Cecilia Alemani



You grew up in Milan. Did you grow up around art? 

My family has always been passionate about art, but never really cared about contemporary art. My grandfather was an art history teacher and collected Maissen porcelaine cups from the eighteenth century. I remember him staring at these tiny masterpieces: I can’t tell if it was passion or compassion… It really struck me that you could love anything that was so fragile. It sounds cheesy but I guess that’s how I learnt to like things that were weak and incomprehensible.

 What did you study?

I studied philosophy in Milan, with a major in Aesthetics. I spent the last 2 years of my undergrad in Paris, writing my dissertation on Georges Bataille and his magazine Documents. I got involved in contemporary art while I was still in university, working for a few galleries. An exhibition by Franz Gertsch and his woodcuts at the gallery were I worked really blew me away.

How did you choose to become a curator?  Did you ever toy with any other career routes, relating to or not concerning art? When did you curate your first show?  What was it?

Actually I had always wanted to become an archaeologist. When I was 17 I went on excavation camp near Rome and changed my mind: it was less Indiana Jones and more forced labor. We dug a hole for 3 weeks: we were looking for traces of a Roman villa and only ended up unearthing a huge sheet of plastic. So I gave up archaeology and went on to study Philosophy and Aesthetics. After graduation and Paris, I moved to London and joined a course of contemporary art at Tate Modern. It was a great experience: we had great access to exhibitions and to the Tate collection. After London I went back to Milan and started working for a gallery, before moving to NY to enroll in a Master in Curatorial Studies at Bard College in 2003. The first real show I curated was at Artists Space and was titled Things Fall Apart All Over Again, an exhibition featuring Carlos Bunga, Heather Rowe and Michael Sailstorfer, three emerging artists at the time, who shared an interest in architecture and particularly in domestic space as an archetypical sculptural form.

You were Curatorial Director of X Initiative, the one year project that managed to squeeze in several art world-rocking shows and events.  How did you become involved and what was your experience there?

Back in late 2008 I was working independently and Elizabeth Dee, who was the founder of X Initiative, approached me with the idea of opening an exhibition space in the former Dia Center for the Arts building on 22 Street. It was December 2008. We opened the space on March 6, 2009, and we began a one year adventure, during which we organized more than twelve exhibitions. It’s been a wonderful experience, and we were so lucky to work in such a fantastic space for a year. We all put a lot of energy in the shows and programming, trying to turn an empty building into a new gathering point for the artistic community. It was exciting and exhausting: directing a place like X means selecting the artists, curating the shows and carrying out the trash every night.

The title of your show in the rotating gallery at PS1, The Comfort of Strangers, comes from an Ian McEwen novel; do you often take cues from creative fields outside of the art world?

In this particular case, I really wanted to make a show that wasn’t about a theme or that wasn’t focused on a theoretical problem or on some issue I wanted to demonstrate. I was more interested in setting up an atmosphere or a set of correspondences, in which the artists’ works could freely react to each other. It wasn’t a group show: it was a field of tensions. So it’s not really a show about Ian McEwan’s book: it is more an exhibition that tried to capture that sense of uneasiness, that sense of unsettling confusion. It was an exhibition about affinities and antipathies, perhaps.

Both the show in the rotating gallery in PS1’s Greater New York show, up for only five weeks, and your work with X initiative, being conceived of as a year long project from its creation (the countdown on the website always reminding us time was running out), have a very ephemeral quality.  Why do you choose these temporally concerned projects?

I actually think you always have to work on a longer duration. An exhibition can only last a couple of weeks or a couple of days, but it’s important you work on a long term perspective: you want to concentrate on art works and artists that are leaving an incisive mark. I have always enjoyed the speed of NY, but as a contemporary art curator, you have to find a balance between speed and density, between what’s fashionable and what is durable. I think as a curator in NY today it is important to work against the grain and concentrate on works that have the integrity and concentration it takes to oppose to a simple fashionable taste.

Your upcoming project is Frame, a section of Frieze Art Fair that was started in 2009 and is dedicated to solo artist presentations from young galleries.  What made you interested in this project?  What have you chosen to present and how did the show coalesce?

Fairs have come to play a crucial role in the production and distribution of art, and—as a young curator—I think it is important to measure one self up to these new platforms. Before joining the Frieze Art Fair, I had collaborated with Artissima, the art fair in Turin. For Frieze, together with independent curator Daniel Baumann, I have been working on the section Frame, which concentrates on solo presentations by young artists from around the world: it is a unique observatory on contemporary art today, in faraway places such as China, Japan, India, and Mexico, along with more familiar territories such as the United States and Europe.

Why have you steadfastly remained an independent curator?  What advantages does this afford you?  What kind of risks can you take in terms of presenting work in new and creative ways?

I have always enjoyed being a freelance curator: there is a sense of freedom which is quite unique, especially as it is coupled with a very rigid self-discipline and a good dose of independence. I think as a freelance curator you have to be very generous and very strict at the same time. On the other hand I have been working with institutions as established as Tate Modern, where I organized the festival “No Soul For Sale.” To tell you the truth, I don’t really think that much about the distinction between curating independently or working with institutions: I am just interested in working with artists and finding different ways to engage the audience. One particular aspect that I have been experimenting with, for example, is the organization of events and festivals in which artists, non for profit spaces, and virtually anyone can participate. At X Initiative, for the closing event in February 2010 called Bring Your Own Art, for 24 hours we hung anything that anybody brought into the galleries.

What is your collaboration with Massimiliano Gioni?

We are kind of roommates.

What is your favorite show you’ve ever curated?  That’s been curated by someone else?

I think the show that left the most enduring impression on me must have been Documenta 11, curated by Okwui Enwezor. I wouldn’t say that it was my favorite show, but it struck me for its complexity and variety. And it was the kind of exhibition you measure yourself up against: I couldn’t help disagreeing with many of its assumptions but it was such a coherent and complex system you really had to come to terms with.

As for the show I have organized, I must say that I will always felt extremely lucky to have been able to work with such a legendary artist as Hans Haacke, whose one person show I organized at X in November 2009. Hans is not only a great artist whose legacy is forever written in art history, but also a wonderful and generous person. And it is simply incredible he hadn’t had a one person exhibition in New York institution since 1986…

There are many other great artists with whom I have closely worked. It is difficult to choose but artists as different as Keren Cytter, Ryan Trecartin, Emily Roysdon, Artur Zmijewski all seem to share a preoccupation with communication and group dynamics. I think they are all, in their own individual way, trying to understand the ways we can live with each other.