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Interview with Francesco Bonambi: The post-war Biennale and national vs. individual identity

Long live the united nations of the arts?

The title of this year’s Biennale, “Sogni e conflitti” (Dreams and conflicts) is suited to this first post-war Biennale; its subtitle, the “Dictatorship of the spectator” suggests that the era of the curator-creator, eager to make the Biennale unmistakably his own, is past.

Francesco Bonami, this year’s director, explains that anyone touring the vast and varied panorama of contemporary art today has to “construct” his own interpretation of the exhibition.

Over the past 10 years, the Biennale has been strongly marked by the character of its curators, from Achille Bonito Oliva to Jean Clair, Germano Celant and Harald Szeemann. This year the exhibition is to be a collaborative effort. Although Mr Bonami is running the largest of the shows within the shows: “Ritardi e rivoluzioni” (Delays and revolutions) in the Italian Pavilion, a number of equally influential curators have their own shows in the Corderie and the Arsenale.

Catherine David, director of Documenta in 1997, has chosen the most obviously topical theme with her selection of artists from the Arab world.

Hou Hanru’s exhibition “Zona d’urgenza” (Emergency zone) also examines a geographical theme, that of the Asian city in the era of globalisation.

Carlos Basualdo’s subject is day to day reality in developing world countries. His “La struttura della crisi” (The structure of crisis) focuses on areas where social and political conflict is rife.

The artist Gabriel Orozco has organised a small exhibition entitled “Il quotidiano alterato” (Counterfeit life), which will deal with the small stresses that punctuate our daily life.

Another artist, Rirkrit Taravanija, has collaborated with Hans Ulrich Obrist on the creation of a collection of theoretical works by artists and architects, “Stazione utopia” (Utopia station).

The youngest curator, Massimiliano Gioni, currently director of the Fondazione Trussardi in Milan, has chosen the Italian national exhibition in the Giardini di Castello. It is housed in a temporary pavilion tucked in between the other national pavilions.

There are the predictable urban projects, a feature of every international exhibition these days, assembled under the title “Interludes”. There is also a major show devoted to the entire continent of Africa, organised by Egyptian curator Gilane Tawadros, entitled “Smottamenti” (Landslides).

Francesco Bonami has also curated two further exhibitions. One is closely connected with current events and is entitled “Clandestini”, showing work by emerging international artists, on show at the Corderie. The other is an historical exhibition in the Museum Correr of paintings from 1964 to the present.

Traditionally, there is no such thing as a smooth passage to the opening of the Biennale: Francesco Bonami has twice been in the eye of the storm. Last year his appointment irritated Vittorio Sgarbi, then Under Secretary at the Ministry of Culture at the time, who wanted a curator with more conservative tastes in art (for example Robert Hughes), or at least one who was more acceptable to the right wing government (the Biennale this year got €6.5 million (£4.5 million; $7.3 million) in public money).

Two months ago Valerio Riva, a member of the Administrative Council, issued a statement criticising Francesco Bonami for spending too much government money by appointing the team of curators mentioned above; for organising a Biennale with the “same old names”, and for bordering on anti-Semitism because of the plan to include Palestine among the nations represented.

Francesco Bonami (b.1955, himself an artist, a former collaborator with FlashArt magazine, and currently curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) carried on, fortified in the knowledge that the president of the Biennale, Franco Bernabè, was on his side. Here, he explains how he envisages his first Biennale.

The Art Newspaper: To what extent has the international situation impinged on the Biennale this year? Have the artists changed course at all after the war in Iraq?

FB: The international situation has a pervasive influence in the exhibition. The section that is most closely connected with the crisis in the Middle East is the one curated by Catherine David, devoted to contemporary Arab representation. It is to be expected that some of the artists will have changed their perception of their own work.

As for the climate surrounding the Biennale, it is as if the non-usefulness of art is being compared with the absolute non-usefulness of war. The non-usefulness of art, by the way, is considered here as a positive attribute: art provides a moment for reflection, for construction rather than destruction.

Obviously compared with political and social realities, art seems superficial; nevertheless it is something positive amid the tragedies surrounding us all.

TAN: What has become of the Palestinian Pavilion?

FB: It is not a true pavilion. The project has been devised by Sandi Hilal, a Palestinian architect living in Venice, in collaboration with Alessandro Petti. The basic question they are confronting is the idea of national identity. Sandi Hilal said from the beginning that he was not interested in building a “Palestinian pavilion”, but would prefer to introduce the concept through small interventions scattered about the Giardini di Castello, plus a book. Anyway, this Biennale is not an exhibition devoted to national identities. It is about individual identity.

