For the occasion of the opening of the new Walker Art Center’s exhibition, I’ve interviewed Vincenzo de Bellis who is Curator of Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis since 2016, and has been recently appointed Associate Director of Programs.
The exhibition “Illusion Brought Me Here” is Mario García Torres’s first US survey and highlights the artist as both researcher and storyteller, exploring the impulses that produce artistic thought. In this interview de Bellis also shared his thoughts on the artists selected to represent Italy at the upcoming Venice Biennale.
Editorial note: The interview took place mid October, before the recent announcement of Mary Ceruti as New Executive Director of the Walker Art Center from end of January 2019.
Mara Sartore: You were recently appointed Associate Director of Programs at the Walker Art Center, what does this new task entail and how have these first two years at the Art Center played out?
Vincenzo de Bellis: A whole lot more of hassle! Jokes aside, I arrived at a time of profound change for the United States, just three months before Trump was elected. The Museum was going through a moment of change, it was a difficult period, but at the end of the day I am very very happy with how things are going today. The Walker Art Center is an extraordinary museum with great history and a great staff and if it had not given me so much stimuli I probably would have given up.
My first project at the Walker was the Jimmie Durham exhibition “At the Center of the World” (2017), it was a pitstop for the exhibition originally produced by the Hammer Museum. “At the Center of the World” arrived at the Walker after the reopening of Museum’s Sculpture Garden in June 2017. Among the sculptures on display was the Sam Durant Scaffold, a large scaffold that represents the massacre of 38 Native Americans one by one, Dakota precisely, which occurred in 1862 in Mankato, a town 80 miles from Minneapolis. This sculpture sparked a harsh reaction amongst the Dakota community, to the point that it was removed during a ceremony. The exhibition by Jimmie Durham (in fact the first retrospective dedicated to him in American museums) opened three weeks later. Jimmie is considered by us Europeans as the icon of Native American artists, but for Native Americans this is not the case, because Jimmie has simply refused to provide evidence of his Cherokee origin and has never wanted to undergo the bureaucratic procedure imposed by American administration. A very complex story where many people have very precise positions, which are not easy to navigate through and which go way over the art itself. When the Museum presented his retrospective, huge controversy erupted once again.
So this was my tumultuous debut at the Walker. Today the museum is in great health. We re-opened the Sculpture Garden after a major re-design and new big acquisitions, we successfully completed a big capital campaign. More importantly we have had great Walker-organized and co-organized exhibitions such as Merce Cunningham: Common Time; Nairy Baghramian: Deformation Professionelle; Allen Ruppersberg: Intellectual Property 1968-2018 and Siah Armajani: Follow this Line. Also we have already planned ahead of us and have a very strong program for the years to come of both major group and solo exhibitions as well as more emerging artists projects.
Mara Sartore: So from what I understand, the exhibition that just opened, dedicated to Mario Garcia Torres is your own doing …
Vincenzo de Bellis: Yes, but in reality except for the Jimmie’s exhibition, which came from the Hammer, I feel owning all the exhibitions I organized at the Walker: “Nairy Baghramian Deformation Professionelle”, which I took over one year before its opening and of which finally the beautiful catalogue has been released, and then a group exhibition entitled “I am You, You are too” which I co-curated with my colleague Pavel Pyś.
Mara Sartore: Tell us about “Illusion Brought Me Here” the solo exhibition dedicated to the work of Mario Garcia Torres?
Vincenzo de Bellis: To open immediately with a statement of the kind that appeal to our marketing team: it is the biggest exhibition by Mario in a museum. A selection of 45 works, from 2002 to today, essentially spanning his career but it is not a retrospective as such because there are both past works and also some new works.
It is a survey exhibition that is difficult to translate into Italian.
As many may know, Mario and I have been collaborating for a very long time.
We met in 2004 and then in 2010 at Peep-Hole with Bruna (Roccasalva) we put together his first solo show in Italy which was titled ‘I Will be With you Shortly.’
When I arrived at the Walker Art Center and began to study the collection and the exhibition history in detail, I was immediately struck by the fact that he had never even participated in a Walker exhibition nor that the museum had holdings in the collection. This to me sounded almost a paradox since there are so many artists and many works that Mario mentioned in his production that are part of our collection or have been exhibited here. So I spoke immediately to director Olga Viso about inviting Mario. In October 2016 I started working on the project. we rather started small but in the two years we worked together we expanded the scope of the project, which now occupy not only the gallery spaces, but also the two cinemas.
