“A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women” at Muzeum Susch
Kasia Redzisz and Francesco Tenaglia in conversation
The inaugural exhibition at Muzeum Susch—located in a small village in Switzerland’s Engadin valley, in an ancient monastery that has been exquisitely renovated and enlarged—takes its name from an essay by the US writer Siri Hustvedt. The presentation concerns the feminine in visual art (with a prevalent, but not exclusive, presence of female authors) and, as suggested by the intricate game of looks in the title, the curator preferred subtlety and multiplicity over grand curatorial gestures. The exhibition invites visitors to traverse a path, set up with originality and rigor, through artistic productions that reflect on twentieth-century life experiences and expectations around being a woman. The works follow a plethora of registers, from Hannah Wilke’s hilariously confrontational Through the Large Glass (1976) to Andrzej Wróblewski’s glacially surreal Mother with Dead Child (1949). Other featured artists include Louise Bourgeois, Geta Brătescu, Carla Accardi, Kiki Kogelnik, and Marlene Dumas, among others. The spiritual centerpiece is a simple composition of flowers, Amaryllis and Yellow Aurum (1983) by the Swiss journalist and lawyer Iris von Roten, whose critical 1958 book on the position of women in society, Frauen im Laufgitter, aroused reactions so caustic she moved for a period to Turkey. We met Kasia Redzisz, senior curator at Tate Liverpool and organizer of the exhibition, to find out more.
FRANCESCO TENAGLIA: What was of interest in the essay by Siri Hustvedt that gives the show its title? What were the points that you wanted to develop in an exhibition format?
KASIA REDZISZ: In her essay, which gave the exhibition its title Hustvedt writes about how the gender of artists may condition our perception of their work. We also know that it has impact on how artists function in the art system, how—or rather if—they are represented, recognized both within the canon but also within the contemporary institutional landscape. Hustvedt’s novel The Blazing World (2014) addresses those issues. Her writing is relevant for the show on many levels. My starting point, however, was the fact that I am curating the first exhibition at the new museum. I wanted it to be representative for the collection and the collector. I knew that women artists are the focus of attention of Grażyna Kulczyk. She also supports initiatives for women in science, in business. So that triggered my thinking about what the inaugural show could be. I anchored the exhibition in some key works from the collection (which form about one-third of the show) and worked towards contextualizing them. I took the liberty of doing it in a quite associative, maybe poetic manner. You know, Muzeum Susch lends itself to this way of working. What is important to flag is that it is a show about femininity and the experience of being a woman but not a display of feminist art or art made solely by women artists. Moreover, it is art (and Hustvedt wrote that the work of art has no sex), not the topic, which is at the core of the exhibition. The concept stems from artworks, not the other way around. Most of the artworks gathered in the show have pushed the boundaries not only of social conventions but, most importantly, of artistic definitions. This experimental approach is what I am interested in.
FT: Even if you didn’t say it loudly, there are thematic areas in the exhibition that see so many layers and intersections with various feminist discourses. While you were working on it, I had the feeling that the journey departs from some pieces; for example, you can say that the Lucio Fontana gesture in his Concetto Spaziale (1968) finds an echo—or is responded to, or is reflected—in other works you presented. How did you work on the development and the selection?
KR: As you noticed, there are some works which underpin the show. Fontana’s gesture of cutting and slashing through the canvas reoccurs in many works. Maria Bartuszova, for instance, references him directly, whereas Dadamaino once said that if it wasn’t for Fontana, she wouldn’t dare to pierce her paintings. One of the key pieces for my thinking about the show is there only as a visual reference. It is Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23), featuring in Hannah Wilke’s performance Hannah Wilke Through the Large Glass (1976). Duchamp’s is very complex piece serving as a pillar of the exhibition: this idea of a passive woman being looked at by men and being just an object of their desire while also dominating over them, as represented in the upper part of the work. Performing her striptease behind the Large Glass, Wilke plays with the idea of voyeurism in art but also undermines the art historical male-dominated canon. So there’s certainly Duchamp, and then there’s Fontana, but there is also Iris von Roten, a lawyer, journalist, suffragist, and feminist who occasionally painted still lifes and landscapes. Her flowers may seem almost irrelevant in the context of the exhibition—among all the transgressive, experimental works. But it is a symbolic presence.
FT: And what is the most pleasant discovery that you had the opportunity to present in this show? Maybe the least known pieces that you may say you’re proud to present to the public?
KR: There are many hugely important works in the show. Some of them, indeed lesser known, are displayed alongside iconic works of postwar art like in the case of Magdalena Abakanowicz and Renate Bertlmann presented together with Concetto Spaziale, which you mentioned. It was this tension that I was interested in. What was extremely important for me was to include a good representation of, for instance, Carla Accardi. She was a seminal figure of postwar Italian art. Pushing the boundaries of painting to their limits, she was also a radical feminist. So her works such as Rotoli (1965–69) stand not only for her experimental practice but also the political position she occupied. Her installation Origine (1978) gave title to the entire section of the exhibition. There are also two incredible early paintings by Helena Almeida from 1967. They travel very rarely and don’t get to be seen enough, similarly to works on paper by Miroslaw Balka. Works by Erna Rosenstein appeared to have much in common with Carol Rama—an important discovery for me. I also have a soft spot for a disarming wooden sculpture by Ellen Cantor. She is not exhibited as much yet.
FT: You had the chance to be the first curator to do a show in this new museum, which is, of course, a very specific context: a small village in Switzerland, that—maybe this is known, maybe not known—was one of the last countries in Europe to grant women the right to vote in some cantons. How did the public and the specific situation of the place influence your curating of the show? How much did you think about the possible public and environment, the context?
KR: Curators must consider the public, no matter where the museum is. And we cannot underestimate the audience—again, no matter where the museum is. In Susch, the audience is very complex. There are people—curators, gallerists, collectors passing by the valley—who are very keen art lovers and art supporters, but also those inhabiting the village with less exposure to art. And it was important for the exhibition to be constructed in a way that they all can feel that the concept is relevant to them. The exhibition interpretation has many layers—from basic, very accessible texts to essays on each individual artist and work on display. The museum also wants to have a close, very direct relationship with its neighbors. They had a special day for the local audience, who were the first visitors to the exhibition. I just think it’s a necessary thing to do if you want to share or exchange knowledge.
FT: We both know that the art world, unfortunately like many other sectors of culture, is not balanced in terms of how women are treated in relation to men, in terms of production, of salaries, of presence, of voice. This, of course, clashes with the public nature of art institutions and art making and the discourse—somehow, the progress of discourse of the avant-garde, it strikes us as something that is very strange. But as an institutional curator, what would you say would be the steps—in terms of education or policies and so forth—to improve this unbalanced state?
KR: This unbalance is certainly something that I discuss with many of my colleagues across museums. The first step is always to acknowledge the issue or the challenge. There are no easy solutions, but the awareness of the lacks and imperfections of the current structure is growing. In the context of collecting or programming in museums, the disproportions you are talking about are there not only in relation to gender. There is a much bigger issue of granting visibility to the ones who were overlooked for all sorts of reasons—for instance, geographical or political. There is so much research to be done… You can only sort out the problems by what we call good practice.
at Muzeum Susch, Susch
until 30 June 2019