“Challenge is not to have a sample of everything” - Interview with Bart de Baere, director of M HKA, Antwerp

By Anna Savitskaya - Monday, September 21, 2015
“Challenge is not to have a sample of everything” - Interview with Bart de Baere, director of M HKA, Antwerp

Bart de Baere gives the impression that combining the function of museum director with the role of curator for the 6th Moscow Biennial 2015 is something he undertakes with rigor and dedication, but easily and surely with great pleasure. Bart de Baere has been the director of M HKA, a contemporary art museum based in Antwerp, since 2003. Bart de Baere talks with Artdependence Magazine about the museum’s activities, its’ goals and future plans. A separate part of our interview is dedicated to the 6th Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art, which is planned for 2015, and will take place from September 22nd till October 1st, the shortest biennial in the world.

“Challenge is not to have a sample of everything” - Interview with Bart de Baere, director of M HKA, Antwerp

Bart de Baere gives the impression that combining the function of museum director with the role of curator for the 6th Moscow Biennial 2015 is something he undertakes with rigor and dedication, but easily and surely with great pleasure. Bart de Baere has been the director of M HKA, a contemporary art museum based in Antwerp, since 2003. Since then, he has introduced lots of exciting initiatives, such as new principles for constructing the museum’s collection and its’ research work, a lodgers program, and also the building of several collaborations with artists. The museum’s social role is what distinguishes the M HKA from other similar institutions, and it’s also what makes it one of the most well-known and loved museums in Belgium. Bart de Baere talks with Artdependence Magazine about the museum’s activities, its’ goals and future plans. A separate part of our interview is dedicated to the 6th Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art, which is planned for 2015, and will take place from September 22nd till October 1st, the shortest biennial in the world. The preparations stage for the Biennial was also a rather complicated endeavor: the first two concepts had to be aborted, the first because the promised space, the Manège, was unavailable, the second because conditions requested more production than the shrinking budget could afford.  Bart De Baere decided  not to give up and invited his colleagues Defne Ayas (director of Witte de With, Rotterdam) and Nicolaus Schafhausen to develop together the present radicalization of the biennial into a meeting place for artists art and ideas.

Artdependence Magazine: You have been the director of M HKA for 13 years now. Tell us about your museum, its’ mission and how you see it currently and in the future?

Bart de Baere: The world has changed fundamentally since the mid 80’s. Basically, you can divide the world into before 1989 and after.  It was the beginning of the multi polar world consisting of different centers, all of which are self-sufficient economically, socially, culturally. Each center has its own capacities: look at China, India, Brazil, the Middle East, Russia, and Western Europe. How do you continue to work in a world like that? I think that the old Eurocentric idea is over. In a way, the challenge is not to include a sample of everything, but to localize yourself within this complexity. To do this you do not need a sample of everything in your collection. But you do need to address certain challenges, which are part of this world, to engage these challenges in an interesting way and to think how to possible resolve them. So, what we are trying to do as a museum is not to be “complete”, but to engage in depth: with specific artists and situations, and to contextualize our holdings within these engagements.

AD: The M KHA is located in Antwerp, a city regarded as one of the most vibrant and creative centers in the world. How does this heritage and atmosphere define or influence the museum’s program?

BdB: Antwerp has one of the major harbors in the world and soon a port is also destined to be opened. We have a fantastic background. From the beginning of the 20th century Antwerp has been an avant-garde city. Especially around the time when the museum’s collection started, in the 1960s and 1970s, the city was one of the hubs of international art.

People like James Lee Byars, who is originally from Detroit, or Gordon Matta-Clark, considered Antwerp to be their home town. They were more here than anywhere else. One of  the most important galleries in the world was located in this area, at that point one of the top three galleries world wide, I’d say, Wide White Space Gallery, which presented a series of exhibtions that now reads like the entire art historical canon of the epoch. There were alternative spaces like the International Cultural Centre, the first public contemporary art institution in Belgium, founded by the Flemish community. It was located in Antwerp and from 1970 to 1980 it was really a place where everyone passed by. This city is a very good base to be open. And we try to be open in all directions.

