interview with jérôme sans

Jérôme Sans photographed by Valentin le Cron. Image courtesy of Palais de Tokyo and saywho.

Jérôme Sans (born 1960) is a Paris-based curator, artistic director, art critic and author. He co-founded the innovative centre for contemporary art – Palais de Tokyo with Nicolas Bourriaud, served as artistic director of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and directed the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing between 2008 and 2012. Sans curated numerous international art biennials such as Taipei Biennial, the Lyon Biennial and Nuit Blanche in Paris. In 2012, he created the international art magazine L’Officiel Art, which he led until 2014. With Morgan Morris and Philip Qu, he established Perfect Crossovers – the first platform of talent for cultural communications between Asia and the rest of the world.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: How and when did you enter the contemporary art world?

JÉRÔME SANS: I entered the contemporary world when I was born. I decided to be contemporary! It was from day one when I was in my mother’s belly and ever since I was a child. I was always eager to understand the contemporary world – I watched the first men walk on the moon, under the table when I was not invited to watch television.

I was obsessed to be part of the world I was facing. The contemporary art world was just a part of my wish to enter the culture of my time. If I look back, all my friends were people from different backgrounds and never from the traditional world. I have always chosen people that were different and that were opening different doors – people who took risks!

I always wanted to embrace the world and not be sitting on a chair and watching a train go by. I decided without understanding anything that I had to be part of creation and live it live! I felt the vibration of a changing world and wanted to be part of it. Your question is complex for me because the work goes very far back. I did not just enter a gallery and the story started – no!

LŠ: Could we revisit your experience of the state of French art in the late 80s and early 90s?

JS: In the early 80s, the state of French contemporary art was very complex. The French art scene was for a long time stuck around the movement called Supports/Surfaces. They were in all the museums and magazines. What was more fascinating for me was a new generation of artists from Germany, the UK, America, and Italy. I was eager to understand who were the interesting contemporary French artists of my generation and so, I did a car tour of France with a friend of mine, Jean De Loisy. And we found some artists that we really liked and we showed their work immediately. We organised exhibitions in the back of bookshops or basements. In any place that we could use without spending a dime! We would hang the works and make everything. Then he took a position within the French institutional system and I went to the UK with my bag.

I went to see all the British institutions and galleries to try to introduce them to a new French generation of artists. And at the age of 23, I created the first-ever group show of contemporary French art in the UK in two decades. It toured from London to Oxford, Southampton, and Edinburgh. I stayed for almost a year in the UK, lecturing in art institutions and art colleges. So, my international career started in London! And from the UK, I went to America and Japan. My life has always been organic! I have never had any plans.

From early on, I have always made myself available for new adventures. I am not interested in making something for too many years. I am somewhat obsessed with building things – inventing new models and then moving to another place to live in another culture and have another adventure. The way I act is quite simple but very specific, and very different than many of my colleagues who spend most of their time or even live in one place and one job.

LŠ: Almost a Taoist approach!

JS: Since I come from nothing, I have never dreamt of anything. I knew that I would be the only one to open doors for myself. So, I only looked in front of me without thinking!I’ve always collaborated with other people – friends or colleagues or even people I never met before trying new projects together.

LŠ: Which institutions were formative for your development in the UK?

JS: Places like the Riverside Studios, one of the most creative places at the time. When I went there for the first time in my life, I was only 22. It was an interdisciplinary underground place with art, theater, music, and dance. There was a café in the middle of it and it was inhabited not only by the audience but also by artists. I remember sitting in the café and at the other table were Bruce McLean, and Gilbert and George! So, imagine yourself, you’re 22, you’re in London, you go to the first place and you get to meet these incredible people – not just to see them but also to speak with them! I saw Depeche Mode playing in a pub on top of the tables! London was crazy and everything was possible, where the difference was accepted. It was not a problem! For me coming from nowhere, having parents who knew no one in the art world, and immediately being welcomed so warmly was unique. I couldn’t believe I was invited at the age of 23 to do a lecture at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

LŠ: Really?

