Venice Biennale 2019 Warm Up with Dr Zoe Whitley

On Wednesday 20 February, we enjoyed an Italian-inspired evening at Rosewood London for a conversation between Curator of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019 and Curator, International Art at Tate, (and soon to be Senior Curator at The Hayward Gallery!), Dr Zoe Whitley and Editor at Large of Elephant Magazine, Holly Black. Zoe and Holly chatted about the 58th Biennale Arte 2019, Zoe’s ‘Soul of A Nation’ at Tate, her PhD, her young daughter and so much more! Read on for highlights of the conversation …

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Holly: It takes a very specific type to be curator of Venice because you have a very intimate relationship with the artist, but you also have to be spokesperson for the pavilion, you’ve got to be able to work with a team, not necessarily let the ego get in the way. You also have, on top of that, the fact that Cathy works as an artist who doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t like any long museum wall text or any explanation of her work. How has that been? 

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Zoe: One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how curating looks like such an exciting thing to do; like there’s no work involved, and it’s just fun and travel and wonderful evenings just like this! It’s all fried balls of macaroni cheese and gorgeous cocktails. I wish it was, but it’s not...

To work effectively as a curator, you do need to have a point of view, to have a vision and to be rigorous in your research. But you also have to know that being a curator does not mean that your vision of something is the only vision that matters. I think there is often a sense that the curator gets their name in lights: sort of like if you see a film and it’s written by, directed by, screenplay by, produced by and starring The Curator. You can’t do this job and work with living artists if you are the star. I’m an only child, I like to talk, I’m very pleased that you guys are all here listening to me, but there does come a point when you do have to be clear why you’re doing this work and who you’re doing it for.

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Often with curating you only see a finished product. You might think, ‘Oh man how did they do that? How did they get to that point?’. Sometimes it helps to know that they’ve been doing this job for 17 years. Most often, I’ve applied for roles like any other regular job; got a second interview, was appointed. I spend a lot of my time checking emails or sitting in meetings. You might then think ‘oh that sounds boring’ but sometimes, oftentimes, that’s part of the work. Creative work and collaboration, when it really works, is super rewarding. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, it can be really hard.

Holly: I think especially if you’re talking about something like the Venice Biennale, everyone is thinking super yachts, high heels, little bowls of Aperol Spritz, which it is later. But the actual task of putting together a show in the pavilion in the Giardini is a really big undertaking. You have things to think about within the pavilion itself in terms of working with that space as well.

Zoe: I think a lot of that comes from the fact that we are also having the baton handed to us from another team. I often explain to others who don’t know Venice that it’s like the Art Olympics but it happens twice as often! In between La Biennale Arte exhibitions, the Architecture Biennale happens. So there has to be one get-out/de-install and then this other team is immediately coming in. Cathy Wilkes said yes to representing Britain in 2019, cleared her calendar and is making an entirely new body of work. It’s a very short period of time to do that from when she was selected in January 2018 until now.

Ghana’s going to have its first pavilion which I’m super super excited about. The artist representing the United States, sculptor Martin Puryear, is somebody who we included in Soul of Nation. I’m really excited about that, too. Being a part of this whole bigger undertaking is incredibly exciting but it takes up a lot of headspace. There are so many very minute logistics to get to the finish line, not least the fact that once the artworks arrive in the city, everything has to go by boat to the pavilion!

In terms of working with Cathy, it seems so interesting to me that Cathy is about the anti-spectacular, is about being with the work and feeling the work. Again, that’s something really interesting for Venice, this isn’t a giant Damien Hirst golden sculpture. 

Zoe: It’s a challenge and it’s also a risk. You know, I always say that Cathy’s work is art that whispers rather than shouts... Some people may still have in mind the work that got her nominated for the Turner prize. There were certain arrangements of works that involved mannequins, ten years or more ago. The work has continued to develop. The new work, like you say, is anti-spectacular but really reverberates with meaning in the longer run. It feels really special to be a part of being able to present it publicly.

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Holly: Yes, and especially with the world of social media and especially when you go to Venice or Frieze or Art Basel, everyone is trying to capture the effortless glamour and get the shot of the art work that they think is going to say something about them. It is so different with Cathy and her work, it is going to be a real experience to see that at Venice.

