Nicola Ricciardi: Dear Hou Hanru, your relationship with Italy goes back a long way, to the early ’90s – when you attended the newly founded course for curators at the Centro Pecci in Prato – and it came to a head with your numerous participations at the Venice Biennale as curator: The French Pavilion in 1999, Z.O.U. – Zone Of Urgency in 2003, the Chinese Pavilion in 2007…
Hou Hanru: Yes, it’s a long story. Prato was certainly a starting point for this journey, but in the early 2000s there were numerous points of contact beyond Venice, such as our participation in Arte all’Arte, also in Tuscany, or in Fuori Uso in Pescara. It might be said that I have a certain familiarity with the Italian arts scene.
NR: In 2013, Italy went on to become something of a home from home, at least since you became the Artistic Director of MAXXI in Rome. And it was in that year that you first took part in Artissima, as one of the curators of the Back to the Future section.
HH: Yes, and if I recall correctly, I think I was invited first to Turin – it was the start of 2013 – and only then did I take the decision to go to Rome, which was not until August that year.
NR: What memory do you have of that Turinese experience?
HH: I remember it as a very interesting historical moment. At the time, there was not so much attention given to fairs, at least not in Italy. The main event was clearly still Bologna, while we might say Miart was not what it is today. For me, at the time Artissima constituted the ‘new’ fair, the one that offered unquestionably contemporary works, with numerous young galleries coming onto the market for the first time. It really was a very dynamic fair. It still is, but it has certainly become a lot more established. For me, that was a very positive experience because it allowed me to rediscover the work of many Italian artists that I didn’t know so well. I’m thinking, for example of Piero Gilardi.
NR: A true Turinese, to whom, if I remember correctly, MAXXI itself recently dedicated a major retrospective.
HH: Exactly. During that experience at Artissima, I was so impressed by his work that I decided to invite him to stage a show in Rome a few years later. Obviously, I talked about him to Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, but the choice of Gilardi fitted perfectly into one of the trajectories that I have tried to develop over my time at MAXXI, i.e. that of presenting great Italian artists who have not been given the attention they deserve. In other words, no Arte Povera…
NR: I find it interesting how a curatorial choice may lead back to an experience in a commercial fair. On the other hand, the dividing line between fairs as mere marketplaces and fairs as ambitious places of culture has become ever more slight. What conclusions have you come to with regard to this phenomenon?
HH: I think it’s an interesting change within the ecology of the art world, which however originates in the 1980s and ’90s. I think we could trace it back to the early experiences of ARCO in Madrid, a fair which in the intentions of the government of the time was supposed to serve as an infrastructure to promote cultural debate, lacking any major biennials in the region. In fact, thematic sections were proposed, focuses on single countries – especially those in South America – and international conferences… Since then, the model has been reproduced, developed and extended. Today, I don’t believe that any fair in the world can do without sections and curatorial panels. Of course, in part it sounds like a contradiction to promote market logics on one hand and to implement a cultural discourse on the other, but be as it may, I believe it to be a positive transition.
NR: Speaking of which, this year at Artissima a new section entirely given over to sound art will be inaugurated, with some fifteen monographic projects revolving around sound (Artissima Sound, which will be held at the OGR – Officine Grandi Riparazioni in Turin).
HH: Yes, I think this is fantastic. I think sound art has always been an important field of exploration and experimentation. It’s no coincidence that one of my first projects at MAXXI was an exhibition entitled Open Museum Open City for which we emptied the entire museum so as to fill it with nothing but sound installations. The idea was to test how much the immaterial side of creation could exist (and resist) within the exhibition space. When applied to a fair, that approach becomes even more interesting, because how can a sound be collected? It’s an interesting challenge.
NR: Will you come to witness this challenge in person, this November in Turin?
HH: I really hope so. It all depends on when the annual gala dinner at MAXXI will be held, which unfortunately falls around the same time. But I would really like to come, even if it’s just for a day. and in particular to see the work that Ilaria Bonacossa is doing. She’s a wonderful person, whose adventures I followed in Genoa, at Villa Croce.
NR: In general, do you often attend art fairs around the world?
HH: To be completely honest, not a lot, but only for a question of the organisation of my time, which is closely bound up with that of the museum. However, I would like to frequent them more. The fairs are not just a place to meet up with your own colleagues, but they are also an privileged observatory from which to dip a toe into the art scene and see what the temperature is like, also through the inevitable perspectives of the market. This is an exercise that is taking on ever more weight, yet one which still allows us to access various points of view, which is of course a positive practice in any case.
NR: At this point, I cannot but renew my hope to encounter you among the Artissima stands this winter.
HH: Yes, I certainly hope so too!