interview by Francesco Manacorda
Francesco Manacorda: This is the fourth biennial that you have curated. In your opinion, what is the greatest potential that the biennial holds? What do you envision to be the future developments of these “monster” exhibitions?
Massimiliano Gioni: Contrary to the trend, I am actually quite a fan of biennials. Not only because they are where— alongside the work I’ve done as the artistic director of Fondazione Trussardi in Milan—I have, I believe, built my curatorial identity, but also because they have provided me with some of the most compelling aesthetic and intellectual experiences I’ve had as a visitor.
Besides, I think the overabundance of biennials, most typically in the ’90s, has actively contributed to an exhaustion of the format altogether from the inside out. Today, there is no such thing as a model of what a biennial exhibition may or should be, and periodicity is the only residual commonality. Basically, for me, biennials are platforms that can be molded and revised more easily than any other institution, and where you can make exhibitions on a scale inaccessible to any museum. There was a phase when they were seen as large-scale festivals with gargantuan deployment of resources and spectacle, but now I mostly think of them as tools for research and education. Since the Gwangju Biennial that I curated back in 2010, entitled “10,000 Lives,” I conceive of biennials as sites for art and visual culture to meet, and for “professional” artists to be presented alongside those more eccentric practitioners that are usually defined as “outsider” artists. It’s an expansion of the field which seems like a necessity to me, especially when thinking that the Venice Biennale will be attended by at least 400,000 visitors.
FM: The title “The Encyclopedic Palace”evokes self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti and his project of an imaginary museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge. How did this inspiration come about?
MG: As I was saying, for quite a while now I’ve been doing shows that juxtapose professional artists against outsider artists, as well as showcase different forms of expression, such as non-artistic collections. This has forced me to revise the aesthetic vocabulary of my exhibitions, though in a way that I find enriching and helpful in situating the works in a wider context of visual culture. For me, understanding the position of art within our image-based society is a critical issue, and one that may help us to overcome the suffocating dominance of the market. Also, this approach—the productive confusion of art work and document—departs from the tautology of the masterpiece, allowing for artworks to be more complicated and meaningful objects, carrying stories, traces of existential paths, relics, or samples of different lifestyles.
I encountered Auriti’s work last year in the collection of the Folk Art Museum in New York, which I visit and research fondly and from which I have borrowed several works, and I thought it conveyed many of the preoccupations and atmospheres that I wanted to explore in Venice.
FM: What is the relationship between the exhibitions in Venice and Gwangju?
MG: They are definitely close in terms of their conceptual frame and general structure. There are even some works in common—I like to see how the same piece relates to different environments. Although “The Encyclopedic Palace” started as an entirely independent project from “10,000 Lives,” at some point I realized they turned out to be in some way complementary. While the exhibition in Gwangju looked at images as sites of the human struggle against the passing of time, against perishableness and mortality—from ancient death masks, which in Latin is called imago, all the way to the pictures in our phones—in Venice I will focus on the images we have in our mind, the ones art historian Hans Belting, in his Anthropology of Images, has called “internal images.”
FM: When I consider these two exhibitions, as well as the work you’ve been doing as the associate director at the New Museum, I think of Harald Szeemann and his “Museum of Obsessions,” an imaginary institution that he invented as a framework for a series of exhibitions. He also used the expression “writing exhibitions,” hinting at a connection between curatorial work, criticism, literature and poetry. Do you recognize these aspects of his practice as influential for you?
MG: Poor Szeemann, we never leave him alone! His ears must be burning! Surely, his teaching has been a great source of inspiration, and despair, for me. Especially his “encyclopedic” exhibitions, such as “The Bachelor Machines” (1975), “The Tendency Towards the Total Work of Art” (1983) and “Visionary Switzerland” (1991)—I’ve researched them very closely and passionately. I’ve even chased some works from “The Bachelor Machines,” and I eventually included them in the exhibition I curated last year at the New Museum, “Ghosts in the Machine,” in a reenactment that looked at both art history and the history of exhibitions. I will also confess that in my library Szeemann’s catalogues are filed under the letter S—he’s the only curator in the shelves dedicated to artist monographs.
