Curator talk: Frits Gierstberg on Faces now

To mark the opening last week of Bozar’s FACES NOW exhibition, we put a few questions to the show’s curator Friets Gierstberg who spent two two years researching, selecting and gathering works for this group show dedicated specifically to portrait photography. 

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Jitka Hanzlová, Untitled (Julia), from the series ‘There is something I don’t know’, 2000, archival pigment prints on cotton, 34 x 50 cm, Courtesy the artist

Can you talk to us about the exhibition? What were its starting points? 

The exhibition FACES NOW brings together 32 artists who have made important works in the realm of the photographic portrait since 1990. Since that year, we can see a growing interest among artists and photographers for a humanist view on the portrait. They focus mainly on common people, with respect for individuality and often including aspects of their cultural backgrounds. Apart from all the obvious differences, there is a very interesting parallel with the renaissance. I had this kind of exhibition already in my mind for some time, but wouldn’t even dream about the possibility to combine two exhibitions as BOZAR is providing now. I think it is really a fantastic idea to organize them together. Hopefully it will also bring different audiences together, people that come for the old paintings and the ones that prefer contemporary art. And that they will be interested in ‘the other’.

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Luc Delahaye, Untitled, – from the series ‘L’autre’, 1995-1997, Gelatin silver print, 22 cm x 16,8 cm, Courtesy the artist & Galerie Nathalie Obadia

How does the exhibition’s name help to evoke its content?

Each show has its own title but the titles refer to each other, FACES NOW and FACES THEN. Of course, the portrait, be it painted or photographed, is mainly about the representation of the human face. Hence these titles.

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Stratos Kalafatis, From the series “Athos / Colors of Faith” (2008-2012),Zacharias, a priest-monk from Megisti Lavra, Digital print on archival paper, mounted on dibond, 103 × 100 cm. Courtesy the artist and Agra Publications

How would you describe the majority of the works on show? 

They are all portraits, but with a great diversity. There are very large and very small works, there is color and black&white, there are single and group portraits, made in the studio or on the street. The common denominator is that they are all made in Europe and mostly by European photographers. Common to the show is also that all the represented artists have looked for new ways and forms to create a portrait, without going into extreme formalistic experiments.

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Koos Breukel, Riet Breukel (‘Mother’), Amsterdam, 1997. © Koos Breukel. Gelatin silver print, 143 cm x 104 cm

In terms of approach, how did you go about producing the show? How involved were the artists? 

The preparation and selection process took about two years. In this case, with more than 30 artists, it is not possible to have them all involved in detail. But the theme and the lay-out in the space and in the catalogue were in many cases discussed with them. Regarding availability of works, with living artists that work with photography, it is often possible to print and frame works especially for the occasion, which happened in a number of cases. But we also borrowed existing works from artists, collectors and institutions. Generally speaking, the possibilities are defined by time and budget, like in any other practice.

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Hellen van Meene, Untitled, 1995, C-print, 29 x 29 cm, Courtesy of the artist

As a curator, how important is your relationship with the exhibited artist?

That is very important, although in this case I don’t know all of them personally. However it is very important for me that they understand my ideas about their work and that they agree to have their work presented in a context that is my invention. In some cases this leads to the inclusion of other works than I initially had in mind.

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Adam Panczuk, Karczeby, 2008-2010, Inkjet Archival Prints, 90 x 90cm, Courtesy the artist

From research to scenography, can you discuss the various different people involved in the show?

Well, in the end there are so many people involved….. as a curator you start with looking at work and reading about it, so the first part is just you. Then you talk with colleagues, you activate your international network. In this case we worked in a small curatorial team with Christophe de Jaeger (Bozar), Vangelis Ioakimidis and Alexandra Athanasiadou (both from the Photography Museum in Thessaloniki) and Gautier Platteau (Cannibal publishers). During the process, others joined in on our discussions now and then, such as Olga Sviblova (Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow), Barbara Hofmann Johnson and Stefan Gronert (Kunstmuseum Bonn). Once the selection was ready, a specialized team of many people at Bozar took over to produce the exhibition. After Bozar it will travel to the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam and the Photography Museum in Thessaloniki, so other teams will be involved later as well.

