"Totally, totally unexpected" is how Massimiliano Gioni describes being tapped to serve as artistic director of the 55th Venice Biennale. At 39, the Italian-born former Flash Art editor, currently director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan and associate director of the New Museum in New York, is the youngest person ever to oversee the massive international survey, founded in 1895. "Yes, it's a little like receiving a telephone call from History," he told Art in America in an interview this spring. "Or maybe Death, since your first thought is ‘I wish I had more time . . . and more money.'" He got the job in January 2012, giving him essentially one year to pull together what is still the single most scrutinized contemporary art roundup on earth.

Ironically, he observed, the artistic director has no real power over half the event—the artists and works selected for the 88 national pavilions, which are programmed by their respective countries. "At best," he said, "some nations will wait for the Biennale's overall theme to be announced; but the majority, no." However, that still leaves the massive keynote exhibition at the Arsenale and the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, featuring scores of artists chosen by the director or (in some years) by subcontracted curators, as well as myriad collateral shows and events.

Gioni immediately began drawing up lists of possible topics and participants, constantly editing his ideas until he settled on this year's intriguing rubric, "The Encyclopedic Palace." In his quest to crystallize his own thinking and perhaps that of the selected artists and the international press, he also chose two emblematic—and highly unorthodox—conceptual centerpieces to put on display in the Central Pavilion. The Red Book (1914-30) is a bound manuscript in which Carl Jung conceived and illustrated many aspects of his theory of the collective unconscious. Meanwhile, Gioni's entire 2013 Biennale plan takes its name from an 11-foot-high architectural model created in 1955 by the auto mechanic, artist and visionary architect Marino Auriti, who dreamed of constructing a mammoth archive for worldwide cultural achievements in myriad fields.

The goal of these choices, Gioni explained, was to foster openness, to look beyond the usual art-world parameters and thus galvanize public response to works produced and shown within the system today. "After all," he mused about first walking through the Biennale spaces with his new mission in mind, "these halls are haunted—in a good way—by the great artists who have shown here in the past. We curators and critics will be footnotes, maybe, if we're lucky. But people will remember the best artworks—and the names of their makers—for a very long time."

Gioni was immersed in the hectic process of assembling his complex Venice project—darting off to Siberia for a few days, fielding constant calls and e-mails from 24 time zones—when A.i.A. asked him what he would most like to hear from his recent predecessors. He responded with a set of no-nonsense questions that illuminate the realities, both pragmatic and critical, of organizing an exhibition of global importance on this overwhelming scale. Here, the artistic directors of the last five editions of the Venice Biennale give their thoughtful and remarkably candid answers.—Richard Vine

PHOTO: View of Oscar Tuazon’s para-pavilion The Trees, 2011, concrete, steel, live tree, fluorescent and halogen lamps, approx. 13 by 13 by 11 feet; in the 54th Venice Biennale, 2011. Photo Contemporary Art Daily. Courtesy Maccarone, New York.

CURRENTLY ON VIEW: The 55th Venice Biennale, June 1-Nov. 24, at multiple sites throughout the city.


Francesco Bonami, '03


How much time did you have to organize the Biennale? How did this impact your process and results?
I had more than enough. I was appointed in March 2002, if I am not mistaken, so a little more than a year. Perfect. The more time you have, the higher the risk of a stale show.

What was your budget? How much did you raise?

I don't remember. I didn't care. But I was able to do 99.9 percent of what we had in mind at the very start, including a painting show at Museo Correr that cost us an arm and a leg. I had a wizard named Renato Quaglia as managing director, who despite the fact that he drove me crazy was able to put together the necessary budget.

In curating the show, did you aim to talk to your peers or to address a wider audience?

The show was built with my peers and one of them was you, Massimiliano. I wanted a wider audience; that's why the subtitle was "The Viewer's Dictatorship."

What did you want to do differently than your predecessors? Did you accomplish that goal?

