In our technocratic age when truth is a Google search away and mysticism means checking Susan Miller on your iPhone, Massimiliano Gioni's Venice Biennale exhibition proposes an exhilarating alternative, making a case for the irrational, the uncanny, and the obscure. Visitors may immediately find themselves wrong-footed. Alongside names that will be familiar to most followers of contemporary art, the show features the work of many outsider artists and historical figures who might not even consider themselves artists per se, such as Austrian theorist and educator Rudolf Steiner, black magician Aleister Crowley, and pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung.
Called "The Encyclopedic Palace," the show is titled in homage to late outsider artist Marino Auriti's attempt to build an edifice containing all human knowledge. The exhibition is indeed sweeping in scope—with 158 artists, it is nearly twice as large as the previous edition—and anticipation for the show is immense as well. Gioni, 39, has proven himself one of the most inventive and ambitious curators of his generation with such successes as his 2010 Gwangju Biennale, which spawned a craze for mixing contemporary art with archival materials, and the New Museum's "Younger Than Jesus" show, which both introduced many sensational young artists (Ryan Trecartin among them) and gave us a goofy new metric for grouping artists by age.
Gioni is also known for combining a seriousness of purpose with sly, sometimes antic humor. Hijinks, certainly, are not beneath him, as can particularly be seen in his collaborations with artist Maurizio Cattelan and curator Ali Subotnick, like their hilariously tiny, one-room Wrong Gallery. To learn more about Gioni's Biennale, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to the curator and New Museum assistant director about the ideas behind the show.
What is the overriding theme behind your exhibition?
The theme that runs through the show is our obsession with obtaining knowledge, and how we attempt to structure this knowledge through images and use images to help us understand and represent the world around us. That’s why I decided to name it after Auriti’s palace, because it stands for the desire to know and understand everything, which is bound to fail. Auriti, of course, could never finish his project. But it also contains the idea of the imaginary museum, made up of “interior images,” in the words of [German medieval art historian] Hans Belting—the images of dreams, of imagination, and the images that we carry in our heads. That’s why, besides Auriti, another starting point of the show is Carl Jung’s "Red Book," which is a book of fantasies and visions. So these encapsulate the two main axes of the show, with the idea of not just looking at professional artists and canonized contemporary artists but also at intellectuals like Jung—and nobodies like Auriti himself—in an attempt to question the canon and bring art closer to life, not just a matter of one's profession.
This notion of failed utopian ideals is very interesting because it seems to run through the work of a number of artists in your show, like Harry Smith and Hilma af Klint, whose mystical beliefs are empirically questionable, to say the least. Why is it important to revisit these kinds of figures at a time when high-tech resources like Google Maps, Wikipedia, and Wolfram Alpha actually promise to give us something close what Auriti hoped to achieve with his "Encyclopedic Palace"?
On many levels I thought of this show as looking at the prehistory of this society of information and going all the way to the digital age of today. I also noticed a strange correspondence between the beliefs of our age and the beliefs of the Baroque era, in which knowledge and secrets seemed to be interwoven. That's one of the premises of the exhibition—to look at the relationship between knowledge and information, and the idea that knowledge can be revealed and can come in the form of epiphany rather than a conquest of studies. The show kind of comes in and out of looking at figures who spent their life connecting things, like Harry Smith, and others like Hilma af Klint, or Emma Kunz, or Augustin Lesage who came to knowledge through epiphanies and supernatural manifestations. It’s a show that also flirts a bit with figures who were fascinated by the occult and spiritism, not so much to argue for the validity of those positions, but more to remind ourselves that seers are also involved in the media of images. This must sound like a provocation, but I see a connection between Hilma af Klint’s paintings that she said were guided by supernatural voices and Ryan Trecartin’s characters who are possessed by digital images. These are two different forms of possession by images, but they might not be that different.
Your use of the word "image" seems to contain a number of different meanings, where it is something that people use to understand the world around them and their own lives, but also a tool that they projected outwards as a way of signifying something to other people. What is it about the notion of images that you find so important to examine at this moment in time?
The Roman historian Pliny wrote in one passage that the people who traffic in images are affected by lust, and I think that today we live in age of lust. So one of the premises of this exhibition is to find the images that are the most successful—that are dense enough and rich enough and complex enough to refuse the immediacy and relativity of the images that surround us every day—and also to look at the less canonical figures in the quest for images that I hope have a certain intensity and depth and ambiguity that can make them survive longer. Jung spoke of ur-images, of primordial images that are somehow so deep that they connect the individual to a tradition and a collective destiny. I cannot claim that the works in this show will do that, but there is something these artists and other figures can teach through the sort of collage of images that this exhibition is about.
