“I’ve included a very well-known outsider: Tintoretto!”
Bice Curiger, curator of this year’s Venice Biennale, says its scope still makes the exhibition unique
By Franco Fanelli. Features, Issue 225, June 2011
Published online: 01 June 2011
Bice Curiger, 62, is the curator of the 54th Venice Biennale of visual arts. The Zürich-born art historian, critic and co-founder of the contemporary art magazine Parkett is the third woman to fill the position after María de Corral and Rosa Martínez co-directed the 2005 edition. For the fourth time in succession, and the sixth overall, the position has been entrusted to a non-Italian. Curiger has selected 84 artists for her exhibition, which will be held in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and at the Arsenale. The title, “Illuminazioni”, refers both to the role of the contemporary artist and to the exchanges between the various countries represented at the biennale, which this year sees 89 international pavilions (the most ever) in the Giardini and across the city.
The Art Newspaper: For over 100 years the biennale has served a variety of functions: it has celebrated the work of established artists; confirmed dominant trends; delineated new geographies of the art world in terms of economic and market leadership; and provided an international showcase, before this role was superseded by the advent of instant communications and cheap travel, and the multiplication of other international art exhibitions. What is the role of the Venice Biennale today, and what sets it apart from the other international art fairs?
Bice Curiger: The biennale today is an excellent occasion to launch new trends and young artists, above all because it attracts such a large number of visitors. The popularity of the biennale is encouraging for contemporary art, especially compared with an exhibition in a museum or gallery where visitor numbers are more limited. What also makes the biennale relevant today is the national pavilions. In Venice you can visit 89 pavilions containing new works from all over the world. This could be developed further and given greater emphasis. The Venice Biennale is the only exhibition in the world that offers such an opportunity.
Have you managed to establish a dialogue with the curators of the national pavilions?
Last autumn, as the director of the international exhibition, I met the national pavilion curators. This took the form of a general meeting at which each curator gave a short presentation of their concept for their pavilion. I asked the pavilion curators the same five questions that I put to the artists involved in “Illuminazioni”: “Where do you feel at home? Will we speak English in the future, and if not, which language? Is the art community a country? How many countries do you feel you belong to? If art were a nation, what do you think would be its constitution?” Finally, at a symbolic level, I started a dialogue with the countries present by instigating the “para-pavilions”. These are spaces dotted along the route to the Corderie, inside the Arsenale, in which one artist will “house” works by other colleagues [the artists “in charge” of the four para-pavilions are Franz West, Monika Sosnowska, Song Dong and Oscar Tuazon].
This biennale marks the end of a decade that started with the 9/11 attacks and continued with a worldwide financial crisis, before ending with the Arab spring and the death of Osama Bin Laden. Do the works by the artists you have chosen reflect these changes?
There are few works that reflect current affairs. The relationship between art and current affairs, as we know them through the media, can be problematic: what seems important today may be old hat tomorrow. At another level, art can provide a way to understand the most complex problems and the reasons for historical and social changes. This is clear from the national pavilions: art can help us understand a deeper reality, something that is impossible if we confine our attention solely to what we see in the media.
The title “Illuminazioni” seems to refer, on the one hand, to the artist as an “enlightened” individual. On the other, it may highlight the fact that an artist is someone capable of “illuminating” our lives. In both cases, doesn’t it strike you that these possible interpretations are rather anachronistic?
Artists are not shamans; and artists can be enlightened during the process of creating their works. Fischli & Weiss, who will be in my exhibition, heralded the end of the artist-seer in 1979: that was the year when, after a solo exhibition had been dedicated to Beuys at the Guggenheim in New York, they started to work as a duo precisely because they were sceptical of the individual “act”.
How many works have been created specifically for the biennale?
Your list includes a number of celebrity artists, like Franz West, Cindy Sherman, Martin Creed and Maurizio Cattelan, but also a few outsiders, like Llyn Foulkes, Jeanne Natalie Wintsch, Guy de Cointet and Jack Goldstein. Could you introduce them to our readers?
I’d also like to mention that my exhibition includes a very well known outsider: Tintoretto! I am particularly interested in the figure of the outsider. These also include established artists, around whom there is a level of consensus, and then there are the real outsiders, who are important because their works highlight the boundaries of that consensus. Llyn Foulkes is a 76-year-old US artist whom I met in Los Angeles; he started to exhibit in the 1960s with Andy Warhol and other pop artists, then he became a bit surrealist. In his work he is highly critical of American society and culture. Jack Goldstein, a Canadian who died in 2003, was part of the post-minimalist generation in 1980s New York. However, as an artist he was not exactly unknown and has always had a certain following. Jeanne Natalie Wintsch was a Polish artist who died aged 73 in 1944 in Lausanne. Giovanni Carmine, who works with me, got to know her work at a small exhibition held in St Gallen, Switzerland. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and made embroidered works of art, which she gave to the doctor to persuade him to let her go home. These embroideries become text, and this links her to the French artist Guy de Cointet, another complex figure, who was influenced by Mallarmé and by text that is transformed into image.
