by Amy Bell
photos by Elisa D’Errico
As a final installment of this series of conversations, I spoke with Uliana Zanetti, curator and collections manager at Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo). Here she reflects on physicality in artwork, the importance of difference in challenging dominant discourses and the urgent questions a project like Performing Gender can provoke.
Amy Bell: For me some of the really fruitful aspects of this project come from the partnerships struck up between art institutions, LGBTQ organisations and the dance and performance communities. How did the partnership between MAMbo and Performing Gender come about, what was the point of common interest?
Uliana Zanetti: Well we [at MAMbo] have worked together with Gender Bender for many years and when they submitted the invitation for this project I found it very, very interesting because it was a sort of enlargement of our perspective on problems concerning gender, stereotypes and so on. I had dealt with these kinds of problems in a very big show dedicated to women artists in Italy [Autoritratti: Iscrizioni del femminile nell’arte italiana contemporanea, 2013] and I thought Performing Gender was a logical continuation of the research we had already begun with that show. I was mainly interested in the kinds of control there are on gender stereotypes through the visual arts, exhibition styles, the control of behaviour inside the museum because I think that contemporary museums should, in a way, deny these mechanisms of control. So the contamination between different kinds of arts, performance and examination of the controls of the dominant discourses is interesting because what’s true with sex, is true with art, is true with institutions. If we explore the borders of these things we really get to the limits of our present constrictions.
AB: So from what you’ve seen of last year’s Performing Gender research phase and from last night’s opening of the Bologna performances, do you feel that this project has in any way invited new or different ways of experiencing those limits of control regarding identity, behaviour or power? Do you think it in any way moves towards challenging the mechanisms of the dominant discourses?
UZ: Well it’s not so easy to say. I think experimentation is important and I don’t expect immediate results! I think we have to study interactions between the public and the works to know what the public can really perceive of all this. I think it’s a long path so I just look at it and then I think the partners will have to think on this together later.
AB: It’s true that the interaction between the public, the artists and their ideas and intentions is something incredibly delicate that each of the artists only really discovers in the moment of performance. Do you think that if there’s more fine-tuning needed in the project, it’s something to do with the content of the works or do you think it’s also something to do with the way in which the works are framed in a larger sense?
UZ: We have to be clear about this. I think that most people last night wanted to see a dance performance and so I don’t know how meaningful it was for them to be inside the museum or not. I don’t know if it was just a kind of new show, if it became something that’s only at the surface of the [gender and sexuality] problem. The risk is that it becomes spectacular but not really meaningful so we have to work on this a lot and create a discourse with the people involved. We have to change the viewing postura, the position of the public. But we have to create that; it’s not going to come from the public.
AB: Yes. But for example today the performance is during the normal daytime opening hours of the museum, rather than being discrete ‘event’ in the evening with a start and a finish time like a conventional dance performance. I think a longer, daytime duration possibly gives a different, less familiar expectation for the audience. Some will also discover the performances by accident, rather than coming with the express purpose of seeing a ‘show’. I always feel it’s more interesting when people are surprised in this way, they are often more open when confronted with the work.
UZ: Yes but I mean, we already have many experiences of this in contemporary art.
AB: Oh yes, of course it’s not new.
UZ: It’s not new. But in Bologna I think it’s not inevitable. Maybe the public of the Museo Morandi could be shocked to see live performance so we have different kinds of public. It depends on context.
AB: To back track a bit, we were wondering how the framing and the content of the Performing Gender works can more or less draw attention to their politics but also to the politics of space. That interaction between movement and museum can be made more or less meaningful for the public. Just now we touched on the tradition of experimental performance in art spaces going back to 1960s. I was thinking about how, in so much of that work, movement, physicality, bodily presence and activity is framed as art in a way that challenges modes of physical control, particularly in spectatorship. Do you think that a project such as this has the possibility to really change the way that people are aware of their own physicalities as they move around the museum and look at art and each other, for instance? This possibility strikes me as something much more alive in the museum than in the theatre for instance.
UZ: I don’t know. I’m not sure. [Being in a museum] would be just another way to condition [the public]. They are anyway still not free but subjected to other codes of behaviour. I am curious but I don’t have preconceptions about how people react. Probably it depends on the particular education and life experiences of each individual. You can’t predict anything, I think. But I see many possibilities and so I think we have to give a chance to see things in a different way. That’s the purpose of it for me and then everybody can reflect for him or herself. There’s no rule. That’s the purpose in fact, to say that there’s not just one rule or one way.