JS: With my terrible English but with a deep passion I spoke for an hour and a half and I was so embarrassed to have this very limited vocabulary. But people were standing afterward and clapping their hands. I learned later that their lectures were maximum of 45 minutes and I was the youngest to speak but the longest. London was more open then. You cannot enter the art world without being invited now. If you want to reach out to speak with the director of any important institution – Good luck!

Back then with no mobile phones, I went from door to door and asked to meet people. And this is how I met the director of the Riverside Studio, Marina Kalinovska. She was an amazing lady – very passionate and open-minded.

LŠ: And your time in the USA?

JS: It has always been a different story because it is not as open as it seems to be. If you look at history, there are very few European curators in American institutions – very few will succeed in being invited. And number two is staying. I was lucky as a friend of mine Peter Doroshenko, an American- Ukrainian artist whom I met in Houston, Texas, and who was living in Chicago, was hired as a director of the INOVA (Institute of Visual Arts). And he asked me: “Would you be interested in creating an institution?” Immediately I said: “Yes, let’s do it!” So, we took over this very tiny institution in America – Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, but we made many of the first-ever solo shows of innovative European artists such as Maurizio Cattelan, Steve McQueen, Pierre Huyghe, Erwin Wurm, Kendell Geers, Philippe Parreno, Barthélémy Toguo and others.

LŠ: In 1999, you co-founded with Nicolas Bourriaud the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which opened in 2002. What was your vision for the institution and how did you approach the project?

JS: We were considered independent, which at that time had a different meaning than it has today. At that time, it was the position of being able to invent things. So, in France, you cannot run a big institution if you’re not part of the “corporation” and have one special degree. Essentially, we were “orphans”. In America, we could have run an institution but in France it was impossible. So, we decided to invent our own institution in 1988!

We barely knew each other and we never did anything together. We respected each other, but we were not friends. We wanted to change the spirit of what was going on in France, where critics and people were against each other – there was no collective attitude! We wished to show a new face and spirit of this country and to figure out a new open dialogue. Moreover, we kept hearing all these art critics and directors complain about the weight of the institution and we were tired of those complaints. We wanted to open the window to the outside and reconnect with the world. Create not another white cube but a place to live, and to share. A place engaged with the time and with its creators.

So, we reviewed all the rules of institutions one by one on a sheet of paper, such as opening hours. Why are they all open from 10 am to 6 pm? Why are they open like banks or post offices? It made no sense to do that! We thought about the world we were entering, which is a world of leisure, where people have no time from 10 am to 12 pm, for example, to go to contemporary art institutions. Unless you are showing Leonardo da Vinci – and, you will have retired people come. But for contemporary art, people are at work. So why have all those rooms open and costing money?

Moreover, I never understood that the art starts after the checkpoint, after custom so to speak. It’s crazy to me! If you have a vision, a spirit, and energy, it will spread everywhere. We dreamt of a place where we were greeted by the door, like in any normal place in real life. If you go to a commercial gallery no one even says hi! If you run a store like this, it will be bankrupt in a week! So why is the art world so pretentious to think that it’s welcoming to behave like that? We wanted to have a normal attitude to create a place, which is a home for creative people. And creation is not just in the exhibition rooms but it’s also outside or at the entrance, the restaurant, the bar, the roof – everywhere! There are no designated places for art and no limits. So why are we always putting art in jail somehow?

I was lucky to see the underground as a young person where no one was afraid of anything. People had positions and they were expressing their positions without the fear of what the audience would think of them – it was much more real and more individualised.

LŠ: What exhibitions created at the Palais de Tokyo are of special importance to you?

JS: It’s a good question and what we did (with Nicolas) from January 2002 to January 2006, was to have non – stop projects. It was one 24-hour show for four years! For us, the excitement was to create and show the diversity and complexity of the contemporary art and culture of that time. Everyone in our team was able to program in the space, from the bars or restaurants to the shop. The show was always moving, it never stopped. We were programming from the day we arrived in the building and we opened two years later.

The exhibitions were a flux of energies and possibilities because we wanted to make a platform for all artists and creators. We never programmed more than six months in advance to keep everything fresh all the time. If you program three years in advance, you can smell it’s like an old dish. The audience understands and feels that!

