Jean-Hubert Martin

By Andrew Maerkle

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov – Study for La Porte, sketch for Monumenta 2014, “The Strange City.” All images: © Ilya and Emilia Kabakov / ADAGP, Paris 2014.

Born in 1944, Jean-Hubert Martin joined the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris as a curator in 1971, and was part of the team that established the Centre Pompidou in 1977. After serving as the director of Kunsthalle Bern in 1982-85, Martin returned in 1987-90 to the Pompidou as director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, and has since overseen institutions including the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in Paris and the Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf. His organization of the exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” in 1989, which included established contemporary artists from the West with their peers from across the world, is widely regarded as a breakthrough in reassessing the center-periphery hierarchy of Modernism.

Martin recently visited Japan to present a lecture for the International Seminar on Art Management: Imagining a New Art Management at Gakushuin Women’s College in Tokyo. ART iT met with Martin after the lecture to reflect on developments in contemporary art in the 25 years since “Magiciens de la Terre” and discuss Emilia & Ilya Kabakov’s upcoming project for Monumenta 2014 at the Grand Palais in Paris, which Martin is overseeing.


ART iT: The world has changed considerably in the almost 25 years since “Magiciens de la Terre” was held in 1989. What are your reflections on the exhibition from the vantage point of the present?

JHM: The world has changed since that time, and I think that “Magiciens de la Terre” was an actor in bringing about this change. That same year the Tiananmen Square Incident occurred on the day of the exhibition opening, which had tremendous ramifications for the invited Chinese artists, one of whom chose to stay in Paris as a refugee. This was followed later in the year by the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But I would like to point out one aspect of the exhibition that was misunderstood. The scope of artists who were gathered in “Magiciens” was very open and extensive. The exhibition actually included a lot of so-called craft artists, and I think this is what has been misunderstood. Who has decided what is art and what is craft? Obviously, it is the Western experts. Who decides what is and is not art? Who decides what is and is not in the mainstream? Who decides what can enter the market and what not? The purpose behind “Magiciens” was to raise this very set of questions. And I think there is still much to be understood and discovered in what we usually classify in special fields like anthropology or ethnology.
For me, there is no difference: there are human beings; human beings produce visual expressions, and all visual expressions are worth looking at. There is, for instance, an enormous field of creative expression that is completely ignored by the world of contemporary art, which is the field of religious visual expression. Why do we admit only what is agnostic into the field of contemporary art? Why is everything religious left completely aside as something belonging to the past? Look at the innovations that have been inspired by the contact between cultures. We have the stereotypes that religious expression is always completely traditional, maintaining old canons and systems, but religious visual expression is undergoing tremendous change, and it is fascinating to see how it is evolving. This has very much to do with how human beings handle globalization today and how they cope with it
So the very important part of the debate is still not very well understood. We have to continue to question this field of so-called contemporary international art.

ART iT: Perhaps we could say that Aperto 88 at the Venice Biennale and “Magiciens” form one benchmark, and then the successive documentas in 1997 and 2002, directed by Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor, respectively, form another in the opening up of contemporary art to a more international perspective, but I wonder whether this development has in some way reinforced the hegemony of contemporary art.

JHM: Certainly I do not think the two documentas touched upon the point I just raised. They were mainstream contemporary international art exhibitions. I tried to go to countries where no curator had been before and see whether there were artists with strong personalities who were capable of delivering efficient works, and that is the sort of real research that has not been done by my colleagues since.
We have expanded geographically, so that curators nowadays must count how many artists from Asia, from Africa, from the Pacific are included in their exhibitions before they finalize their exhibition proposals. But that has created a new generation of artists who work within the system created by the West. Of course, you have situations emerging in China and elsewhere and everybody is pleased, but, again, it’s occurring within a system that has been created by the West. This system does not question the definition of contemporary art, which is what I criticize or at least want to cast into doubt.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov – Study for Le Musée vide, aquarelle for Monumenta 2014.

ART iT: How do you feel about recent attempts to recover alternate modernisms outside the canonical narrative of contemporary art? Can this productively destabilize the canon, or will it reinforce it?

