter Rugoff’s biennale, aptly titled “May You Live in Interesting Times.” Last week, the artistic director unveiled his artist list, a pared-down and gender-balanced roll call of 79 artists and collectives that is decidedly millennial and unabashedly hip. The main exhibition promises a shake-up of the old ways: for the first time, the Arsenale and Giardini will host separate exhibitions, with every artist in the biennale presenting in both venues.
While predecessors have typically taken to lofty themes, the London-based curator seems to be taking a step back, and is instead posing a more wide-angled question: What should a biennale be? We’ve analyzed Rugoff’s choice of artists and curatorial history to bring some insight into what the answer might look like in Venice.
When introducing his concept for the 2015 Lyon Biennial, Rugoff said that “a biennale functions as a kind of clock, a way of measuring time.” This time around, the zeitgeist-minded curator is seeking lessons by curating a list made up entirely of living artists.
“A lot of work in historical museums is dead,” Rugoff told the Guardian in 2015. “There is too much academic work that has very little meaning for our culture. It’s like displaying the remains of a decaying body on a wall.”
And there’ll be no old art found in Venice: At least a third of the 83 individual artists were born in the 1980s and one artist, Augustas Serapinas, was born in the 1990s. (It’s worth noting that Venice is not the youngest biennial happening this year, however; the age at the Whitney Biennialacross the pond averages even younger.)
Pictures by South African photographer Zanele Muholi at the 43rd annual Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in France. Photo by Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images.
So it’s not surprising that many of the artists speak to issues that have only recently entered mainstream discourse. Jesse Darling’s work tackles issues of identity including gender, sexuality, and disability. Meanwhile, in a world where many are striving to “keep up” with the Kardashians and increasingly unattainable standards of beauty, Japanese artist Mari Katayama’s self-portraits forefront her own non-conforming body and call into question normalized ideals.
Then there is the work of South African photographer Zanele Muholi, who questions and destabilizes existing labels, and contests representations of the black body and LGBTQ people. Her self-portrait, Bona, Charlottesville, Virginia (2015), included in the exhibition,presents an image of the self as a site where cultural images collide.
In keeping with the recurring idea of time, the roster also includes several artists working across time-based media: London-based Ed Atkins, LA’s Ian Cheng, and Canadian artist Jon Rafman. Veteran video artists like Arthur Jafa and Hito Steyerl will also have work on view.
No Break From “Experience” Art
Rugoff has long embraced the growing trend of creating art “experiences.” At the Hayward Gallery in London, he oversaw Carsten Höller’s helter skelter slides, a balloon-filled room courtesy of Martin Creed, and the recently closed group show “Space Shifters,” which included a slew of disorienting, perspective-skewing works of art, such as Alicja Kwade’s steel-and-mirror maze, Weltenlinie, and Richard Wilson’s engine oil-filled room, 20:50.
Argentinian artist Tomas Saraceno poses inside his work Algo R(h)i(y)thms at his exhibition ”On Air” at the Palais de Tokyo. Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images.
The Hayward director has been administering this kind of curatorial play in measured doses, which could prove promising for the upcoming biennale, where more than half of the visitors are expected to be under 26 years old.
In Venice, the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, who has been making immersive and playful installations since the 1980s, will present Cosmorama: a life-sized diorama from an institutional show in Leipzig that aims to transport the viewer to Mars. Installation artist Tomás Saraceno, who created an incredible web structure at the Palais de Tokyo last year, is also on Rugoff’s list.
A Downsized Biennial
The late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor’s Venice Biennial, titled “All the World’s Futures,” seemed to hold the weight of the world on its shoulders. Then came the French-born Christine Macel’s “Vive Arte Viva” in 2017, which felt like PTSD therapy for the previous year with its focus on spellbinding, mystical art.
It doesn’t seem like “May You Live in Interesting Times” will locate itself on this same spectrum. Speaking in London about his plans for the biennial, Rugoff remarked on how the more than 300 existing biennials around the world often recycle variations on similar themes. That may be why he wants to reconsider the very structure of the exhibition. It is, for one thing, the smallest roster in at least a decade—and by a long shot. Rugoff’s biennial is 42 percent smaller than Enwezor’s and 34 percent smaller than Macel’s edition. It comes a little closer to Bice Curiger’s 2011 biennale, which included just 82 artists.
The move also means that, theoretically, more of the biennial’s €13 million budget could be better distributed to each contributor at a time when there’s a growing awareness of the lack of resources given to artists. Exhibiting artist Otobong Nkanga found a solution for this with her Carved to Flowsoap production “company” that she established at documenta 14. The project is ongoing and seeks new kinds of self-sustaining support structures.