Exhibition of Chen Zhen at Palais de Tokyo (2003-2004). Image courtesy of Palais de Tokyo
Exhibition Notre histoire (2006) at Palais de Tokyo with the work of Laurent Grasso. Image courtesy of Palais de Tokyo with photo credit by Kleinfenn.

LŠ: How do you see the development of the Palais de Tokyo since 2006 – your departure essentially?

JS: Well, you may or may not know that Nicolas and myself, programmed our departure. It’s quite rare that a director leaves when the place is at the top of its success. With the Palais de Tokyo, we wanted to create a place for new and other voices. A place open to new voices, new generations. A place where every four years a new director could come in and implement immediately his or her new vision, and be able to change the rules that exist. We wanted an institution as a place of freedom. In France in most institutions, the director stays in a position for a lifetime essentially blocking the new generation.

We could have stayed all our lives there but we wanted a new generation of people with different voices, even people who were contradictory with ourselves to take over. And we decided that we would never judge what people do because it’s a place to experiment, to produce things that you can never do anywhere else! I am very happy it still continues and it’s really more like a magazine that is reinvented by each Editor-in-Chief.

LŠ: From 2008 to 2012 you directed the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, known today as UCCA Beijing, where you redefined the building with the architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. When did your dialogue with contemporary art from China start? 

JS: It was back in the late 80s! When a dear late friend of mine, the artist Chen Zhen, had the possibility to come to France and experiment with his work. He arrived without understanding the world he was coming to because our world was a mystery then and he was shocked by the world he discovered. We became very close friends and through him I met all the other Chinese artists who left China at that time. I was fascinated by the work they were showing me and we had many discussions that were totally different to those I was having then. I introduced them to a lot of friends, curators, critics and institutions.  

My life is a kind of boomerang! So, when China opened its door, everybody went there. But I didn’t. I never do tourism anywhere in the world if I do not have a project there. I saw everyone going to China in 2000/2005. And UCCA sort of fell into my lap in November 2007 when it opened. Two years prior, I had the chance to see the site before construction. I received the invitation card for the opening. Most of my friends went to the opening and strangely I kept that invitation card next to my lamp and in January 2008, I was invited to meet the collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens for lunch, a meeting organized by Lorenzo Fiaschi. They were looking for a director. They understood after opening the place that they needed a direction and that their activity as collectors was far different to that of a director and they needed someone who was able to develop the museum. After meeting other international colleagues around the world, they offered me the position of director 10 days after this initial meeting and I immediately flew to China the day after.

LŠ: What were you interested to introduce to this new institution?

JS: Not to duplicate what I had done before! I don’t believe in formulas. I wanted to make a place where all Chinese cultural actors would have a home and a platform to express themselves in a dialogue with a global context. My interest was to always have a dialogue between the local and the global. It was very touching because when we opened the first exhibition, we could see that the Chinese were eager to understand. Before going to Asia, I was “tired” of art and China gave me back my passion. They were starving to know. I found there a unique and vibrant art community. I felt I was living a historical momentum again with them.

LŠ: How do you see the trajectory of UCCA Beijing since your departure?

JS: Amazing – Philip Tinari was the right candidate to take over, because he understands China from inside. And the UCCA today is a quite different structure. Back then it was private and now it has several spaces in China, also one in Shanghai. Tinari has developed it to another stage, which I think is really great!

LŠ: Curatorially you authored numerous art biennials – Taipei Biennial (2000), the Lyon Biennial (2005), and the Nuit Blanche in Paris. What is your opinion on the future of art biennials? 

JS: I think we will always have art biennials. Because we need a platform for experimentation and a platform for visibility of artists and new ideas. Biennials create a space for artists that cannot be done in museums!

Maybe the problem is that today there is almost no country without a biennial. Perhaps soon there will be no cities without art biennials. They have become a tool for cultural tourism! Which is in one way a good idea. But in the other way, sometimes it’s not that easy to run. But I’m not so critical of them. I think they are great because they have given to younger generations of curators and artists possibilities to innovate.

Entrance view of OUR FUTURE (2008) at UCCA Beijing. Image courtesy of UCCA Center for Contemporary Art.