The remote landscape and native culture of the American Southwest have long inspired artists and writers, but until 1995, traditional landscape painting, and craftmaking were perhaps the best-known regional aesthetics. Then came the nonprofit art space, SITE Santa Fe, the first official outpost of contemporary art in New Mexico, and home of one of the first international biennials. On Skype, Cathy Byrd speaks with Irene Hofmann, Director and Chief Curator of SITE, about how radical shifts in the structure of SITE led to a re-imagined international biennial series.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie | Images: courtesy SITE Santa Fe and the artists | Sound credits, in order of appearance: Pablo Helguera/SITE Santa Fe; Andrea Bowers; Liz Cohen; and Gianfranco Foschino
CATHY BYRD: The remote landscape and native culture of the American Southwest has long inspired artists and writers. Before 1995, traditional landscape painting, pottery, weaving, and silver jewelry were perhaps the best-known regional aesthetics. Then came the nonprofit art space SITE Santa Fe, the first official outpost of contemporary art in New Mexico, and home to one of the first international biennials. I’m speaking with Irene Hofmann, Director and Chief Curator of SITE Santa Fe since 2010. The identity of SITE has gone through radical changes in the past few years.
IRENE HOFMANN: Now we’re in 2014, on the eve of the opening of a new biennial at SITE Santa Fe. I think, when I arrived, it wasn’t just a new director coming in, wanting to make a break with the past. The desire for change was throughout the institution. As we pretty quickly learned, as we started to expand our conversations to colleagues nationally and internationally, we were not the only ones that were rethinking the biennial model. The restlessness or the dissatisfaction that was expressed to me about SITE’s biennial and what ought to be done in the future was something that is shared by many institutions that have been making biennials as long as SITE has. Of course, there are many that have been doing it longer. We’re at a moment where there are so many biennials around the world. When SITE first launched a biennial in Santa Fe, the international biennial here was the only one in the United States at the time and, of course, one of only just a handful that were being presented internationally. Of course, now the numbers of biennials are staggering. They’re everywhere. The very meaning of what a biennial is depends on where you are and also on who is the organizing body. Is it a contemporary art institution like SITE Santa Fe? Is it a city that’s hoping to perhaps redefine its image—bring tourism? There are so many reasons why biennials have been cropping up all over the world. And so, what to make of that? Suddenly the contemporary art world has expanded so greatly you could spend your entire year going around to every opening of every new biennial.
CB: It’s true. I looked on my calendar, and I saw there were four biennials opening this month, globally.
IH: There you go. That is part of the issue in terms of biennial making, but the other is that even in this vast sea of biennials that now exist, there still, for quite a long period, were only a handful of curators that were making the circuit. They were going around the world and presenting their biennials in different cities.
CB: You have had at least two at SITE Santa Fe, right? Robert Storr and Rosa Martinez?
IH: Well, Francesco Bonami was here, too. For them, this is where their biennial-making career started. From here, they went on to Venice, and, of course, many other great biennials. For all of us, whether it’s SITE Santa Fe, or whether it’s Venice, having these extraordinary curators come to our cities and present these exhibitions served us really well. They were really important and vital for all of our institutions. But I think, now we’re at a point where a broader pool of curators have a voice in this biennial-making process and a broader group of artists.
CB: The way biennials are typically organized is not always sensitive to the community.
IH: I think that what we really started seeing is a small group of artists, a kind of “biennial art” that was emerging—a kind of response to the festival nature of biennials that was producing, in so many cases, artwork that attempted to respond to a place without really understanding that place. We’ve all seen works like this where an artist comes to a place and is inspired by the history, the architecture, and the landscape. But often, without a whole lot of research or a whole lot of time, the projects can become very surface. Even worse, in the case of SITE Santa Fe, projects can really offend the communities here that are often invited in by an artist into the process of making a work. But it’s more complex than that.
CB: Several key questions led to the re-imagined biennial at SITE.