AD: In the fields of art and culture, you were always in favor of integration and recognition for different parts of the European-Asian region, or the “island of Eurasia” as you call it in the Moscow biennale titel.. What does Eurasia mean to you and how did it happen that the Museum owns a significant collection of art from the former Soviet Union?

BdB: We say that we are a Eurasian museum, meaning that we are a part of it, of this large Eurasia Joseph Beuys was speaking about, going from Vlaidvostok to Ostend. I should specify, because in Russia Eurasia is considered to be something different altogether, everything except Europe and Asia proper, basically a definition of Russia as it was in Soviet times or during the empire. In my catalogue essay I link up the attitudes of an artist that is important for our Antwerp Eurasia, Jimmie Durham, to the founder of Russian Eurasianism, prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy. Our ‘larger’ Eurasianism, that of Joseph Beuys, being about linking Asia and western-Europe, sees Russia as an important part of Europe because it stretches beyond Europe. That dimension we thematised earlier on in a series of exhibitions about central Asia as “Europe at large”. Russia has an amazing advantage, and through Soviet traditions we can connect with Asia differently than through traditional European exoticism. As a museum we have been deeply engaged in the post-Soviet sphere. But we are not referring to the Russian territorial scope only. Before becoming the director of M HKA I was part of the international Board of the Soros Foundations for Contemporary Art, in which I was for some time responsible for Ukraine, so I have very long lasting relation to this mental space. And, as a museum we have done several major exhibitions of Russian contemporary art in Western Europe, such as the “Angels of History” and Horizons of Reality” exhibitions. We now hold one of the major collections of art from this space in Western Europe, which contains for example a lot of works of Moscow conceptualism that was to be so crucial for Russia as part of dissidency; but it also includes key works by all the major artists from the different countries in central Asia. And we have large ensembles of works by some artists, like of Vladik Monroe from the first Moscow Biennial of the “Stars” exhibition, which in itself contains more than one hundred works. We also have around seventy works of Sergey Bratkov, all his now classical early series. So, these are not minor engagements. And, of course, it means that we have a lot of networks in this direction.

We extend our borders, towards places where we feel alien (in a positive sense). What we think is: “Let's try to find valid points of engagement for art that comes from different situations. And let's then try to look how we can piece them together in a way that is meaningful for our society.”

Portrait of Bart de Baere © M HKA

AD: What are your future plans for M HKA? What interesting projects can be expected?

BdB: If you want to become a place of reference, a real museum, it means that in the coming years there should be a permanent collection presentation, for which we don't have the space now. So we do need to have some kind of extension and the consequence will be that we will also have to recalibrate our present profile a bit. We will have to become more museum like, and therefore shift towards making exhibitions that have a reference quality for a wide audience. We aim to develop a backbone of exhibitions based upon a combination of monographic exhibitions with "thematic" exhibitions, which will address urgent points of today. Last summer we did an amazing exhibition, which I learned a lot from – “Don't You know Who I Am”. For this, we invited 20 very young artists from around the world, and addressed with them the question of identity politics: young people are dealing with identity politics in a completely different way then happened in the preceding decades. We looked at how this becomes visible in art.

This summer we have been showing an exhibition that is analizing the question of the welfare state. Every political party up till today implicitly bases itself upon a welfare state but we don’t really think about what it means anymore. The idea of a welfare state belongs to a pre-1989 setup. Afterwards it lost its meaning, in a way. For this exhibition we invited eight artists who have been addressing this question to make proposals, and we worked together with the four major socio-cultural archive in our country (which are divided according to ideological differences; a socialist archive, a catholic, a liberal, and a Flemish nationalist archive).  We now plan a project around Futurism.

