"I guess I am expected to bring a little disorder into this institution," confessed the dapper 33-year-old Massimiliano Gioni, who is the director of special exhibitions at the New Museum. Gioni has been a hard man to pin down for an interview, what with his duties as co-curator of "Unmonumental," the vast survey of new art that debuts the New Museum’s glamorous new facility on the Bowery, which opens with a 30-hour festival beginning at noon on Nov. 1, 2007.
"Since I joined the New Museum in October of last year," Gioni said, "we’ve been having this conversation every day, asking ourselves how to rethink what an art institution can be. That was the reason I accepted the invitation to join the staff. The New Museum is still a place that wants to re-invent itself, and I’m drawn to places that are not afraid of accepting change."
Gioni has worked on a variety of impressive projects. He organized the 4th Berlin Biennial (2006), Manifesta 5 (2004) and "The Zone" at the 2003 Venice Biennial. Since 2003, Gioni has been the artistic director of Milan’s Nicola Trussardi Foundation, which he continues to run while living in New York. The Trussardi Foundation specializes in showing contemporary art "in unusual spaces that have not been traditionally open to the public or used to display art." He also oversees the Wrong Gallery with Ali Subotnick and Maurizio Cattelan.
"The New Museum is now 30 years old, but it’s not weighed down by it own history; it’s still very flexible," he says. "For example, now we are working on the schedule for next year, and we are making a big effort to re-think the pace of our shows compared to other institutions. We will be doing quite an intensive number of shows."
"You can see this from our very first exhibition, which is curated by Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman and myself. ‘Unmonumental’ starts off as a sculpture show, with more than 100 works by 30 international artists. All of the sculptures are installed in the galleries without any partitions or temporary walls. The installation reveals the original architecture in all its purity, with the artworks occupying space but not as a rule touching the architecture.
"All the walls surrounding the sculptures are left empty. Visiting the show should feel like walking around a landscape, maybe a landscape of ruins and instability. All the sculptures, in fact, share a sense of fragility and precariousness. They are all assemblages or collages of sorts, they are all going to pieces or, vice versa, they are carefully assembled by bringing together bits and pieces of found materials.
"After one month, all around the sculptures, we plan to install on the museum walls an exhibition of collages and two-dimensional works. So the show gets more intense, with the works of 11 artists taking over huge walls. Many of these pieces are actually site-specific works, realized especially for this exhibition.
"And after another month, we are adding sound to the galleries, acoustic symphonies and noise collages, composed by 13 artists whose works end up taking the dimensions of collage a step further, in the realm of sound. Lauren Cornell is one of the curators of this section, together with me and Laura Hoptman.
"So a visit in February 2008 should give a completely different experience than a visit in December 2007. Sculptures, collages and sound -- it should be an incredibly dense environment, a collage in itself, or maybe a contemporary ‘merzbau’.
"The show also migrates outside of the museum walls. Rhizome, which is an affiliate institution of the New Museum, has organized an internet component, so part of ‘Unmonumental’ is also visible directly on your computer.
"That might give you an idea of what the New Museum is interested in. Changing the rules a little bit, trying out new formats to present art, trying to learn directly from art and artists to create new strategies and new experiences. So, for example, ‘Unmonumental’ is an exhibition about collage that becomes a collage in itself."
With a title like "Unmonumental," I asked, is the New Museum signaling a lack of interest in art of prodigious accomplishment?
"Well, we are interested in that, of course," Gioni assures me, smiling. "But this exhibition itself is focusing on three ideas. First of all, it is interested in a particular kind of esthetic which is that of assemblage. ‘Unmonumental’ tries to demonstrate that collage, from its roots in the beginning of this century, has become very important to contemporary artists. All the art works in the exhibition were made after the year 2000.
"The second thing that ‘Unmonumental’ addresses is the present moment, the time we live in. It’s not just a show about contemporary art; it is also an exhibition about a century that starts with monuments, buildings and sculptures being razed to the ground. If you think of this new century, the most striking images are not of victories or heroes, idols and icons, but of monuments being toppled over and statutes dragged to the ground. Think of the photos of Saddam Hussein’s monument in Baghdad, or the Buddhas in Afghanistan, or even the Twin Towers.
"It’s a century that opens with the erasure of symbols and a disappearance of monuments. It’s a century that begins both metaphorically and literally with sculptures being knocked off their pedestals. That’s also what ‘Unmonumental’ is about. In the first section of the show, the sculpture section, this relationship with ruins is more metaphorical, but with works by artists like Martha Rosler, Thomas Hirschhorn and Kim Jones, it will become clear that the show talks about a century of conflicts and wars.
"Still, we tried not to be too literal. Since the beginning of the 20th century, collage has also been read as a mirror of the unconscious, and you will find a lot of strange dreams and obscure desires in the exhibition as well.
