"A Journey to the Unknown" - Panel Discussion with Hans Ulrich-Obrist, Catherine Petitgas and Serge Tiroche


"Exhibitions are more important than ever before... the experience you make here, looking at these wonderful artworks, it's just something..." Hans Ulrich-Obrist 

For the opening events of the Latin American contemporary art exhibition "Everything You Are I Am Not," on display at Mana Contemporary in New Jersey, we had the honor on May 3rd, 2016, following the Frieze VIP reception, to hold a panel with Serpentine Gallery Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist, exhibition Curator Catherine Petitgas, and Art Collector and Fund Manager Serge Tiroche. We sat down to discuss everything from the genesis of the exhibition to the most pressing issues in the art world today.

 (Obrist, Petitgas and Tiroche @ Mana Contemporary, New Jersey)

The idea of the Tiroche-Petitgas collaboration originated in 2012 in Colombia, on a Serpentine gallery trip where the two met coincidentally and became acquainted with each other's work. Petitgas had recently published a book on Latin American Contemporary Art, which included artworks from vast Tiroche DeLeon Collection, and the two began to envision an exhibition that would bring together their respective passions and expertise.

The title of the exhibition, "Everything You Are I Am Not", is taken from the name of Adrian Villar Rojas' archival work from 2008 where he "already announces that his work will be conceptual, but against the canons of conceptual art". Petitgas illuminates how the piece, which dares to be narrative, self-referential, kitsch and relate to the mass culture and youth culture, captures the attitude of many of the artists producing art in Latin America today – their ambitiousness, provocativeness and their arrogance, together with their revolutionary attempt to question and challenge the canons of conceptual art. Obrist elaborates that the title expresses a detournemont, a subversion of the definition of conceptual art, bestowing it with a new artistic and political meaning.

Another facet of the exhibition discussed by Petitgas and Obrist, is the strong presence of street art, street culture and street artists or, what Obrist calls, "urban flanneurs". Petitgas specifies the different angles of street culture that the exhibition expresses, from the more global trend of street art, demonstrated by the outdoor murals by Os Gemeos, to the more intrinsically Latin American aspect of art made by artists who come from the streets, such as Moris (Israel Meza Moreno), who lives and works from within the heart of one of the roughest neighbourhoods of Mexico City, forming an artistic language that reflects the animalistic survival instincts developed from living in such violent conditions.

Since the nineteen-eighties, the art world has evolved from unilateral transfer of art from all over the world to Europe and the United States by Western curators, to a relatively recent opening of the art-world to a polyphony of centers. This shift has enabled curators from all parts of the world to be those who select the works that build the contemporary scene. The Tiroche DeLeon Collection, manifests this polyphony of centers, containing about 450 works from emerging art eco-systems in Latin America, South Asia, the Far East, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The fund focuses on creating a collection promoting young talents from around the world, many of which were previously unheard of by Western audiences.

Although the collection essentially contains works created from 2000 onwards, it is centered on works with historic significant and discovering young talents who continue some kind of artistic tradition. Obrist quotes raises the issue of the exponential growth of information that we are experiencing in this digital age, which is occurring in correlation with a loss of memory, a sort of amnesia. To protest against forgetting an art history that most of the Western world is ignorant about, Obrist is working on a documentation project of interviews of art pioneers from around the world. Resonating with this very ambition, Petitgas' transgenerational encyclopedic books attempt to narrow the gap of knowledge regarding Latin American art through history, and convey a dialogue between historic works and contemporary pieces.      

The panel then progresses on to what makes for a successful curation, and more interestingly, a successful exhibition. Obrist, a renowned curator and art director, exposes that curation is ultimately a creating of junctions. These junctions can occur between objects or, since the dematerialization of art from the sixties and onwards, between non-objects. The relation between non-objects can occur with quasi-objects, that is to say, objects that only gain meaning through interaction, and more recently, hyper-objects, such as climate and other phenomena. A higher level of curation, is the creating of junctions between people, which according to Obrist, can lead to life-changing experiences. To conclude, Obrist touches upon the rare opportunity of an exhibition to create a complexity which is hard to grasp, thus producing "a journey into the unknown". This, Obrist asserts, elevates an exhibition from simply being a reservoir of knowledge, to an apprentissage, a learning process. 

Shifting the panel discussion from exhibitions to the art world in today's day and age, Tiroche discusses the changing structures taking place in the digital age, the new forces at play in the new art world generation and raises the important question of where all this is leading and what the future has in store. Obrist states that no longer is art solely a history of objects, and that now we have parallel realities that go beyond objects. For instance, he refers to the new categories of live art and digital art, raising the issue of collecting these mediums. Obrist foresees the necessity of inventing a new models, for example an endowment, that will promise the performance of live art over time, or employment of programmers who will develop the digital pieces. This can create more jobs, more exposure of the artwork, and a new method of philanthropy in the art world. According to Obrist, we will need to nourish art in order to prevent its extinction in the twenty-first century.

Bringing the panel to a close, Tiroche shares what drives him personally to acquire a certain work of art. What he looks for, Tiroche describes, is "how significant they are (the artworks) in the eyes of the artist." The personal meaning and the layers of symbolism are what trigger his interest towards a particular piece. Interestingly, it is through this notion, that the epic exhibition "Everything You Are I Am Not", weaves a tapestry of junctions. The objects desire to challenge the conceptual boundaries of contemporary art, but also bring forth the artists themselves, by conveying a meaning with personal significance. Manifesting the relatively novel acceptance of the polyphony of centers in the art world, the exhibition broadens the frontiers of art history while drawing the contemporary art world closer together, enabling artists, curators and spectators to explore and learn.       

To watch the full panel discussion, click here.