The exhibition features 45 works, of which 4 are new projects, 2 specifically conceived for the Walker and 2 more autonomous projects by Mario.
The starting point was to create a retrospective of Mario’s works without showing them all so we worked on a soundtrack that occupies a room but expands throughout the show. This is composed of a selection edited by Mario and a team of composers, of audio clips taken from 20 of his film works (which will not be on display). Regarding the two site specific works, one is an App named “Illusion Brought Me Here”, for which Mario has asked and involved 14 key project employees to become part of the exhibition. The app works with augmented reality and is activated whilst viewing the exhibition, augmented reality is developed by characters that work as avatars, demonstrating how for the artist each of his pieces is always the result of a number of multi-skilled workers.
The other piece that I would like to talk about, which I deem crucial and I think the museum will acquire, is called “Goodbye, Goodbye”, this occupies a whole room in which there will be a video, a granite base, drawings and photographs . It all stems from an image that represents the destruction of the Museum in 1969. In the picture we see the wrecking ball that destroys the museum and a lady who makes a video with a super8, this lady we discovered – thanks to Mario – being the granddaughter of founder of the Walker, was Louise Walker McCannel, who made videos but being a upper middle-class woman this prevented her from being an artist. At one point in her life she donated her house to the museum that went onto to sell it and with the proceeds created funds for acquisitions, therefore a very key character for the history of the Walker. We asked the family for the rights to remount all 4 film reels that had been filmed in a single 10 minute film, the videos were then donated to the Museum and now they are part of our collection.
Mara Sartore: You’ve been in Minneapolis now for two years, how is Italy regarded from The United States. What do you think about Milovan Farronato’s choice and the three artists which will represent Italy for the next Biennale?
Vincenzo de Bellis: I would like to make a very important distinction between the generations of established artists and those emerging. The more consolidated Italian artists and art are both well represented and well known and I think I can safely say that this is the case world over. Alas, for the emerging generation of Italian artists, unfortunately, the situation is quite different where Italy is seen as a marginal country from this point of view. May I underline that I do not agree. It is matter of fact, and I hope that everyone will agree, and evidence shows that we have come to a standstill in the succession of a younger generations of artists. There are three or four, among those born in the seventies that have a certain visibility but then the closer we get to the more recent generations, the more the number drastically declines. This does not mean that they are lacking talent and so deserve less visibility, quite the opposite. It is phenomenon that I almost entirely attribute to the the Italian Academic system, which is an old fashioned system where professors thrive over the nurturing of professional artists.
There are many other factors that also play their part mostly linked to poor institutional support and the market.
This is why I must say that support projects such as those of the Italian Council and the Quadrennial are of fundamental importance and I would like to applaud those who have made it happen.
As far as the Pavilion is concerned: I am a firm believer in the fact that one should appoint an artist and then she or he should decide with whom to work with as a curator. It is not the first time that I’ve said this and therefore I am not afraid of being contested. The pavilion belongs to the artists. If we were to record our chats during the vernissage, those when we give each other advice of what should be seen or not, we always say: Have you seen the Tino Sehgal’s German Pavilion? Go see McQueen! Nauman is unmissable. Nobody, and fortunately so, cites the names of those who have curated these pavilions.
For this same reason, my personal opinion is that a Pavilion should always represent just one artist or two at the most. This is why, primarily reducing the size of the pavilion and then taking it to a more central position are two other obsessions of mine.
I firmly believe that the Cuoghi pavilion, Husni-Bey, Calò curated by Cecilia Alemani was the best Pavilion in the past ten years. Finally something to be really proud of globally. But that of 2007 with Penone and Vezzoli with two powerful personal projects, dedicated to artists of different generations, still represents my personal preference. If we were able to bring it down to a single artist, it would really be ideal. It is clear that with a 2000 square meter pavilion it is practically impossible. But if we could manage to make these changes happen, then finally we could concentrate on the artist and the quality of their work.
To return to the artists: Enrico David is an artist who deserves great respect, on my part and I hope for everyone. His career is there for all to see, Liliana Moro is a very sophisticated artist, I know her very well and I admire enormously, in regards to Chiara Fumai, a tribute to a person who is no longer with us, and with whom Milovan had worked with since the beginning of her career, therefore a great opportunity for the curator to demonstrate her talent in remembrance of the artist. I think that Milovan has given space to three artists of great quality, who navigate different territories and for individual reasons deserve to represent our country. They are heartfelt choices for Milovan who has always followed their individual careers as artists and in my opinion this is the way it should be. It is a demonstrates a seriousness and the ability to take on the right dose of responsibility.