Waiting for the Great Mother: an interview with Massimiliano Gioni
Nicola Ricciardi: With a substantial volume of research, a wealth of artists and a grand platform such as Palazzo Reale, even three months before it opens its doors to the first visitor “The Great Mother” already looks like a seminal exhibition for Fondazione Trussardi. In advance of its opening in late August, can you give us a virtual, inaugural tour of the show you’ve curated?
Massimilinao Gioni: The exhibition is quite wide-ranging with more than 130 artists and plenty of documents and visual materials. I am afraid I don’t even know anymore how many individual objects are in the exhibition… Thus it is not an easy show to summarize in a few words. The exhibition begins in 1900, the year of publication of Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams”, which forever transformed the ways family were imagined and perceived and the relationships between mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons. The first rooms speak of this world of dreams and repressed desires. There are beautiful works including Brancusi’s “The Newborn”, a reproduction of Ingres’ “Oedipus and the Sphinx” that Freud kept on the sofa of his patients and a ruthless drawing by Meret Oppenheim with an exterminating angel slaughtering children. It’s maternity as seen from the point of view of dreams, perhaps nightmares. Following are a series of rooms dedicated to historical avant-gardes—in particular Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism—which present the attitudes of these groups towards women, sexuality and gender. Another important section is dedicated to the representation of motherhood during the war, where documents from the fascism era are interwoven with sculptures by Thomas Schütte and engravings by Käthe Kollowitz. The exhibition continues with Louise Bourgeois and gradually moves towards feminist practices of the sixties and seventies, represented by works of art but also archival documents. Finally come the nineties and the post-human: an era in which genres and gender roles tend to disappear altogether.
NR: From hearing you speak about it, I got the impression that central to your vision is the transition of the woman in the twentieth century from object of representation to operational subject. It also seems to me that the show is offering a reflection on the power of women in the arts. And this makes me wonder: what do you think of gender politics and agendas in Italy and the Italian art system in particular?
MG: I must say that the show is so full of ideas, images and works that it makes me a little uncomfortable to start the conversation talking about power and the art world. Of course, you could say that this is one of the hearts of the matter here—and one might as well address the problem openly. But the show is not about quotas or who is in power in Italy. The issue is deeper: when I say that “The Great Mother” speaks of the relationship between women and power, I’m thinking of who has the right to legislate on her own body. I think of those who have the right to express their desires, I think of who does, or does not, have the right to build an image, represent an aspiration, construct a myth. In relation to Italy, I could say that it’s a pleasant anomaly that three of the most important art foundations are led by women—Prada, Sandretto, Trussardi. Or point out that, despite this is still a sexist country, there is a long great tradition of very respected curators and directors of museums who are women—Palma Bucarelli, Carla Lonzi, Ida Giannelli, Carolyn Christoph Bakargiev, just to name a few. In terms of gender politics, certainly one could talk about the huge differences and imbalances between Italy and the US. I think the exhibition alludes to some of these problems but from a deeper, more symbolic perspective.
NR: Speaking of imbalances, reading the list of names in “The Great Mother”, I couldn’t help but notice that there are very few Italian female artists in comparison to their international colleagues. Did the disparity between the number of female and male artists in Italy emerge as a significant finding during the research for this show?
MG: Again, I don’t think that’s one of the central issues here. There are other absences that concern me more. As Adrienne Rich observes in her wonderful book “Of Woman Born”, I’m painfully aware of the partiality of my choices and of my perspectives — which is Western as this reflects the majority of the sources that are available to me. There are no Chinese, Indian or African artists in this exhibition, which means it’s missing whole other parts of the world; but then you have to deal with budget constraints, with logistical problems, and above all with, again, one’s own perspective. In general, I thought that focusing on a few key issues was more productive than trying to cover the entire globe, at the cost of diluting the scope of the research. In addition, when working on a theme so vast, superficial global ambitions may result in easy mistakes: issues such as birth control or the use of contraceptives are extremely different from country to country, culture to culture.
NR: What were your main references for “The Great Mother”? Given the subject and the title, parallels have been drawn with “La Mamma”, the unrealized exhibition by Harald Szeemann. Is it just a coincidence or was it intentional?
MG: “The Great Mother” first came about as a reaction to the theme of the Expo 2015—that is, nutrition. I wanted to find an angle that could be connected to this topic, but in depth. From there came the idea of an exhibition on the figure of the mother, as the archetype of nutrition. Of course, when you start thinking about such a powerful issue, many avenues of research open up immediately. But from the very beginning we tried to stay as far as possible from comforting representations or stereotypes of motherhood, like those used in advertising or for nationalist and populist rhetoric purposes. Rather the contrary: for us, talking about motherhood in the twentieth century always meant telling a much more troubling, compelling story. The comparison with Szeemann’s unrealized exhibition scared me at first, mainly because I didn’t want to engage so directly and explicitly with his work, although his exhibition “Bachelor Machines” does have an important role in “The Great Mother”. But thanks to the help of Pietro Rigolo, who is a Researcher at the Getty and works precisely on Szeemann’s archive, we started to look more carefully at his project and it soon became clear that the two shows were completely different. “La Mamma” of Szeemann was not intended to be a show of male or female artists, but rather an exhibition of women who had not become mothers but have nonetheless expressed their creativity in other ways.
NR: After talking about past references, I think there are a few novelties worth pointing out here: for the first time, Fondazione Trussardi instead of showcasing a monographic exhibition presents a thematic group show. Moreover, instead of opening the doors of places otherwise far from the conventional routes of contemporary art, it engages with a major museum, Palazzo Reale. Are these momentary changes that will remain an exception in the programming of the Fondazione, or it is a new direction that you intend to pursue?
MG: There are many reasons for this choice, some of which are merely pragmatic: we wanted to do a major exhibition, with loans from major museums, and you can’t get a painting by Dali or Frida Kahlo—or 50 collages by Max Ernst—if you’re not in a museum. We simply couldn’t show those works in the places that we usually use. Moreover, one of the main characteristics of Fondazione Trussardi is to be flexible: its identity is in continuous construction. With “The Great Mother” we’re trying yet another solution, we’re adding another layer, opening up new possibilities. The continuing transformations represent our true consistency. Lastly, let me say that after more than ten years of activity, it is somehow pleasing to reach into, and engage with, institutional venues; not to be self-congratulatory but simply to show that we know how to work in different context.
From: Mousse Magazine, Issue 49, June 2015