Rad At the Helm
Magasin III Jaffa by night, with exhibition Migdalor with Sheila Hicks, 2018–2019, seen through the windows. Photo: Noam Preisman
Sitting down with Magasin III co-founder David Neuman is genuinely an inspiring moment to reflect on the trajectory of contemporary art in Sweden. Mr. Neuman after all uncontestably is a pioneering force in the art sphere whose long-standing influence stretches far beyond just Magasin III and informs achievements and contributions to the scene that might not even as visibly bear his name. Affable whenever we’ve met and lacking the sort of haughty air sometimes found in people whose path in art far surpasses your own, I’m notably struck by the candor and humility with which he speaks of his experiences across the table. In fact, I’m almost immediately told that I’m free to write whatever I want from our interview, if just factually correct. He addresses instances that were less successful and that one time Magasin III nearly lost its zen over an exhibition that was just too overpowering. “We’ve always been about the personal experience that happens inside the room and if it suddenly starts feeling like visiting a mall because a room is so crowded and people are nearly tripping over the works or each other, something is severely lost”, he says. If Magasin III consists of three pillars; the second is the soon to be inaugurated art venue Accelerator, while the third pillar is Magasin III’s satellite space in the predominantly Arab Jaffa, Israel, which he attributes as “a political statement”.
Tessa Praun and David Neuman, 2010. Photo: JH Engström. Catalogue “Thrice upon a time”. Production: Henrik Nygren Design.
C-P: Magasin III having been an important fixture in the Swedish and Stockholm art scene since so long, everyone should duly know it, but I imagine likely not everyone is as informed about its history and the personal narrative that relates to you. You are the instrumental figure behind the museum. Let’s talk about the early days and the historical context of Magasin III’s inception. D.N: The thoughts about putting Magasin III into motion stems back to the early 80’s, around ‘83-84 when I was living in NYC. I was influenced by the NYC art scene and all of us who were involved in it and moved in circles around it got to know each other well. Occasionally, I would visit and pop back here in Stockholm to see friends and when it came to art venues and exhibitions in the city around that time, mostly everything was tied to state and municipality. With my friend Robert Weil, who came from the world of finance but was very interested in arts and culture and socially very engaged, I would have long conversations that eventually led to the idea of opening a small space that would present itself as an alternative to the establishment as it was then. I also remember adopting the mindset that it would be fine no matter how few or many people would actually come and that there was primarily an eagerness to contribute to the accessibility of art here.
In the beginning I would curate all the exhibitions myself, I would select which people to write in the catalogues and basically was very hands-on in the day-to-day operations. The team was super small.
C-P: On that note, what was the first exhibition presented under the Magasin III banner?
D.N: It was ‘Five American Artists’ with three-dimensional works. Three-dimensionality that stretches beyond merely the walls presents in fact as a thread through our exhibition program and collection over the years. Performance and installation art for instance were something we were very early on prompting and pushing forward. Among the artists in the first exhibition were Joel Fisher, John Chamberlain, Lynda Benglis and Mel Kendrick.
David Neuman and Georg Baselitz. Photo Max Fredriksson
C-P: Given what you were describing earlier about the art landscape at the time of your opening Magasin III, what will the early reception and response to the space have been like?
D.N: The inner art circles were very enthusiastic but from the outlook of the establishment there was a great reluctance towards what we were doing. In fact, it was rather that we were met with suspicion more than just reluctance. The sentiment was that of our necessarily having some closed agenda or ulterior motive that was yet to be known but would come to light at some point.
C-P: Had you anticipated it at all, or was it a question of learning about it the hard way?
D.N: I was a little bit surprised, I was. Perhaps not so much about it regarding the early days, but more surprised that it would be the consistent case even five years into the program and run of Magasin III. It’s a fairly long time ago and a lot could be said of the impact born on the account of a still homogenous society and what position arts and culture is ascribed in such society. Some of the forces that act against initiatives like this can still surprise me, as I think of it.
C-P: Since Magasin III possesses a collection of its own that has been expanding over time, I’d be curious to know what sort of considerations and objectives exist regarding building this collection and what sort of mediation of art history is intended?
