Francesco Bonami: 1917-2017, from the Urinal to the Oral

Schermata 2015-11-29 alle 18.31.25Francesco Bonami was born in Florence in 1955. Lives between New York and Milan. From 1995 to 2014 he was the Artistic Director of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin. He’s now Program and Exhibition Advisor for Phillips. He has curated international exhibitions such as the 50th Venice Biennale (2003),  the 75th Whitney Biennial (2010), Manifesta 3 in Ljubliana (2000), and Site Santa Fe’ Biennial (1997). From 1999 to 2009 he was the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art  in Chicago. In 2012, for the Qatar Museum Authority  he has curated “Yan Pei Ming : Painting the History” and in 2013 “Relics” a major retrospective of Damien Hirst’s work. He is regular contributor to magazines such as: Artforum, Frieze, Parkett, T Magazine, Panorama, Vanity Fair Italia, AD, Donna Moderna, Wired, Grazia Casa, Uomo Vogue, Flair, IL, W Magazine, Tate etc., La Stampa, La Gazzetta dello Sport. At the moment he is working at the art program and artists’ residency for the new JNBY  building designed by Renzo Piano that will be inaugurated in 2017 in Huangzhou, China. In 2010 he received the honor of the Chevalier dans l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur of the French Republic. His new book “Il Bonami dell’Arte: Incontri Ravvicinati nella Giungla dell’arte” has just been published by Electa. Among his previous books are “Lo potevo fare anch’io,”  Oscar Mondadori, 2009; “Maurizio Cattelan: Autobiografia non Autorizzata,” Mondadori, 2011;  “Mamma Voglio Fare l’Artista,” Electa Mondadori, 2013.


From the Urinal to the Oral: the end of contemporary art

Conversation transcription below 

Tiziana Casapietra: I wanted you to briefly tell me your story… I’d like to discuss the main changes you have seen in the last twenty years of your career.
Francesco Bonami: My relationship with the art world began in the mid-Eighties when it was mainly focused on Western art. I believe Jean Hubert Martin’s famous “Magiciens de la Terre” would have come up shortly after this period (at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1989), but there was no talk yet of global art or of extra American and extra European art.
I entered the art world in a time when the scale was completely different, yet that period was similar to the one we are living now. In the Eighties, the market ruled and thus artists would act accordingly, both in their excesses and in their creative processes.
Then I lived through the crisis of such excesses, at the end of the Eighties and the beginning of the Nineties. In 1989, a deep economic crisis came about which shut down the telephones of art galleries all over the world: nobody was calling to buy art any more. I had started up as an artist and ceased to be one. I began writing for Flash Art. In the Nineties, the art world was totally reset and started again from scratch with a rather experimental approach, and in fact artists like Matthew Barney emerged. Today, he’s no longer what he used to be, not so much from and artistic production standpoint but in terms of visibility. As galleries no longer had a market to follow, they could revert to working with experimental artists: Matthew Barney seemed totally unmarketable when he first came up with an art show at Barbara Gladstone‘s, in 1992.
The art world came back to a conceptual approach, involving painters such as Ross Bleckner, a friend of Clegg & Guttmann. All these names are unknown to the younger generation, people like Clegg & Guttaman, Peter Nagy and many others; at the time they were even more famous than Jeff Koons. Meyer Vaisman, Ashley Bickerton were avant-garde names. They were halfway between very commercial artists and very intellectual, very conceptual artists. It was a peculiar period.
Gerhard Richter was not really known in 1990: his first exhibition in a museum would be in Chicago, in 1987. Today, he’s the king of the market. In those days, he wasn’t all that appreciated and was brought back to the art discourse with his series of paintings “October 18, 1977” on the Baader-Meinhof. Those works by Richter, like the whole of his artistic production, were read by the art system — either really or artificially — as conceptual and political works and as such Richter was once again an artist people were talking about. The art world has changed dramatically since then.
My curatorial career began in 1993 and finds its logical fulfilment in the 2003 Venice Biennial, which represents a dividing line in its history, not thanks to me but to several coincidences. After 2003, the Biennial became something else. At that time, I was the Chief Curator of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art for ten years.

