"I Felt the Need to Do Something Unusual": Massimiliano Gioni on Curating Venice

"I Felt the Need to Do Something Unusual": Massimiliano Gioni on Curating Venice
Massimiliano Gioni, Curator of the 55th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia
(Foto: Giorgio Zucchiatti Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia)

Speaking at a press conference in London yesterday, Massimiliano Gioni invoked Plato: “Nothing is sweeter than knowing everything,” said the New Museum’s associate director, who this year is also curator of the 2013 Venice Biennial. This drive to accumulate knowledge, to understand the world in its infinite complexity and create the visual tools to do so, is at the heart of the exhibition Gioni is currently preparing for the biennial’s eagerly awaited International Pavilion. The show embraces curiosity pushed to the point of “obsession,” of “delirium,” he said.

“The Encyclopaedic Palace” features over 150 artists from 37 countries, and it borrows its title from a utopian project by architect Marino Auriti. In 1955, the Italian American eccentric devised and patented the design for a building destined to contain all human knowledge. The actual palace was never made, but its spectacular maquette will have a place of honour in Venice, sitting alongside works by several so-called outsider artists (James Castle, Augustin Lesage, Aleister Crowley), biennial veterans (Fischli/Weiss, Steve McQueen, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman), and intriguing artefacts, including Carl Jung’s “Red Book” (gathering drawings of his patients’ visions) and French thinker Roger Callois’s collection of stones.


This biennial job is recognition of the unstoppable rise of the Italian-born, New York-based curator Gioni, who has gained critical acclaim for such shows as the Gwangju Biennial (2010), “Younger Than Jesus” at the New Museum (2009), and the Berlin Biennial (which he helmed in collaboration with his long-time friends and collaborators Maurizio Cattelan and Ali Subotnick). If one believes the Wall Street Journal, Gioni is the “crowned prince of the art world.” After the press conference, ARTINFO UK got the chance to ask Gioni a few questions about the upcoming show. 

How did you come across Marino Auriti?

I’ve been including artists that are defined as “outsider” or “self-taught” in my shows for a while. It was the idea already for the Gwangju Biennial in 2010 and I’ve been looking at that field quite regularly in my group shows at the New Museum. Auriti’s piece is in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum (New York), so I had heard about it. I saw it in person not that long ago, like 2011. As the ideas for the Venice exhibition were developing, I thought that somehow it was the ideal starting point. I like the fact that it’s an actual object that contains a very peculiar story, and I like the idea of naming the biennial after a specific object and not just a random idea. Auriti not only encapsulates some of the themes of the show, but he also came to incarnate one of the exhibition’s larger questions, which is the distinction between the professional and the self-taught, or the professional and the autodidact.

This seems to be very much the zeitgeist. I was talking to James Brett earlier today, was the Museum of Everything he founded a key reference for the biennial?

I like James, I think he’s part of a change that has been in the air, but I don’t know if I would say that the whole biennial comes from the Museum of Everything. When you make a show like [the one in] Venice, you have to grasp a moment in time, so I wanted to include these less canonical artists as a recognition of a movement that has become more and more prominent in the last few years. The Hamburger Bahnhof, for example, has dedicated a series of shows to outsider artists, and only a few weeks ago the New York Times’s Roberta Smith was advocating for the inclusion of outsider artists in mainstream museums. At the same time, the inclusion of those artists helped the biennial to move away from a more predictable — I hope — list of artists.

More and more, I’m interested in visual culture, or figurative expression, rather than just contemporary art. This is to expand the dialogue and to move away from the accepted canon. It’s also because I think one of the most pressing questions [to interrogate] is the role of art and artists in our “image society.” To do that, you cannot just look at contemporary art. You have to look a little further, and that’s why I included those artists. I think they provide interesting examples of attitudes towards image-making, image-arrangement, and image consumption that are important to look at to understand how we can engage with visual culture today.

