Eugenio Viola | Ekcentric Worlds
Imagining the dialogue as a peripatetic itinerary around the stages that have marked Eugenio Viola’s curatorial practice, the interview with the curator of the Italian Pavilion at the upcoming Venice Art Biennale 2022 provided an overview of his poetics, focusing on his artivist approach, on the South, and on his never-ending quest to challenge culture.
Simone Rossi: Let’s start with your next appointment at the Venice Biennale as curator of the Italian Pavilion. I would be curious to know about the approach to this very important event, about your work in such unusual, pandemic times, and how you experienced this nomination.
Eugenio Viola: The approach was directly related to what we have experienced, and are still experiencing, in the last two years. It has been scientifically proven that there is a link between epidemics and progress. Today we talk about spillover to explain the catastrophic epidemics of recent years: Ebola, Sars, Avian Flu, AIDS, Covid-19. These phenomena remind us how urbanization and the consequences of anthropogenic development have altered ecosystems on a planetary scale. How can we rethink the environment in light of current scenarios? What role can art play in building a better post-crisis world? And what potential does it have to bring about change in society? These questions form the basis of Storia della Notte and Destino delle Comete [History of Night and Destiny of Comets] a site-specific project conceived in a prologue and two acts to confront the difficult balance between man and nature, between sustainable development and territory, between ethics and profit.
The announcement of my appointment as curator of the next Italian Pavilion was a ray of hope in a very difficult professional moment: it came at the most challenging moment of the ongoing social unrest in Colombia, more precisely, in Bogota, where I live. So it came when I asked to myself what role a cultural institution should play when the most fundamental social and civil rights are trampled on a daily basis, and consequently whatethical responsibility I have with my role, in leading the cultural direction of the country’s most important museum of contemporary art (MAMBO).
SR: In Venice you will be presenting a solo exhibition of Gian Maria Tosatti. It’s the first time for our country that the national pavilion is entirely dedicated to a single artist.
EV: I was looking for an artist who could handle and a challenging space like Le Tese delle Vergini in the Arsenale, and Tosatti usually deals with complex and vast spaces. Moreover, his work has a theatrical and scenographic quality, and or me this is very important and functional for the space of the Italian Pavilion. Tosatti’s environmental installations can be seen as complex dispositifs in which a number of different media converge. He also has a strong performative framework, that comes from his theatrical background. He studied in Pontedera and Warsaw, and this then fed into his artistic research.
Furthermore, our artistic collaboration started in 2016, working together in Naples on a three-years project. It was a kind of curatorial saga, titled Sette stagioni dello spirito [Seven Seasons of the Spirit], a unicum in the history of contemporary curating. The project followed the path of The Interior Castle of St. Teresa of Avila, reopening, through seven site-specific installations, seven monumental and historic buildings that had been closed and abandoned since the World War II or the severe earthquake of 1980 that shook the city. The last exhibition of that project was also my last as curator at the Madre Museum in Naples. At the press conference I announced that I was moving to Australia, to become the Senior Curator of PICA, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. For these reasons, when I was invited last March by the Directorate-General for Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture to present a project, as part of the selection process to appoint the Curator for the upcoming Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, I never had any doubts about presenting Gian Maria with a solo exhibition. Now we have the opportunity to recapitulate, and relaunch, a series of interrupted passages.
SR: Tosatti usually works with large site-specific installations where place and space have a very strong semiotic and symbolic value. The space of the Italian Pavilion at the Biennale is very different from those he usually deals with, because it is, in a way, virgin, empty, and yet institutionally used. How did you approach this space?
EV: As you said, Tosatti is used to reinterpreting existing spaces full of history and heritage, through minimal interventions. Now the challenge is completely different, because we have conceived a narrative in a space that has to be built from scratch. So it will be a completely different approach. The opposite, I would say.
SR: This is not the first time you have curated a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Already in 2015, when you curated the Estonian Pavilion, you made this choice. At that time you exhibited Jaanus Samma. Is Gian Maria Tosatti’s intervention in any way in dialog with that pavilion?
EV: I consider each exhibition as a visual essay, and all of them are connected with a kind of hidden consistency, almost like different chapters of images of a unique book I am writing. This is probably the most obvious point of convergence between my curatorial research and the artistic practice of Gian Maria Tosatti, who usually works with cycles of works. Tosatti, like Samma, explores the wounds of history, the repressed of memory in a poetic and haunting way.
