The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2022

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APRIL 2022 Issue
Art In Conversation

Eugenio Viola with Francesca Pietropaolo

“I call myself a melancholic by birth and an optimist by compulsion. In these disquieting times, I believe that optimism is an ethical necessity, almost a moral obligation.”

Portrait of Eugenio Viola. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Eugenio Viola. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Venice, Italy
The Italian Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition
Storia della notte e destino delle comete
April 23 – 27 November 2022

This interview with the Italian-born and Bogotá-based curator Eugenio Viola, who curates the Italian Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale (opening later this month), took place on February 4, 2022. He from his home in Bogotá and I from mine in Venice, we connected via Zoom to talk about the possibilities and challenges of curatorial practice, the resilience of art in exploring memory and trauma, and the “necessity” to maintain a “despite-everything” optimism at this difficult historical juncture. Our dialogue encompassed Viola’s socially engaged projects at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotà, where he works, and his upcoming undertaking in Venice, with some incursions into his formative experiences in Naples. The interview took place in Italian, our native language, and what appears here is the edited text of it in English translation (translated by Francesca Pietropaolo).

Gian Maria Tosatti, <em>Terra dell’ultimo cielo</em> (Land of the Last Sky), 2016, site-specific environmental installation from Seven Seasons of the Spirit, view at former Military Hospital, Naples, 2016. Courtesy Galleria Lia Rumma Milan/Naples.
Gian Maria Tosatti, Terra dell’ultimo cielo (Land of the Last Sky), 2016, site-specific environmental installation from Seven Seasons of the Spirit, view at former Military Hospital, Naples, 2016. Courtesy Galleria Lia Rumma Milan/Naples.

Francesca Pietropaolo (Rail): You are chief curator at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotà (MAMBO) in Colombia, and you have been invited by the Italian Ministry of Culture to curate the Italian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Your curatorial journey is animated by a remarkable international breath, unfolding as it has so far from Europe to Australia (where you were senior curator at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth) and from there to South America. It started out in Naples, where you began working as a curator at the Madre Museum. Naples, your hometown, is a city of wonderful contradictions and multiple registers. In his reflections on the city, written with Asja Lacis in the mid 1920s, Walter Benjamin perceptively drew attention to its “porosity,” a quality manifest in the body itself of the city (with its porous yellow tuff architecture), but also a metaphor for a way of living and thinking. As Benjamin noted, Naples’s porosity is the interpenetration of conflicting experiences and reflections, and of different aspects that ultimately blend. Nothing is closed in on itself. In Benjamin’s words, “No situation, as it appears, is thought of once and for all … Porosity means … above all, the eternal passion for improvising.” In your ongoing international journey, what do you bring with you from the experience of growing up, and of coming of age as a curator, in Naples?

Eugenio Viola: Well, certainly I have taken with me the idiosyncratic blending of contradictions that animates the Neapolitan dimension. To paraphrase Benjamin, in the North the South, and in the South the North. Naples was an excellent training ground for me to be able to confront myself with Bogotá. Both cities are animated by this form of entropy. Despite their marked differences—Naples being a city by the sea, while Bogotá an Andean city—both are cities living on the edge, pushing the limits; in fact, they feed on their edge. In a way, Bogotá is an exploded version of Naples. Were I from Milan, it would have been more difficult for me to live here! [Laughter] But of course, Bogotá is a megalopolis compared to Naples.

Gian Maria Tosatti, <em>Terra dell’ultimo cielo</em> (Land of the Last Sky), 2016 (detail). Site-specific environmental installation from Seven Seasons of the Spirit, view at former Military Hospital, Naples, 2016. Courtesy Galleria Lia Rumma Milan/Naples.
Gian Maria Tosatti, Terra dell’ultimo cielo (Land of the Last Sky), 2016 (detail). Site-specific environmental installation from Seven Seasons of the Spirit, view at former Military Hospital, Naples, 2016. Courtesy Galleria Lia Rumma Milan/Naples.