What was your methodology for putting together this show? I know for “Younger Than Jesus” you canvassed dozens of colleagues across the world for recommendations of artists. Did you have a similar approach in organizing the Biennale?
In a way it's a bit like my own "Encyclopedic Palace"—I descended into a form of madness putting it together. [Laughs] I did as I often do, working together with close friends who read with me and conduct research and write and exchange ideas. But it’s also a show where the research was not necessarily just running around the world looking for the coolest, youngest artists—it was more about research into history. I thought of the show as a temporary museum, which is how I describe it, so I thought it was important to engage across time and not just across space.
About 40 artists in the exhibition are deceased, which lends it a notably historical feel, yet the timeline of the show doesn’t go back farther than the mid-19th century. What was it that prevented you from dipping further back into history, like Bice Curiger's previous Biennale did with the inclusion of Tintoretto? How did you chose to bracket your show temporally?
The starting point was Jung’s "Red Book," which he began in 1913, 100 years ago. That seemed like an ideal departing point. There are also some works in the exhibition that come from the late 19th century, like the drawings from the Shaker community. But I did want the show to happen, and I knew that if I embarked on an all-inclusive exploration of time it would’ve failed like Auriti’s palace. [Laughs] I have to stick to what I know. It’s a show about not knowing everything, and it’s already quite a large project, so it's quite enough to display the limits of my knowledge. [Laughs]
One thing about shows of outsider artists is that they are almost always posthumous. Are there any living outsider artists in your show, or is it not polite to say so?
Well, it’s an interesting question. I think that’s the question of the show, and I wouldn’t even know how to answer it. I’d say, almost as a provocation, that the show is asking who has the right to be inside and who has the right to be outside, and also who is really the outsider in the conversation. An artist like Walter De Maria is certainly an insider, but he has also proudly decided to occupy the position not of isolation but of detachment from society. The same can be said, for example, of Marisa Merz and other artists. So who is an outsider is a matter of biography, but yes, there are living outsider artists in the show, and some of them might be professional and some of them not. Maybe what makes the difference is whether they have a gallery or not. So when I think of the inclusion of people like Jung or Roger Caillois, those are not outsiders in a clinical way—they’re not sick, I mean, they’re actually very intelligent—but they’re certainly outside contemporary art. That's an aspect of the show that I thought was important in keeping it away from being about mental hospitals or a stereotypical view of the outsider. The definition of “outsider” itself is being provoked and addressed in a few different ways.
You said before that the show is divided into several sectors, with Cindy Sherman curating a kind of internal section devoted to anatomical theater, and there are a number of artists whose contributions are performance-based. How did you divide up the exhibition into sections?
The show has two overarching sections that are suggested by architecture. On the one hand, in the central pavilion in the Giardini, the show presents more internal images—the space of the dream, of visions, and of images as tools of introspection—and that also overlaps with a theme of self-portraiture. In the Arsenale the show is more about the domain of the visible, and the artist as someone who uses images to help us understand and represent the world. Finally—and it's a very long building—at the end the world itself becomes an image. In the Arsenale there is also a small show within the show that Cindy Sherman curated about the specific representation of bodies and anatomies as tools to understand ourselves. Then there is a last section that more or less deals with performance, though its really more about practice that is engaged with outdoor spaces and live presentations.
To reference the last Biennial again, it included Tintoretto in part as an attempt to anchor the show to Venice. Do you find it interesting to embrace the Venice-ness of Venice in your show and to fix it geographically, or is that not a concern?
I decided to do two things. On the one hand, I decided to make the vast majority of the show inside, except for the final appendix dealing with the outdoors and the theatrical, because it's really about the internal and the imagination. In the Arsenale, actually, I worked in collaboration with [architect] Annabelle Selldorf to redesign the space in such a way that it feels more like a museum and less like a raw, cavernous space. It was about neutralizing any interference and letting the art do the talking, and also not play into the whole site-specific obsession that seems to characterize biennials. But, on the other hand, Venice and the Arsenale had a very significant role in inspiring the exhibition. Venice, in a way, is a labyrinth—it’s a world of its own—and the Arsenale is a place that throughout the 16th century [as a laboratory for state-of-the-art shipbuilding and invention] had an important role in creating an idea of the marvelous, and an idea of the world as depicted through images and through cabinets of curiosity. So this inspired the exhibition itself, but not in an obvious way—it’s more of an undercurrent.
