High Quality of Art

bjorn When I was preparing for this conversation, which I had planned for a long time, I was surprised to learn that in open Ukrainian media (and which of them now aren’t open) there isn’t a single interview with Björn Geldhof, the art manager of the PinchukArtCentre, one of just two people who shape the curatorial strategy of one of the most influential Ukrainian art institutions.  

Moreover, his voice isn’t heard commenting about events in the Ukrainian artistic context, except in press releases for his exhibitions at PAC. 

Is this because Björn Geldhof remains a dark horse - probably the most non-public of all the most influential persons in the Ukrainian art world?

More importantly, I wanted to discuss curatorial strategies, a vision of the Ukrainian artistic context from the position of a foreign expert who works here - rather unique for Ukraine, about prospects for Ukrainian art, about the amazing commitment of the viewer who stands in long queues around Arena City, about a number of problems often said about PAC.  

But in fact, I only managed to discuss the high quality of art in the PinchukArtCentre.

Kateryna Botanova: It’s been 2 years that you are with the PinchukArtCentre. How is it to work with one of the richest and most influential institutions in Ukraine? And after all, why did you come to Ukraine?

Björn Geldhof: I was here for the first time during the opening of Damien Hirst. It was very exciting for me to see a line of young people queuing to get in. And when Eckhard Schneider, whom I knew before, invited me to join the team, I understood that the whole project is a project very close to society. It has a very strong ambition to develop a structure that allows to bring very serious projects into a context, where, perhaps, an artistic situation of a high international level is not yet formed. A strong commitment from the public to the PinchukArtCentre was certainly an argument. And, of course, a commitment of Viktor Pinchuk to contemporary art. This all together convinced me to come.
 
K.B.: What do you mean by the center being close to society?

B. G.: I mean that there are a lot of young people here. Every day about 1700-2000 people come to the art centre. In a western context it is very unusual that so many young people are interested in communicating about art, learning about art. They are open to new impressions and discussions, they don’t come here knowing everything. Their reactions are not always positive, sometimes they hate what they see. But even when they hate it, they come back. I see it as a very interesting situation.

K.B.: Do you think that you give your audience enough possibilities to learn about contemporary art?

B. G.: We can only expand possibilities for learning. You cannot expect that one institution fulfills all needs of the entire country. What we are trying to do is to invest not only in programming, but also in education. During the last two years education has really come at the core of our activities. We hope we can expand possibilities for the public to think and discuss art as well as to allow art to change the way they are looking at society or the way they are looking at their own life.

K.B.: Educational activities of the PinchukArtCentre are mostly performed by your very young team. You once mentioned that the institution deliberately invests in young people and a young team. But this is quite unusual that such a large institution does not invest in a strong curatorial team that can lead these young people. The art centre  has just 2 persons at its core - you and Eckhard Schneider. And there’s not a single Ukrainian curator or mature professional.

B. G.: We took a strategic decision with launching the Curatorial Platform. We want to give the opportunity to the new generation, to develop them. There are two ways of running an institution. One was described by a colleague from Poland [Fabio Cavallucci, CCA Zamek Ujazdowski, Warsaw], who has 23 curators, and I would never want to end up in such a situation, because you can go crazy. We chose another way - to have a small and focused team, who has a high competence. And I think that for the moment it is efficient. We have the intention for it to grow. We have an intention to give people from the Curatorial Platform more and more possibilities to develop themselves.

K.B.: This will take years…

B. G.: Why? They are working here right now!

K.B.: Not as curators. For 2 years there’s been in fact 1 curator in the biggest institution in the country.

B. G.: We are not the only institution in the world that works with a limited number of curators. And we have a limited number of exhibitions: 3 exhibition periods a year, 5 to 6 PAC-UA events per year. So it can be handled if the supporting team is strong. And the quality of our exhibitions are very high. Take as an example the recent exhibition of PinchukArtCentre - Prize. I believe everyone agreed that the level of the exhibition was extremely high. So it must be not so bad what we are doing with these 1 or 2 curators. [laughter]

K.B.: It’s not about being good or bad, but rather about the diversity of curatorial voices that can be heard through the institution. Although talking about quality: Who assesses the quality of your exhibitions? Who are your most important judges/advisors?

B. G.: I always trust the artists, I believe that they always have a very good sense of what you are doing. And secondly, we have an audience, which is very critical. Even if they are as we’ve already said not very experienced, they are still very critical. They ask a lot of questions. And we have a very critical art centre founder [Viktor Pinchuk], who’s always looking very sharply on what we are doing and giving us certain advice.

