Björn Geldhof by the Ukrainian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo: PinchukArtCentre

Björn Geldhof: You cannot talk about post-Soviet art any more 0

A conversation in Riga with the strategic leader of two important art centres located in Kiev and Baku

Sergej Timofejev
29/01/2018

Björn Geldhof is a tall personable bearded man with the face of a Viking or maybe a Wild West pastor capable of ‘taking the responsibility’. And he has indeed taken on a responsibility, a double one, currently holding the offices of the artistic director of PinchukArtCentre, the most popular private art institution in Ukraine, and the artistic and strategic director of YARAT, the Azerbaijani centre for contemporary art. 

While YARAT is only just starting to earn an international name for itself and build a relationship with artists and the public, PinchukArtCentre is a venue in the heart of Kiev constantly bubbling with activity. Admission to the exhibitions it hosts has always been and still is free of charge. It is common to see several dozens of people queuing in front of the centre; the queue, however, moves quickly, and the wait is normally not longer than 15 minutes or so.


Queue at the entrance of PinchukArtCentre in Kiev, 2010. Photo: PinchukArtCentre 

Housed in a building renovated by the French architect Philippe Chiambaretta, PinchukArtCentre opened in 2006, and only a few years later, in 2010, the team was joined by Björn Geldhof. During this time as a curator, he organized several editions of the Future Generation Art Prize contest and exhibition in Kiev and in Venice, curated the national pavilion of Ukraine at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 and mounted solo exhibitions by Damián Ortega, Olafur Eliasson, Jeff Wall, Anish Kapoor, Tony Oursler and the Chapman Brothers.

A huge project of his has just concluded at PinchukArtCentre ‒ the Fragile State exhibition featuring renowned artists like Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Douglas Gordon, Carlos Motta, Oscar Murillo, Santiago Sierra, Barthélémy Toguo, Jan Fabre, Urs Fischer and Damien Hirst. 

The meaning of the phrase Fragile State was explored on a number of different levels here, as a response to certain political rhetoric, a ‘[reflection] upon the fragile state of the world order’ and as the subject of ‘the fragility of body and mind’ (as stated in the official press release). 

In the aftermath of the Maidan events, PinchukArtCentre, opened and financed by Victor Pinchuk, one of the ten wealthiest people in Ukraine (in 2017, Forbes estimated his fortune as USD 1.13 billion), underwent a considerable transformation in the way it envisions its mission.

The art centre, the goals that he sets himself in Baku and the strategies that allow him to deal with this double responsibility were the subjects of my conversation with Björn Geldhof in Riga during his stay in late 2017 as a member of the panel of judges at the Baltic Young Artist Award. Armed with cups of espresso, we were sitting in the hotel café; having grown up at a time when the name of the Swedish tennis player Björn Borg spoke volumes to anyone, I just had to ask: how had my conversation companion come by this name?


Bjorn Geldhof at the Future Generation Art Prize press conference in Venice. Photo: PinchukArtCentre

You are from Belgium, if I’m not mistaken?

Yes.

And yet you have a Scandinavian name. Do you come from a mixed family? 

No, I come from a through-and-through Belgian family ‒ apart from the fact that my maternal grandmother was French. But it’s true that my name is a Scandinavian one, by pure accident. My only proper connection with Scandinavia is through my wife, who is Danish.

As a curator, you started your career working with Belgian art, including your collaboration with Jan Fabre who we have written about on numerous occasions...

I worked on my first curatorial project as a student, with artists who were also fellow students back then, and its title was ‘Ithaca’. After that, I worked with various small institutions and organizations. At some point I was approached by Jan Fabre, who offered me work in a magazine that he published ‒ Janus. It dealt with a great variety of intellectual activities, like philosophy, architecture, dance, etc. It was later that I also started to manage his company and mount exhibitions for him.

You also curated his show in Venice...

Two of them, actually. The second one, From the Feet to the Brain, ran in 2009. The exhibition was mounted back in 2008, for Kunsthaus Bregenz, and incidentally it was the director of this institution, Eckhard Schneider, who invited me to Ukraine. And that was how a new chapter in my life began...

What were your preconceptions of Ukraine before you arrived there? What did you expect to find?

I did not know that much about this country. When they invited me, I was 28, but by the time I arrived there I was already 29. Between, there was a relatively long period of discussions and efforts to come to grips with the context. When I finally arrived, PinchukArtCentre had already been existing for a couple of years; at the time, an exhibition by Damien Hirst was on view at the centre. Fantastic works, an excellently organized exhibition, but the most striking thing about it was actually the public, because people waited in serious queues to view the show. And there were particularly large numbers of very young people. And I realized that the context was completely different here, that art played a different role in this society. There was a different interaction with the community... 


