In this interview Chiara Bertola tells us about her vision on the curator’s profession, building on the description she gave in “Curare l’arte” (Curating Art) (Electa, 2008). She also explains her notion of time and movement, between national (“Polvere di stelle” at the Ceramics Museum in Mondovì, Italy) and international (Mona Hatoum’s in São Paulo and in Buenos Aires) exhibitions.
Chiara Bertola, a sensitive and careful curator, was born in Turin in 1961. She has been living and working in Venice since 1990. She takes care of contemporary art for the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice and is the curator of the Fondazione Furla in Bologna. She was the art director of Milan’s Hangar Bicocca and the Chairwoman of Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation in Venice between 1996 and 1998. In 2000 she conceived the FURLA award for Italian artists, the tenth edition of which was celebrated with an Exhibition at the Royal Palace in Milan in March. MA, April 2015.
The art of curating art
A conversation with Michela Alessandrini
Conversation transcription below
Local ceramics and contemporary international art.
Slowness and speed in the curatorial practice.
Mona Hatoum and her embroidered dreams.
Michela Alessandrini: Your book “Curare l’arte” (Curating Art) was a very important one for the curators of my generation. Its questioning of the notion of time and movement in contemporary curatorial practices met your need to understand this profession. What can you tell us about this experience after several years? What is your relationship with time and movement, both in an institutional environment with the Fondazione Querini Stampalia and as an independent curator?
Chiara Bertola: Michela, I am very pleased with your words on the book, also because I know how difficult this profession is: engaging in it as much as communicating and transmitting it. My faith in curator schools is scarce, while I strongly believe in the practice of the profession itself, which — as Harald Szeemann said — is a continuous “start from scratch” as well as an ethical exercise. On the other hand, it is this very fact of the choices of the curator being of an ethical nature that makes delivering the final work to the public a great responsibility. Let’s say it’s a rather complex dimension.
As for time, to me it’s a critical ingredient in this profession.
In “Curare l’arte” (Curating Art) I described the figure of the curator as somehow a polymorphic one: the curator is a weaver, a dancer, a traveller, a narrator, engaged in dialogue and subversive. These are the qualities a curator should possess and work on to develop. Obviously, I accompanied each figure with tools. To me, each of these notions is extremely meaningful. I mentioned them with my experience in mind. For example, I noticed that the traveller’s figure has two speeds. On one side, extreme slowness, because it’s important for the curator to allow the artist time and to take time him/herself to check the details, allow him/her to miss things and even lose him/herself.
In fact, I wrote in the book that the main road, the faster one everybody follows, is not always the most interesting one.
The transverse way — I certainly am not the first one to say this — may be fruitfuller. It actually represents a digression that allows one to tune in with the artist. It allows time for the work of art to give and manifest itself, the time for the artist and the curator to synchronize one with the other, the time to sink into the exhibition space. On the other hand, speed is also required. I am very slow but I have much admiration for fast curators. They surprise me!
I know that speed is required because there’s so much to see and check with our own eyes, beyond whatever the Internet has to offer. I believe that one should see the originals; I am strongly convinced of this. Therefore, speed is critical. Eureka moments come fast! Perhaps, after an extremely long process, you perceive the exhibition in an instant, ideas come to you and a project is born: we know this well.
Therefore I liked the idea that, somehow, these two modes, slowness and speed, should become the tools of the curator’s journey. I still think about what I wrote in 2008. Everything I’m saying might be trivial; the problem is putting into practice! Because it takes time, it takes a certain relationship with the artist, the knowledge of the space you are working in, confidence in the location.
In the Fondazione Querini Stampalia I understood all these dynamics and I could put into practice everything I’m saying, and I hope it could be perceived in the exhibitions I organized there.
They were exhibitions that managed to extract everything I wanted from that location and that I wanted the location to give back to the artist.
MA: The subject of Fondazione Querini Stampalia leads us to the second question, the one about your cooperation with Mona Hatoum. It was just on the occasion of one of her exhibitions at Querini, “Interior Landscape” in 2009, that you began working with her. Can you tell us about her exhibition you curated in Brazil and about the one you will curate in Argentina? What does being an Italian curator taking care of a Lebanese artist’s exhibition in Brazil mean to you?
CB: Look Michela, the pact of trust — another very important concept — existing between me and Mona was established during the first exhibition with her.
“Interior Landscape” was a site-specific exhibition, like all the ones by the Fondazione; it weaved together the several temporalities of the Fondazione itself: the most ancient ones of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia palace, the contemporary ones of the spaces created by Carlo Scarpa, and obviously the white cube where Hatoum exhibited her work.