The way we know biennials in the last 10-15 years is very much one of the paradigms. It’s not the way biennials have always been. If you look at the Venice biennial throughout its 110-year history, there have been many examples of exhibitions that didn’t look just at the present, but offered more historical overviews and included historical, more unusual materials.

Even as recently as the last edition, in which Bice Curiger included three paintings by Tintoretto.

Yes, but here I think there is a more organic reflection on the past. There’s been a lot of hype about the fact that I’m the youngest curator in the history of the biennial. And I feel that what belongs to my generation – even though I don’t want to be a spokesperson for my generation – is a sense of synchronicity that is very new. Being in the present, being contemporary means that there is an access to history, or to information, that is quite unusual. So that’s what the show does in its own structure, and it’s also what the show talks about. It’s an exhibition that looks at the birth of our knowledge society, and of our information society, and tries to show that this state of being over-informed is not just a recent phenomenon but something that has been going on for some time.

Your title seems to ironize the idea of the biennial itself.

I don’t know if ironic is the right term. Definitely, the dream of the “Encyclopaedic Palace” resembles the expectations we have about these shows. So choosing this piece as a starting point and recognizing that it never came to completion is a way to suggest the expectation that a biennial could encapsulate universal knowledge is doomed to fail.

The architecture of the actual “Encyclopaedic Palace” is very much inspired by the architecture of the Chicago International Expo and the all sorts of international exhibitions, and the Venice Biennial is among the biennials the one that most directly relates to London’s Great Exhibition. I wanted to hint at that, show that this dream is tinted by many other problems and also that it may be ultimately impossible. So why would I be expected to fulfil it?

What do you think the Venice Biennial represents today?

What keeps the biennial unique is first its historical legacy. I always tell the artists that come and visit: to think that Gustav Klimt was showing there in 1905 is mind-blowing, and means that for 110 years, they’ve been getting it quite right. If you look at the list of artists, many have also been forgotten and that’s just the way history, or histories, operate. The legacy is also important because it contains different models of what the biennial can be.

Secondly, there is the element of the national pavilions, which present an idea of being contemporary that is incredibly polyphonic. Being contemporary today in India is not the same thing as being contemporary in Bahrain, and that puts a relativistic element on my show — it becomes just one of the voices.

As a curator, it’s also a show that you do only once, so I felt the need to do something unusual. I don’t know how unusual it will feel but I’m trying to make a show that I don’t see out there. People will decide if it is or not.

Yet in your list of artists there are many artists we are very familiar with, and it does feel quite predominantly Euro-American.

There are 38 nations, that’s much more than the last and the previous one. There are more artists from Asia and South America than in the last biennial. Seven or eight are from South America. Because it’s a bigger list – the last two were 80 names – and because there are many historical artists, maybe you get a perspective distortion.

This is not a justification, but people approach the Venice biennial thinking that it’s a show like Documenta. But the budget is incredibly tight, so start bringing things from South America with the amount of money I have … there’s only so much we can do. It seems stupid but shows like this, that you have to put together in less than a year with incredibly tight resources, mean that you have to fundraise for every decision — which has never been the case in my life. I cannot just invite — I invite and I have to find the resources to invite. That causes different challenges.

Your Gwangju Biennial seems almost like a blueprint of your Venice biennial. You even described it at the time as “exploring the idea of an encyclopaedia.”

On many levels this show is complementary. Gwangju dealt more with portraiture, representation of people, and images as the place where we come to term with mortality, or refuse mortality. This show has more to do with imagination and internal images, the projections that you carry in your head.

When you are given the chance to do such a large show, you try to identify a theme that can respond to the art of today and what you see out there. I know this sounds very sentimental but you also want to identify a problem that humans have hit their head against over and over again — because otherwise, why bother?

La Biennale di Venezia, 55th International Art Exhibition, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico (The Encyclopedic Palace), Venice (Giardini and Arsenale) June 1 – November 24, 2013