D.N: That’s an incredibly complex question. However, there are a few criterias, of which one is the reminder of the fact that we didn’t house a collection when we first opened our doors to the public. We opened with something you could almost call an empty shoe box. When the collection began to happen, I wanted it to reflect our exhibition profile and what we had exhibited ourselves and the works that had been specifically commissioned by us for our exhibitions. There’s also an idea of channeling synthesises between exhibitions by acquisitions that serve as a bridge of sorts that overlap gaps in what has been shown. Passion and curiosity relating to certain artistries is also a driving force and then a whole lot of craziness in the midst! And that sort of craziness is what provided the right amount of time, becomes less crazy and ultimately can almost be rendered comprehensible to an audience. We are currently doing a thorough work producing a book about our history and trajectory that hopefully will be completed by 2020.
Magasin III Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art, 2019. Photo: Simon Bajada
C-P: Some 32 years following 1987 when you opened, would you say things have changed considerably in Stockholm, looking at the city in 2019? If you think of the variety of spaces and the makeup and numbers of the audiences?
D.N: I would say that on a regional level there are several different epicenters that operate for the promotion of contemporary art. What you are doing with C-print constitutes one epicenter. It’s not always such that epicenters work similarly or are aware or understand each other but they coexist. As for big changes over time, there is a certain homogenous dimension in the Nordic region that relates to how culture and education have been formatted that impacts traction and the speed at which things happen. A big change which is deeply problematic is how art and culture have become so entrenched in financial structures as a result of the limitations of state and municipality. Perhaps that change has not been so dramatic in Sweden but from a global point of view, there’s been a serious and very visible change. Take the Venice Biennale this year which marks my 21st time going. I felt a certain worry over the state of the circus, if you will, that surrounds this event and the actual art on view. This turn and development are also due how we communicate about art. There is a quantity dimension that needs to be addressed; Many people read something, hence whatever is read will necessarily need to be deemed important. If many people see something, similarly it’s elevated to important.
C-P: Despite not being a huge art capital, Stockholm does have its fair share of galleries where the scene has a certain international command and reach, and there’s also several museums and institutions for contemporary art just like Magasin III. How do you feel that Magasin III positions itself distinctively in relation to its main competitors?
Santiago Sierra, Person obstructing a line of containers, Kaj 3 Frihamnen, Stockholm, Sweden, 2009. Magasin III Collection. Photo:Martin Runeborg / film Peter Grimner
D.N: That’s an interesting question. I think essentially it is a considerably smaller group of people who have been instrumental alongside each other in acting for the art scene to grow in this way. The common denominator for all of us is that we all at some point passed Moderna Museet which is a state-funded museum, either by having had the rapport of working there or having gone there as visitors in our youth. On the one hand you have Moderna Museet and Liljevalchs museum which literally are served governmental directives on how to operate, informing for example incentives about embracing and educating youth and minority groups. Then you have the private venues where Magasin III was one of the first followed by Bonniers Konsthall where I was previously on the board and was also a force in its founding alongside the late Jeanette Bonnier. Artipelag; is yet another private art venue where I also had influence in being an aid for Björn Jakobsson when formulating his thoughts and ideas about setting sail as to what would become Artipelag.
My main source of criticism directed towards other private venues is that they all appear to subject and relate to norms that are one way or another set by the Swedish welfare state, as though being public venues, when they are not. I’d prefer to see a radicalization of the private venues. As I see it, why be like the public venues instead of presenting yourself as something different, as a tangible alternative? When you travel for art, you don’t want to end up in a place that looks like everything you already know. No, what you like want is to go to that place that surprises you and feels like an experience and makes you go; “This is a crazy place!”. That’s something you would get in Berlin where there is an actual stretch on the one hand between the public museums and on other hand venues like Sammlung Hoffmann and Sammlung Boros. I’m not saying the pedagogical missioned framework of certain venues is a bad thing, but it strikes me as odd that every venue deems the need to have guided tours for baby strollers. The formulaic approach which is very convenient for the consumer, where every venue will serve you the expected levain toast has the effect ultimately of places losing an edge.