But at the end of the day, not everything can lead back to Szeemann. There were many other references and models that have influenced the direction I’ve taken. Among them, I often cite the 1995 Venice Biennale directed by Jean Clair, an extremely rich and varied show where a Munch painting was exhibited alongside the first X-ray, and Bertillon’s phrenologic instruments were juxtaposed to Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages. I’ve also tried to study in depth the trilogy of exhibitions “Paris New York 1908-1968” (1977), “Paris Berlin 1900-1933” (1978) and “Paris Moscow 1900-1930” (1979), all curated by Pontus Hultén when he was the director of the Centre Pompidou. Both these curators, together with Germano Celant and his “Arte Ambiente,” lead me to the understanding that I could recreate past exhibitions or lost works, like Richard Hamilton’s Man Machine Motion in “Ghosts in the Machine.”
FM: In the wake of Auriti’s utopia, your Venice exhibition aspires to the unattainable goal of encompassing all systems of knowledge proposed by visionary artists and thinkers. Do you think of this effort to systematize, and its inevitable failure, as related to the crisis of the museum as a site of universal knowledge? What future do you envision for museums?
MG: The Venice Biennale, with its 110 years of history, is tied to the 19th-century tradition of World Exhibitions. By choosing the figure of Auriti, the epitome of the self-taught artist, and borrowing the title of his unaccomplished project, I wanted to emphasize the inevitable failure of any attempt to offer “total” representation of today’s art. I do not have encyclopedic ambitions for the Biennale; I rather want to create an exhibition that sheds light on different attempts to understand and describe all things.
As for your questions about the future of museums, I would like them to be more permeable and promiscuous—less a sequence of masterpieces than an arrangement of heterogeneous materials. Personally, I have always liked suburban art centers that weave the masters into a fabric of lesser-known artists.
FM: How does the topic of an exhibition affect collateral aspects, such as the installation design or the catalogue? What plans do you have for “The Encyclopedic Palace” in this capacity?
MG: Exhibitions, at least the ones I like most, must feel “necessary,” as if that were the only way for those ideas and works to come together in a successful manner. So when it comes to installation, I always search for a unique spatial metaphor. While the presentation of “Ostalgia,” an exhibition of artists from the former Communist Bloc hosted in 2011 at the New Museum, was inspired by the idea of the archive and the vault, “Ghosts in the Machine” was influenced by exhibitions of kinetic, programmed and optical art from the ’60s.
For the Biennale, I wanted to create the atmosphere of a museum, although temporary. I was guided by a simple assumption: whereas many large-scale exhibitions consist of a series of monographic presentations, I think curating starts when you have two different artists, or at least two different works, in the same room, as you have in museums. Contrary to the trend of presenting mostly newly commissioned works, I invited many of the artists to participate with a very specific work, as if I were building a collection. Something else I’ve drawn from the museum tradition are the captions and texts used in the show; for a while now, I’ve been working with artist and writer Chris Wiley, who takes part in the whole researching process and then writes these texts, providing the tone that accompanies the visitor throughout the exhibition.
As for the actual design of the spaces and the display—the “writing in space,” as Szeemann called it—I have tried to resist the typical bigness that seems to take over the Biennale. On many levels, “The Encyclopedic Palace” is a show in which there are plenty of small objects, from the stones collected by Roger Caillois to the Red Book itself—in fact, books are a strong presence in the show, and maybe the show is partly a tribute to a technology that seems bound to disappear. I built the show more as an accumulation of individual objects than as a series of grand gestures. In the Arsenale, architect Annabelle Selldorf and I have worked very closely to discreetly deny the architecture, to some extent, trying to construct a series of spaces that would also allow for smaller works to be exhibited. It was the first time I worked closely with an architect on an exhibition. Annabelle is devoted to let the art emerge rather than imposing a signature, so while her vision was extremely important, we have really tried to let the works come to the foreground. In practical terms, it meant that we resisted the typical straight progression of the Arsenale, with the works on the side and the central path left to walk. Annabelle also conceived very simple, astute ideas to contain the verticality of the spaces.
In terms of the catalogue, as Jean-Christophe Ammann notes in his “Some Suggestions for Beginning Curators,” “The catalogue is not meant to justify the exhibition; but the exhibition should be worthy of the catalogue.” For the Biennale, I have involved Sina Najafi and Jeffrey Kastner, the editors of Cabinet magazine, who have commissioned twenty-five essays from critics, historians and philosophers, giving shape to a parallel narrative of failed attempts to develop systems of universal knowledge spanning from Giulio Camillo’s Memory Theatre to experiments in bibliographical catalogues to Philip K. Dick.