Meanwhile, the gender gap appears to be closing, at least in this edition. Rugoff noted that the show will comprise 50 percent female-identifying artists, but he was quick to add that this was incidental, not a quota. He also pointed out that the national pavilions this year are also, incidentally, gender balanced.
Parallel Shows, Parallel Realities
Separating the main exhibition into two shows with the same crop of artists in each reflects the multiple realities that seem to be unfolding in the contemporary landscape. When introducing his double vision for the biennial, the curator acknowledged the appearance of many worlds in a time of “alternative facts,” and said he hopes the exhibition will foster dialogue across divisions. “Art grows out of a practice of entertaining multiple perspectives: of holding in mind seemingly contradictory and incompatible notions, and juggling diverse ways of making sense of the world,” he said in a statement.
Fittingly, he has mysteriously nicknamed his two exhibitions “Proposition A” and “Proposition B,” terminology that evokes—and disrupts—the classical structure of debate, which counters a proposition against an opposition. The curator cites the influence of the French philosopher Bruno Latour, who asked in 2004: “What would critique do if it could be associated with more, not with less, with multiplication, not subtraction?”
Parallel worlds will be a running motif in the biennale, and visitors will be able to project themselves into these different spheres, both through virtual reality and role play. Alex Da Corte will be presenting his much-loved and hilarious 57 Varieties, which debuted at the last Carnegie International. For that video work, he adopts the personas of various characters throughout the last two centuries of popular culture, from Bart Simpson to Bob Dylan to the Pink Panther.
Building Borders and Walls
This November marks 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whether that feels like the distant past or not depends on your own perspective. And for the younger artists on the list, the topic of walls might conjure different associations. But in any case, the subject of borders remains a preoccupation across many demographics and it spans both sides of the political spectrum.
Rugoff has said he is more interested in “pleasure and critical thinking,” than politics in an earlier interview with artnet News—and that he’s not interested in art that pushes a single point of view. Nonetheless, the politically-charged motif of walls will run throughout the exhibition. Mexican conceptual artist Teresa Margolles will take a wall from the Ciudad Juarez in Mexico that used to stand at a high school where teenagers were assassinated in a bout of drug-related violence. The forensic artifact is a heart-wrenching representation of the harm that can come from polarizing social divisions. Meanwhile, the Lebanese sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan shows that walls can always be penetrated. His 2018 work Walled/Unwalled, made within the resplendent Funkhaus studios in former East Berlin, looks at court cases that feature evidence obtained by listening through walls.
Painting Preserves Its “Zombie-Like Resilience”
Novelist Umberto Eco’s book The Open Work is “still incredibly cogent and fresh,” according to Rugoff, who has cited it as a cornerstone text. The 1965 book describes the culture of art as one that defies conformism and relentlessly questions its own conventions as well as those of society.
There will be a lot of painting that testifies to this idea, including art’s capacity to question its own conventions. “I’m always interested in how painting, which has been regularly declared dead for the last 60 years, has had this incredible zombie-like resilience and keeps finding ways to reinvent itself,” Rugoff told press in London.
To wit, Julie Mehretu’s work Sing, Unburied, Sing (2018), which will be included in the exhibition, looks at how the medium can share dialogue between two categorically separated methods of image-making: news photography and abstract painting. Beginning with documentary photographs of street protests and conflagrations, including Charlottesville’s infamous white supremacy march and counter-march, Catalonia’s independence rallies, and California’s wildfires, Mehretu blurs and obscures these found images in Photoshop and then overlays them with her characteristic gestural abstraction.
Last year, the double reveal of Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s presidential portraits seemed to signal the dawn of a new era of black portraiture. Black perspectives in painting will take center stage in Venice, too, by way of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who will be including And We Begin to Let Go from 2013, and acclaimed painter Henry Taylor, who will show a work atypically depicting only white subjects.
What is painting and what is not? Rugoff gets at the eternal question by showing Avery Singer, an artist whose practice illustrates what the curator calls the “silliness” of categories such as “digital artist.” The painter favors inkjet printers over paintbrushes, and the curator notes that her work on canvas explores digital subcultures as much as an artist working in a purely digital medium.
Of course, when the biennale opens in May, we will learn more about Rugoff’s vision. Its living, breathing roster will offer a time-stamp of the contemporary landscape, a measurement of where the art world finds itself.
What does that look like? Perhaps not all good. Though the gender-balanced selection is encouraging, and though there are enough non-white artists to stand up to allegations of tokenism, a Western perspective still dominates. With Europeans making up 30 percent of the list, and US artists accounting for another 20 percent, can the exhibition really deliver the multiple viewpoints it promises? What might be left out by the exclusion of historic artists? Whether “May You Live in Interesting Times” will prove to be representative of a truly pluralistic world view is an altogether interesting and important question—and time will only tell.
