«Vienna is the cradle of a cultural revolution destined to upset the traditional conception of the human being, bringing to light their contradictions and questioning their certainties.»
The phenomenon of the Secessions, at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, spread almost simultaneously to various Mittleuropean cultural centres, sharing that, already avant-garde, spirit of rejecting the conservative positions of the Academies, to prepare for a social and aesthetic inclusiveness, embracing all the artistic disciplines. The Viennese stage, at the height of its cultural development, albeit aimed at an upper-class audience, was most effectively established in an art-historical framework, determining, in a revolutionary manner, the methodological progress of art subjects during the 20th century: one only has to think, on a theoretical level, about the importance of the Viennese School of Art History (Wiener Schule der Kunstgeschichte) for the contemporary approach to artwork. Today, Vienna still breathes the same evocation of the contemporary, thanks to a hybrid cultural cohesion and visual education, passing through Viennese Actionism, accustomed to welcoming even the most controversial forms. One of the most popular and eagerly awaited events is the Vienna Art Week, a festival founded in 2004 and currently known as Vienna’s main platform for the visual arts, scheduled from 18th to 25th November 2022. About this and much more, argues Marcello Farabegoli, a multifaceted and polyglot curator, born in 1973 in Cesena but raised in Bolzano, established in Vienna since 2010 and in contact with galleries, artists and contemporary art institutions from the international scene.
Luca Sposato: Your education is really varied, touching on subjects such as music, literature, philosophy and quantum physics, which you have studied at various European universities; from your point of view, do you think that contemporary art, which you practice as a curator, could be the ideal synthesis of this lexical plurality?
Marcello Farabegoli: After many years spent at the Claudio Monteverdi State Conservatory of Music in Bolzano, dreaming distantly and vainly of becoming a new Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli on the piano, I lost myself in a sort of “Wanderjahre”, wandering both between different branches of human knowledge and actually moving between a few countries in Europe, finally graduating in 2002 with a degree in physics in Vienna. During my studies, I had the pleasure and honour of briefly working on quantum issues of teleportation and cryptography in the “Quantum Experiments and the Foundation of Physics” group directed by Professor Anton Zeilinger, one of the three current Nobel Prize holders in physics. I do not say this to boast, perhaps just a little, but because this experience turned out to be essential in shaping my mindset. I don’t mean to mystify quantum physics, yet it is really a fantasy world in which strange things happen: particles that seem to move at the same time on different paths manifesting their complementary wave nature or that despite being separated in space behave in a correlated manner as if they were a single undivided entity. I mean, these are seemingly impossible phenomena, sometimes even intrinsically contradictory. It was emblematic when Zeilinger was invited to participate at documenta 13 by presenting some of his basic experiments. Perhaps I am dwelling too much on my old love of physics: back to your question! Indeed, I must say that the concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” hovers within me, but less in the Wagnerian sense and more in the modern context of happenings, performances or experimental theatre. Maybe this is why I love cinema so much, the arthouse cinema I mean, which in my opinion comes closest to this ideal. In fact, from a practical point of view I try to implement a kind of synaesthesia: I treat the various works to be exhibited like the different voices of a piece of music, so as to create the right balance between harmonies, disharmonies and pauses. In the case of group exhibitions, it is a bit like conducting an orchestra, albeit composed of many first violins, first cellos etc. It is necessary to make the best of each voice. Speaking of content, I think that contemporary art could really create an ideal synthesis of different doctrines, from literature to physics. Artists themselves are often inspired by a variety of disciplines. Even a hermetic subject like quantum physics has been a source of great inspiration, as well as misunderstandings, though always prolific. Perhaps one of the curator’s tasks is precisely to interpret the art he exhibits by revealing more or less openly to the public the transversal connections, the contaminations found in it. I also like to unearth, sometimes a bit forcing, political and environmental aspects in the works I deal with. For example, the exhibition “Geometrien” by Esther Stocker that I curated in 2016 at the Metternich Palace, the magnificent venue of the Italian Embassy in Vienna: in the works of the renowned South Tyrolean artist, I declined the influence of non-Euclidean geometries – essential for explaining Einstein’s theory of general relativity – towards an impulse to disturb not only the spatial grids, as desired by the artist, but also the grids, the fences, that the Austrian government of that time would have so much wanted to build around its own nation to counter migratory flows.
Talking about your work, I seem to perceive a deconstructive intention of environments, in which the work is the discrete but charged trigger. It is a great way to make the art object the protagonist without having to resort to magniloquence: from the experience of Salotto Vienna (2014) to the recent projects at Palazzo Metternich, the Italian Embassy in Vienna, and the more recent curatorial experiences at the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna for the Friedrichshof collection, can environmental “reversal” be the red thread of your work?
