“I just thought it was a great work of art that at 4pm every day 100,000 pigeons would suddenly be hovering around the Hayward. It would be very spooky but I don’t regret saying no to it as I couldn’t have lived with asking someone to clean up the bird shit from 100,000 pigeons.”
Ralph Rugoff is on a roll. The softly-spoken American took over as the director of the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank in 2006 and has presided over its emergence as arguably the city’s most interesting public gallery. Under his watch, the Hayward has hosted solo shows for the likes of Jeremy Deller, Tracey Emin, George Condo, Pipilotti Rist and David Shrigley as well as unusual (some would say provocative) exhibitions like Light Show and Invisible: Art about the Unseen, 1957-2012. But today, sat in a glass-fronted reading room overlooking Waterloo Bridge, Ralph Rugoff is on a roll reminiscing about those ideas he had to turn down.
The mass pigeon feed was a proposal from the Austrian art collective Gelitin for the 2008 show Psycho Buildings. When the clean-up operation proved fatal to their creative vision, they came up with a Plan B – flooding the gallery’s terraces to create infinite boating lakes over the river. But as Ralph recalls, turning down Gelitin was a rare occurrence.
“We’ve gone through with most things that we really wanted to do,” he says. “Last fall as part of the show Art of Change: New Directions from China there was supposed to be a piece with a very high pressure hose that was just wildly out of control in one of the buildings on our terraces. I mean a hose that could really hurt you; so you couldn’t actually go in the space, you could just watch it. It was a really nice piece but we had some construction issue so we couldn’t do it.
“It’s an interesting moment because there is so much money in the commercial art world and the commercial galleries are able to offer their more successful artists almost carte blanche in terms of helping with their production. That makes it quite difficult for public galleries who don’t have that kind of budget. People are creating more and more expensive artworks and sometimes those are great, but spending money isn’t necessarily the way to make more interesting art.”
So in an age of reduced exhibition budgets, what is it Ralph and his team look for?
“We’re very focussed on trying to find artists whose work seems to be adventurous and is not art historically navel-gazing, but is reaching out and looking at what is happening in the world and responding to that. We have incredible pop media that’s got a sort of military precision in making people feel the same things at the same moment, but art does something totally different. It traffics in ambiguities and uncertainties and ideally it’s about undoing the whole scaffolding of learned knowledge and assumptions that we have.
“I really do think the one thing most art has in common is that no-one really understands it at first; you have to spend time with it and it’s a process. Increasingly it feels we have less and less patience for going through that process. We want to have five different screens open at the same time and we want to get a little of this and a little of that. But art is about engaging people in a process and we look for artists who really try to make that clear in their invitation to the viewer; that the viewer is where the work is happening. The work is not happening on a wall, in an object. That object is just a trigger and where the catalyst and the energy and the thinking comes – and where it lives ultimately – is in the heart and mind of the person interacting with it.”
This idea of the gallery-goer’s active role in the art process is an idea most famously articulated by Marcel Duchamp who said that half the meaning comes from the viewer.
For Ralph this is more than a theory; it lies at the heart of his approach to putting on exhibitions. But he agrees that at a gallery with as much sheer physical presence as the Hayward, the space is a third participant in this conversation.
“I think good curating always tries to challenge our traditional ideas about authorship and where meaning is generated,” he says.
“Space is really interesting. I think the great thing about the Hayward is its flexibility. Yes it has this concrete-cave-bunker- like-feeling and you feel like you are sheltered from any potential nuclear disasters, but also from the outside world, so you can have this very intense, robust encounter.
“I think if inside this great concrete shell you just had a series of cookie-cutter rooms that were linked to each other in a conveyor-belt fashion then it wouldn’t be a successful gallery. What makes the Hayward interesting is that for most of the galleries there are three or four entrances and exits into other galleries, and there’s a front stair and a back stair. If you want to make an exhibition that has a very specific route, it’s quite a challenge in the Hayward.
“Good museum architecture allows for very flexible exhibition design. There are shows that we can do that I think other galleries in London would be stretched to do. Then again, they can put on shows that look much more elegant and I’ve had a couple of painters turn down offers of having a show here because they didn’t feel it was the right space for them. The Hayward is this very chunky, physical space where you are definitely aware of your body and I think that there are certain kinds of works that play on that and don’t treat you just as a disembodied eye on roller skates passing through.”
Ralph grew up in New York and studied semiotics at Brown University before getting into art criticism “probably because so many of my friends were artists.” He first visited the Hayward while living in London at the end of the 1990s, seeing shows designed by starchitects like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas.
“My experience – and this is a very common experience that people have at the Hayward – was that it was completely unrecognisable each time I came back. It’s such a flexible space and you can rearrange it in so many different ways that you’re totally confused every time thinking, ‘Didn’t there used to be a room here?’ and ‘Shouldn’t this lead to here?’ but it doesn’t any more.”
This flexibility means they can accede to some pretty unusual artist’s requests. “We’ve got a Martin Creed show coming up at the end of January and Martin doesn’t want any walls unless the wall is an artwork. So there will be one wall in the show which is an actual artwork.”
Creed was one of the artists on Ralph’s hitlist. He rolls his eyes at the “absurd” ways he sometimes sees the word curation used. “There is one type of curating where you love a particular artist’s work but to appreciate why it’s good and how it’s good you really have to know what else is going on and what the larger context is. Then it’s just a question of trying to find out what is the right time in an artist’s career.
“You win some and you lose some. The director of another gallery in town recently was saying, ‘Martin was on our list’ and I said ‘Well the person you’ve got on now was on our list!’ So you don’t get to do everything you want to do.
