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Herr Zeitgeist


Illustration by Gluekit  

Fame, after all, is part of  “contemporary practice.” “In the art world after Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol, we know celebrity is a matter/quality/state that interests artists as a form and image of focused attention,” he e-mailed me. Of course, stars are part of the art world too these days: Biesenbach and Kylie Minogue were co-presenters at the Guggenheim’s inaugural art awards in October (in the midst of their onstage presentation, he dropped to one knee and kissed her hand.) Pharrell Williams, Naomi Campbell, and Val Kilmer were at Basel Miami this year.

At the same time, Biesenbach is a serious and innovative curator who has had far-reaching effects on the most important modern art institution in the world. He’s “catalytic,” in the words of his boss, Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director. Within two years of starting work at MoMA full-time, he got his own fiefdom, the department of media—the first new curatorial department since photography, in 1940. In 2009, he expanded the media department’s domain to include performance art, something the museum hadn’t paid much attention to before. Biesenbach persuaded MoMA to begin purchasing the rights to performance pieces (rather than just the documentation).

In other words, he’s put the home of blue-chip art-historical monuments like Monet’s Water Lilies and Cézanne’s The Bather into the business of collecting the ephemeral. “We try to put works in the museum that do not easily fit into a frame or onto a pedestal,” Biesenbach told me at the time. But there was also something pragmatic at work: At the height of the art bubble, “objects” were expensive, and he prides himself on being “anti-cyclical.” “When we started collecting performance art,” he says, “people were collecting big diamonds made out of steel that cost $20 million.”

Bisenbach has accomplished much by treating the museum as his (and his artists’) playground. For Doug Aitken’s “Sleepwalkers,” five short films, featuring actors like Donald Sutherland and Tilda Swinton, were projected at night onto the museum’s exterior walls. Pipilotti Rist’s installation, Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), consisted of multichannel videos—candy-colored close-ups of flowers and garden creatures—projected into the museum’s atrium.

The opening in March 2010 of the retrospective of performance artist Marina Abramovic will convert MoMA into a theater: Abramovic will perform all day, everyday, for the show’s three-month run, alongside a rotating cast of 35 other artists who will perform her past work. (Abramovic, 63, recently mused about wearing only “an enormous strap-on dildo” for one performance.)

Biesenbach’s shows have been popular with critics and audiences alike. Just as important, though, Biesenbach has helped the museum from ossifying inside its $858 million midtown temple. “He’s forcing them to humanize [MoMA],” says performance artist Laurie Anderson. “And that’s a really wonderful thing.” Moreover, as Guggenheim Museum chief curator Nancy Spector, who also worked with him on his Berlin Biennale, puts it, “He is a very inclusive person, and I think he brings an element of collaboration that maybe is not typically associated with MoMA.”

On the other hand, he’s also, for some at the institution, perhaps, a bit too much of a star. “I think Klaus has had a tremendous impact,” notes Lowry. However, “from my perspective, Klaus is just a key player among many in that new generation of curators at the museum.” When I mention his success in promoting performance art, Lowry replies, “I wouldn’t want to make as if he was the only person driving that train. Having said that, Klaus is an extraordinarily industrious, engaging, and in many ways brilliant curatorial mind that is wide open to new ideas, and has been grappling with how to deal with performance in an institutional environment, more so than many.”

Biesenbach was born in 1966 and grew up in a village near Cologne. As a teenager he was captivated by pop culture. “In the late eighties, I had the feeling that mass media would create one single huge world audience—everybody would listen to the same Madonna or Michael Jackson song, or Joy Division or the Cure records, depending on which group of adolescents or mentalities one felt close to,” he once told an interviewer. “The Gulf War of the early nineties brought the power of CNN to my attention. I clearly remember camera shots taken from the top of a missile before it hit its target. TV seemed the universal language of the new upcoming era.”

But the larger world could also be frightening. “When I turned 18, I left our small town and went to Amsterdam,” he wrote in an essay accompanying an exhibition called “Into Me/Out of Me.” “Wandering through the city center, the tattoo parlors, cafés where you could legally smoke pot, and the red-light district impressed me and then deeply scared me. The idea that blood or even sperm from one of the windows open in summer could be carried on the wind down the street and get into my eyes was, in the initial years of the AIDS crisis, a definitive one.”

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