Stephen Willats, Oxford Community Data Stream, 2013. From "The Welfare State" exhibition. Photo M HKA

On the other hand, we also focus on survey exhibitions of one artist, like we have done recently with Panamarenko, and we are planning to do for Robert Filliou. If you look at the first part of the 20th century, you can say - we have Duchamp and Picasso; for the second part of the 20th century you might compare Picasso with reference artists such as Bruce Nauman and Gerhard Richter. The counter point to Duchamp is Robert Filliou. In the same way as Duchamp was the core artist in Dadaism, even if he was only associated with it,Filliou is the core artist of Fluxus. He trained as an economist in the USA in the early 1950's. Then he went to Korea for the United Nations development efforts of the economy there. And he became an artist who has blatantly refused to have an economic output from his work, whilst also being very highly informed on economical principals, given his background. 

Now in October we will present Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, a key artist from Turkey.

But doing exhibitions is only one part of our work. The museum is also all about long-term commitments and social space. For instance, every three months we invite a different lodger, an organization that doesn’t have its own space. The LODGERS program invites some of the most imaginative artistic initiatives around to come and occupy the 6th floor exhibition spaces at M HKA. These LODGERS might be publishers, commissioning agencies, research initiatives, labels, collectives, discussion platforms and other initiatives experimenting with artistic practice who would be interested in living, working, and performing in Antwerp. We choose people whom we feel are important but who are not so visible.

We are also doing major presentations of our collection in communities all over the country, in a smaller towns in Belgium.

An museum is in its back office a research place. Allan Sekula is one of the referential artists on the American West coast, from the last part of the 20th century. We have been working with him, until he sadly passed away last year. Basically, we were engaged for the work he had been doing for the last four years of his life. He would make photos of specific topics, but he didn't develop them like photo-journalism would do, but as an artistic, essayistic project. His last project was called "Ship of Fools" - based upon a ship by the international trade union, travellnig around the seas, showing its’ exhibition in different harbors, demonstrating how globalisation actually started on the seas. Because globalization started with the unflagging of ships, which made transport very cheap. This then made it possible to move factories anywhere in the world in search of the cheapest labor, opening up new opportunities to globalize the production of goods. We were the central hub for that project. The exhibition was shown at the Biennale of Sao Paolo, in Scotland, in France, in Switserland. The works left from M HKA and then came back. His other project was an artist museum that presented an image of the world from the perspective of the docker as a center of the world. Sekula collected different small objects. When you look at them individually you cannot see any relation between each of them. But, as a set, they constituted a whole investigation and research into the role of docks in a country its society and development. When Sekula passed away we succeeded in acquiring all of these objects of his Dockers’ Museum and the whole set of photographs. Now we develop a major research project together with prof. Van Gelder of Leuven University. Two Phd researchers will research it for the next four years.

MEL | Architecture and Design. Architecture 
of the Main Project, 2015.
 Courtesy of the Moscow Biennale Art Foundation

AD: Tell us about your curatorial work at the 6th Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art. There have been a lot of obstacles on your way - can you share your experience regarding the organizational aspect of the Biennial?

BdB: The initial space I was asked to make the biennial for was the– Manege, the huge exhibition hall close to Kremlin. When this was ready to go into production in December, me even having found an extremely generous sponsoring, it had to be aborted, I was told the Manege was no longer available for the Moscow Biennial. The biennale moved to VDNKh, the grand soviet exhibition fair grounds, for which I proposed to invite some of my most esteemed colleagues, Defne Ayas, director of Witte de With and Nicolaus Schafhausen from Kunsthalle Vinenna, thinking each of us would do an exhibition in one of the amazing pavilions there. This set up had to be left also, because the buildings fazll under Russian federal monument care as soon as they’re roughly renovated. The three of us then decided not to give up but to use the limits as an opportunity to radicalisde the set up and turn the biennial into a meeting place for people and a space in which art might happen and present its capacities to offer inspiration to the world. With any other Biennial I would have certainly stopped after my first proposal was deemed impossible, for reasons that are still not completely clear to me… but Moscow is too important a place and this is too important a moment in time, so we decided to continue.

