Frieze Magazine

‘I Believe Deeply that the Best Kind of Art is Public’: An Interview with Senga Nengudi

As a member of a radical generation of Los Angeles-based artists who emerged during the turbulent Civil Rights Era (1954–68), Senga Nengudi’s practice has expanded the threshold between sculpture and performance art. At a time when traditional media had given way to the dematerialization of the art object, Nengudi set about inventing her own artistic language with little more than a pair of nylon stockings. In her early experiments, skin-like materials filled rooms and spaces, having been stretched and pulled, tied and knotted, twisted and suspended from walls and ceilings. Compelled by the kinaesthesia of the body, she began experimenting with various forms of movement and collaborating with fellow artists, such as David Hammons and Maren Hassinger. In these performances, the artist’s anthropomorphic forms became extensions of live bodies, transforming sculptural materials and found objects into ritualistic environments of political and civic activation. In her best-known series, ‘R.S.V.P.’ (1977/2003), the splayed, limb-like, nylon forms speak not only to the question of women’s delimited roles in contemporary culture, but also to the physical reality of the artist’s changing pregnant body. Drawing on references as seemingly varied and unorthodox as Japan’s Gutai Art Association and traditional West-African masquerade, Nengudi’s expansive practice allows the material, as well as the viewer, to embody another dimension. In social spaces where blackness is so often circumscribed through mental constructs, Nengudi’s works continue to generate spaces of memory and meditation, spaces in which to reflect on the aesthetics of African diaspora and its futures.

Osei Bonsu You began practising as an artist in Los Angeles during an era of cultural nationalism and civil unrest. For many of the artists who migrated west, the city seemed to be a place of utopia and possibility, extending a longer narrative of black migration. What did it mean to be an artist in LA during this period?

Senga Nengudi I moved to Pasadena from Chicago as a child, so it wasn’t as if I had some romantic notion about moving to LA. Growing up, I never looked at LA as the place to be. In fact, there was very much the notion that everything was centred around New York, artistically speaking. We, as artists, were doing what we did under the shadow of New York and this sense of inferiority extended to the music scene as well. Things have changed since but, at the time, we were fighting to be seen. But we did our work and stayed focused on our vision.

OB While a student in the 1960s and ’70s, you began teaching in the dance and art departments at the Pasadena Art Museum and the Watts Towers Arts Center. What role did your experiences there play in your practice?

SN It all seemed to intertwine like a tapestry or a weaving. I had my own sensibilities, of course, but being in those environments allowed me to explore alternative directions. They also allowed me to focus and intensify my interests in a particular way because of what I was exposed to. Watts Towers Arts Center really pivoted around Simon Rodia’s way of thinking, his spirit of going around and collecting found materials and then incorporating them into his cement towers. After the Watts Rebellion in 1965, the tower was one of the ways we were able to look at life and art differently. Up until then, many artists were academically trained and used traditional materials. This concept of art is blown away when the place you live in is being burned to the ground. You have to think of another way. It makes perfect sense that you take what is left and form it into something that gives you strength and personal power, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

OB How did you relate to other members of the Los Angeles art community at the time?

SN Things started shifting. There were some of us, like myself and David Hammons, who began to think about things differently. I had barely met Maren Hassinger at the time. There was the well-established Brockman Gallery, run and owned by Alonzo Davis, and Gallery 32, run by Suzanne Jackson, the city’s first black female gallery owner. Her gallery had a relatively short life but a major impact on our community, especially for women of colour. Then there was Pearl C. Woods Gallery, located above a church building and run by Greg Pitts, an artist and art historian. Greg’s place was a home for those of us going out on a limb. At the time, some of us were really enamoured with Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago and Cecil Taylor. Our ideas were becoming more performative and, from the mid-1970s onwards, we were interested in radical or unusual forms of collaboration.

OB Throughout your career, you have explored the space between dance and the body in movement. When did you begin to cultivate an interest in dance as a practice?

SN I was formally trained insofar as I took classes but I was never really involved with a major dance company. Ever since I was a child, I couldn’t really separate which I liked most between art and dance. I really loved dance but I didn’t like the politics of the dance world; I found it restricting – especially in terms of my body, race and appearance, and how dancers were expected to look at the time. As someone who has always danced to the beat of their own drum, so to speak, it was very freeing to be able to move in a way that wasn’t typical or restricted to someone else’s choreography. I was interested in dancers who struck out on their own, like Eiko Otake and Takashi Koma Otake with their butoh-style choreography, and I was also impressed by Pina Bausch. This way, I was able to incorporate dance into my other visual interests. Today, I am almost obsessed with looking at people and observing the vocabulary of their movements. Just as each person has their own style of handwriting, so they have a particular body language that they’re often not aware of.