IH: What happens when a biennial actually can be more meaningful for the place, for the community that’s there, and not just for the art world that shows up for the opening, when there’s continuity between biennials. Ideas carry forward. Then what happens if artists who come here, who are inspired by the place, want to make work that deals with history: the history of this land when it was Mexico, the history of this place in terms of the land use or all the various cultures that come together here in Santa Fe? These aren’t easy projects to navigate if an artist just drops in a few times during the process of creating an exhibition. What happens if we have an infrastructure at SITE that allows artists to spend deep time here? What happens if we create a structure for curators to spend greater time here? Within the structure of SITElines, the idea, as we move forward, is that we ask the curators to spend as much time here as is possible. It’s already quite a different structure to have the curators really almost in residence at SITE. The same goes for the artists.
CB: I like that concept, curators in residence.
IH: Well, it is rarely asked of biennial curators to move to the place during the planning. Whenever and however possible, we want to create a support, an infrastructure to allow for curators to spend that kind of time here because, with this first SITElines iteration, we already see it’s just incredible to have them here and what it means to have the team together in the place where this exhibition is being staged.
CB: I’m sure that it has an effect on their relationships with the artists doing onsite projects and within the community.
IH: Definitely. For artists, it’s the same thing. If someone has expressed interest in doing a project that is engaging this place, there is now a greater infrastructure that we’ve developed at SITE to allow for longer-term engagement. In fact, one of the artists in Unsettled Landscapes has a project that will continue after our exhibition, because it’s really ambitious. It is one that engages the history of Santa Fe when this was part of Mexico, and so he’s been doing research in the archives in Santa Fe, but also in Mexico City, and is developing a project that will take the form of a performance at our opening. This is Pablo Helguera. This is a performance that I think has the capacity to expand and grow over the next several years, and so perhaps maybe in 2016, another component of this performance is in the next SITElines show. Perhaps even in 2018, we’ll see an even more ambitious component.
CB: Pablo Helguera’s is just one of the territories explored in SITElines. In this biennial, artists of different generations reveal a range of perspectives on the meaning of Unsettled Landscapes.
IH: You’ll see emerging artists in this exhibition. You will see very accomplished, very important artists from parts of the Western hemisphere that we, as curators, don’t often visit. They’re incredibly prominent in their own countries, but we don’t know their work here. At the same time, there are also more historical works in the SITElines exhibition. We look back to, in some cases, early conceptual art in the United States, and look at what was going on in Argentina or in Brazil. It’s a real range of perspectives, a real range of points in an artist’s career. All the works that we chose very specifically for this particular theme look at landscape, look at territory, and trade—three notions, three ideas that link us all in the Americas.
CB: Back in the day when there was no money, people used to barter. For this biennial, Jason Middlebrook created a general store that brings back the practice of trading.
IH: When we think about the history of the Americas, we think about different economies, different kinds of exchange over borders, exchange with different countries, so there’s lots of territory that this sort of thematic of trade could possibly express. For Jason, it’s actually looking back at a time when there was a completely different kind of economic system that was based on barter. He is creating a pretty extraordinary installation in a shipping container. This shipping container has been completely transformed, inside and out, to look like a general store. It looks like you’re walking into a movie set of an old Western. It’s really amazing: wood floors, walls, and counters. The general store, of course, in a place like Santa Fe and so many other early cities in the West, was the place where you could buy everything. Everything that’s in the store is available for visitors to buy, but only through barter. So it suddenly sets up a relationship with the clerk and the visitor in a negotiation over value.
CB: Visitors should come prepared to barter, then.
IH: They should come prepared to barter, but it’s not just finding a rubber band in your pocket and trying to make the case that this really has some very special provenance and, therefore, you should hand over this amazing birdhouse that you want to buy. Instead, you’re going to have to make your own birdhouse. I imagine, even within a month, most of the original merchandise in the store will turn over.
