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Why art is like a magic trick, and what it can learn from the sciences

Art Basel Inside’s curatorial mastermind Marc-Olivier Wahler and Art Basel’s Global Director, Marc Spiegler, discuss ecosystems, experiential art, and the need for audacious thinking

Marc-Olivier Wahler is no stranger to unconventional plots. Over the course of 25 years, as director of institutions including the Swiss Institute in New York, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the MSU Broad Museum in Michigan, the Swiss-born curator and writer has filled an exhibition hall with trash, worked with an artist and an entomologist to “synchronize” different species of insects, and staged a show by Jim Shaws noise-rock band Destroy All Monsters in a building designed by Zaha Hadid. A penchant for thinking outside the white cube is what Wahler, who begins a new role as director of the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva in November 2019, will bring to Art Basel Inside, taking place in Abu Dhabi in February 2020. In this conversation, Wahler and Marc Spiegler discuss the ways in which technology and new environments are changing how we produce and consume art.

“We are inventing a new format. We cannot just import existing works or an existing way of doing things.”

Marc Spiegler: There’s so much emphasis on “experiences” in the artworld today. How has the digital age changed our expectations of art, or how we consume it? 

Marc-Olivier Wahler: If you look at the digital revolution, it all started with hardware, with software as a purely operational tool. But slowly, software developed in such a way that it could graft onto any type of hardware without changing its identity. Eventually, software won against the hardware. What this says about us, [and] about our institutions, is something I’ve thought a lot about. What if we consider the museum to be the software, not the hardware? For me, a museum’s program is really a medium, which means that when a visitor steps inside the building, they’re immediately embedded in a story that includes the light, the sound, everything. In that ecosystem, everything is linked and has equal weight.

Marc-Olivier Wahler has been tapped to oversee the arts program of Art Basel Inside. Photo by Benjamin Malapris.
Marc Spiegler, Global Director, Art Basel.

MS: Galleries are now moving to create spaces integrating art with other experiences, but you were there early on with your vision for the Palais de Tokyo…

MOW: I approached the Palais de Tokyo like a concept, almost, where you go to have a skateboard session or just to smoke a cigarette, then maybe you want to see an exhibition. That’s why it’s so important to create an ecosystem. Art can be intimidating. I noticed that, for example, in Michigan, where I was running a fantastic museum designed by Zaha Hadid. Fabulous architecture, but some people said the building looked like a shark, ready to eat you. People had that idea because museums feel so authoritarian; they tell you what to think, what has value. So in order to break this authoritarian structure, I rented a former Taco Bell across the road and put some of the collection there. It was like a gateway.

It’s always, ‘How do I bring people together in such a structure without compromising the art?’ I did a lot of this at the Palais de Tokyo, with exhibitions that physically involved the viewer, such as those by Tatiana Trouvé, Carol Bove, or Christoph Büchel. His Dump, part of the 2008 exhibition Superdome, was a seven-meter-high mountain of garbage, and you had to crawl into it in a tube. There was this sense of danger. An artwork isn’t necessarily something you face. Sometimes you have to embrace it or fight it.

Wahler’s Paris Art Lab, an experimental, multidisciplinary culture hub in a building designed by David Chipperfield, will open in 2020. Photo © Cyrus Cornut.

MS: Tell me more about what you hope to accomplish with Paris Art Lab?.

MOW: Paris Art Lab will open in late 2020. It’s an art center in a big building designed by David Chipperfield that’s almost like a village, with offices, hotels, social living, markets. The art center will use all of that infrastructure and collaborate with the inhabitants and users, as horizontally and non-hierarchically as possible. The idea is to create a toolbox that everyone could use to sharpen creativity in every activity of this village.

MS: In the meantime, what are your criteria for selecting artists for Art Basel Inside?

MOW: I’m working with artists and choreographers and poets but also chefs and sailors and taxi drivers and scientists. We are inventing a new format. We cannot just import existing works or an existing way of doing things. The artists will be put in a situation where their work is going to be redefined. So I’m talking to artists who are willing to take risks and think about their work in new terms.