OB Some of your earliest ‘Water Compositions’ from the late 1960s involved filling plastic bags with water. This condition of permanent transition seems to have guided much of your work.

SN Personally, I like materials that are transformative, when there is another use for them. I am particularly interested in this notion of shape-shifting. Water became this amazing material for me: it can be frozen solid or liquid; it seeks its own level. Water, more than any other natural element, has so many different forms. It is so powerful, so healing, so nurturing; but, it can also drown you. When I began to put water into vinyl plastic forms, I was exploring that. The ‘Water Compositions’ had to do with the body in the sense that they yielded to your touch. They produced a sensual experience. I stopped making water sculptures when water beds became a commercial fad.

OB This idea of tactility was central to your early practice, so it seems rather ironic that your work is increasingly shown in museums where such interaction is usually forbidden.

SN For me, it’s very hard because I believe deeply that the best kind of art is public art. Art is for everyone and should always be accessible. I believe that public art plays a tremendous role in influencing people. In a museum environment, art isn’t always there for you. Most exhibits have a limited run. One of my thrills is to go to the Museum of Modern Art and look at Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (1914–26), to just be with that piece and see its surface before my eyes! You don’t always have that luxury. My own artwork is so delicate that it’s often not even an option.

OB Your work is ephemeral due to its form as well as its materiality. You started working in this way at a time when sculpture was bound to a masculine tradition of permanence. Were you specifically addressing this?

SN It was a sensitive subject. Because of the materials and compositions, I often found that women were more receptive to my work than men. I’ve often gotten responses from women about how they connect with it, in terms of expressing their internal selves and the tensions of being a woman in the workplace. Or simply of being a woman. One day, some men who were working at a gallery came in and started looking at my work. Initially, they were laughing but, as they observed it more carefully, they became almost sombre.

OB I’m especially interested in the radical performance works you organized in collaboration with Maren Hassinger. How did these come about?

SN Brockman Gallery was the established agent to run and administer the federally funded Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) programme in the 1970s, which was fashioned like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) programme of the 1940s, and hired artists to complete public artworks. Maren and myself were two of maybe ten artists in that programme, and that’s when we became friends and realized our common interests in relation to dance and sculpture. We became part of Studio Z – a loose collective of artists – and would run around town staging art actions wherever there was a location that called to us. Sometimes, we were just responding to the moment.

OB When did you realize the work’s spatial possibility?

SN I think the lightbulb moment came when I decided upon the pantyhose. I had been looking for a material that would give a sense of the body and have the same characteristics of elasticity and flexibility. I played around with so many different materials: I tried using resin to make sculptures hold but they lost that bodily quality. Every time I tried to make the work more permanent in some way, the sculptures just lost their energy. Once I began really playing and exploring with nylons, the process automatically brought about a sense of performance. I am very shy, so some of my works were private performances, which I would have someone photograph. I didn’t have an audience because the idea was terrifying to me. When Maren was willing to work with me, it was very helpful because that expanded performance possibilities.

OB Who were your influences at the time?

SN My influences were the artists I was surrounded by. David Hammons is brilliant, but also some artists who are less well-known, like Franklin Parker and Joe Ray. In the art history books I grew up reading, there was no mention of black artists. That’s why Romare Bearden wrote his A History of African-American Artists: from 1792 to the Present (1988): to make visible the African-American contribution to visual culture.

OB In 1978, you organized Ceremony for Freeway Fets, a full-length collaboration with Hassinger, Hammons and a small orchestra of musicians. How did this multi-layered performance develop?

SN I wanted it to be a culmination of what I was interested in at the time, which was performance, dance, ceremony and ritual. It was quite euphoric to harness this collaborative energy. The musicians were actually visual artists who knew how to play instruments and everyone there was part of Studio Z. I thought of the performance as a christening of the public artwork that I had installed under the freeway. Somehow, through ceremony, I wanted the work to be properly ‘blessed’. I dealt with my shyness by performing under a tarp and mask, which felt transcendent. It was an extension of being influenced by and interested in African traditions. An observer remarked how the performance seemed both African and Japanese in its aesthetics, without knowing how much I love both cultures.