My curatorial experience at Madre—where I was junior curator and then curator at large—allowed me to explore cross-cultural dialogues and international collaborations early on. From 2009 to 2012, I co-curated the museum’s Project Room, and we organized a network project with Middle Eastern institutions to metaphorically reactivate the Mediterranean routes. You know, the “Arab Spring” [the anti-government uprisings that in the early 2010s spread across much of the Arab world] was about to take place at the time, and, retrospectively, I can say that the signs building up to its happening were very much in the air… We twinned Naples with Cairo, with Istanbul, with Tel Aviv, and with Thessaloniki. In particular, like Naples, Thessaloniki is a port city, a gateway to the East. Somehow, Naples is the last European city and the first Mediterranean one. In each of those cities we identified an institution and a curator who proposed an artist, and we created together a cross-residency project. For instance, an Egyptian artist came to Naples and an Italian artist went to Cairo. They would each realize a site-specific project. Each exhibition was conceived in two temporal moments and in two spaces: the exhibition would open at Madre and then it would tour to the city where the invited artist-in-residence came from. Subsequently, I co-curated a festival of performances titled Corpus Arte in Azione (Corpus Art in Action), which took place over four years, each year with a different curatorial focus. I have always had a keen interest in performance art and bodily poetics. For instance, in 2014 I co-curated the first retrospective in Italy of Francis Alÿs, and the following year the first one in Italy of Boris Mikhailov.

Rail: Could you talk a bit about your formative background, prior to your curatorial activity? Your interest in performance emerged since your studies at the university, right?

Viola: Yes, early on. In Naples I studied with Angelo Trimarco, one of the most important Italian critics of conceptual art. He has been my mentor and I graduated with him with a thesis on the French artist ORLAN. Then I took a Master in curatorial studies at Accademia di Brera, Milan in 2002. After that, I took a doctorate at the University of Salerno, always under Angelo. The University of Salerno was the first university where the teaching of contemporary art was introduced in Italy, with art historian Filiberto Menna (1926-1988). He was a mentor to Angelo and also to Achille Bonito Oliva.

Rail: Menna was an influential scholar, critic, and curator, and he contributed to drawing attention to art that becomes a living and participatory experience. Thinking of Trimarco’s contributions as critic, his book L’arte e l’abitare (Art and Inhabiting) (2001) comes to my mind: it seems particularly resonant with a project that you organized in 2016 when you presented an ensemble of immersive installations by the Rome-born and Naples-based artist Gian Maria Tosatti at different sites in Naples and related works by him at the Madre Museum. Tosatti is the artist you have chosen to represent Italy at the Venice Biennale. Can you talk about how you two met and about that very interesting project you did together in Naples back then?

Gian Maria Tosatti at work in Naples in 2021 on his project for the Venice Biennale’s Italian Pavilion Photo: Maddalena Tartaro
Gian Maria Tosatti at work in Naples in 2021 on his project for the Venice Biennale’s Italian Pavilion Photo: Maddalena Tartaro

Viola: That was my last show at Madre. That project with Gian Maria was called Sette Stagioni dello Spirito (Seven Seasons of the Spirit) (2013–2016) and comprised seven environmental installations. It was inspired to Gian Maria by the 1577 book Il castello interiore (The Interior Castle) by St. Teresa of Àvila, the Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic. She wrote it to defend herself from the Inquisition that had put her on trial for her orgasmic ecstasies. In this introspective book, she focused on the human soul, describing its seven stations. In his work, Gian Maria blended the reference to Teresa of Àvila with Dante’s ascensional scheme. To present the seven installations we re-opened seven abandoned buildings—dismissed since World War II or since the 1980 earthquake that hit Southern Italy—open wounds in what the writer Matilde Serao once called “the belly of Naples.”

Gian Maria and I met in Venice in 2011 during the 54th Venice Biennial’s opening days—just before then, that year I had seen his installation Testamento - devozioni X (Testament – devotions X) (2011) in Rome [at the abandoned Water Tower of San Camillo Hospital]. While talking in Venice, at one point he told me about his idea for a project in Naples and we decided to realize it together. After that last exhibition at Madre, I left for Australia to work at PICA. I wanted to change my life then. And I am quite radical! [Laughs]

Rail: So you chose to move to a different hemisphere. [Laughs]

Viola: Yes, but always with a coherent impulse: I was born in Southern Italy, I then moved to the Southern hemisphere, and I now live in South America. The South is part of my destiny, almost a vocation. Viva il Sud! (Long live the South!) [Laughter]

Rail: Criticality and an existential urgency or investment in the undertaking animate your curatorial practice. It tends to invoke a participatory dimension, in the sense of aiming to foster dialogue on pressing contemporary issues with the public, with the community where the exhibition takes place. It seems to me that art and community are the key elements in your work. In this respect, what are your thoughts on the role of the curator today, in the troubled times in which we live?

