Conversation with Ilana Shamoon by Nina Zivancevic


The building of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, 1994 Architect: Jean Nouvel © Jean Nouvel Photo : Philippe Ruault

Conversation with Ilana Shamoon, a chief curator at the Fondation Cartier

by Nina Zivancevic

I am sitting with Ilana Shamoon on the fifth floor of the Fondation Cartier, one of the major Parisian centers for contemporary art. For over twenty years, Cartier has been developing a highly individual style of patronage through his Foundation. Since moving to Paris in 1994, the Fondation Cartier has been housed in an airy building filled with light that was designed by the legendary architect Jean Nouvel. In this unique setting, exhibitions, conferences and artistic productions come to life. At once a creative space for artists and a place where art and the general public can meet, the center is dedicated to promoting public awareness of contemporary art. Each year, the Foundation organizes a program of exhibitions based on either individual artists or themes and commissions work from artists thus enriching their important collection. It also organizes « Nomadic Nights », a series of concerts and performances where artists explore the connection between the visual arts and other forms of contemporary artistic expression. Exhibitions and the collection itself are frequently sent to institutions abroad, enhancing the Fondation Cartier's international profile.

Question: I've been following the artistic activities at Fondation Cartier for quite a while, but I must admit that all your directions hadn't been clear to me before I saw David Lynch's retrospective two years ago, Robert Adams show and the great Rock'n'Roll exhibition in 2007. Could you tell us, Ilana, when was the Foundation founded and to what purpose?

Ilana Shamoon: The foundation was founded in 1984 by Alain Dominique Perrin, President of Cartier International at that time, on a suggestion by the artist César who is, by the way, going to have a great retrospective here this coming Fall. Mr.Perrin and César had asked themselves the same question « What do artists need today? » and César came up with the answer that they needed Space and Funding. However, when the original space was created in Jouy-en-Josas, it met with strong resistance on the part of those who were running the official art spaces in France. It is important to observe that the space was started not only as a Foundation, an example of corporate philanthropy in France, but also as a residency program for artists. Cartier himself has been supporting contemporary art by commissioning works of art, organizing exhibitions and developing an important collection. The Fondation has quickly outgrown the purely formal framework of traditional patronage becoming a lively environment for exchanging ideas and discussions. In 1994 it had moved to Paris- in this new space we increased commissions, we have built up sustained relationships with our artists whose work we often commission and then acquire. The Fondation Cartier is distinguished by the many projects that it has developed in close collaboration with artists. When it comes to commissioning works of art, we should say that it is an essential aspect of the Fondation's activities. Our relationship with the artist goes beyond mere patronage, it is a truly creative partnership. It gives the artist the opportunity not only to create something original but to explore new horizons: working on a different scale, bringing a project to fruition and realizing a dream.

Question: Who were the first artists who worked in the 'old' space?

Ilana Shamoon: A wide range of very different artists made their presence felt: Marc Couturier in 1987, Jean-Marc Othoniel in 1989, Absalon, Chéri Samba in 1990 and Tatsuo Miyajima in 1993. Since 1994 the policy has taken a bit different turn- our commissions have become more frequent. In 1999 Sarah Sze transformed the exhibition space into her installation « Everything that Rises Must Converge » which now forms a part of the collection. In 2000, William Eggleston photographed the deserts of Utah and California for the thematic exhibition entitled « The Desert ». In 2004, Raymond Depardon traveled around the world and, at the request of the Foundation, made a series of ten films, each devoted to a different large city. The Fondation has commissioned individual works by artists as diverse as Balthasar Burkhard, Marc Newson, Pierrick Sorin, Tony Oursler, Gary Hill and David Lynch.

Question: I was just about to say that I was amazed by the Fondation's open-minded policy in its choice of the international artists, especially as to its invitations to the contemporary American artists- at the times when we could have observed an 'anti-American' climate in France...

Ilana Shamoon: We have always kept a 'spirit of discovery' and have looked for new talents all over the world. Serving as a springboard for young artists exhibiting for the first time or for those who were unknown in Europe, the Fondation has developed a special program which has helped them achieve the international recognition. In 1994, the Foundation commissioned a monumental video installation from Pierrick Sorin who has since become a widely-known video artist, recognized throughout the world. In 1995, a young designer Marc Newson exhibited his installation and in 1998, the Foundation commissioned a vertical garden for the glass facade of Nouvel's building from Patrick Blanc who was a relatively unknown artist at that time. In 2005, the Fondation introduced the work of an Australian hyper-realist, Ron Mueck to the French public and in 2007, the Korean artist Lee Bul held his first solo exhibition at the Fondation in Paris. And then there was that great Robert Adams photography show last year which I personally curated and am so proud of it.

Question: If I am not mistaken, the Fondation has always paid special attention to African and Japanese photography as well?

