Art Insight #27: Thierry Raspail

Director of the MAC Lyon (Contemporary Art Museum Lyon)
Co-founder and Artistic Director of the Lyon Biennale

Lyon, a city in south-eastern France, is emerging as center stage in the international scene of contemporary art. This development owes much to Thierry Raspail, who was the driving force behind the founding of Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon (MAC Lyon) and the Lyon Biennale (La Biennale de Lyon). In 1984, Raspail introduced the concept called “collection of moments” to run the museum he started without a single piece of art work in its collection. Using this concept, he developed and strengthened the exhibitions and collections of the MAC Lyon. Raspail’s plan to start the Lyon Biennale was the first effort of its kind in France since 1985 , the year when the biennials vanished in France after the Paris Biennale closed. During the organization stage of the Biennale, he concentrated on the harmonization of local particularities and the global plurality. As a result, the Lyon Biennale, which inaugurated in 1991, established itself as a festival where local citizens participate and communicate actively and also as an international event celebrated by approximately 250 million visitors today.

Above all, the Lyon Biennale takes place in the unique form of trilogy (guest curators of three consecutive biennales address the keyword suggested by Raspail) , through which it truly realizes "globalism" by leading contemporary discourses and bringing diverse points of view together beyond ethnicities, continents, nations and cultures. The Lyon Biennale, which will soon celebrate its 30th anniversary, is now one of the major international art events in Europe, along with the Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia), Kassel Documenta and Sculpture Projects Münster (Skulptur Projekte Münster). What was the engine that pushed the city of Lyon to step up as a new international artistic center? We invited Thierry Raspail, the mastermind who devised and designed Lyon’s art and culture project—from MAC Lyon to the Lyon Biennale—to share the past thirty years of his artistic history and future projects.

Believe in what you do and do not pay attention to what others say. It is above all to be in your own time, to be in your era and to stay close to your generation. Be sure to know the things that preceded the present, but do not copy from it. Invent and innovate. - Thierry Raspail -

Q. You have led the Museum of Contemporary Art of Lyon since its creation in 1984. How does MAC Lyon distinguish itself from other culture or art institutions?

MAC Lyon mainly distinguishes itself from other institutions with its collection. Generally, museums in France are established on the basis of a pre-existing collection. However, we started from scratch, without zero artworks in the collection. The idea was to organize exhibitions with artists and to make the entirety of exhibitions our collection. MAC Lyon archives both our exhibitions and their moments. We are also a museum without walls. To organize an exhibition, we tear down the entire exhibition space and reconstruct everything. It is the nature of the artwork to determine the design and the space of the museum at every moment. We (the audience) are surrounded by works and the exhibition defined by the artist. The artist is responsible for the exhibition and at the same time for what will remain in history.

Q. You founded the Lyon Biennale in 1991 and have been serving as its Artistic Director. What thoughts or reasons were behind organizing the Lyon Biennale? Was there a particular motivation?

When I was designing the Lyon project, I thought the museum alone would not be enough. It was necessary to create an international event linked to the museum to support it. Back then, I was not very clear about what form to decide on for this international event. But I was pondering the idea of globalization and new biennials that were emerging at the time. The Gwangju Biennale , which I have followed since its creation, is one example. Three years after the last biennale closed in Paris, I organized in 1988 the exhibition “Colour Alone: The Experience of Monochrome ." The exhibition was a great success and opened up the potential to host an international event of contemporary art in Lyon. With the Ministry of Culture, we decided to relaunch biennials in France and the first edition of the Lyon Biennale opened doors in 1991.

Q. Compared to other international biennials, the Lyon Biennale is known for its particularity in selecting themes. You, as the artistic director, select one single subject that overarches three consecutive biennales, and a guest curator is invited to organize each biennale according to his or her own curatorial taste. What is the reason for selecting one topic for three biennales? What are the advantages?

Since the creation of the Lyon Biennale in 1991, I have invited guest curators to think about one word. I always choose an extensive word that allows for different interpretations. The word may be same but its relationships with history, the global world and modernity vary, depending on culture, continent and country. It is extremely interesting to see such differences. Lyon Biennale’s trilogy scheme helps us experience and communicate with diverse cultures. I consider this highly positive because we, as an international art exhibition, span not only the Western world, but truly a global world.

Q. Following the previous themes, including history, global, temporality, and transmission, the Biennale’s overarching theme since the 2015 edition has been "modern.” Why do you want to examine modernity (modernité)? What is the significance of modernity in our present society?

In the late 1960s , people believed modernity reached its end, and we came to call it postmodernism. We believed that a new era had begun. Not long after, we came to the realization that postmodernism has its own unique style. To define this period, we must discuss later modernism. Late modernism does not signify the end of modernity. Modernity is a consecutive sequence that began in the 14th century, or perhaps in the early 20th century. The sequence of modernity is not over—rather, it continues to convey its story with new meaning. This is what I am interested in examining.