Viola: Indeed, in the institutional roles that I have held, the key role for me is the mediation with the public. The museum is for the public. I am for a curatorial practice that is socially engaged. This attitude of mine has grown exponentially over the years. The choices I have made so far about the places to work in are also connected to this approach. I believe that art should reflect reality in a dialectical way and, when necessary, in a polemical way exploring the contradictions, the lacerations of contemporaneity. We live in a hyper-aesthetic society. Everything is aesthetic: films, video clips, trailers, politics, and life itself. Moreover, we are bombarded by an unprecedented amount of images—a process sclerotized by the digital revolution. And all this hyperaesthetization risks anesthetizing us. Indifference destroys everything, art included. Art needs to stimulate a reaction, foster critical thinking. For me, an exhibition works when the public, after experiencing it, leaves it with more questions than it had when it stepped into it.

Rail: Close dialogue with the artists and attention to the context are central to this vision.

Viola: Exactly. Both are of great importance and they are intertwined. For instance, the first exhibition I organized at PICA, Perth—it was in 2017—was conceived in response to the 70th anniversary of the Partition of Colonial India, the 1947 division of British India into the independent dominions of India and Pakistan. That historical rupture created the first nineteenth-century massive diaspora and one of the bloodiest. Starting from the fragile and complex socio-political context, the exhibition explored the experience of trauma. Titled I don’t want to be there when it happens, it featured works by Pakistani and Indian artists. I got the local communities involved through the exhibition’s public program. Public programs are always an important part of my curatorial undertakings.

Similarly, my first project at MAMBO in Bogotà, in 2019, was an exhibition on the migratory emergency with Venezuela. It was a project with the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles who, since 2017, had been working along the border between Colombia and Venezuela. The two countries have no diplomatic relationship. The exhibition’s title was Estorbo. In Spanish Estorbo means something that bothers you, disturbs you, even on a physical level. All fascist governments the world over describe the problem of migration as an estorbo.

Voluspa Jarpa, <em>Sindemia</em>, 2021 (detail). Multimedia installation. Installation view at MAMBO, Bogotá, 2021. Photo: Esteban Alejandro Suárez and Juan Felipe Echavarria. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá - MAMBO.
Voluspa Jarpa, Sindemia, 2021 (detail). Multimedia installation. Installation view at MAMBO, Bogotá, 2021. Photo: Esteban Alejandro Suárez and Juan Felipe Echavarria. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá - MAMBO.

Rail: Among the exhibitions currently on view at MAMBO (through February 6), there is a constellation of solo shows presenting recent work by some South American women artists, including, in particular, a site-specific work by the Chilean artist Voluspa Jarpa. I saw some installation views of it. Can you tell me about this current project overall and of Jarpa’s contribution to it?

Viola: I work by exhibition cycles. All my exhibitions are interconnected. This current cycle of shows is devoted to women artists. I am gay and feminist!

Rail: MAMBO itself is a museum founded and led by women since its opening in the early 1960s. Its founder was the Argentine art historian and writer Marta Traba (1930-1983).

Viola: Yes. And our current director also is a woman, Claudia Hakim.

Luz Lizarazo, <em>Soy las niñas sin ejército</em> (I Am the Girls Without Army), 2020. Published in <em>El Tiempo</em>.
Luz Lizarazo, Soy las niñas sin ejército (I Am the Girls Without Army), 2020. Published in El Tiempo.

The three exhibitions that comprise the current cycle are devoted, respectively, to Voluspa Jarpa (from Chile), Luz Lizarazo (from Colombia), and Alba Triana (from Colombia). I titled the cycle Conversación al Sur, referencing Traba’s seminal novel. (The book’s title was translated in English as Mothers and Shadows.) Traba was expelled from Colombia on charges of Bolshevism. Colombia has faced one of the longest internal conflicts in history, which officially ended with the 2016 peace agreements but, in fact, never ended, with the result that vast parts of the country are still under the power of the paramilitaries. Marta Traba once publicly criticized the dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (in power from 1953 to 1957). Since she had a fundamental role in connecting Colombian modernism, Venezuelan modernism, and Cuban modernism, they used the charge of Bolshevism to ban her from the country. Her book Conversación al Sur (1981) consists of the dialogue between two women during the dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s. They are of different generations—respectively, the mother and the wife of two men at war. In this exhibition cycle, the reference to Traba’s book becomes a pretext to talk about the violence that afflicts the South American continent. To say it with Giorgio Agamben, in this project I employed an “archaeological approach to the present,” in that the three shows reference the past to call into question the present. Overall, the project addresses a wide range of themes such as resistance, social unrest, and violence; symbolisms, feminisms and femininity; and the intersection between art, science and technology. While embedded in the South American context, the works of these artists, each with its distinctive vocabulary, bespeak of universal concerns.

