Prominent Belgian curator, art critic and art historian Catherine de Zegher tells Selections about her work with inspiring women artists, the importance of juxtaposing historical and contemporary work to create “an archeology of the present” and her choice of pieces for the curated by section.
“For me, art results in the materialisation of a relationscape in which we comprehend ourselves first of all together with others and our animate, surrounding world – in our tangents in a different space-time concept”
Question: You recently published Women’s Work Is Never Done, a collection of essays on talented and influential women artists and their work, written over the course of 20 years. Why did you decide to gather together these essays at this point in time?
Answer: The credit for this initiative is not mine. It is Luc Derycke’s, the designer/publisher with whom I have worked for 25 years. He knows my writings well and invited me to collect my essays on women artists in one book. I took it to be a very nice but also timely proposition, since there is a sense among many women that our situation, after having improved, is again challenged, and this in particular in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Not only was my life enhanced and very inspired by the strong and beautiful women artists I collaborated with, the purpose was also to unveil work and lives that were eclipsed and close to oblivion during the 20th century. They taught me so much about life that I wanted to convey their significant oeuvres to as many people as possible through exhibitions and publications of their work, in the hope that it would inspire others and allow a greater awareness and engagement in our daily existence, beyond even the limits of art, with ideas of how we may live together and understand each other.
Q: As a curator you don’t focus exclusively on women artists, but you have been lauded as having had an influence of feminist art history through your books and exhibitions. What is it that draws you to the work of contemporary women artists?
A: I believe it is the attempt of these women artists to formulate a more inclusive and empathic model of existence in a 21st-century society that is increasingly intolerant and violent. In their work, I discovered a sense of consciousness, collaboration and constructive critique, informed by a desire for beauty, compassion and hope. Instead of negativity and separation, the work is predicated on sharing, caring and love, notions from which these artists don’t shy away. Altogether I came to consider it as the feminine principle of relation, conversation and connectedness that is so necessary, even crucial, if we are to survive this century. It is about all our relations and exchange in an interdependent world.
Q: You have a background in archaeology, as well as art history. How does that play into your work as a curator?
A: It may be the archaeologist in me to always look for traces and a kind of stratigraphy – a layering of traces – as an archaeology of the present by including the work of living artists in juxtaposition with historical work. In this perception, history is an account of the present that inevitably changes, an account of our life world, and if you understand it this way, then the kinds of false separations, fixed categories, order and the authority of established determination – usually male! – that limit our vision disappear. The difficulty in society as much as in the museum is to overcome those deeply held conventions, not only institutional and structural, but also in how we perceive and apprehend the surrounding world: it needs a social and cultural shift. I am speaking here not only about traces revealed in the works, but also about what I would describe as traces of souls inside the visible. Traces and tracing have always fascinated me and may explain my profound interest in drawing practices and works on paper. In some magical way, they not only connect us, in the outward-reaching drawing gesture, to the mother but also to the earth, as we find a response in the traces we leave on the paper and in the ground. Yet we are also traced by them.
Q: You are the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. The museum’s collection centres on pieces dating from the first half of the 20th century and earlier. Do you approach the curation of Renaissance, impressionist or modern art differently from contemporary art?
A: The MSK was founded just over 200 years ago, in 1798, when artworks that had been seized by French revolutionaries were brought together in “une école centrale.” When the collection was given a home in the Academy of Fine Arts in 1811, the Museum of Painting, as it was then called, had the ambition to devote equal attention to both the past and the present. In life, as in artistic production, a line is never drawn between past and present: they fertilise and inform each other. If any distinctions are made, it is due to institutional bureaucracies that insist upon dividing historical and contemporary museums and their collections into categories; yet this is not done by artists or by the visitors. It is, simply, a false caesura: an unfortunate and erroneous rupture. For if we lose this vivid narrative – of the lived past within the present – then we lose the notion of why things happen in our everyday world.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the works you’ve chosen for Selections. Do they reflect your personal taste? What ties them together?
A: I chose the works for Selections in the light of what I have been describing here. Where do the tangents between past and present, or between “I” and “non-I,” and between nature and culture lie? In which ways do these artists question these binary or separating patterns of thought and the inequities they sustain, and how do they work in the in-between zone, where dividing lines fade and alternative viewpoints emerge? For me, their art results in the materialization of a relationscape in which we comprehend ourselves first of all together with others and our animate, surrounding world – in our tangents in a different space-time concept. It is both an outline and interrogation of our current worldview, and of a globalised society in relation to the past, but it is also a proposal for a multi-perspectival view that allows a multitude of positions, also with the animate earth repositioned at the centre, and an elaborated ecological concept that is both reflected in, and held accountable to, the political, social and economic world. In addition to an anthropocentric worldview, a symbiotic, or rather matrixial, view is promoted, one that does not revolve around the ego but the spherical earth and its inhabitants, with all our relations at its heart and without borders.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections #35, pages 116 – 130 and Limited Edition #50, pages 58 – 67.