Magasin III has been closed for what we have called an “intermission” after some 30 years of run. This has given us time to think about the future direction of the venue; a mission that won’t be led primarily by me but the hope has been to figure out how to morph into the future and continue to be a venue that surprises and which might have people feeling that they don’t always “get it” or enjoy it, but that they at least can identify seeing something different and beyond the ordinary.
Christian Boltanski, Les archives du coeur (Hjärtarkivet), 2008. Photo: Martin Runeborg
C-P: Two people who like yourself have since long been the faces of Magasin III with key curatorial positions are Richard Julin, who will now be running the soon to be inaugurated Accelerator in Stockholm, and Tessa Praun who will be the helm of Magasin III from here on in. Tell me about the collective drive of Magasin III.
D.N: I’ve always had a certain dialectic towards those who have been part of creating Magasin III, where the mindset has been; “It isn’t your history but your capacity”, i.e. it’s what happens around a table discussion that matters in the now. Magasin III was deliberately built bringing people from vastly different places together. There was no curatorial education at Magasin III at the time.
Richard is educated overseas and was a trained industrial designer when he joined. Tessa as well came with cultural influences from elsewhere, having worked prior in Germany. Forces and various influences joining this way has been nourishment for Magasin III. Everyone who worked at Magasin III were given the scope to do what they really wanted, i.e. to make exhibitions. When people have left Magasin III and moved to other places, I think it happened a few times that people get caught into a different sort of structure, where they are distanced away from the actual curatorial production.
Chris Burden, 1/4 Ton Bridge, 1998–99. Magasin III Collection. Photo: Neil Goldstein
C-P: I know this will be a hard question and yet; What might be a few of your personal favourite or memorable highlights from over the years?
For me I will say it was Christian Boltanski some ten years ago where I had my heartbeats recorded for an archive on a remote Japanese island. The magnitude of that exhibition and the narrative and conceptual framework of the project felt like an eye-opener for me. There have been a lot of great moments visiting Magasin III but also the Miranda July project the museum did at the height of her career comes to mind, allowing people to sign up for recurring newsletter-style e-mails over a period, composed of the private messages of several celebrated people. That was novel and fun and felt like a great luxury to get to be part of.
D.N: Christian is a good example of a memorable moment. The grandeur of that exhibition lay in its scope of informing relationships. We had known Christian for quite a few years and had been having a continuous dialogue with him, also acquiring certain key works that were not presented in the exhibition. He loved being here and said with great humour; “Artists have so many ideas, while I have only a few that I work with over and over again”. Ideally an exhibition, as appears to have been the case for you with Christian’s exhibition, is perceived with dimensions of complexity, candor and an air of generosity.
Pippilotti Rist was another exhibition where the artist really embraced and approached the core of Magasin III through and through. But there really are countless examples. Behind you on your seat, I’m looking at a photograph of Chris Burden’s retrospective exhibition at the New Museum in NYC. Chris Burden who passed away too early, a few years back, was an artist we did two exhibitions with; one more extensive and one smaller. With the first one we helped him over the course of many years to produce works, among which one was ‘The Mexican Bridge’ (1988-99) which you can see on the photograph.
A legendary exhibition might very likely be the one Magasin III did with Félix González-Torres in the early 90s. I love the conversations we had that led to the exhibition and the anti-aesthetic approach that his work represented. What strikes me as I see his works installed today around the world is how poorly the installations have been carried out, which is due the fact that people attempt to add beauty to his work which is not at all what he strived for or was interested in. 1092 people saw that exhibition and that is my “Woodstock”. What I mean with that is, Woodstock is a point of reference and something there is a great universal narrative around. People know of it through mediation in popular culture and many many more people claim to have been there than was the actual reality.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (For Stockholm), 1992. Magasin III Collection. Photo: Neil Goldstein
Poster for the project We Think Alone by Miranda July, as part of the exhibiton On the Tip of My Tongue, 2013, Magasin III Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art.
C-P: Ai Weiwei was yet another grand exhibition that was publicized and very noted and had people streaming out to Magasin III.