Rail: And what about Jarpa’s contribution?

Viola: You know, Voluspa is the winner of the inaugural edition of the Julius Baer Art Prize for Latin American Female Artists, a new biennial award that we launched in partnership with Julius Baer. We invited a jury composed of the art historian and curator Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, Cuauhtémoc Medina, chief curator at the University Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, and Agustín Pérez-Rubio, former director of MALBA, Buenos Aires. They joined Barbara Staubli, curator of the Julius Baer Art Collection, and myself. Each of us on the jury proposed five artists, and in total we considered 22 artists (some names overlapped, in our nominations). At the end of the selection process, we invited five women artists to present a site-specific project: the Peruvian artist Sandra Gamarra, the Guatemalan artist Sandra Monterroso, the Argentine artist Mariela Scafati, the Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó, and Voluspa. Voluspa presented a project which is at the same time painful and necessary, Sindemia (Syndemic). It’s the one on view now at the museum. The work’s title borrows the term introduced in medical anthropology in the 1990s to describe the phenomenon of two or more sequential epidemics in a population with biological interactions, a phenomenon that exacerbates health, environmental, social, and economic repercussions. In Voluspa’s work, this phenomenon is turned into a bitter metaphor to talk about the Estallido Social (social outburst) in Chile, the greatest series of protests in the country after the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. They occurred from October 2019 to March 2020. In collaboration with a mathematician, an astrophysicist, and a Mapuche poet, among others, the artist collected experiences and testimonies about this rebellion against the systematic human rights violations in Chile, and addressed the police abuses during the protest movement. Sindemia is a multimedia project including text, photos, archival documents, videos, maps, sculptures, objects, and wallpapers. During the preparation of the show, problems arose also in Colombia, where police abuses took place during the national strike protests. So Voluspa decided to extend her research to the Colombian context. Colombia is the most unequal country in South America and also the most corrupted one. In her research, which she always does working collaboratively, Voluspa discovered that the Chilean police is trained by the Colombian police. Indeed they use the same methods such as ocular traumas, sexual violence, and disappearance of people. This means that it is not a coincidence. It is a plan to monitor and punish young people. Art dissents. It has to dissent, in my view. The limits by which a country can be called democratic have long been overturned, here.

Rail: Will the Jarpa show travel?

Voluspa Jarpa, <em>Sindemia</em>, 2021 (detail). Multimedia installation. Installation view at MAMBO, Bogotá, 2021. Photo: Esteban Alejandro Suárez and Juan Felipe Echavarria. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá - MAMBO.
Voluspa Jarpa, Sindemia, 2021 (detail). Multimedia installation. Installation view at MAMBO, Bogotá, 2021. Photo: Esteban Alejandro Suárez and Juan Felipe Echavarria. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá - MAMBO.

Viola: Yes, to Muntref-Museo de la Inmigración, Buenos Aires; then to the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral in Santiago, Chile on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Pinochet coup; and it will end the tour in Peru. It will have Pan-American relevance, and that is very important.

Rail: Have you been able to evaluate the impact of an exhibition of this nature on the public? Has it generated debate, in the difficult process of addressing these hidden narratives?

Viola: We have included in the exhibition a work by Voluspa consisting of a writing desk where people can leave their testimony.

Rail: And you will collect and preserve their responses to the show at the end of it?

Viola: Yes. And this material will be enriched at each venue of the show by the commentaries collected from visitors in the different countries during its tour. As you know, Colombia is a presidential republic in Latin American style, thus the president has extended power—he can, for instance, declare the state of siege, in which case who knows what happens. So, debate on these difficult issues is crucial.