Urs Fischer. Untitled, 2011. Paraffin mix, pigment, steel, wick. From the exhibition Fragile State. Photo: PinchukArtCentre

But what is this model? What is the difference? 

We are visited by some 1400‒1800 people daily. Approximately 80 % of them are young people before their thirties. Which means that the younger generation visits us en masse to view contemporary art. It is a rarity if you compare it with some sort of European art museums. Furthermore, the level of involvement is different. It is not just about coming to the museum but also about the way that behave and what they do in this space. The difference is in the fact that people in Ukraine want to talk, they want to discuss things. That’s the way it was back then, and I am very happy that it has not changed since. I am convinced that an art institution must ‘talk’ to you, not merely show you things which you would then passively view. Ukraine was an excellent place to try and prove this in practice, because people want to express themselves here, they want to have conversations ‒ which makes the task of involving the institution into a conversation with each separate visitor more achievable for us. And it defines our relationship with the audience.

The nature of this discussion also changed with time. At the first ever Future Generation Prize in 2010, we showed two pieces by Wilfredo Prieto. One of them was Politically Correct, which was a watermelon cut into the shape of a square. The other one was entitled Holy Water, and it was simply a little puddle of holy water. Being a work of conceptual art, this puddle considerably confused our audience. Our visitors couldn’t make head or tail of it. At the time, works with a very clear visual narrative were much easier to understand for the public and in much greater demand. But look at the current situation now, eight years later, and you will see that there is a demand for showing more of this kind of ‘puddles’ instead of visually straightforward pieces, which the public is also prepared to view, of course, but that is a different matter altogether. What is important is that interest has shifted in the direction of works that are more difficult to read immediately and that are more ambiguous. And that is due not only to the fact that we continued to show these things to our public all this time, but also that we carried on this conversation with them.

We have a team of mediators working in each exhibition space; these are all young people, students specializing in contemporary art and culture. As you enter the room, they address you: ‘Hi, my name is such and such. Perhaps you would like to talk about this piece?’

Interestingly, if there is a mediator or two in the room, little groups of people immediately start to form around them. These are people why are not embarrassed to enter a dialogue and want to experience a deeper contact with the art on show. Of course, someone might simply say: ‘No, thank you, I’d rather view it on my own.’ But our job is offering a discussion based on certain knowledge of the subject and, at the same time, not imposing any interpretation on anyone. Our public is free to express their views about what it is that they see in this individual piece or the whole show and how they see it. It is simply that these facts can help them form their own opinion. 


Wilfredo Prieto. Holy Water, 2009. Photo: Artsy.net

Ukraine was one country when you arrived and a completely different one today. In what way did it influence the activities of the PinchukArtCentre?

At the time when Victor Pinchuk launched the centre, his goal was supporting civic society in the country. That is why he made it. Because, in his own words, ‘art is one of the most revolutionary forces in the world’. And by representing it in Ukraine, he could influence the formation of a civic society in the country. Until 2014, we also considered it to be our principal task. And suddenly, in 2014, this selfsame civic society took on flesh. The Revolution of Dignity took to the streets, and it was the young people who were the most active supporters. Protests were being staged literally a couple hundred metres from our building, and the participants would drop by afterwards to view our exhibition ‒ incidentally, a very political one at the time and dealing with the subject of police violence, among other things. They looked like they felt at home at our art centre.

Eventually, when people died, there was a change of regime and everything transformed, we asked ourselves: what is our role now? A civic society is already in place. What is it that we can do? And then we decided to shift the emphasis: from an art institution focused on bringing the top figures of international art and their works to Kiev alongside supporting new generations of artists, we transformed into an art institution that concentrates on politically and socially relevant exhibitions, which is more likely to mean group events than solo shows. We do still show world class artists ‒ as part of exhibitions focusing on subjects or matters that vitally matter to Ukraine… And as a curator I hope that they matter to the rest of the world as well. At the same time, of course, we still support the upcoming generation of artists, as we did before. Furthermore, after the revolution, a third direction has emerged, namely, researching Ukrainian contemporary art of the past. Admittedly, certain efforts had been made in this direction before, albeit in a strictly non-academic key; until very recently, there existed lots of various artefacts and testimonies that were scattered among a great number of individual owners. It was necessary to bring all these things together, digitalize them and make them accessible to the public, while also attempting to separate the myths from the facts.

