53rd Venice Biennale Interview

This past summer Art Comments sat with independent curator Stamatina Gregory at a local cafe in Venice, Italy to discuss her involvement with the Bahamas pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale, a pavilion that featured the cerebral and risk-taking artist Tavarares Jackson.

Working on the first inaugural Bahamas  pavilion must be exciting and stressful.

It is definitely exciting and stressful at the same time. I mean, this is the kind of project that has taken a tremendous amount of planning, and primarily on  behalf of the artist. So it's been over 2 and a half years in the planning process, including both the conception and the installation of the work. And also the negotiation process with the government because it is not like doing a show with an institution. There's a lot more diplomacy involved. This woman right here, Amanda Paulson, the director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas, is Bahammien, I'm not. Although she wasn't involved in this iteration of the pavilion. She'll likely be involved with future iterations. I've learned about the structures of the Bahammien ministries through her. She's dealing with the culture side. Definitely exciting and stressful. You want to make sure that people notice the work you've done. And this was really important for the artist, Tavares Strachan. He wanted to have a real presence here at the Biennale. Even having a presence at the Arsenale already disrupts expectations about the representation of the Bahamas. And so that was the first step, to make sure that there was real visibility and that you were not in some broken down pallazzo somewhere. And also, through the installation completely disrupt expectations about what art from that country or an artist from that country might look like. A number of people viewing the exhibition came up to me and this was kind of shocking and they said, 'But the Bahamas is not cold.' So you are disrupting expectations, and you are speaking not only to an art world audience but you are also speaking to a general audience in many ways.

Can you talk about the differences in working in a commercial gallery setting, non-profit sectors and the biennale?

The area that I've had the least experience is the commercial gallery setting. I actually have not curated many exhibitions for commercial galleries. And within that category there's a huge range. You can curate an exhibition for a gallery that is somehow invested in this exhibition and you're showing a particular artists work that might sell, and so therefore money might be invested in the installation, planning and associated materials. But in my experience doing work for commercial galleries has been a labor of love for smaller commercial galleries where there actually isn't a lot of capital. And you notice that too in international biennale exhibitions that it kind of falls on the dealer to finance a lot but it is only a certain category of a dealer that can do that or do it on a certain level.

Most of my curating has been with institutions, either museums or non-profit institutions so I am used to working under stricter budgets. But also having the infrastructure of the museum or the institution on my side. Which makes a really big difference. And here it is completely different, I am one small part of an amazing team that made this happen. And I am one of the minor players that is behind the tremendous force, that is the artist Tavares Strachan. And he in many ways is the person closest to these negotiations. There's negotiations between the government of the Bahamas with the institutional structure of the biennale. It's been a learning process for everyone. The installation presents its own set of challenges and the negotiation presents its own set of challenges. And of course, here in Venice, installing anything is challenging. And so for me, I've primarily been on the communication side, I've done a lot of writing, editing and contextualizing of the exhibition in preparation to our opening for a long period of time. And that's primarily been my role as that kind of facilitator but also as part of a small team where everyone does everything when needed.

Is that the role of being a director of programs and education?

In part. I organized a small program that we had the other day a talk between Tavares (5:38)and it was moderated by Eric Shiner. In the beginning I think we had a much more ambitious program in mind. In the crush of the few days of the preview of the Biennale, reality starts to set in, the work is discursive on its own and all the layers of discursivity don’t need another discursive layer of events. There is not a steady stream of events in the space. So it’s not like the Japan pavillion where it’s chaotic and things are happening and it’s not like some other pavillions that have embraced or are still rooted in the discursive turn where the pavilion is where things happen. And so my title became deputy curator to better reflect the work I was doing.

How did the selection process for the artist work?

Every pavillion is different and the hierachy of who makes which choices are completely different from pavillion to pavillion. I didn’t select Tavares, in fact Tavares selected me. The artist happily enjoys working with friends and we’ve known each other a very long time and everyone on this team. Before he graduated with his MFA we have known one another and we did a show together in 2009 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, where I was curator at the time and that was a part of the project where he was launching rockets off the coast of Nassau using only Bahamian materials. Sand, sugar cane.

Can you talk about the contemplative component of the exhibition?

One of the major and connective threads throughout the artist’s pracice is this idea of what is visible and what is invisible and how they shift and how displacment and cultural and historical changes affect both. To realize what is there and what is not there takes a patience of vision for the viewer. Part of the artist’s project and part of the project of this installation is undoing common conceptions of what we think we know about history, narratives of history, what we know about representation. There are many layers to the work, for example, the narrative of Matthew Henson. 

This theme of visibilty and invisibility and through the installation itself. Ironically, the erased figure of Henson is no more interesting to anyone visiting the pavillion or involved in the international art world than the original figure of conquest that he was associated with. At the same time I think that the work goes further and also is undoing what we immediately reach to as a kind of form of contemporary projects. Because if you look at the missions of institutions for example, many of them mention supporting underrecognized artists and underrecognized figures so this process of uncovering has now also become a kind of common form. 

What I love about the artist’s practice is that it’s not merely about an external narrative but also about an internal narrative. Not only a kind of disclosure itself, an invitation of the viewer into this disruption and displacement. So when you walk in, neon signs which may be exploding or imploding telling you "I belong here, you belong here, we belong here" then you’re like where is here? Who am I? What is this kind of transnational space, is it really transnational? Who is involved who is left out?One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is "40 days and 40 nights" which is the 40 Bahemmien children singing in the pavillion. One thing that I love about it in this space is that it’s two communities from across the globe north of this space and south of this space together speaking a language that we can understand.

Can you talk to us about your approach to history and curating?

That’s a really big question. I think curators have a responsibilty to critically look at history and not just to learn it in a profunctionary way. I’m about to finish my PhD in art history and I feel like maybe I begun to know something. Only begun though. Since the advent of the real professionalisation of curating and also the idea of curating as a career is a really hip and glamourous rockstar thing to do, this critical vision of history is kind of getting left aside and history for everyone is starting in the 80’s or something.

I’ve been looking at Tavares’s work for so long I started thinking about everything in the terms of the problem and the idea of firsts. Who did something first? This colonial rubric that we apply to these things. The idea that a topic is done but you’re always searching for the new thing, when new things are there to uncover everywhere. 

I just finished working on an exhibition from recent history looking at an artist who’s work is really not very well known. An exhibition of (Brian Weil) who’s a New York based artist and died in 1996. He’s best known as an activist, he started New York’s first needle exchange program. The body of work he’s best known for are his large-scale photographs representing various aspects of the AIDS crisis, domestically and globally through portraits. The photographs are wonderful but a limited byproduct. It’s the same kind of thing in curating. The big question now is what is the role of the object and what’s the role of the history. Maybe that’s one answer.

Thank you.