Massimiliano Gioni Interview
by Eleonora Charans
Three months before the finissage of the 55th Venice Biennale, "The Encyclopedic Palace", Whitehot Magazine's Eleonora Charans brings us a discussion with the exhibition's curator Massimiliano Gioni (Busto Arsizio 1973.) Gioni is currently Artistic Director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan, he is also Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, since its re-opening. He embodies the global curator constantly divided between the US and Italy. Gioni’s adventure with the Venice Biennale, the oldest Biennale in the world, began in 2003, when he was asked by Francesco Bonami to curate the section entitled “La Zona” within the 50th edition. Since then he has curated all over the world (Manifesta 2006, Berlin 2006, Gwangju 2010). Thanks to this background he has developed a coherent and strong sensibility on the tensions between artworks and their surrounding spaces. The Arsenale, where he decided to work in tandem with architect Annabelle Selldorf is one example.
Eleonora Charans: Let’s begin with the Arsenale. The most striking work I saw there was the video Grosse Fatigue by Camille Henrot. I found myself totally hypnotized and I thought: wow, this is exactly how people of my generation would structure knowledge (this relates of course to the general theme of your Biennale.) If I think about what is contemporary well I would say that this is a great example.
Gioni: Camille's piece was a great inspiration for the entire development of my Biennale. Actually I only saw the piece literally the day before the opening of the show, but I had met Camille almost a year before and she had told me of the research she was carrying out at the Smithsonian Museum, where she had won a fellowship to investigate various forms of myths of origins, narratives of genesis, cosmologies, and other attempts at describing and retelling the story of the universe. When I met Camille, I was feeling a bit lost about my own research and thinking I must have been crazy to take on such a vast theme for my own biennale, and learning that Camille was pretty much looking at the same problems from a different perspective, was quite encouraging and exciting. It gave me a reason to keep going. Further more, because she was working at the Smithsonian, her project - just like the biennale itself - was engaging directly with the ways in which museums and cabinets of curiosities have been used to compose iconographic representations of the world and visual synthesis of knowledge. On many levels, this biennial takes into account in its own modes of display a reflection on the function of museums. In the case of Camille's great piece, what really makes it amazing is that she manages to combine different narrative and display forms, while she also traces a sort of genealogy or similitude between the digital experience that characterizes our present and the perennial thirst for knowledge that seems to animate humanity throughout the centuries and in very different places. I have often said that while I was preparing this exhibition, "The Encyclopedic Palace", I wanted to look at many contemporary problems - such as our obsession with information, knowledge and hyper-visibility - but through a multiple perspective, so that the show is very contemporary but also includes many different temporalities, many different histories. I think it's an exhibition about anachronism, in a sense, or - as I have said other times - it's a sort of prehistory of the digital era. Camille's video also points to other elements that I think run through out the exhibition: the experience of being overloaded with information and knowledge on one hand, and the attempt to organize and structure knowledge through images, on the other hand.
Charans: A diamond inside a pearl undoubtedly is the section curated by Cindy Sherman. I perceived it as a kind of small museum of obsession a bit dada. but in any case, a great tribute to the image and imaginary.
Gioni: I have always been very interested in the ways in which artists curate: the exhibitions curated by artists as diverse as Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, Charles Ray and Rosemarie Trockel - among many others - have been very influential for me, for the ways they establish unusual connections and demonstrate a much more porous, less canonical understanding of art and visual culture. So when I started working on the Biennale, I felt right from the beginning that was interesting to expand the show to include another voice. I also wanted from the very beginning to include an imaginary museum, a personal museum, and that's why I have invited Cindy Sherman to conceive this show within the show. I also felt that an exhibition about knowledge and images needed to confront itself with the problem of representation and particularly the representation of bodies and figures. Cindy Sherman has spent her life studying and representing herself as other and others as herself, so I thought she was one of the most interesting artist to involve in this different role and capacity. Further more, she revealed many of the images and ideas that compose her artistic universe, giving access to the thinking process that I think goes on behind her images. It was a great example of a form of knowledge that proceeds through images and through embodiment and not just through abstract concepts.