You defined Tintoretto as an outsider. But he was also one of the painters working after the Sack of Rome in 1527, an epoch-making catastrophe. After the Sack, avant-garde painters no longer based their work on the certainties of the Renaissance. Seen in this light, Tintoretto might be seen as a historical precedent for a generation of artists, like those today, whose work has moved beyond any form of certainty, including style or belonging to a particular trend.
What interests me most about Tintoretto is precisely his anti-classicism, his demolition of a static order, the loss of harmony. These are facets that we see clearly in The Last Supper, one of three of his works in the exhibition. Christ is no longer at the centre of the scene, and the table lies diagonally across the painting. If you look at the painting in its usual setting, inside the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, the table seems to be an extension of the altar.
You might say that by including Tintoretto at the biennale you have tried to bring about a coup de théâtre?
Leaving aside the theme of anti-classicism, I wanted to include him as a tribute to the city and its heritage, and to that antique world that is often overlooked by visitors to the biennale.
You are a co-founder of Parkett, a magazine that places a lot of emphasis on graphics and multiples. What space will your exhibition give to these products?
If demand is concentrated on paper works, I have to say that the climate of Venice poses a problem: only the Central Pavilion in the Giardini is air-conditioned. For example, this prevented me borrowing a drawing by a young artist, Frances Stark, who is exhibiting a video instead.
One of the problems encountered by curators of the Venice Biennale is that they have very little time. For example, have you managed to visit the studios of all the exhibiting artists?
Today, the globetrotting curator flies from Korea to South America—but thank goodness for the internet and for an art network that allows the screening to take place before you actually travel.
Did you already know or had you already worked with most of the artists you invited?
Over a third of them are very young, aged under 35. They have been the real focus of my efforts in terms of research and travel.
Which exhibitions have made a particular impression on you, in terms of a curatorial model?
I’ve taken various models into account: I liked some aspects of Szeemann’s Venice Biennales in 1999 and 2001 and bits of Bonami’s in 2003, even though it was heavily criticised. For example, the para-pavilions were inspired by the energy that abounded in that biennale.
The popularity of the biennale has soared in terms of visitor numbers. Do you find it odd that avant-garde art, which has always been considered “difficult”, can achieve this sort of consensus? Has the public changed, or is it the art?
Perhaps both. The generation of artists that emerged after the 1980s grew up with pop culture which, until then, had been poles apart from contemporary art. Today the figure of the artist is played up by the media, and now that rock music is not as sexy as it was, artists have become the new rock stars.
That brings us to the importance of the catalogue texts. What does the catalogue contain?
It is a single 600-page volume, rather than a twin-volume as in previous years. There is a piece by researchers on the history of the national pavilions, and Karl Holmqvist, one of the artists in the exhibition, has written another dedicated to the poet Rimbaud and his collection of poems entitled “Illuminations”. There is also a text by the philosopher Reza Negarestani. For Tintoretto, I organised a sort of round table event, which included the critic Carolin Bohlmann, the painter Corinne Wasmuht, whose work is also in the exhibition, and Diedrich Diederichsen, a philosopher of culture. This debate will be among the texts included in the catalogue. However, after the exhibition opens, I will organise other events on Tintoretto. We will also publish the answers given by all the artists to the five questions I mentioned earlier. There is also a short guide and an iPad app.
It is said that Italy is a country in decline, even from a cultural point of view. What is your impression?
When I watch Italian television and see the quality of the programmes, I notice this decline. I belong to a generation that was raised on Italian films that now form part of cinema history, and when I think about that, I am deeply saddened. However, the art world in Italy has plenty of energy and the commitment of private foundations is extraordinary. In Rome, too, there is more of an art scene now that the MaXXi and Macro are open.
Are you concerned that the Italian pavilion will be too crowded, now that over 700 artists have been invited by Vittorio Sgarbi?
This year’s biennale is special, as 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. However, every country is completely autonomous in the choices it has made for its own pavilion. We could debate the criteria by which Iran or China have chosen their artists, or the underlying values, say, that the curators take into account. But the national pavilions and this confrontation between countries are two of the biennale’s core features.
In 2005 the curators were María de Corral and Rosa Martínez, in 2007 Robert Storr, in 2009 Daniel Birnbaum and now you: have you ever wondered why in recent years the biennale has not been curated by an Italian?
I imagine that these choices have served to emphasise the international nature of the exhibition. But now perhaps it is time to hand it back to an Italian.
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