Thursday, November 29, 2007

Massimiliano Gioni, "THE UNCURATORIAL CURATOR" by Ilka Scobie


by Ilka Scobie

"I guess I am expected to bring a little disorder
into this institution," confessed the dapper
33-year-old Massimiliano Gioni, who is the
director of special exhibitions at the New
Museum. Gioni has been a hard man to pin down for
an interview, what with his duties as co-curator
of "Unmonumental," the vast survey of new art
that debuts the New Museum's glamorous new
facility on the Bowery, which opens with a
30-hour festival beginning at noon on Nov. 1,

"Since I joined the New Museum in October of last
year," Gioni said, "we've been having this
conversation every day, asking ourselves how to
rethink what an art institution can be. That was
the reason I accepted the invitation to join the
staff. The New Museum is still a place that wants
to re-invent itself, and I'm drawn to places that
are not afraid of accepting change."

Gioni has worked on a variety of impressive
projects. He has helped organize the 4th Berlin
Biennial (2006), Manifesta 5 (2004) and "The
Zone" at the 2003 Venice Biennial. Since 2003,
Gioni has been the artistic director of Milan's
Nicola Trussardi Foundation, which he continues
to run while living in New York. The Trussardi
Foundation specializes in showing contemporary
art "in unusual spaces that have not been
traditionally open to the public or used to
display art." He also oversees the Wrong Gallery
with Ali Subotnick and Maurizio Cattelan.

"The New Museum is now 30 years old, but it's not
weighed down by it own history; it's still very
flexible," he says. "For example, now we are
working on the schedule for next year, and we are
making a big effort to re-think the pace of our
shows compared to other institutions. We will be
doing quite an intensive number of shows."

"You can see this from our very first exhibition,
which is curated by Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman
and myself. 'Unmonumental' starts off as a
sculpture show, with more than 100 works by 30
international artists. All of the sculptures are
installed in the galleries without any partitions
or temporary walls. The installation reveals the
original architecture in all its purity, with the
artworks occupying space but not as a rule
touching the architecture.

"All the walls surrounding the sculptures are
left empty. Visiting the show should feel like
walking around a landscape, maybe a landscape of
ruins and instability. All the sculptures, in
fact, share a sense of fragility and
precariousness. They are all assemblages or
collages of sorts, they are all going to pieces
or, vice versa, they are carefully assembled by
bringing together bits and pieces of found

"After one month, all around the sculptures, we
plan to install on the museum walls an exhibition
of collages and two-dimensional works. So the
show gets more intense, with the works of 11
artists taking over huge walls. Many of these
pieces are actually site-specific works, realized
especially for this exhibition.

"And after another month, we are adding sound to
the galleries, acoustic symphonies and noise
collages, composed by 13 artists whose works end
up taking the dimensions of collage a step
further, in the realm of sound. Lauren Cornell is
one of the curators of this section, together
with me and Laura Hoptman.

"So a visit in February 2008 should give a
completely different experience than a visit in
December 2007. Sculptures, collages and sound --
it should be an incredibly dense environment, a
collage in itself, or maybe a contemporary

"The show also migrates outside of the museum
walls. Rhizome, which is an affiliate institution
of the New Museum, has organized an internet
component, so part of 'Unmonumental' is also
visible directly on your computer.

"That might give you an idea of what the New
Museum is interested in. Changing the rules a
little bit, trying out new formats to present
art, trying to learn directly from art and
artists to create new strategies and new
experiences. So, for example, 'Unmonumental' is
an exhibition about collage that becomes a
collage in itself."

With a title like "Unmonumental," I asked, is the
New Museum signaling a lack of interest in art of
prodigious accomplishment?

"Well, we are interested in that, of course,"
Gioni assures me, smiling. "But this exhibition
itself is focusing on three ideas. First of all,
it is interested in a particular kind of esthetic
which is that of assemblage. 'Unmonumental' tries
to demonstrate that collage, from its roots in
the beginning of this century, has become very
important to contemporary artists. All the art
works in the exhibition were made after the year

"The second thing that 'Unmonumental' addresses
is the present moment, the time we live in. It's
not just a show about contemporary art; it is
also an exhibition about a century that starts
with monuments, buildings and sculptures being
razed to the ground. If you think of this new
century, the most striking images are not of
victories or heroes, idols and icons, but of
monuments being toppled over and statutes dragged
to the ground. Think of the photos of Saddam
Hussein's monument in Baghdad, or the Buddhas in
Afghanistan, or even the Twin Towers.

"It's a century that opens with the erasure of
symbols and a disappearance of monuments. It's a
century that begins both metaphorically and
literally with sculptures being knocked off their
pedestals. That's also what 'Unmonumental' is
about. In the first section of the show, the
sculpture section, this relationship with ruins
is more metaphorical, but with works by artists
like Martha Rosler, Thomas Hirschhorn and Kim
Jones, it will become clear that the show talks
about a century of conflicts and wars.

"Still, we tried not to be too literal. Since the
beginning of the 20th century, collage has also
been read as a mirror of the unconscious, and you
will find a lot of strange dreams and obscure
desires in the exhibition as well.