Charans: I've attended each Venice Biennale since 2001, I have seen a huge quantity of work made with paper, especially drawings - in a way is a challenge to insert drawing into a Biennale. Drawings require a pause, they are not immediate and need time to be understood. There are issues with the scale of drawings as well.
Gioni: I was a bit tired of the typical scale of art works in biennials - particularly of the Venice Biennale - where it seems that scale and bigness are the only means of expression. For this reason, I wanted - not only in the Arsenale but also in the Giardini - to create a show in which density and quantity were more important than just scale. The bigness so typical of biennials is often just a function of a conception of art based on entertainment and a sort of bovine stupor, of which I am quite tired. Choosing works that are intimate, smaller, meant to me not only to go and look for artworks characterized by intensity rather than by noise and scale: it also meant I could put an emphasis on the relationship between physical images and mental images - drawings are a kind of stenography of the soul, they are the first seismograph of the imagination, so it made perfect sense to include different examples of this type of work. That's why for example the space of the book - be it the Red Book by Carl Gustav Jung, the scrapbooks of Shinro Othake, the note books by Antonio Londono and many others - is very important for the show: it's the book as both a place of refuge and of fantastical projections. Obviously in order to allow an intimate experience with some of these materials I had to rethink the display of the works and the lay out of the exhibitions. In the Central Pavillion this is meant for example to create a situation of extreme density, which resembles a cabinet of curiosity. If you compare it to other biennials, this is an extremely dense one: we have more than 4.500 individual objects in the show. In the Arsenale I worked to turn the space into a quieter space, where artworks could also be encountered in small spaces and not just in the usual cavernous gigantic proportions. We also worked a lot on the lighting, avoid the usual dark, theatrical look and alternating instead brighter spaces and darker ones: Annabelle Selldorf was great in turning the Arsenale into a space in which the history of the space was still present but the artworks were allowed to exist and come to the surface and be themselves without being outscaled by the environment.
Charans: The scale question is interesting. What are your feelings about drawing today in the era of Instagram?
Gioni: I can simply add that the more images become intrusive and interchangeable, the more they suffocate us with their omnipresence, the more it is important to treasure images of a different intensity. I don't want to make that comparison suggest that drawings are good and Instagram is bad: in fact this exhibition relies on a polemical question raised in front of images and art works - on many levels it's a show that implies that there is no such a thing as art, but rather different forms of figurative expressions, different forms of visual cultures. So it's an exhibition in which found objects or old photographs can be seen side by side more canonical art works. But I think this proximity needs to be based on an intensity of images that too often is lost today, in the more pervasive, cheap, poor and overly seductive images that seem to characterize our visual landscape.
Charans: Let’s move from the Arsenale to the Central Pavilion at Giardini (the former italian one). I clearly saw (but maybe it is my obsession with display) a kind of grammar of exhibition technique. I'm thinking of the Galileo Chini's entrance.
Gioni: The Arsenale is - from an installation point of view - a reflection on the visual grammar of the museum: so it's more about taxonomies, ways of dividing and cataloguing the world and the cosmos. The Pavillion is maybe closer to a cabinet of curiosities. It's nice you noticed the use of the Galileo Chini's entrance. I dont know how many people noticed but that space had been closed and under restoration since 2003. As soon as I had been appointed director, I told the Biennale we needed to fix that and we worked together and the Biennale was great to find the resources and the support to restore it. It's a place that in its very physical form connects to the tradition of the studiolo: I couldnt help thinking of the rotunda of the Uffizi also. So it immediately suggests the idea of a microcosm, of a space in which objects are displayed and connected to create a cipher of the universe. From the beginning I knew Jung's book should have gone there, as a fulcrum for the exhibition. Not that I wanted to suggest the show was about Jung, but rather that it was about this continuous quest of our place in the universe and of the way in which images can help us see and find that place, which might as well be inside us.
Eleonora Charans is a Ph.D candidate in Theories and History of Arts at the School of Advanced Studies in Venice. Her research is about the E. Marzona Collection. firstname.lastname@example.org all articles from this author