Milan - Interviews

Ennesima / Umpteenth. An Exhibition of Seven Exhibitions of Italian Art, an interview with Vincenzo de Bellis

4 years ago

Mara Sartore: Considering the complexity of this exhibition, I think it’s necessary to ask very simple questions. How did the idea of “Ennesima”, or “Umpteenth”, come to life?

Vincenzo de Bellis: It was all a bit of a fluke – the idea of an exhibition on Italian art came about quite by chance. Edoardo [Bonaspetti, the Triennale art director] asked a number of curators to put together a series of exhibitions for his contemporary art programme at the Triennale. He knew about my engagement with the fair, so he contacted me a lot earlier than he normally would and said “Come up with a project for one side of the cube”, in other words that side of the Triennale. I did, after which he said “The entire period is going to be dedicated to Italy; so think of how you might interpret this topic”. I came up with a project that brought together an Italian designer and an international artist… At which point the director said “We’d like you to do something bigger. Take your time and think it over. Come up with a bigger proposal on Italian art.”

I just flat out said no to this.


MS: Why did you instinctively say no?

VdB: Because that was a year before the exhibition and an exhibition on Italian art is a complex thing, in that there are so many issues at stake. Anyone organising an exhibition on Italian art ends up making mistakes, as past experiences show us. One of the many examples is Italics

MS: Or even, without going too far back, would be this year’s Italian Pavilion…

VdB: All the pavilions, actually. In this country, unfortunately, nobody takes things lightly. It’s probably the same all over the world, but this is the country I’m most familiar with, so this is the country I can speak about. Whenever you mention the topic, people tense up, they become irritable and think everyone needs to be included, otherwise you’ll end up hurting someone’s feelings. Since, by nature, I don’t like to generalise, I know what I’m interested in and what I’m less interested in. My personal work experience is not Italian, so my approach is much more detached.

MS: Perhaps, when you were abroad, you were able to look at Italy from the outside.

VdB: Exactly. I don’t believe that the presence of an artist in an exhibition is a way of judging him or her. Exhibitions are always subjective, which is why I have done few collective exhibits in my life. Choosing an artist is already a very important character and editorial choice.

MS: So you went home, thought it over, and then?

VdB: I thought about it for a whole month. What animated me was that I found the right interpretative key – otherwise, I wouldn’t have done the show. I did what came naturally. My work as a curator, even at the fair, is based on an analysis of my own role: “What am I doing here? What is a curator?” This isn’t a recent approach to things. Ever since I started working in the United States I have been guided by this idea, each time from a different angle. I found this key, which came from the seven formats. The idea of organising a meta-exhibition, which had never been done in the context of Italian art before, is a big problem for many people. To put together a definitive one is out of the question, and those who tried have hurt themselves. Therefore, we split the problem up into seven mini-problems, seven researches, seven probabilities. So, using this idea as a starting block, everything fell into place. If I hadn’t found this “ruse”… (but it’s not the right word)

MS: We might perhaps call it an “interpretative reading key”… However, I’d like to take a closer look at the relation between this intuition of yours to split up the problem – the approach to looking at the unicum that Italian art is, which is so complex, considering that Italy has such a strong cultural tradition – and the title of the exhibition, which is taken from a work by [Giulio] Paolini, which is brilliant, I think. Did all these things happen at one and the same time?

VdB: I’ve known Giulio for ten years and he can be an inexhaustible font of titles for anyone, not only for me. Just look at the titles of his works – each one is fabulous. I started with Hypothesis for an Exhibition, which is actually the same concept and is the title of one of his earliest works. I can’t remember whether it came to me while I was looking at his catalogue or running down the titles, but I know that I immediately thought of him, I felt inspired. There were many other possibilities. Then, when I saw Ennesima, I realised that it was perfect because it had a touch of irony and sarcasm and it helped me think more serenely about other things. Plus, the fact that the work was divided into seven canvases added another piece to the puzzle. When I contacted Giulio to get his permission, he explained how the seven canvases worked and this threw light on all the rest. Something changed in my mind after I talked to Giulio; some of the things I’d thought of for the exhibit changed.

MS: It would be great if you could briefly describe the different stages of the exhibit and how they relate consecutively to one another along the itinerary.

VdB: The premise is that the space of the Triennale can be configured any way you want. This is fantastic, but also somewhat of a curse because if you make a mistake when you separate the spaces you lose the “rhythm”. The exhibition has been set up as if it were a small musical score. There are seven musical notes, as well as seven formats: this number keeps recurring because it’s magical. You start out with a very long note, in other words the largest room, which is thematic. I knew that I was going to put only a few works in this space, but they had to summarise and encapsulate an artist’s work. In other words, they had to be absolute masterpieces. I also knew that I was going to use very large works and that I needed very large spaces. The format that the public see most often is the “theme-based exhibition”, which is a statement right off the bat because, as a format, the theme-based exhibit is hyperpersonal. The curator chooses both the topic and the artists who work with that topic. It is the most authorial thing a curator can do. Furthermore, it is a type of format that you can analyse intergenerationally. The theme or topic has been elaborated by artists from the beginnings of art all the way to the present, so you have an infinite number of possible links, and this is different from other formats. I would like to make it clear that we are dealing with a super-subjective exhibition, where everything has been selected not “democratically” but out of conviction. The theme is iconography, or the paraphrasing or writing of images.

