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Interview with Alex Farqhusan

As the next guest curator to make a mark on Artpace’s residency
program, I wonder if you could help me introduce you as a curator to
your first Texan audience.

I could go through a list of great shows that I know you’ve contributed to, but it might be a bit more telling if you could talk about which projects you consider to be some of the most important.

Alex Farqhusan

AF: I began curating in 1994 at a small, respected regional venue called Spacex in Exeter. I did around 40 exhibitions there over five years, mainly solo shows of national and international artists. I then moved to the Centre for Visual Arts in Cardiff, a very large new venue, which promptly closed 13 months later due to unrealistic box office forecasts. The most meaningful and best remembered exhibition we did there was curated by an artist, Jeremy Deller, based on the artistic and political interests of a Welsh Valley band The Manic Street Preachers, which mixed blue chip art (Picasso, Pollock, Wiener, Kippenberger, the Situationists, Warhol, etc.) with an “Unconvention” of local and international political organizations. The result was inclusive, subversive and inspiring.

Since moving to London and going freelance in 2000, I’ve done a number of elaborate group exhibitions. They tend to emerge from personal obsessions of mine that I feel resonate with certain qualities in the art of our time. I think they share a transdisciplinary approach to subject matter, a performative take on exhibition design, and a concern with pushing the textual and visual possibilities of the exhibition publication. For Le Voyage Interieur: Paris – London, which I curated with Alexis Vaillant, we transformed Espace Electra in Paris into a labyrinthine, multisensory, richly colored and textured space that recalled certain decadent interiors of the late 19th century. This formed a strange and sympathetic mise-en-scène for neo-symbolist works by 24 contemporary artists from Britain and France.

I’m now working on the exhibition version of an art book I did on Brian Wilson in 2005; the exhibition is for Tate St Ives, one of the few museums in the world on a surfers’ beach. (It’s touring to CAPC Musee d’Art Contemporain, a vast, sepulchral space also close to the waves.) I hope viewers will hear the music in the works – though few of them make direct reference to Brian or the Boys – and imagine, for a moment, they’re in Southern California in the sixties as opposed to an ancient Cornish fishing village. I’m probably most known in the UK at the moment for curating British Art Show 6 with Andrea Schlieker, a monster national survey exhibition occurring every five years that tours many venues in four cities over the course of a year. I’m kind of relieved that’s over.

I also write quite a bit for magazines, catalogues and other publications, and I teach curating each Thursday at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. So I wear three hats, which is always a good look.

LD: Yes, and working with you on the RCA course was an interesting way for me to get to know your ideas about exhibition design and curating – from Friedrich Kiesler to Hans Ulrich Obrist. So it was great to hear you’d been invited to my home state on an assignment for Artpace. What was your first reaction when you were invited to be a guest curator there?

AF: Well, I was surprised and delighted to be asked! I knew of Artpace by reputation, of course. To my mind, it’s a model residency scheme. I love the way it effortlessly connects the local, national and international through three simultaneous residencies by an artist from Texas, one from the States and one from anywhere else. I also felt I knew it a little through two specific works made by former British residents: Isaac Julien’s The Road to Mazatlan and Jeremy Deller’s Memory Bucket. These two films were a testimony to how inspirational the south Texan environment could be to artists with a context-related practice. The principle of inviting a different guest curator, from the US or overseas, to select the residents is a smart one. What I like about it is that each residential season is, in some sense, a representation of the specific perspectives of an individual curator. Unlike curating by committee, this model foregrounds the fact that the curators’ choices are necessarily subjective. Over time, the Artpace program becomes a multidimensional portrait of the state’s art scene and its relationship to international developments as a whole, but with each season retaining its specificity. Of course, the people at Artpace are in a sense curating the residencies, but they’re doing it at one remove, by selecting the selectors rather than the artists themselves. The added benefit for the Texas art scene is that a whole host of curators go home with some knowledge of the scene, and one never knows how and when they may deploy it in future projects.

Then I was just excited at the prospect of going to Texas, having spent quite a lot of time elsewhere in the States over the years. When I got there, I was surprised to find how new most things looked, particularly from the freeway and in the downtown areas. In comparison to Los Angeles, which I visited on the way and which felt much more historically sedimented.

LD: I know you’ve done quite a bit of work in LA. As a curator from the UK, what drew you to investigate contemporary art in the US, or North American culture in general?