We are continuously doing a certain introspection, asking ourselves what and why we are doing, whether it is good enough, whether we should do it differently. We have a lot of international guests that can be quite frank. For example, as you know, for the PinchukArtCentre Prize jury we had very top names from the international context, and they were very honest in their opinions and advices. And for now they’ve been very positive, which is very important for us.

K.B.: It’s Interesting that when talking about references you do not mention the professional art community in Ukraine? Is it important to you? Do you read Ukrainian art journals? Are there any names that appear important to you?

B. G.: I get my information through regular reports my team sends me (and if there are important articles, our communication department translates them), and through google alerts. Of course, I do not read all the articles that are written about our art centre, but I certainly scan them all.

I find it important to listen and to think what I think about it. Sometimes I think it’s important, sometimes I’m not sure that I know what they are talking about. I try to keep my own line: well, I understood this criticism, but perhaps it’s not what is very important for us.

So yes, the critique is important, yes, we listen to it. Our communication department is always informing us and we are always taking it to heart. But basically we keep our own vision.

K.B.: How do you stay in contact with the local scene?

B. G.: I try to visit an artist’s studio every week. For me it is an important means to stay in touch with what is happening. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. This is my first line of communication. And the second one, I try to see as many exhibitions as possible.

K.B.: There are quite some galleries in Kyiv. Where do you go?

B. G.: I’m very bad with names. [laughter] The last exhibition that I really wanted, but could not see, but didn’t see - was the one by Nikita Kadan [in Karas gallery]. Well, you can never see everything.

Still, the most important for me is a continuous dialogue with the artists. Some of them - take Nikita Kadan - will never let you escape from the critical context. I’m not overimposing my point of view, I’m listening to theirs and I’m reacting to it from the curatorial point of view. You can say that my point of view does not take local problems into account. But why should it? My goal is to bring the artists to the highest international level.

I always trust artists, their vision. And then I try to push their ideas in the sense of giving them possibilities to open their minds, to redefine their ideas and to think about projects that they never thought about before.

K.B.: I see how this approach of yours is working with PinchukArtCentre Prize, but I honestly do not see it with PAC-UA projects.

B. G.: The idea of PAC-UA is to give artists the possibility to show their work. Let’s say with Savadov it was crucial to combine his new paintings with older photographs. To bring together the universe that he was making and to show that these painting were not coming from nowhere, but were connected with what he has been doing.

The same was with Iliya Chichkan. He made a complete new painting for the exhibition. And there were older ones. While Matsenko is making a complete new statement. It’s a continuation of a series that he’s made before, but the way that he’s showing it is unique.

The intention of PAC-UA is a certain heartbeat, a quick dialogue with Ukrainian art. They are there only for one month. It’s like lightning. I believe that this program is a very interesting possibility to communicate their work not just in the Ukrainian context, but in the international context to the international audience. And the PinchukArtCentre is perhaps the only place in Ukraine where they can do it.

K. B.: How do you choose artists for PAC-UA?

B. G.: Through studio visits that Eckhard [Schneider] and I are doing. If we visit a studio and see a work that we believe is really great, we say ‘Let’s show it!’ We try to be quick. As with Illya Chichkan - I was actually visiting Masha [Shubina] and then I saw his painting and said ‘Yes, let’s show it’. I try to visit artists as much as possible. I’m not visiting only in Kyiv. I know that I still need to go to Odessa, but I’ve been twice to Kharkiv. We also have PAC-regions, when they are coming here to show their work. This is done in partnership with a local art gallery or art institution. We always take it serious, dedicate a full day. And we are always very positively surprised.

K. B.: Who’s next for PAC-UA?

B. G.: Our plans for PAC-UA are Sergey Bratkov and Pavel Makov.

K. B.: Bratkov? He agreed to be shown in this little corner room, reserved for PAC-UA, after having a solo exhibition on two floors?

B. G.: This is a complete misunderstanding! PAC-UA is around 80sq.m. It is based in the context of the collection [located on the same floor]. So this is a strategic decision. It is not a place for great solo exhibitions. And in the year 2011 we had 25 Ukrainian artists in the art centre  within the PinchukArtCentre Prize and PAC-UA on different floors of the center. They are not just sitting in this tiny little space. But we just cannot have every year a solo exhibition of a Ukrainian artist.

K. B.: Why not?

B. G.: We have to show Ukrainian artists in the international context, we have to bring these two together.

K. B.: Did you ever hear ‘no’ from an artist?

B. G.: No. I think artists understand that this space is not so small and they can do a lot there. We give them possibilities, we invest in them. We start it in a dialogue.