MS: The first format is a themed group exhibit, but the second is dedicated to an art movement.

VdB: There are two reasons why the second one comes right after the first. The first is because you move from an intergenerational exhibition to a historical one, with a focus on a specific moment in art history, and changing register is a choice that has to do with the exhibition’s layout. Since the first exhibition deals with the writing of images, the movement I chose is visual poetry, which is the complement to the writing of images inasmuch as it is the image of writing. Then I moved on to the relation with the writing of words, which is to say the construction codes, including visual codes, of a language that changes and becomes the image of a code. For the visual poet, words take on artistic value, whereas for the artist that creates a painting, as in the previous section, the logic that leads to the construction of the image goes in the exact opposite direction. I’d like to say something more about this if I may: though the word “iconography” comes from Greek, icons are Orthodox and Russian forms of art par excellence. In Russia, artists who paint are called writers, whereas a “painter” is someone who paints the walls of a house, just to let you know how much writing is inherent in the sense of “painting” for Russians. Painting is the sovereign of iconography, and everything is constructed pictorially, even when it isn’t two-dimensional.

MS: From a group exhibition about an art movement (Gruppo 70 and visual poetry, verbal–visual research) you quickly move on to a solo exhibition. How did you manage to come up with the genial intuition of dividing the problem into segments and choosing a single artist? The architecture of the whole project was very complex.

VdB: It was tough, because you have to exclude many other possible choices.

MS: Something that got me thinking in that regard was the end of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s inaugural speech at the Istanbul Biennial. When she was asked what criteria she followed in making her choices she said “I don’t choose; this word is not part of my vocabulary”. This sounds odd because choosing is a curator’s task, but she went on to explain that “I don’t choose; things come to me through various links”.

VdB: What you’re saying is quite true. Sometimes it isn’t you who chooses the artists, but the other way around. In the case of Alessandro Pessoli, there are many reasons. Alessandro’s work has traits that are the logical consequence of the project that was coming into being. Alessandro is an iconographer and visual poet at the same time. The relation between images and words in Alessandro’s work is very solid. His work references Futurism, Italian handicrafts, Italy, even where it seems there is no reference. It was the right compromise. Then, there was a series of factors to be considered. You cannot showcase an artist who is too famous because, if the exhibition were, for example, about [Luciano] Fabro, then there would be too many works for the limited space available. You can’t, or rather, I didn’t want to, put together an exhibition on a young artist because it’s too risky in a fifty-year context. As a matter of fact, it’s not a given that he or she has accumulated all that much professional experience to be part of an exhibition featuring great masters and movements of the past, so I’ve concentrated on a generation of rather mature artists. Besides, Alessandro has never had a solo exhibition in an Italian museum, and this I find paradoxical in the Italian context. Alessandro is now fifty-two and he deserves a twenty-room exhibit. I don’t want this statement to be controversial – it’s just a statement of fact. In choosing him, I thought of the intrinsic value of his work, the generational dynamics that I wanted to deal with in this solo show, and the motivation that could bring an artist to be present in an exhibition like this one. In fact, Alessandro is showcasing a work that he has never displayed before. As Bakargiev said, it’s a series of inspirations that just come at you. But, as a matter of fact, I did end up choosing Alessandro. It wasn’t a painless choice, because there are many other artists I think as highly of as I do of him.

MS: After this solo exhibition, you dedicate an entire section to performance (finally!) and you’ve done a wonderful job and chosen wonderful works.

VdB: Thank you. I’m pleased that you’ve noticed because the three most complicated things were having Fabro, who I’d decided to open the show with, regardless of everything and everyone; having a room for the performance section; and reconstructing Avanblob. These were the three greatest hurdles I had to face in terms of the entire project. The performance issue is very complicated but I’ve already explained why I chose it. Unfortunately, practically nobody knows its history in Italy because there is simply no literature on the topic. It is obvious that we would need an entire floor, and perhaps even the entire Triennale, to tell this particular story, and it would probably have required three years’ work. Ennesima doesn’t want to focus on the history of performance (it would be arrogant to say so), but I wanted to usher in the question, taking the first step so that my generation can take on the task of relating this medium, which for many Italian artists has been a tangential, as opposed to essential, medium, with few exceptions.