OB Could you talk more about your interest in these cultural traditions?

SN Just like every black child, I was made to go to church and I have always been interested in the spirit, but not in relation to religion per se. There is a spiritual belief system in almost every culture and that has always been attractive to me. I remember going to the library in junior high and looking up Greek gods only to realize how connected they were to Yoruba deities. Whether it’s an Indian roadside altar or a magnificent Brazilian cathedral, I am fascinated by how something becomes charged with a spirit.

OB In the late 1960s, you spent time in Japan and began to study the activities of the Gutai Art Association. What did you find appealing about Japanese art?

SN I applied to study in Japan because I thought it would offer a totally different point of view, and I was right. I chanced upon the work of the Gutai group at the back of a book on contemporary Japanese art. I immediately knew Japan was the place for me. Although I arrived there in the late 1960s, I never came across them or their work.

I loved the simple and purposeful way in which things were done – from traditional tea ceremonies to ceramics that are intentionally made to look imperfect. I was also excited by the sense of movement you see in traditional Japanese Noh theatre and the layering of emotional experiences I encountered in Kabuki.

OB That sense of refinement and utility seems to be central to series like ‘R.S.V.P.’, which you have recently revisited in your newer series ‘RSVP Reveries’ (2007–ongoing). Like human bodies, these works are constantly evolving.

SN When I first started the ‘R.S.V.P.’ series, I used a lot of found materials. When I decided to begin re-creating the works, there were certain pieces I could not duplicate because of that. So, I started to think about the newer pieces as ‘reveries’, dream-like reflections on the original works. With these works, I discovered a new means of expression through materials that was compelling and revealing. ‘R.S.V.P.’ has a lot to do with the tension between material elements and the body and, even though I’m more mellow now than I was when I began making them, that tension is still there.

OB Finally, I wanted to ask you about the physical mobility of these sculptures as they’ve taken on lives of their own. How do you reconcile the detachment of the sculptures from your own labour?

SN That is a difficult question. I am thinking more about the early days when no one had any money and the alternative galleries we worked with had no budget. Danny Davis, a friend of mine who was a musician with the Sun Ra Arkestra, had just come back from a tour in Egypt. He had a huge leather travel bag from which he pulled out a number of magical objects. This experience hit a chord and got me thinking: we women conventionally carry our lives around in our handbags! I soon figured out that I could put a whole exhibition in my bag, pull it out and stretch the pieces out enough to fill a gallery. Now I have works that travel all over the world, but I’ve had to give up personally installing them because I know I’m not going to be here forever. I’ve had to let go.

Published in frieze, issue 198, October 2018, with the title ‘Yield to Touch’.

This interview was originally published by in September, 2018 © Osei Bonsu, 2018.

50 Years of Celebrating Black Beauty and Culture: Faith Ringgold Tells Her Story

Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Faith Ringgold began her ‘American People’ series (1963–67), in which she dissected the notion of the American dream to expose the uncomfortable realities of racial and gender inequality. Fusing pop art’s hard edges with the political ideals of social realism, and techniques of Tibetan painting with the graphic symbolism of West African sculpture and design, her practice occupies a unique space within the black arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s. This aesthetic originality is compounded by the fact that the figures and faces captured in Ringgold’s early painting speak to a distinctly American social world – a world of bloody interracial tension and psychological trauma drawn along the lines of ideology and ethnic difference. Following in the footsteps of pivotal figures of the Harlem renaissance, such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, her work is imbedded within the cultural tradition of storytelling that has been central to the survival of African American histories.

The narrative arc of Ringgold’s own story runs parallel to the artist’s radical activism; before co-founding the activist group Where We At, Black Women Artists, Inc. in the early 1970s, she led a series of protests against the lack of diversity in New York’s Whitney Museum of American art, an institution that recently placed her work in an exhibition dedicated to protest. But perhaps the most enduring feature of the artist’s work is her commitment to the art of storytelling. In 1980, Ringgold collaborated with her mother Willie Jones, a fashion designer, to produce her first story quilt. Developing a tradition once practiced by her great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery and produced quilts for plantation owners, Ringgold uses fabric to weave together personal stories and histories of African American experience. The author of several children’s books and a much-read autobiography, she once wrote: ‘I have always wanted to tell my story, or, more to the point, my side of the story.’

