An Interview with Curator Jens Hoffmann
by Xue Tan
There is never a moment of ease before the opening of a mega show — especially in the case of the 9th Shanghai Biennale, on display in a new museum, which up until September 25th was still under construction. The ongoing work did not stall installation; two weeks before opening day, curators and artists were working on the construction site in trainers, with helmets and masks, charting spaces and refining details in-between bare concrete walls. It was an unusual experience for co-curator Jens Hoffmann, who has worked intensively in institutions and for international biennales. Hoffmann, a renowned curator in the art world, presents a vibrant selection of artists from Europe, the United States and Latin America in this exhibition. His curatorial practice is known for being rooted in the strategies of conceptual art, often the subject of controversy as an art form. He denies this possible alter ego as an artist, insisting on his identity as a creative curator and exhibition-maker, but also hints at the same time that his works tend to be innovative and that he likes to get his hands dirty.
On the opening day of the Shanghai Biennale, Hoffmann looked vivacious; he was guiding a tour, swinging through Tino Sehgal’s performers and humming the tune. I caught up with him in the brand new cafe at Shanghai’s new museum for contemporary art, the Power Station of Art (PSA).
Xue Tan: What are the main differences between curating a biennale and curating a museum or gallery show?
Jens Hoffmann: What is interesting here is that the Biennale is taking place in a museum that is brand new — it did not exist before. It is a challenge: on one hand, the museum has to be finished, and the building has to be properly installed. At the same time, we worked on the exhibition while the construction was going on. It is a situation that I have never experienced before. Biennales are large exhibitions; I don’t see much difference from large museum shows, to tell you the truth.
XT: How was it to have to envisage artworks in a space that did not yet exist?
JH: It was similar to when I make exhibitions in a museum at which I do not work. I go and see it and look at plans. The good thing here is that we had an influence on where the walls could go. We were thinking while we were building the museum, “Where would the artists go?” This influenced the architecture, the walls, and the rooms.
XT: Are you saying the Biennale is leaving its mark in the museum’s architecture?
JH: Yes — if they don’t take down the walls, they will become part of the architecture. My question is: what is going to happen after the Biennale, in six months time? Do they have the funds, the know-how, and the people to run this museum? I just wonder, and nobody can give me an answer.
XT: How is it to work with artist and curator Qiu Zhijie?
JH: We have a great working relationship; I think he is a visionary guy. He really made all of this happen.
XT: How did you mediate your curatorial style with the other three curators?
JH: The thing is that in my work as a curator, I have a very clear vision and a precious voice with which to implement it. In a situation like this, where we have three other curators, it is completely different. I am not trying push my things through because I know this will only lead to conflicts and disagreement. So we tried to collaborate and respect each other as far as we could — to think about the general scene, the sub-scenes and the city pavilions. I like the city pavilions a lot; I think this is a very interesting idea.
XT: What is the message you want to deliver through your selection of artworks?
JH: We had the idea of reactivation. The Biennale is in an old power plant, so we are trying to reactivate it with and through art. In a way, that’s what art always does — it activates something, activates the thought process. That’s really the primary goal here, to exhibit art, to be provocative, and guide people in certain directions. This is probably the biggest difference between Biennales and museum shows — biennales are very open, very general. In terms of ideas, Western museum shows are much more carefully constructed. That is quite impossible here because everything has to move so fast; we were only invited this February, eight months ago.
XT: Can you talk about your selection of artists? I noticed there are many artists who have worked with you previously, like Tino Sehgal, Ryan Gander, etc.
JH: I didn’t know the context in China. I have never worked here before; I didn’t know people from the museum. So I knew that I had to work with artists who trust me, and whom I can trust as well. I can say to Tino Sehgal, “Tino, we’re going to do this thing in China. I don’t know how it’s going to be; the situation is unclear. Do you want to do it with me?” I can be very honest with these artists; it’s much better than working with those I don’t know —they might get upset when things don’t work out the way they wanted it. That’s why I work with many artists that I have worked with before.
XT: Are you happy with the execution in general?
JH: I’m very happy and surprised; you have been here, you have seen the process. It was a construction site one week ago. Now there is a perfect cafe and museum shop — things I would not even have thought about. All I wanted to do was to get the show ready. All of a sudden, there is a museum.
XT: What’s missing in the Biennale?
JH:I think what is missing is the time to think about what all of this means. What are we actually doing here? The last two weeks we were taken up with just getting things done. The bureaucracy here is terrible — it’s very difficult, especially for a Westerner. People who work here — the locals — don’t care about me and what I want to do.
XT: Six months is a rather long period for a biennale, don’t you think?
JH: It’s very long, which I think is good. It’s a lot of work to make this exhibition, and many artists were making new works for it. A lot of money has gone into it. I think it’s a good thing that it lasts so long — I am happy about that.
XT: How is the increasing number of biennales and art fairs shaping the art world today?
JH: The positive thing is that many more people are getting in touch with art; it makes them think, it gives them pleasure, and it asks questions. On the other hand, the art world is becoming more and more commercial; a lot of things are done simply for entertainment. That is the negative effect of all of this. The bigger it gets, the more popular it becomes, and the more superficial it is.
What’s interesting about this exhibition is that these very spectacular works exist. You don’t see this type of work in Western biennales anymore. People are very careful about not making the exhibition set-up too spectacular. I also think that whilst the economic and political situations in Europe and the United States are very vague and fragile, in China, the booming economy makes it very confident, so the Biennale is much more of a mirror of the social situation in this country.
XT: How do you see Shanghai as a city for art?
JH: I think it’s more of a business city — the speed is quite fast. I don’t know if this is the best city for artists. What I see right now is that the art market is coming to Asia, and the territories are being divided.
XT: What’s your vision for your new post at the Jewish Museum New York? How to develop the contemporary art section in a history and heritage-based museum?
JH: I will take care of all the programs — basically everything in the contemporary art section. They have an extremely rich collection and about 120 staff, a big curatorial team and art experts. What I am interested in is to bringing things together — historical works with contemporary art — and creating a dialogue. People always want new things — I understand that — but there is so much history and heritage that I think people must pay attention to it, and the way to achieve that is by combining contemporary art with historical works and cultural history. What I’m trying to understand is: what is the world about? I am trying to understand humanity, why we are here, and where we are going.