MS: Why do you think this is so? Do they consider it a minor art form? Is it perhaps because we are still stereotyped regarding this kind of thing?

VdB: We’d need in-depth research to establish the precise causes. Yes, I have the same sentiments as you, but they don’t concern Luigi Ontani who, even though he has used his own body, is an exemplary demonstration of how secondary performances are in the work of an artist. In fact, I put Ontani at the show’s entrance, but more on account of authorship and authority. In forty years, he has done only three to five live performances. His performances have ended up in other expressive means – photography, sculpture, and drawing. I don’t know why, but this is something we should ponder. Setting up the exhibition and analysing it (even just superficially), I realised that from the 1960s on (when performance was launched on a worldwide scale thanks to American Happenings) artists in Italy started to use performance, but in a way that was different from that of other countries. Just look at what happened at L’attico, where anyone who was into performance got their training. Everyone tried to construct images through performance, rather than tell stories. Take Fabio Mauri, for example: in the history of performance, he is the only artist who uses it narratively. Others, on the other hand, show a preference for the representative aspect, and so we’re back to the theme at the entrance to the exhibition. I have decided, therefore, to deal only with one aspect of Italian performance – the tableau vivant, and that is the presence of a motionless body, as if one were creating a painting (more than a space). It took me forever to find the right key, and even the day before the inauguration, I didn’t know if it was going to work as we hadn’t even tried it out.

MS: After the room with “suspended time”, I mean this tableau vivant, visitors find themselves in a space that completely detaches itself, so much so that they don’t even know if it’s part of the exhibition. Instead, when you stand in line to go into Avanblob, this suspended time becomes longer. I think this single space is the one that generates the most contrast, a contrast that influences the show between the archives room and the Avanblob itinerary. You get a sense of being spaced out because, even though it is all explained, visitors wonder where they have come.

VdB: It’s a premeditated risk. It’s in this room that you understand, if you haven’t already, that you’re dealing with different exhibitions. You understand it then and there, where there isn’t a single work of art, where there’s total cold instead of the warmth and colour (of the preparation and the works on display) of everything that you’ve already seen. It’s data that’s being exhibited, as if you were standing in front of a huge Excel file. But it’s a fundamental moment towards understanding how the entire Ennesima has been structured. Why have I set up the Spazio at Via Lazzaro Palazzi? I wonder that myself! Because it’s very important for Milan, but no one has tried to figure out why it’s been so important, why it came to an end and why in that particular, specific moment, that is when the art market and system, after the excesses of the 1980s, enter a crisis all over the world, and artists organise themselves on a single/individual basis because they no longer have spaces and galleries are no longer selling. These artists, at the same time as other groups, truly represented the beginning of the collective reorganisation of the Italian art system. They created the first actual Italian artist-founded spaces as we understand them today: get a space, organise exhibitions, come up with a magazine connected with the space. These things transpired years later in Rome, Milan, Venice, Florence, and Turin, but how many of our generation know this? No one remembers the Spazio in Via Lazzaro Palazzi. Twenty-five years have passed since Avanblob, the highpoint of their efforts and the moment when everything came tumbling down because Mario Airò, who was the backbone of the Spazio, started dealing with Massimo de Carlo and decided to put together a solo exhibition rather than a collective show. In 1991 the “rock band” vanished. It’s as if Avanblob had been an art rock band. As far as the choice of the archive was concerned, for me it was very important not to think in terms of a show organised around an extant artist but to exploit Ennesima in the true sense of the word, to do something that would be of service to the future because that material would be partly preserved by the Triennale and partly by the Museo del Novecento.

MS: The Avanblob installation is the recreation of an exhibition that actually took place in Massimo de Carlo’s space in 1990.

VdB: Yes, it is. The parallelepiped that you see as you leave the performance exhibition is the reconstruction of the gallery on a 1:1 scale. It is a space where events much more important than Avanblob took place. It was here that Boetti had his last exhibition, Félix González-Torres had his first European show, and Cady Noland had one of the few personal exhibitions in her life. It’s an important place for Milan.

MS: What happened to the space?

VdB: It was bought by architects. It’s a space with a history. Avanblob was over; all the works (which could in fact be considered as one single work) were bought by a collector who conserved them marvellously, so I asked him if he would let me reconstruct it all. Then I began to contact the twelve artists who, for the first time in twenty years, came together. We ended up putting together ten times the material exhibited, which will be dealt with by whoever deals with the archives.

MS: For the last room, you were inspired to create a bridge (with a work by Massimo Bartolini) that you walk across and that brings you to the present.

VdB: In the present we all realise that the quality of the artists (and it isn’t their or our fault) doesn’t foreshadow very important new art, like the art seen so far. As far as Italian artists are concerned let’s just say that, today’s thirty-year-olds excepted, quality has yet to come to the fore. But someone of my generation (I’m thirty-eight) cannot but have faith in the future; it would be really depressing if I didn’t. Not to put too fine a point on it, if you’re organising an exhibition of Italian art and you don’t make room for the younger generation, you’re committing a crime.