JHM: I think it is productive. Currently at the Centre Pompidou in Paris there is an exhibition called “Modernités Plurielles de 1905 à 1970,” which uses historical research to criticize the hegemony of modernism over the Western world, and also to an extent how it applies to the rest of the world. Let’s say this is part of the normal process of post-modernism. Certainly, we have to understand historically what happened in the 20th century and how the idea of modernism diffused throughout the world. This diffusion brought about interesting results in cases where artists returned with modernist ideas to their countries, like Japan or China, and then discovered interesting local situations – again, of what would normally be classified as ethnology – such as local popular art or craft, which they helped to show and make known, and which then circulated to the West, establishing a triangle of repercussions.

ART iT: “Magiciens” sought to relativize the idea of contemporary art and the canon of contemporary art. What are some of the recent exhibitions that sustain that vision? For example, what did you think of Massimiliano Gioni’s central exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, which included a significant number of artists who would be considered outsider or Art Brut artists?

JHM: This is interesting. Gioni’s exhibition stayed more or less in the Western field, but at least we were shown artists who are self-taught, who were not at all in the mainstream. For me this Biennale was a rupture, a break with what has come before. When I organized “Magiciens,” I was worried about inviting so-called “Art Brut” artists because at the time the term was specifically linked to people who were incarcerated in mental institutions and correctional facilities, people who were extremely marginalized and isolated, and I was concerned that viewers might mistakenly draw parallels between such artists and those who are socially integrated and working in and respected by their communities, but outside of the mainstream. The terminology is changing now, and in English the concept of Outsider Art is much more open, while personally I prefer to talk about self-taught artists. But I think Gioni is going in the right direction and his inclusion of Outsider Art in the Biennale was totally appropriate.

ART iT: One potential criticism is that generally the people leading the opening up of art to encompass more fields of expression happen to be based in the West, while in many situations outside the West artists, curators and critics are still struggling to establish greater acceptance of and support for contemporary art in the first place. Those in the West enjoy a position of privilege that is retained from the center-periphery circulation of modernism.

JHM: You’re right, this is exactly what has to be fought against. Many other cultures have inherited their idea of art from the West, and you have to stop it. The situation in Japan is interesting because, as mentioned by Toshio Shimizu yesterday, these questions were more or less already raised here in the past, and it would be interesting to revive them now on a world level. When I visited Japan for the first time during preparations for “Magiciens,” I was puzzled when I asked my friends and colleagues how they would define art in Japan, as the answers were not at all what I expected. Through further questioning I understood that there were many ideological problems that strongly affect how art is defined here.

ART iT: I came across the catalogue of a group exhibition you organized at Watari-um in 1992, “Resistance,” which included an interview with Huang Yong Ping in which you discuss with him the possibility for escaping the art market’s value system. Yet previously you’ve also mentioned how collectors are integral for art to circulate internationally. How do you see the role of the market today?

JHM: I don’t think the market has so much more influence today than before. Just look at the newspapers of the 1950s: there were exactly the same articles being written. You could take an article from that time about some new record price and simply change the names and the values and it would be current today. Of course everyone complains about the artists with the big names – Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst – but in the late 19th century you also had people like Meissonier with high prices too. That hasn’t changed either.
So the market is a fact, and we cannot escape it. What I find interesting is that as long as we are in the modernist framework, we will not escape the difficult situation of museums and market being closely linked. The museums always claim that their role is to establish a system of values independent of the market and trends and so on, but there are conflicts of interest that took place in the past and that continue to take place today.
What’s interesting is that in 2004-07 when David Elliot and I made “Africa Remix,” we decided to make an exhibition about a continent that does not register in the mainstream market. Working more or less independently of the market we were able to produce an exhibition that was of great interest to the public, with huge crowds at every city in the exhibition tour. So I think it is possible for museums to show things that are interesting to the public even where the market is not directly involved.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov – Study for La Cupole, sketch for Monumenta 2014.

ART iT: At the same time, in Japan public museums have been subjected to privatization and now must generate their own revenue – in the absence of a private patronage system – while in Europe, too, public money is being cut back.

JHM: Exactly. We have more and more to do with private money. The ideal situation would be to work 50-50 between public and private money. This is what I tried in Germany when I was at the Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, and the Palais de Tokyo is trying to operate that way as well. But it’s difficult. We think that the public system is much better because it gives more freedom. The public system is used to being criticized, while the private system is not. If you touch on a sensitive point regarding industry, ecology or society, private sponsors will immediately withdraw their funding. This may change, who knows.

ART iT: To come back to your exhibition for Watari-um, Huang Yong Ping describes his idea of allowing collectors to determine the prices of his works, without any interference or negotiation from the artist. But then he concludes that in order for this plan to have any significance, he would have to stop making work. Since the title of the exhibition was “Resistance,” do you think it is in these economies of circulation – not simply the market – where resistance to the mainstream needs to take place?