Mythology does matter,of course, particularly for the 1990s generation. But it was important to compare it to the facts and then analyse. To this end, we are building an archive as part of our Research Platform, investing into a critical assessment of this practice, spanning the stretch of time between the 1980s and the present. Of course, we will have to dig deeper for that; for instance, to critique the development of contemporary Ukrainian photography, you have to go back in history as far as the late 1960s.

We are currently giving lots of effort to this task, and it should result in an online project in Ukrainian and English, freely accessible to anyone interested. This sort of approach is important if we want to understand what the background of all these things is and how it all has evolved ‒ in what way certain Ukrainian artists, all but forgotten today, have been instrumental in the development of the following generations. Some of them were incredibly important at their time but have lost their significance today. What can we do to bring them back into the spotlight, to reassess their contribution? All these things are our new objectives. It is also a certain study of the Ukrainian identity, a research of recent Ukrainian history. Our approach is strictly academic, and our researchers are given complete freedom. It means, for instance, that it cannot come to a situation where we must not talk about the Soviet Union, that we are forced to avoid this subject. We have to discuss this period, even it is somewhat complicated today. Because if we don’t do it now, this stratum will be lost forever. We have to research, for instance, the relationship between the Odessite and Muscovite conceptualists…

It is a very important project for us, involving the hard work of twelve researchers. We picked these people from the younger generation intentionally, so that they would not be part of the existing oral narrative and would be able to view it from a vantage point of critical distance. Every year we hold two exhibitions related to this work, this attempt of evaluation of this not-so-distant past.


Biotechnosphere. 1:3 scale model, created for the exhibition-research platform Fedir Tetyanych. Canon Fripulia, 2017. Photo: PinchukArtCentre

You are, of course, dealing not only with the past of Ukrainian art but also with its present. For instance, you were the curator of the Ukrainian pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. It is definitely the subject of a much longer conversation, but nevertheless, for those of our readers who are not completely up to speed on what is going on in Ukrainian contemporary art: could you outline some of the main trends in its development?

It is a very complicated task, but maybe, if I try to paint a really crude picture, without the necessary depth and nuances... On the one hand, there is this generation that first announced themselves in the 1990s; they experimented, and they reflected the society of the day through their works, although it was at times impossible due to moral or materialistic reasons. And they built a platform for the emergence of the next generation of artists sometime around 2002, one that adhered to a very critical mode of thinking and one that tried to visualize its critical view of the society. Some of them even turned into political agitators and activists during the Orange Revolution of 2004. If you examine their work, these are often condensed forms of protest ‒ creative, funny, over-the-top one that nevertheless took on the form of a specific artistic language. However, between 2002 and 2012 this generation evolved and gradually distanced itself from direct activism, moving towards politically relevant art, the visual language of which is also accepted on the international art scene. Some of these artists grew into serious contributors to said global art scene. They show at well-known galleries, they travel a lot and succeed in building a relationship with the ‘world outside’. These are, for instance, Nikita Kadan, Zhanna Kadyrova, Yevgeniya Belorusets, Mikola Ridnyi, the Open Group. And if you looked inside the Ukrainian pavilion curated by yours truly at the 2015 Venice Biennale... 


Artem Volokitin. Spectacle–1, 2015. Oil on canvas. From the Ukrainian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo: PinchukArtCentre

I would find these words…

Yes, almost all of them. And right now, a completely new generation is emerging. I noticed it at the latest PinchukArtCentre Prize exhibition. I actually find it hard to define the ways in which they are different from the previous generation as yet. I no longer curate exhibitions by young artists and therefore do not keep in touch with them on a regular basis. And yet it is obvious that something new is emerging. Social engagement still matters to these artists…

But on a different level?

I would rather say that it comes from a different source. The previous generation was born from activism that was translated into the language of visual arts. These young artists, however, have not experienced a similar level of disillusionment or aggression to that known to their predecessors; theirs is a different set of goals and they definitely speak a different language. All of it is happening right now, as we speak, and I believe that the following year will make many things clear about the essence of this new generation of artist.


Exhibition Crumbling Down, Up and Up We Climb at the YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku open until 18 February. Photo: YARAT 

In your case, interestingly, without losing touch with the Ukrainian background, you have also been putting your curatorial skills to good use in another post-Soviet country ‒ in Azerbaijan. 

