Venice Biennale: Gian Maria Tosatti and Eugenio Viola on the Italian Pavilion

Venice Biennale: Gian Maria Tosatti and Eugenio Viola on the Italian Pavilion

A highlight of this year's launch of the Venice Biennale is curator Eugenio Viola and artist Gian Maria Tosatti's presentation 'History Of Nights And Destinations Of Comets' at the Italian Pavilion, an immersive multimedia installation that marks the first time a solo artist has represented Italy in the history of the Biennale.

Ahead of its opening in April, Viola and Tosatti sat down with Sotheby's to reflect on the themes in the show, what exactly visitors can expect and how they hope the themes in the exhibition will resonate far and wide.
A highlight of this year's launch of the Venice Biennale is curator Eugenio Viola and artist Gian Maria Tosatti's presentation 'History Of Nights And Destinations Of Comets' at the Italian Pavilion, an immersive multimedia installation that marks the first time a solo artist has represented Italy in the history of the Biennale.

Ahead of its opening in April, Viola and Tosatti sat down with Sotheby's to reflect on the themes in the show, what exactly visitors can expect and how they hope the themes in the exhibition will resonate far and wide.

F or the first time in its history, the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale features a solo artist, Gian Maria Tosatti, who is presenting a vast, immersive site-specific installation entitled History of Night and Destiny of Comets. Curated by Eugenio Viola and supported by Sotheby's, it invites us to enter a world in which the dynamic between man and nature is questioned, tested and analysed, via a theatrical journey through Italy's post-war industrial dream and decline.

Here we talk to Gian Maria (who had to leave during our chat to attend to some last-minute installation deadlines) and Eugenio about their long-planned collaboration, the project's inception and installation and what it means to them to be presenting the fruits of their creative journey at the Biennale.

Eugenio Viola, curator of the Italian Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2022 and Gian Maria Tosatti, artist Italian Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2022. Photo by Elena Andreato

How was the seed of this collaboration planted - where did it all begin?

Gian Maria: Well, it started when I met Eugenio for the first time at an exhibition of mine. He came to see the show and then we had other chances to meet again and talk about the show and the possibility of collaborating. A couple of years after that show in Napoli, we collaborated on a three-year project, with seven installations, a work in seven chapters.

Eugenio always says it was like a saga, you know! But we had to first find a way to collaborate and create a dialogue between ourselves. Because the curator and the artist are both involved in the process, so it’s like bringing up a child, in a way. So, we were both parents of this child, that was Seven Seasons of the Spirit.

I used to say that in general, Eugenio and I were very different, but actually, we’re complementary. We found a very good way of working together, through the sensitivity we share. And so, Seven Seasons of the Spirit happened successfully because of the dialogue and sensitivity between me and Eugenio.

So, after we worked on that together, I went back to New York and Eugenio went to Perth, Australia. Then I decided to move back to Italy, to Napoli, which is where Eugenio was born, while he moved to Bogotá! Last February, he called me saying – Oh, do you remember saying that if I was ever invited to curate the Italian Pavilion at Venice we should do it together? And I answered, No. Then he said, well, you said it and I’ve been invited. Can you make it? And I said, yes, of course I can. So, that was how it started and yesterday we took the pictures of the final work!

I didn’t really expect it to be here today. I mean, even when we started speaking about this installation, about the perspective, sketching the first drawings, the first renders – I never really thought that I would able to be here, in the middle of the show, in the middle of the installation, in the middle of the art work, taking a real picture of the real thing. The installation is a very… well, a very titanic work.

Gian Maria Tosatti, “Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete”, Padiglione Italia alla Biennale Arte 2022, a cura di Eugenio Viola, Commissario del Padiglione Italia Onofrio Cutaia. Courtesy DGCC - MiC

So, what will visitors to the Pavilion experience?

Eugenio: It will be an immersive unique environmental installation, as is always the case in Gian Maria’s practice, but I will add… something.

GM: Well, the work is the combination between Eugenio’s… how can you say?

E: Interests.

"I felt it was very important to hear from Eugenio that he wanted to face directly what we are experiencing today. I mean, it is not a matter of art, it is a matter of politics"
- Eugenio Viola

GM: Yeah, but it’s not only your interests. You tried to define a path when we started speaking about this show. Eugenio asked me to create something that could be meaningful for this moment, which is quite complicated. He told me, okay, we’re going to make [something for] the Biennale, so we cannot just make anything, we must do what is important to confront today. So, of course I was already working on the relation between man and nature, in Ukraine, I was already involved in that. But I felt it was very important to hear from Eugenio that he wanted to face directly what we are experiencing today. I mean, it is not a matter of art, it is a matter of politics in a way – and art is always politics. And so, in a way, what we are going to experience is a political experience of art.

