Christine Macel inside one of the Plexiglass tubes at the Centre Pompidou
© Majid Moussavi

The Alchemist

  • TEXT TILL BRIEGLEB
  • PHOTOS MAJID MOUSSAVI

Christine Macel is Chief Curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and in 2017 she is also curating the world’s biggest art event, the Venice Biennale. Her maxim for the long-running festival: Go for it – for artistic radicalism.

It happens just once in a decade: the grand art tour. The years ending in the number seven are always the ones when Europe’s major art happenings come together in a single summer. The most important art show in public space, the Skulptur.Projekte in Münster, Germany, which is held only once in ten years; documenta, the biggest art show in the world, which takes place every five years and in 2017 celebrates for the first time two locations and openings, in Kassel, Germany, and in Athens, Greece; then there’s Art Basel, the most prestigious show date for the art market, and finally, the loveliest and oldest of all art festivals, the Venice Biennale. You could use up your whole summer, erm, annual leave on this superlative collection.

For the Venetian voyage of discovery into contemporary art alone – along the gravel paths of the superb Giardini exhibition park, through the long halls of the ancient shipyard, Arsenale, and to the many extra exhibitions tucked away in the narrow streets of the lagoon city – you will need five days of hard walking to see everything. That’s what Macel tells us. But the curator of the 57th edition of the biennial art festival that began in 1893 also adds with a laugh: “But of course, you don’t have to see everything!” She knows as well as every other regular visitor to this idyllically situated and Aperol spritz-soaked art festival that even the most hard-nosed art fans end up exhausted by the thousands of artworks on show in the main exhibition, in the 85 national pavilions and the many and varied collateral events dotted around the city.

Macel, 48, could be described as the Lara Croft of artist hunting. She is a beautiful, fashionably dressed and very purposeful Frenchwoman with strikingly large eyes, “who travels constantly in search of art.” This originality seeker had only six months in which to find – while continuing to fulfill her responsibilities as Chief Curator at the Centre Pompidou – the 120 artists for the main exhibition at the Biennale. To compare: A team of 45 experts has spent three years finding and working with the 150 participants for documenta 2017.

And yet Macel originally had no intention of ever working, and certainly not as much as she does. She began studying art history in the late 1980s. “I would have loved to do nothing but study my whole life long,” she says. However, being born into a family of professional musician grandparents, a teacher mother and an architect father, Macel was clearly destined for a cultural profession. Born and raised in Paris, she even had her first encounter with the futuristic art container that is the Centre Pompidou and her main workplace today, when she was still in primary school. In January 1977, the day after her eighth birthday, her parents took her along to the opening of the then highly controversial art palace, where exploding pianos, naked giants and other weird things she got to see there shocked her.

Characteristic tubes outside of the Centre Pompidou

The tubes also lead to ...

© Majid Moussavi
Picture of “Untitled (Black, Red Over Black On Red)” by Mark Rothko

... room 29 and “Untitled (Black, Red Over Black On Red)” by Mark Rothko

© Pierre Antoine, VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2017

CDG

,

  In retrospect, that childhood amazement proved to be an incredibly productive shock, especially as the Centre Pompidou has been drawn like a magnet to Macel’s biography ever since. The professor who influenced her most during her studies, Bernard Blistène, came from there and as director of the entire cultural complex, he has now been Macel’s boss for the past three years. At 31, after gaining her first professional experience at the Ministry of Culture and as a teacher at the Louvre school, she was appointed chief curator at France’s most famous museum of contemporary art. Because that job did not provide enough work to keep her busy, this tireless treasure hunter whose day apparently has more hours than other people’s also writes for art magazines, organizes seminars, sits on juries and selection committees, and regularly takes on guest curatorships outside of her vast prime place of employment.

“Setting a theme seems unnecessary, both for the artists and for me,” Macel explains, “I don’t want to misappropriate the artists’ statements. I simply want to create the space they need for their work.” Nevertheless, Macel refutes the suspicion that her title, Viva Arte Viva, is an invitation to indulge in self-sufficient artistic activity along the lines of “art for art’s sake.” “If I make my central focus the artists’ universe, then it reflects all of the things that artists concern themselves with, including politics.” Without pausing for breath, she energetically continues to explain her take on art: “The way I see it, art cannot save the world. That’s what the Modernists dreamed, but it didn’t work out. I see art as the place in which you can reinvent the world. It’s a place for freedom, not for change.”

