This talk with Vicente Todolí was prompted by the DIA exhibition on display at MAAT until 28 February. Todolí is a Spanish contemporary art curator who has worked as director of several international museums and art centres. His career spans over three decades, and he was chief-curator and artistic director of the Institut Valencià d'Art Modern in Spain. He was also the founding director of the Serralves Museum in Porto, and the director of Tate Modern between 2003 and 2010. He is currently, since 2012, the artistic director of the Pirelli HangarBicocca foundation in Milan, where he organised exhibitions of artists such as Cildo Meireles, Juan Muñoz, João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva, Carsten Höller, Miroslaw Balka, and Mario Merz.
Miguel Mesquita (MM): Vicente, your relationship with Carsten Höller goes a long way back. How did the project that led to the DAY exhibition come about?
Vicente Todolí (VT): This project happened because Carsten wanted it to. He invited me to work on it with him, and it would be the third in a series that began with the one we presented at Hangar Bicocca, in Milan. The second one was shown at Centro Botín, in Santander, and now there’s this one at MAAT. These projects resulted in three very different exhibitions that share a common element: they deal with space as it is, without making any changes to it. No walls were added, and the lighting is the existing one, although we had to adjust the lights at Hangar Bicocca. The artworks are the ones defining the space. When the need for a wall arises, we let darkness be that wall. The challenge is to inhabit a building and transform it via the artwork. The building is more than a mere container; it is a space that invites one in and is momentarily transformed by the artistic intervention. In this case, we first intended to utilise the whole space as an organic structure that is suggestive of a loop which somehow referred to the structure of the building itself. This structure also causes some disorientation. It comes to a point when one no longer knows whether one's on the right or left side, in the northern or southern wing; there are only areas of light and areas of darkness. This feeling of confusion and uncertainty is recurrent in Carsten’s work. Those influences are expressed in the Light Wall piece: is it real? Is it like homeopathy? Is it a placebo? Does it really work? Is it science? Is it art? No one knows. The bedrock of his work is doubt, like the starting point of any scientific investigation, and then it creates this instability that makes us more aware of our own body. His pieces are very physical, but also very perceivable. Light as a physical element but also as perception, something that changes us or that operates as an auto-suggestion of that change.
MM: This experiential dimension, which has a lot to do with perception, is always present in Höller’s work. The perception of oneself and of discovery too. I find that particularly interesting because it brings about this dimension of art that isn’t necessarily that of an aesthetic condition. This becomes very clear if we compare Höller’s interventions for Tate’s Turbine Hall with Olafur Eliasson’s. Whereas the latter establishes a visual and aesthetic situation that induces an experience, Carsten seeks the experience first and then creates an object capable of mediating it.
VT: It is all a misunderstanding. Well, I’m going to tell you something I witnessed myself, since I arrived at Tate at the time of Olafur Eliason’s project; it is all a misunderstanding. Olafur’s project was purely physical. He actually wanted people to climb the mechanical stairs in order to see how it was made. It all became a trompe-l’oeil because of a journalist. For Olafur it was all a technical matter: the smoke, the mirror, the lights; he never intended it to be a nocturnal urban beach. But on the day of the press conference, a journalist laid down on the floor and said: “This is how it should be seen”. This event turned the artwork into something hyper-real, and that’s how people started calling it “nocturnal beach by the Thames;” that was the result of a communication effect. From that moment on people started coming, they brought canoes and paddled like if they were in the water, they brought picnics, they even had sex there. Initially, Olafur was a lot more physical, but then people started interpreting him in a more virtual, hyper-real way, a sort of trompe-l’oeil, a simulator. But when he first brought the iceberg over from Iceland and showed it at a gallery, it was all much more physical.
MM: That’s very telling of the impact that the media have on art; they are able to completely alter an artist’s work through their reporting.
VT: Yes, indeed. When working with this kind of practices, it all depends on the viewer’s perception. Every experience is unique and individual; a sort of chemical reaction occurs between the artwork and the viewer’s body and psyche.
MM: In a way, that’s exactly what Höller intends to do with his work: to create objects that make that experience possible.
VT: And also as a test. A test to analyse people’s behaviour. For instance, the project that we developed specifically for this exhibition—Lisbon Dots—was meant to be shown at Tate, but the technology was not there yet. So we decided to show it now, sixteen years later. There is a sort of behavioural experiment, a sort of ethology (this kind of connection with scientific research methods is a recurrent one in Carsten’s work, since he comes from a scientific background related to animals). Furthermore, there’s a juxtaposition of the industrial and the animal; all his works contain this dialectic of contradiction that generates the sense of instability I mentioned earlier. Then there are other things which you can believe or not, such as the striped toothpaste in Insensatus, the kit the voluntary participants in Two Roaming Beds are given. These are all very different things from homeopathy.