Of course I did! I wanted to do something open-ended, where the process was of conviviality, chaos, end of the world, last days of Pompeii. It was exactly like that, and a heat wave during the opening period made the situation explosive. It was a pure adrenaline drive on which I am still riding.

What was the most complex project you were involved with?

"Utopia Station," with about 120 artists and lots of special projects, performances and discussion events. It kept changing by the hour until one hour after the opening.

Which key project were you unable to pull off?

None.

What was the harshest criticism you faced?

That the show was disgusting and I was like Hitler (according to the American critic Kim Levin). I could agree about the disgusting part but never understood where the Hitler comment came from.

What did you risk?

My career.

What did you lose in the process of curating? What did you gain?

I lost some weight and my marriage. I gained the idea that if you believe in what you are doing it is impossible to fail, even if you dive from a plane without a parachute. Which is basically what I did.

How do you think your Biennale is remembered? How do you think it impacted the history of the Biennale itself, or changed the format of what a biennial can be?

"Go ahead, make my day," as Dirty Harry Callahan would say. You want me to tell you that I think it was the last true Biennale? Or that now people still miss it? My show was the end of an era. It's up to you now to start another one. So far, the past four Biennales were just trying to recover from mine. My Biennale was like a heart attack for the institutional system. The Biennale almost died. I was pure cholesterol through its veins, like a blood clot. I just hope you will not edit out my hubris or arrogance. You asked for it.  

2003 Prizes:

Golden Lion for best artist of the international exhibition: Peter Fischli and David Weiss

Golden Lion for an artist under 35: Oliver Payne and Nick Relph

Young Italian Art Prize: Avish Khebrehzadeh

Golden Lions for lifetime achievement: Michelangelo Pistoletto and Carol Rama

Golden Lion for best national participation: Luxembourg, represented by Su-Mei Tse

PHOTO: View of Rudolf Stingel's room installation, 2003, aluminum foil and mixed mediums; in the 50th Venice Biennale, 2003. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.


Francesco Bonami is director of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin

María de Corral, '05

How much time did you have to organize the Biennale? How did this impact your process and results?
We had only five months to organize the Biennale: from September 2004 to February 2005, when we had to register 80 percent of the artists and works. We then had until April to list 100 percent of the participants. The result was that I could not work with some artists as I wished, because there was no time to produce the works, due either to budget problems or to previous engagements of the artists.

What was your budget? How much did you raise?

We were given a budget in September 2004 when both Rosa
Martínez and I accepted the job, and from then on our funding was repeatedly cut. In my case, I had to use 50 percent of my budget to transform the Italy pavilion [now known as the Central Pavilion] into an exhibition space. They gave me a building that had been used for the Carnival of Venice, and I had to install air-conditioning and heating systems plus build walls for hanging works. The pavilion I created has been used as I left it ever since 2005. We raised money from Illycaffè and B&B Italia, but mostly the galleries helped us with the production of new works.

In curating the show, did you aim to talk to your peers or to address a wider audience?

Both. I always worked with that in my mind, being able to engage my peers and the audience that visits Venice during the six months that the Biennale lasts.

What did you want to do differently than your predecessors? Did you accomplish that goal?

I wanted the Biennale to be both intellectual and pleasurable, so that each viewer could enjoy art in the best way an individual can. I therefore worked on the building and the gardens, gave out free water and coffee and created services that were not there before. Everything I did was to ensure that the works of art were experienced without any inconveniences, taking into account the marvelous set of the Giardini. I accomplished my goal, and many people still congratulate me after almost 10 years.

What was the most complex project you were involved with?

There were three: the facade of the Italy pavilion by Barbara Kruger, the extraordinary film Suspiria by Stan Douglas and the overwhelming installation by William Kentridge.

Which key project were you unable to pull off?

A large installation proposed by Doris Salcedo.

What did you risk?

My independence. I received a lot of pressure from artists and politicians to include artists I did not want to show.