Wahler got his start at the Centre d’art in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, 25 years ago, and went on to helm the Swiss Institute in New York, the Palais de Tokyo and Chalet Society in Paris, and the MSU Broad Museum at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, among others. Photos by Benjamin Malapris.

MS: You’ve long partnered with engineers, architects, chemists, and biologists, and you mentioned to me that artists are starting to work increasingly like scientists these days. Can you expand on that?

MOW: Artists have always sought out new technologies. And you could make a history of the 20th century, or even of the last five centuries, through artists who tapped scientists’ knowledge in order to experiment and open new territories. Nowadays, what’s interesting is that the collaboration is often more of a back and forth. Last year, for Water School at the MSU Broad, Oscar Tuazon worked with the MSU engineering department and the Guardian glass company to realize a kind of solar heating and cooling system that uses water trapped between two layers of glass. It hadn’t been attempted yet because the technology wasn’t there. But then they started to create, and they made it possible. You could use this in places like the desert, where there is no electricity.

“I want to give people this tool to help them clarify what is important to them. Art allows you to own your ideas.”

MS: My devil’s-advocate question there would be: Why should we categorize that as art, as opposed to a technological advancement?

MOW: I think any good art should integrate this question: Is it art? So I don’t think we should answer. As soon as you decide, the artwork becomes boring. There’s no tension.

In the 1990s, the monochrome painter Olivier Mosset said something to me that made a big impression, which was, ‘If you can perceive art as art, then reality can stay reality.’ Meaning, without all the filters, all the ideas imposed on you, being able to see a monochrome as a monochrome, which is almost impossible, of course. But that’s the challenge, which means it’s about the way you want to see.

Wahler got his start at the Centre d’art in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, 25 years ago, and went on to helm the Swiss Institute in New York, the Palais de Tokyo and Chalet Society in Paris, and the MSU Broad Museum at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, among others.

MS: The idea of belief in magic came up in your most recent book, The Transported Man. Can you tell me more about what you mean by that?

MOW: It’s not ‘magic’ in the sense of miracles. It’s about tricks. A good magician will create a tension between something that is absolutely impossible and the fact that you know you are deceived. My point is that an artwork has the same structure as a magic trick. If I tell you that there’s no rabbit in the hat and suddenly I take out a rabbit, you are only surprised if you believed there was no rabbit – if I told you the right story. A good artwork is the same: it’s the tension between the materiality of the object and the result it creates. You have to believe in it, otherwise it’s just pigments on canvas.

That’s why I’m very interested not only in magic, but also in fields like science fiction or quantum physics. They’ve each solved for the issue of disbelief by finding the right language. In art we don’t have such a language; it’s the only field where we basically formatted our own language. How we talk about museums is using a language defined by museums. That’s forbidden in science; language has to be objective.

At the MSU Broad Museum in 2017, Wahler organized ‘Michigan Stories: Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw’, highlighting the artists’ early works from the 1970s. Photo by Eat Pomegranate Photography. The exhibition featured The Hidden World, Shaw’s extensive collection of vernacular signage, which was acquired by the museum. Photo by Eat Pomegranate Photography.

MS: Can you tell us a little bit about how you will apply this to Art Basel Inside?

MOW: We have three days to create an ecosystem in which to suspend people’s disbelief. It’s not like a summit. It’s not like an exhibition. It’s unique. Day and night, you will always be physically within a new interpretation of narrative art. If you expand the time, you allow more opportunity for people to become aware of what is at stake.

MS: But is there an agenda? Are you trying to change their minds in some way?

MOW: Very good question. I think good art is by definition political, and I think a lot of people are hoping that art can change reality. But I don’t presume to change anyone’s reality. Art is a listening and sharpening tool. I want to give people this tool to help them clarify what is important to them. Art allows you to own your ideas.


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Top image: Marc-Olivier Wahler in Paris, August 2019. Photo by Benjamin Malapris.