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Interview with Anthony Huberman

Anthony Huberman joined the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as chief curator in August 2007. Flash Art posed him a few questions about his plans and ambitions for the forward-looking museum.

Nicola Trezzi: It is not so long ago that you were appointed chief curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St Louis and you are trying to refresh the contemporary art program. Could you please highlight the main aim of this new deal?
Anthony Huberman: I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to lead the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis’s exhibition program. More than anything else, the goal of the new curatorial program will be to identify and support the most relevant and promising artists working today, internationally, nationally, and locally. More specifically, the program will embrace experimentation and will consistently encourage artists to take risks and try out new ideas. Built around a system of pairs — two artists and two types of exhibitions existing side by side — the program will gain a clearly recognizable identity on the national and international level, which is also an important goal of this new stage in the institution’s history. The goal of introducing the local audience to contemporary art also lies at the heart of the program, and the education team at the museum are central collaborators.

NT: The inaugural show will be a collaboration between long-time friends, Swiss artists Olivier Mosset and John Armleder, what are they going to do?
AH: It was important to me that the program begins not with a curated group show (which would be more about the curator), but through handing over the galleries to two artists whose work is an important influence today. John Armleder and Olivier Mosset are significant voices in contemporary conceptual art, and their names have come up again and again in countless studio visits with a younger generation of artists working in the US and abroad. With mirrored and opposite approaches, the two artists have come to St. Louis and conceived an exhibition together: while Mosset affirms his reductionist position with his infamous circle paintings from the early ’70s and a large-scale installation of 30 cardboard sculptures based on anti-tank equipment, Armleder covers his gallery walls with site-specific paintings and metallic-vinyl strips, on top of which he hangs a series of new paintings. His sculpture of Mylar Christmas trees counteracts Mosset’s Toberlones, both of which present art as obstacle and obstacle as art.

NT: Your background is rooted in the US as well as in Switzerland and you served as curator at the Palais de Tokyo, headed by former Swiss Institute director Marc-Olivier Wahler. Besides the aforementioned duo, will your curatorial choices be influenced by Swiss culture?
AH: I arrived in St. Louis with experience working internationally and nationally, with a wide range of young and established artists. Before the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, I worked in New York for 8 years, as the curator of SculptureCenter and the education director at P.S.1. I was also born and raised in Switzerland, and studied art history in Italy. While I am eager to connect the Contemporary to an international dialogue, my decision to work with Armleder and Mosset has less to do with the fact that they are Swiss, than with the fact that their work presents some of the more provocative and relevant challenges in conceptual art in Europe as well as in U.S. The curatorial program will remain artist-concept driven and won’t focus on one particular country or part of the world, other than our commitment towards a biennial show of local artists.

NT: The main gallery will propose a kunsthalle model, featuring commissions as well as large-scale and site-specific projects. Who is going to support the program? Are you trying to enlarge the range of the museum’s trustees?
AH: The trustees of the Contemporary are an extremely supportive and generous group of people! They are eager to support this new vision for the curatorial program at the museum, and I look forward to working with them. We have also secured a wide range of funds for the new exhibitions, including private foundations, individuals, and governmental agencies.

NT: Could you please give us further information about the Front Room? Particularly this idea of giving carte blanche [as in Rondinone’s show at the Palais de Tokyo] seems intriguing. What is it?
AH: The Front Room is a key component of the new program. Following the logic of pairs and parallels that runs through the overall vision, the Front Room presents a second type of exhibition that exists alongside the main galleries. In this small white cube space, we will present short exhibitions, 1, 2, 3 weeks long, or perhaps just a few days, depending on the project. It is not a project-space hidden in a secluded corner of the museum but a prominent ‘front room’ that greets the visitor as they enter the building. Exhibitions by young artists, special screening events, performances, or other interventions will occur in the space, creating a curatorial and artistic space in the museum that remains nimble, reactive, improvisational, and never sits still — something that is important for an institution committed to contemporary culture. In addition to these short exhibitions with artists, the Front Room is also a site for carte-blanche projects with other organizations. These include spaces with compelling programs: artist-run spaces, kunsthalles, and also experimental record shops, bookstores, etc. Invited to the Front Room with a carte blanche, these spaces are free to occupy the gallery how they wish, with a specific intervention, a representation of their program, or something else altogether. This winter, we already organized a ‘pilot season’ for the Front Room by inviting artist-run spaces in St. Louis for a series of carte-blanches. Although it was an absolutely brilliant exhibition, Ugo Rondinone’s show at the Palais de Tokyo (“The third mind,” 2007) was more of a guest-curator project than a free-form carte-blanche. At the Palais, I did initiate a similar series of carte-blanches to small artist-run spaces based in Paris that presented short exhibitions in the Palais’s project space. I am interested in how these might go in and out of the recognizable form of an ‘exhibition’ and perhaps in and out of art, even. I am confident that this multitude of voices arriving to St. Louis will be an inspiration to our audience and will reveal the rich diversity of contemporary art.