D.N: Tessa Praun and I attended an international museum conference in Beijing, and I remember saying to my friend Jérôme Sans, one of the founders of Palais de Tokyo in Paris, that I didn’t want to sit there then and then listening and instead that I should be meeting Ai Weiwei. We managed a meeting in Beijing and kept in touch and later Tessa curated that exhibition. Prior to that he was detained for 89 or 91 days, with no one knowing where he was. It was a successful show and we had a great program relating to it, but frankly it also felt like it was ruining us in a sense. It landed us in a situation in terms of visitor turnout that we weren’t quite equipped and ready for. I think we had around 40 000 visitors, and people came from all over the world, and it was quite crazy. There I think we lost our zen a bit, because it was so overpowering.
C-P: I love that you can say it. I think recognizing one’s limitations or in hindsight being able to say that something wasn’t entirely ideal as a situation is quite commendable. I appreciate that.
D.N: There is definitely a consensus about it here and it took us 1-2 years to really recoup from it in terms of recharging our gears. The machinery around the exhibition was just crazy. I think of other times where in contrast we felt, in hindsight, like no one really understood what we were trying to do. Take our exhibition with Mika Rottenberg as an example.
Tessa Praun and Ai Weiwei at Magasin III Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art in 2015. Photo: Magasin III
C-P: Didn’t a lot of people come to see it though? At the time it felt like a lot of people were talking about going and about wanting to see it. Also, it came across as the sort of exhibition that showed people something beyond the ordinary.
D.N: Everyone talked about it but not everyone did see it. But true, there was media buzz around it. But we’ve had quite a few exhibitions like that where the audience didn’t entirely catch on. Another example of this was Santiago Sierra.
C-P: One thing from recent years I wanted to address was your inclusion of notorious indie singer-songwriter Stina Nordenstam in the exhibition project 'On the Tip of My Tongue” in 2013 which really impressed me. I’ve listened to her for years since high school and she is one of the recluse-type figures about whom there is the narrative of the painfully media shy artist who disappears for years and goes totally under the radar during the long breaks between album releases. I remember thinking that it was such a wow-thing for Stina Nordenstam to be a part of an exhibition project here.
D.N: Prior to that we did a long-running project called 'Magasin 3 Project Djurgårdsbrunn' over the course of four summers (2001-2005) in which she took part, and Richard Julin knew her a bit already. We had her over here once for a meeting and I think that time on the bus she met writer Fredrik Strage, who writes a lot about music.
C-P: I totally remember a column he wrote once about Stina Nordenstam around the time of 'On the Tip of My Tongue”, recalling an encounter with having run into her after many years which tapped into that narrative that is so fascinating about her allegedly reclusive nature. I think he called her “the shyest genius of Swedish pop music” that one time.
D.N: It’s humbling and rewarding when you bring these things up and it’s lovely to hear about the impact that it has had on you and hopefully others along with you. Because you know, from inside an institution there is so many discussions and so much energy spent on carrying these projects out and you can only hope to be able to reach out. The mainstream art realm often tends to be quite bourgeois and conservative, as you see sometimes opening a daily paper where they might list art events and point your direction towards classical figures or venues, while overlooking what is more cutting-edge. I guess that brings us back where we started our conversation about changes to trace in the artistic landscape.
David Neuman. Photo: Mathias Johansson
C-P: We brushed on it earlier and it’s widely known that Magasin III has been closed for a period during an “intermission” to plan for future times. What considerations led to this hiatus?
D.N: I feel like I still have quite a lot to give in terms of contemporary arts and culture but at the same time one has to understand there are limitations that come with getting older and those limitations are a good thing. I’m very critical of the notion of omnipotence of exercising an impact forever. On a personal note, the intermission was also a way to reach a personal departure and to conclude a time. I think the idiosyncratic, the somewhat radical and the unique about Magasin III needs to continue to take centerstage. It’s important that the place itself is felt as Magasin III and not just any place.