TC: What happened in 2003? This dividing line turned the page, but what happened then?
FB: In 2003, the market was not taking so much of the lion’s share in the art system yet, it wasn’t so powerful. The chaos brought about by the 2003 Biennial within the Biennial institution led to subsequent attempts at restoring order, whether successfully or not. My Biennial was beneficial because it drove the Venice Biennial Foundation to improve the efficiency of its organizational structures by restructuring itself as an actual cultural institution, rather than just a biennial event. From then on, the Biennial changed: no longer a mere event as it had been until then, but an important Italian cultural institution connected with contemporaneity thanks to its efforts aimed at establishing itself as the only multidisciplinary reality existing in Italy on a contemporary level. FB: In 2003, the market was not taking so much of the lion’s share in the art system yet, it wasn’t so powerful. The chaos brought about by the 2003 Biennial within the Biennial institution led to subsequent attempts at restoring order, whether successfully or not. My Biennial was beneficial because it drove the Venice Biennial Foundation to improve the efficiency of its organizational structures by restructuring itself as an actual cultural institution, rather than just a biennial event. From then on, the Biennial changed: no longer a mere event as it had been until then, but an important Italian cultural institution connected with contemporaneity thanks to its efforts aimed at establishing itself as the only multidisciplinary reality existing in Italy on a contemporary level.

TC: Would you mind me asking a question on this year’s Biennial?
FB: No problem, go ahead.

TC: I find it rather peculiar that an Italian institution should not invite any Italians. What’s your take on this?
FB: This is a bizarre way of thinking, as the Biennial is an international Institution whose seat is in Italy and whose funding may be also Italian, but its level is an international one and as such it should cater for international needs.
The real Italian problem is the Italian Pavilion, which is still willingly managed as a strictly Italian affair.
There is no awareness that, within an international scope, the offerings by nations that have just reached the international stage of contemporary research are so much more interesting than ours. The unwillingness to acknowledge this is incredible — and there is no intent of personal or individual criticism here — but the pavilion is still managed as a small ministry, a local office or a cultural department, where a small slice of the cake is given to one or the other with the dread of having to please everybody. The Italian Pavilion could have a dignity of its own if it was given for the first time to a single artist, like others do, and this would make it not as sad as it is now. It’s nor ugly nor bad, but it’s sad: it’s a dead mausoleum that says nothing to the world, and the world says nothing back. It’s a black hole within the Biennial.

TC: Tell me about how you read the contemporaneity of art now: what do you see and what do you find interesting? If you could see it from a window, how would you describe it from you standpoint, in any case a privileged one?
FB: I’m seeing contemporaneity as a period of art history that began in 1917 with Duchamp’s famous urinal and will probably and definitely end its cycle in 2017.
I’m working on a hypothetical book called “From the Urinal to Oral. The End of Contemporary Art,” but not with the reactionary stance according to which contemporary art has no longer anything to say. Contemporary art said certain things for a century, now it will have to say other things in other ways. It should start again from the oral approach, with Tino Sehgal that tells stories… Stories will be told. This is the great challenge of contemporary art, not only for Italian artists but for Italian culture as a whole. It’s about regaining the ability to tell stories that are interesting to the world and not only to ourselves, because we no longer know how to do it. This is the problem of Italian art.

TC: What are you currently working on?
FB: I just did an Italian art auction in New York for Phillips… A rather bizarre auction, it could have been better but it was an experiment I’m satisfied with. I’m working on a project in China, a large building complex by Renzo Piano with JNBY, a clothing firm by a young Chinese designer who was so ambitious as to involve Renzo Piano in the construction of seventeen buildings, two of which will be dedicated to art: a kunsthalle and an artist residence. They asked me if I could help them in creating a vision, a program. It’s one of the things I’m taking care of.

TC: A few years ago you worked in Qatar.
FB: I organized two art exhibitions in Qatar two years ago: one by Yan Pei-Ming, a Chinese painter living in Paris, and then a large retrospective on Damien Hirst, the largest project.

TC: What’s the art scene in Qatar like right now?
FB: As opposed to other Emirates, Qatar wants to create its own cultural identity. It doesn’t want to import institutions like the Louvre or the Guggenheim; rather, it’s building a number of museums and accumulating many works of art. It’s specifically interested in the Middle-Eastern scene and is therefore a fluid and rather affluent scene, very small. We will see what happens. Theirs is a very interesting challenge. It’s a reality in the Islamic world that is dealing with contemporaneity and is therefore facing problems that contrast its local culture. If successful, this challenge could be really interesting.

TC: What do you find most intriguing in your work right now? What do you like to investigate and discover, what seduces you currently?
FB: I’m interested in recounting the world of art, in retracing what happened, in seeing what’s happening and recounting it. I like writing for a generic and mainstream audience. I like to see the works of art and understand what young people are doing, but with a distance, I’m no longer involved as I used to be. In a way, this is what I always did, in the sense that I react: if I have an assignment, I try to understand how I should perform it in that particular time and therefore try to find artists that have something interesting to say with respect to the task I have been charged with. I’m not bulimic, in the sense that I’m always looking. I look but I do not accumulate, I sort of put away; later, when I might need something, I’ll use it.