K. B.: Definitely the biggest program for Ukrainian artists in the PicnhukArtCentre is the Prize. It’s important, it’s very well promoted. My question is why the nomination procedure is open for self-nomination? Why do you decide to deal with over a thousand applications every two years? After all, you still end up with the well-known names…

B. G.: You are talking from the point of view that there are no unknown positions. In the PinchukArtCentre Prize we had perhaps not unknown, but certainly not well-known positions from the Ukrainian art scene. For example, Mykyta Shalennyi, who got the Public Choice Award, or Natasha Shulte. They would never have gotten into the selection otherwise. Shulte has not been seriously shown in Kyiv or elsewhere.

K. B.: She had a personal show at the Center for Visual Culture, and her works for the Prize came from that exhibition.

B. G.: It was different. As her production is slow, it was hard to show a completely new series. But the way her series were shown and developed were different. Another example is Alina Kleitman, the one, who is not immediately taken into the canon. Although now she is.

It wasn’t about the canon. I was talking about the new names that probably should come out of an open call, and neither of the names you mentioned are new.

B. G.: We are democratic. This is a chance to see a lot of artists and a lot of works. Every single one is seriously discussed within the expert committee. What do I see? I see the artists grow. For us to be open to everybody is really opening the PinchukArtCentre.

K. B.: Why is the difference between the PinchukArtCentre Prize and the Future Generation Art Prize so considerable?

B. G.: The context is different. A lot of the international artists already sell at high prices, so the amount of $10,000 is not significant enough to attract them. It is also important as the prize money is divided into the prize and production money. And within the context of international production ten thousand is not enough. For the national scene there’s not just monetary value of the prize, but also the value of getting a scholarship to travel abroad and work within an international studio. As well as the nomination for the Future Generation Art Prize. So these different prizes have different advantages.

On the other hand, you cannot expect that today the world immediately becomes interested in all these Ukrainian artists. But they are interested in the context of the Future Generation, and there is a guarantee for one strong Ukrainian position. This position is supported not just in Kyiv. It also comes to Venice and is how there within the Future Generation exhibition. If we bring the Ukrainian Prize to Venice, it would never have this effect for Ukrainian context as bringing one Ukrainian artist within the international context. This is a much higher value and a much stronger promotion.

K. B.: What is your curatorial approach to the international projects you do in the PinchukArtCentre?

B. G.: My first projects here were Bratkov and Gupta, then Sexuality and Transcendence. We always aim at the highest international level, at new productions as it is the best way to show not just our commitment to the artist, but also the artist’s commitment to the Ukrainian audience. We also want to have a wide range of the artistic positions. We had African artist Candice Breitz with Mexican artist Damian Ortega, both with new productions, connected to the Ukrainian context. Then we had a wonderful exhibition of Olafur Eliasson, who made really a lot of new works, challenging and pushing his own artistic position. Then Cinthia Marcelle.

K. B.: What are you further plans within the PinchukArtCentre? How long do you plan to stay here?

B. G.: As long as it is challenging (and it is for the moment).As long as we have this incredible support from our founder and a possibility to work in a constructive way with the art context here. My work is not yet done, I’m just beginning.
 
K. B.: When you look back at the 2 years with the institution, do you see any changes or specific influences that you brought to the art centre?

B. G.: I can’t take credit for this, but I believe that the capacity of the team has grown incredibly. Secondly, the program really advanced. The level of our exhibitions is really high, but this is not just my work. As a curator you can have brilliant ideas, but if you do not have a structure, if you do not have a team, a support to realize them, forget about it.  I believe it is important that we invest in the Ukrainian team here and that we are successful.

K. B.: Is there anything you want to accomplish within the PinchukArtCentre that you have not had a chance to approach before? Any plans? Any dreams?

[long pause]

K.B.: Do you have any dreams at all?

[laughter]

B. G.: Serious question you are asking. To challenge ourselves here in the PinchukArtCentre. To succeed in bringing Ukrainian artists abroad. To help the Ukrainian context to grow. To see people from the Curatorial Platform grow and take over the important positions in the art centre. And to continue making high level exhibition as it is always challenging, always pushing to yet another level.

Björn Geldhof, artistic manager at the PinchukArtCentre (since November 2009). Before that for 3 years he worked with Belgian artist Jan Fabre as coordinator of exhibitions. He also worked as a professor in theater in Conservatory of Kortrijk (Belgium) and in Janus Magazine. Björn holds a master’s degree in art history from KatholiekeUniversiteit Leuven (Belgium).