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Issue 155

The Italian Job

Massimiliano Gioni discusses his plans for the 55th Venice Biennale, ‘The Encyclopaedic Palace’

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Interviews | 25 MAY 13

Massimiliano Gioni holding an art work by Gianfranco Baruchello, 2010. Courtesy: Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan; photograph: Marco De Scalzi.

Barbara Casavecchia You’ve titled this year’s Venice Biennale, which you’re curating, ‘Il Palazzo Enciclopedico’ (The Encyclopaedic Palace). Is this a reference to Jorge Luis Borges’s 1956 short story ‘The Parable of the Palace’?

Massimiliano Gioni The title derives from a strange model of an imaginary museum conceived by the Italian-American artist Marino Auriti in the 1950s. I found Auriti inspirational because, as a self-taught artist, he blurs the distinction between the so-called outsider and the professional, which is a central concern of this exhibition. Imaginary architecture is, of course, a prevalent theme in both the visual arts and in literature, and the reference to Borges is quite evident; he will have a tangible presence in the show, as the artist Christiana Soulou has made a series of drawings illustrating his Book of Imaginary Beings (1957). But the literary references extend beyond Borges: Colombian artist José Antonio Suárez Londoño, for instance, has illustrated the diaries of Franz Kafka, and there is a major presentation of drawings by Rudolf Steiner, who is not a literary figure per se but who took philosophy into the realm of the fantastic. Throughout the show, there will be different manifestations of ways in which to visualize internal images that point to a literary tradition.

BC     Your 2010 Gwangju Biennale, ‘10,000 Lives’, dealt with the question of how digital environments such as Facebook condition us to look at reality through individual portraits. In a similar vein, is ‘Il Palazzo Enciclopedico’ concerned with phenomena such as Wikipedia?

MG     Gwangju was both a show about the proliferation of images and a requiem for analogue photography. ‘Il Palazzo Enciclopedico’ engages with the present but also looks at how this desire to know everything predates our technological world. One central idea is that knowledge and fantasy are interwoven – that everything is connected to everything – which is also at the root of paranoia, of course. The show certainly deals with our age of hyper-connectivity, but it does so by looking at what goes on in our heads rather than online: ultimately, these two aspects are mirror images of each other. There will be a section towards the end of the Arsenale where things will get more technological and overcharged with information – for example, there is a new, large-scale installation by Ryan Trecartin that includes footage from when the artist was in high school. A historical precedent to this aesthetic of hyper-information is Stan VanDerBeek’s Moving Mural (1968), which we will reconstruct: a multi-screen projection comprising 18 of the artist’s films screened simultaneously and overlapping one another. As a counterpoint to this, Walter De Maria will present his 1990 bronze Apollo’s Ecstasy. As with many other works by De Maria, you could describe this sculpture as a pure geometrical form containing all possible geometrical forms. De Maria has often made reference to the thaumaturgical power we ascribe to machines. That is why his sculpture felt like an appropriate conclusion to the exhibition in the Arsenale: a pure geometric shape that contains all the images you have seen throughout the exhibition.

BC     There will be more dead male artists (37) in the exhibition than living female artists (34), while the overwhelming majority of the total 155 artists are from Europe and the us. How do you respond to criticism that the Venice Biennale, or any survey exhibition of similar size and importance, demands a more balanced approach in this regard?

MG     I think the matter of quotas and percentages is distorted in this case by the inclusion of a significant number of deceased male artists: in fact, the artist list is much bigger than it was for the previous two Biennales and, while it might suggest a bias towards European and American positions, the exhibition includes figures as diverse as Carl Jung and Roger Caillois who, while obviously counting as European males, are certainly not part of the established art canon and, I believe, clearly indicate an attempt on my part to look at less familiar territories – not only geographically but also historically. The show includes works by artists from 38 countries (compared to 22 countries in 2011 and 30 countries in 2009), with more Asian and South American artists than in 2011, and with artists from Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Senegal. In terms of gender balance, the total number of women artists is higher than in either 2011 or 2009, and their works are installed in prominent locations.

In fact, I was excited to discover that more than 110 of the artists have never been featured in a Venice Biennale before, only three of the artists were included in last year’s Biennale, there are no overlaps at all with 2009, and very few with recent international survey shows. All of which, I hope, goes to prove I have made a major effort to push myself out of my comfort zone and work with artists that I’ve never collaborated with before and whose work has never been shown in Venice.

With a budget of only €1.8 million, and with 155 artists showing in an exhibition space of more than 10,000 square metres, you can easily work out that I need to secure financial backing for every work I wish to include in the Biennale, and there is virtually no budget for research travel. So, much as I would love to include art from more distant parts of the world, in many cases I simply cannot afford it. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the experience offered by the exhibition will help rectify the somewhat misleading impression that these figures and quotas can generate.

BC     Besides the question of quotas, how would you define the role of a biennial exhibition? You’ve used the metaphor of a ‘temporary museum’.

MG     There was a period in the early 1990s when the idea of site-specificity was key to biennials. Later, the biennial became a kind of art-world Internet – an energetic festival of things from around the globe – and I felt that model also got a little tired. Even the common conception of a biennial as a showcase of current leading artists is quite a recent development. I think of biennials as the shows that cannot be done anywhere else so, in that sense, integrating more heterogeneous and historical material proves interesting.

Marino Auriti, Encyclopedic Palace of the World, c.1950. Courtesy: American Folk Art Museum, New York.

