‘We Want Art With All Its Contradictions’: Massimiliano Gioni on How Curators Can Help Keep Radical Art Alive
In a remote 17th-century hut in the Engadin Valley in Switzerland, goats peruse around the newest installation by Polish artist Paweł Althamer. Surrounded by lush and largely unpopulated scenery, a sculpture of a thin and naked St Francis stands quietly gazing upwards.
The near-secret installation was paired with a series of happenings on its opening weekend in mid-July, the inaugural project of the newly established Beatrice Trussardi Foundation. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, who is also artistic director of the New Museum in New York, the nomadic art foundation plans to rove to unexpected places around the world.
It carries a similar mandate to the longtime collaboration that Beatrice Trussardi and Gioni worked on in Milan as the Nicola Trussardi Foundation, which, for nearly 20 years, brought ephemeral art projects to the public, with lasting effects. In the same vein, this new chapter seeks to be free of any contextual limitations.
We spoke with Gioni about the complexities of public art, and how the pandemic has helped bring collectivity into sharp focus.
Your present project with Paweł Althamer speaks to overlapping aspects of European history and culture. A small Swiss hut is hosting a Polish artist who is making a work in part inspired by an Italian saint.
It is European in the sense that we are all called upon to rethink “the global” in this time. Paweł is on many levels a very international artist. His sensibility is quite special, including his interest in spirituality. I think that is why the location was relevant. It is walking distance from Friedrich Nietzsche’s house, and not far from Giovanni Segantini’s museum.
I always say his work is ultimately about skin, and the social and physical epidermis—the tissue that both connects and separates, physically, but also ideologically, in the sense of the color of the skin. I see all these aspects in his work. He has always been interested in the ways in which, within Europe, people have redefined borders and traditions and cultures. When we say European, we should try to be a bit more specific. It is a whole patchwork of identities. Paweł has always been interested in understanding how nations and worlds change, and that I think is also present in this exhibition.
What a weird time to be working, especially when your whole mode of operation of bringing people together has been complicated. Are there certain tools that you’ve acquired through working in this pandemic, especially as a curator, that will stick around?
It’s a hard question. We have a piece right now at the New Museum and an exhibition by Wong Ping. There is a video piece where he starts off by saying, “I bet you want to ask me about how my work changed in the pandemic.” I think there is fatigue around trying to offer some insight when all of us are being called upon to improvise. We are just winging it like everybody else. What has become apparent and more evident is how everything we do is a collective effort because the projects we make are a form of collective intelligence that bring together artists, producers, shippers, registrars, art handlers, and thinkers. It takes a village to make even the smallest project. That is our strength. It is also where the pandemic hit worst. This sense of community and participation is very important to preserve. Art produces collectivity, and even in a state of emergency, it’s been amazing to see people go to museums, to see people needing exposure to art.
When we did our last project in Milan in 2020, we had an extremely disciplined crowd that would show up every day to listen to the performers play. Even though we had something like 15 people at a time, we had hundreds and hundreds of people showing up. There was a hunger and a thirst for culture and for participation and for collectivity. In a sense, it made clear that all these objects and events we call artworks are a pretext for people to come together. That sense of togetherness is very important to remember, if you think of the frictions that have happened in America. It has a lot to do with the desire for every voice to be heard, and for a sense of participation and ownership that the pandemic made more apparent, or more necessary.
Museums in the U.S. were a political battleground before the pandemic. Is any of this informing your future programming?
Fortunately, or just because of the history of our institution, it is very much in our DNA to address certain questions. We had a major show by Hans Haacke in 2019. In the middle of all the conversations around museum support and scrutiny around the economy of the museum, we were presenting the artist who had first confronted that system. We presented “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” a major show that Okwui Enwezor had created for the New Museum, which looked at what he called the national emergency of Black grief in America. It is not that I’m patting ourselves on the back, but there is a tradition within our institution of looking to art to address bigger questions. The call to responsibility in the last few years has been to align the program to the daily practice. The program is not enough.
When it comes to the Trussardi Foundation, we found ourselves, paradoxically, in an interesting place because we don’t have a venue and we have this hidden practice. We had no museum to close down, which was incredibly painful for all institutions. We had this flexibility built in, and an ability to work in a very responsive way. That allowed us to open a new show with Ragnar Kjartansson in a very precarious moment between the end of last summer and the fall.
In what ways do your two venues in the U.S. and in Europe overlap?
