Curator Carolyn Christoph-Bakargiev. Photo: Andrea Guermani
Curator Carolyn Christoph-Bakargiev. Photo: Andrea Guermani

The repercussions of the announcement of the retirement of Carolyn Christoph-Bakargiev, who for more than 20 years, between comings and goings, has been at the Castello di Rivoli, scared her. Since 2016, she has directed the first museum of contemporary art in Italy, about to celebrate its 40th birthday in 2024.

In his view, a “non-news” ended up appearing in all the important art vehicles and newspapers. “I think that means, on a symbolic level, that a lot of people want to say no, they want to stop, they don't want to be a slave to machines”, says Carolyn, in her office at the museum, surrounded by books and folders, and in the company of her dog doctor Zhivago, with whom she has to enter through a special entrance, away from the public.

Stopping, however, does not mean stop working. She already has a large exhibition being prepared for Paris, in 2024, dedicated to Arte Povera, at the Bourse de Commerce. It will be the first exhibition that will not deal with the collection of François Pinault, in the historic building that is maintained by the French tycoon.

What Carolyn will gain from retirement at age 66, which she celebrates next December, is freedom from administrative bureaucracy. “I am retiring from institutions; I will no longer direct, participate in councils, meet ministers of culture, politicians. I'm retiring from all that and, hopefully, becoming young again,” she says, smiling.

In these more than 20 years at Castello di Rivoli – she joined in 2002, as chief curator, after two years at PS1, in New York – museums in general have undergone an intense transformation. Walking through the collection of the Italian museum itself reflects these changes, no longer telling a history of North American and Eurocentric art, but opening up to other narratives, including that of the so-called “global south”, a term that Carolyn does not like very much. She prefers to use the expression “dissatisfied with the Eurocentric canon”. From this group, she cites the South African artist William Kentridge, the Australian Richard Bell, the North American Jimmie Durham (1940-2021) and the Brazilian Maria Thereza Alves, all of her friends and with whom she has worked several times.

Everydays: The First 5.000 Days by Mike Winkelmann (Beeple). Entirely digital, the work was sold for US$ 69,3 million by Christie's auction house
Everydays: The First 5.000 Days by Mike Winkelmann (Beeple). Entirely digital, the work was sold for US$ 69,3 million by Christie's auction house

While the inclusion of these “nonconformists” in the art circuit has become politically correct, this selection often looks more like a cultural marketing action, as institutions use this strategy as a publicity action. This is not the case with Rivoli. “I don't want to boast about being friends with artists, but this is my life, and these are alliances I've been building for a long time”, he reports. With that, it is not just in the collection that artists are present, but in spaces of power, such as the Consultative Committee, in which, of the seven members, four are artists, one is a physicist and the others are curators, something quite rare in Brazil. .

“The museum belongs to the artists”, defends Carolyn. “As a museum director, this is the primary element. Our role is how to make a work of art communicate to the world what it means to the artist. It's about how to make it alive, not inert dead,” she explains.

This openness to productions beyond the Western standard originated, in a way, when she organized the Sydney Biennial, in Australia, in 2007 and 2008. It was in the desert, when she got to know Aboriginal production with her friend and Aboriginal curator Hetti Perkins, who she realized that the objects they produced, even if they were to be sold to tourists, achieved results for the community, such as the construction of a hospital, and that, therefore, they had an important meaning. At the same time, she also understood that even objects from Western culture had a magical meaning, such as the crucifix. “So I started to look at European art, or Italian art, in a more anthropological way”, she sums up.
Another important moment for building her alliances was when she defended, in 2001, together with Alana Heiss, then director of MoMA-PS1, in New York, the realization of the exhibition The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945- 1994 (The short century: independence and liberation movements in Africa, 1945-1994), organized by the Nigerian Okwui Envezor, in early 2002. The exhibition was a project for the Villa Stuck museum, in Munich, Germany, and had already exhibited in Berlin, at the House of Cultures of the World.

Medusa – Rachel – Pietà, Bracha L. Ettinger, 2017-2022
Medusa – Rachel – Pietà, Bracha L. Ettinger, 2017-2022

“It was the first show outside the Harlem studios dedicated to African artists in New York. She really changed the pattern of African art in the United States, as well as transforming museums in the country”, he argues.

Okwui, his friend at the time, was the curator of Documenta 11, also in 2002, which, with its platforms for debates in various locations around the world, created a new paradigm for large exhibitions, which were no longer restricted to just a physical event, but also functioned as a space for reflection. Carolyn edited Documenta ten years later, in 2012, and the Istanbul Biennale, in 2015.

the past of the future
“After Sydney, Documenta and Istanbul, I decided not to do any more biennials or major international exhibitions. I quit to teach, but I wanted to go back to working in museums”, she recalls. She then returned to Rivoli in 2016. The museum, whose first director was the Dutchman Rudi Fuchs, also curator of Documenta, in 1982, operates in a palace that began to be built in the XNUMXth century, and even had the intention of of being a kind of Versailles for the Savoy family. But it was never actually finished, having been plundered during Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion in the XNUMXth century. Still, it's a bit of an unusual place to be Italy's first contemporary art museum, especially as Arte Povera artists were so involved in its conception.

“Directing a museum is organizing and taking care of a collection. What people see are the temporary exhibitions, but the director of a museum builds the past of a future”, she says. The difference between biennial exhibitions is that this type of exhibition, in its conception, is to “react on the here and now”.

Not that it doesn't happen at the museum. At this moment, for example, Castello di Rivoli is presenting the exhibition Artists in Time of War, conceived by Carolyn herself even before the pandemic – this would be the third stage of a series called Expressions, and which ended up coinciding with the war in Ukraine.

The exhibition features artists who have experienced conflict situations over the last few centuries, whether it be Goya, in Spain, or his famous series The Disasters of War, from the beginning of the 1960th century, passing through the photographer Lee Miller, who portrayed the liberation of concentration camps and Hitler's own house, in Munich, as well as Dinh Q Lê, which brings together a series of drawings produced during the war in Vietnam in the XNUMXs.

This harmony with the present time is due to a method that Carolyn borrows from another director of Documenta, the French Catherine David, responsible for the 10th edition, in 1997. For her, the curator must work with “the urgencies”. “While you make an exhibition, you are trying to understand the world and working with artists who are also trying to understand the world for people who, when visiting the exhibition, can try to understand the world”, defines the director of Castello di Rivoli. If it remained at the museum, in 2024, the urgency would be to deal with the digital issue.

“I'm very interested in digital artists. That's why I looked for Beeple (the American Michael Joseph Winkelmann), who is today's Andy Warhol. What Warhol was to consumer society, Beeple is to digital culture, criticizing that time”, he says, with his usual animation. In fact, she already has a series of YouTube videos with Beeple, in which she teaches art history and he teaches digital culture.

Returning to the tasks of museum director, there is another temporality: “90% of the work has to do with the collection, which is what nobody talks about, but it is the most important part, after all the collection is today’s narrative which will be told in the future.” And here, the method she borrows from her mother, an Italian archaeologist: “You have to put yourself in the shoes of tomorrow and look at today with an archaeological perspective.”

However, with increasing funding cuts for European public museums, Carolyn has increasingly found herself having to take care of fundraising, and she wants to break out of that phase. “To be in charge of the museum is to spend a lot of time and effort to raise funds, because public museums increasingly lose support; so, I want to be able to go back to teaching, from time to time to hold a large exhibition, but, above all, to think and think together with artists ”, she concludes. ✱


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