Is any curator—actually, is any member of the art world—having as much fun as Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev? Her Documenta 13, in 2012, was the most wildly ambitious edition of that hallmark on record, stretching from Kassel, Germany, its standard location, to Banff, Canada; Alexandra, Egypt; and Kabul, Afghanistan. Few except for her experienced it all. Earlier this month she was named director of the newly merged Galleria d’Arte Moderna and Castello di Rivoli in Turin, making her one of the most high-profile museum directors working today. And every time she pops up in the art press she is up to something controversial or just outrageous, whether eschewing the term curator (“You curate pork to make prosciutto”), publicizing Documenta 13 with photos of herself sitting, barefoot, next to bags of trash with a rather enthusiastic grin on her face, or providing very oblique hints and coded messages about what she has in the works for her Istanbul Biennial, which opens in September (“It does so offshore, on the flat surfaces with our fingertips but also in the depths, underwater, before the enfolded encoding unfolds”).
One morning last month, Christov-Bakargiev was sitting by a pool at a hotel in São Paulo, holding forth in front of a film crew for a documentary about the Brazilian artist Maria Martins (1894–1973), whom she has championed. After they wrapped, she called me over, ready to launch into our interview.
“If there is any time you want to do the Istanbul Biennial, it’s now,” Christov-Bakargiev told me emphatically, brimming with energy.
The last edition of the Istanbul Biennial was wracked by controversy. Because of ongoing protests in the city, its curator, Fulya Erdemci, had to curtail her plans, and projects in some public venues were scrapped. “The biennale had a moment of stress last time,” said Christov-Bakargiev, who at the time served on its advisory board, which later tapped her. “So for me to do it was an astute idea. It’s like getting a heavyweight, in a way, from the art world—‘She did Documenta and then the first thing she does after is Istanbul, which is much smaller.’ I think it was an interesting, wise move.”
She was in Brazil in part, she said, to visit the storied Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles, who was born in 1948. “I came to ask him for the loan of a very precise work for Istanbul, which is a specific painting which is in his studio in Rio, and has only been seen twice, and it is my ‘ur’ platform,” she said. “So in a way the whole biennale of Istanbul emerges around and in relation to this one painting.” Christov-Bakargiev often likes to cloak her intentions in a bit of mystery—a wily curatorial conceit, and a solid PR strategy—so, unsurprisingly, she refused to reveal the painting.
Her biennial is called “Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms,” and will feature about 60 visual artists, as well as oceanographers and neuroscientists, according to press materials. She was staying quiet about the names involved, but she was willing talk through how she has conceptualized the project:
“I looked at the Bosphorus, and to me it looked like a capital I. It suddenly looked to me like a symbol, a hieroglyph, a cipher, a logo, and then I started thinking about the fact that we’re overwhelmed with logos of companies and corporations. Everybody has their logo on our catalogues. It drives me crazy. I started to think about the origin of the logo, and the origins of the symbol, which is actually the thought form. What is this thought form that represents, you know, the meeting of Europe and Asia? The North and the South? That represents all of these things—the Ottoman Empire, and it’s aftermath?”
The thought form? That would be a reference to a book of that name by the theosophist Annie Besant. “This book was widely circulating in the early 20th century amongst artists,” Christov-Bakargiev said. “Hilma af Klint had the book, and I believe Kandinsky had the book, and many others. So she’s part of that Spiritualist, pre-abstract art. She describes the relationship between the visible and the invisible world. She’s talking about the development of x-rays, the development of photography, the negative of the photograph, and the ghostly, and what I call the imaginal, as this space of embodied forms that are all around us but we don’t usually see unless we are in a deep state of trance or meditation or doing yoga.”
“The theosophical thought form,” she added, “is basically an aesthetics of what we might call abstraction in art. I think it’s art. It’s simply one of the earliest definitions of modern artworks that exists.”
Theosophy, of course, doesn’t exactly have the best reputation these days. It exists in the popular imagination as pseudoscience, occultist quackery. Christov-Bakargiev wants to highlight other aspects of its legacy. “They were opening societies all over the world, and they were for the emancipation of people in the world, independently of their ethnicity, gender or their amount of wealth or power,” she said. “They were radical democrats, they were also the first environmentalists, so very interested in connecting arts and sciences because they thought we could only know the world and the world’s energies through an alliance with science. We could avoid a catastrophe, an ecological disaster.” The esoteric, by strange turns, eventually links up in a peculiar with the present moment, as it so often does in her work.
While Christov-Bakargiev is not planning a blowout on the order of Documenta 13, she did offer that “it’s going to be the most dispersed Istanbul Biennale in history. And you’re going to get to know the Bosphorus really well. And not only that—the islands.”
“If there’s anything I can tell people, it’s not to think that they’re going to take a lot of taxis, and to avoid those,” she said, “because they would be crossing these bridges full of traffic, but to learn the timetables of ferries, and speedy boats. To navigate the Bosphorus.” At least three days will be required to get a handle on the show. (Which sounds positively relaxing compared to her Documenta, through which I sprinted for four days, seeing perhaps 75 percent of the Kassel section.)
The Armenian genocide, which occurred exactly 100 years ago, will figure in the show, she said, though she was also cagey about that. “There’s no Armenian section,” she said. “That would be exploitative and nationalistic. The works are all interwoven.”
Once again, she is rejecting the term “curator” for the project, preferring to say that she is “drafting” it. “To draft is to draw—draughtsmanship,” she said. “It comes from ‘to draw,’ so it has that double meaning. To draw is to make a drawing but it is also to draw the line. When enough is enough you draw the line. So I’m drawing a line. But at the same time it’s to draw out. To celebrate the energies, to make it flourish, and to draw in, to bring together.”
As we were wrapping up, Christov-Bakargiev paused for a moment and looked at me. “It’s funny you didn’t ask me about salt, because ‘saltwater’ is in the title,” she said.
Sure, I’d love to hear about salt, I said.
“Salt is ever more important. There are not so many works that are about salt, because the artists don’t have to do things about salt. For me salt is one of the codes. It’s about what’s under the surface of things. Salt—you think of it as something you can’t eat too much of, or you can’t drink salt water because you would die. But actually salt water makes up much of our bodies. And salt is a synonym of life. It’s a synonym of life in the sense that where there is salt it means that there are negatively charged ions that have attracted certain elements of molecules, of a water molecule such that you produce salt. The existence of salt itself is an expression of a transference of energy.”
“It has healing capacities,” she said. “But one of the interesting coded aspects of it is that it’s the most dangerous thing to our technologies. Because if you have an iPod and it falls into water you can put it in a bowl of rice and just dry it. If it falls into salt water, it’s gone. It’s the most corrosive thing in the technology world.” And with that, she was off.