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Achille Bonito Oliva

New York's Chelsea art district, looking northeast


P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

The Guggenheim Museum

Tunnel of fashion: Armani at the Gugg



e and Louise Wilson
Star City
at 303 Gallery

at Galeria Luisa Strina
Art and its Passions
by Giovanni Garcia-Fenech

This year the Spanish city of Valencia is launching its own art festival, the Bienal de Valencia, dedicated to "the different languages of art and contemporary culture," June 13-Oct. 20, 2001. On view throughout the city will be works by over 150 artists focusing on the theme of "The Passions," which the catalogue curiously lists as the seven deadly sins -- pride, avarice, lust, ire, gluttony, envy and sloth -- plus the countervailing virtues -- faith, fortitude, prudence, justice, hope, temperance and charity. Legendary critic and curator Achille Bonito Oliva was recently in New York City selecting work for his section of the exhibition and agreed to speak with Artnet Magazine.

I met Oliva in the lobby of the Paramount Hotel in midtown, where he was accompanied by an attractive woman who silently smoked American Spirits and Peter Ryan, the curator's point man in New York. Oliva, a good-looking man in his 60s, greeted me congenially and asked "Dove è il vostro registratore? [Where is your tape recorder?]"

"I don't think one is necessary," I explained. "We're just interested in finding out details about the Bienal de Valencia -- how many artists are involved, some names, etc."

His face clouded. "I don't understand -- why arrange for an interview if all you wanted was this," exasperatedly pointing at the catalogue. He turned to Ryan for an explanation.

"Aaand we would like to get a sense of what you've been looking at, what you think of the New York art scene today, that sort of thing," I hastened to add. His expression lightened.

"Ah, capisco, capisco. I understand." Smiling again, he sat back on a sofa and began a thought-provoking hour and a half discourse about the state of the art today, delivered in a suitably international mix of Spanish and Italian. What follows are the highlights.

Achille Bonito Oliva: I like what I see in Chelsea, the neighborhood has given the dealers more space and the scene is very alive, very open. I am pleased by the positive role the galleries play -- they continually document what is going on. They are experimental, with a generational, multicultural and international mix that did not exist before. It's no longer as white -- Occidental -- as it used to be. And it's good to see the water in an urban setting.

Giovanni Garcia-Fenech: What about the Brooklyn gallery scene?

ABO: What I see in Brooklyn is an opening for young critic-gallerists on the model of Jeffrey Deitch -- thinking galleries with theoretical heads. The current gallery scene is an antidote to today's museums, which only fulfill academic roles.

GGF: Could you elucidate?

ABO: I don't see any experimentation going on at museums, except for P.S. 1. The two museums I always visit when I come to New York are P.S. 1 and the Metropolitan to get the two sides of art, the historical and the contemporary. I admire P.S. 1's range -- geographic, multi-cultural, multi-generational. I think Alanna Heiss is the ideal director and P.S. 1 an exemplar of the museum as laboratory. The museum corresponds to her personality and you can see it in its elements of fantasy and irony and in its dynamism. It's important to realize that museums generally are very dangerous, they tend to monopolize, as opposed to galleries, which are pluralist. Museums now are like Microsoft, or the oil cartel -- orthodox and puritanical and monopolizing of information. Their model of art comes from administrators, not theoreticians.

GGF: What do you think of the globalization of the Guggenheim?

ABO: The Guggenheim, with its branches in New York, Venice, Bilbao, St. Petersburg and Las Vegas, is like an esthetic factory where Picasso, Armani, Ferrari or Harley Davidson are made equivalent, where images take the place of knowledge and architecture equals proof -- Gehry, Koolhaas, et al., are just publicity for the museum, architecture as a work of representation. And shows like the Armani retrospective only serve to create confusion between the artist and the stylist.

GGF: What difference would that be?

ABO: The artist strips reality naked and the stylist clothes reality. [Laughs] The artist works with the skeleton and the designer works with the flesh.

GGF: And as for the art that you have seen, what are some of the trends you perceive going on today?

ABO: I see in New York today an authentic mood, a collective climate. I'm seeing the situation I intuited with the Transavantguardia -- multi-cultural, multi-generational. The trends I see are the ones I introduced in the1993 Venice Biennale: what has come after "post-human" art is a neo-humanist art. Artists have recuperated the need to confirm individualism, to confirm subjectivity. They're moving away from the previous generation's Warholian neutrality. It's a European sensibility. Artists have also recuperated technological exploration and are using it towards humanistic, ideological and socially critical ends.

GGF: Which brings us to the Bienal de Valencia.

ABO: The exhibition is called "The Body of Art: Art is the Virtue of Communication." It features artists working in all media dealing with the problem of communication. It's a fundamental characteristic of art to confront communication, and all media -- painting, television, installation, etc. -- deals with the problem of communication, but the difference is that art avoids a filmic image, presenting instead an ambiguous image. Now that the industry of the image has taken the language of art, artists want to create a positive spectacle, one that is problematic, critical, complex and ambiguous. The exhibition features 100 artists in Valencia plus an Internet-only section of 30 all new interactive works.

GGF: And what are your thoughts on the Bienal de Valencia itself, in light of so many other festivals that are springing up around the world?

ABO: It's an original biennial based on communication. In Venice everything is kept separate, the architecture section, the film section, the dance section, etc., and Documenta is too big, you can't see the whole thing in the time that it's there. In Valencia, being smaller, everything is simultaneous, instantaneous, in all languages. Valencia is an original event, an international experience, a new form of communication. The critic has two levels of words -- those in a book and in an exhibition, which is a type of critical writing. I'm working with Peter Greenaway and the biennial is a collective product to communicate with the mass public.

I should also mention "The Tribes of Art," a show I've organized at the Galleria Comunale d'Arte Moderna featuring the groups that have renovated the forms of art -- Fluxus, the Viennese Actionists, Situationism, Art & Language, the Warhol Factory -- that opens on April 23.

GGF: Are these the predecessors to the type of art that will be featured in Valencia?

ABO: Yes, the art in the "Tribes" show is like the antecedent to the art in the bienal. Although with the Internet, the situation is evidently now more revolutionary. The Internet is not yet fully comprehended, because it opens up all possibilities. With very little an artist can work on a site, and that is helping young artists avoid the limits set by the system of galleries and fairs. It's brought about a new economy in the arts and in criticism, like the NASDAQ. It allows the artist and the critic to fight the museum cartel. For one thing, it's already global, so it's able to embrace all, including the museums themselves. Of course the museums are also online, but their sites just document. Valencia's online section is not documentary -- it's interactive, strong, instant and erotic.

GGF: How do you think the new media compares to more traditional media such as painting and sculpture?

ABO: Technology doesn't necessarily win -- all media is simply there to be utilized: the artist tries to formalize, regardless of the medium. Painting and sculpture are not necessarily academic, what matters is the artist's mentality.
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Among the artists included in "The Body of Art: Art is the Virtue of Communication" are Nobuyoshi Araki, Massimo Bartolini, John Bock, Cecily Brown, David Byrne, Dinos & Jake Chapman, Clegg & Guttman, Andreas Gursky, Anish Kapoor, Mike Kelley, Los Carpenteros, LOT/EK Architecture, Shirin Neshat, Cai-Guo Quiang, Yehudit Sasportas, Andreas Serrano, DJ Spooky, Studio Azzuro, Tunga, Spencer Tunick and Jane & Louise Wilson.

An English translation of Achille Bonito Oliva's The Idelology of the Traitor: Art, Manner and Mannerism, originally written in 1976, is being released in June.

GIOVANNI GARCIA-FENECH compiles the Artnet News column for Artnet Magazine.