And what kind of elements have you incorporated into the actual exhibition? I know that it’s structured in a ‘theatrical’ way. What does that actually involve?

E: It can be considered as a kind of theatrical performance. The division is in two acts, as the title of the work says - History of the Night and Destiny of the Comets – these are the two metaphorical acts. It’s a metaphor with a kind of prologue as well.

GM: Yeah, that’s the main frame, but there’s an interesting story about the Pavilion. I used to work with existing spaces, you know: old factories, hospitals, compounds and so on. But this time of course, we were called to make something in not only an empty space, but a space which changes every year, changes so much. So, what we did here is develop the work into different real spaces and then bring those spaces back into the work.

So, in a way, we are working on this idea about the industrial parable of Italy. But it’s not only Italy, I’m always speaking about how this perspective is also important in England. I remember a very important show Mark Nelson had at Tate Britain in 2019, that also addressed this exact problem. In that case, Nelson did not work with an ambient installation, but with sculptures. In this case, we are working with an immersive installation.

Gian Maria Tosatti working on History of Night and Destiny of Comets. Photo: Maddalena Tartaro Fezza Studio

So, what I did was buy parts of failed factories, where I was able to take this spirit and bring it physically into the work. What you can see here in a way, is a journey into the industrial landscape of Italy. We used to say that in general, that you might have considered Italy a Grand Tour, a journey into wonderful places and natural landscapes. But instead, there is another Italy, the industrial Italy. It looks like twenty different countries instead of one.

"We are in one of the darkest periods of our history. Our dreams brought us to the edge of the extinction of the species."
- Gian Maria Tosatti

And this may be the first symptom of the fact that yes, we are dreamers within the framework of industry, in the framework of that kind of evolution, - but maybe we did not dream so well, we were not able to dream the right way. That’s why the whole thing collapsed and now we are in one of the darkest periods of our history. Our dreams brought us to the edge of the extinction of the species.

I know that the relationship between humans and nature is an important element of what you’ve done here – was that a consideration when it came to actually constructing the space?

E: It was the starting point, as Gian Maria pointed out, because we’re still living in a meta-pandemic era. It was absolutely necessary to start from the relationship between human beings and the environment. Even this parable of the ‘Italian Miracle’, as industrialisation was called in the 1960s, it was a metaphor to deal with the relationship between humans and the environment, through the metaphor of industrialisation. It was absolutely the starting point of our considerations when we presented the project for the Italian Pavilion.

GM: And we tried our best to make the construction process of the work as sustainable as it could be. I want to be clear; it is not 100 per cent sustainable because nothing is 100 per cent sustainable. But we really did our best. Instead of buying many things, we rented them in order not to create garbage and all these things. We tried as much as it is possible to use sustainable materials.

We are very aware of the path to becoming industrially sustainable, and when I say industrially, I mean even down to the practices of art like the colours painters use – they’re not sustainable at all. But we tried to do the best that is possible for now. And we are also working in the direction of sustainability in political terms.

Gian Maria Tosatti, “Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete”, Padiglione Italia alla Biennale Arte 2022, a cura di Eugenio Viola, Commissario del Padiglione Italia Onofrio Cutaia. Courtesy DGCC - MiC

The Biennale is seen as one of the most important events in the art world calendar – what does it mean to you and what does it mean to you to be representing your country at the event?

GM: Well, these are two different things, what the Biennale means to me, and what it means to me to represent my country. Well, in these weeks I’d say that we are speaking a lot about countries, nations. And I never really considered this idea of countries, nations, governments and it looks so old-fashioned and looks so archaic, I would say.

And I prefer to consider that I’m representing Italian culture, not Italy as a country because I don’t really believe any more in countries. I think that, you know, cultures are important, differences in cultures are something very rich and interesting. We are all like in sports in a way, we are just trying to play together.

Then what does the Biennale represents to me as an artist? Well, in general I try not to follow an art world agenda, I have my own agenda and I try to go where things are happening. But, you know, Venice is the moment in which the whole world of art and culture gathers in a kind of summit, so I think in a context like that, a researcher like me is not out of place. I can bring in the research I did in the field.

GIAN MARCO LEAVES THE CHAT TO ATTEND TO HIS PHOTOSHOOT.

Eugenio, is this is the first time the Italian Pavilion has been a single artist?

E: Yes, it is the first, in the history of our national representation.

So, how did that come about?

E: When I contacted Gian Maria I asked him, let’s do this together alone. Are you ready for that? And he said, of course, let’s do it. So, I presented an application just with him, which was considered with suspicion. But when you’re doing something radical, or is considered radical, it can be a way to finally put Italy on the level of the other national participations who have for years, presented one singular proposal for national representation.

"Gian Maria is an absolute master of spaces, so I was absolutely sure he was Mr Right. I did not have any doubts"
- Eugenio Viola

Why did you choose Gian Marco in particular?