CB: Andrea Bowers is a defender of territories. For her project, she literally runs across the wild land of Utah that was saved by activist Tim DeChristopher.
IH: Andrea’s piece is really poetic. It shows these amazing vistas of this empty land: beautiful mountains, trees. She shot most of this film in spots where it’s full of snow, and you just see these beautiful views. Then you see a figure running towards the camera, and it’s her. She comes all the way up to the camera after being completely out of sight, and, with a chalkboard, writes down the number of the parcel of land that she’s standing on. Then we see the next screen, and it’s a totally different view of another parcel. Again, she’s running towards the camera. Parcel after parcel, we get to see. Interspersed is Tim telling a story. It’s a really powerful piece.
CB: I notice that some of the projects won’t even be on view in Santa Fe. Some artists are doing projects way off-site, right? Suriname is one of them.
IH: That’s right. That’s Marcel Pinas. It’s a project that really engages the local community and is one that will have a long-term engagement with us. Even after the exhibition, his project will have a physical component here in early 2015. But, throughout the run of the show, it’s really taking shape. The same is true for Marcos Rameriz ERRE and David Taylor. Their project launches at our opening. They are traveling the original border between the U.S. and Mexico and placing obelisks, not dissimilar to a series of monuments that mark the current Mexico/U.S. border. They have purchased a van, they’ve been fabricating these monuments, and they are going to be traveling throughout the West, making stops in cities all over, and reminding us of the time that this land was Mexico.
CB: Liz Cohen’s project reinvents the iconic El Camino.
IH: She will be represented by her long-term project called Trabantimino, and it is a car. She has modified an East German Trabant. Through hydraulics, the car extends to the exact dimensions of an El Camino, and so the parts have also been altered. It’s not exactly, but roughly half Trabant, half American car, and has many parts from an El Camino. She has traveled with this vehicle, not driving it necessarily, but on a trailer, bringing it around the country and especially in the West and photographing it on really important highways. Last summer, in fact, she brought it to a number of lowrider competitions. One of them was just an hour from here, in Española, New Mexico, where her car won a prize in the extreme body modification category.
CB: The romance of the road runs through Unsettled Landscapes.
IH: Santa Fe, in fact, sits very close to the Pan-American Highway. This idea that Santa Fe and SITE are near this road—though it’s pretty broken up by now—that roughly connects Alaska to Argentina, is pretty amazing. It’s romantic, this idea that the Pan-American Highway connects us all. That notion started us on a path thinking about connectivity in the hemisphere and how it actually can come down to something as simple as a shared road.
CB: Chilean artist Gianfranco Foschino makes his expedition by boat, exploring remote islands off the coast of South America.
IH: He took a boat and traveled among all of these amazing islands that are at the very end of the continent, in Patagonia. It used to be inhabited. The native people who had lived there were exterminated. They traveled from island to island with canoes. It is now completely uninhabited and quite beautiful. The footage that I’ve seen already of the piece, it’s very quiet—beautiful sun, beautiful ocean, beautiful, lush, green, tree filled, little islands, and bigger islands. No Man’s Land is the name of this piece, which feels like the end of the world.
CB: What do you hope is the legacy of SITElines?
IH: I think, with SITElines, we have created a structure and began on a course with this first exhibition to present an exhibition that has many perspectives that aren’t often shown in exhibitions in the United States. So many of the artists in this exhibition find themselves only known to us when they’re presented in an exhibition that is “art from the Caribbean,” “Native American art,” “art from Argentina,” or even the much broader “Latin American art.” While those kinds of structures for exhibitions certainly help frame our understanding of a context for an artist, this exhibition breaks away from all of that and presents artists from all of these regions and perspectives, but presents them all on equal footing and gives us a chance to really look at a lot of work that we are not usually seeing. Over time, I think we have created a structure and a network throughout the Americas that really allows SITE’s new SITElines Biennial Series to really present something fresh and something really new to the field and to audiences.