“The Contemplative Art Experience no Longer Takes Place” – Olaf Nicolai on the Future of Biennials

As of recently, an accessible sculpture on Ballhaus Square in the center of Vienna commemorates the victims of Nazi military justice. A lying X made of concrete that was dyed light blue was created by Olaf Nicolai. It is his first design for a memorial. And now Nicolai is one of five artists to be selected for the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The conceptual artist has already participated in this art show, perhaps the most important in the world, twice and has also been present at the Berlin and Gwangju Biennales. But how can an artist make a name for himself in the global biennial jungle? And do shows that reflect the location make any sense? Kito Nedo met Nicolai, who is represented with numerous works in the Deutsche Bank Collection, for a talk.
Kito Nedo: Does a Biennale always has to have something to do with its location?
Olaf Nicolai: As for me personally, I’m not all that sure if it’s absolutely necessary that biennials always have to reflect on the location they take place in. When it happens, it’s great—but I don’t consider it an absolute necessity. Why shouldn’t a curator also introduce a vision for an exhibition whose main aspect is not its reference to location? If you look at the group show in Bern that Harald Szeemann curated in 1969, for instance—the legendary When Attitudes Become Form—then the reference to the location of Bern is secondary. Szeemann could easily have put up this show in a similar format at a very different location—and it did indeed travel later in altered form to Krefeld and London.

What can a biennial achieve today?  

Like other large events, biennials have reached a point where it’s no longer about introducing individual artists’ positions or subject matter. It goes well beyond this, to potential shifts in the complex of art that focus on certain new phenomena—such as performativity, for instance. Reflection and mediation have become crucial aspects. The Biennale is important for Berlin, because the city is lacking a vital contemporary institution. We have Hamburger Bahnhof, the NGBK, and the NBK, but nothing that corresponds to the city in its role as a contemporary location for art production—as was once the case with PS1 in New York. And so the Biennale is still a place where visibility is generated—particularly for a local interconnected contemporary scene that has long since ceased to be merely Berlin, but is highly international.
So the Biennale does play a role in the competitive struggle between cities?
For a long time now, Europe has no longer played as important a role in art as it still did, say, ten years ago. Today, much more energy and attention are focused on other regions—not merely in terms of the market. It’s also about seeing which themes are interesting, which artists with what regional and stylistic features are providing completely new impulses. A shift is taking place, during which Europe is slowly but surely disappearing from this old, obsolete colonial leadership role. That’s a good thing and offers many chances. And that’s why it’s naturally even more important now that a place like Berlin isn’t reduced to a name on a map. London has become a synonym for Europe—as though it were merely about being the best place for economic turnaround.
You were present in Venice and other places many times. Is it true that biennials have formed their own genre? There are people who make a claim for “biennial art.”
I don’t think much of the term. And not because I take part in biennials myself. It’s more because the art I see there consists of works that already existed previously, pure and simple. Or because they’re projects that, while they might have been developed for a particular occasion, continue well beyond the biennial itself. It’s a simple truth that art production today is a relatively cost-intensive matter. This means that if an artist doesn’t have a gallery behind them that has invested heavily in the work, many forms of production are just impossible. That’s why these biennials are often events that make it possible for artists to produce works they otherwise wouldn’t be able to realize. In this sense, one could say that biennials enable the production of works we wouldn’t otherwise have. But they are also distribution machines. If you want to make your work visible in certain cultural spaces, they offer good possibilities for doing this.
Where, for instance?

The Sharjah Biennial, for example: the United Arab Emirates are not exactly a place where I have friends that I can produce something with, or where there are institutions that could invite me. The Sharjah Biennial is the only platform where you can be present in this region. Or Busan and Gwangju in South Korea—these are places where you come into contact with completely different cultural constellations that can be fruitful for the work. You can always take research trips, of course, but it’s always more productive if someone says in a very concrete way: “We’d like to do something together here.”

Is that the biennials’ secret of success?

