Biennial Interview Fairs Switzerland

The scholar and the hustler

For the curator Massimiliano Gioni, the fair is an opportunity to find supporters for his next projects

Gioni overseeing installation at the Venice Biennale. Photo: Francesco Galli

Massimiliano Gioni is back on the biennial circuit—but this time, as a visitor instead of a curator. It has been a year since the 40-year-old, who is attending Art Basel this week before travelling to Manifesta in St Petersburg then to the Berlin Biennale, became the youngest artistic director of the Venice Biennale. But Gioni is more interested in looking forward than backward.

Since inaugurating the 55th Venice Biennale in May 2013, the Italian curator has organised five shows at the New Museum in New York, where he is the associate director and director of exhibitions, and two for the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan, where he serves as artistic director. “It is healthy to look at biennials as an extension of things you’ve tried before and not just a gigantic project that swallows all your interests,” Gioni says. He approaches every exhibition as an opportunity to examine more deeply “the role of images in our society”.

Next spring, Gioni is due to return to Italy for the World Expo in Milan; he and the Trussardi Foundation are in discussions to mount a large exhibition to coincide with the event. But first he will unveil his most recent project, a sprawling survey of contemporary art from the Middle East at the New Museum (“Here and Elsewhere”, 16 July-28 September). The exhibition is a product of research he did for Venice and the Gwangju Biennale, which he organised in 2011. “I noticed that a lot of work by artists in Arab countries looks at how images represent current events and questions whether images can ever really tell the truth,” he says.

The show features work by more than 40 artists, including photographs taken in Cairo during the Arab Spring by Anna Boghiguian and the original manuscript of Etel Adnan’s book-length poem “Arab Apocalypse”, written during the Lebanese civil war. “They are looking at problems that are a matter of life and death,” Gioni says. “It is what I’d be interested in if I were a young artist, and it is not what you see in auction houses and galleries.”

Gioni developed his catholic tastes growing up in Busto Arsizio, a small town 20 miles north of Milan. As a teenager, he used a counterfeit press pass to visit galleries and museums for free. In the early 2000s, he moved to New York and co-founded the pint-size Wrong Gallery, a playful antidote to Chelsea’s mega-galleries, with the artist Maurizio Cattelan and the curator Ali Subotnick.

Four biennials (Berlin, Manifesta, Gwangju, Venice) and a triennial (New Museum) later, Gioni has gained a reputation for mixing the marginalised with the mainstream. “I think of doing shows as expanding the vocabulary for what can be in shows,” he says. “The Encyclopedic Palace”, his exhibition in Venice, included work by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the academic Roger Caillois and the philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In Guangju, he devoted as much space to the unknown photographer Ye Jinglu, who photographed himself in ceremonial garb every year from 1901 to 1968, as he did to established photographers such as Sherrie Levine and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

Many in the trade credit him with re-energising the market for outsider art—a distinction Gioni uneasily acknowledges. “I’m aware that some of my choices have an impact on the market,” he says. “But as long as it is a broadening and complication of the canon, I’m interested.”

While he tries to maintain a comfortable distance from the market, his expansive, ambitious projects often require additional support from dealers and collectors. (To that end, art fairs are “great to get a lot of work done” because there are so many dealers under one roof.) Gioni privately raised double Venice’s $2.3m budget for “The Encyclopedic Palace”, while his 2011 exhibition “Ostalgia” at the New Museum was controversially backed by the Russian billionaire Leonid Mikhelson.

“My generation is aware of the fact that as a curator, you are not just a scholar—you’re also a hustler,” Gioni says. “It’s a complicated responsibility. Your integrity has to be stronger because the search for money cannot drive the project—it has to be the other way around.”

In the midst of growing commercial influence, the independent voices of museums and biennials have never been more important, he says. “I know a show is good when the price is the last piece of information that you think about. I want people to be aware that there is a richer texture and other ways of making art, some of which cannot be quantified economically. The stories have more value than the objects themselves.”

Massimiliano Gioni’s three must-see shows this year

Charles Ray: Sculpture 1997-2014, Kunstmuseum Basel, until 28 September

Gioni expects the exhibition of sculptures by the Los Angeles-based artist to take on heightened meaning at the Kunstmuseum. “Ray’s work deals with the experience of our own bodies, so it will be interesting to see it in a place where you have 800 years’ worth of art looking at bodies,” he says. The curator also recommends a visit to the permanent collection, which includes masterworks by Hans Holbein the Younger and Matthias Grünewald: “You can be on your own with amazing paintings because everyone else is busy at the fair.”

Richard Hamilton, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 27 June-13 October

The largest retrospective of the late British artist is due to make its final stop at the Reina Sofía, where the Pop art pioneer helped to conceive the exhibition shortly before his death in 2011. Among the 270 works on show is the sprawling installation Man of Machine Motion, 1955, which the Reina Sofía recently acquired. Gioni displayed a reconstruction of the work at the New Museum in 2012.

Manifesta 10, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 28 June-31 October

The roving European biennial’s edition in St Petersburg is due to bring the work of more than 50 artists to the State Hermitage Museum. Of particular interest to Gioni is the inclusion of 20 works by Henri Matisse. “I’m sure there will be an interesting dialogue between contemporary and older art,” he says.

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