Philippe Van Cauteren has been artistic director of the dynamic and forward thinking S.M.A.K. (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst); Municipal Museum for Contemporary Art in Ghent, Belgium since 2004. He was curator of the National Pavilion of Iraq for the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 and worked as a freelance curator in Germany, Mexico, Chile and Brazil. In 2002 he was curator of the first Biennal Ceara America in Fortaleza (Brazil).

Cauteren has been previously associated with Kathmandu through the Siddhartha Arts Foundation Education Initiative, conducting multiple workshops and masterclasses. He regularly writes and lectures on contemporary art. It is a professional career that has taken him to the most prestigious global art events in cities with plenty of opportunities to view, learn, add a new dimension to your worldview, and enjoy art. artBahrain contributing editor Glenna Aquino interviews Philippe Van Cauteren.

Would you mind telling us how you got involved in the Kathmandu Triennale (KT)

Late 2015 I was invited to Kathmandu to give a series of lectures to a group of artists and people working in the cultural field. The main theme of all the talks was a reflection on the relation between art and public space. The whole period of seminars was an extraordinary rewarding experience for the artists and for myself. Following this experience I met Mrs. Sangeeta Thapa, Director of the Siddhartha Arts Foundation. Rather quickly, we discussed the Kathmandu International Art Festival – which is today the Triennale of Kathmandu – and the idea if I would be interested to curate the exhibition. I was immediately fascinated and interested by the proposal, and started working on a first concept sketch.

Can you give us a cross section of the nationalities participating, from what countries, regions? What is the percentage of local participation ?

First of all, I want to make clear that I am never making a distinction between local and international artists. Artists are artists, wherever they come from. But if you want to know the participating nationalities I can easily sum up some of the countries : Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Bangladesh, Indonesia, United States, India, Iraq, Romania, Israel, the Netherlands, Colombia, Italy, Nepal, Thailand, Hong Kong,…. One third of the participating artists are Nepali artists.

What perspective or curatorial vision do you hope to bring to this inaugural edition of the KT?
What impact do you hope to achieve?

The title of the exhibition is ‘The City, My Studio / The City, My Life’. It articulates the complex interaction between the urban surroundings of the city of Kathmandu and the artistic practice. I figured out that the context of Kathmandu as a city is a very inspirational environment for artists, and at the same time it is a symbolic representation of the complexities of the existence of a person in this city. In an earlier interview for Artnews I described Kathmandu as ‘a city where the challenges of tradition and modernity meet. The city of Kathmandu is an exceptional and inspiring research station where artists from Nepal and other countries can develop their work independent from the burden of the art world.’ And it is exactly that what I hope to achieve, that the invited artists are provoked by the context of the city to realize fragile works which respond to their immediate experience of being in the city for a short moment of time.
For me the exhibition is kind of a hub where as much of the invited artists as possible will be physically present to create works, but also to engage in workshops, masterclasses, lectures, and by the end the exhibition will be a tribute to art and the city. What the impact will be is difficult to judge, but it will definitely have an impact due to the fact that we really bring fantastic artists to Kathmandu.

What can visitors expect to see at the KT ?

Visitors will be able to discover works of over 60 artists. Most of the works will have been specially created for the 4 exhibition venues of the Triennale. Through the art works, one will also be able to discover different parts of the city of Kathmandu, an occasion to wonder and admire the unique architecture and urban space of this amazing city.

What are Kathmandu’s strengths as a venue for international art events like this triennale.

Kathmandu is unique, that’s it! Come and see it with your own eyes. It is a city where the tradition still breaths and inspires the contemporary. It is a city which incorporates all challenges that a contemporary developing city faces (i.e. environmental, urbanistic, social, cultural issues) and where there is a very vivid and dynamic context to develop an exhibition. As described earlier, Kathmandu as a kind of laboratorium, research ground, far away of the rules and the limits of the global art world.

How and where will most of the works be displayed? What are the most often used mediums, art forms?

The four major venues of the exhibition are the Nepali Art Council, the Taragaon Museum, the Siddhartha Arts Gallery and the Patan Museum. Next to these venues artists will also make use of public space, i.e. streets, walls, squares….. And in terms of the art forms (this involves almost all media which artists can use): drawing, installation, sculpture, performance, painting, photography. There is no distinction between means, most of the artistic means are present.

Can you name some highlights of this triennale / some anticipated exhibitions, artists or collateral events thatmclearly embody the theme: “ My City, My Studio/ My City, My Life.“

It is difficult to name a highlight before I have seen things with my own eyes. But having Francis Alÿs as patron artist of this first Triennale is of course a highlight. I consider it a great honor that this major artist is willing to take this effort. And being able to connect the exhibition to questions related to heritage, refugees, orphans, schools, education…. can also be considered a highlight. 

Did you have some chances for immersion in preparation for this triennale? In particular how was the 2017 Encounters and the workshop received?

In the meantime I have been 5 times in Kathmandu. Due to heavy and dynamic schedules there has been no way to escape the city. But even if I would had the time, I would prefer to stay in the city to know it better. Thanks to all the workshops that I have been giving, and the lectures that happened every time I have been there, I got closely in touch with the artistic scene. Of course there are always more and other artists to discover, but I have a good idea of what is happening in Kathmandu. And I look with great respect and admiration to the artists who are working in this city. The circumstances are not always evident, but I feel an energy and engagement which does not occur every day.

What were the greatest challenges you faced curating this triennale?

The challenges are always the same, independent of where you are at work. Will everything be ready for the opening? Will one be able to realize the work together with the artist following the expectations of the artists? Will there be enough financial support for the exhibition? Will the audience find the way to the exhibition? Have we been enough generous to the artists and the audience? A whole set of questions which one faces as challenges, but which one can solve with certain forms of pragmatism and empathy for the surrounding in which one works. If I wouldn’t enjoy these challenges, it would have been better not to accept the task of curator. Luckily I can count on a great team making the Triennale possible, and on the support of the S.M.A.K. (museum for contemporary art, Ghent, Belgium) of which I am the director.

Having worked in diverse international venues what can you say about the current art environment in Kathmandu? How receptive /supportive or engaging was the local government? art community?

I feel that there is a vivid and dynamic art scene in Kathmandu. At the same time I feel that there is a lack of profound exchange between artists, of a theoretical framing of the work. As a consequence one sees that often artists just do their work without reflecting sufficiently about what they do and have to say as artists. Thanks to the Siddhartha Arts Foundation, and other organizations, one sees that this lack is being addressed by organizing lectures, seminars et cetera. As far as I can judge the support of the local government is pretty basic. But maybe this is a process. With the next exhibition they might have understood that art is a crucial stepping stone for every society, so also for the Nepali one.

What inspired the theme of “ My City, My Studio/My City, My Life “for the KT? And why do you think it is apt today for Kathmandu?

Well, what inspired me was walking in the city of Kathmandu. Strolling around and getting lost in the streets of the city is the best way to get ideas. And seen that artists still have a strong studio practice, I considered it important to stress the complex interaction between the city, art and life. The impact of the city on life and art, that’s what I was interested in. This does not mean that all the artists will illustrate the theme of the city. On the contrary, even. One has to understand the city as a basket, an environment, a canvas which one uses to work on, to try, to fail, to understand what it means to be an artist.