That was an incredible opportunity, and it arose exactly at the time when we needed to reconsider the objectives of PinchukArtCentre. Sometimes all you need is to step out of the context and take a fresh look at it from outside. It was around the time that I met the founder of the YARAT contemporary art centre Aida Makhmudova. She is an excellent artist; we met at her studio and spent this first meeting simply talking about her works... YARAT is an institution that has emerged out of the actual art circles. Aida had her own vision of the project and resources for making it happen. And that is a story significant for the whole region of Central Asia and Caucasus. Going there and trying to help build a structure that would facilitate the growth and development of the local art milieu was very interesting indeed.

The situation there was, of course, very different. When I started working in Ukraine, there was already a lively and busy art scene in place ‒ not without problems of its own, of course, but still a functioning one. In Azerbaijan, there were a few artists working on a very good level, but very little happened apart from that. The task was completely different; we had to create a situation where people would feel comfortable carrying on their artistic practices, where they would sense some potential for experimenting and where they would have not only the space for doing things but also a sort of discourse going on centred on themselves and their activities. The actual structure, a certain framework for this is already in place. And it is already producing the first tangible fruit. But we need, of course, another three or five years for the impact to be really felt. 

The same thing is true regarding the interest of the public... YARAT initially based its activities on a programme of pop-up exhibitions. It was relatively easy to gather a thousand people for each of these events; nevertheless, it was a kind of nomad practice. A contemporary art institution needs to operate on another level of interaction with the audience.

YARAT is currently visited by some 6000 people a month. The number is not enormous, but then it is the result of a mere two years of practice in a society not known for a flourishing widespread visual culture. It is, after all, an Islamic society where culture is more rooted in the areas of letters and music, where all sorts of crafts, artisan skills are highly developed, but the same cannot be said about contemporary visual culture, and where the concept of thinking object does not exist in the mass awareness. That is why we are simultaneously raising our own audience; we are working on it, and it is an exciting process. 


Michael Hirschbichler. Theater of Combustion, 2017. From the international residents’ exhibition Double Standard at the YARAT Contemporary Art Space

You have had lots of experience with Ukraine, and now you also know a lot about the situation in Azerbaijan. Both countries are among those frequently described as ‘post-Soviet’. In your opinion, is it possible to speak of a ‘post-Soviet art’ as a current phenomenon describing artists from a number of different countries? 

An excellent question, and I can answer it very simply: you cannot speak of a ‘post-Soviet art’ any more. You can use this term when you speak about the generation that came into its own before the collapse of the Soviet Union or immediately after Perestroika. Today, it is impossible to use it, because that would be like denying the fact that the Soviet Union has not been existing for 27 years now, that during this time all these countries have been evolving and forging their own identities ‒ that there has been a certain struggle going on inside them, which may have been the result of a similar Soviet legacy but has been resolved differently in different countries. All these countries also adhere to different political models. Even when they are formally similar, the intensity of a certain model in each different country may significantly differ. So, yes, the term post-Soviet no longer applies to the contemporary artistic situation.


Santiago Sierra. Veterans of War Facing the Corner, 2017. From the exhibition Fragile State. Photo: PinchukArtCentre

Your latest project mounted at PinchukArtCentre is an extensive international exhibition entitles Fragile State. Why is it important for you?

Working with this subject in Ukraine is a very complicated thing, because it overlaps with the political phraseology used in Russia. What we do is rethink this term, putting new meanings into it. And it is not relevant just on a local scale, because, for instance, visitors from the USA respond to it very emotionally and say that it would be great to show it in their country as well.  


Ai Weiwei. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. 2016. LEGO pieces. Courtesy Studio Ai Weiwei

What is your own take on this phrase?

It is not my personal interpretation; it is quite an objective notion. It is, after all, both a political and a psychological term: you can be in a fragile state of mind. And the way this exhibition evolves actually oscillates between the political content of the term and the personal, psychological one. There is also a historical aspect to the whole thing ‒ our knowledge about certain countries that have developed in a way that culture now finds itself in a fragile state.

And that is why the exhibition opens with a reflection on culture, civilisation and history that takes the material form of the LEGO version of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (2016). It is a recent re-interpretation of the artists earlier pictures from 1995 in which Ai Weiwei captured himself dropping and breaking a 2000-year-old ceremonial Han urn. That is a very direct expression of the fragility of an empire that ruled a country for millennia – of the fragility of the historical idea of a state.

Occupying the space between these two directions, the show allows experiencing the political sense of the term on a very personal level while also transferring an individual experience to the level of processes happening to a whole country. Which actually was our initial idea behind the exhibition.


Bjorn Geldhof in Riga by the end of 2017. Photo: Kristīne Madjare