“I think the good thing about having a background in writing about art is that as a writer, you’re always having to make arguments about what this thing is that you’re looking at, what it means, what it relates to. And you have to do that as a curator too.”
Ralph may be considered an outsider on a couple of levels. For one thing he’s an American in charge of one of London’s most important art spaces. For another he freely admits his first cultural passions were literature and film rather than art. But he’s turned both of these to his advantage. “I think it’s always good to have as wide a field of reference as possible. Sometimes I envy the scholarly depths of people who are just completely focussed on their one thing but the whole nature of semiotics was that there are all kinds of interesting communication systems out there and art is one of them. It’s a super- interesting one, but there are lots of other things as well.”
Similarly he brings a refreshing outsider’s perspective to both the gallery and the British art scene. His shows have often explored the Hayward space in unusual ways – think Psycho Buildings with its weird and wonderful installations from the likes of Tomas Saraceno or the extraordinary, visceral experience of this year’s Light Show. But at other times he has explored our own relationship with controversial, overlooked or even derided UK artists like Emin, Deller and Shrigley.
“David’s a guy the London art world took only half seriously because he’s funny,” Ralph says. “It’s strange because we don’t hold that against playwrights or Woody Allen say, who can make funny films and people think he’s a genius. Also David made popular books which sold to a non-art crowd. I think the art world punishes people who have some kind of commercial success outside of the art world.”
For Jeremy Deller the challenge was partly that he was underappreciated, but there was also an issue with how you bring to life work like the recreation of a famous battle in the 1980s Miners’ Strike or brass band covers of Acid House classics.
“With Jeremy so much of it is ephemeral and so much of it is time-based and you really don’t want to just have documentation of all this stuff. What we tried to do was to reconstruct some things like his bedroom where he had his first exhibition and to set a tone with that.
“I think one of Jeremy’s great strengths as an artist is that he really keeps it personal; it comes from his own enthusiasms about things. He’s not trying to be objective in his histories or his cultural analysis and I think that’s a good message to begin with. And to have him do the slideshow where he talks about all his works that might have been down an alleyway somewhere or happening for one night in a cocktail bar is much more direct than just having little labels next to photographs on a wall.”
Of course with Tracey Emin,whose show Love Is What You Want came to the Hayward in 2011, the challenge wasn’t that she was unknown, but rather that she had this tabloid-fuelled caricature which fixated on what Ralph calls “the hysterical register” of her work. For an American, such engagement with the popular press was unheard of.
“I am fascinated by that side of the phenomenon because it doesn’t exist in the US at all. There are no artists who have a relationship with the tabloids and who can use the tabloids as a medium. I thought you could have a show just of Tracey’s tabloid coverage because it’s like a performance art documentation – ‘Here’s my public persona and I will play it out in this medium.’
“I think what’s interesting is to take an artist like Tracey – who some critics have written off because they don’t like her lifestyle or they don’t like the fact she is in the media a lot – but then you can do a show that has enough depth of what they’ve done over 20 years. So when we do a monographic show like that, it’s great to be able to shine a different light on someone’s achievement. I do think we’ve done shows with some of the best British artists of their generation.”
You get the sense that not only did it take someone free from the vicissitudes of the tabloid press to see a different side of artists like Shrigley or Emin, but that Ralph actively enjoys showing us just how good these talents are, how blessed we Brits are to live at the same time as them. By questioning our cultural preconceptions, Ralph and the team like to surprise us with artists we had pigeon-holed. In fact surprise has a key role to play in what Ralph wants to do, but in a social-media obsessed age it’s increasingly tough.
By questioning our cultural preconceptions, Ralph and the team like to surprise us with artists we had pigeon-holed. In fact surprise has a key role to play in what Ralph wants to do, but in a social-media obsessed age it’s increasingly tough.
“I think the problem with the surprise thing is that there is more and more need for people to have that sense of being physically in a place and realising you can absorb information not just with your eyes but through other ways as well. But by the time you get to see an exhibition you’ve been Tweeted images, your friends have Facebooked you images, you’ve visited the website of the museum and seen their images.
“It used to be a newspaper would publish a few pictures but now you can see everything. You can go to Flickr and go through someone’s photo archive of a show they just went through.
“Even me, I know if I’m debating ‘Gee do I want to crawl through town for 50 minutes to see that one show in some faraway part of London?’ and then I see ten images online and it doesn’t look that great so I’ll probably skip it. But it could be very different if you actually get there. One of the definitions of installation art used to be art that you can’t capture in a photograph. But people can give you 20 photographs and you start to piece it together.
“I think this is more of a problem for that experience of going to look at art. I was just in Paris and everywhere I went I saw people photographing their meals or the person they were buying their Metro ticket from. It’s just this absurd thing where they’re compulsively blogging every encounter they have in a day, and people feel compelled to document everything they see in a museum.
“Luckily there are a lot of times you’re not allowed to photograph in a museum and I am sort of ambivalent about that. On the one hand I think it’s nice if people want to take photographs in a gallery, but on the other hand maybe it’s nicer if you are surprised by what you see. That for me is probably the best reason for saying no cameras, no picture- taking in a gallery. Just enjoy it.”
That could be the slogan for the Hayward Gallery under Ralph Rugoff. In the eight years he’s spent on the South Bank, he has raised weighty questions, explored complex themes and challenged deep-seated preconceptions. But when it comes down to it “Just enjoy it” is perhaps the most marvellous maxim of all.