What did you lose in the process of curating?
What did you gain?
I did not lose anything, but I gained the extraordinary collaboration of all the artists and the Biennale team. We created a working atmosphere that gave all of us a sense of strength and the possibility to create an incredible project in such a short time!

How do you think your Biennale is remembered? How do you think it impacted the history of the Biennale itself, or changed the format of what a biennial can be?

It is remembered as the first curated by women, by two Mediterranean women who developed a project that was very much based on art itself. The respect for the artists and the way the works of art were installed really had an impact on the subsequent history of the Biennale.

PHOTO: Guerrilla Girls Frida Kahlo, Maria Merian and Kathe Kollwitz in Piazza San Marco during the 51st Venice Biennale, 2005. © Guerrilla Girls


María de Corral is director of the collection at the Museo Patio Herreriano de Arte Contemparaneo Español, Valladolid, Spain.


Rosa Martínez, '05


How much time did you have to organize the Biennale? How did this impact your process and results?
We had only about nine months to start thinking and acting, even though I said yes as soon as I was asked by the president of the Biennale at that time, Davide Croff, since I was aware of the significance of being inscribed in the history of the event as the first woman director in its 110 years of existence. I was also thrilled at the possibility of creating a show in the amazing spaces of the Arsenale. So these challenges compensated for the short time—made more pressing by the slowness of the Italian bureaucracy—and all the other difficulties. When I learned that the president had also chosen another woman to curate the Central Pavilion, and that this woman was María de Corral, I was very happy to share this chance and yet to have different spaces. The fact that we were two women directors (instead of the classic one man) prompted Italian feminists in Milan to ask the president a funny question at the press conference: had he made this decision because in his male unconscious it took two women to equal one man?

What was your budget? How much did you raise?

The budget was a big mystery. I never knew what my total budget was, but I remember that it was cut by a big amount when I said no to a request made by a sponsor. Neither I nor the artists I invited would agree to convert the Arsenale into an advertisement space for coffee machines, with chairs bearing the sponsor logo all around. So I had to ask some galleries and artists to help me balance the cut, and they did.

In curating the show, did you aim to talk to your peers or to address a wider audience?

Harald Szeemann [director of the 1999 and 2001 Venice Biennales] told me that when you do a show you always have to keep your peers in mind. However, I think that in an international event as meaningful and important as this one you have to present la bella combinazione, addressing a wider audience. You must take the event a little bit further than your predecessors took it, but you also have to make it broad and comprehensible enough to reach the general public.

What did you want to do differently than your predecessors? Did you accomplish that goal?

Being a woman, I wanted to reflect on the exclusion that female artists have suffered historically, and the Guerrilla Girls helped me very much with their statistics. Through a series of ironic, large-scale posters, they showed how in 1895 only 2.4 percent of the artists who participated in the International Exhibition in Venice were female; but the shocking thing was that one century later, in 1995, the proportion was only 9 percent. I also wanted to reflect on other political inequalities, so the sound project by Santiago Sierra at the corridor entrance was very meaningful. Among many other things, he stated how in 2005 the countries that had a national pavilion inside the Giardini represented 24 percent of the world's population and produced 83 percent of the Global National Product, while the countries having a national pavilion outside the Giardini represented 34 percent of world's population, producing 9 percent of GNP.

What was the most complex project you were involved with?

The installation Cube by Gregor Schneider at the Piazza San Marco was so complex it became totally impossible to achieve, even though the artist had financial support to do it. We had to go through a hard process of obstacles and face political censorship, because the piece resembled the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

Which key project were you unable to pull off?

In addition to Cube, there was an ambitious project by Jun Nguyen Hatsushiba that could not be presented. Jun wanted to create a big performative installation to criticize the commercialization of domestic water by Coca-Cola in Vietnam. There was also a proposal by Gianni Motti and Christoph Büchel for which we did not get permission: they wanted to sink a container in the waters outside the Arsenale to simulate the isolated conditions of the prisoners in Guantánamo.

What was the harshest criticism you faced?