"The third thing 'Unmonumental' is about is
modesty. After all, from its very title, the show
is a way to remind ourselves that we're building
a beautiful museum, but we don't want it to be an
ivory tower or a monument in itself. We are more
interested in things that are a little bit more
unstable, more open and questioning."

Asked about the silvery, mesh-covered rectilinear
building designed by the Tokyo firm SANAA -- a
dramatic addition to the Bowery landscape and to
Manhattan as well -- Gioni replied, "When you get
inside, you will be surprised at what a simple
functional building it is. From the outside, it's
very spectacular, but it's spectacular in a way
that is quite modest. It doesn't have the
aggressiveness, say, of a Frank Gehry museum. It
is a building that is much more interested in its
surroundings. Industrially rough, yet completely

"And then the inside is incredible in the way it
gives space to the art. The entrance level is
completely transparent; the street comes right
in, in a way. Also the ground floor is open --
free to the public -- and has a café, a bookstore
and a gallery, also open free of charge."

I asked about the experience of working closely
with the internationally acclaimed and
provocative Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan.

"I don't know if I can answer this in a few
words, because we have been friends now for more
than eight years. I can say I have learned a lot
from him. When our relationship started, I was
his spokesperson. I would give out interviews in
his name, and even do lectures in his place. I
guess that might have taught me to speak a lot,
and to lie a little. It also taught me how to
spin a story, how to talk to the press. I have
been Maurizio's media consultant on many of his
projects, like the Caribbean Biennale in 2006,
which was a biennial without art, or like the
Hollywood sign that he installed in the hills in

"Perhaps most importantly, Maurizio taught me how
to think in images, which is something I'm very
thankful for. You know, I tend to think more in
images than in words. This is useful when
organizing an exhibition.

"Also, Maurizio influenced a lot the work I do in
Milan with the Trussardi Foundation. The
foundation doesn't have an exhibition space, and
it changes its location with every show and every
appearance, so it has to grab the attention of
the city for 30 days, and then we close and
concentrate on the following project. It's sort
of a nomadic practice in which communication and
art often mingle. That's another aspect I learned
from Maurizio's work. How images can become
stories. And how they have to penetrate a system
of communication.

"I hope Maurizio learned from me as well. It has
been a very interesting exchange. We still do a
lot of work together. We continue doing the Wrong
Gallery with Ali Subotnick, who is our third
partner in crime. She's now a curator at the
Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. She has been a
friend for a long time. Besides the Wrong
Gallery, we've done Charley magazine and our
other publications together, and the Berlin

Next I query him about what role the New Museum
will play in the already robust contemporary art
world in Manhattan, which is crowded with
galleries and museums anxious to expand their
contemporary art programming.

"It's a question we will answer in practice," he
answers. "The location on the Bowery really
shapes a lot of our identity. It's the only
museum of contemporary art downtown. So, it's a
museum that wants to entertain a close
relationship with artists. It's also a place
where we want to work at different speeds and
different scales. The New Museum does not only
open with 'Unmonumental.' There are five other
projects and exhibitions that animate different
parts of the building. We are not just a
monolithic structure, we are much more diverse.
We are not an elephant, we are also the mouse.

"One project that is particularly dear to me is a
performance by Sharon Hayes, a young artist who
lives and works in New York. She's going to
perform on the Bowery, where she will be reciting
love letters in public. They speak about a love
story in a time of war, though it's unclear
whether these letters are autobiographical or
fictional or somewhere in between. Hayes'
performance takes place on the streets, and her
voice is also heard inside the museum, in a small
intimate space, which -- maybe because I am
Italian -- makes me think of a confessional."

Do you like painting, I ask?

"I don't believe in divisions based upon media. I
love painting. It might sound obnoxious, but I
believe I love all good art. It can happen in
painting, performance, photography or any other
medium. I do have tremendous respect for
painters. And painting has always played an
interesting role in my relationship with art.
Lately, in the last year or so, for example, I've
been enjoying the company and work of George
Condo, who is a great artist and also has become
a friend. I love how bizarre his paintings are,
and how complex the world he imagines for them is.

"Also, how could anyone not like painting? What would art be without Richter?"

Do you miss Italy?

"I was born near Malpensa, the international
airport in Milan, which is maybe the reason I
take so many planes. I go to Italy at least once
a month. What I miss is time there. Time in
Manhattan and time in Italy are very different.
In Milan, I can read more, I can think more."

I ask about the New Museum's interactions with the surrounding community.

"Two years ago, the museum launched a project to
gather as much information as it can about the
Bowery and the artists in the neighborhood, and
the area's connection to art and artists. So the
museum itself is designed to become a place where
the memory and the presence of the street is kept
and preserved. We plan to have "free nights" with
no admission charge at the museum, and to
translate the brochures into Chinese and Spanish.
And we are trying to find a language in English
that is not cryptic art world jargon!

"We want to do shows that are immersive. You come
to an exhibition and the whole exhibition is an
experience. It feels a little like being in the
head of an artist."

This sounds like a journey that Sig. Gioni could well guide us on.

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ILKA SCOBIE is a poet.

©2007 artnet


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