When you got the call from Paolo Barratta that you were chosen to curate the biennial, was this an idea you had been working on? Or what was the first thing you did when you began to seriously prepare for the show?
When I heard, the first thing I did was to light a cigarette, even though I had quit smoking. [Laughs] But I began thinking about interesting ideas for a few months and trying to flesh out possible shows, and then this emerged more and more as a topic that I thought resonated with the work of many artists I care about today. I hope it resonates with an age of information, and I also hope it tells a story—and I know this sounds obnoxious in its ambition—that is fundamental for art and for humans. The fact that humans have images in their head—the fact that even with our eyes closed, we see images—is a banality that has quite shocking power, and so, ultimately, that’s what the show is about. I don’t know if it will succeed or if it will live up to expectations, but that’s what I was hoping to do.
In your study of the Biennale's history, what do you consider to be some of the most successful past Biennales?
Well, I think the answer touches upon two different models or historical precedents. You pointed out that my Biennale has many dead artists, but if you look at the Biennale's history the idea that the it's just a showcase for the contemporary is very recent. It used to be that they incorporated much more heterogeneous materials and artists, and so I wanted to pay homage to those exhibitions. On the other hand, of the Biennales I’ve seen, the ones that have been particularly inspirational to me were the ‘93 Biennale, which was the first global exhibition, and the ’95 Biennale, which was a sort of transhistorical exhibition curated by Jean Clair. And then in ’99 was the first Biennale curated by [Harald] Szeeman, which was quite a shocking experience. It was the first show in which there was a lot of Chinese art. And then I had the good fortune of working on the 2003 edition, which was curated by Francesco Bonami and was also particularly large and ambitious, so that was also one that I remember with lots of gratitude.
It could be said that you’re a particularly creative curator, given your tendency to pivot away from established formats in shows like the Gwangju Biennial and "Younger Than Jesus." How does creativity play into curating, and what, generally speaking, is the role of the curator?
It’s an interesting question, because I don’t see myself as a creator—I see myself mostly as somebody who builds a set onto which artworks are presented, and where artists can emerge at their best and most interesting. With the shows that we are doing at the New Museum, like “Ghosts in the Machine” or even the recent “1993” show, I think of them as storytelling machines, or pedagogical universes in which stories can be told. What I try to do is expand my normal vocabulary a little bit beyond what is allowed inside museums and inside art, but I don’t see it as a creative act. I believe the more you know, the more you see, and so that’s what I think this show’s all about: trying to see more. The Biennale’s about the desire to see everything, because I think that’s a human weakness and a human obsession, but one that brings pleasure. It's the idea that when you know enough, you see God, and you see with your eyes, and you see with your eyes closed.
You've said before that you’re drawn to artwork that at first confuses you, or is obscure, or repels you in some way. I wonder, how has the way you think about art changed over the years as you’ve been doing more of these ambitious shows and seeing more of the world?
You know, when I started I thought I wanted to be somebody who identifies the greatest artists and the greatest artworks—I had this sort of competitive idea of art and also of my job. I think art has transformed me to free myself from the idea of quality. And this idea will be used against me, but I think the greatest artists and the greatest artworks are shocks to our systems of judgment, and they transform our definitions of good and bad. I will misquote Picasso, but he said that taste is a matter best left to ice cream-makers, not to artists. Through art and through exhibitions, both that I’ve seen and that I’ve made, I've learned to stop worrying about taste and started to love works that expand our vision and that expand our vocabulary and, as such, our experience of the world. I know this sounds very dopey, but I firmly believe it.
You’re known for having a degree of humor in your shows, but this is obviously a very profound theme you’re tackling. Will people find any humor or levity in the exhibition?
That’s a good question. I hope so. There are some pieces that are more light and humorous, but I'll let you find out what you think. I read somewhere once that people who laugh the most remember more because they associate the laughter with a moment of pleasure. And when I teach, I was told to keep people interested and also make them laugh because laughter is serotonin-releaser, so it helps learning. So maybe that’s a way to connect its presence in the exhibition to knowledge.
Your curating career has spanned the smallest space possible, the Wrong Gallery, and now the largest space, the Venice Biennale. You’re the youngest curator at the Biennale in a century. What is it that you want to do next? And how is this experience going to influence what you do?
I don’t know. It’s funny. I’m not comparing myself to him in any way, but after Szeemann did Documenta in 1972, his next show was an exhibition about his grandfather. His grandfather wasn’t an artist, he was a hairdresser, and Szeemann organized the show in his own apartment. So maybe after a big meal you have to start again with a light course.