Kunsthalle Bern’s iLiana Fokianaki On Her Work, Politics and the Role of Art

"Art has often robustly responded to social and political crises by posing necessary questions and highlighting systemic injustice."

A few weeks ago, curator, writer and theorist iLiana Fokianaki was named the new director of Kunsthalle Bern, the famous gallery hall known for exhibitions like “Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” the landmark show on minimalism and conceptualism curated by Harald Szeemann in 1969. It was also the first public building wrapped by Christo and Jean-Claude, just the year before. In more recent years, the venue has staged shows by artists like Park McAruthur and Monica Baer, and we were curious to know what’s next. Observer recently had a chance to catch up with Fokianaki to hear about her plans for the institution.

A woman wearing a black suit poses for a photograph in front of a bare wall
iLiana Fokianaki. Photo: Panos Davios

How would you categorize the curatorial tone of Kunsthalle Bern these past few years? How will your tenure continue that or break from it?

Kunsthalle Bern has played an important role in cementing the way curatorial practice is understood in the West. Most importantly, it has had a diverse tone since each of the former directors developed their research interests through the program. I am inclined to highlight those practices that are close to my personal research. For example, the practice of Philippe Pirotte, a colleague with whom I am in dialogue with, whose work I have been following ever since he was director at the Kunsthalle Bern. I feel exhibitions like the series “The Idea of Africa (re-invented)” present questions on how Europeans understand the world while working towards breaking prejudices that are relevant to this day. I very much enjoyed Kabelo Malatsie’s proposition on thinking of sound, or its absence, and language as a platform from which one embarks to reflect on autonomy and freedom. She has worked with artists with whom I have also worked with, such as Tabita Rezaire, and I find affinities in our practice. So there are a lot of things that one can carry along, reflect on and respond to. I aim to begin my program by extending my thanks and responding to Kabelo’s thinking with an exhibition that will discuss sound and language as vehicles for thinking about our current realities.

Youve said you want to make the institution responsive to the ecological, social, and political crises of our time.” What do you think art can do in the face of such large problems?

I think art has always done a lot in the face of large problems. This is one of its tasks, to reflect, address and discuss its contemporaneity. However, art is also a field or an industry, so if you think of it from the art market perspective, this has played a role in overconsumption and over-production, as well as obfuscating injustices. On the other hand, art has often robustly responded to social and political crises by posing necessary questions and highlighting systemic injustice. To think of recent examples of such practices, Nan Goldin is a shining example, as is Forensic Architecture, a research agency operating at the edges of artistic practice. There are artists currently experimenting with new materials that are fully recycled and sustainable and artists such as Cooking Sections who are working with museums and communities alike on changing the way we eat, in preparation for climate disaster, so artists who work towards tangible change.

I always believed that art—and consequently the art institution—is a realm in which challenging concepts can be debated with less tension than for instance a parliament or a news TV panel. It is a space and a place where all of us can allow ourselves to think more broadly, shift opinions and educate ourselves on concepts, positions and people that are outside of our immediate surroundings and outside of what we’ve come to expect. It is a safe space for inquiry that brings us together, where unexpected alliances can occur and this is a thing we should cherish and protect.

Youve published essays on the topic of what you describe as narcissistic authoritarian statism.” Where do you see that displayed today?

My two-part essay for e-flux journal that you are referring to examined the rise of the far-right with the appearance of political figures such as Bolsonaro and Trump. I wanted to highlight what I recognized as a new model of narcissistic authoritarian governance and how that can also be mirrored in the art institution. So not the traditional authoritarian regime (that Nicos Poulantzas, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt and others have discussed) but a new regime that emerges through democratic elective processes. What I saw as a new model is a narcissism that emerges through impunity, bad behavior, bending of the law, misinformation, alternative truth, hate campaigns and the collusion of state and enterprise with no checks and balances.

Sadly, my native Greece is an example, having been in the eye of the storm this past year due to a surveillance technology scandal. I noticed these behaviors had already seeped into the art world and cultural practice in 2018. We as cultural practitioners and institutions can counteract these practices, and we do so with radical conviviality. There are important initiatives that discuss the problems of the cultural field and that aim to find more sustainable and fair ways of practicing, such as the Ethics of Collecting, formulated by a group of collectors from all over the world.

Kunsthalle Bern was host to the famous 1969 show ‘Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form.’ Why do you think art has become so much less conceptual since then?

Has it? I am not so sure. I believe the concept behind the artwork is still as important to most of us as it was in the beginning of the conceptual art movement. Indeed, sometimes I enter exhibition spaces and see shows that I find are so muted in what they want to say that the concept itself gets lost. But I more often encounter artistic practices that discuss very important issues in ways that are extremely powerful and potent. Kapwani Kiwanga, for instance, an artist with whom I have closely worked these last years, I feel is one of these conceptual artists whose practice challenges our time. Otolith Group is another example. Conceptual art from the 1970s onwards has changed the way artistic practice is understood not only by cultural workers but also by audiences, and I feel we could never go back. The way the concept is delivered through the artwork can be minimalist or maximalist, literal or not. The importance remains in the concept and what it debates.

What have been some of the recent shows at Kunsthalle Bern that youve enjoyed? 

I was very fond of Belgian artist Jef Geys’ practice—here is an example of a conceptual artist with very powerful work—and I thought it was very important for Valérie Knoll to show him in 2021 in his first-ever presentation in Switzerland. And the current exhibition of Deborah-Joyce Holman I enjoyed very much. I have followed her work since she was the recipient of the Société Generale Swiss Emerging Artist Prize, to name but two.

You founded State of Concept, an independent art institution in Athens in 2013. How would you contrast the art scenes in Athens and Bern?

To contrast, I would need to already have lived in Bern, so I would avoid a comparison just yet. However, from afar I can say there certainly are fundamental and very tangible differences, ones that can be found between any art scene with a state infrastructure and support for its art ecology and one with zero state infrastructure and support.

What advice would you give a young curator starting out in todays tense climate? 

I hate giving advice. But if a colleague came to me to ask how to deal with today’s tense climate—which by the way is nothing new, we have seen similar tensions whenever important steps towards societal change were manifesting—I would direct them to the writings of six women that have been pivotal in forming the way I understand myself as a person and curator: Hannah Arendt, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Saidiya Hartman, Silvia Federici and Nancy Fraser. They will certainly find ways of navigating or breaking through tensions through such profound thinking and writing.

Kunsthalle Bern’s iLiana Fokianaki On Her Work, Politics and the Role of Art