Hailing from Busto Arsizio, Italy, Massimiliano Gioni is a leading figure in the contemporary art world, serving as the Artistic Director at both the New Museum in New York as well as the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan. The youngest of three siblings, he received a degree in Art History from the University of Bologna, describing himself as the “black sheep” of the family. During his time in school, Gioni worked as a translator, and eventually became the Editor of the Italian edition of Flash Art, and in 1999, he moved to America to become the magazine’s US Editor. In his early career, Gioni had already exposed himself to the art world in quite a distinctive way, serving as the doppelgänger of the mysterious Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan. The artist routinely sent Gioni in his place to do television events, radio, and in some cases, even lectures. The trick worked for a while until a series of mishaps occurred, including the time when he was speaking at a lecture organised by the Public Art Fund when Tom Eccles, the Director, showed slides of Mr. Cattelan’s self-portraits, and it became obvious that Gioni was, in fact, not him.
Gioni can be considered somewhat of a Biennale expert, having led and been involved with multiple installations over the years. He began by curating the “La Zona” section of the Venice Biennale in 2003, after he met and worked with Francesco Bonami. “La Zona” was marked as the first unofficial Italian Pavilion in the international art exhibition. In 2004, he was the co-curator of the fifth edition of the traveling biennial, Manifesta, a European event that was held that year in San Sebastian, Spain. He organised the fourth Berlin Biennale in 2006, in collaboration with Mr. Cattelan and curator Ali Subotnick. Gioni became the youngest director of the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, which he ran in 2010, and in 2013 he came back full circle as the director of the Venice Biennale. The six-month long exhibition evoked the ideas behind artist Marino Auriti’s projects, exploring the overarching theme of flights of the imagination, combining contemporary artwork with historical artifacts and found objects.
Gioni tells Something Curated: “I always joke that my curatorial approach is based on Andy Warhol’s answer to Lou Reed, when Reed asked him if the Velvet Underground’s songs were too long: “Always leave them wanting less.” Particularly when it comes to group shows, I like exhibitions that are dense and layered, rich in digressions and packed with different materials. I like exhibitions where the difference between artwork, document, and perhaps even relic, is blurred. I like exhibitions in which artworks are presented more as traces of existential adventures than as presumed masterpieces. I like exhibitions where one gets lost or sinks deeper (David Weiss told me that when he and Peter Fischli made their opus magnum “Suddenly This Overview”, they made it big enough that you could never remember it entirely: it’s something that has stayed with me and has inspired me in many exhibitions. He also said that when he had gone to Disneyland, he had noticed you never saw the outside, and that had been inspiring to him).”
Gioni continues, “I like shows where the distinction between artworks and visual culture or common objects is blurred or questioned. I like artworks as stories and I like stories as artworks. I like artworks I don’t like, artworks and objects that are beyond traditional or accepted notions of taste. I often quote a spurious maxim by Picasso according to whom “Taste is a problem best left to ice cream makers”. I also like a motto Thomas Hirschhorn often repeats: “Energy yes, quality no.” I do believe in quality, or better I believe in intensity, but I love how Hirschhorn pushes you to be concerned less with accepted notions of quality and more with an openness to materials. When it comes to solo exhibitions, I like shows in which the artwork and the choreography of the exhibition are in tight dialogue with each other, so that the show itself feels if not like an artwork at least like a kind of self-enclosed universe (I like shows with no windows: Ilya Kabakov said that’s one of the fundamental conditions for his “total installations”). I like solo shows where one enters and spends a couple of hours enveloped in the work and the world of an artist. I like to leave a show and wonder how it is possible that one person made all those things, where and how did they find the time and the energy for it. I could go on for a while with all the shows I like.”
As the Artistic Director of the New Museum, Gioni has spearheaded many pioneering shows at the NYC institution such as “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus.” The show featured only artists who were aged 33 or younger from all around the world, highlighting creators such as Tala Madani and Liz Glynn. The exhibition was a mix of visual art as well as performance, providing a fresh perspective within the contemporary art world. Gioni also became well-known for his work on “Ostalgia,” an exhibition that brought together the work of more than fifty artists from twenty countries across Eastern Europe and former Soviet Republics. The exhibition took its title from the German word “ostalgie,” a term that emerged in the 1990’s to describe a sense of longing and nostalgia for the era before the collapse of the Communist Block. “Ostalgia” looked at the art produced in and about some of these countries, mixing private confession and collective traumas, tracing a psychological landscape in which individuals and entire societies negotiated their new relationships with history, geography, and ideology. Currently, Gioni has organised “Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel”, the first American survey of the work of British artist Sarah Lucas.
Discussing the New Museum, Gioni tells us: “I think we are an experimental museum, where artists and curators are encouraged to do what they couldn’t do elsewhere. We have the informality and nimbleness of a small institution, which allows us to be responsive to artists’ needs and to changes in contemporary art and culture, but we have the professionalism, precision, care and resources of larger institutions. When working on major solo exhibitions, the identity of the museum feels shaped around and by the artist and the artwork we are showing and this sense of total dedication translates in a very special sense of communion and embrace of each artist’s vision. We think of art as a lens to understand culture at large, which means we believe we need to look at art to understand the world beyond art. It also means we try to identify artists and artworks or themes that prove urgent or relevant in today’s world.
We, or at least I, believe that art is where we learn to coexist with what we don’t know or understand: art is a form of perceptual and intellectual gymnastic through which we learn to coexist with what we don’t know or cannot (yet) understand. I always thought the New Museum looks like an antenna or a control tower, rather than a temple or an ivory tower: we try to capture and amplify the signals of contemporary art and culture. If I were to find a catchy motto, I would say we are where you see the art of tomorrow today, but it sounds a little too promotional of me, I am afraid. Our scale makes us more of a boutique museum, or a jewel box, if that didn’t sound a little too precious, or perhaps an art house cinema, rather than a multiplex or a big department store. We are probably closer to an independent film rather than a major Hollywood studio production. We are small enough to always know where our heart is.”
Feature image: “Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel,” 2018. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio