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For heart's sake.

Since its founding in 1974, the Centre d'art contemporain has paved the way for the reception of new art in Geneva, a city that has been slow to overcome its Calvinist distrust of the image. Together with the Musee d'art moderne et contemporain (MAMCO), the Centre de gravure contemporaine, Galerie Art&Public, Analix gallery, and the "attitudes" series of exhibitions (presenting young artists in temporarily rented spaces), the Centre d'art contemporain has, under Paolo Colombo's leadership, been an important forum for international art as well as for young Genevan artists.

HANS RUDOLF REUST: You started at the Centre under difficult conditions. How have those circumstances affected its development?

PAOLO COLOMBO: When I came to Geneva in 1989, we didn't have a gallery, as the former building had burned down two years earlier. When we finally moved into our current space, I felt it was important to establish a new program; in a way we had to start from scratch. Adelina Von Furstenberg, whom I succeeded as director, founded the Centre, so in twenty-four years of existence it has had only two directors, which might be unique for such an institution in Switzerland.

The Centre is now the official Kunsthalle of Geneva, by vote of the Municipal Council in 1990. In that role, we have focused, with a few exceptions, on producing large, one-person shows and special projects. Ninety percent of our exhibitions have originated at the Centre. I like to collaborate with other institutions, and to take exhibitions from other museums and Kunsthalles, but my first priority has been to establish our identity in this new space, and to root it in the Swiss and European context.

HRR: The space itself has inspired your program?

PC: Yes. We are housed in a raw, industrial building, beautiful in terms of proportions, of light, of volume, but architecturally it is very particular. For years, one of our two main exhibition spaces was an open floor, of about 5,400 square feet. This inspired me to do site-specific installations with Allan McCollum, Juan Munoz, Tony Oursler, Pipilotti Rist (her "Shooting Divas"), and others. We also did large exhibitions with Louise Lawler, and a very large show of Ugo Rondinone that used well over two floors of the Centre.

HRR: How does the Centre's program jibe with your personal inclinations ?

PC: I am interested in art that is attentive to human concerns. That has been central to a number of the exhibitions, starting with Kiki Smith in 1990, and continuing with Nan Goldin, Sue Williams, Rosemarie Trockel, and Gillian Wearing.

I come from a background in literature, not art history. By training 1 am very attentive to the "readability" of an artist's work. I believe that we are formed by our mother tongue and the language in which we communicate. To give you an example, the drawings of Nicos Baikas, which we showed in 1994, are rooted in the structure of his native Greek - that comes across strongly in terms of pacing, rhythm, syntax, and construction of the image.

Most of the artists we have given one-person shows happen to be in their early or late thirties, but our concern is not with their generation. Even "Fatto in Italia," the exhibition of young Italian artists we presented in 1997, was based on individual positions, not on a shared generational identity. In constructing an exhibition, I like to communicate not only the social context, but the specific temperature and the emotional values that characterize an artist's work.

I conceive of my job like that of an editor at a publishing house: sometimes a book is perfect, to others one has to add a few commas; you choose the title, the design, the paper...

HRR: ... and which authors to publish. You have been showing quite a few Swiss artists: Silvia Bachli, Rist, Rondinone. Do you see any shared characteristics particular to the Swiss art scene?

PC: The work of the artists you mentioned has broad resonance, but it still reflects the specific milieu in which it was made. Obviously, it is not so much the linguistic factor that links the artists in this country, but the political atmosphere. For example, the whole idea of the happy island that is Switzerland is reflected in the fact that few artists here deal directly with political issues. Miriam Cahn, whom we showed in 1994, is an exception; Thomas Hirschhorn might be another. If you look at art schools and local exhibitions, you will see work that is well articulated and formal, but without the concern for social issues one finds in the work of young artists in other countries.

HRR: In the '80s a whole generation of young artists - like Marie-Jose Burki, Bernard Voita, Mitja Tusek, and Robert Suermondt - left the city and went to Brussels.

PC: Since then the climate has changed radically. It's much more receptive now to new faces. In 1993 the Centre inaugurated a "Projects" room that is mostly devoted to artists living in Geneva. We showed Nicolas Fernandez and Katia Bassanini very early on. We currently have an exhibition of Victoria Oldham, an artist from here who studied at the Chelsea School of Art in London.

HRR: Does the Ecole Superieure d'Art Visuels, which has been Switzerland's only real academy until now, affect the tenor of things?

PC: It certainly helps to create and circulate ideas. ESAV, along with the opening of our "Projects" room, the smaller not-for-profit galleries, and the presence of MAMCO, gives young artists a reason to come to and stay in Geneva.

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.
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Title Annotation:interview with art museum director Paolo Colombo
Author:Reust, Hans Rudolf
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Interview
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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