AF: This probably goes way, way back to growing up for a time in Connecticut in the late 1970s. On returning to England, my alter-ego was the imaginary me that would have been had my family stayed on in the States. This informed many of my interests growing up. We traveled around America a fair bit in those few years, but I didn’t visit the West Coast until 1995 on a curatorial visit. I was instantly hooked. I love its appearance, its horizontality, its natural setting, its climate and its lack of historical depth. Free from inherited identities, living is undertaken as a daily experiment – or so it seems to me. No wonder so many European avant-gardists have emigrated there over the last century.

Artists in the mid-’90s were relatively accessible. I appreciate the way art from LA has always reflected its social surroundings, much more so than art from New York, where reference points tend to be art historical, which is probably why the latter has become stagnant in recent years. Contemporary art is a much more useful filter through which to understand Los Angeles than Hollywood.

LD: So what did you expect to find in the art scene in Texas?

Alex Rubio...El Corazon de Espiritu...2005

AF: Well, I didn’t come with particular expectations. I’d probably come across a few of the better known Texan artists before, perhaps in a Whitney Biennial, but I had no sense of what I would find. Obviously New York and Los Angeles receive the lion’s share of attention. Principally what I knew Texas for was its extraordinary museums. What I didn’t know was whether this translated into a local contemporary scene at all. When it came to drawing up a schedule for my visit, I was impressed by the number of artist-run spaces there appeared to be, plus several galleries representing local artists. Cheap real estate brings with it terrific opportunities. It allows artists to get by within a relatively modest support structure. I was curious to find out what kind of art was being made in situations of relative isolation, and to what extent the art reflected its locality. In any case I wanted to do the full four-city tour.

LD: You were in San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin – did you sense a unique art scene in each city, or discover a more regional sensibility?

AF: Maybe a little of both. By European standards, these cities are far apart, but I guess people are used to making the drive for an interesting art event. Artists in one place seemed to have some sense of what was going on in the other three cities. That said, it was obvious that artists were also organized and networked along local lines, with the openings of shows acting as gathering points.

LD: I heard you did a lot of studio visits and visited with a lot of collectors. How did you find the relationship between the communities of local artists and local collectors?

AF: That I find hard to answer in any depth, but it was noticeable that most of the collectors were collecting art made locally. You’d see examples of Texan artists’ work alongside work by internationally recognizable figures. The handful of collectors I met tended to take an active interest in the local art scene. I found it a good thing that they felt some kind of personal obligation to Texan artists.

LD: What were some of your most memorable studio visits?

AF: I was impressed by a lot of the work I saw, but often a memorable studio visit has as much to do with the personality of the artist as the work itself. I tend to enjoy studio visits most when I come away having learnt something. That often happens with artists who’ve had very different life experiences from my own. In Texas that was particularly the case with Daniel Guerrero, Celia Muñoz, Gary Sweeney, Joey Fauerso, Alex Rubio and the Otabenga Jones guys, for example. Through them I learned things I didn’t know about Mexican-American history, the Chicano community, growing up in a transcendental meditation commune, the Black Panther chapter in Houston and surf culture in the LA of the early ’60s, all of which found ways into their work. As this list suggests, I was impressed by the multiculturalism of the Texan art scene. I tell you, it was tough selecting a single artist. There were many more artists than those I mentioned whose work engaged me.

I wanted my time in Texas to also inform my choice of American and international artists. I wanted to gain a sense of the cultural context, and then consider who I thought would respond to the environment in exciting ways. San Antonio, of course, already resonates through Alex Rubio’s allegorical paintings and, in different ways, through his collaborative work with his community. Matthew Buckingham has what you could call a context-specific film practice that emerges out of an almost archaeological investigation of a cultural site. American history and mythology has often been his subject, but not from a Texan vantage point. Chris Evans, too, works on projects that evolve out of the historical, cultural, political and economic contradictions of a given situation. He’s done work on projects in Leeds, Amsterdam and Estonia. Texas will be something else again. I feel I’m sending him on some kind of mission! I think these differing degrees of familiarity and unfamiliarity will make for an interesting series of engagements between artist and place. I very much look forward to seeing what they’ve done presented together this time next year.

Images courtesy Artpace

Lillian Davies is a writer currently living in London. She contributes to Artforum and …might be good among other publications.

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