BC   The exhibition that Jean Clair curated for the 1995 centennial Venice Biennale was a historical show looking back at 100 years of art.

MG     For me, that was a very influential show. I remember juxtapositions of, say, an Edvard Munch painting with a skeleton arm and one of the first X-ray images. I also recall the 1987 Venice Biennale, which revolved around the notion of the Wunderkammer and included 17th-century works. Generally speaking, these kinds of exhibitions become more interesting when they are about our experience in visual culture, not just contemporary art.

BC     The Venice Biennale seems to grow each year, with ever-increasing numbers of national pavilions and collateral events.

MG     There are 88 national pavilions this time. They’ve put up a beautiful world map in the Biennale office and, when you see the 88 countries marked on it, it’s actually not that many. In fact, it’s less than half of the countries in the world. Still, the expansion reflects an increased awareness of diversity. If we manage to keep that diversity, it’s great; but we must ward against homogenization.

BC     Germany and France have decided to swap pavilions, and the artists featured in them are not citizens or even residents of those countries; meanwhile Cyprus is joining forces with Lithuania. Is this a reflection of a fundamental shift in our understanding of national identities? Or is it just lip service, mere symbolic gestures of tolerance and openness?

MG     During the 1993 Biennale, national identity became more than a topic; it was a medium, with Ilya Kabakov doing the Russian Pavilion, Hans Haacke breaking up the travertine floor of the German Pavilion and Richard Hamilton addressing the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clearly there is a sense of restlessness towards the accepted notion of nationality and these current examples are attempts at deconstructing it. Yet while some may feel the pavilions are anachronistic, I see them as an incredible legacy: the structures that were built in the Giardini all those years ago, with their sheer physical presence, contribute to a certain magic that I think is still there. It’s an interesting tradition that should be challenged – but not given up.

Rudolf Steiner, The Colours of the Rainbow, 1923. Courtesy: Rudolf Steiner Archiv, Dornach.

BC     Although you work regularly in Italy and curated ‘La Zona’ (The Zone), the first unofficial Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003, you now live in New York. Towards the end of your essay for the Biennale catalogue that year, you mentioned a vague sense of embarrassment about Italy, and the need to exorcize a ghost. Ten years on, do you still feel that sense of embarrassment, for example in terms of the political situation in the country, or even just in terms of including Italian artists such as Rossella Biscotti or Marco Paolini?

MG     I’m not obsessed with presenting the national identity. I think I have included more Italians than participated in 2011, but that just came about naturally because they are mostly artists I have had a dialogue with for a while. To be honest, until a few years ago it was actually more embarrassing to be American.

BC     Did you consider addressing political issues such as Italy’s current crisis in the show?

MG     I always thought that the political position has to transpire from the specificity of art. And even though I did think a lot about making a show that could engage directly with current events, I felt it was my responsibility to look beyond the immediate present. In New York it has become almost a stereotype to divide the world into the 99 percent versus the one percent. And I have also had my share of criticism in this sense. I’ve named the entire Biennale after an industrious nobody who built one thing in his life, which I’m not even sure is an art work: if anything, I think this exhibition is about asking ourselves who is inside and who is outside, and about the possibility of blurring those distinctions. I grew up believing, like the writer Elio Vittorini, that art should not play the flute to the revolution – a sentiment that was shared by many avant-garde thinkers and writers. One of the heroes of the exhibition is André Breton: it’s well known how complicated his political positions were, but one cannot deny that the connection between dreams and political imagination is very close, and that it’s not just a matter for aesthetes.

BC     Maurizio Cattelan, with whom you have collaborated for many years, is not in the show.

MG     One of the few criteria I set myself was to not include any artists who were in the last Biennale, which made things rather complicated for me because so many of my friends were in it. I thought it was important to force myself to learn new things, though, so not only is there no Maurizio, there is no Urs Fischer and no Kerstin Brätsch either – both of whom are great artists and friends of mine. The only exception I allowed myself was a piece by Fischli & Weiss, because I wanted to remember David Weiss who passed away last year, and because – as the Bouvard and Pécuchet of contemporary art – they long inhabited their own private encyclopaedic palace. One of their masterpieces, ‘Plötzlich diese Übersicht’ (Suddenly This Overview, 1980–2012), which contains more than 100 small clay sculptures, is a cosmology in itself.

BC   Among your acknowledged influences for the show, you mention Hans Belting’s An Anthropology of Images (2001). Thinking of the fact that in your exhibitions you often deal with the physical presence of people in space, does that correspond to Belting’s positioning of the body at the centre of his consideration of images?

MG     One of the things I found really inspiring about Belting’s book was the relationship between the artificial image ‘out there’ and what he terms the ‘internal image’ – in other words, the image we have in our head. That, for me, opened up a whole new field of research. There is an amazing passage in his book about how the cinematic experience is so magical because it is like seeing the contents of your brain – a dream – right in front of you and outside of your body. I cannot claim my exhibition will do that, but obviously the relationship between images and bodies is a crucial preoccupation not only of my show, but of art in general: our bodies are the very first mediums of images. So yes, I hope the show will have a physical impact; one that grows by accumulation and repetition. 

Massimiliano Gioni is curator of ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’, the 55th Venice Biennale, which runs from 1 June to 24 November 2013. He is Artistic Director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation, Milan, as well as Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions at the New Museum, New York, USA.

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.