It’s at least one of the reasons why many artists are grateful to participate in biennials. If they were the rape machines they’re often claimed to be, there would be no explanation for why people take part in them. The biennial is also an event that offers curators a chance to try things out and to work in formats that are otherwise only available to institutions: they’re exhibitions that bring different artists together on a larger scale and enable works to be produced.
Biennials are often criticized for their event character.
It’s clear that they tend towards being festivals. But the festival has turned into a form the institutions themselves often adopt in a major way in order to win over the public. Take, for example, the Nouveau Festival at the Centre Pompidou. It’s all about events happening continuously, all about activity. In this way, the public is given the chance to get involved at various different levels. That’s something completely different than the contemplative art experience that someone in the early nineties might still have had in mind when they talked about museums. That doesn’t take place today anymore at all. This gives rise to a contradiction, of course, which manifests mainly on the temporal level. You can’t achieve intense involvement and reflection with entertainment alone.

As an artist, what position does one assume?
On the one hand, people want to be entertained. And a world without entertainment would be just terrible. But the question is to what extent entertainment can also taken on a certain intelligent form. Take, for instance, the productions of the Berlin theater director René Pollesch—they’re a clear expression of the possibility of using entertainment formats for intellectual investigation. I regard Pollesch as an extension of a talkmaster.
And beyond theater?

The parallels in art are in performance. The audience is simply different today. It’s harder to get people to commit, but when they do, they tend to get very involved. There are completely different possibilities today for understanding something: “What is he doing now? What’s it all about? What’s happening there?” A greater intensity comes about through this. Whether or not this is of a longer duration is something I can’t easily say. Again, time factors into it. You see a lot of people that otherwise have nothing to do with contemporary art, but all at once they’re willing to delve into it.
When did this happen to you?

I experienced this in Munich, at the Pinakothek der Moderne, when I put on a one-year performance series in 2011 titled Escalier du Chant. For the project, eleven composers including Elliot Sharp, Mika Vainio, Jennifer Walshe, and Tony Conrad were invited to compose new songs on current political events. These were then played on the last Sunday of each month. There’s this large stairway situation in the Pinakothek, which is still basically public space, because you don’t have to pay the admission here yet. The stairs are orchestrated in such a way that they seem to be there to be used, like a reference to the agora. Working with this space was a kind of test of whether this could work. It was not without risk, and it could have gone very wrong—people could have been annoyed and complained, and just hurried through the space. Because serious contemporary music is not exactly a format with mass appeal.
And something else happened?

The result was that, in the end, some of the visitors gave us photo CDs in which they’d documented the entire year. They also came on a regular basis. It turned out that they hadn’t had any real contact with serious music beforehand. Whether or not this interest will continue I can’t say. But they dedicated themselves intensively to the sound experiences, and kept asking when and how things were going to continue. Other things were on offer, too, such as four talks in the context of which Friedrich Kittler’s last major lecture could be heard, for instance—or booklets that were published to accompany each song. It would have been impossible to achieve something like this with a classical concert alone.
Your works can be found not only at biennials and in museums and galleries, but also in places such as the Neue Leipziger Messe and at the yet to be opened Berlin Airport. Why are such non-locations interesting for artists?

As an artist, you’re invited to take part in public art projects. Traditionally, you’d speak of applied arts in this context. But the fact is that this separation no longer exists today—you just have to think of Tobias Rehberger’s café, for which he was awarded the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale. Even still, it’s a special area, very different than working with an institution. It gets interesting when you’re able to actually get involved in the planning or can address the functional processes. Like with the work for the Berlin Airport, which is a highly functional installation entailing light signals that are directly connected to the procedures at the gate.
As a kind of cybernetic sculpture?
Exactly. And it has something to do with Berlin too, of course—this “as though” character, all the glitter and facades. This is why it’s titled Gadget. Even if I say “it’s like applied arts,” I still hope that these works will nonetheless enter into a dialogue with the location they were made for. This means that they enable an investigation of the location to take place that goes deeper than a statement like “Oh, this here is so beautiful.” At the fair in Leipzig, for instance, there’s a huge, romanticizing silhouette in an enormous hall that recalls a hothouse. Together, the plant silhouette image and the landscape in a glass hall bring together two versions of the world as an interior. One can certainly draw connections between this idea of total design and the degree to which the market itself is designable. Or simply walk over the beautiful black and white floor ornament. In the end, whatever you think and wish for depends on who actually encounters the works.