NT: Which artist-run-spaces are you going to invite during ‘pilot season?’ Is this choice somehow connected to the fact that galleries owned by artists, such as Pierogi, Mother’s Tankstation, A Gentil Carioca and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, are invited to main fairs like Art Basel, Art Basel Miami, Art LA and The Armory Show?
AH: The ‘pilot season’ of the Front Room happened this past winter and we invited alternative voices in St. Louis, several local artist-run spaces, an anarchist record shop, a printmaker, and an independent curator. This spring and summer the Front Room mostly features short exhibitions by artists rather than carte-blanches to other art-spaces, with projects by Ei Arakawa, Alex Hubbard, Max Schumann, Vlatka Horvat, or Brent Green, amongst many others. In August, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT takes over the Front Room. My interest in involving artist-run spaces is less connected to their presence in art fairs but more related to experimenting with exhibition formats.
Not only are they places instead of individual people, and not necessarily artists, these small and more flexible organizations operate differently and present themselves differently… I’m confident that their ideas about how to occupy a museum gallery will be innovative, unexpected, sometimes uncomfortable and subversive, always interesting, and certainly relevant to appreciating contemporary art.

NT: Could you please explain Ei Arakawa’s current project at the Front Room? Is there any method behind the newcomers Alex Hubbard, Oscar Tuazon and Gardar Eide Einarsson? Which kind of contribution are you asking to Dexter Sinister and the MIT, also involved in the Front Room?
AH: Ei Arakawa has conceived a performance and sculptural installation for the Front Room, beginning on May 9 and lasting two weeks. He’s interested in art-making from start to finish, with all of the preparing, waiting, adjusting, re-arranging, building, consuming, and deconstructing that goes along with it. In St. Louis, he has invited a group of artist-run collectives in New York to contribute various ephemera. Attaching the ephemera to metal duct pieces, he uses the resulting shapes as stencils to create spray-paint drawings, which form an abstract map of dislocated identities. Loosely associated with performance and the rawness of art-in-progress is the following exhibition in the Front Room at the end of May: Alex Hubbard’s recent single-channel video work shows his semi-choreographed tabletop actions; Oscar Tuazon’s reformulated and collapsible tent refers to an almost-militant DIY lifestyle. Einarsson then maintains a political edge but continues towards abstraction in a stencilled wall-painting of a chain-link fence. CAVS at MIT, as I mentioned, has a carte-blanche to present their program in whatever way it chooses and will likely show posters, videos, and performances. Dexter Sinister will soon launch a yearlong collaboration with the museum in a series of distribution-based documents and events to take place in dispersed sites and formats.

NT: Are your already working on Lutz Bacher and Aïda Ruilova’s shows? Could you please tell us a little bit more, especially about Bacher, whose career and identity is rooted in mystery?
AH: We are working on Bacher and Ruilova’s shows. Ruilova opens her exhibition at the AspenArt Museum this summer, before traveling to St. Louis in the fall, and we recently put the finishing touches to the catalogue of this survey of the artist’s single channel video works. A much wider audience is about to become more familiar with Lutz Bacher’s work: we are preparing a large project that she has conceived in 3 parts. The first is “SPILL,” at the Contemporary in St. Louis, which outlines and announces the artistic territory she’s been pursuing in recent years; the second is “My Secret Life,” an exhibition at P.S.1 in early 2009, which is a 40-year survey show; the third is “Smoke (In Your Eyes),” an artist-book that accompanies both shows and is published by Regency Arts Press. For her first ever solo museum exhibition at the Contemporary, she takes bold risks and presents a new and provocative presentation that combines large-scale video projection, site-specific installation, found-objects, beer-cans, vinyl text, along with a rotating display of past work. Her irreverent (but also very funny) work in appropriation, obstructed identity, and overall aesthetic interference has long been under-recognized and is particularly significant today as a counterpoint to a culture of immediate-identification and accelerated content-consumption.

by Nicola Trezzi