Both of their artistic researches are in line with my way of thinking, experiencing, and dealing with curatorship. My curatorial approach has always been socially and politically engaged. An attitude that has taking on a new urgency given the place where I live and the uncertain times we are experiencing. In Jaanus Samma’s case for the Estonian Pavilion in 2015, we addressed a case of homo-discrimination in Soviet Estonia, the year that Putin enacted the infamous homosexual propaganda law and annexed Crimea. To present such a case was precisely about relating in a critical and polemical way to a very uncertain present. To talk about a case of homo-discrimination in Soviet Estonia, was to question the present by citing the past, what Giorgio Agamben would call an archeological approach to the present. Estonia has had a liberal tradition on gender for almost a thousand years. Homosexuality was criminalized under Stalin and was decriminalized once the country became independent again. Jaanus’ that year meant also a way to highlight the country’s liberal history. It was also his first exhibition outside Estonia, and therefore, a big responsibility for me, as I was dealing with an artist who had much less experience than I did. It was a complex challenge, but a beautiful and rewarding one. It was also very successful. In fact, the iteration of the show at the Museum of the Occupations in Tallinn, was selected by HyperAllergic among the best 15 exhibitions worldwide for 2016.
SR: How would you like to use your role as curator to be political?
EV: To take up an expression of a dear and old friend, Tania Bruguera, I would call myself an artivist; I don’t want to be political with my work. Politics must give answers; instead, I must ask questions. Art has to deal in a dialectical and, if necessary, polemical way with the contradictions that affect our reality today.
SR: How has your relationship with Tosatti matured compared to when you first met?
EV: We understand each other right away, because we are used to working together, and we know, understand, and respect each other very much. I have followed his work over the years, and it has evolved and gained complexity and ambition. Today, we can affirm that his practice is unique in the international and Italian art panorama. He is the only Italian artist who deals with spaces in this way, especially for his intimate, psychoanalytical approach, and for his surgical investigation of the stories that these spaces have lived through. In the last twenty years Tosatti has created a coherent body of work that dialogues with the contemporary international experience while expressing the fundamental idea of an Italian research. This last aspect is evident in the conceptual depth combined with formal rigor that underlies each of his works, as well as in the attention he pays to the intrinsic qualities of the materials he uses.
SR: Throughout your career, you have managed to challenge the Western normative gaze by positioning yourself on the fringes of the art system, first in Australia, now in Colombia. How do you approach this new challenge and how do you come back to this important appointment in Venice?
EV: I have always been attracted to eccentric areas, in the etymological sense of the word, the antipodes. The call of the South attracted me the most. I was born in southern Italy, then I moved to the southern hemisphere, and now I live in South America. Long live the South!
The experience in Colombia is the most challenging I have faced in my life so far, much more than Perth, and for many reasons. After a necessary adjustment period, I am now more familiar with the complex socio-cultural context on the ground and I am very proud of the work I am doing at MAMBO. I am now returning to Italy as a special ambassador!
SR: This year the Biennale wants to use a language that involves the oneiric, the infantile, a decolonization of knowledge and identity in which the South is present both geographically and as an operative concept for the reinterpretation of the world(s). The title chosen by Cecilia Alemani, Il Latte dei Sogni [The Milk of Dreams] goes in this direction. One only has to follow the biography of the author of the book from which the title of the exhibition is taken to bring to light many questions of central importance. Leonora Carrington wrote most of her works in Mexico, after numerous vicissitudes and hospitalizations in psychiatric hospitals in Europe. What is the connection between your pavilion and the Alemani Biennale?
EV: Art must show the complexity of the present, its contradictions and shortcuts, but it must also propose fantasies that can re-read reality and invite visionary and optimistic looks towards the future. Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete [History of Night and Destiny of Comets], will be a complex experiential narrative machine that will lead visitors along a sensitive, sometimes familiar and sometimes unsettling path, with the aim of creating a new awareness and concrete reflection on the possible destiny of human civilization, which oscillates between the dreams and errors of the past and the promises of a future that, in part, has yet to be written. The Cecilia Biennale will use the filter of surrealism to challenge and confront reality. The Italian Pavilion is taking the same visionary approach. It is an interesting coincidence, even though we have not talked about it before. The Italian Pavilion will present an environmental installation that invites visitors to take an oneiric journey inside the visual machine. It is conceived as an intermedial apparatus that, as usual in Tosatti’s research, brings together a variety of languages, combining literary references and visual art with impulses from theater, music and performance.
We must return to dreaming. This dreamlike approach also belongs to Cecilia’s curatorial practice. Her Italian Pavilion, the best in recent years, was not coincidentally titled Il Mondo Magico [The Magic World].