I admit that this good question catches me a little uncertain, because I am not quite sure what the common thread of my work is. In a previous interview in German, I described my thread through the Platonic concepts of “True, Good and Beautiful” but I wanted to be more ironic than anything else and perhaps unconsciously I want to provoke some survivors of the Wiener Kreis. I usually start with the exhibition space I have available or one or more artists that particularly inspire me. Starting with that, I then go in search of the right concept. By twisting mathematical language, I like to think that I am inspired by “boundary conditions”, such as circumstances that are not very influential, within which I then build the exhibition. Of course, the number of artists can grow and deconstructing the environment can transcend the premises of the project, but I usually stay true to the original core. A peculiar element of my curatorial practice is that I love challenges with difficult or unusual venues for exhibitions: thus, I have curated exhibitions from cellars, garages, former offices, to sumptuous palaces, where the “overturning” of the environment is mostly necessary in order to properly present the artworks. Of course, I also do not disdain white cubes spaces with their “visual acoustics” that are often a bit cold, but at the same time sharp and ideal for bringing out the works of art in themselves – in that context, in my opinion, the challenge is not to lose force in the dramaturgy with which the works of art are displayed. The “Salotto Vienna”, that we realized at the Ex Pescheria in Trieste in 2014, was not strictly an exhibition project, but rather a show for which we transformed the Salone degli Incanti into a huge Viennese salon that lasted thirty-three nights in which we presented more than two hundred personalities from the Austrian artistic and cultural field, including some of the most resonant names. I think I was named one of the three co-curators of the project because in 2013 I presented the legendary Berlin Club der Polnischen Versager at the Kunsthalle Wien as part of the Vienna Art Week. That show, which I would describe as somewhere between cabaret and theatre of the absurd, was a great success and essentially contributed to my notoriety in the Vienna art scene. The pinnacle of environmental reversal I think I achieved with the site-specific exhibition “Domenica” by Pablo Chiereghin, Aldo Giannotti and Massimo Vitali that I curated in 2017 at the Metternich Palace. The theme was the concept of leisure time and how Italians spend their Sundays. In addition to some magnificent and impressive photographs by Vitali from his series on beaches, there were several very sophisticated works by Chiereghin and Giannotti on display. The highlight of the exhibition was their work “Pitch Invasion” for which I had to have a piece of football pitch installed in the neoclassical ballroom of the palace. At first, we thought a synthetic lawn would suffice, but then I got the itch to have a real lawn installed. And it was a very difficult task thinking that a few years earlier just to move one chair I had to ask permission at His Excellency himself. At the end, however, the contrast between the lush lawn, the fresh smell of grass and the sumptuous hall was spectacular. In addition to the opening, that Ambassador Marrapodi and I organized together with the general director of the Belvedere Museums and a legendary Austrian footballer, we even made possible to play football on the lawn, somersaults were performed and picnics were organized, which caused quite a sensation in Vienna. In order to better understand the work, I would also like to mention Chiereghin’s work “Mir fehlt das Meer” (I miss the sea), a very big banner affixed to the façade of the Metternich palace. Of course, the idea was to express a feeling common and natural to us Italians in Austria, but on a deeper level of interpretation, since it was the Metternich palace, it could also be read as a post-mortem lament of the famous Austrian nobleman, diplomat and statesman, the cause of Austria’s loss of Trieste and its sea. This news unintentionally leaked to the press and so I risked my first little diplomatic scandal, which I fortunately managed to contain. I admit that minting together seemingly innocuous, or at least not overtly scandalous, works in an avuncular environment, yet capable of triggering their explosive media potential, is very appealing to me.
Speaking of scandals, I have read in your path of actually tense moments in terms of diplomacy: can you tell me about “Japan Unlimited”?
