In April 2013, the Fundação Bienal (Bienal Foundation) announced the British curator Charles Esche as the man in charge of the next São Paulo Art Bienal, set to begin in September 2014. Director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Holland, Esche was selected from a longlist of 14 names. He speaks to Time Out São Paulo about being picked for the job, his way of working, and the art of portraying ‘things that don’t exist’.
You’ve said that the interview process to become curator of the 31st Bienal was thorough and ‘provocative’. What did you mean by that?
They asked good questions. They were obviously thinking through the question of what they thought I could offer the Bienal, and whether that was right for them, and it made me think in turn, ‘Do I want to do this?’ It provoked a change in the way I felt – before the interview, I wouldn’t have felt as committed to being in São Paulo as I now do.
I came to understand that there’s something quite precious about the São Paulo Bienal. The interview process made its history and its importance, which I knew about in the abstract, suddenly feel very tangible. It made me think hard about it: that if I do this, then I have to do it in a way I feel is ethically right, and I hope I can do that.
What do you mean when you say ‘ethically right’?
Well, that I’ll do what I say I will, for one thing. But also, the Bienal has had a very particular history – problems with budgets and things like that, and it’s clear that they want to make changes. They have been doing, over the last three or four years, and they want to continue.
I’ve always tried to bring ethics to curating, whether that’s relationships with the market, how you pay for and take care of artists, or how you relate to the local environment in which you are working. All those things were already playing in my mind, so when they were presented to me at the interview, I really appreciated it. I suppose I was pleasantly surprised.
You come to the Bienal as an outsider in terms of the Brazilian art world, yet you’ve curated various biennales previously – Gwangju (South Korea) 2002, Istanbul 2005, Riwaq (Palestine) 2009 and 2007, and Ljubljana 2010. How are you approaching the challenge of São Paulo?
Well, I have the responsibility to use the knowledge I have from outside and the experience I’ve already built up, and bring that into the Bienal. I need to question traditions and ways of working – the way the building works, the way the address to the public works, the way the commissioning system works – and see whether it needs to be done differently. It may be that the systems in Brazil or in the Bienal are better than mine, but they need to be tested again.
It’s one of my responsibilities, I suppose, to be bold enough to question those things. And on the other hand, I have to be extremely attentive – to look at Brazil and to try and find a position about where it is at the moment, artistically, but also socially and even politically. To try to figure that out for myself is going to be the big challenge.
How are you going to do that?
I lean on artists, always, to try to help me work that out. And there are my collaborators, including Brazilian collaborators in the team. There’s reading, and re-reading – and there’s also intuition. It’s a balance – standing for something, but also being open. It’s something I’m really looking forward to: I’ve done this in different places – in Palestine, Korea – so I feel I know the processes I need to go through, and the processes I need to set in motion. I need to go through them again in order to know what’s particular in Sao Paulo.
Your preliminary concept for the Bienal is ‘how to talk about things that don’t exist’. What do you mean by that?
Art talks about life – that’s what it always talks about, hopefully. But it’s also about how the world is surrounded by forces that we can’t account for – yet. Economics is a great example: it’s complete voodoo, with virtually no relationship to the real outcomes. We know this – historically, we can prove this. There are predictions and some of them are right, but many times they are more wrong than you and I would be by just picking a number out of a hat. But still we invest in that, because we need to have some sense that we know what’s going on.
And equally we need to invest in art – in understandings of art even if we can’t prove their relationship with this thing called reality, this thing called life. It’s a constant that we can never account for. I want to balance the focus on those magic figures and magic numbers with a focus on other kinds of magic.
You’ve said you’re suspicious of endless reinvention around the Bienal – that it should be possible to just do a Bienal that’s about good art.
There’s this idea of reinvention for the sake of reinvention, in the sense of we have to produce something new. But that doesn’t feel part of the zeitgeist. I think people are a bit tired of the new. New has proved to not be very new at all. I don’t think we need to once again announce that we’re going to reinvent the idea of the Bienal. We need to make a really good Bienal. We need to make an event, an exhibition, an experience that touches people.
Is a Bienal about bringing art to a place, or about letting art radiate from a place? To what extent does it have to reflect Brazil’s or São Paulo’s reality?
Well, if you ask me in the abstract, I’d say it’s not an obligatory aspect – the Venice Biennale doesn’t reflect Venice very much. But it’s such a tremendous opportunity to reflect on this metropolis that is São Paulo. Why not grasp it? I think if you don’t reflect on the city, then what you do is reflect on art as a separate category of activity from everything else in the world, and I’m not really interested in keeping that sort of argument alive.
I want art to be related to life, to the decisions we make about our everyday existence, and in order to do that, you have to relate it to the place where you are. That feels important to me, but I know that there are other curators who would totally disagree.
The 31st São Paulo Bienal will take place from September to December 2014