Believe it or not, the harshest criticism came from some Spanish magazine editors and art critics. The provincial envy was one of the worst things we had to face. Other power strategies could be observed in the critical reception of the event. For example some hegemonic critics dropped a line in major art magazines saying the show was not relevant, then spent four pages acclaiming their own national artists—even though those artists, while well established in the market, had very little to say about the present. But this is part of the game.

What did you risk?

I risked losing my patience, especially with the managing director of the Biennale at the time. But María de Corral was very wise in advising me to keep calm, and Robert Storr, who also suffered that manager's dark intrigues, finally had the pleasure of seeing him resign prior to the opening of his Biennale in 2007.

What did you lose in the process of curating?What did you gain?

I did not have the chance to bring the show even further as I did not have time for deeper and wider artistic research, but I gained many pleasures: having wonderful projects by artists that I deeply believe in; becoming part of the history of an extraordinary international art event; working with a wonderful local administrative team; and, last but not least, learning to walk through the labyrinths of Venice without getting lost.

How do you think your Biennale is remembered? How do you think it impacted the history of the Biennale itself, or changed the format of what a biennial can be?

From the curatorial point of view, I intended to make the syntax of my exhibition clear and legible; I used the longitudinal walk of the Arsenale to play with similarities and oppositions between the works placed on either side. By creating conjunctions and disjunctions, contrasts and connections, I proposed an interpretation of what contemporary creation is all about. Many people understood and appreciated this, together with the political ambition, the humor or the beauty of some of the selected projects. But I was especially surprised by the sexist evaluation made by an important male dealer: he said he had never seen the Arsenale so neat and tidy, so it was obvious that a woman had taken care of it. Apart from that, my contribution to the history of biennials has to be appraised by others, taking into account other projects I've done, such as the 5th Istanbul Biennial in 1997, the 3rd SITE Santa Fe Biennial in 1999, the Biennial EVA 2000 in Limerick and several international exhibitions that I co-curated during the decade 2000-10. My desire and my curatorial actions have always been invested in what could be called the expanded field of contemporary art, bringing the exhibition beyond its walls, dissolving esthetic ideologies and interacting with local communities. So, in Venice, the Arsenale was beautiful and charged with meaning but still small.

2005 Prizes:
 

Golden Lion for best artist of the international exhibition: Thomas Schütte

Golden Lion for an artist under 35: Regina José Galindo

Young Italian Art Prize: Lara Favaretto

Golden Lion for lifetime achievement: Barbara Kruger

Golden Lion for best national participation: France, represented by Annette Messager

PHOTO: View of El Anatsui's Fresh and Fading Memories, 2007, aluminum and cooper wire, 360 by 240 inches; installed on the exterior of the Palazzo Fortuny in the 52nd Venice Biennale, 2007. Photo Giovanni Pancino. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


 Rosa Martínez is an independent curator and art collections consultant.


Robert Storr, '07

How much time did you have to organize the Biennale? How did this impact your process and results?
Initially I was offered two Biennales, one after the other, and was asked to organize the first in less than a year's time. I said that given my preexisting obligations, and the demands of research and travel, I could not take such an additional task on. At the Biennale's request, I provided a list of four people from which they would choose a pair that would be able to share the responsibility and do a good job. They chose Rosa Martínez and María de Corral—the first women ever appointed. Although the two struggled with very limited time and money, they made a fine Biennale together. One of my other recommendations was also a woman, so that whatever choice the Biennale made they would be forced to have a woman as at least half of the duo. 
For the first—and, as it turned out, the last—of my two scheduled Biennales, I had a full two years to work on selection and planning. I devoted the year before that process began to presenting a conference on the past, present and future of the Biennale, also at the Biennale's request. For the last six months of the process, I took my family—largely at my own expense—to Venice to live full-time, in order to make sure that all the preparations were properly made, and to negotiate collaborations with other participants on-site. Some of those projects worked out; others were stymied by local politics. During the year and a half prior to the final push, I traveled around the world, north and south, several times—talking to colleagues, checking out galleries and museums and making studio visits. This included extended trips to Latin America, China, Japan and Russia as well as Europe. So far as I am aware, I was the first Biennale director to go to Africa specifically for the exhibition, and I believe I may have been the first to go to India to do the same. On that score, I tried unsuccessfully to secure Indian government support for a national pavilion. We would have carved it out of my exhibition space, and the Biennale would have partially subsidized it, as we successfully did with Turkey and Africa. Most of this travel was paid for by patrons and national arts organizations of the countries I visited, though a considerable part of it I paid for by giving lectures and participating on art juries and the like. In short, non-Italian supporters of the arts and I personally subsidized the Biennale beyond the small travel allowance they gave me.

