Women in the Arts: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

‘The art world is becoming more conservative’: for a new series, the Director of Castello di Rivoli speaks about her experience in the arts

We at frieze have watched as questions surrounding the role and experiences of women in the workplace, the arts and beyond have evolved quickly. Alongside our ongoing sensitivity to representation within our regular editorial coverage, our new online series, ‘Women in the Arts’, highlights the crucial roles that women have played in shaping the artistic fields as we know them today.

As you were starting out in the arts, what were the possibilities for mentorship, collaboration and cross-generational engagement among women?

I studied art history and literature at Pisa University; I graduated in 1981 and then worked as a freelance art critic. At the beginning of my career, I never focused very much on gender. Hardly any female artists or writers were discussed during my degree – only the canonical ones, such as Sonia Delaunay, Artemesia Gentileschi and Natalia Goncharova. In literature, in terms of women writers, we were taught about Colette. But after graduating, I remember the support of women: Alanna Heiss, the founder of PS1 MoMA, invited me to be a curator there; Ida Giannelli, the former director of Castello di Rivoli, was also encouraging. María de Corral, who became director of the Reina Sofia in Madrid, was like the queen of art during that period. But overall, there just weren’t many women in the art world at the time.

When I started out, I knew nothing, really, but my ignorance around gender issues was parallel to not knowing about other things, such as modernisms outside the Western art historical canon – for example, I didn’t know about the great Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid or male modernist artists from Turkey. The problem as I see it is not just about the exclusion of women but also about exclusions to do with geography and class. I’ve taken pleasure in showing artists such as Fahrelnissa in the Istanbul Biennale (in 2015), and Etel Adnan in dOCUMENTA (13) (in 2012) and seeing how their work bloomed and flourished. It’s what I’m doing with Anna Boghiguian – one of my aims is to reassess the work of under-recognized women artists – but it’s not just because they’re women, it’s because they’re interesting artists.

marisa-merz-untitled-i.jpg

Marisa Merz, Untitled, 1991, pastel on chipboard in iron frame, 1.1 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photograph: Ron Amstutz

Marisa Merz, Untitled, 1991, pastel on chipboard in iron frame, 1.1 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photograph: Ron Amstutz

The artist Marisa Merz was also influential to me; I met her soon after I graduated. I wrote an essay on her work for the joint retrospective at The Hammer and The Metropolitan Museum last year, but I’m not sure it went down so well, as I wrote about her connection with her husband, Mario. The attempt to autonomize her practice is wrong, as her feminist approach, which is an Irigarian one, is about the importance of ‘we’; this is why she never used her maiden name. Much of Arte Povera’s aesthetics has to do with the non-definition of the borders of the work, and the important to it of processes and changes and chemical properties – Marisa inspired all of this.

Regarding my generation, I became friends with Iwona Blazwick and Madeleine Grynsztejn. We were reading Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Lucy Irigary and Bracha L. Ettinger, whose refutation of Sigmund Freud’s idea of birth as trauma influenced me. It became the basis of my work on William Kentridge. Much later, I met Griselda Pollock; I had quoted her and read her books for years, and she had seen my shows.

In 1998, I was one of the co-founders of the digital forum for curators, the Union of the Imaginary (VOTI). Okwui Enwezor, Charles Esche and Carlos Basualdo were involved; there were only a couple of women: me and Iwona. When I curated dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, the figures for a woman leading it were doubled: in 14 iterations of the exhibition, it has only had two women directors, Catherine David (in 1997) and myself. (Ruth Noack co-curated it with Roger M. Buergel in 2007.)

What, if any, are the difficulties of embarking on a career in the arts as a woman?

When I was starting out, it was difficult. I had to assume an air of authority and cultivate a strong voice and body language. I felt that I had to do better than my male colleagues; I had to prove that I was very good at what I did. The positive side of this is that at least for me it may have been the difficulties that made my work what it is. I suppose it was a hardship, but it also made me appreciate the physical, embodied nature of an art work that stands as a kind of proof to experience.

It’s important to remember that there are a lot of men on museum boards.

A disturbing fact is that in the past few months, most of the people being sacked or asked to resign from museums are women – Olga Viso from the Walker, Laura Raikovich at Queens, Beatrix Ruff from the Stedelijk, Maria Inés Rodríguez at CAPC Bordeaux and Helen Molesworth at LA MOCA; it’s odd, I can only think of one man, Jens Hoffmann who has lost his job recently. I’m sure all of these situations are different but, it’s nonetheless statistically relevant and worth trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s important to remember that there are a lot of men on museum boards.

What has changed today?

I’m a sceptic: I see a lot of women in art now, a lot of female artists and curators, but I’m not sure that it’s connected 100 percent to emancipation; it might be to do with a kind of 19th-century, Victorian idea that art is women’s work and in the West, studying art history is something that the bourgeoisie encourage as part of a well-rounded education for a wife – and you have to play the piano, too. Perhaps the art world is becoming much more conservative; the contemporary art world is much more connected with the wealthy ruling classes all over the planet than it was previously, and so it might be that only privileged people can study art and become curators. This is very worrying to me. Of course, I’m not sure – I don’t want to sound like I’m totally critical of more women being included, of course not. I’m just questioning what’s going on. 

What are your thoughts about #metoo and other initiatives to call attention to sexual harassment?

I welcome this enormously! I was very impressed by Coco Fusco’s article in Hyperallergic about the structural sexism of art schools. She said that the blurring of public and the private realms in the art world can result in terrible situations for young women who fear that their careers will suffer if they don’t go along with the gang of supposedly alternative liberated people and they can feel a terrible pressure to conform to what is actually sexual harassment. So, I totally agree with the #metoo movement.

Aside from the question of empowering women to be able to work without being sexually harassed – which is a fundamental human right – I also feel that this is the beginning of a revolutionary movement that goes far beyond the question of sexual harassment. If you look at the 1968 protests, they began with university students reacting against consumerism and imperialism and then expanded to affect the entire French work force. I read that Steve Bannon was watching Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globe’s speech and he said something I won’t repeat because it’s so vulgar, but basically, it was that this uprising of women could be much more important than the Russia question. I think it’s the beginning of something vast.

However, as a sceptic, I would like to emphasize that there are two things we mustn’t forget: one is that that sexual harassment is not just something women are subjected to. We should be protesting against anyone who uses sexual pressure to exert power. The other is that we have to be careful about mob reactions. I’m an Adornian, as Judith Butler is. He made it very clear that we always have to be open to self-critique – otherwise we will end up making the same mistakes as the abusers.

As told to Jennifer Higgie.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is the Director of Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art and GAM in Turin, Italy. She was the Artistic Director of dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012.

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