Beyond the scandal, I am very happy to tell you about one of the biggest exhibitions I have curated to date, namely “Japan Unlimited” at the frei_raum Q21 exhibition space in the MuseumsQuartier in Vienna in 2019. For the celebration of the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Austria and Japan, I had the brilliant idea of bringing together some of Japan’s most political and socio-critical artists such as Makoto Aida, Chim↑Pom, Yoko Shimada and Sputniko!. I did not choose their most racy works because it was not my intention to offend the Japanese population, but I did touch on topics that are taboo for the Land of the Rising Sun, such as the Showa emperor, the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, or indirectly Japan’s aggression against its neighbors during the world wars. The exhibition triggered a shitstorm from Japan’s extreme right-wing camp, which is hyperactive on the Internet and it is known as neto-uyo. This was followed by debates in the Japanese parliament, frequent questions from journalists to the chancellery of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, until the Japanese foreign minister took away the only support we had received from Japan for the exhibition, namely a logo representing the centuries-old friendship between the two countries. Until then I had hoped that thanks to this “friendship” Japan would be able to withstand some criticism, but instead it confirmed the air of strong censorship that prevails in the Japanese nation. From a symbolic point of view, removing our logo had a great effect because the MuseumsQuatier belongs to the Austrian state and the city of Vienna, and “Japan Unlimited” was also being financed by the Austrian foreign ministry. In addition, the numerous Japanese sponsors that I had managed to convince to support the project also started to ask us to remove their logos from our homepages, which of course we did. Leaving aside the scattered, albeit burning, death threats against me and some artists that we found on the web, fortunately there were no strong repercussions, just a small media tsunami from the press, which published articles about the exhibition in numerous Austrian and Japanese media, also in important newspapers such as the Asahi and the Mainichi Shimbun, the Japan Times, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the New York Times. Even in Italy there were a few articles about “Japan Unlimited”. For better or worse, I must say that in the end Japan gave us a great gift. After this scandal, it was probably destiny to be hired in 2020 as curator of the Sammlung Friedrichshof, one of the most important private collections of Viennese Actionism of the 1960s and 1970s. Since 2010, the Friedrichshof collection, under the artistic direction of Hubert Klocker, has organized solo exhibitions and publications for important fellow shareholders, such as Allan Kaprow and Carolee Schneemann, as well as giving space to research that has hitherto been little present in Austria, but corresponding in terms of performance and content, such as that of Ion Grigorescu, Paul McCarthy or Bjarne Melgaard. In this context, I see my role as curator in proposing Viennese Actionism in dialogue with the present or the past, as well as looking for current positions close to Actionism. In our Viennese annex “Stadtraum” (urban space), located in the gallery street Schleifmühlgasse, we therefore also show more or less young, emerging artists. In this context, I have curated a number of exhibitions such as “Iron Waterfall” by Marko Marković in 2022, which focuses on the theme of the iron curtain, which is unfortunately a theme that has become very topical again. Or, together with my young colleague Antonio Rosa de Pauli, I curated the exhibition “Viennese Actionism – Path to Action” at the Friedrichshof collection museum, which is about an hour drive from Vienna. The exhibition started in May 2021 and ended a few weeks ago. In this exhibition, through the extensive holdings of the Friedrichshof collection, we have tried to show how the Austrian artistic avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s found its way from Informalism, Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting to Art Actionism, of course. For the first time, in addition to the fathers of Viennese Actionism, Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, as well as the renowned artist close to them, Alfons Schilling, we have presented some lesser-known positions that revolved around the shareholders, including female figures. It would now be too complex in this context to go into the concept of this exhibition. I can perhaps mention that the layout of the exhibition was purely classical and it was my special care to show in the main room the works on canvas or in general material, including some very impressive ones, in one of the other two rooms only works on paper and in the third room only photographs of some of the early actions. All of course accompanied in the screening rooms by some relevant films. In this way we have tried, similar to a scientific experiment, to separate the different components in order to show and let the visitor experience the extremely radical transition that the Viennese Actionists managed to achieve through their art.
How much is the artistic scenario in Vienna tied to tradition and how much is it proactive for new proposals? I ask this mainly because it is similar to the Italian context, which is very “burdened” by the historical-artistic heritage, but for this precise reason potentially stimulating for more sophisticated research.
I wouldn’t say that Vienna is “burdened” by the art-historical legacy, in fact I have the impression the opposite: young artists who follow the currents of the past too much don’t do too well here. There is probably a kind of conformism to the mainstream languages of contemporary art and I also have the impression that an atmosphere of, dare I say it, a little too much condescension prevails. As if the country that, through Viennese Actionism, produced one of the most radical currents in art history, has now calmed down. However, I think that this is an evolution that is to be found somewhat throughout the art world. In the Austrian capital, perhaps this also has something to do with collectors who are not too widespread and very cautious. More cautious, for example, than the collectors in Berlin, where I lived for a few years, who gave me the distinct impression that they also liked the search for unknown artists in small galleries or art spaces that sprang up and disappeared like mushrooms. Especially the journalists who beat the city of Vienna, probably also for reasons of lack of time and space in the newspapers in which they write, do not seem to me to be particularly adventurous. In fact, Vienna is also full of galleries that devote themselves more to the art trade than to the promotion of contemporary art, always presenting the same trite positions. However, I have to say that the nation with a population of only about nine million also boasts numerous galleries of the highest quality and international flair, some of which participate in Art Basel regularly, as well as various important contemporary art fairs around the world. Yet everything is changing: just as Berlin is no longer the city I lived in in the early 2000s, Vienna is also transforming and seems to me to be becoming an increasingly fertile ground for contemporary art, for experimentation by young artists, curators and new galleries aspiring to noble heights.