What was your budget? How much did you raise?

Under the previous administration, the budget of the Biennale was a shell game. Initially I was told that I would receive $2 million—out of an overall budget of, I believe, $8.5 million—to do my exhibition at the Central Pavilion in the Giardini and at the Arsenale. I said at the outset that this was insufficient to make a serious international show of the scale they proposed, especially given their then stated desire to make something that was not just a gallery-driven bazaar. They intimated that more might be forthcoming once we had an actual list of artists. When we got close to finalizing the list, I told them that I would not make invitations unless I was sure that artists would not be left holding the bag to pay for their participation, and that this was especially important for artists coming from parts of the world that lacked basic cultural infrastructure and patronage. By that time I had already raised over $525,000 from outside sources to supplement the money the Biennale was providing to the show. After some fierce negotiations during which I told the Biennale that I would walk away from the whole project if they did not live up to their implicit as well as explicit commitments, they increased the budget to $2.6 million, and then suddenly announced that the overall budget was actually $12.4 million (if I recall correctly). When the organization's then president attacked me in the press after the Biennale opened, he claimed that my budget was actually $13 million and that I had overspent it. In fact, I never had access to more than $2.6 million, though I ended up with $250,000 of unspent support from American donors, who had placed it at my personal discretion. So to ease the stress, I allocated that amount to the Biennale.

The long and the short of it is that from 2004 to 2007 the Biennale was a black box: nothing that was said or written turned out to be reliable. The new president, Paolo Baratta, has cleaned up the mess he inherited, and his team has made things much more professional. Still, the resources available to the director remain too small to meet the needs of an international exhibition of that size—especially one that has esthetic weight, full independence from vested interests and adequate money to support artists outside the market economy.

In curating the show, did you aim to talk to your peers or to address a wider audience?

I don't need exhibitions to talk to my peers—at any rate, the ones who will consent to talk to me. Seminars, conferences and publications provide that occasion. Exhibitions are made so that the biggest, most diverse possible public can experience for themselves the works that specialists have the privilege of seeing as a part of their primary research. I am not a populist, but I am a democrat; I think that with all their obvious flaws biennials exist to create a context in which people of vastly different backgrounds, motives and desires can come together and experience art they care enough about to make an effort to see, even if it upsets or perplexes them. It is the venue where Stendhal's "happy few" meet Baudelaire's "crowd."

What did you want to do differently than your predecessors? Did you accomplish that goal?

Many things. It would be impossible to name them all. Mostly I wanted to change the tone of the show from an "insider" affair paid for by ticket—buying "outsiders" to something that really worked as a forum for art. Beyond that I wanted to make the show as variegated and as cosmopolitan—as distinct from homogenously global—as means would permit.

I think I succeeded on many levels—remember that the vast majority of the audience for the Biennale arrives gradually over the summer and fall rather than during opening week—but the fury of critics who were determined to contain the conversation within narrow art-world confines was intense, although I take that as an indicator that I at least struck a nerve.