MS: So you don’t think that the artists you’ve selected have the necessary level…

VdB: I may have expressed myself poorly. They are all excellent, otherwise they wouldn’t be here (and there would be twice as many if I had more space), but working with young people you realise what they’re dealing with and how their work is facing a crisis because of a lack of reference points to help them grow as artists. There’s no longer anyone who can teach them in the academies, and they’re forced to leave their academies to get their experience. They have no galleries or training spaces where they can express themselves. The generation up to Lara Favaretto’s, that is the one just prior to mine, had galleries like Noero, Zero, Monitor, and so on, that made significant investments. These galleries had four, five, six artists each, and these artists had undertaken their studies with Fabro or Garutti or at IUAV when IUAV was a veritable powerhouse. The others had had a space where they can train and express themselves.

For those who came after (keeping in mind that Fabro is no longer here, Garutti no longer teaches and IUAV is no longer a powerhouse), they’ve got Naba, which is a sort of academy that is configured differently and doesn’t conform to the Italian type but still really works. The only thing is that it’s still too new to have any appreciable teaching tradition. I constantly deal with thirty-something-year-old artists who have to go abroad to gain experience. These problems, even in the case of excellent artists such as the one I have described, all come to the surface. I wanted to show powerful works that have a full right to be in a context like Ennesima, a context that, to me, is life. I would therefore never exhibit a work that doesn’t convince me; but I have, nevertheless, wanted to show the bewilderment of this generation. The artists are completely isolated in their dynamics and no collective generational momentum comes up. Though this is also due to the era we’re living in, which is very individualistic, I have tried to select works that are as heterogeneous as possible.

MS: Let’s wrap up with the last format – the site-specific format.

VdB: This is the only format that has no physical space in the exhibition, but it more or less encapsulates all of them. You start out at the Triennale’s grand staircase, where visitors are greeted by a work that they can’t see – Alberto Garutti’s lighting system (which, I don’t know if you noticed, worked fabulously because the lights intensified and diminished), which is the reconfiguration of a work entitled Temporali. Alberto links a type of illumination (normally a chandelier that he himself builds from a design of his) to CESI–Centro Elettrotecnico Sperimentale Italiano, so that every time that lightning strikes, it is monitored and an impulse of light is sent by means of a domotic on/off system, and therefore via Internet, so that light becomes intensified for a moment. For Ennesima, he didn’t do it with a chandelier for the first time but with the Triennale lighting system, and we placed it there because that was precisely where Fontana exhibited his neon in 1951 (Fontana’s work is now in the Museo del Novecento). So this is a tribute to Fontana, but also a work that connects with all of Italy: the Triennale becomes the collection site of all meteorological activity and therefore, metaphorically, of all Italian citizens, represented in Ennesima by a flash of lightning. Massimo Bartolini’s works have been placed at the threshold of all six exhibitions; different types of marble and granite interpret the concept of “threshold”. The exit route from the exhibition is dedicated to Luca Vitone. It is entitled Crêuza, a work inspired by a street in Genoa that Vitone has recreated so that everyone leaving Ennesima has to go through it. Then, in the ante-chamber before entering Fabro’s room, there’s a work by Monica Bonvicini: on the wall is a small ceramic switch that is mixed up with all the other Triennale switches and that has been fixed on the “on” word, which has been turned upside down so that it reads “no”, allowing for a personal interpretation of a common household object but that, here, is endowed with monumentality, since it overwhelms all that is within. And since Monica’s work is based on the relationship between architecture and power, she represents it in this invisible but very powerful way.

MS: You have guided us through the Ennesima experience, making it possible for us to understand what a challenge it is, today and always, to organise an exhibition of contemporary Italian art. Now that the show has been inaugurated, after having spent many months thinking or avoiding thinking about reactions to the show, what do you think about all that’s been said so far? Do the responses correspond to your expectations, or has anyone surprised you?

VdB: I have a critical idea of the exhibit. With hindsight, there are things I would do differently, but that’s the case with all shows. You make choices “in the dark” and then you think you could have done things differently. But, all things considered, the show is exactly as I’d envisioned, so I’m very pleased.

As far as reactions and fear go, and about which I wrote in the catalogue when it went to the press a month ago, I’ve been greeted by much more warmth than I expected. I expected scepticism and controversy, but that hasn’t materia


Mara Sartore

  • Vincenzo de Bellis, photo by Marco De Scalzi Vincenzo de Bellis, photo by Marco De Scalzi
  • Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi
  • Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi
  • Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi
  • Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi
  • Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi
  • Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi
  • Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi Ennesima, installation view. Photo by Roberto Marossi

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