Rail: You talked earlier about the “archaeology of the present,” referencing Giorgio Agamben. There is, I find, an urgent need to activate memory, to come to terms with history not only in South America but also in Europe and elsewhere in the world today, in order to try and create a better future.

Viola: Absolutely.

Rail: MAMBO is a museum of modern art engaged in exploring current artistic practices. Modern and contemporary are put in dialogue, which allows for a richness of possibilities to be explored. Can you talk briefly about this dimension to your work?

Viola: We are, like New York’s MoMA, a museum of modern art engaged with contemporary practice. I organize a focus on the collection each year. Exhibitions on the art of historical figures are conceived in dialogue with the other shows on view at the same time so that modern and contemporary come together in the visitor’s experience. Our program aims to foster knowledge about art in Colombia, in South America and in the international context.

Rail: Let’s talk about the Italian Pavilion. At last, for the first time its entire space is given to one artist. It is a challenge since it is a vast space of about 2000 square meters, plus a 900 square-meter garden. Since a dedicated space for the pavilion was allocated at the Arsenale’s Tese delle Vergini (where there used to be a nineteenth-century coal warehouse) in 2006—the pavilion first opened there on the occasion of the 2006 Biennale of Architecture—the available exhibition space has grown over the years, thanks to subsequent renovations. It is not an easy space to play with. Can you talk about how your choice of Gian Maria Tosatti came about for this endeavor? He is best known for his multimedia, immersive installations and their interdisciplinary reach, as you mentioned earlier describing the project you did with him in Naples.

Viola: Tosatti’s installations are complex compositions in space, environments to step into. A wide range of media are in close dialogue in his work. This approach resonates with the synthesis of the arts dear to the utopian vision of the avant-gardes. Gian Maria has an eccentric background, in that it is based on the relationship between art and inhabiting, as Angelo Trimarco would say. Theater has been a very important part of the artist’s formative experience and this original “sin of the theater,” so to speak, has remained in his work. Gian Maria has an absolute mastery of space. It issues precisely from his theatrical past. Moreover, he is very active as an intellectual; he is a journalist and an essayist. He has recently written a very beautiful book, Esperienza e Realtà (Experience and Reality) (2021).

Rail: Does it delve into John Dewey’s reflection on art as experience, at all?

Viola: In this book, Gian Maria explores the theme of the reconstitution of an organic unity between the four physical dimensions of space-time and that of experience, to which philosophers such as Dewey, and also Herbert Marcuse, refer. He invites us to rethink what the dimension of experience is and how it is connected to the concept of aesthetics.

For me the choice of Gian Maria for the Italian Pavilion was almost automatic. He is a compagno di strada (fellow traveler) for me.

Rail: And it is a way for you to reconnect to your important collaboration in Naples six years ago, building on that experience, right?

Viola: Yes. In fact, like Gian Maria, I work with a consequentiality: I see all my exhibitions as visual essays, as chapters of a narrative work that is being written in time, a work in constant evolution. What Gian Maria and I will soon inaugurate in Venice is one of the most important chapters, for both of us.

Rail: Can you describe the project you’re working on? I understand that installation has just started in Venice.

Viola: Yes, and I will be in Venice again next week. The project will present a work produced for the occasion, a site-specific multi-media installation.

Rail: I imagine that Tosatti has been working primarily in Naples on it, with some specific collaborations in terms of local production being arranged in Venice.

Viola: Yes. The production of the work started in Naples. The Morra Foundation, which is also one of our technical sponsors, lent us a deconsecrated church in Naples for Gian Maria to use it to begin the work’s production.

Rail: What is the project’s title?

Viola: It’s Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete (History of Night and Destiny of Comets).

Gian Maria Tosatti, <em>Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete</em> (History of Night and Destiny of Comets), 2022 (detail), Photo: Gian Maria Tosatti
Gian Maria Tosatti, Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete (History of Night and Destiny of Comets), 2022 (detail), Photo: Gian Maria Tosatti

Rail: That’s a great, suggestive title.

Viola: Thank you. It is an immersive work of scenographic, theatrical structure. It is conceived as unfolding through a prologue and two acts. The first act is the history of night, which tells the rise and fall of the Italian industrial dream (the so-called miracolo economico of the 1960s), and prepares the public for the final epiphany, which is the destiny of comets. That is the last part of the installation, which occupies the second of the two spaces in which the Tese delle Vergini venue consists. It is basically a story that evokes what the late Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto called “progresso scorsoio” (sliding progress), going through a series of intimations dear to Ermanno Rea’s book La dismissione (The Dismantlement) (2002), which can be considered the last novel of the Italian industrial tradition.