TAN: You have directed a kind of collegiate Biennale, surrounding yourself with highly prestigious curators…

FB: I must interrupt you: apart from Daniel Birnbaum, who collaborated with me as curator of the exhibition “Delays and revolutions” in the Italian Pavilion, the others cannot be described as co-curators. Each is curator of his own section. Each proposed a project and since its acceptance each has worked completely independently.

TAN: But the directors who preceded you, from Achille Bonito Oliva to Jean Clair, Germano Celant and Harald Szeemann could be described as “total” curators. Has this kind of biennale curator been superseded now?

FB: You could say that there is no curator today who is able to embrace a panorama which has grown so huge compared with the one dealt with by Bonito Oliva, or Celant or Szeemann.

The art world today has opened up to a continuous stream of information and exchange of ideas. It is no longer possible for a curator to protect a small group of artists, or to manipulate them within straitjackets.

Every time we think we have discovered a new artist we learn that our “discovery” has already been shown at numerous exhibitions.

Now I am confronted by very young artists with a professionalism that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. These artists are perfectly willing to give the Venice Biennale a miss if they are not treated in the way they think they should be.

TAN: What do you think of this attitude?

FB: I am unnerved by it, but I respect it, particularly if it is presented in a completely professional manner. I am certainly impressed.

TAN: How many artists have created new work specifically for this Biennale?

FB: In the exhibitions curated by me the average is about 50-60%.

TAN: How would you persuade a visitor to pay the entrance fee to the Biennale to see the main exhibition “Delays and revolutions” in the Italian Pavilion?

FB: This is an exhibition designed to emphasise the nature of the world in which contemporary art exists—in a state of seeming revolution and, sometimes, obvious time-lag.

It demonstrates the contemporary artist’s endless efforts to be in sync with the present and with current events, like a prompter with his actors.

The curator has the same problem: to construct an exhibition that is in sync with the times and to recognise that some contributions are a bit behind or maybe, for the best of the bunch, in advance of their times.

We start with a work by Andy Warhol, his first video; we continue with a work by Dan Graham based on delays in perception and investigation. Another crucial juncture is the slide of the painting that keeps changing, by Robert Gober: ever since 1986 he has been working continuously on the painting—and this makes a nice metaphor for the artist’s attempt to keep in line with current events by making endless changes.

TAN: To turn to the youngest generation, is it true that they are trying to move from post-Modernism to an idea of neo-modernism, a new Avant-garde? Is this not just nostalgia? Is it a throwback or a revolution?

FB: It is more than just nostalgia. I see it as a kind of new romanticism or global-romanticism. It is a new spiritual view of a world that is ruled by an iron hand, and by increasingly advanced technology. The global romantic artist tries to recover his own individual voice in the midst of globalisation. There is a strong necessity for the young artist to have confidence in his own individuality, even when he is working in a group. It is not like the 70s when the collective cancelled out the individual.

TAN: It is strange that you who are so closely associated as a curator with the new technology, should be honouring painting, in the show at the Museo Correr. Is this a delayed reaction or second thoughts?

FB: No, it’s an historical overview. This is the 50th edition of the Biennale and I have gone back over important moments in its history. I chose a watershed year, 1964, when Robert Rauschenberg won the Golden Lion thereby acknowledging that worldwide leadership in contemporary art had been snatched from Europe, and France in particular, by the United States. The exhibition at the Museo Correr opens with work by Rauschenberg because his presence at the Biennale provoked genuine shock: you just have to read the French newspapers of the period to understand how the event impressed critics and public alike. The French critics talked of a seizure of power, of an American art conspiracy aimed at undermining European art and the European art market.

It is an odd coincidence that, then as now, Europe’s relations with the US were under severe strain, even if it was not then about war. Rauschenberg challenged classical art and the foundations of painting itself.

The final exhibitor in the exhibition is Takashi Murakami, who uses language that is very unfamiliar to Western ears or eyes in his canvases. I think his sensibility is somewhat akin to that of Rauschenberg; he pays attention to the worlds of the media, of fashion and other types of communication.

TAN: You realise that you will be criticised by everyone for not including Jasper Johns in an exhibition devoted to the second half of the 20th century?

FB: Jasper Johns is not included because I believe that by 1962 his work was beginning to look inward. He is one of America’s most beloved and most important artists, but by the 60s he was entering a mannerist phase.

TAN: Young architects are well represented in your exhibition.

FB: This does not imply any hybridisation between art and architecture; these projects were commissioned because they were necessary. For example, “The Cord”, a project by archea associati and C+s associati is a steel pipe that joins the various venues at the Biennale by cabling them together. The temporary pavilion created by A12 is for the exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni in the Giardini devoted to contemporary Italian art.