AB: For sure. I think saying, implicitly, that there’s not one way of looking or being is really at the heart of Performing Gender. But even if we can’t say exactly whether the project invites people to look at or experience themselves differently, do you think that performances in the museum invite looking at the existing collections in a different way?
UZ: Yes, I think so. I think so. Because in a way they are compelled to ask themselves some questions, ‘What kind of thing is this!? What does it mean?!’ They can be upset or say, ‘This has nothing to do with art!’ But the problem is posed and they have to find an answer.
AB: And does the project make you look at the MAMbo collection differently, even if you obviously know it so well?
UZ: In a way, yes. I think there is a theatrical part of the project, it has a lot to do with theatre with physical presentation, not just in the arrangement or the setting. Most of contemporary artworks are based on processes and they are in a way a document of transformation or interaction or things that are not so closed or so well finished.
AB: So do you feel the PG works gave a contrast to the works in the collection in that they were quite closed by comparison? Because I think I saw a lot of traces of process and transformation in them.
UZ: No, no. I think that in fact they mirror something that is already a part of contemporary art and they just help to explain better how art works in my opinion. I found interest in the control of discourse for example when I spoke with Cristina [Henrìquez, PG artist]. She chose the work by Daniela Comani [It Was Me, Diary 1990-1999]. In her work, Cristina dominates with her gaze, she controls people but she is controlled too and that’s the way in which Daniela Comani gives the idea, that histories have a collective construction but are also themselves submitted to a dominant discourse. I think this has so much to do with Cristina’s performance. So I can find a very tight relation between the two works. It’s the same with Juanjo [Arques, fellow PG artist] because he chose an artwork about an alchemical process [Gilberto Zorio’s Omaggio arbitario a Brancusi] and so it’s interesting to see how he really performed the sense, the true sense of that work. I don’t know how clear that is for people, so I can’t grasp that, but because I have a relation with the artists, with all these artists and the performance it’s a privilege for me to see. So [then the question is] how can I transmit what I know and how can other people feel the same involvement as me, because it depends also on personal friendships. It’s important in a way, this makes artworks in themselves very physical for me. They are part of the body already, of the artist. They are not just things; they are not just materiality. They are extensions of the body for me and that’s why they can generate new forms of life in bodies.
AB: Yes, in the bodies of the viewers.
UZ: Yes. And I think that’s the way we can explode this discourse and make it useful for us in these institutions for the public.
AB: An interesting issue I wanted to ask you about that’s arisen for a lot of the makers on this project, is that this project tells the artist during creation and the public during viewing, ‘GENDER, PERFORMANCE, SEXUALITY’. Already there’s a lot of information about how the work can be read, so the artists are really expected and perhaps required to address the topic. This is something choreographers, particularly, are not so accustomed to dealing with. It seems to me in the art world that a piece of work is brought into a thematically organised exhibition, works are gathered together because a curator has found a thematic link after they are finished. The visual artists in the project might therefore be more accustomed to having their work placed in a context that has a theme. The theme might be quite far removed from their original intention, but since this happens after they created it and it is maybe a fair point of debate, crucially it doesn’t necessarily impact on the creation process. I wonder how you understand those differences between the visual art world and maybe the dance or performance world.
UZ: My opinion is that nothing is neutral and so we have to unveil this fact. It’s not so straightforward but sex is everywhere anyway. Stereotypes are everywhere. The way we tell art history, the way we exhibit art, the way we choose artists, select them and whether we decide to have a memory of them or not, this is important because all this has to do with the real conquest of the dominant discourse. So if, instead, difference can be dominant, for me it is a victory because it is for everybody. If just one group dominates it is a loss of democracy.
UZ: That’s what I would like to have as a conclusion for this project, just to say this, to state that culture has to have as its main purpose participation, free participation. Everybody should be part of this group construction. I’m a bit [laughing] left wing!
AB: Well, this is the city for it, no?
UZ: This was the city for it. No, I mean it can seem like rhetoric, something that is really devoid of significance but I am convinced that there is no chance in this context now. We really have to choose what we can do for our society.
AB: Do you mean even here in the Bologna, the heart of Italy’s Left Wing, things are also moving more to the Right?
UZ: Yes. So in general I think that recognising differences is really one of the first needs of our society. We are not all alike, and we are not obliged to be homogenised into one single model. And this is what is happening in Italy now. We all have to be like that model, we have to win, but win that career, that success… I think artists should really fight this kind of discourse otherwise culture will not exist anymore, it will be just propaganda. And so we have to deal with complexity. We are not allowed to make things easier at this moment. We have to pose problems and say, ‘Ok, it’s not black and white’ and this is what I like in this Performing Gender project.
Performing Gender, Bologna, November 2014