Rail: Your reference to the Neapolitan journalist and writer Rea is very interesting. In La dismissione he addresses the early-1990s dismantlement of the Ilva factory, a major steel plant spanning almost a century of Neapolitan history, in Bagnoli (a district on the western outskirts of Naples). The book’s protagonist is a worker at that factory who had become over the years a specialized technician, and he was entrusted with the task of dismantling his department, which was sold to the Chinese. I like how in his work Rea blends historical reality, a lyrical and symbolic interpretation of it, and narrative invention. It is a book that still speaks to our present, in Italy.

Viola: Yes, indeed. Moreover, Rea’s novel employs an inductive approach, moving from the particular to the general, and in so doing it gives an overview of Italy—a country with an industrial history marked by some positive examples, like those of the industrialists Adriano Olivetti and Achille Maramotti, but characterized by many negative examples such as the dramatic 1976 industrial accident known as “the disaster of Seveso,” in Northern Italy, and the life-threatening pollution caused by the Ilva factory in Taranto, in Southern Italy, where the workers are put in the tragic condition of having to decide whether to die of cancer or of starvation.

As I said, in Gian Maria’s work for the Italian Pavilion there is this final, cathartic vision. I won’t tell you, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you! [Laughter] Above all, a fundamental reference in this project is Pier Paolo Pasolini with his 1975 Corriere della Sera article “Il vuoto del potere in Italia” (The Vacuum of Power in Italy).

Rail: To take cues today from that seminal article, and to do so in the context of the Italian Pavilion, will provide a lot of food for thought, I am sure.

From what you said, this project aims to explore the disquiet of the present and, at the same time, the dimension of expectation for the future—I am thinking in particular about the present Italian context in light of the current European dimension, which during the pandemic, as a result of it, has taken a new path in many ways. And, since the title evokes the comets, there will be an allusion to universal issues, to a reflection on humanity and our planet, right?

Viola: It connects to all of that. And everything revolves around the relationship between Man and the Environment. It could not be otherwise, given the uncertain present we live in. I call it a meta-pandemic time. Art, as I said, must necessarily face a number of things. There is a quote from Beatriz González—in many ways, the Colombian Marisa Merz—which I love. Recounting the disasters of the civil war in Colombia, González has said: “Art tells what history cannot tell.” I agree with her.

Rail: And, poetically, art can suggest unforeseen lines of inquiry. You spoke of catharsis. From your description, the Italian pavilion in Venice will suggest openness to new possibilities, a look turned into the direction of unknown landscapes. I think we need that.

Viola: Absolutely. It is ultimately an optimistic vision of the present. You know, I call myself a melancholic by birth and an optimist by compulsion. In these disquieting times, I believe that optimism is an ethical necessity, almost a moral obligation.

Rail: To switch gears a bit, but in line with the notion of necessary optimism that you just mentioned, I’d like to ask you: what did you do at MAMBO during the pandemic?

Viola: Based on that principle that I just described, when we were forced to close the museum during the 2020 international lockdown, I came up with a project in collaboration with the Colombian daily newspaper El Tiempo. In it, twice a week—on Saturdays and Sundays—we published works produced by artists in Colombia during the pandemic. It was the first national art project that provided a reaction to the pandemic here.

Rail: Was this project published in El Tiempo’s printed edition, or in its digital version?

Viola: Just in the printed newspaper.

Rail: This choice is meaningful, as it counters the digital overflow in communication among people that the pandemic brought about in those months of extreme physical isolation.

Viola: In the predominant digital communication during the international lockdown, everything became extremely self-referential. My idea was to propose a different communication and to democratize the work—you bought a collectible insert with the equivalent of 30 cents. The aim was to reach a different audience which does not necessarily identify with the expert users surfing the internet.

Rail: That is also a way to reach a public who may not necessarily be interested in contemporary art.

Viola: Exactly. In all, we published the works of 60 artists of different generations. Some of them reacted directly to what was happening in the country.

