The Art History Newsletter

What Will Gioni’s Biennale Look Like?

by | 20 July 2012 | Contemporary

Massimiliano Gioni is busy. Besides serving as associate director of the New Museum, he has in recent months discoursed on Alighiero Boetti at MoMA; juried the Victor Pinchuk Foundation’s Future Generation Artist Prize; published catalog essays on Pier Paolo Calzolari and Victor Man; worked as creative director of the Fondazione Trussardi in Milan; and co-founded the gallery Family Business. Did I mention he’s also putting together the 2013 Venice Biennale?

Gioni is the Biennale’s youngest director in 110 years, and speculation on his plans runs rampant, although few will prognosticate publicly. Nonetheless I managed to strike up a lively conversation with Legier Biederman, a curator herself and an historian of annuals, biennials, triennials, quadrennials and art-world festivalism generally. She noted first the vogue for oversized shows that feature record numbers of artists and exhibition venues. “Just the sprawling nature of the biennial can be both a point of attraction as well as contention,” says Biederman. A participant in this maximalist trend, Gioni can be expected to put together one of the most Brobdignagian Biennales yet.

Biederman notes next that Gioni will naturally be judged against the past Biennale directors—Harald Szeeman, David Birnbaum (himself the youngest director of his time), Robert Storr, Bice Curiger, Rosa Martinez, Maria de Corral, Francesco Bonami, et al. Will he play it safe, favoring the A-list art stars to whom he now has more access than ever? Or will try to upend the hierarchy? “In many ways, that’s kind of always been an attraction in the contemporary art world, the contention between inside and outside and where that line is and when one crosses it,” says Biederman.

Or will Gioni split the difference? It’s tempting for a curator to include some, but not too many emerging artists, to rely, as Legier puts it, “on the inclusion of the standard artists, for the legitimacy. There is this kind of monstrosity on the biennial circuit as it exists today. There are the individual biennials, that are tied to the specific locations and the specific histories, that have informed the biennial, but then there is this larger global art market that defines in many ways what Caroline Jones calls ‘biennial culture’. There’s always this push and pull between these two realms, of being cutting edge but still maintaining their identities as global biennials that established what contemporary art is today.”

Even the biggest risk-takers often follow well-worn paths in Venice. Biederman does expect Gioni to be adventurous in his selection of new media, but would be surprised if he broke out of the usual geographic proportions. The last Biennale, curated by Bice Curiger in 2011, was a typically Western-centric one, with 68 out of 82 artists born in the West. The largest nationality represented was American, with 14 artists; the next largest was Italian. Biederman suspects the major biennials will continue to be slow to internationalize. “The recent inclusion of non-Western artists began not too long ago. The Venice [Biennale], being the oldest and divided by national pavilions as well as prizes, has a longer history to break, [unlike say] the Havana Biennial, which focuses strategically on ‘non-Western artists’ or artists from the Caribbean or Latin America [or] Central America,” she says. Internationalizing efforts are routinely beaten to a pulp. Witness Storr’s “African Pavilion,” or Okwui Enwezor’s “Documenta 11.” Enwezor’s show, though praised for its novel structure and diverse media, was accused of didacticism and inauthenticity (many of his non-Western artists resided in Western countries). As reported in an interview with Enwezor in Nka, it was called “cumbersome”, “humorless” and “the least arty Documenta yet.”

With Gioni, there’s even less reason than usual to expect a truly international roster. Gioni’s shows, despite their maximalism and unpredictability, typically lack major geographical diversity. His 2009 ‘Younger than Jesus’ show, for instance—which declared its intention to feature the best artists around the globe under the age of thirty-three—drew more than half its artists from the West. A third were American. Artists from Africa and South America made up 5% each. Gioni resists the idea of consciously correcting such imbalances. When The New York Times asked him how he chose artists for another show, he said, “I don’t ask to see their passports.”

My editor and I requested an interview with Gioni for this article, which I originally intended to be a more general overview of his current activities. Gioni originally assented (through a representative). However, when he stipulated he must be allowed to “review the transcript and make necessary edits prior to posting,” and we declined to agree, our emails stopped being returned. Refusing subjects a sneak-peek is standard journalistic practice. But you can’t blame a Venice Biennale director for not playing by the rules, now can you?

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