MM: Could we say that, if the museum is a space for experiments, the visitors are its guinea pigs?
VT: In a way, yes. We showed a piece at Hangar Bicocca that clearly invoked that relationship because it included lab mice; this was a piece we later had to remove due to protests by animal rights organisations. The difference is that people have a conscience. The artist gives but also receives; it goes both ways.
MM: That relationship is particularly expressive when we look at Two Roaming Beds, with the silverfishes of the piece Silberfischenhaus—created together with Rosemarie Trockel—right next to it. It makes us wonder who is looking at whom.
MM: Which also suggests this interesting concept of the museum as a laboratory. A museum which does not only intend to be a place to be visited, but also a place of intervention, where there is room for the viewer to live. In a way, it addresses the debate on the need to rethink the purpose of museums today; how we can readapt them and bring them closer to a more collective and public participation.
VT: The thing is, Carsten is an outsider. He doesn’t come from the art world, and it shows. It enables him to do things that no one else would dare to do. The ball is out of play, and he says: “There’s no in or out, it’s all a continuum.” Everything can be combined, and it’s that power of the whole, the exterior together with the interior, the art world together with the “non-art world” that generates this freedom he’s allowed to have, because he’s not constrained by an academic education. That allows him to go further and question everything, including what one sees, what one feels, and even one’s place in the world. Ideally, it has a transformative effect through this state of oppositional conception. That is, of course, an integral part of Eastern philosophy, the yin and the yang, and many of his shapes follow that sinuosity, even if, in reality, this relationship stems more from his scientific approach than from the Eastern philosophy which didn’t influence him.
MM: It is also interesting to see how this pragmatism of his makes him see the world in a very binary way.
VT: Indeed. Just like the lights of Phi Wall II, which alternate between several luminous elements, and in the end there’s one that doesn’t really exist, something very material that always reaches an immaterial state. Since Light Wall is physical but also ethereal, psychological; it is an exercise in perception not just for the eyes, but for the body too. Outside, you stand next to the artwork and feel the accelerating rhythm of the noise, a sort of heartbeat; but when you go into the museum and see Cassius Clay in Moving Image, it’s the exact opposite; it’s the twilight and the false movement expressed in something far more intimate, and you go into another realm.
MM: And then there’s Lisbon Dots, which opposes individuality to the collective, establishing a premise of game and, by extension, competition, with rewards and upgrades.
VT: It is a game, yes, but there’s also a reference to popular culture. The light effects evoke a night club, on the one hand, and a carrousel, an amusement park, on the other. But then he subverts those references. A carrousel that spins disturbingly slow instead of conveying a sense of acceleration.
MM: Looking at this new piece, which was made specifically for this exhibition, one notices its complexity and realises how technically challenging Höller’s work is. Did this influence your decisions as a curator?
VT: Absolutely. You can't make a Carsten exhibition with new pieces only; we had to include older ones. Here, the synergies were all focussed on producing Lisbon Dots; that was the main challenge. Carsten works with several teams of specialists. But there are some light pieces, such as Light Corridor, Double Neon Elevator, and Light Wall, that were developed by Inelcom, a company that owns an art collection of which I am the advisor. It is a tech company managed by engineers, so when I started working with them I told them that in art nothing is impossible. Working with artists allows you to develop stuff you’d never develop otherwise. And that’s what’s happening. The company has adopted some of Carsten’s experiments in order to develop other technologies. It’s also quite interesting to see how he says to an engineer, “I want to do this, and this, and also that. Is it possible?”, to which they reply, “we don’t know, but we’ll try.” Sometimes it really isn’t possible, but it often forces these technical professionals to leave their comfort zone, just like he does with viewers. He pushes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to confront other possibilities.
MM: Since you’ve mentioned your work with Inelcom, I would like to take the chance to redirect our conversation. You’re currently the artistic director of Hangar Bicocca, president of the Visual Arts Comitee of Centro Botín, and advisor of Centro Bombas Gens. You’re now returning to Portugal to organise this exhibition at MAAT, a museum which also belongs to a private foundation. How do you see the preponderance and the decisive role of an ever-growing number of private institutions in the realm of the visual arts and culture internationally?
