The Examined Life: Osei Bonsu in Conversation with Germano Celant

Set in motion by the shifting political and cultural currents of postwar Europe, the relationship between art and exhibition-making took a radical turn in the late 1960s. From Land Art in North America to Anti-Formal art in Europe, the sheer diversity of emergent artistic forms called for a specific re-evaluation, not only of the meaning and aesthetics of the art object, but of the very methodologies by which art could be produced, displayed and theorized. Against the backdrop of new modernities emerging as alternatives to past traditions in the Italy of the ‘economic miracle’, a group of artists – including Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Mario and Marisa Merz, Giulio Paolini and Michelangelo Pistoletto – formed Arte Povera, a term coined by the curator who bought their work together, Germano Celant. Distinguished by their use of common or ‘poor’ materials such as industrial objects and organic fibres, along with an innate ability to evoke art’s capacity to generate a sensorial experience, the artists involved with Arte Povera privileged crit-icality over passivity and impermanence over permanence as they sought to engage with the broadening terrain of visual culture as a global phenomenon. Celant would go on to curate a plethora of exhibitions that sought to bring attention to a generation of Italian artists, whilst also recognizing the symbiotic developments of the broader conceptual art scene that gave way contemporary art as we know it. As the current director of Fondazione Prada, Celant is cultivating new relationships with a younger generation of architects, curators and writers.

In its questioning of the values of the commercial gallery system, Arte Povera’s 50-year-old ambitions serve as a reminder that art’s potential lies in its ability to invent new forms of resistance and radical thought.

Osei Bonsu In the late 1960s, there was an explosion of activity in contemporary art in Italy. Not since Futurism had Italian art been as visible at a local level as it now was on an international one. Arte Povera, a term you coined in 1967, was a new language of visual art, national affiliations and institutional hierarchies. What made this period such an inventive time?

Germano Celant Between 1966 and 1968 – from the events of May 1968 in France to the Cultural Revolution – culture underwent a period of radical re-evaluation that changed traditional models of thought and behaviour. In every field, forms of expression and identity were subjected to an intense, critical re-appraisal that resulted in the upending of all pre-existing definitions and dissimilarities. This rupture with the past paved the way for action and for an open dialogue, unconstrained by a single dominant agenda – be that political or personal, male or female, professional or academic. An entire generation broke with the old social and economic orders, challenging and destabilizing them from within. A similar transformation occurred in the sphere of contemporary art, where there was a perceptual shift from the notion of the artwork as product, as decorative commodity, towards the artwork as idea and concept, energy and transformation, nature and body – extending beyond the traditional forms of painting and sculpture that had predominated until Pop Art. It was a rejection of the death of the object in favour of the life of things. Artists began working with animals, deserts, wax, rubber, ice, sulphur, glass and snow – unstable but vital elements that materialized thoughts and concepts. By contrast, in our current globalized culture, direct experience is strangled in favour of the dispassionate superficiality of the immaterial, digital realm, with art all too frequently lacking the angst of reality. Today, photographs, videos, films and videogames treat and transmute tragedy into a form of reportage. Horror is suppressed and consumed into image. By exploring materiality and physi-cality, both Arte Povera and Body Art engaged with their audiences directly, allowing them to experience the danger of fire, the impact of a naked human form or the potent physicality of a horse.

OB Thinking back to a milestone exhibition such as ‘Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form’, curated by Harald Szeemann for the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, there emerges a configuration of international developments that overlapped the Arte Povera movement. In 2013, you restaged this particular exhibition, in collaboration with Thomas Demand and Rem Koolhaas, at the Prada Foundation in Venice. In what ways is restaging an exhibition a useful process and did you learn anything new from the experience?

GC The intention behind re-creating the show was to emphasize the material and semantic liberties of an exhibition that reflected the material and linguistic chaos of the historical moment by disre garding the ‘value’ of the art work (which nowadays is frequently exaggerated and promoted for eco nomic reasons). The distribution of works throughout the space was intentionally chaotic to allow the show to function as a kind of laboratory for ideas and energies, with the uninhibited layering process creating a frenetic yet dynamic whole of countless fragments. The aim was to construct an environment that contrasted starkly to those innumerable installations of dry, dispas-sionate images whose creative impulse is driven by a desire not to offend the superficial tastes of a volatile market: a molecular crucible. By relocating our incarnation of the exhibition from the under-stated galleries of Kunsthalle Bern to the opulent 18th- and 19th-century spaces of the Prada Foundation in Venice, we established a further temporal dislocation, which sought to provoke the audience to reflect on the spatial elision between past and present. Ultimately, this project was an exploration of the fluid exchange between material and temporal space.

