“Il Mondo Magico” at Italian Pavilion, Venice Biennale
Cecilia Alemani interviewed by Wendy Vogel
Wendy Vogel: This year’s Italian Pavilion exhibition at the Venice Biennale is Il mondo magico, a title borrowed from the 1948 book by Ernesto de Martino. Your curatorial statement refers to de Martino’s description of rituals as “devices through which individuals try to regain control in times of uncertainty and reassert their presence in the world.” Can you explain how this theme resonates in our political climate?
Cecilia Alemani: Il mondo magico is the book that inaugurates de Martino’s studies about the world of magic. He looks at ancient civilizations and their rituals, shamanic practices, mythologies, beliefs. After Il mondo magico, he keeps studying the theme of magic in the “Southern trilogy,” which was published in the 1950s and 1960s. In these books, he examines Italy in a specific time culturally—the Second World War, when there was a sharp distinction between the north and the south. The north is associated with the economic boom and industry, while the south has been seen as the poor and the peasant region. De Martino goes on missions to study the magic world of these southern populations. He looked to magic as a tool to reaffirm one’s presence in the world, and not as an escape into an irrational world. I am struck by his role in giving voice to the populations of southern Italy, which at that moment were seen as a second-class culture. I use this idea to frame the exhibition called Il mondo magico, which includes three artists whose work is embedded in research into rituals, as well as belief and faith in imagination. They use new mythologies as tools to rewrite history and to face a moment of crisis.
WV: Your curatorial text states that the exhibiting artists move away from documentary-style narratives. Do their methods resonate with the way de Martino worked?
CA: Yes, because de Martino’s approach was quite experimental. He was using the methodology of anthropology, but instead of applying it to all cultures, he applied it to his own contemporary culture. His research was also incredibly interdisciplinary. He would travel with photographers like Franco Pinna, who would document rituals like tarantism. He also brought an ethnomusicologist to record the southern population’s voices, songs, and lamentations. Today, you could call his approach documentary, but it wasn’t about recording from a passive standpoint.
WV: Why do you think the anti-documentary method is important now?
CA: I’m interested in facing themes and subjects that are still relevant today, but from a different entry point. You might say it is also a reaction to the last Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor, which was so much about straightforward documentary. I have great respect for Enwezor. One of the most amazing exhibitions, which brought me to what I do as a job, was his documenta in 2002. But that said, I like the idea of working with artists who can deal with the same themes, but from a more personal or alternative perspective. One clear example is Adelita Husni-Bey, who is the youngest artist in the exhibition. She works mainly with video. Husni-Bey tackles important subjects like the geopolitical crisis, but through the lens of imagination and utopia. She brings together groups of people in intense workshops where they try to create a new cosmology or a new vision of the world.
WV: Why did you choose to work with only three artists?
CA: The decision to have only three artists is a radical departure from the previous Italian Pavilion exhibitions, which have included up to 150 artists. I wanted to distance myself from that approach and align the pavilion more with the other national pavilions, which usually bring only one artist. The exhibition will present a deep reading of these three artists’ work. They only show new work apiece, but each of them has a giant space. I hope that when you enter the pavilion, you feel as though you have walked into the artists’ minds. Roberto Cuoghi is presenting a large sculptural installation. Adelita Husni-Bey has done a new video that she shot in New York. And Giorgio Andreotta Calò made an installation that is in deep dialogue with the pavilion’s architecture.
WV: You write about the genealogy of a magic line in Italian art, from the Renaissance to the mysticism of Arte Povera to Transavanguardia and beyond. How do these artists fit within that tradition?
CA: Even though the artists are young, their language is deeply influenced by the Italian tradition. I write about a magic line that can be seen in the Renaissance, with a polarity between rational mathematical studies and the discovery of alchemy and Hermeticism. And more recently, in Arte Povera, it can be seen in artists’ use of alchemic materials. For instance, Andreotta Calò often adopts strategies that can be compared to those of Arte Povera by using environmental elements like water, fire, and light. His use of water as both a generative and a destructive force recalls not only Arte Povera, but also artists like Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson. In Cuoghi’s work, you can also easily see this magic line. I thought about the artist as a shaman, and Cuoghi is a perfect example of that. Recently, at the Deste Foundation in Greece, he made a series of amazing crab sculptures. They look artisanal, but they are actually made with a 3D printer that prints clay. Then he fired the clay in archaic-looking kilns that he built himself. He combined a very advanced technology with an ancient one.
at Venice Biennale
until 26 November 2017