"The third thing ‘Unmonumental’ is about is modesty. After all, from its very title, the show is a way to remind ourselves that we’re building a beautiful museum, but we don’t want it to be an ivory tower or a monument in itself. We are more interested in things that are a little bit more unstable, more open and questioning."
Asked about the silvery, mesh-covered rectilinear building designed by the Tokyo firm SANAA -- a dramatic addition to the Bowery landscape and to Manhattan as well -- Gioni replied, "When you get inside, you will be surprised at what a simple functional building it is. From the outside, it’s very spectacular, but it’s spectacular in a way that is quite modest. It doesn’t have the aggressiveness, say, of a Frank Gehry museum. It is a building that is much more interested in its surroundings. Industrially rough, yet completely elegant.
"And then the inside is incredible in the way it gives space to the art. The entrance level is completely transparent; the street comes right in, in a way. Also the ground floor is open -- free to the public -- and has a café, a bookstore and a gallery, also open free of charge."
I asked about the experience of working closely with the internationally acclaimed and provocative Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan.
"I don’t know if I can answer this in a few words, because we have been friends now for more than eight years. I can say I have learned a lot from him. When our relationship started, I was his spokesperson. I would give out interviews in his name, and even do lectures in his place. I guess that might have taught me to speak a lot, and to lie a little. It also taught me how to spin a story, how to talk to the press. I have been Maurizio’s media consultant on many of his projects, like the Caribbean Biennale in 2006, which was a biennial without art, or like the Hollywood sign that he installed in the hills in Sicily.
"Perhaps most importantly, Maurizio taught me how to think in images, which is something I’m very thankful for. You know, I tend to think more in images than in words. This is useful when organizing an exhibition.
"Also, Maurizio influenced a lot the work I do in Milan with the Trussardi Foundation. The foundation doesn’t have an exhibition space, and it changes its location with every show and every appearance, so it has to grab the attention of the city for 30 days, and then we close and concentrate on the following project. It’s sort of a nomadic practice in which communication and art often mingle. That’s another aspect I learned from Maurizio’s work. How images can become stories. And how they have to penetrate a system of communication.
"I hope Maurizio learned from me as well. It has been a very interesting exchange. We still do a lot of work together. We continue doing the Wrong Gallery with Ali Subotnick, who is our third partner in crime. She’s now a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. She has been a friend for a long time. Besides the Wrong Gallery, we’ve done Charley magazine and our other publications together, and the Berlin Biennial."
Next I query him about what role the New Museum will play in the already robust contemporary art world in Manhattan, which is crowded with galleries and museums anxious to expand their contemporary art programming.
"It’s a question we will answer in practice," he answers. "The location on the Bowery really shapes a lot of our identity. It’s the only museum of contemporary art downtown. So, it’s a museum that wants to entertain a close relationship with artists. It’s also a place where we want to work at different speeds and different scales. The New Museum does not only open with ‘Unmonumental.’ There are five other projects and exhibitions that animate different parts of the building. We are not just a monolithic structure, we are much more diverse. We are not an elephant, we are also the mouse.
"One project that is particularly dear to me is a performance by Sharon Hayes, a young artist who lives and works in New York. She’s going to perform on the Bowery, where she will be reciting love letters in public. They speak about a love story in a time of war, though it’s unclear whether these letters are autobiographical or fictional or somewhere in between. Hayes’ performance takes place on the streets, and her voice is also heard inside the museum, in a small intimate space, which -- maybe because I am Italian -- makes me think of a confessional."
Do you like painting, I ask?
"I don’t believe in divisions based upon media. I love painting. It might sound obnoxious, but I believe I love all good art. It can happen in painting, performance, photography or any other medium. I do have tremendous respect for painters. And painting has always played an interesting role in my relationship with art. Lately, in the last year or so, for example, I’ve been enjoying the company and work of George Condo, who is a great artist and also has become a friend. I love how bizarre his paintings are, and how complex the world he imagines for them is.
"Also, how could anyone not like painting? What would art be without Richter?"
Do you miss Italy?
"I was born near Malpensa, the international airport in Milan, which is maybe the reason I take so many planes. I go to Italy at least once a month. What I miss is time there. Time in Manhattan and time in Italy are very different. In Milan, I can read more, I can think more."
I ask about the New Museum’s interactions with the surrounding community.
"Two years ago, the museum launched a project to gather as much information as it can about the Bowery and the artists in the neighborhood, and the area’s connection to art and artists. So the museum itself is designed to become a place where the memory and the presence of the street is kept and preserved. We plan to have "free nights" with no admission charge at the museum, and to translate the brochures into Chinese and Spanish. And we are trying to find a language in English that is not cryptic art world jargon!
"We want to do shows that are immersive. You come to an exhibition and the whole exhibition is an experience. It feels a little like being in the head of an artist."
This sounds like a journey that Sig. Gioni could well guide us on.
ILKA SCOBIE is a poet.