The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Over the last decade, the contemporary art world has grown at a meteoric pace in value, geographical landscape and range of work. Massimiliano Gioni has helped fuel and steer this boom creating some of the most ambitious and intellectually provocative exhibitions of our time. And, he’s only getting warmed up.
The Italian-born Gioni is a world-renowned leader and curator of contemporary art. He is currently the Artistic Director of the New Museum in New York City. Since 2003, he has been director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan. He was the youngest curator to direct the Venice Biennale since its founding in 1895. His edition of the Venice Biennale, entitled, “The Encyclopedic Palace”, explored the human desire to know everything and the power of imagination.
Other projects he has been involved with include co-curator of the Venice Biennale (2003), co-curator of Of Mice and Men, the Berlin Bienniale(2006); co-curator of Manifesta 5 (2005), curator of 10,000 Lives, the 8th Gwangju Biennale (2010). In 2002, he launched, The Wrong Gallery, a one-meter square space, in New York, which later opened inside the Tate Modern and was referred to by the founders as "the back door to contemporary art". And Gioni was the U.S. editor for Flash Art from 2000-2002.
Brett Wallace: We both discovered art as young teenagers through books. Could you share with us how you first discovered art? What first attracted you to art?
Massimiliano Gioni: I stumbled upon a book in middle school (lower secondary school in Italy) while preparing a research paper for final exams. I was interested in the Vietnam War probably because of movies I was into at the time. And, I came across a book on Pop Art by Lucy Lippard. Pop Art interested me because I did not understand it; I was partially confused by the use of vernacular materials and whether or not Pop Art was critical of consumerism.
Early on it was clear that I wanted to work with art. I grew up about 40 minutes’ northwest of Milan in the town of Busto Arsizio. My family did not have much interest in art, but I knew it was something that interested me. I was not really sure it was a job or a way I could make a living. My fallback plan was to study art history and old masters and making a living through art history. I thought: if it really doesn’t work out with contemporary art, I can always become a high school art history teacher. Shortly, art became the only thing I could do or I was interested in doing since I was not very good at math.
BW: How do you define contemporary art?
MG: Paradoxically, I don’t think too much about what art is or what good art is. I am most curious about how art can help us in understanding visual culture. I think good art changes your definition of what art is. The question I find myself asking is, “is this artwork relevant”?
The exhibitions that I enjoy the most are those that have changed history. While it is certainly important that the art works in those exhibitions are grasped visually, it is also quite important that they capture a turning point in culture. Artworks that reflect an important change in culture are the ones you can go back to, over and over, and see inscribed in them a specific moment in time and a much broader depiction of history.
This is ultimately a question of relevance. A good question, to ask ourselves, is how do we distinguish commercial images that don’t help us see, from the great images that help us see more of the world? It’s this interest, in capturing cultural change that compels me to focus on major themes as starting points for the shows I create.
BW: Which artists or movements shaped your curatorial vision?
MG: There have been many influences. The Pop Artists, such as Warhol, had a big influence on me because of the way they engaged with visual culture and conceived of a form of art that’s communicative well beyond the professional art world of the time. Other revolutionary movements such as Process Art, Post-Minimalism, DADA, Realism, Futurism all made an impression on me early on. The artists in these movements wrote manifestos and had a certain rebellious energy to them that we can all sympathize with in our teenage years. I was particularly intrigued with how the Dada movement rejected logic and created a sense of language in spite of functionality; this rejection of bourgeois thinking is always bound to conquer the heart of any teenager. But this breaking of the rational and embracing the irrational has stayed with me and has been central to many exhibitions of mine.
BW: How do you define your role as a curator?
MG: Early in my career, I knew that I wanted to work with art, artworks and artists. I started out as a writer and editor, while gradually start to organize more and more shows. I am primarily curating exhibitions now and I think of my work as writing through a juxtaposition of art works.
I really began my professional curatorial career around 2000. The world has dramatically changed since then. There is a much greater quantity, availability and exchange of information across an international landscape than was ever possible before. There has been an increase in the speed and a widening of the art world which is changing the responsibilities and scope for today’s curators. It’s easy to become subsumed and fall into a reactive mode and just end up running around the world everywhere. I find it important to think before reacting to everything that is going on.