Osei Bonsu Throughout your career as an artist, one of the most enduring forms has been the quilts you began producing in the early 1980s, reviving the African and African American tradition of quilts that told stories and preserved memories. Your current exhibition at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, includes quilts from the ’80s onwards including Subway Graffiti #2 [1987] and Ancestors Part II [2017]. What are your earliest memories of story quilts and how have they shaped your artistic approach to storytelling?

Faith Ringgold My earliest memory of quilting comes to me through my family history. My great-great grandmother, Susan Shannon, and her daughter, my great-grandmother Betsy Bingham, were both born slaves and were quilters all their lives. Both lived into advanced old age in Florida where they continued, after slavery, to work as quilters and seamstresses. Betsy taught her granddaughter, my mother, Willi Posey, how to quilt and my mother taught me, but not until 1980. Much of this story is retold in Ancestors Part I, which is currently on exhibit at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina.

My first collaboration with my mother was Echoes of Harlem, made in 1980, one year before she died, and now in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem. I continued to gradually make quilts on my own, producing my first story quilt, Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima [1983], over the course of an entire year as part of my mourning of the loss of my mother. Since then, I always work with collaborators, most recently my assistant Grace Matthews. The idea to make story quilts – that is, painting on canvas framed with quilting and bordered with boxes of text – first came out of my desire to tell my own story and to see my writing in print. Every time I exhibited a story quilt, I was also ‘publishing’ a story I had written.

OB The exhibition includes a number of paintings from your first mature body of work ‘American People’ Series [1963–67] including The American Dream [1964] and Woman Looking in a Mirror [1966]. What did it mean to you, at the time, to make art that engaged directly with politics?

FR In 1963, I took my children with me to stay in Oak Bluffs [a black community on Martha’s Vineyard] for the summer where I began the ‘American People’ series. This began with Between Friends [1963], inspired by the somewhat awkward meetings I witnessed of black and white female members of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] at social events in the house of the family we stayed with. As it happens, this was also the summer of the March on Washington, followed immediately by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the assassination of President Kennedy. This was a time of great eventfulness and turmoil in the civil rights movement in the North and the South. I was greatly inspired by the writings of James Baldwin, in particular The Fire Next Time [1963], in which he grapples with the issues raised by Malcolm X, a prominent figure in the North who would soon break with the Nation of Islam as a result of his efforts to articulate racism. It was Malcolm X’s comments concerning the death of JFK about chickens coming home to roost that would lead to his expulsion from the Nation and begin his metamorphosis into a visionary political leader that would inspire the writer Leroi Jones [Amiri Baraka], whose work also inspired me.

OB Throughout your career, you have addressed the question of race relations in America, a topic that continues to dominate the socio-political agenda. Between Friends [1963] recalls an uneasy meeting between a black and a white woman, while US Postage Stamp Commemorating the Advent of Black Power [1967] represented the demographic status of African Americans as just ten percent of the population. What function do you think art has addressing these issues both historically and in the present moment?

FR In both Between Friends [1963] and U.S. Postage Stamp – as is true generally in the works of the ‘American People’ series, of which there are 20 – I am careful to emphasis that African Americans exist within an overall structure dominated by white racism and power. I have continued to repeatedly address race relations as I have felt it necessary or compelling. But I added to my repertoire, as is visible in my ‘Black Light’ series [1967–69] as well as in the range of my ‘story quilts’ [1980-present], the celebration of black beauty and culture. Over the course of my career, I have combined my tributes to African American culture with my ongoing critiques of racism.

OB Although your work is very much in dialogue with issues in American society, you have drawn influences from many regions and cultures, including Tibetan paintings, traditional West African sculpture and the forms of lettering and design drawn from the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How would you describe the influence of Pan-Africanist ideologies and aesthetics on your work and thinking?

FR In the summer of 1975, I sent my mother to West Africa to explore her interest in African fashion and design. She had such a wonderful experience travelling alone in terms of the warmth of the people she met that I decided to go on a trip myself through Nigeria and Ghana to study art-making techniques and traditions. This experience had a huge influence on my artistic practice, particularly on the soft sculpture and masks I produced in the 1970s. I returned to Africa again in 1977 to attend FESTAC, in which people of African descent from all over the world travelled to Lagos in a celebration and display of African cultures. I had already begun to incorporate Kuba design in my paintings as early as the ‘Black Light’ series [1967–69] and in my political poster designs. I often used the Kuba elements to organize my paintings. I began to adapt the thangka form as a result of a trip to Amsterdam in 1972 when a guard in the Rijksmuseum directed my attention to an exhibition of them. It occurred to me that making paintings framed by thangkas would allow me to roll my paintings and transport them easily and inexpensively. My mother made the thangkas that framed my ‘Slave Rape’ series [1972–73] and, in retrospect, her use of quilting techniques in their design is obvious. My use of thangkas in the 1970s was consistent with my exploration of the use of sewing techniques in the making of my art, which was strongly prompted by feminism and ideas of making feminist art.

