Ask a Curator: Francesco Bonami on Marina Abramović, the Venice Biennale’s Postponement, and More

Francesco Bonami, whose curatorial credits include the 2003 Venice Biennale and the 2010 Whitney Biennial, has returned for the seventh edition of his column, “Ask a Curator,” in which he addresses the allegations that Marina Abramović is a Satanist and the Venice Biennale’s postponement. He can be found on Instagram at @thebonamist. If you have queries for him for a future column, please write to [email protected]. —The Editors of ARTnews

The jet-setting curator has become an art-world archetype—but with fewer biennials to see and fewer flights to take right now, most curators are staying put for the time being. Do you think air travel will still be so important to curators when the coronavirus pandemic ends?

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We discovered how many useless things we were doing, how many useless trips we took, and, finally, how many useless people we met. That also works the other way, too—how many people will discover how useless we were? I don’t know that the art world is any better during the pandemic, because it’s still here. Afterward, it’s not going to be this new arcadia where we’ll rediscover the true values of art. What the art world loves most—good art and good money—will basically remain the same.

But we will definitely ponder why, in the past, major players like dealers Leo Castelli or Ileana Sonnabend employed maybe 10 or 15 people, even at the peak of their success. Why would a medium-size gallery need to have 40, 50 people working there? Sure, it is great for employment, but now we are realizing that it is not sustainable. It could have been anything that made us realize that, though—be it an earthquake or a terrorist attack.

But the question was about air travel, and I digressed. Well, I feel we will start digging more in our backyard. Back to locality? Maybe. Or maybe it’s better to say we’ll go back to looking closer than further. One of the main complaints of any organizer of any of the hundreds biennials around the world has always been: Why did the curators choose so few local artists? Now, curators will be forced to choose local artists because the international artists will be harder to move around the globe.

Hans Ulrich Obrist made headlines in March for proposing a major public art project to help stimulate the arts. What do you think of his proposal?

A vast program, Charles de Gaulle would have commented. Still a very noble program. Why not? But I am not so keen on riding the crisis so shamelessly. Art should be supported no matter what—it’s the most useful activity among all the useless ones performed by the humankind. Society has often dismissed art and culture, considering them children of a lesser god in the vast scale of the world’s economy. So, we need to stimulate the arts and prove that notion wrong. In any case, it’s a no brainer that at this point we need to be much less like socialites and a little more like socialists.

In April, Marina Abramović was accused of being a Satanist by right-wing publications. Abramović responded by asking the alt-right to leave her alone and denying their allegations. What are your thoughts on the whole controversy? What would you have done if you were her?

It’s hard to imagine myself in the body of Marina Abramović—her red dress doesn’t work well with my complexion. But in front of utter stupidity, I would have done more or less the same: ignore it completely or argue that it’s not written anywhere that being a Satanist is a bad thing. And in fact, the right-wing publications missed the target, because you know who is closer to Satan? Maurizio Cattelan. His works are truly diabolical. I see more the evil inside a banana than inside Abramović’s performances.

It’s unclear right now when most museums across the world will reopen. What art do you plan on seeing first when you get out of quarantine?

I am on lockdown in Milan, but today, strolling around a still deserted city, I crossed the courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco, where in a space nearby Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà is shown. I think I will go and see that. It has all you need from a work of art—the present the past and the future.

Earlier this week, the 2021 Venice Biennale got pushed to 2022. Having curated the Biennale yourself, do you think it would be possible for it to be “virtual”?

Oh, no! What is the point? The Biennale is built out of physical and spatial adrenaline, in part provoked by the sadistic urban structure of Venice. It cannot be substitute by VR or AR or anything like that. In fact, they made the best decision in postponing it to 2022, when I’m sure we will go and see a beautiful biennial in the flesh. When I did the Biennale in 2003, even today people remember just one thing: the unbearable heat wave at the opening. If it were to have been virtual, they would not remember even that— forget the 400-plus artists invited. You can’t suffer online, and visiting the Biennale is mostly about suffering—you are tired, you are starving, you are thirsty, you desperately need to go to the bathroom, you have been ripped off at the restaurant, you have been not invited to the British Pavilion’s party. All this will never be possible in VR.


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