‘I never address myself to an art audience’

French artist Saâdane Afif, convener for the next edition of Bergen Assembly, sees the triennial as mainly a local event.

Saâdane Afif. Photo: Julie Lillelien Porter.

In June, French artist Saâdane Afif was announced convener of the Bergen Assembly triennial’s next edition, which will take place in 2022. Last week, Afif visited Bergen for the second time since he accepted the assignment. These visits are crucial for discovery and establishing his relationship to the city, its institutions and artists, Afif told me when I stopped by Bergen Assembly’s office to hear his thoughts on what he calls “the quest that lies ahead.”

Bergen Assembly’s convener is in charge of the artistic profile and content of the triennial. Afif sees a parallel between Bergen Assembly’s bold strategy of self-definition, expressed, for instance, in its unorthodox terminology, and his own practice, and thinks this is one reason why he was asked to do the job. “Bergen Assembly is looking for this way of working, creating arenas for experiencing art, producing ideas and questions, and a space with possibilities for propositions and contributions, which are similar to mine.”

For years, Afif has explored how the disciplines of commissioning and curating can direct his work as an artist. He is known for long durational projects such as the ongoing Lyrics, whichbegan in 2004 when he commissioned four song lyrics about four works from French performance artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar. Over the years, the piece has taken on a growing number of contributions from various artists. The Lyrics series now contains over two hundred song lyrics written by more than a hundred people.

Afif claims he never makes work with his own hands. In his practice, the studio is replaced by the exhibition, which he considers “a space for experimentation and an opportunity to use time and a range of contributors actively to develop projects.” This approach, Afif admits, poses a certain risk. “I am interested in the poetic, performative, and embodied storytelling scenarios that surface through working this way.”

“I’m not going to reveal anything specific about my ideas yet, as they likely will change,” Afif said. Audiences can expect a curatorial process similar to his art practice, where he focuses on creating spaces that bring people together and relies on collaboration as a way of commissioning. Afif encourages his collaborators to put their own skills to use within the context of the exhibition, enabling the creation of stories he hopes will reach beyond an ordinary art audience.

“I never address myself to an art audience,” Afif said, adding that he sees the triennial as mainly existing for a local audience. “At the moment, many exhibitions have very clever academic and theoretical constructions describing their content. I want to present high quality artwork, but I have no interest in the spectacular.” Neither does he intend to use Bergen Assembly as an opportunity to showcase his own ideas. Afif’s main ambition is to tell stories that surface during the process and are able to exist on their own terms. “A real piece of art is wild. I don’t want to present artwork in a context that can be understood in parallel to wild animals in a zoo.”