E: For several reasons. Because, we have worked together, so we know each other very well. As he was saying, we’ve known each other for more than ten years. The first time I saw one of his works was in Rome, I think, in 2010 or in 2011. We were also working together between 2013 and 2016 in Napoli. And due to the complexity of the Pavilion itself – the Italian Pavilion is the biggest in the Venice Biennale, almost 2,000 square metres for these two buildings, this kind of industrial archaeology. He is an absolute master of spaces, so I was absolutely sure he was Mr Right. I did not have any doubts, it was almost immediate basically.

Gian Maria Tosatti, My dreams, they’ll never surrender, 2014, installazione ambientale, site specific. Courtesy: Galleria Lia Rumma, Milano/Napoli

And so how long has this pavilion been in development?

E: Conceptually we had about a month in order to build a project in every single detail, which is usual for this kind of application. It was more or less the same even when I curated the Estonian Pavilion in Venice in 2015. The physical installation started on 1st January. We were the first to enter in the spaces in order to build this gigantic, monumental environmental installation on time, and to document it for the catalogue because since it’s a unique environmental installation, it was for us crucial to include the installation views of the work. We finished actually on the 29th March.

What are some of the elements that have filled this space? I know you’ve mentioned ambient, immersion, installation – is there lighting, sound, photography, film, can you give me a sense of any of it?

E: It’s an installation, so you don’t have any film, you don’t have any photos. We will have some ambient sound elements, but it’s an environmental installation, without films or video.

And what would you describe your goal with the installation, what would you like people to take away from it?

E: To present a muscular, different way of perceiving Italian art and culture. As we usually say it’s not our pavilion, it’s the Pavilion of Italian Art. A different way of perceiving Italian art.

It also incorporates a conference programme and a website - why were those elements important?

E: We will present a public programme which will be focused upon the main topics connected to the exhibition. As I was saying, it’s focused on the relationship between man and the environment, so the public programme will face topics connected to sustainability, ecology, all these topics. It will run for the whole duration of the Biennale, in order to focus and complement the topics faced by the Pavilion.We’re in a very concentrated moment and, as Gian Maria correctly pointed out, it’s something that is starting from the Italian specificity because this is the Italian Pavilion but it’s starting from a specific situation that can broadly speak about problems affecting the whole world. And this is the powerful and painful metaphorical power of art, basically.

Gian Maria Tosatti, “Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete”, Padiglione Italia alla Biennale Arte 2022, a cura di Eugenio Viola, Commissario del Padiglione Italia Onofrio Cutaia. Courtesy DGCC - MiC

Did the idea evolve over time? Or does this look like how you imagined when you began?

E: It’s exactly how we imagined it. It’s very similar to the renderings that we presented for the initial application. Of course, some elements were customised, according to the limitations of the space, because, as Gian Maria was saying before, this is a kind of turning point in his artistic existential journey because he usually repurposes existing spaces with minimal interventions. Here, that wasn’t possible and furthermore you can’t modify it. So, we had to build and construct a kind of Chinese box. And I would say that it is exactly as we imagined it.

Did you face any other significant challenges?

E: In every project you run into difficult moments, but the key is how you solve them. I usually say I’m not preoccupied, I prefer to be occupied. This is my motto even when I’m working in my institutional position in Bogotá, as you can imagine probably that’s not the easiest place to be.

That’s a very good motto, I think we could all abide by that. Gian Maria described you as kind of parents raising a child in this project – how did you find the process? How would you describe your relationship as curator and artist?

E: As we say in Italian we are compagni di strada – street companions. You know, we have the same goal – to present the project at its best. So, it’s a collaboration based on trust. As Marina Abramovic says, it’s about trust, respect and collaboration. Of course, you can have moments that can be tense, that can be difficult, but it’s all part of the process. But as I was saying in the beginning, one of our main advantages was the fact that we already had a long working and personal relationship and that helped us a lot.

How does it feel to be so close now to unveiling it to the public, to audiences?

E: Proud.

I asked Gian Maria about the event overall, about the Biennale and what it means to him. Even now in this moment, when we’ve been through this pandemic, I wonder what your thoughts are.

E: For me as a curator, it’s the biggest honour that my country can give me, especially because I left Italy in 2016. And I think it is an important time to react and to face reality in a dialectical, and if necessary, a polemical and always in a political way. I also think that art is politics, but in a different way. Because we don’t have to give answers, we’re not politicians - we’re here to raise questions. So, if you come to see an art work, an exhibition, or a pavilion and it raises questions for you, it means that the project is successful. We need to react to what is happening. Our project, History Of Night and Destiny of Comets, is a luminous example of an art work that is going beyond even the intentions of the artist when he was considering it. So in this way we are going back again to the beautiful and tragic power of art, its metaphorical power.

Contemporary Art

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