This idea that “art is a lie that tells the truth,” to cite a possibly apocryphal quote attributed to Picasso, is a pretty widely accepted concept. Yet that paradox seems to lie at the heart of “May You Live in Interesting Times,” the upcoming Venice Biennale curated by Ralph Rugoff as a master class on the ambivalent nature of art—and of reality itself in our current world of “alternative facts,” where truth is partisan, uncertainty reigns, and logjams over fundamental verities (where “it all cuts both ways,” as Raskolnikov says) makes it possible for amoral figures to seize power.
It’s a dizzying moment, but one that Rugoff—a former journalist and native New Yorker who currently runs London’s Hayward Gallery—is primed to approach, having specialized in shows (like his 2012 survey of “Invisible Art”) that foist a perplexing situation on the audience and force them to contend with it. To that end, he has assembled a group of some 79 living artists and collectives who constitute a broad array of perspectives and approaches, and has asked them to create two separate displays of their work across the Giardini and Arsenale (which he calls “Proposition A” and “Proposition B”), with the aim that they present entirely different views of their work.
Mao, in his rise to power, is supposed to have said, “There is great chaos under heaven; the situation is excellent.” Can such chaos create an excellent Venice Biennale as well? To better understand the aims of this 58th edition of the international show, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein spoke to Rugoff about the ideas animating his exhibition.
It seems like there are two sides to your biennial. On one hand, you have argued that there is no theme, and that you’re engaging with contemporary art through a strictly formal conceit of a two-part biennial, where each artist presents very different work in both the Giardini and the Arsenale. On the the other hand, as telegraphed by the show’s title and its oft-reported subject, you are tackling the fake-news era and the slippery nature of truth in the world today. Taken together, it seems that the real subject of your biennale is ambiguity itself, and the challenge of how to apprehend things that cut both ways. Given that the Venice Biennale is viewed as something of a State of the Union when it comes to the direction of contemporary art, why do you feel this idea of ambiguity, of multivalence, is such a relevant theme to tackle in 2019?
Precisely because in so many other parts of our society and culture, information can only mean one thing. We’re getting narrower and narrower platforms for any kind of public exchange—it’s this famous siloing of news. We process information in two different styles: we have a very rapid, intuitive style and a more analytical and considered style. Behavioral economists have studied this, and they find that, in contrast to classical economic theory, which talks about a rational homoeconomicus, most decisions are actually made completely irrationally—they are made out of greed and fear. We have seen this in elections.
Demagogues, like Trump, prey on fear and anger to rile people up and put them in a powerful emotional state, where they feel there is a clear answer to everything. This is what the fiction of Trump’s wall is all about: “Here’s a concrete symbol that will solve all your problems—you don’t have to deal with all the complex issues around immigration.”
The idea that everything is connected is another theme that comes up in this biennale. This is something that Leonardo talked about, so did Lenin, so did [American biologist] Barry Commoner. We live in a world where, because of the internet but even more because of global warming, we have to face the fact that everything is connected. When there’s a bad day of pollution in Beijing, four days later it hits central California. If Europe has an immigration crisis, perhaps is has something to do with former colonial powers creating wars in the Middle East that create these displaced people.
So I guess what I’m looking at is a failure in most of our public discourse to deal with complexity. One project in the biennale, for instance, is a piece by Kahlil Joseph called BLKNWS, in which he’s come up with a conceptual-art interpretation of what meaningful news might be. It focuses on African American life and uses all kinds of found footage from different sources, music, and some of his own interviews. It’s not about information in the sense of CNN soundbites, but is very much about the texture of facts and histories. Although it’s an artist’s project, Kahlil would eventually like to see this on HBO or other television, and it would be great if it eventually gets there. But at this point in time, the place where it can exist is within the art world.
There’s an expression that a genius is someone who can hold two ideas in their mind at the same time, but there’s also the example of schizophrenia, of two simultaneously held ideas being the mark of insanity. Just look at Trump’s “both sides” comments after Charlottesville. The biennale is coming at a time when society is in the throes of this kind of craziness—you look at Brexit, and its clear that Britain can’t reconcile its opposing views of globalization and the rising tide of immigration. It seems to me that so many of the lies that we are hearing from politicians are an attempt to paper over the fact that there is this conflict over identity, immigration, and globalism. How do globalism and identity figure into this biennale?
There’s not a lot of work that deals with national identity, but you will see work that deals with the way that we only look at part of the world. We all do this: people who live in cities don’t really want to deal with homeless people, so you block them out, and through the power of denial you live in a world that is perceptually truncated. There are quite a lot of works in the show that look at this kind of everyday social division. These are works that put that reality back in your face, but not in a finger-pointing kind of way.
