Francesco Stocchi: This summer your gallery presented the exhibition 1998. You resurfaced from your storage works from 1998 realized by thirteen artists, some very close to you and with whom you have collaborated for more than twenty years now, and some others with whom you share elective affinities. Could you tell us about the perception you had in 1998 of the state of the art market? It was a time of radical changes in art making, and in the understanding of art. But what was the perception at the time of where the trajectory would lead? Could we now talk of a future that never was?
Florence Bonnefous: Indeed, we did 1998 thirty years after 1968, and twenty years ago. It was a form of homage to an event of the past and a—somewhat mocking, somewhat opportunistic—way of plunging into our own history. For a long time we’ve done exhibitions like treasure hunts that include rules of the game. In Domino (2006), for example, each artist invited the next, and the exhibition went from a very empty display to a very full one. In 1998 the guideline was to show only works that were in our storage as of 1998, to somehow test their value and liveliness and also their ability to coexist in the open. Also, the fact that these works were not sold at the time doesn’t mean they aren’t good, so the relevant question is: Perhaps they were ahead of their time? There was actually one exception to the rule: the facsimile of Dorothy Iannone’s Cookbook: even through the work is from 1998, we received it later. But to point out this little cheat, we fortunately have a drawing by Lily van der Stokker that says “Maybe I made a mistake!”
The first work in the show has actually been installed on the gallery facade since Liam Gillick’s exhibition Big Conference Centre (1998). Then in the first room, the elements of Sturtevant’s exhibition ça va aller (1998) are in almost the same place as in their first display. That was our first show with Sturtevant, an incredible project that defined the beginning of her work with images from the media, and which saw the birth of the quasi-logo “ça va aller productions.” The exhibition relied on the world of football as representative of the time. France won the World Cup in 1998, and again in 2018. But we aren’t particularly fans of football, and even less of false reunions.
When we look in the mirror every day, we don’t see ourselves growing old. This helps us maintain a certain illusion of youth, but it’s dangerous, too, because routine takes advantage and settles in. To answer your question, in 1998 the art market was still stammering, and the development of a gallery as a business still a laudable and happy goal. Today the stakes have risen; the art market has developed authoritatively and feeds on stereotypes. To maintain, as they say, a “sustainable” commercial gallery (in the sense of ethical commerce) is a difficult task. Artists’ works always carry the seed of change, consciously or not. But in France and in the Anglo-Saxon culture, art is perceived as a cultural event overseen by managers, and must have a rapid return. So showing works that are twenty years old—too young to have acquired the patina of age, and that haven’t been validated by a sale—is also a way of talking about a possible future.
FS: Absolutely, the history of Air de Paris shows how different gallery models are possible, and yours probably represents something unique—useful as a reminder—especially at a time when we talk about the necessity to conform to survive a system that for many is far from sustainable. As a result we find ourselves in a paradox where the global market is growing while the number of new galleries is shrinking: fifty galleries opened in 2017, compared to 275 ten years earlier. Given your (and Edouard Merino’s) training in Grenoble at the first curatorial school in Europe, what brought you to the decision to open a gallery in Nice in 1989? Was it the desire for a stable space, where you could tell the chapters of a story with some sequence? The lack of structure around the figure of the curator? Vanity? A desire to build a team? And what’s one mistake you wouldn’t repeat?
FB: We met and we wanted to do something in art together, and the simplest model seemed to be the gallery. This is perhaps the first mistake we made, opening a gallery! The second was maybe that this gallery is in the end rather white! Two mistakes that we still have time to correct—first by making more mixed exhibitions, and then one day by closing the gallery! We opened in Nice on an intuition: take a step aside, move away from the center, and at the end of the periphery find the edge of the sea. We will return there hopefully, because we have a project in the space of La Cédille in Villefranche sur Mer, unoccupied since the departure of George Brecht and Robert Filliou in 1969. It’s a very small space (twenty-five square meters) that will be active mostly during winter, outside the tourist season. Maybe we can do something new with the old.
FS: You opened the gallery in Nice following an intuition, as you said, but maybe also lacking a certain awareness that today seems to be Sisyphus’s boulder; nowadays throwing yourself into the business without overthinking your strategies seems difficult. Later you moved to Paris, and now you talk about moving back to the south of France. I’d like to hear your opinion regarding changes in the perception of center versus periphery concerning the cultural-economic offer. Do you think that today it would be possible to open a gallery at the outskirts of the art market’s big centers—obviating distance with technology, and with art fairs’ proliferation—essentially offering your clients an exotic outsider experience? Or on the contrary, does the underlying logic of centralization, the economic pressure of the gallery model, and the situations of new collectors require focusing the cultural offer around the big centers?
FB: Indeed, distances have shortened and art fairs have become the new mega centers, for better and for worse. The art world travels virtually without effort, even if today’s access to digital information and networks probably renews the inequalities between north and south. When we opened in Nice, we figured that technology would allow us to work remotely—at the time it was the fax. The biggest effort today is to go see things in real life, without a tourist guide, without a cultural alibi, outside a biennale. Just go see an exhibition. I really want to go to Piraeus, Greece, where Rodeo gallery has just opened a second location. The center and the periphery are moving entities, fractals. In June 2019 we will be moving Air from Paris to Romainville, France, along with some other galleries, an institution, and a foundation that will offer artist residencies.* It’s a close suburb of Paris, an industrial area in transition, and we will see if this periphery can become a new center. Then there will be the question of gentrification. But it’s in the sea that fish swim, as long as overfishing and pollution allow it!
FS: We have come to the twenty-fifth edition of Artissima. How long has Air de Paris been exhibiting at the fair?
FB: It’s been so long that I can’t remember anymore. We love this fair!
FS: This year you’re participating in the Back to the Future section, which on the occasion of the big anniversary will focus on the years between 1980 and 1994. As we were saying earlier, the early 1990s saw the gallery’s first steps. What will you take to Turin?
FB: We have concocted a solo show by Allen Ruppersberg for the Back to the Future section. The stand will be both severe and elegiac, evoking the loss and memory of loved ones, of those who fought, whether they were soldiers of World War I or activists in the fight against AIDS.
* In Situ Fabienne Leclerc, Galerie Imane Farès, Galerie Vincent Sator, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff; Frac île-de-france; Fondation Fiminco