JHM: I had this discussion with Huang Yong Ping on several occasions and found it extremely interesting. I told him I didn’t see how he could do it. Obviously collectors would come and play with him and then pay only a symbolic yen or franc or euro. But for the first time in my life I have found an artist, in Morocco, Khalil El Ghrib, who has found a solution to that. He is an extremely interesting artist who has been known for years in Morocco – known even by Harald Szeemann and other curators – but he just does not sell his works. He has reversed the problem suggested by Huang. Instead of letting the collector make an offer, he decides who is capable of understanding his work and then gives it away for free. Of course there is no money involved, so he has to make a living some other way. He worked as a teacher and now has a pension, and he is a very modest person. It’s a very interesting solution.
But each artist has to find his own strategy. Look at Duchamp. He was against the market, but he sold his works. He constantly tracked their whereabouts and then when one was sold he would have a friend buy it – Arensberg was involved with that. So what’s interesting in art is how artists develop strategies toward not just the market but also toward censorship and social taboos. Look at sexuality for instance. The most interesting artists dealing with sexual themes are not those who make big pictures that are more or less pornographic. What is interesting are those who use erotic strategies to play with sexuality without showing it directly, which results in fascinating works.

ART iT: The market is one form of distribution and the exhibition is another form of distribution. What are the alternatives?

JHM: An important alternative now is that quite a number of artists are able to survive – not make a big living, but survive – by getting residencies and grants and making lectures at universities. There is an academic system that provides all kinds of possibilities across the world, and as an artist if you are able to make a name in this network, you can really produce intellectually, and also make ephemeral works and performances, without having to produce works for the market. This is new. In the 1960s we thought in a Marxist way that we had to escape from the market, but actually this alternative was created by the capitalist system. Now there are so many institutions other than museums, such as art centers and universities, which create possibilities for artists.
This is why French artists like Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, who both have major exhibitions right now in Paris [at the Centre Pompidou and Palais de Tokyo, respectively], are able to work at the level of intensity that they do. For years it was like they were operating in a laboratory – very experimental – and people didn’t understand precisely where they were going. It took time for them to elaborate a new way of dealing with art on their own terms.

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov – Left: Study for Manas, sketch for Monumenta 2014. Right: Comment rencontrer un ange?, sketch for Monumenta 2014.

ART iT: You are also organizing your own major project in Paris with Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, for the Monumenta 2014 commission at the Grand Palais. What are you looking forward to with this project?

JHM: For me it has been fantastic to follow an artist like Kabakov. I organized his first solo exhibition in the West in the 1980s, but at that time I couldn’t even imagine the success he’s having now. I’m very interested in the Monumenta project because it will be the statement of an artist who is 80 and has lived through so many different situations – the end of the Iron Curtain, 1989 – and now also has a distance from modernist ideologies in art as well. He has been a harsh critic of modernism from the beginning, but with a strategy also, playing with it through irony and ambiguity. This has to do with evolution and age, but now he’s moving more towards metaphysical problems about life and death, destiny, and taking a distance from all of that. He told me recently that he is no longer interested in modern painting and dogmas, and only looks to 17th- and 18th-century painting for his models – baroque painting. So for Monumenta he’s making these huge paintings, which are a new way for him to look at the world with distance that does not rely on the usual modernism or post-modernism. They are very free.

ART iT: To return somewhat to the beginning, through exhibitions such as “Magiciens” as well as “Artempo,” held at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice in 2007, you have convincingly argued for an equivalency between not only radically different genres of artistic production but also between manmade objects and naturalia, “artifacts” produced by nature. How do we create a similar new basis for criticism, which always seems to come back to the question of is it art or is it not art?

JHM: I’m not asking myself this question. Whether it is art or naturalia, we have a relation with these objects because they tell us things and we interpret them and they are our way to understand the world. So my way of looking at visual objects is beyond the question of what is art or not. It’s not a question that interests me, because as soon as I give you a definition, the next day an artist will come and do something different and say, “This is art,” and then I’m back again at the start of the whole problem. If I were an artist this is exactly what I would do; I would contradict whatever people try to say is art. It’s just life. It’s what’s going on.

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Things Worth Remembering 2013 | Jean-Hubert Martin: Measures of Change

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