Can you talk us about the Viennese Art Week?
Vienna Art Week for me was a bit of a stepping stone into the Viennese art scene. Since 2012, I have regularly participated in its special projects and for the last two years also with the Friedrichshof collection, which is part of the Art Cluster Vienna, the organization behind the Art Week. I therefore prefer to present young or not yet well-known artists, mixing them if possible, with more important names, in order to give the former as much visibility as possible. I also do not mind realizing such projects in alternative exhibition spaces. In 2014, for example, I curated for Vienna Art Week the exhibition “NO MORE FUKUSHIMAS” at Verein08, a venue set up along the lines of a student living room overlooking a street in Vienna’s eighth district, where mostly concerts, some of them of a very high standard, take place. Thanks to the important theme of Fukushima, but also to some big names participating in the exhibition, such as Erwin Wurm, a tiny project was a huge success, which gave me great satisfaction. This strikes me as a nice aspect of Austria, that is, the fact that world-famous artists also lend their work to small, transversal projects, provided of course that they trust the curatorship. This year I am curating Paula Flores’ exhibition “PARTY OF A LIFETIME” at Kunstraum Feller. On 21th this month I will moderate a talk between her and Elisabeth von Samsonow, artist and professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. The young Mexican artist Flores, who studied art in Mexico and then took a master’s degree in Art & Science at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, deals with the complexity of nature, our knowledge about it and our relationship to it. The artist asks, how is it possible that Western capitalist-imperialist thinking, conceived predominantly by men, has allowed a section of humanity to legitimize the exploitation of entire populations, oppressing and enslaving groups of people, abusing nature no less? Flores seeks a way to change, to dismantle and overcome these hierarchical conceptual constructs that limit us in our understanding of natural interconnectedness with the world. To do this, she studies some extraordinary modes of communication between humans and other species such as fungi, bacteria and plants. So, a lexical plurality, returning a little to your first question. I conclude by announcing that in the time to come this exhibition, again curated by me, will be expanded and shown in five state art galleries in Mexico.
Since you introduced the question, what are your future plans? Would you return to Italy after this experience?
I am currently planning exhibitions for the next two years. Due to the pandemic, there have been several relocations and I am therefore trying to realize some projects that I had already planned for some time along with some new ones. In addition, I am in contact with the director of an important Italian museum to curate an interesting exhibition that I hope will come to fruition. In addition to the Viennese Actionists, I would like to present some of Austria’s most renowned artists in Italy, some of whom have already given me their availability. Of course, I would also like to present emerging and lesser-known positions. My dream is to be able to devote myself body and soul to high-quality artistic and cultural exchanges between Austria and Italy. In fact, I have to say that I am really starting to miss my beautiful home country and I am looking for a way to spend one part of the year in Italy and another in Vienna. However, I don’t think I will return to South Tyrol, where I grew up, neither to my native region, Romagna, although it is notoriously very welcoming. Rather, I am thinking of Florence where I studied for a few years and have some dear friends, such as Chiara Giorgetti, a very refined artist and professor at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts – our friendship was born thanks to the “GRAFT” exhibition and annexed symposium that I curated at the Miroslava Kubíka gallery in Czechia in 2017 where I invited her to participate. On the other hand, I would also like to explore Rome where there are excellent museums and contemporary art galleries and the centre of Italian film production is located. Thanks to an exhibition by Sandro Kopp that took place in 2021 at the Friedrichshof collection Stadtraum, I had the pleasure of meeting his partner Tilda Swinton, which rekindled my interest in cooperating with cinema. In the past, in fact, I curated the exhibition “Im keller im keller” (in the basement) for the controversial and well-known Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, who won the grand jury prize at the International Film Festival in Venice in 2002, and I later participated with a very small part in the film of one of his students. Who knows if I will succeed in this and if I will then, somewhat spoilt by the German-Austrian order, be able to juggle in Italy. However, I would like to live and work at the same time a bit here and a bit there, a bit like a particle does in physics in a state of so-called quantum superposition.
Marcello Farabegoli, Vienna Art Week 2022: Challenging Orders
18/11/2022 – 25/22/2022
Luca Sposato was born in Tirano, Valtellina, in February 1986, he lives in Prato working in the Florentine metropolitan plain (Pistoia-Prato-Florence). Art historian, critic and curator of art and xylograph. He has curated exhibitions in private galleries, international fairs and public installations, both in Italy and abroad, including a review in historic buildings of Pistoia and the scenography of a musical show at the Textile Museum of Prato. He writes for various magazines both in print and online. His critical research starting from the art graphics, parallel practiced, focuses on the traced, physical and semiotic sign, expanding the study to the time synchronization between past and present, and cultivating curatorial practice as an artistic medium.