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Sergey Bratkov, Sonya, from the series ‘KIDS’, 2000, Colour photo, 40 x 27 cm, Courtesy Regina Gallery

What do you feel is the exhibition’s main statement? And how do you feel it fits in with the artists’s oeuvre in a more general sense?

The main statement is that contemporary portrait photography in Europe is very strong and that the works shown here have something important to say to us about people, culture and history on our continent. FACES NOW takes the fall of the Berlin wall as starting point, the point at which a new Europa came into being and when the question about identity, which is so fundamental with regard to the portrait, became very topical again. This was exactly the moment when portrait photography in Europe started to renew itself. How come? I think that is a very interesting question, but I haven’t found the answer yet, to be honest. But it is clear that portraiture in art was no longer dominated by Americans (I’m thinking especially of Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe or, on a more conceptual level, Cindy Sherman).

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Denis Darzacq, Group 01, Act 50, 2010. Digital C-print, 130 x 100 cm, edition of 8 © Courtesy of the artist and Galerie RX, Paris

What do you hope viewers will get from visiting the show?

I’m hoping they will feel inspired by the works and challenged to think more about the ideas that these artists express, and the connections and differences between them. Generally, I hope that the visitors will see and understand that the photographic portrait is still an important genre that has the power to communicate certain aspects of our contemporary existence that cannot be communicated with another medium.

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Thomas Ruff, Portrait Andrea Kachold, 1987, Chromogenic Print, 205 x 160 cm, Courtesy the artist
(c) Thomas Ruff / SABAM

On a more personal level, how has working on this exhibition enriched your understanding of the artists’s work? And of contemporary art more generally?

Of course, it always does. But in a way I am also the first visitor of the exhibition. One conceives a project like this using one’s memory of the works, or working with photocopied images or images on screens. Now the selected works can be seen together in reality for the first time. I’m sure that seeing the show will have an effect on my own ideas. Without doubt, there will be surprises for me as well.

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Alberto Garcia-Alix, Autorretrato. Mi lado femenino, 2002, Gelatin silver print, 110 cm x 110 cm, Courtesy the artist

Would you say any influences / references played a major role in shaping the exhibition?

It can take years before an idea develops into an actual exhibition plan, one needs to see many other shows, read about the topic and discuss them with others. For this exhibition, we worked with a small team of advisors and we asked international colleagues for suggestions. In any event my initial idea developed around the portraits of the German artist Thomas Ruff in the 1980s and the way he seemed to have cleared the path for other artists working in the 1990s to reinvent the idea of the photographic portrait in art. Rineke Dijkstra is a good example of this new beginning. Her iconic work has been central in my thinking about what a photographic portrait can evoke.

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Boris Mikhailov and Galerie Conrads, Duesseldorf

As a curator, how do you select the artists whom you’d like to exhibit? Would you say your shows all have somewhat of a common denominator to them?

I’ve been following most of the artists for a long time now. What helps me to develop my ideas are the conversations I have with a number of them in the course of time. Sometimes the selection is made in collaboration with them. Within the limits of the theme, I try to create a certain diversity of presentation models, ways of working, cultural backgrounds. I don’t mind if certain works even contradict the theme or challenge it. In my view, works of art in an thematic exhibition should never be mere illustrations of the ideas of the curator. The job of the curator is to firstly respect the work and let it ‘speak’. Then to make combination of works in the exhibition space in a way that creates a resonance, as if the works are talking to each other or challenge each other. In that way, going through the exhibition becomes a visual and a spiritual experience. If it is well done, the visitor is able to relate the works to his or her own life and existence. I am very much interested in what art can contribute to our understanding of the world, including ourselves. While at the same time art is shaping the way we look at the world.

FACES NOW

 Until 17th May.

Bozar, Brussels

bozar.be