© Ruth Noack

Ruth Noack:
“You have to offer something that is so powerful that you can jump over this huge gap between the educated elite and a non-educated population”.

On the occasion of Seminar Playgrounds [Mediation Policies], held at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in April 2016, internationally-acclaimed curator Ruth Noack talked about the museum’s aim to revisit its own history.

MASP is restaging Lina Bo Bardi’s glass easels after nearly twenty years. What do you think about this retro-perspective?

First of all, I think it is always important to look back at one’s own institutional history, because if one does not, one cannot go forward. Furthermore, Lina Bo Bardi has become so important all over the world, so in that respect it makes even more sense. But to me, it looks like restaging Lina Bo Bardi from a non-Brazilian perspective. Even though it’s something that was done here, it seems to me almost like a colonial project. Which sounds funny, maybe because it does not have the second part, the folk part. It only tells one story, which is not the whole story. She made these two exhibitions together, right? Downstairs and upstairs. In my mind, Lina Bo Bardi always needs to be read in the context of this kind of double image of high modernism and locality, but they just took one part.

Just like Arnold Bode for the first documenta, Lina’s use of rough and industrial materials was influenced by the postwar Zeitgeist. How would they revisit this project, going back to that history without fetichizing it?

I don’t think that Lina or Bode were using a kind of form or a material that is disconnected from a certain moment in history and a certain locality. Bode was staging this documenta in a museum that had been bombed. They just had to hastily erect some of the walls; they had to clean it up, but it was certainly not fully restored in any way, and it was basically still kind of humble. So when he stages, he uses plastic and when he uses certain materials to make this display, he is actually using the materials that people who are rebuilding are using. It has an instant-contemporaneity.

The important part is not that he was using some modernist materials, that is what modernism sees through these American eyes, when you think it is just form and material, but these materials signify a new vision of a new German stage, a new German community. I think we can read Lina Bo Bardi’s displays in the same way. For instance, she was not using text; she was not providing explanations. I think the purpose is not to offer some discourse on the autonomy of aesthetics, but rather because she expected that people come to read. It was necessary to use that discursive language, and it was necessary to find a mode of display that could speak to people. That is also the problem with the restaging. The question is: is it still speaking to people in the same way?

We would agree that Lina was radical in her thinking of the European museum in a new location, South America, and that MASP curators are trying to recover it now, but in my opinion they are moving away from what she achieved. Restaging this collection is a way of fetichizing the displays.

It is always about a practice that looks to what is contemporary and looks to what is needed at the time. Even tough there is a reenactment, there is also a lot that is lost. I would claim it is not as radical in contemporary practice, because the part under the museum is not used, not conceived of as part of the museum. I know it has to do with the different governing structures, that something belongs to the municipality and something other is private, and that is a conflict, but she really imagined this space as relevant, at least in terms of energy.

I do not think that the space under is informing what is up there, so even if you cannot govern the space underneath – because you do not have any power over it because it belongs to the city – you can still take it seriously as a kind of space that produces some energy. So, for instance, when I was there last week there were some demonstrations, but just imagine, the museum is not reacting in any way to those demonstrations. This is not the concept that Bo Bardi had.

Don’t you think the problem is that the museum is only using the space to show some pieces, and even though there is some participation in that you can use it in a structural form, it does not create a real dialogue between what is going on in those different spheres?

And there is another thing you can also see in this restaging of the paintings on the upper floor. One thing I learned looking at Bo Bardi’s photos and reading a bit about her is that she also believed that form can have some influence. And she was really good at this, in creating this form. It became very powerful. If you want to talk to normal people, and generate a dialogue, you have to offer something, and you have to offer them something that does not privilege the knowledge they may feel excluded from because they are not educated.

So you have to offer something that is so powerful that you can jump over this huge gap between the educated elite and a non-educated population. For that you need a powerful form and when you look at the reinstalling they have not done a very good job. They have copied Bo Bardi’s display system, but the way they have actually staged it makes it lose its energy the further you go, and at the end the energy is gone. You get to the last paintings then you turn back and you see light shining in your eyes because they keep the jalousies open. It all kind of deflates. I did not see Lina Bo Bardi’s. I would at least like to think that she created a kind of force field.

Lina Bo Bardi had to deal with the migration of the art that came to Brazil from postwar devastated Europe. Of course it had to do with the memories of the Nazis and art that was looted from Jewish families who were then claiming them. The concept of Afterlife, in which the object itself preserves its own memories, can help us to discuss these issues further. I think the problem is not only an institutional one, with regards to claiming ownership of art; rather, claiming repressed memory would be a way to create this force field you talked about. The memories are there and when people interact with the art, they have a way of accessing them.

It seems to me that there is a lot of erasure going on, maybe because one is associating the whole impeachment with São Paulo. If you have this kind of show trial of one person and one party, then you are going toward the erasure of the whole structure of corruption, which is still not being dealt with. And who knows if it is going to be dealt with now. Maybe it has to do with the history of colonialism. In Germany you know we had fascism, and the Germans were responsible for starting a war and for the death of 60 million people, and it resulted, of course, in a kind of trauma for Germany. The country was also pretty much devastated after the war and it was divided in two parts and remained so until 1989. When it was reunified, reunification was, on the one hand, a wonderful thing and, on the other, it was done in such a violent way that it also erased a lot.

Basically I would claim it was done so violently because they wanted to erase the fact that the Nazi time had existed. It is not about erasing the fact that the state was separated, it is about erasing the kind of guilt or trauma of a Nazi time. So in that way this would have been the opportunity to write a new constitution, you know, really dealing with memory and then start a new thing together, but instead, East Germany took on West Germany’s constitution, and in that process a lot of the East German experience got erased, and we are still suffering from that. I would hope that works of art, if they are contextualized or displayed in a good way, and if museums work with them, that they could help us to connect with the complexity of our past.

Ruth Noack, author, art critic, university lecturer and exhibition maker since the 1990s, trained as a visual artist and art historian. Noack was curator of documenta 12 (2007) and is currently developing a new institution, A Museum in a School, to open in 2020. She has written Sanja Ivekovic: Triangle for Afterall Books and Agency, Ambivalence, Analysis. Approaching the Museum with Migration in Mind (both 2013).

Vinicius Spricigo is a professor in the Department of Art History at UNIFESP. With a PhD from ECA-USP, he was a visiting research fellow at the Royal College of Art (London) and for the project Global Art and the Museum (ZKM/Karlsruhe). His publications include essays in The Biennial Reader and German Art in São Paulo, both published by Hatje Cantz.