TC: In Vasif Kortun’s interview we published, he made a very strong statement: knowledge no longer comes from the West. Do you agree?
FB: I believe knowledge comes from people, some are in the West, some are elsewhere. I’m working in China, and that country is indisputably moving independently and creating culture and ideas regardless of the West. Nevertheless, the West and America remain unquestionable reference points and with more open dynamics. But we are no guardians of no type of truth or idea. The West has proven criteria that somehow still partly work, among which those of the market. And then there are streams of ideas coming from other areas, among which is the one from the Western world. It is a fact that the level of refinement and sophistication that the West managed to achieve starting from the Enlightenment and even earlier is still really difficult to exceed, as a group. What I mean is that I can’t see countries or places… We have Hong Kong that is a really lively city and is trying to create a cultural complex, but right now there’s nothing, there are no museums. They’re still queuing for a mediocre Picasso or Andy Warhol.
Vasif is right, but he is talking to a small minority of people.
What sets me apart from many of my colleagues is the conviction that there’s a very wide audience that’s curious about culture and art and uninterested in the discussions of a small minority, perceived as wholly incomprehensible.And to me this change should be done, you just can’t go about creating exhibitions, biennials, symposiums… You can, but you have to be aware that they’re like symposiums about atomic research, i.e. dedicated to the experts.
A museum open to the general public must understand that this audience has no time to study or delve deeper in the matter, but might still be interested in art, therefore an attempt should be made to offer it something accessible. I believe accessibility is critical. This is why I say that contemporary art as we know it since 1917 is finished.
In 1993 I could exhibit Gabriel Orozco’s empty shoe box at the Venice Biennial without worrying about what the audience might have said, because after all we were working amongst and for ourselves, the aim being that of satisfying ourselves and the circles of people that gave us work and for which we were working. Nowadays, if I fail to create a bridge between Orozco’s shoe box and the audience that comes to see it, I am exposing myself to public lynching. Because if I’m paying eighteen, twenty, thirty Euros to go and see a very large exhibition such as the Venice Biennial and there I find things that can’t be explained, I have the right to complain. It’s not the “I could have done this myself” approach (Translator’s note: in Italian “Lo potevo fare anch’io”, the title of a book by Bonami published by Mondadori in 2009).
Nor is it a mockery: the shoe box is not a mockery but if you cannot explain it, it is. And as an exhibition curator or organizer I must feel the obligation to be able to explain it, but not by saying “this is important and you must accept it”: I must explain it, get the audience to understand why that specific work is a small component of a larger scheme that contains so many more things.

TC: Can you tell me a little more about the book you referred to earlier on, titled “1917-2017: From the Urinal to the Oral. The End of Contemporary Art”?
FB: I would like to recount the story of how art at a certain point changed its course and from telling stories moved to telling its own story. So it was a story telling its own story. Thomas Williams’ book “The Hair of Harold Roux,” is the story of a writer writing about a writer who in turn is writing about a writer, and art has somehow become something like this.

TC: But not now, right? I believe art is now recounting much of the world’s contemporaneity.
FB: It does recount the contemporaneity of the world, but there are certainly risks even in this, because it should be told in a way that… I always theorised the idea of threshold, art is a threshold: if we are not creating this threshold we are doing something else, we might be anthropologist, scientists, politicians… We might be doing politics, documentaries, but it’s something else, it’s not art. What we define as art, be it theatre, cinema or books, is a thing that… When entering that dimension, you are crossing a threshold where the world, even if it’s the same one you come from, is distorted or represented in a way that says something different or new. It tells you a story. If I visit my friend Vasif and I find a coffee table with a man that has me stamping postcards and it’s as if I was in a post office, it’s not art. It something else, it’s social action.

TC: In your experience, what was the quintessential work of art between 1917 and 2017, the one that had you crossing a threshold?
FB: There’s more than one, there’s many works of art of this kind.

TC: Name one.
FB: The one that depicts it in a stangely classic, contemporary, and future way is Charles Ray‘s “Boy with Frog” that was exhibited at the Punta della Dogana in Venice. His effort is to recount an eternal phenomenon, the passage of human beings from a mental state to another, from adolescence to maturity, from childhood to adolescence, by using the classical human figure. One may like it or not, but it was a complete work. The artist starts off from a chapter in Mark Twain’s book “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in Mississippi, where the two protagonists are naked on the riverbanks; it changes it into a bigger-than-normal boy whose facial features are blurred, which in a sculpture represent the lack of focus on identity of adolescence. He places in his hands an extremely realistic and detailed frog and tells us the story of marvel, of the human being and of our life. Some may consider it conservative or reactionary, but I found it was a work of art that encloses everything a work of art should have.

Translated in English by Fulvio Giglio