A string of considerations together with people like Tessa and Richard who had been with Magasin III for a long time, sort of amounted in a moment to take a hiatus. The new Accelerator art space which is a project I’ve worked on for almost ten years which has been my ”baby”, and where Richard will now serve as artistic director, is also something that I felt Magasin III as a venue will need to relate to. It will become like a partnership between the two, where Accelerator will substantially be an experimental platform that is tied to Stockholm University in the physical locale. It will be amazing.
Pipilotti Rist, Gravity, Be My Friend, 2007. Magasin III Collection. Photo: Johan Warden
C-P: How apparent and obvious will this partnership be?
D.N: Well, take for instance that Accelerator according to agreement, will have full access to Magasin III’s entire collection and will be able to benefit from it freely. Considering that it is a brand new institution, that sort of access and these resources are hugely beneficial. The ties with Magasin III also becomes obvious on the account of Richard’s long-standing history with us. He will now both have to liberate himself in his new position and relate back to his trajectory with Magasin III.
You could say the Roman number three in our name represents three pillars of which the first is where we are now, the second is Accelerator and the third is the satellite space we’ve inaugurated outside Tel Aviv in Jaffa recently. And this clever idea with the three pillars I credit to Tessa.
C-P: Tell me about this satellite space in Jaffa; I imagine this like Accelerator is a project that has been shaping up over long time?
D.N: I personally travelled to Tel Aviv a lot over the years and was also part of moving the Master’s program of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It’s an academy that was founded back in 1904. I also taught there at times.
With the new satellite space, the idea was to build something where intellectual property and intellectual management stems directly from the city. I might be a catalyst and driving force behind it but in the grand scheme of things it was important for operations to relate to the actual site, for it to be multicultural and inform both the Arabic community and the non-Arabic population. Its inception is reminiscent of Magasin III’s beginnings of starting out quite modestly in a smaller space. The idea again is that we are happy if a few hundred people are interested in what we are doing. If more, then great, but if not, we are still happy if we can reach out to some.
We began with a presentation with Haim Steinbach who was born in Israel but moved to the US and had never had a solo exhibition in Israel before. Then we had a presentation with Sheila Hicks. They are both 75 and 85, respectively. Third was Cosima von Bonin and the fourth which opens in October is the installation of a brand-new work by Tal R who was also born in Israel.
Magasin III Jaffa, 2017. Photo: Mia Gourvitch
C-P: What have been the greatest challenges in establishing the satellite on site, away from home? D.N: The practicalities have been very complicated, but aside from that there have been a few criterias behind the operations for me. I could stress that this is a political statement in so far that we are housed in Jaffa which is predominantly Arabic. It’s both Muslim and Christian and that felt important to me and it felt important to be located somewhere a little bit off the beaten track in the sense of not opening doors on some palatial lavish street. Another criteria was for the space to be visually open in so far that exhibitions can now be seen entirely from the outside; from the front or from the back, would someone choose not to enter. This way exhibitions are open 24/7 with the best lighting you can think of, at all hours.
This is an area that has an intense night and clubbing scene. So, you will have people passing there at 2 am in the morning, looking in, wondering what is going on inside. This way the threshold is lowered, and the exhibitions rendered very accessible. Two days a week we are open with regular opening hours and our visitors will be both the art crowd from art schools and local kids from the neighborhood. Yet, I think most of our visitors have never been to be an art exhibition before. Quite paradoxically somehow the satellite space has been bestowed the best possibilities for the exhibition operations towards visitors. Even better than here.
A fundamental building block in all this is the personal view is that the visual arts and things that lack commercial signs are great tools for public discourse between different people. The epic conflicts that exist are immensely sad and can disillusion anyone, but on the individual level it’s a beautiful thing when we as providers are challenged because of the art, when someone themselves is challenged too and asks us; “What is this?” or a visitor sees an installation of Sheila Hicks and goes: “This is wonderful!”. I want to stand behind the force that is unleashed by experiences like this rather than any notions that tell you about the societal impossibilities of operating there or about notions of needing to choose sides. This is what I’ve chosen, and it feels good and meaningful.
Images courtesy of Magasin III. Special thanks to Lisa Boström at Magasin III.