Art is the place where you can reinvent the world.

And that is how she already came to make her mark on the Venice Biennale. In 2007, she curated a glass maze by Éric Duyckaert in the Belgian pavilion, and then in 2013, when France and Germany switched national pavilions, Macel showed a work by the Albanian artist Anri Sala inside the monumental NS architecture of the Germany building: videos of hands playing Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which the composer wrote in 1932 for war veteran amputee Paul Wittgenstein, brother of Ludwig Wittgenstein, as an antimilitarist work.

Despite such subtly political undertones, which the artists of her biennale also share, this elegant intellectual’s concept basically still speaks the spirited language of childlike amazement. Quite unlike the competition at documenta, which focuses strongly on political theories and content, Macel’s biennale is titled “Viva Arte Viva” and devoted to presenting individual “artist universes.” Behaving as though she were their biggest fan and not the boss of the whole enterprise, Macel does all she can to help the participants achieve the best possible showcase for their work – and in contravention of the Biennale’s wish and tradition, even refuses to name a specific theme for her exhibition.

“Bouquet” by Russian author and concept artist Dmitri Prigov (detail)

“Bouquet” by Russian author and concept artist Dmitri Prigov (detail)...

© Majid Moussavi
Christine Macel at Centre Pompidou

...is one of Christine Macel’s favorites at the Centre Pompidou

© Majid Moussavi

  So for her universe of art, Macel created a “journey” that goes from “self” to “speculative things.” Following the national pavilions’ concept, she organized her program in nine so-called “Trans-Pavilions,” to which she gave connecting, rather than dividing, names. The journey begins with Community and continues via a pavilion for artists and books on the subject of time and eternity. In each of these rooms, she places a mix of artists of different generations and prominence, while paying little attention to the fashionably new and the glamour of the art world normally associated with the six-month summer festival on the Grand Canal with its many yachts, champagne receptions and expensive wardrobes. “Sometimes the newest is an 80-year-old artist,” says Macel with a grin.

The originality seekers will still get their money’s worth since 103 of Macel’s 120 chosen artists have never before been seen at the Biennale. Living – and also some deceased – world stars, such as Ólafur Elíasson, Kiki Smith, Ernesto Neto and Franz West come together with permanent guests of the international exhibition, such as Kader Attia, Gabriel Orozco, Philippe Parreno and Anri Sala, and also with new names seizing their opportunity to prove their originality at a major event.
Asked about the criteria she applied to her selection, Macel becomes momentarily brusque. “Criteria is not the right word. I follow my feeling of resonance between works and artists. That’s what a curator does.” She looks for utopias, for the “spirituality of daily life,” but she is also concerned with fear: “We have to learn to articulate the fears present in our societies. Artists are fairly aware of this need.” The world of art is generally a criticism of our lifestyle, “that has everyone thinking primarily about themselves,” Macel asserts, her expression serious. Art has the power to fight the all-pervading belief in efficiency and the obsession with material possessions; to challenge the cult of individualism. “Artists open up to another vision, a space for sharing and generosity.”

Even if at such words, you may get the feeling that this humane art visionary’s ideal may perhaps not be entirely realistic, but rather an echo of her great love of artists, but there’s also an appealing pathos to the stubbornly passionate curator’s belief. In Macel’s book, artists are the avant-garde or perception, thought and emotions, philosophers at the very least, if not conjurers. And the hectic society of outward appearances really doesn’t have all too many of those, after all.

Alexander Calder’s monumental mobile “Horizontal” outside the Centre Pompidou

Flagship: Alexander Calder’s monumental mobile “Horizontal” has been standing outside the Centre Pompidou in Paris since 2012

© Majid Moussavi

  In the end, our French expedition guide has another surprising statement to make about artists, at least if you consider how much she does: “We are born and raised in order to work. And when we are physically worn out, we receive a little money to tide us over until death comes. Isn’t that the most stupid way to live? Artists and authors, musicians, too, even scientists, people who decide to live their life with a certain intensity, show us how a life worth living could be.”

Christine Macel is probably able to say this with such conviction because she doesn’t see her excessive workload in the cause of art as such, but as the fulfillment of her life’s dream of constantly studying interesting things. The intensity she puts into ensuring the Venice visitors recognize the value of free artistic life promises a Biennale that will amaze visitors – as Macel herself was once amazed at the opening of the Centre Pompidou.


This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine. For more information about Lufthansa Miles & More offers, please click here.