Former artistic directors of the Venice Biennale on how to curate and view the show

30 april, 2024

The Venice Biennale 2024 is in full swing, with all its scandals. Palestinian activists call for Israel to be excluded from the Biennale. Russia, competing for lithium deposits in Bolivia, has handed over its pavilion to this country. Austria has presented a Russian artist who is trying to detach Russian culture from Putinism, while Ukraine talks about social ties in the project "Net Making." Besides that, the international art fair is proceeding as planned. For those who want to maximize their viewing experience or pick up a few curatorial life hacks, we are publishing an abbreviated version of the text from ARTnews, which interviewed three former artistic directors of the Biennale. Here, they share their experience of curating the art world's most significant event, suggest routes for walks around Venice, and voice their expectations for the 60th La Biennale di Venezia.

Cecilia Alemani

Cecilia Alemani. Photo: Andrea Avezzù/Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia. Source: artnews.com
Italian curator Cecilia Alemani was the artistic director of the previous 59th Biennale in 2022. The theme "The Milk of Dreams," taken from a children's book by surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, was influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic. The show explored science, art, and myths through three central themes: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses, the relationship between humans and technology, and the connection between bodies and the Earth.

For the 60th Venice Biennale, Alemani advises, first and foremost, to wear comfortable shoes. Daily art viewing can be exhausting — one must be prepared. In particular, the curator urges visitors to stroll through the walls of the Arsenal. Secondly, considering Venice's seasonal flooding, "get used to the vaporetto routes and timetable by downloading the app called Chebateo [meaning ‘Which boat?’]”. Plus, Cecilia advises being prepared to get lost regardless of how you navigate the city. This is perhaps the best advice for exploring any city. When hungry, she suggests trying some “cicchetti in Campo Santa Margherita” or “a tramezzino in Via Garibaldi.” And when needing a break from art, the curator "goes to Lido and sits on the beach, reading 'Death in Venice' (by German writer Thomas Mann from 1912)." At the end of a long day, she recommends "buying some slippers (“friulane”) at Piedaterre on Campo Santo Stefano." And most importantly, familiarize yourself with non-festival masterpieces from the collections of Venetian museums, including "Tintoretto at Scuola Grande di San Rocco."

Francesco Bonami

Francesco Bonami at the Sigmar Polke exhibition at Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy, 2016. Photo: Barbara Zanon/Getty Images. Source: artnews.com
When he was the artistic director of the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, Italian curator and writer Francesco Bonami avoided the traditional exhibition model. Instead, he delegated responsibilities to almost a dozen curators who created the exhibition "Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer." His team proposed a vibrant exhibition of various works in which, according to the catalog, the curator sought to create a "new reality somewhere between Globality and Romanticism, where economics and information finally intersect within the complexity of an individual’s identity and emotions…a world where the conflicts of globalization are met by the romantic dreams of a new modernity".

Following his method, Francesco Bonami does not offer advice to the Biennale audience, leaving the task of recognizing their own experience to the visitors themselves, saying: "My Biennale was very sloppy. I will never have the chance to do another one. But as a pure exercise of fantasy, if I would have the opportunity I would do it even sloppier. With one big rule: NO DEAD people — at least until they are invited."

Massimiliano Gioni

Massimiliano Gioni, 2019. Photo: Marco Piraccini/Archivio Marco Piraccini/Mondadori Portfolio. Source: artnews.com
Italian critic and curator Massimiliano Gioni was responsible for the artistic direction of the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. The theme of that year, "The Encyclopedic Palace," was inspired by the imaginary museum of Marino Auriti, intended to gather all the world's knowledge. Gioni considered this dream in the context of the relentless development of digital technologies.

Similarly, the curator compiled the book "Caffè Paradiso," named after the restaurant where every Biennale artistic director works on their shows. The collection includes interviews with almost all the artistic directors of La Biennale di Venezia from 1993 to the present day. Here, you will find the concerns and aspirations of prominent curators such as Achille Bonito Oliva, Jean Clair, Harald Szeemann, Okwui Enwezor, Adriano Pedrosa, and our familiar Cecilia Alemani. Only Germano Celant, who passed away in 2020, is missing.

Gioni encourages this year's visitors to explore the numerous worlds united in Venice on foot. "In my book, Robert Storr tells the story of a quote chosen by Bruce Nauman for his contribution to a book published for the Biennale, and he says—quoting Diogenes—that ‘It is solved by walking’ or, we could say, ‘One learns by walking.’ That’s all it takes to prepare for a Biennale," Gioni shares.

Regarding his approach to curating the Biennale, Massimiliano reflects: "I actually made it big by going small, by including many smaller works and very few large pieces—and the few large pieces were made of small parts. It was also a show that mixed contemporary art with historical materials; it combined “outsider”—for lack of a better description—artists and professional artists and dilettantes and amateurs; it included museum loans and new productions; it included many things that might have not been art at all." It was a show about the desire to know everything — about this unrealized dream that animated the Venice Biennale since 1895, when the mayor of Venice, Riccardo Selvatico, had the bizarre idea of collecting the whole world, with its myriad ways of being contemporary, to a sinking city. "Perhaps for fear it would otherwise suffocate under the weight of its past," shares the curator.

It's no wonder Gioni expects to experience "everything" at the 60th International Exhibition in Venice. "The Biennale is for maximalists, and I am bound to be one, given my name ['gioni' in Italian translates to 'young,' 'bold,' 'brave']. Irony aside, there is so much to see. I am curious about Nigerian, Italian, and Lebanese Pavilions, and the Pierre Huyghe show.” The curator also insists you cannot leave Venice without saying hello to Titian. Titian's last painting — "Pieta" — is housed in the Academy, and it is a whole world in itself.

To read more articles about contemporary art please support Artslooker on  Patreon