VT: When I left Tate Modern, I told myself I would only work with private institutions thenceforth, because that’s where you’re really free. Let’s just say that public museums have taken on an increasingly commercial role in which numbers are the most important aspect. If you’re worried about these numbers, then you’re not free, and if you’re not free you can’t be independent. You devise a programme in order to achieve a given number; if you present an idea that you find interesting, you have to factor in the numbers. That doesn’t happen in private institutions. There you’re absolutely free because the numbers are already ensured by the companies that hold the foundations. For instance, when Pirelli contacted me, they suggested that we charged an entrance fee, to which I replied: “No. You don’t sell art; you sell tires.” There’s no business to be done there, and there mustn't be commercial goals. The goal is to support creativity, artists, and artistic creation. To be of use to the artists, and not to use the artists, like most museums do nowadays; they use the artists in order to survive. Museums used to be free, when State funding came with no strings attached. Just imagine a hospital that abided by this logic of “having to have a million patients a year in order to get funding.” They would only treat colds, since they’re so common. They wouldn’t care for more infrequent diseases that wouldn’t bring in a lot of people. So, because they wouldn’t have to care for other diseases in order to get funding, research would stop—and since it would stop, no treatments would be developed for these other diseases, and people would only go there for what they knew could be treated—and that’s how you’re doomed to popular demand. It’s absurd! And this is where we’re at, since governments increasingly underfund culture and museums. These aren’t seen as hospitals for the soul, but as a payed-for service, and have thus lost their mission.
MM: But, returning to your role as advisor and manager of art collections: isn’t there a risk of having these companies, which own collections and exhibition spaces with programmes and set contemporary art trends, deploy a strategy to increase their value? Isn’t there a conflict of interest?
VT: What I do is I set a sine qua non for my participation: the collections I help build cannot put artworks up for sale. If they do so, I leave. I’ve received offers from investment funds which I did not take. I’m not interested in the art market, I’m not even interested in the art world; I’m interested in art itself. Because often the contextual aspects take the centre stage, and the most important thing—art itself—is forgotten. Besides, some public museums also sell artworks. It’s a common practice in America, and it’s already being debated in Europe under the excuse of using the proceeds as funding—which, ironically, goes completely against the purpose of a museum, since its function as a repository and an opinion and knowledge producer then becomes contingent on a business model.
MM: Lastly, I would like to recall the first time you arrived in Portugal. When you founded Serralves you defined the strategy of its collection, and also, in a way, a direction, a starting point for the museum. Since Serralves occupies such a central place among Portuguese institutions, a whole new generation has been influenced by the Museum’s establishment and premise, and by what is shown there. How do you see Portugal and the development of its art scene 19 years later?
VT: Portugal has changed a lot since I came here in 1996. It’s a completely different country. First of all, there was no Ryanair, which may seem like a joke but is actually very important, because it has drastically altered these contexts. Porto has become a very different city. When I first arrived there, it was a very special city, somewhat decadent but with a lot of character; it seemed to belong to another time. That has changed immensely. Portugal has become a popular destination, and everyone is here now, owing to tax benefits—artists, actors, everyone owns a house here. There has been a deep transformation, but in art everything remains the same. No relevant institution has since been created aside from MAAT—which, for it includes the fields of architecture and technology, is not exclusively dedicated to contemporary art. Regarding influence, let me tell you a true story. There’s this artist duo from Valencia that moved to London while I was at TATE. One day I met them for lunch, and they said (or, rather, confessed): “We became artists because we saw your programme for the IVAM centre in Valencia. We studied at the arts and crafts centre right next to it, and that programme made us want to become artists.” That’s the best compliment you can get; someone telling you you’ve changed their life, years after the fact. At Serralves, in the beginning, I always claimed that starting a museum programme and collection is like throwing a pebble into a lake; it generates a wave, and another, and another, but you never know when the last wave will come, nor what it will reach. But you must have faith in that last wave and not in the first impact. The first impact can’t be anything other than what you’re starting; and that’s a museum and a collection.
Miguel Mesquita has a degree and a Master's degree in Architecture from the Department of Architecture of the FCT of the University of Coimbra and a Master's in Curatorial Studies from the College of Arts of the University of Coimbra. In 2013 he joined the Center for Social Studies as a Young Investigator in interdisciplinary projects focusing on architecture, sociology and art. Between 2014 and 2015 he was an intern at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Serralves Foundation. He was Artistic Director of the BAGINSKI gallery, between 2015 and 2018. He is director and founder of PARTE: Portugal Art Encounters.
Translation PT-EN: Diana Gaspar
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
Carsten Höller, DAY, exhibition views at MAAT, Lisbon 2021-2022. Photos: courtesy of the artist and MAAT/ EDP Foundation. Carsten Höller, Lisbon Dots, 2021, installation views / exhibition DAY at MAAT. Photos: Attilio Maranzano. Courtesy of the artist and EDP Foundation /MAAT.