OB One of the characteristics of Arte Povera is the swell of political activism and critical thinking that aligned itself with artistic production. For example, the art critic and art historian Eugenio Battisti and the art critic and feminist activist Carla Lonzi pursued careers that were influential in both civic and political spheres. Considering the polit-ical transformation of Italy, as well as the recent upheavals across Europe, what role do you believe the arts play in relation to theoretical debates?

GC In the 1960s, cultural theorists were calling for the abandonment of traditional, established parameters within specific disciplines. Battisti, for instance, proposed an ‘anti-Renaissance’ vision – rooted in non-classical modes of inter-pretation – as a means of re-evaluating forms of creative expression that had traditionally been regarded as inferior, from fairy tales to gold-smithing. Lonzi, on the other hand, interviewed artists – from Cy Twombly to Jannis Kounellis – to allow their unfiltered voices to be heard. This was an important paradigm shift in a field that had hitherto followed an academic model, and exposed the conservative nature of most analyt-ical and philosophical thinking around aesthetic debates. Today, this ‘anti’ interview format has all but disappeared: lively argument has been replaced by consensus, which regrettably only fosters narcissism and propriety.

OB Arte Povera abandoned representation while retaining a strong linguistic inflection but, later, it came to emphasize the importance of energy and matter, which opened it up to ideas of performance and theatre work. How do you think the movement has influenced subsequent generations of artists?

GC Materialism challenged the notion that an artwork was denoted exclusively by the presence of the artist’s hand. It attempted to introduce a performative aspect connected with the colour, temperature and environmental variations that influenced a plant’s growth [Giuseppe Penone], or the mineral development of specific hues, such as the chloride of cobalt blue [Gilberto Zorio], the unpredictable movements of an albino dog [Pier Paolo Calzolari] or a parrot [Jannis Kounellis] or the natural changes that take place in fields, meadows and deserts. Incorporating these unpredictable elements into art practice also served as a means of rejecting romanticized forms of expression: contemplation was replaced with participation, cold with warmth, passivity with action, emptiness with fullness, inanimate materials with life.

OB Since the exhibitions you organized in the late 1960s, it seems that you have remained alert to the role of contingency and the everyday in art as theorized by John Cage. How has your approach to exhibition-making changed over time and how do you reconcile your historical achievements with your future endeavours?

GC From Conceptual Art to Land Art, I have participated in the creative journey of my gener-ation. This led me to understand that the semantics of exhibitions – be they an apprecia-tion or an unpacking of aesthetic material – must look to evoke the intensity of the artworks them-selves to afford an equally intense encounter for the audience. Since then, exhibitions have relied on written documentation to communicate the essence of an event that has already taken place, from which the general public must then extrap-olate a visual, physical, intellectual and expansive experience. In 1976, for ‘Ambiente/Arte’ (Environment/Art) at the 37th Venice Biennale, I began working as part of a team that included an architect, Pierluigi Cerri, and a graphic designer, Gino Valle. The intention was to devise an ‘all-encompassing landscape’ comprising multiple elements that, when combined, created a complex articulated framework in which the past intertwined with the present. Naturally, as a visual historian, I ensure that the artistic events are the key focus, but I seek to locate them within a broader context to trigger multifaceted within a broader context to trigger multifaceted interactions and reverberations.

Throughout my career, I have sought constantly to maintain an expansive approach, keeping the original exhibition format in a state of perpetual motion, regenerating and recontextualizing it within the evolving array of dynamic cultural events, from the past to the present day. Currently, I am working for the Prada Foundation in Milan on ‘Italian Arts 1918 – 1940’, which will open in early 2018. I’m trying to offer a contextualization of the works, so they can be ‘read’ in their original environment, from the studio to the architecture. The purpose is to bring them to life again in their context, in order to avoid the artistic limbo of the white cube.

Translated by Rosalind Furness

This interview was originally published by Frieze.com in October, 2017 © Osei Bonsu, 2017.