But I should avoid saying "I," since one of the biggest problems with such exhibitions is the degree to which the lead curator becomes the subject of the discussion over and above the art and the artists in them. Ad hominem attacks on me did exactly that in 2007, to the detriment of the artists and of public debate about the work and ideas advanced by the show. I tried hard to avoid the cult-of-the-curator treatment that the press and some professionals impose upon anyone and everyone who accepts such a curatorial challenge, and I was at pains to acknowledge my collaborators at every level. Although I did not have an official curatorial team, I benefited enormously from the expertise and generosity of colleagues around the world—and named them. I also depended heavily on my closest Venetian collaborator, art historian and curator Francesca Pietropaolo, without whom the whole enterprise would have collapsed, as well as on the highly dedicated professionals in the Biennale, starting with Marina Bertaggia and Manuela Lucà Dazio.

What was the most complex project you were involved with?

Pulling together the African pavilion, which I did not curate myself but for which I created a jury to pick the curators. I made every effort to foster this project, despite the arrogant interference of some who thought that they had an a priori "right" to be the organizers without making a proposal to a jury of their peers. Their names are Salah Hassan and Okwui Enwezor. Only Enwezor continued to play the spoiler in public after the opening of the exhibition that was mounted by the jury—selected curators, Fernando Alvim and Simon Njami.

Which key project were you unable to pull off?

I invited Pierre Huyghe to participate, and he had the idea of staging and filming a theater piece on one of the small islands in the lagoon. In the end, we didn't have the time or the money or, due to scheduling conflicts, the actress he wanted for the lead—Kate Moss. But Pierre and I spent a lovely day slaloming through the islands on a motorboat, often crossing the path of my youngest daughter and her boyfriend, who were cruising the lagoon in a tiny power launch on their day off from school.

What was the harshest criticism you faced?

Read Artforum's gangbanging reviews, if you want to know. I am not about to repeat or recycle their diatribes and slander.

What did you risk?

I bet the farm, professionally speaking. Which was necessary given the almost entirely dysfunctional nature of the Biennale administration at the time. Nevertheless, I think I did the institution some good by putting up a fight, by delivering a considered, truly international show that restored sagging attendance, and by treating artists fairly and restoring the Biennale's severely damaged reputation within the creative community.

What did you lose in the process of curating? What did you gain?

My curatorial opportunities have never been the same since. I paid a very high price in every way, especially in ostracism by former colleagues. But I made some wonderful friendships—more important by far than the enemies who came out of the woodwork like worms—and I advanced the cause of the kind of art that I believe matters. I did something no American-born curator had previously done and did it to the best of my ability.

How do you think your Biennale is remembered? How do you think it impacted the history of the Biennale itself, or changed the format of what a biennial can be?

I have no idea. But the first question to ask those who now write or speak about it is, "Did you actually see it?" If they didn't, they should remain silent. Exhibitions are composed of physical things, experienced by physical bodies. Shows unfold in time and space, yet they are ephemeral and untranslatable. Even the most assiduous scholarship cannot capture their essence.

2007 Prizes:

Golden Lion for best artist of the international exhibition: León Ferrari

Golden Lion for an artist under 40: Emily Jacir

Honorable mention: Nedko Solakov

Golden Lion for a critic or an art historian for contributions to contemporary art: Benjamin H.D. Buchloh

Golden Lion for lifetime achievement: Malick Sidibé

Golden Lion for best national participation: Hungary, represented by Andreas Fogarasi

PHOTO: View of Tobias Rehberger's cafeteria installation Was du liebst, bringt dich auch sum weinen, 2009; in the 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009. Photo Wolfgang Günzel. Courtesy Pilar Corrias, London.


Robert Storr is dean of the Yale University School of Art.

Daniel Birnbaum, '09

How much time did you have to organize the Biennale?How did this impact your process and results?

I was asked in March 2008 and accepted almost immediately, so that would be one year and three months. I asked Jochen Volz to join me as a co-curator, and he accepted right away. Since we were both already working with many projects that involved new productions by young artists from all over the world, we could redirect the ones that seemed most relevant. In that way, we did not start from zero like someone who normally works for a museum. That was helpful.

What was your budget? How much did you raise?