Ilana Shamoon: In the field of photography, the Cartier has shown, for the first time in France, the work of the Malian photographers Seydou Keuta and Malick Sidibé. We have also shown a lot of Japanese artists and photographers who have already made their claim to fame such as Nobuyoshi Araki (1995), Daido Moriyama (2003) and Rinko Kawauchi (2005), but then we have shown an emerging group as well. In 2002, the neo-pop painter Murakami had his first large-scale exhibition in Europe and he shared the bill with twenty or so young Japanese artists representing the most contemporary trends in Manga art, music, fashion and animations. Now, our next big event is going to be a major solo show of Patti Smith, entitled « Land 250 » which is drawn from her visual work created between 1967 and 2007. This show will try to provide an insight into her lyrical, spiritual and poetic universe. In order to reflect the multitude of fields explored by Patti Smith, the show is intended bto be a comprehensive project that expands beyond the exhibition space. The Fondation is giving free rein to the artist and performer to oversee the programming for the Nomadic Nights. The Cartier's bookshop will, for a time, become the artist's personal library and her choice of books, CDs and films will enable visitors to further penetrate the rich universe of this truly iconic artist.


Autoportrait, New York / Selfportrait, New York City Polaroïd / Polaroid Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, March 28 – June 22, 2008 © Patti Smith © Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain


Polaroïd Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, Exhibition Land 250, March 28 – June 22, 2008 © Patti Smith, 2008


Self-Portrait n.d. Graphite, crayon and colored pencil and on paper 29 x 23 inches Exhibition Patti Smith, Land 250, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, March 28 – June 22, 2008 © Patti Smith, 2008 Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery

Question: I see that there is a constant and positive tendency on the side of the Fondation to take interest in the so called interdisciplinary approach to art as it favors the mixing of genres and the mixing of art media as much as it favors the artists who undergo an interdisciplinary experiment. Is this your particular trend or just my personal impression of the Fondation's work?

Ilana Shamoon: It is true that the Fondation Cartier embraces all creative fields and genres of contemporary art, ranging from design to photography, from painting to video art and from fashion to performance art. We allow artists to embrace space in a way that they wouldn't normally do. Jean-Paul Gaultier, a world famous fashion designer showed his bread pieces here and David Lynch showed his rare drawings and paintings.

Question: What was that particular experience like, to curate David Lynch's rare and unknown works? He has been known mainly as an original film-maker.

Ilana Shamoon: Well, it was not an easy job to prepare his show: the chief curator for his show was our general art director Hervé Chandès who went through 1000 of David Lynch's drawings. Lynch keeps everything that he has ever drawn and these drawings retrace his entire life. He himself was very much involved in the preparation of this biggest retrospective of his visual work and was keen on making many curatorial decisions on his own.

Question: I'd like to know who encourages the Fondation's 'cutting edge attitude' in choosing artwork for the shows- is it mainly encouraged by your art director Hervé Chandès or by Alain Dominique Perrin?

Ilana Shamoon: It is hard to say who is making the biggest impact on decision-making in general; for instance, one of our biggest shows ever, a thematic exhibition « Rock'n'Roll 39-59 » (June-October 2007) was conceived by Perrin. For some good twenty years he has been exploring the strong link between contemporary art and contemporary music, and he realized that the key-word that was explaining this link was Freedom. Now, he waited for the moment when the timing was right to mount such a show and the right timing was the ocassion of the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. Once he made the decision to mount the show, it was put together very quickly – we (Perrin, Gilles Pétard, Isabelle Gaudefroy, Katell Jaffrès and myself) have worked on it for merely eigth or nine months. There were many publications which came out during and after that show, as well as the film and media related events which attest to the seriousness of that project. A similar approach to the exhibition project was taken by Robert Adams who encouraged the publication of 35 books related to the exhibition of his prints. He disliked the idea of having a formal 'retrospective' and was constantly concerned about the public who were not able to see the show – he wanted them to have his books. A similar, say even 'subversive' approach to the show is going to be taken by Patti Smith who will have a published catalogue of her drawings and photographs as well as numerous books and book-related events during her future installation at the Cartier. As a private foundation we have freedom to allow our artists to take unusual or quite eclectic approach to their respective shows.

Question: What are the immediate upcoming shows of any particular significance for the Fondation?

Ilana Shamoon: Well, there is a huge retrospective of Cézar, one of the most important contemporary artists of our times coming up this summer to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his death. I would also like to emphasize here the importance of our permanent collection which is not on display here in Paris but thanks to the traveling exhibitions of the collection abroad many artists acquire fame beyond French frontiers. Currently it contains more than 1000 works by over 300 artists providing a retrospective of major trends that have shaped artistic creation in france and abroad since 1980s. Naturally it is open to all forms of artistic creation: painting, sculpture, video, photography, installations, design and film-making. This interdisciplinary approach to art forms and genres stems from the very structure of our space, the way it was designed and used. The Fondation Cartier makes long-term commitments to artists and supports them from the beginnings of their careers. For example, the Fondation encouraged and accompanied Jean-Michel Otoniel, Pierrick Sorin and Vincent Beaurin from a very early stage. The international scene is of a particular interest to the Fondation – many foreign artists are respresented in our collection including Huang Yong Ping, Alair Gomez, William Kentridge, Thomas Demand, Guillermo Kuitca, Bodys Isek Kingelez and Adriana Varejao. It is important to remember that through its various projects and acquisitions, the collection has established ties with those artists whose work does not fit easily into the more usual context of institutions and museums.