6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art courators: Bart De Baere, Defne Ayas and Nicolaus Schafhausen. Courtesy of the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art office

AD: In a previous interview with Artdependence, Hedwig Fijen (director of Manifesta) said that: “The Russian contemporary art scene is mostly based in Moscow, and it is still very fragmented with only a few private institutions.” And, of course, Moscow can be viewed as a “country inside a country”, fundamentally different from the rest of the country. Do you think you can reach an audience beyond Moscow as well?

BdB: Of course, the main locations are Moscow and Saint Petersburg. There are places that have a kind of tradition of contemporary art, and I am aware that Russia “goes till the end of the island”. In the present cultural-political questioning it is important to be aware of all those complexities, they are part of it. But it is not only about that, because, in the end - it is not about finding a complete representation; in the end, it is more about the capacity of art - that is why we are in this. Otherwise, we would have been involved in politics or business. And art might be a possibility for our society in the future. 

Luc Tuymans at work © Yuriy Chichkov 

Luc Tuymans at work © Yuriy Chichkov 

Painting made by Luc Tuymans for the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art  © Yuriy Chichkov 

AD: You have also mentioned in the press that you see Russian art as having great potential, but being undervalued. What makes you think this? And, are you referring to cultural heritage or contemporary art?

BdB: The potential of the Moscow Biennial is such that it may very well be among the top five Biennials in the world, or, at least, it should be. That is the value of Moscow for me, and also of Russia as a whole. It would be easily feasible for Russian authorities to turn it into one of the five most important Biennials in the world by making a relatively small investment. And, of course, it depends on how you position it: do you put it on the Sharjah level (the poorest of emirates), or you put it on the level of the Sao Paulo Biennale. And I think you can definitely put it on the same level as Sao Paulo, which historically presents a moment of encounter between the whole Latin America and the world - and this is what the Moscow Biennial has the kind of potential to do as well. Four to five million dollars is the budget of the Sharjah. The Sao Paolo Biennale has a budget of 18 million euro. The open air ice rink in VDNKH last winter cost about 7 million euro, and the Biennial should be at least on that same level. I do not say that the Moscow Biennial should have the same money as Sao Paulo, but definitely more money than Sharjah, I would think, if Russia still has some ambition left. 

It's not a gain for any of the parties to go back to a time when we made caricatures of one another. Russia is a large country, a major culture, a relatively large economy. It should not be disrespectful of itself. I am quite sure that at some point Moscow will become the hippest city in Europe, it's an amazing city. There is not a single city like Moscow.

Els Dietvorst, «SKULL 2», 2006, Ink&paper, courtesy of the artist
SECRET STUDIO. Augustas Serapinas, Secret Studio, 2012, installation, artist courtesy
Alevtina Kakhidze. All times news — future — Present — Past. 3-Channel Video news Broadcasts from VdnKh, 2015. 
. Courtesy of the artist

AD: Do you still believe in a successful outcome for the Biennial

BdB: It's a pity, in a way, that we are now trying to save it, when I would much prefer to let it blossom. We will do what we can, and we have a good team. We do it out of good will. People underestimate the capacity in Moscow. There are a lot of capacities. And I am optimistic.

AD: Thank you, Bart, and good luck with all your initiatives! 

All about the 6th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art is here.

Portrait of Bart de Baere on top © M HKA

Anna is a graduate of Moscow’s Photo Academy, with a previous background in intellectual property rights. In 2012 she founded the company Perspectiva Art, dealing in art consultancy, curatorship, and the coordination of exhibitions. During the bilateral year between Russia and The Netherlands in 2013, Perspectiva Art organized a tour for a Dutch artist across Russia, as well as putting together several exhibitions in the Netherlands, curated by Anna. Since October 2014, Anna has taken an active role in the development and management of ArtDependence Magazine. Anna interviews curators and artists, in addition to reviewing books and events, and collaborating with museums and art fairs.

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