Nohemí Pérez, Respirar (Breathing), 2020
Nohemí Pérez, Respirar (Breathing), 2020

Rail: Can you give me some specific examples?

Viola: I can show them to you, if you’d like.

Rail: Fantastic. Thank you!

Viola: [goes into another room and returns with some issues of the newspaper] Published on a full page, each work was reproduced as an insert in the newspaper’s cultural section. In that section also appeared an article on the artist in question. Each insert was assigned a progressive number within the series that constitutes the project. The title of the overall project is El MAMBO. De Voz a Voz (MAMBO. From Voice to Voice). What I am showing you now is number 9: in it is reproduced a work by the indigenous artist Nohemí Pérez, Respirar (Breathing). The image is that of a native man carrying eucalyptus, which is known for helping breathing. We were then in the middle of the respiratory coronavirus pandemic.

Rail: It is a simple, beautiful idea.

Viola: Some years from now, this project will be the witness of that period. Here I show you a text-based work by Antonio Caro, considered the father of Colombian conceptual art. The text in Spanish reads, “Yo con yo” (Me with Myself). When Antonio passed away in March 2021 and when, here too, in Colombia, the estallido social started, I decided to transform the street where the museum stands, Carrera 6, in an open forum where people could express themselves, sharing their thoughts and feelings. It was important, again also in relation to censorship in this country.

Installation view of <em>De Voz a Voz</em> (2020), Urban Project (detail), Bogota (organized by curator Eugenio Viola) showing Antonio Caro’s <em>Yo con yo</em> (Me with Myself), 2020 as poster. Photo: Esteban Alejandro Suarez and Juan Felipe Echavarria. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá - MAMBO.
Installation view of De Voz a Voz (2020), Urban Project (detail), Bogota (organized by curator Eugenio Viola) showing Antonio Caro’s Yo con yo (Me with Myself), 2020 as poster. Photo: Esteban Alejandro Suarez and Juan Felipe Echavarria. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá - MAMBO.

Rail: Have you experienced forms of censorship in carrying out your projects?

Clemencia Echeverri, <em>Volver</em> (Coming Back), 2020.
Clemencia Echeverri, Volver (Coming Back), 2020.

Viola: No, not here in Colombia. Our museum has a tradition of freedom that we continue to build on. We are a free voice. The museum for me is a place for discussion. Let me show you now a work by Clemencia Echeverri, Volver (Coming Back). It’s the image of an impossible hug. We’ve all had to restrain from hugging, due to the pandemic. Clemencia’s image introduces a sense of hopeful optimism.

Rail: That’s a powerful image indeed.

Viola: And here is Miguel Ángel Rojas’s work S.O.S. It is a black-and-white image of people who are hungry and knock at your door asking for help. This work brings to the fore the social emergency that the country is suffering.

Rail: It’s an important project overall. And it showcases the rich diversity of Colombian art.

Viola: Yes, I am proud of it. At the museum we later did an exhibition and published a catalogue devoted to it. Among the artworks featured in El Tiempo there is also one by Luz Lizarazo. On the Instagram account of El Tiempo, this was the work most “liked” among those included in the project (140,000 likes). Let me go get it for you [goes into another room and returns with another issue of the newspaper]. Here it is: the work is titled Soy las niñas sin ejército (I Am the Girls Without Army). There is the artist’s self-portrait and what looks like a red cloud, a cloud of blood. It refers to a horrible event of sexual violence perpetrated by seven soldiers to an indigenous girl. Lizarazo is the daughter of an army captain. So this caused a stir here. Starting from this work, she created a series of works that I displayed on the Carrera street where the museum stands. I had the images of the work reproduced in 1:1 scale, as posters. Only, in this case the text is to be completed by people, as it reads “Soy la niña sin…” I think of it as a palimpsest work.

Rail: To circle back to the reflections with which we started our conversation, the experience of the limit, of which you talked about in relation to Naples and, above all, to Bogotá, seems to serve as a springboard for you to activate community participation, to produce space for dissent and resistance, both in cultural and social terms.

Viola: That’s right. You know, I deliberately chose to come to a city like Bogotá to stay. I feel useful here, and this is beautiful for me. I can be part of a reconstruction process—a social and civil process—through art and culture.


Francesca Pietropaolo

Francesca Pietropaolo is an Italian-born art historian, curator, and critic currently based in Venice. She is an Editor-at-Large for the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2022

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