BW: What is your curatorial vision? How do you approach creating exhibitions, such as the Biennale?
MG: On one hand, I simplify and focus on themes central to contemporary art; themes that justify the scale of a major exhibition. I am interested in themes that have a certain depth and to which potentially any visitor could relate to. The Venice Biennale I directed was entitled, “The Encyclopedic Palace”, and was about knowledge through images; about our desire to see and know everything. The show was looking at the idea of omniscience in this century. I found that to be a question that is urgent in the knowledge economy we seem to inhabit today.
In my exhibitions, there are many more layers and problems behind the central theme that contribute to the richness of the exhibition. The Biennale itself was quite stratified and brought together many examples of artworks that revealed different approaches to visualizing knowledge through representations of abstract concepts.
The idea of universal knowledge applies to the Biennale itself: the Venice Biennale is an exhibition that for more than 100 years has cultivated the impossible desire to concentrate the endless worlds of contemporary art in a single destination.
The caveat in “The Encyclopedic Palace” was that it’s impossible to contain all of the world’s knowledge in one place. And yet many individuals have tried to attain a form of universal knowledge, and have gone crazy in the process… Maybe the show had to do with my fear of losing my mind as I was working on it…
BW: What is an artist from your point of view?
MG: Artists are perhaps most equipped to answer that question. Some of my exhibitions ask that question systematically. On the one hand, my shows are not exhibitions of art; they are exhibitions of images. We live in an image-based world. There is a similar question you may be asking; how do artworks and images differ? This is a theme that continually comes up in my shows. In the Biennale, I built an inclusive grouping of artists some of whom were traditionally recognized as artists and well known as such and others who had not been recognized as artists at all. In one example, the show opened with a presentation of Carl Jung’s Red Book, a collection of his visions and fantasies. The presentation of this work was echoed by a display of the “Encyclopedic Palace”, a model designed by self-taught Italian American Marino Auriti.
Ultimately I think an artist is someone who is recognized as such by a community. That is the simplest, almost tautological definition of who an artist is. Then again I also believe artists are people who make images of a certain intensity and complexity, images that are worthy of deeper engagement.
BW: What values guide your day-to-day decisions and leadership?
MG: No. 1: Integrity. Which has many implications. In my role, one has to retain integrity and avoid falling victim to the pressures from the market. Art has increased in value enormously in many sectors. It can be easy to confuse the price tag of a piece of artwork with its relevance and importance. I have a responsibility to not fall victim to market pressures. I find that when one is faced with temptations, one must ask a series of questions before deciding on an artwork.
No. 2: A balance of openness and stubbornness. Someone in my role must have conviction, but also be open to new ideas that criticize your own ideas. And if other ideas are right; one must be open enough to change himself.
No. 3: I find important not to forget that art can not just be a comfortable decoration. It is often abrasive, contrarian, uncomfortable. Art is not fictionless, even though nowadays it is being used as the great lubricant of business. I always remind myself of the great title of a painting by Ed Ruscha: “Sand in the Vaseline”.
BW: Who most inspires you? What objects do you collect?
MG: Artworks, artists, literature and movies inspire me. I try to keep my eyes open. When it comes to collecting, I find it’s best to travel light: I don’t keep much. But I have lots of books. I appreciate a certain lightness that provides no distractions.
BW: How important is taking intelligent risks in your career or for your shows?
MG: Taking both intelligent and stupid risks is an important part of my exhibitions. There must always be that one element that gives you nightmares. I find that it needs to be there to make for a richer show. There has to be at least one element in an exhibition which you are unsure as to whether you will be able to actually pull it off or not. Taking big risks can’t be the only thing you do when working on a show, but there has to be at least one project or one element that seems impossible to realize, if anything because when you will actually pull it off, it will feel pretty great.
Massimiliano Gioni holding an artwork by Gianfranco Baruchello, 2010. Photo: Marco De Scalzi. Courtesy Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan