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venice diary:
germano speaks

by Gianni Romano

I was thinking about going to Venice to interview Germano Celant, the globetrotting art expert who only this January was named general director of this summer's Venice Biennale. But before I could get up from my desk, my computer suddenly started to play a weird jingle and surprise, there was a four-page interview with the quickest curator of all time. I couldn't help but think that Celant's multitude of skills must include mind-reading, since he answered questions I hadn't yet asked! Actually, the synthetic product below, lightly edited by ArtNet, was produced by the Biennale press office.

My eyes went with eager attention towards sentences that explained how the curator worked under "conditions of speed and of total concentration of energy and information," that he feels in the "position of a space traveler," forced to navigate "art as if it were an enormous galaxy" and, in fact, this "Biennale galaxy" appears to be populated by "novas and supernovas" and all of them "have their own luminosity." This "planetary view of things" induces us to think of Timothy Leary and Leonard Nimoy as spiritual guides for the 47th Venice Biennial.


Q: What is the precise intention behind the title "Future, Present, Past," which you have given to the central exhibition of this year's Biennale? What are the main ideas behind this exhibition? How did the project come about in the first place?

Celant: Given that I had to define a hypothesis that could then be followed up throughout the history of contemporary art, I realized that it was no longer possible to take one theme and test it out -- that is, I rejected the use of works of art as illustrations of some iconic, symbolic, philosophical or anthropological vision of things. Instead, I set myself before Art as if it were an enormous galaxy, which cannot be seized whole but can be navigated. Novas and supernovas, small and large stars, all have their own luminosity -- thus each could be drawn into the field of that illumination which is typical of art, an illumination that is both cognitive and visual, linguistic and formal.

Having adopted this planetary view of things, which embraces all the different universes of language and materials, of sites and situations, I found myself in position of a space traveler involved in an adventure ranging between known and unknown worlds. The coordinates I used for this Venice 97 voyage were put together using my knowledge of the territory, the most recent maps available and the "orienteering" experience I have acquired as a critic and art historian working in the museum system.

First of all, I decided that I would take only the "time" factor into consideration -- given that I was working in a spatially indeterminable galaxy. I avoided any sort of territorial definition -- black holes exist, you know! Having chosen this time factor, I had then to find an indefinable dimension within it, so as to avoid a merely chronological arrangement of the material in a sequence of past, present and future. As a historian of contemporary art, I believe that history is constantly being written and re-written, from today to yesterday -- so the logic to be followed in the Biennale involved turning the above-mentioned sequence the other way round -- "Future, Present, Past."

Having rejected a thematic approach and adopted an inverted temporal perspective, I tried to work out what interpretations such a reading offered. The meaning is simple: the past is my future and my future is the past, and both of them meet in the present. The next step was defining how to implement such a logic of exposition, which mixes temporal terms together in a sort of osmosis. As far as the exhibited artists were concerned, it meant that while different generations exist, they could be mixed together. That is why I dropped the distinction between the main exhibition and the "Aperto" section that was such a part of previous Biennials. All the artists present -- be they 80 or 20 years old -- were asked to show a recent work or even one produced especially for the Biennale, which means that all the work exhibited at Venice will be on the same horizontal temporal plane.

To give another example of a methodology for following through contemporary art, one might mention computers and the Internet: all the points are on the same plane and yet you only have to click one time to start off on a totally individual route, which is nevertheless the objective product of the data already present in a memory comprising past and present. Now, if one were to consider all this data together, it could be taken as an example of the conditions in which I was invited to prepare this Biennale (from January to June 1997) -- conditions of speed and of total concentration of energy and information. This high-speed exhibition reflects a vision of the contemporary in which velocity plays such a part, even within the universe of art and artistic information.

Q: What themes might be identified in the different generations exhibiting at this Biennale?

Celant: There are no themes, only thoughts or visions of certain historical periods. For example, the living galaxies consist both of working artists who have reached "stellar" status (Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois, Emilio Vedova, Lucian Freud, Antonio Tapies and Robert Colescott, to name but a few) and of those artists who belong to the up-and-coming generations. If one takes this fact into consideration, then one might say that one should inevitably choose artists or moments in art that are post-'50s, paying particular attention to what has happened from the `60s onwards. Given this, one could say that the exhibition is divided into three periods (but without any rigid temporal division): the `60s & `70s which were dominated by the encounter-clash between Europe and America; the `70s & `80s, defined by the interweave and osmosis of Male-Female; and the `80s & `90s, characterized by Multiculturalism and its collapse of barriers.

Q: What criteria were applied in choosing artists and their works? What role will "young" art have?

Celant: Together with my collaborators Nancy Spector, Vincente Todoli and Giorgio Verzotti, we decided which works satisfied the criteria for participation in the voyage through the Biennale galaxy. The choices were made on the strength of an attraction based on energy, concept, vision and form -- an attraction to certain masses of light, to novas and supernovas. However, I also applied other parameters. One of the many additional reasons behind the choices we made, for instance, was the illuminating contribution made to the language of art by these masses of light that had never appeared on the Biennale star charts, as was the case with Brice Marden and Agnes Martin, who are two intense light sources in contemporary art.

Q: How many artists and works will be present?

Celant: The number of was determined by the amount of space available to present their work to the general public in the best possible fashion. Analyzing the layout of the Italian Pavilion and the Corderie, I decided that there were 60 adequate spaces or rooms that could meet the needs of individual artists. Thus we had a rough number that we then divided equally between the three generations. So, each generation will be represented by about 20 artists. The younger generation, which had previously been exhibited in the "Aperto" section, will be a fully integrated part of the show: 20 young artists never before exhibited at the Biennale will be present alongside internationally renowned artists who have only rarely been present at the Biennale. Naturally, this latter group tends to include mainly artists from outside Europe.

Q: How are Italian artists distributed throughout this Biennale?

Celant: I have always thought of Italian art as a contribution to the international language of art; I have always seen it as an energy that cannot be defined as "Italian," but as "coming from Italy." Taking this view, I have worked with Italian art in exactly the same way as I have worked with the other contributions from all over the world. For the Italian section, I decided to reduce the number of artists to just three -- the same as that to be found in other national pavilions. So, three artists, from three generations, will represent the Italian contribution to "Future, Present, Past," and to freedom of expression in general. In fact, for the first time -- as far as I know -- the three artists will not occupy separate rooms but present their work together. This "osmosis" will not only make it possible to recognize individual contributions, but also bring out the need to go beyond the artist's role as protagonist and engage in creative linguistic and formal research. As far as the selection "from Italy" for the large international exhibition is concerned, I kept in mind when making my decision that one of the Biennale roles is to promote Italian art -- so there are a fair number of Italian artists present (but not the excessive number of previous Biennials). About 20 percent of those invited are Italian, which makes about 12 artists in all (four for each generation).

Q: Is there an ideal route through this exhibition? If so, which artists and works should one start with, and which should one end with?

Celant: The course to follow is an open one. I don't see any point in laying down an itinerary through such an enormous universe, comprising stars of such varying size. The map can be followed in any direction -- in fact, the layout at the Corderie deliberately eschewed the use of walls. We will try to avoid any sort of dividing panel, so that the uniform floor space will be like some enormous basilica or mosque. Artists will no longer display their works in small trade-fair stands but "open-plan," like nomads or travelers camping out in one large space. Where works do require isolation, we have come up with no rigid means of separation. And where works (such as paintings) require walls, we will set up walls that run parallel to the existing walls of the Corderie. There will be the maximum amount of room and breathing space for everyone. The central aisle will no longer be just a walkway; it will be used as exhibition space -- as will the entire length of the side aisles.

Q: The themes and choices behind "Future, Present, Past" will also involve other exhibition spaces (national pavilions, sponsored exhibitions) and events linked with this Biennial. How will these collateral initiatives be organized?

Celant: The Biennale has always tried to work together with the city of Venice with regard to both the organization and content of the central and satellite exhibitions. This year a number of shows have Biennale "sponsorship," decided by the Biennale managing committee together with the curator. I should point out that such recognition has only been given to exhibitions promoted by public foundations, institutions and museums -- so as to avoid any confusion with private and commercial initiatives. As far as the national pavilions are concerned, it is almost impossible to coordinate them. However, the title of "Future, Present, Past" is so all-embracing that it was easy to find common ground. We have also tried to achieve some sort of procedural uniformity. For example, with regard to the format of the catalogue. The fact that we have decided on equal dimensions for the general catalogue and the individual publications distributed in the national pavilions means that all this material forms a sort of Biennale '97 library.

Q: What is the significance of this exhibition in a cultural panorama dominated by the "end of the millennium"?

Celant: It's not up to me to say. We open on June 15, 1997. There are still two years to go to 1999 -- and, given this Biennale was put together in five months, there is still time for another four, which would certainly change the way we perceive art.

GIANNI ROMANO is a curator living in Milan.