OB Could you discuss the role that audience participation plays in your practice, both in terms of art and activism?

FR Over the course of my career, I have found different ways to incorporate audience participation. I have also always collaborated with other artists, beginning with my mother, Willi Posey. In 1976, for example, I did a performance called The Wake and Resurrection of the Bicentennial Negro in tribute to the Bicentennial Celebration of the founding of America in 1776. I travelled to various campuses around the country, working with students to collaborate on a dance in which the lives of two characters, Bena and Bubba, were explored. Bubba died of a drug overdose and Bena died of a broken heart. This story epitomized the crises we were facing in Harlem over drug addiction and the difficulties of black families in the community in the 1970s. Harlem, which is now being gentrified, was at that time turning into a wasteland. Much of my work, whether it is paintings, posters or sculpture, involves some form of protest and political statement. I have often collaborated with writers such as my daughter Michele Wallace, and others including Nikki Giovanni, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks and even Martin Luther King, using their texts as the basis for illustrations I have created in print formats or paintings used to illustrate children’s books.

OB In 1968, you led a group of artists who were protesting the Whitney Museum of American Art’s lack of inclusion of black and Hispanic artists. You also joined the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee and co-founded Where We At, Black Women Artists, Inc., a collective of black female artists. Ironically, your work was eventually acquired by the Whitney in 2014 and is currently on display in the exhibition ‘An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection’. How do you think American museums have handled issues of exclusion and inequality over the years?

FR In 1968, I was involved in the first black protest against the racist but routine exclusion of black artists from major museum shows. The occasion was a survey of 1930s art at the Whitney Museum of American Art which included no black artists whatsoever. A group of us met at my gallery, Spectrum, then located on Madison Avenue near the Whitney. I prompted them to make signs and to picket the museum. It was at this protest that I first experienced being called a ‘nigger’ right outside the Whitney on Madison Avenue. This is what I wrote about in my painting Hate is a Sin Flag [2007] which was bought by the Whitney in 2014 and, as you mention, is currently on display there.

In the late 1960s, I protested at the Museum of Modern Art with the Art Workers’ Coalition. Tom Lloyd suggested that I join him in demanding a wing for African American and Latino Art at MoMA, which we never got – perhaps partly because we wanted to name it after Martin Luther King and at the time, Coretta King, his widow, would not support this endeavour. Instead, two black artists, Romare Bearden and Richard Hunt, received retrospectives. It was the exclusion of the work of black women artists generally, despite these attempts, that led me to become a feminist in 1970 and to the formation of WSABAL [Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation], which often participated in protests, most notably with Ad Hoc Women, a feminist offshoot of the Art Worker’s Coalition led by the art writer Lucy Lippard. In 1970, WSABAL participated in ‘The People’s Flag Show’ at the Judson Memorial Church. It was an open show designed to protest the federal laws forbidding the desecration of the American flag, which was causing a lot of arrests around the country. Just as the show was about to close, I was arrested by the District Attorney’s office along with Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche [friends from the Art Workers’ Coalition]. We became known as the Judson Three and were vindicated on the grounds of the First Amendment [freedom of speech] in court via a team of lawyers from the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. Monies raised on our behalf were used to bail out and defend young people getting arrested all over the country for displaying the flag in ways considered unsuitable by the powers that be.

OB Throughout your career, you have published many children’s books on historical figures such as Harriet Tubman [1992] and Rosa Parks [1999]. Your own work has clearly been marked by artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. What do you hope that oncoming generations of artists and students will take from your artistic and political endeavours?

FR The answer to this question is simple: My hope is to inspire others to tell their stories and to have the courage to do so.

‘Faith Ringgold: Paintings and Story Quilts, 1964–2017’, runs at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, UK, until 28 April.

This interview was originally published by in April, 2018 © Osei Bonsu, 2018.

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 in October, 2017 © Osei Bonsu, 2017.