Zoe: I read an amazing short story by David Foster Wallace called ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’. It is set on a cruise ship and DFW described this naff cruise director with a fantastic line: “posing for a photograph that nobody is taking.” I think there are plenty of moments like that in the art world. Posing, wanting to be looked at.

Despite those instances, I constantly return to the fact that Cathy’s work has an absence of pretence, as a genuine and sincere act of thinking through making. So the work can be sometimes difficult and it can be obscure, but it is better and more persuasive for not giving everything away. I think that she has really challenged me to think differently about how we consume art works because it is really hard to be left in a state of uncertainty. But certainty? That’s not what her work is about: there isn’t ‘the right answer’, or once you’ve read this press release now you’ve cracked it. No-one else can do the work for you of seeing and being with the work. It’s been such an interesting process of undoing... whatever you want to call it - whether it’s “art appreciation” or connoisseurship or however you define the ways we learn how to talk the talk in an art context.

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By its very nature, Venice has always been based on this model of national pavilions. So, how did it feel to be an American curator who has obviously had a career established in Britain, but presenting in this national context?

Zoe: I’d add onto that that I’m a Black woman as well.   … These are things that Cathy and I have talked about. There are ways to subtly challenge these notions and boundaries. To exceed expectations. Not only with me as curator, but then Cathy being from Northern Ireland, based in Glasgow, and as a result, not necessarily being the default that comes to mind when people think of a “British artist.” But she is, of course!

I think it’s ok or even natural to feel conflicted about these kind of national representations, particularly now when social and political divisions run deep. I’ve actually found that there has been a super productive questioning of national identity from the artists who choose to take up these highly visible positions through what they do within those spaces.

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Being willing to engage with that complexity is healthy: there’s no pretending everything is fine and great with the state of the world. Taking up that contested space also means not saying ‘I hate everything’ and opting out. So productive moments of tension emerge in thinking through it. … It’s such a live discussion; the way people think about national identity. What gets opened up and what gets shut down? This is going to sound like some Miss America statement, but the artists I enjoy working with most are the ones who are able to tear these walls down. They help us reconsider things in provocative ways. 

Art is not separated from real life. Venice allows for coming together in ways that interest and inspire me. Those aren’t the kind of fancy parties that people read about in Vanity Fair — those have never been the meaningful moments for me. It’s about what artists are doing and what they can help us see or question. So I do think that Venice remains totally valid for coming together. At its best, it invites a kind of spilling out of connections, ideas, and visions so that it is not only for those of us who have more privileged access but it reverberates more widely.

Q&A

Q. In relation to Soul of a Nation, was there anything that you really wanted for that show that you guys didn’t get?

A. For the most part, we always found a way. Don’t let this smile fool you, I don’t take no for an answer. What was there was there because we often had to turn a no into a yes; having been told something was impossible and finding solutions that made things possible.

Q. i’m about to embark on a phd myself, and i wondered whether you can talk more about your PhD and why you chose to do it?  

A. I did it personally more as a means to an end. I’m not an overly academic or theory-minded person. I like putting things into practice, like working with living artists. I enjoy the critical proximity rather than the critical distance you would normally have as an academic.

You know, there aren’t that many institutional curating jobs in London. I was facing the prospect that even with 10 years’ museum curating experience,  I wasn’t necessarily going to find another museum job. The PhD seemed  then the best way for me to continue in my field, with both the experience and the credential.

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Q. Do you have any closing advice?

A. Always be a cat. Maybe that’s my advice?

Holly and I have joked about personality types that make you more inclined to be a people pleaser or someone who can disregard the opinions of others: like the difference between being a likeable puppy or a nonchalant cat! Advice I’m trying to follow personally is to be less like a puppy and more like a cat. 

You know the popular hashtag #nofucksgiven? My biggest problem in life is that I give all of them! I do. I’m making more of an effort not to. But all my grey hairs come from caring about lots of little things and opinions, sometimes a little too much. 

Holly: Omg, everyone is always asking Zoe for help, she even answers DMs from crazy people. 

Zoe: And then my husband is like ‘Why are you still talking to this person?’ and I’m like ‘cause I’m trying to explain, why I can’t help!’ See, there’s an insight into who I really am! (And why I need to be more cat-like!) 

Photography by Luke Fullalove.