The budget for the exhibition itself was $2.35 million. All large projects had funding from some other source. I don't remember the total sum, but I know we introduced a new model. The largest contributions came from foundations such as Luma Foundation in Switzerland, Stella Art Foundation in Russia, Artek in Finland and Inhotim in Brazil. We asked for very little money from galleries, and they would not have helped anyhow—most of this happened in the fall of 2008, when everybody was worried about their own survival. Not even Gagosian seemed eager to be involved.

In curating the show, did you aim to talk to your peers or to address a wider audience?

Clearly both.

What did you want to do differently than your predecessors? Did you accomplish that goal?

Actually, we created links back to previous shows and reinstalled some projects that represent highlights in the history of the Biennale, like the Blinky Palermo room from 1976 or Öyvind Fahlström's Dr. Schweitzer's Last Mission from 1966. And this time we officially included some of the multicolored poles that André Cadere secretly inserted in various exhibitions in the 1970s. I don't remember ever thinking that the goal was to differentiate myself from previous Biennale directors. Since I had been involved once before as a co-curator (with Francesco Bonami), I of course wanted the show to be different from that year, so instead of many sections we created one big, multifaceted show with some massive works.

What was the most complex project you were involved with?

Probably Tobias Rehberger's baroque sculpture that is used as a café. I don't want to think about the time, work and money that we all put into that thing. There is a lot of plumbing in a functional café. But it's still there, and so is Rirkrit Tiravanija's bookstore. No one can ever remove them—it's too expensive!

Which key project were you unable to pull off?

The only thing I remember was a huge building by Hélio Oiticica. I think we had a few pretty unrealistic plans for Arto Lindsay's parade. But it actually did happen. I will never forget artists Paul Chan and Tony Conrad marching in the warm rain!  

What was the harshest criticism you faced?

The newspapers were pretty mild or even enthusiastic. I remember New York magazine's Jerry Saltz thinking the show was too intellectual, which didn't surprise anyone. Worse was a letter from the artist Hans-Peter Feldmann, who had not been properly reimbursed for some transport. That made me sad, because his project was clearly the beginning of a long-overdue breakthrough.

What did you risk?

You can lose a bit of your sanity. The Biennale is a risky thing to do, I think everybody would agree. To have the year 2008 for fundraising was simply bad luck.

What did you lose in the process of curating? What did you gain?

Actually, I lost at least 10 pounds walking so much and not finding time to eat.

How do you think your Biennale is remembered? How do you think it impacted the history of the Biennale itself, or changed the format of what a biennial can be?

In the end one remembers works. A few young artists, such as Nathalie Djurberg and Tomás Saraceno, really did become visible on a new level. But it is also interesting that a biennial can trigger a new global interest in works from previous decades. This clearly happened with Lygia Pape and with the Gutai group. In 2003, I helped Francesco stage a biennial that contained all kinds of formats. For me, that was a great event that represented a kind of pluralism in curating. In 2009, I decided that the complexity should rather be handed back to single artistic projects. We didn't build any homogenizing architecture; instead, each individual work was allowed to define its space, and some beautiful things happened—such as Paul Chan projecting his Sade piece on a wall many centuries old. In a sense, my Biennale represented a shift of focus from curatorial vision to artistic vision. Some people liked that.

2009 Prizes: 

Golden Lion for best artist of the international exhibition: Tobias Rehberger

Silver Lion for a promising young artist in the international exhibition: Nathalie Djurberg

Special mentions: Lygia Pape, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Ming Wong and Roberto Cuoghi

Golden Lions for lifetime achievement: Yoko Ono and John Baldessari

Golden Lion for best national participation: United States of America, represented by Bruce Nauman

PHOTO: Tintoretto: Last Supper, 1591-94, oil on canvas, 144 by 224½ inches; in the Central Pavilion of the 54th Venice Biennale, 2011.

Photos this spread Francesco Galli, courtesy Venice Biennale.


Daniel Birnbaum is director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and a contributing editor for Artforum.