Moreover, the exhibition mixed new productions with previous work — once again, a complex network of cross-references between different periods. What I find interesting is this connection with the exhibition space’s past, which thus became an excuse to talk about the present, especially in a couple of works. For example, a smaller version of Beirut’s monument to the fallen was reproduced it was concretely turned and used to replace the centrepiece of the porcelain Trionfo; into what it actually is nowadays, which is to say a decorative monument depleted of its symbolic sense. Mona Hatoum identified a work that has a static presence in the Fondazione, the centrepiece, and gave movement to it, transforming it into something else to revive it with a critical function in contemporary history, which was her history too, referring as it did to Beirut, Lebanon’s capital city. Mona interwove the past with the present, reinterpreting the past by producing new works.
The same thing happened at São Paulo’s Pinacoteca do Estado, where I had the pleasure of working with her upon her invitation. In that case we were in a completely different space, large and much more modern.
It was Mona’s first exhibition in South America, therefore her work was not as well known as it is in Europe. My view as the curator had to take this into account; therefore I asked Mona if she would exhibit some of her most important works for the Pinacoteca’s public. In the centre space we decided to exhibit a new, site-specific work, which could set in motion different energies for her as the artist, for me as the curator and for the space itself. The two lateral environments of the Pinacoteca were museum-like, while the centre one was at the heart of the structure and dedicated to temporary exhibitions. In this space I wanted her to create a relationship between inside and outside, public and private. The work for the centre area was born in Brazil, in cooperation with an association that takes care of mothers in distress and their children suffering from heart diseases, waiting for transplant. These women keep themselves busy by embroidering stereotypical figures whose only value is that of creating sympathy and support. Mona Hatoum asked them to find time for themselves and embroider their dreams on pillowcases, which we then hung on strings in the centre space. The result was fantastic: we felt like we were in a court in a popular neighbourhood, with women hanging their washing and chatting from one balcony to the other.
I could place on the side some her oldest ready-mades, which installed in this fashion, produced an unprecedented effect. But what lent everything its strength was Mona Hatoum’s idea of reproducing an installation she had created only once, in Venezuela. By placing CCTV cameras outside the Pinacoteca, on the street, she would show inside what was happening outside: the time, the noise, the urban landscape. With the hanging embroideries and the noise from the street it really was like being in a hamlet, in Naples and Genoa’s caruggi.
Moreover, I pushed Mona towards not forgetting the intimate aspect of her artistic creation and taking her atelier at the exhibition, with all the exhibition’s rehearsals and sketches she created while residing in São Paulo. It was important to show how this artist’s work also takes into account craftsmanship and manual ability.
Being Italian and working with a Lebanese artist in Brazil comes natural, because Mona’s work is universal. It becomes an expression of domestic violence and war, so real in the country she comes from, while renewing it depending on the context she finds herself working and exhibiting in. Even in a space so far away from hers, such as Brazil — which in any case is soaked with tragedies that after all are not that different from those in Lebanon. This artist succeeds in communicating sensitiveness and compassion with respect to those who are stronger and more vulnerable, especially women. In this situation, she simply shifted her feeling on what was for her a new reality, as she always does. This exhibition will be reconfigured for a completely different space in Buenos Aires. We will see what we will be able to bring over… Because you have to translate something real every time.
MA: Will there be new productions in Argentina?
CB: There will be new productions and some of the works exhibited in São Paulo, once again in a South American context.
MA: Could you tell us something about the exhibition“Polvere di stelle” at the Ceramics Museum in Mondovì, Italy. How could an exhibition aimed at an international scope exist and develop in such a local reality? What were the greatest obstacle you had to overcome and your greatest achievement?
CB: Thanks for this question. This exhibition was born with a very low budget, in a place that had nothing to do with contemporariness. I had the advantage of knowing the region well and of a strong emotional connection with Mondovì. Moreover, the Ceramics Museum is in a beautiful palace, in a landscape that recalls the power of a marvellous Italy.
I chose to work with an artist that had international visibility, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, and to side him with a young Italian artist, Matteo Rubbi. I had seen Boursier-Mougenot’s work at a Documenta, notably this work with the ceramic cups producing music by bumping one into the other in a pool full of water. His ceramics had to resonate among all the others in the museum, so he produced a specific version of this work for this exhibition. Céleste created a spell within the museum, fascinating all the inhabitants of Mondovì — who had never heard music from ceramic cups and who could never imagine that a pool could become an instrument and a visual language could turn into a musical one. I could see surprise in their eyes, and this was the greatest gift. With Matteo Rubbi, winner of a previous edition of the Furla award, we conceived a new production. He is a generous and gifted artist, the right one for such a “risky” context. He wanted to involve Mondovì’s population, a town with a very important and still strong tradition in working with ceramics. He then called in a performer to work musically on his ceramics. The exhibition was developed organically and expanded successfully, and can expand even more… Once the usual difficulties one faces in Italy are overcome.
MA: Thank you, Chiara.
CB: Thanks to you, Michela.
English translation: Fulvio Giglio.