Chris Dercon Talks to Alia Al-Senussi

Chris Dercon embraces various art forms, dance and fashion being two of his favorites. This can often be at odds with the more mainstream requirements as new Director of Tate Modern. Nevertheless, his charm and wit have made him a big hit among staff and patrons alike. Prior to the Tate, his tenure as Director at Haus der Kunst Munich illustrated his international interests with a show celebrating "Masterpieces of Mohammedan Art" and a groundbreaking Ai Weiwei exhibition. Dercon and Al-Senussi met on the Fourth of July for Lebanese food to discuss patriotism, their love of President Obama and the melding of art and politics.

Alia Al-Senussi Hello. So, it is July 4, American Independence Day.
Chris Dercon Fuck! I have to call my kids in America. You're right. What's the time right now?

AA-S Why is it so exciting for you?
CD Because I have two kids, Sam and Ysemay, living in Princeton and they are very proud of their country. For them, 
July 4 is really something really special.

AA-S But you're Belgian…
CD Since Obama they are completely proud of their country and then, I was invited to go to the American embassy dinner for Barack and Michelle Obama…

AA-S … something of which I'm very jealous of you for attending…
CD You should be! The kids were 
calling me days before and days after: "Daddy, did you speak to Michelle Obama? Daddy, did you speak to Barack Obama?" I told them what happened at the dinner and that I was impressed by Mrs Obama, and I'm not a person who is completely starstruck. But going to that dinner, being in the presence of two people who are really shaking up the world, meant something special to me. And I admire Michelle Obama for another reason, because I've been a fashion addict for many years. And when I say a fashion addict, I mean fascinated by fashion because I regard it as industrial design but it's also a kind of semiotic code. The way she - Michelle - picks the things she wears; it's incredibly smart. She has to be a mother, then the host of the White House, and she has to be a feminist

AA-S Tell me about your kids. Do you think they feel more American than they do Belgian?
CD In 1987 I got a phone call from 
an American lady named Alanna Heiss and she said: "I know you left the art world 
and that you want to be involved with anything but the art world", which is dance, theatre, television, film… I wanted to be a PS1 programme director, which I became. And I fell in love with America and I met my wife, the mother of my children. It was a very special time for me. I presented Franz West's first American exhibition, which started my love / hate relationship with America.

AA-S Where have you lived in America - New York?
CD I lived at several addresses in New York. I started on East Houston Street. Lived underneath the Ramones, next to CBGB - that was a very special period in my life. Then I moved in to artist, Michael Smith's basement on Spring Street. Then I got involved with the Dan Graham and Glenn Branca music tribe. Then I spent a while in Matt Mullican's building in Grand Street. When Alanna hired me she found a house on Madison Avenue, 68th Street, and I was the only one without a fur coat.

AA-S Oh, interesting.
CD I was the only one without a dog and people thought that I was working there, that I was a dog walker.

AA-S Moving along to the present world… politics and art. If an artist is from an area that is in turmoil, does it mean their art must reflect that?
CD No, it doesn't. When I was in America I discovered Latin American artists such 
as Hélio Oiticica and Cildo Mereilles. One of the great things about working at PS1 was that I spent much time in Brasil, but that didn't mean I was looking for the exotic other or political otherness. It created a kind of openness. I think that made me try to understand what was happening in the Middle East, what was happening in West Africa, what happens in South Asian countries. And I'm still doing that.

AA-S You are great friends of Ai Weiwei, did you meet him during that time in New York?
CD While in New York, I was aware of the tensions on the Lower East Side, Alphabet City had just been invaded by all these nouveau riche people. Young developers had started to regenerate and there were riots in Tompkins Square Park. Only much later I learned that Ai Weiwei was also in NY in the late '80s/early '90s and he was documenting all riots. And when you look at Ai Weiwei's photographs of his NY years when he photographed the Chinese diaspora, he was standing in the middle between the police and the demonstrators.

AA-S Ai Weiwei and [fellow artist] Xu Bing lived together when they first moved to New York, no?
CD Not only Ai Weiwei and Xu Bing, but also Chen Kaige, the film-maker, and many famous musicians. You know what these people did to make a living? They were working in sweatshops, in dry-cleaners. They were also working at the Metropolitan Opera. There are many pictures of Ai Weiwei and his friends as extras in Turandot.

AA-S Is Ai Weiwei an artist who discusses Chinese politics or a global artist who discusses global issues?
CD He's a Chinese artist. He's more Chinese than the Chinese. Because he understands Chinese tradition and philosophy and he understands what it means to be Chinese, and he understands, also, these codes from Taoism and Confucianism. I only got to understand the work of Ai Weiwei by talking to my friends who are Sinologists. I have Sinologist friends from when I studied art history at University of Leiden, which is famous for Sinology. In those days - '74, '75, '76 - I had great sympathies for movements that tried to improve conditions of labour. I remember, in 1978, going to the premiere of Bernardo Bertolucci's Novecento [aka 1900] with my friends and we went out of the movie theatre singing the Internationale. That's how it was and I was.

AA-S You also did this massive show at the Haus der Kunst about how Arab culture was celebrated at Munich's 100th anniversary of the Oktoberfest in 1910. Munich is, to some extent, a sleepy little place but also it is a cosmopolitan city…
CD I don't agree that Munich is sleepy, because Munich in the 19th century had one of the most important art academies in the whole world. Most artists 
from Central and Eastern Europe came to study in Munich, and some of these artists were true revolutionaries. They then went back to their own countries and started 
to paint all these revolutionary scenes. They painted their local, nationalistic wars. They painted the struggles in Romania, 
in Hungary, you name it. And they all studied there. So Munich was an important centre in Europe. And it remained so until 1913. Picasso once said: "If one of my kids had to study art I would have sent him to the art academy in Munich." So Munich is not just a provincial town. It is an incredibly important town because, remember, after the Second World War, all the most important industries moved from the regions to Munich. Which is why we have Siemens and BMW, and this huge media industry.

AA-S Munich really has gone through a series of transformations, and so have you it seems?
CD "Everything is connected to everything else": that's my first slogan in life. Second slogan: "Serendipity - you always find what you're not looking for." And 
the third slogan: "Once the order has been found, everything can be changed around." The serendipity one was illustrated by the Guardian in 1992 when Sir Alex Ferguson tried to buy footballer, David Hirst from Sheffield Wednesday and he could only find Eric Cantona, who was playing for Leeds. And because of not being able to buy Hirst, because he was forced to buy Cantona, he won the championship and the bowl. So serendipity is important.

AA-S We've just touched upon your other great love - football.
CD Yeah, but I'm a pseudo-anthropologist. I love to look at soccer matches and go to art parties because I like sociology and I like anthropology and I like to see how people are dressed, how they talk. Of course I'm not just an outsider; 
I'm part of it, but I like to observe. And the fashion world is also about codes. When I don't understand something I start to be interested in it. There are so many good artists whom I discovered because I didn't understand them. So I keep saying to people who are starting to collect art - only collect what you don't understand.

  • Chris Dercon