Q. More than 500 artists participated in the 13th Lyon Biennale (2015) and approximately 250,000 visitors made it to the exhibition. It was a great success, indeed. What was the driving force behind the growth and development of the Biennale?

For a biennial to be successful, it must take into account a global element. Biennials speak to the world—professionals, artists, and citizens from all around the world. But at the same time, biennials must establish their roots in the local community as well. The link between the global and the local is absolutely essential. We used to call this "glocal." Successful biennials know how to engage with local scenes and also develop local networks. Among our platforms is "Veduta," first launched in 2007, which aims to create and foster encounters among artworks, artists, territories and local residents. For example, the gardening artist Thierry Boutonnier planted damask roses to harvest and to share with local neighbors. Lee Mingwei used stories to invite the public to travel back in time to their childhood years. I believe settlement in the region as well as real, tangible work concerning locality is extremely important.

Q. What are the future directions of the MAC Lyon and the Lyon Biennale? What are some projects on the agenda?

Fundamentally, I believe in the relationship between the museum and the biennale, one which is a permanent institution that narrates memories and history and another, a short-period event, respectively. We maintain our continuous artistic presence through MAC Lyon and the Biennale functions as a way of stepping away from the institution and its historical framework. This is very important. I plan to bring the museum and the biennale closer together to make the relationship between the two even more efficient. One is not meant to be absorbed by another, but rather to create a true double side.

Q. Cooperation between corporate brands and art institutions has been a boom recently. What is your view on this collaboration? In your opinion, what should ideal cooperation between cultural arts institutions and companies look like?

We are very interested in such collaborations. Governments and cities, or in other words, public institutions and local groups, cannot manage to do realize projects such as masterpiece restorations or event organization solely on their own. We must search for ways elsewhere, and we expect the participation and support of galleries and companies. If we are not open to such notions, we may find ourselves at risk, not only financially but also culturally. Many companies and private foundations today have great interests in culture, art and the realm of creation. Cooperation and partnership agreement between the market and biennials or the market and museums are natural, reasonable and common. This trend is being accepted more generally. There is neither an ideal situation nor ideal form. But I do believe that collaborations, partnerships, conventions and sponsorships are absolutely necessary, because there is no other solution.

Q. Finally, do you have any messages for young artists and curators, eager to orient themselves to the world of art?

Believe in what you do and do not pay attention to what others say. It is above all to be in your own time, to be in your era and to stay close to your generation. Be sure to know the things that preceded the present, but do not copy from it. Invent and innovate. ■with ARTINPOST

  • Otobong Nkanga Wetin <You Go Do> 2015

    BAC LYON 2015 © Blaise Adilon

  • Robert Kusmirowski <Stronghold> 2011

    Collection MAC LYON BAC LYON 2011 © Blaise Adilon

  • Yayoi Kusama <The heart of the universe> 2002

    BAC LYON 2003 © Blaise Adilon

  • Eduardo Basualdo <Le Silence des Sirènes> 2011

    BAC LYON 2011 © Blaise Adilon

  • Alex Da Corte <Taut Eye Taut>

    Collection MAC LYON BAC LYON 2015 © Stéphane Chambaud

  • Antoine Catala <Jardin synthétique à l'isolement> 2015

    Collection MAC LYON © Anne Simonnot

  • Cai Guo Qiang <An Arbitrary History Roller Coster> 2001

    Collection MAC LYON ©Blaise Adilon

  • Cildo Meireles <LaBruja 1(La Sorcière)> 1979

    BAC LYON 2011 © Blaise Adilon

  • MAC LYON Vue de nuit 1997

    © Michel Denancé


Portrait Thierry Raspail © Blaise Adilon

Thierry Raspail majored in art history and began his curatorial career at the Grenoble Museum (Musée de Grenoble). After several assignments in Western Africa, he designed the museography of the Bamako National Museum (Musée National de Bamako) in Mali. Raspail has been the director of MAC Lyon since it opened in 1984. At the time, he developed a museographic project based on the principle of “collection of moments,” putting together a collection comprised mainly of comprehensive and often monumental artworks. He has served as the chief curator of a number of significant exhibitions, including those of Robert Morris, Joseph Kosuth, Dan Flavin, Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Huang Yong Ping, Gustav Metzger, Jean-Luc Mylayne, and Oliver Beer, and has also authored several exhibition catalogues. In 1991, Thierry Raspail established the Biennale of Contemporary Art in Lyon (La Biennale de Lyon), and has since been its Artistic Director.

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