Museu Temporário e Pavilhão Enciclopédico

Massimiliano Gioni’s journey into 'the delirium of the imagination'

The curator of the 55th Venice Biennale discusses his exhibition, “The Encyclopaedic Palace”

By Franco Fanelli. Venice , Issue 247, June 2013
Published online: 25 May 2013

The Art Newspaper: What are the themes and questions raised by your exhibition?

Massimiliano Gioni: The title is taken from a project that Marino Auriti, a self-taught American artist, presented to the patent office in Pennsylvania in 1955. His museum, which was never built, had 136 floors and was intended to house all of mankind’s great discoveries and inventions. My idea was to explore the idea of knowledge and the quest for an absolute knowledge that eventually becomes a kind of delirium of the imagination. This also connects with the idea of using images to organise, structure and visualise knowledge, which, in turn, connects to a third theme, which is that of the relationship between internal images—dreams, hallucinations, visions—and external images of the real world that impress themselves upon us. However, Auriti also makes us think about the identity and role of the artist in today’s society. This led to the inclusion of less orthodox artists in the show, “outsider artists” who have close ties to self-taught artists who are constantly battling with their own “innocence”. In a way, I identify with them in relation to my work here at the Biennale.

Outsider artists are enjoying wide exposure in international exhibitions, as are artists who are now long dead. What are you trying to show with this mix and with the references to the past?

My show has, more than previous Biennale exhibitions, a certain historical breadth to it—it goes back to the early 20th century, if not the 19th. I couldn’t explore the notion of a thirst for ultimate knowledge by focusing exclusively on contemporary art by young artists. I also believe that you have to include non-mainstream artists to tackle such an ambitious theme properly. This is why I’ve included work by figures such as Carl Gustav Jung, Rudolf Steiner, Aleister Crowley and Frieda Harris. Another reason was my belief that if we look upon contemporary art simply as a profession, it becomes mere visual entertainment. This brings us to the idea that culture and visual communication don’t need to involve the artists any more, despite the fact that some artists are becoming richer and more famous. By including outsider artists and liminal figures, we’re widening the traditional canons and reminding people that art has a primary and existential function.

How far has your vision of what art is [ie, not mere visual entertainment] required the presence of political themes in the ­exhibition? 

I debated long and hard over this when organising the show. When you organise a show of this kind, you have to make many choices, edits, exclusions. This is just one of many ­possible shows that deal with a certain intolerance of politics. At the same time, however, and maybe because you only organise the Biennale once in your life, the themes have to transcend the here and now, and should really confront themselves profoundly with the past and the present. Maybe I’m wrong but I think the theme of knowledge and the role of images in relation to mankind’s identity and make-up has a wider scope. Of course, there are works that also deal with the present day, such as the Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili’s video work that contains interviews with immigrants who speak of their dreams. Rossella Biscotti, meanwhile, started working with female prison inmates eight months ago and discussing their dreams with them. Sharon Hayes has made a documentary about sexuality in America. But it’s not an exhibition about politics—it’s not a replica of Artur Żmijewski’s Berlin Biennial [2012]. Even though politics infiltrate the show, there is still the idea that dreams and visions have the power to imagine a different future. I might be accused of idealism or cryptofascism, just like Breton and Bataille, because I’m putting on an “intimate” show at a time like this. But there are always those who protest against times like these by creating microcosms as ways of escape or as models for the future.

You used the term “temporary museum” when presenting “The Encyclopaedic Palace”, and previously used the term when you organised the Gwangju Biennial. Are the two shows linked in any way? 

I think of this show in Venice as the “second volume” of a research project that I started at Gwangju and then carried on in numerous other shows. In Gwangju I focused on the idea of “the image” as characteristic of our present, particularly photography. It was also an exhibition that celebrated the end of analogue photography. “The Encyclopaedic Palace” is a show about imagination, the visualisation of dreams and internal imagery, and relating them to artificial imagery. The main theme in Gwangju was “the portrait”, while in Venice it’s the images that lie within us and our attempts to understand the world and to organise it within our own minds. A “temporary museum” can mean many things—it can signify an exhibition that is less “biennial”, if we take that term to mean a festival in which young contemporary artists do what they want. Instead it’s a mixture of different historical moments, which is even reflected in the layout of the show.

The Arsenale has been the delight and the bane of many of your predecessors. It’s a great space but also sprawling.

I tried to structure the Arsenale according to a museum exhibition blueprint rather than a biennial exhibition blueprint. This means we’ve used a more rigid set-up with spaces that are suitable for small-scale works too. I was thinking more along the lines of a wunderkammer than a contemporary art museum. The model, if you will, of an ethnographic museum.

A show this obsessed with the idea of universal knowledge can’t escape the birth of the internet, can it? What is your take? 

I like to think of “The Encyclopaedic Palace” as a kind of prehistory of the digital age. Obviously this kind of exhibition that deals with knowledge and images must necessarily deal with digital information. The end of the show features works by Wade Guyton, Mark Leckey, Helen Marten, Hito Steyerl and Yuri Ancarani that address today’s digital culture. Sure, the exhibition, in a way, is about today’s Wikipedia and Wikileaks society, but it approaches these topics by looking at their precursors and discovering that this thirst for knowledge and understanding has characterised most of the 20th century. The show is an attempt to chart the precursors of this notion and various people’s failings to achieve this desired goal. Given my age [Gioni was born in 1974], people were probably expecting a youth-oriented exhibition. I think that everything that defines the present is the result of the coexistence of various historical moments and knowledge that all become accessible simultaneously in the digital age. It is digital culture that allows the present to coexist with historical moments. The show explores the desire to see and know everything, but it also addresses the melancholy that comes from the realisation that we can never have enough time or brain power to do so.

Who is the artist today?

The “revival” of Marino Auriti is a way of reminding us that the artists that sell at auction aren’t the only artists around. For me, an artist is someone who is capable of producing or finding an image, buried in the “contemporary magma of images”, that has an intensity that sets it apart from all the others. An artist can produce a visual language that rejects the simplification that characterises most of contemporary visual culture.

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