I think the two projects ask different questions and are different models. The ability to work in these two formats is something that I’m extremely thankful for. One learns that there are different scales at which to work. It’s a lesson also learned from the last year and a half or so: you don’t need to always operate at a grand scale.
There is a tendency in the industry to assimilate numbers of audiences with impact. Right now, I’m in Switzerland, and I have been thinking about how many people were actually here at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916—maybe 50? People are still talking about it. The impact of those ideas still resonate. I’m not in any way comparing our project to that, but I think there is an assumption that we too often fall into, where we think that big numbers means big success.
By virtue of being in the Engadin, the current project is a bit inaccessible to a greater public. It’s a wealthy part of the world. I do agree, of course, that numbers should not always matter, but I wonder how you negotiate the kind of public can get there. It is not as accessible as your previous projects in Milan.
This project falls into a trajectory of nearly 20 years of projects with Beatrice Trussardi and before, with Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan. This new foundation is an international branch. If you see it in that trajectory of history, it’s part of a clear effort to make art available to a very stratified public. All our shows for 20 years have been free of charge and brought art into the streets or formerly inaccessible places. This project is also the result of the fact that Beatrice Trussardi has been here for two years now. Her family is here and so she wanted to begin here. It is a fairly modest project. We have very simple infrastructure and very modest needs. Paweł is sculpting his work here. He has been here for a few weeks making the work here. Every project has tensions at work.
The project, which rotates around the figure of St Francis, has explicit connotations in this place. There are elements of the project that speak to the complexities of this territory, so it is part of a much wider narrative. There are certain connotations with economic conditions, but the world that rotates around here is much more complex and diverse. The people that will stumble upon that artwork will not only be tourists, but also people that live here, people who participated in the creation of Paweł’s work. Paweł is able to bring to the surface all the different agents. Making it somewhat inaccessible has to do with this idea that we are not creating immediate entertainment.
Taking a decentralized approach and not having an institution as a place with four walls has become an option for many, partly because of the necessities brought on by the pandemic. There is the Uffizi Diffuzi in Florence, for example, and gallery pop-ups around the world. The idea of being attached to one place has totally changed. Could you speak about that from your perspective?
When we started in 2002, it was a gamble and a provocation. I had grown up in the outskirts of Milan as a provincial person who would have to commute to Milan to see art. I grew up with this feeling of being slightly in a world that wasn’t my own. I remember every new city administration that was voted in, the first proclamation they would make was that they would build a contemporary art museum for the city of Milan. I remember this being discussed since I was a kid. So when we started, one of our ideas was that maybe we don’t need to make a museum of contemporary art. The city can be the museum. The museum is actually a software before it is a hardware, so let’s inject the museum into the city itself.
Sometimes in conversations around accessibility, there is also a notion of the dilution of the radicalism of art. I am not talking about accessibility in regards to access for wheelchairs. I am speaking about when making things accessible means making things less disturbing or provocative. We want to make art occur with all its contradictions, its force, its complexities, it’s frictions and shock power. We used to say that we didn’t make public art, we made art public, and without watering down its most complex aspects.
It was not art that had to rethink itself. It was more that we had to present it in such a way that it could become part of quotidian experience in all its complexity and radicalism. There were also pragmatic and economic assumptions. We thought we could achieve so much more this way, rather than running a full museum 365 days a year.
You’re much more flexible and radical and risky with the private foundation than with the New Museum, where there are all kinds of structural concerns. How do you try to move forward from the layoffs last year?
Thankfully, the New Museum is far from a rigid institution. I have been working there now for almost 15 years, and that’s because it’s an institution with an amazing history and I hope an amazing future, where the culture is really to embrace artists ideas and making them possible. Obviously, it’s a museum—it’s more stratified in the sense that more people work there. It’s also New York City, so that is also an impact, and therefore [there is a level of] attention to what we do, which is healthy.
What both these projects share is an idea of being a public institution in the highest sense of the term, regardless of who pays the bill. When you make art for others, which is where art begins, you are part of a public debate and a public exchange, and with that come responsibilities and also freedoms. A lot of what we do and what I do is create space for artists and for artworks and for dialogue to happen between the artwork and the public. Within that encounter, so many exciting things can happen.
Franciszek by Paweł Althamer, curated by Massimiliano Gioni and commissioned by the Beatrice Trussardi Foundation, is on view at Val Fex, The Engadin, Switzerland, until August 29, 2021
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