Bice Curiger, '11


How much time did you have to organize the Biennale? How did this impact your process and results?

One year! That is about three months less than you've had, Massimiliano. . . . Honestly, I would have loved to have had more time, because you can never just start the next day after you have been asked. Also, you need to understand and organize the working structure, then you must travel, think and decide all at once. But on the other hand, I liked this deadline, which compels you to act quickly. I believe that this relative spontaneity is a special quality of the Venice Biennale—especially as compared with Documenta. Because that exhibition happens only every five years, the public expects the Documenta curator to express his or her most advanced and well-considered worldview.

What was your budget? How much did you raise?

A very small fraction of what Documenta offers. Don't ask me how much I raised, because as you must know it is about macro- and micro-financing, about large contributions from foundations, private sources, states, etc., along with smaller amounts from galleries, artists, collectors and companies that fund individual projects or pay transport costs for a piece and so on. It is fortunately all transparent—one can check the catalogue. There you will find listed, underneath the reproduction of each work, not the sums given but the names of the contributors.

In curating the show, did you aim to talk to your peers or to address a wider audience?

A wonderful thing about the Biennale is that you can speak to both audiences at once without having to compromise too much.

What did you want to do differently than your predecessors? Did you accomplish that goal?

It happens naturally; I did not sit down and think about what I could do differently. Rather, I thought about what had inspired me in the past—like Francesco Bonami's biennial with its energy and its choir of many voices. And then I included Tintoretto from the 16th century, and put his paintings right at the entrance to my group show in the Giardini.

What was the most complex project you were involved with?

To bring the Tintoretto paintings into the Central Pavilion was a challenge for all of us at the Biennale, although it was only a very short trip. The largest painting had only to cross the Laguna.

Which key project were you unable to pull off?

A large installation at the Gaggiandre (the pool under the roof, outside the Arsenale): the engineers worked hard to find out in time how to deal with the winds, the tides and making a machine work in salt water. They had to give up.

What was the harshest criticism you faced?

The harshness lies in the ignorance you encounter. Unfortunately, with these big shows you are confronted with a lot of writing that only pretends to be competent. Why? Because the shows are big, the art is new and the artists often not well known yet. Most of the writers just run through the exhibition, not having much time to look or think. They meet friends and colleagues, they chat, have fun, etc., and then they have to write. Another problem is that if you are not from New York or London, or the specific hometown of the journalist, the press will not really have knowledge of your curatorial life prior to your becoming the director of the Biennale.

What did you risk?

Like all the others, you risk your professional reputation, maybe . . .

What did you lose in the process of curating? What did you gain?

I really enjoyed the experience! I learned a lot, I met wonderful people, I made new friends. What did I lose? I dropped my laptop computer in the Canal Grande a couple of nights before the opening.

How do you think your Biennale is remembered? How do you think it impacted the history of the Biennale itself, or changed the format of what a biennial can be?

People might remember my Biennale as the one with the old master work at the entrance, while they were prepared to see an advanced contemporary art show. I also hope that "ILLUMInations," as the whole event was called, helped deneuroticize viewers' relationship with the national pavilions. With the four para-pavilions, designed by artists to hold work by other artists, I tried to foster unexpected interactions—a metaphor for the illuminating power that emanates from that wonderful nation called art.

2009 Prizes: 

Golden Lion for best artist of the international exhibition: Christian Marclay

Silver Lion for a promising young artist in the international exhibition: Haroon Mirza

Special mentions: Lithuania and Klara Lidén

Golden Lions for lifetime achievement: Sturtevant and Franz West

Golden Lion for best national participation: Germany, represented by Christoph Schlingensief

PHOTO: View of Monika Sosnowska's para-pavilion Antechamber, 2011, wallpaper, skirting board, stucco, lamps and mixed mediums; in the 54th Venice Biennale, 2011.


Bice Curiger is curator of the Kuntshaus Zurich and editor-in-chief of Parkett magazine.