More generally, I want to stress that exhibitions are the products of a collective intelligence. This is something else I’ve learned from Hultén and Szeemann: the importance of allowing and giving credit to teamwork and the possibility of working with some close collaborators who join forces over and over again for each exhibition.
FM: Beside Auriti’s, what other works were essential to creating your system of sytems?
MG: There are many of them. The absurd and combinatory science of Fischli and Weiss—the Bouvard et Pécuchet of our times—was one of the greatest sources of inspiration for me, and I’ve known from the very beginning that I wanted to include their Suddenly This Overview (1981), a collection of over one hundred unfired clay sculptures recreating a parallel human history.
I also knew immediately that I wanted to work with legendary artist Walter De Maria, as this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get him to agree to work with me. I asked him to present A Computer Which Will Solve Every Problem in the World (1984) at the Arsenale for the exhibition’s finissage, but he chose another work instead, Apollo’s Ecstasy (1990), which I must say fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the show.
Another of my first choices was Carl Gustav Jung’s The Red Book. Like Auriti’s Palazzo, it’s not a work of art, but it provides an extraordinary exploration of the inner images.
FM: Cindy Sherman will contribute an exhibition-in-the-exhibition, curating a whole section with a constellation of works by other artists as, I suppose, her own system of knowledge. How did this project come about?
MG: Within an exhibition that aims to investigate the nature of images, a reflection of the topic of representation felt necessary, especially of portraiture and that kind of primigenial image—again, the Latin imago—that results from mold-casting, with all the related issues of realism, hyper-realism and the uncanny. Sherman has dedicated her entire career to representing herself as a stranger, playing with the theme of masking and disguise, so she seemed very well placed to offer an insight on these topics. In addition, she is really attentive and sensitive to the work of other artists as well as to vernacular forms of creativity, and she’s been very enthusiastic about experimenting with the curatorial role.
Incidentally, her exhibition will include a work by Rosemarie Trockel which, in turn, includes works by James Castle, creating a sort of mise en abîme of appropriation and dialogue between artists.
In general, I have always found great inspiration in the work done by artists as organizers of exhibitions. After all, most of 20th-century art history pertains to exhibitions staged by artists for artists. And, more recently, there are examples of installations curated by artists such as Robert Gober—his “The Meat Wagon” at the De Menil collection was simply enlightening; Mike Kelley, Charles Ray or Rosemarie Trockel have shown a completely different approach to artworks and artifacts. I thought that working with Cindy Sherman could open up the exhibition to further possibilities and directions.
FM: I assume the exchange with the artists has been very important. Which works have resulted from a particularly intense conversation?
MG: Naturally, with this kind of exhibition the initial suggestions must expand and adapt to the works, which in return have the responsibility to affect, enrich, complicate and even fight against the theme. The encounter with Camille Henrot, for example, was extremely interesting; she holds a research fellowship from the prestigious Smithsonian Institute in Washington, where she is developing an investigation similar to my own, although focused on origin myths and narratives. I’ve also had the pleasure and honor to follow every step of the creation of Tino Sehgal’s new work, as well as of Sharon Hayes’s new video, which is inspired by the film Love Meetings by Pier Paolo Pasolini. And there are so many more new productions that were made as a response to the exhibition. Even if I have selected many existing works and objects, I believe I will pretty much see the show for the first time at the opening!
FM: You have mentioned several figures from the past, as well as highly established artists. But what about the younger generation of artists participating in the Biennale? Did you find that there was a specificity to the interpretation of the theme offered by digital natives such as Simon Denny, Neïl Beloufa, Helen Marten and Ed Atkins?
MG: Obviously, while the exhibition includes plenty of historical materials, which may or may not turn out as apparent, I think of it as a sort of “prehistory” of our current image-society, our iconomy. Therefore,I was very keen on also presenting the work of many younger artists who I think are doing very interesting work today. England, for example, is home to a very strong group of artists—which includes Marten and Atkins as well as James Richards, all of whom have been invited by Polly Staple to exhibit at the Chinsenhale Gallery, London—who are working, each in their individual way, on the status of images today. I see them as children of Mark Leckey, even though it’s possible that neither he nor they would be comfortable with this definition; like Leckey, they seem to understand that images today have come to a complete genetic mutation which has made them more volatile and pervasive. In a way, it’s as though the images out there are now becoming more and more similar to the images inside us.