I’m really not interested in work that is one-dimensional, that’s pushing a particular point of view, that’s trying to expose one truth or another, that’s playing a documentary role. I think art’s role is to raise questions and to encourage people to keep questioning. So that’s why narrow political art is not that interesting—because it’s already reached a conclusion.
There are a lot of pieces about the divisions created by walls, or in the case of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work, how walls may no longer be effective barriers because sound surveillance technology allows people to hear everything beyond those walls. There are also works that aim to change the way we think about identity. There are three non-binary artists in this exhibition, and more women than men in this exhibition. But none of that matters unless the work is also complex. You need works that have multiple entry points to get a good conversation going with the general public.
It’s nice to hear that this is an exhibition that will challenge people, that when you go in there you will be presented with questions rather than answers. Would you say that is one of the concepts?
That is one of the concepts of making any exhibition. One definition of artists is that they are people who pay attention—especially to things that the rest of society, for whatever reason, may not be paying attention to. Artists are constantly asking us to hold two things in our heads at the same time. George Orwell’s “doublethink” meant having two contradictory belief systems and accepting both of them. I think that art is not asking you to accept them, just that you entertain these possibilities. What makes art special is that it resists closure.
In physics, you have Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
It’s the same thing. A lot of people are very anxious right now about the political situation, and I feel the same way. But that doesn’t mean you want to end up with a lot of art that’s about politics, because as soon as you end up with art that is about something, you end up limiting what that art can really do. You want art that opens up different perspectives on a subject. In journalism, we talk about this all the time: “This is an artist whose work is about this,” or, “The is an artist whose work is about that.” With the really interesting artists, their work sits between categories. And in order to truly understand what they’re doing, you need to understand the assumptions we make every day to define those categories.
This is a question that I find very hard to ask, because it’s kind of hypocritical and sanctimonious, butas a white male curator at this moment in time, how can you ensure that your show will represent the perspectives of this broader world that you’re addressing?
We’re all limited by who we are. People from different backgrounds than mine would have curated something completely different. At the same time, there are probably a range of positions that you can occupy as a white male—they’re not all the same, and I think whatever position I’m in is fairly open to lots of others. To me, what’s interesting about people like [South African photographer] Zanele Muholi and [Japanese artist] Mari Katayama, whose works challenge our conventions, codes, and genres of representing the self, is that their work is so layered. People talk about identity as a performance rather than a hard-and-fast role. There’s a parallel in the way I think about a work of art—it has an open-ended character.
How were you able to encompass this multicultural picture of the world in your show? Did you have any help? Were there any guideposts along the way in your effort to reflect this broader experience?
You know, I’ve been looking at art for a long time. You don’t start from a blank slate to do this—you already have a pretty big inventory of artists you know. And you draw on colleagues, you draw on other artists. For this exhibition, I asked every artist I invited to tell me one other artist they would like to show next to in this biennale. I didn’t necessarily choose every artist who was recommended to me, but I chose some. Some of them were already on my list, some I didn’t know. I wanted the relationships among the artists to work on levels that might not be immediately obvious.
The most important information you get as a curator comes from the artists. There’s also a slightly random element in this process, in that you have a six-month period to do your research, and when you’re in a particular country at a particular time, maybe you discover an artist you never would have encountered otherwise. Fortuitous things happen. So there’s no way in the world that that one person who puts on an exhibition of this scale can pretend it is in any way definitive—it’s all a provisional, contingent take.
One interesting thing you could say about this show is that it’s the millennial biennial, in that it has a very high percentage of artists born after 1980, and even one born after 1990. Is there any kind of commonality that you see across this younger generation?
They have a different understanding of what an image is and how an image functions. When you’re looking at the same image on a lot of different platforms—social media, the telephone, the computer—it takes on different characteristics, right? More and more, there’s a sense of the image not just as a form of representation but also as an interface where different cultural forces are played out. An older generation might see the image as a depiction and miss out on this other approach.
One thing that is very much prevalent among the younger generation is a hunger for in-person “experiences,” given the amount of time that they spend on screens. I know you worked with an architect to create new flows and new structures within the biennale itself. Was this notion of “experiences” that people can photograph something you were thinking about when putting together the show?
Social media is a two-sided coin in terms of how people experience exhibitions. On the one hand, yes, it helps spread the word so that people who may never know about an exhibition otherwise suddenly see it, think it’s interesting, and go. On the other hand, you have an endless stream of people who see an exhibition as a nice-looking background for their selfie, or who just want to put some interesting images on their social media feed, but don’t really engage with the work beyond that. And that’s obviously a missed opportunity. But hopefully some of those visitors might get interested in what this conversation is about.
What would you say to the selfie-takers who come to see your biennale?
Well, that hopefully they’ll get curious about other things besides their own image.