The 1970s were a time of great artistic and exhibition experimentation for the Venice Biennale. In an attempt to unify the offerings of the exhibitions in the pavilions and the central one curated by the Biennale, an attempt was made for some editions to find a common theme. In 1978 it was the turn of ‘nature’. Although understood in a broad sense, the theme of the relationship between art and nature provided an opportunity to reflect on topics such as ecology, sustainability and the naturalness of existence, which touched on many disciplines in a transversal way. Achille Bonito Oliva was the coordinator of the event and co-curator of the most contemporary section, entitled “Natura/Antinatura”. In the following interview he tells us about its characteristics and aims, reflecting together with Clarissa Ricci on the implications of that Biennale for subsequent editions.
[Clarissa Ricci]: “From nature to art, from art to nature” was the title of the 1978 Biennial that you, as coordinator, organised together with Jean-Christophe Ammann, Andrea del Guercio and Filiberto Menna. That exhibition was an extraordinary anticipation of themes such as man’s relationship with the environment and ecology that are now of concern to everyone. However, the title suggests that the term nature should be interpreted in a broad sense. So how did you understand “nature”?
[Achille Bonito Oliva]: There were two concerns. The first was to recover a reference to culture. Bear in mind that in the 1960s, especially in art of the English-speaking world, it marked the beginning of Land Art, which focused on the theme of nature; and then there was also the very fact of reflecting on the role of art that referred to nature. So, starting from the title, there was a double value that we wanted to highlight with the exhibition: on the one hand, the reference to nature as the matrix of every creative tension that art could have, and on the other, an opening up of art to nature, a theme that did not simply imply a reference to nature as landscape, but also understood nature as an attempt to reflect on its own identity and on the freedom that art could express through its creation. Thus, nature not only as a reference and matrix of what surrounds us, but also as an encouragement, a reference (“Sturm und Drang” the Germans used to say) that implies pathos and at the same time an unstoppable creative drive.
[CR]: In effect, the exhibition proposed a journey, a path in six stations through the experience of twentieth-century art. The stations, it could be said, constituted “conceptual moments” of a problem about which art had been questioning itself since the early avant-garde movements. It could be said that it was not nature itself at the centre of the exhibition, but rather a question about the nature of art.
[A.B.O.]: We wanted carefully to document the conceptual value of art and the fact that the nature of art has not only a representative charge but also the power to produce reflection every time with its forms.
[CR]: This stance did not only concern the exhibitions of you Biennale curators, but was also assimilated and reworked by the pavilions. I read in the 1978 Yearbook of Events that at the preparatory meeting it was you who addressed the national commissioners, presenting your idea for the theme of that edition. The 1970s was generally a period in which the Biennale sought close collaboration with the pavilions, and it seems to me that the response in this case was very positive.
[A.B.O.]: Yes. In particular I wanted to point out that the Venice Biennale had a natural cosmopolitan, international aspect. The pavilions were headed by different commissioners from different countries and were often more focused on protecting themselves. The result was an exhibition made up of many small particles. Somehow we managed to convince the commissioners of the other pavilions to take the theme from the genius loci of their own country, confirming an aspect that is, it must be said, natural to international art.
[CR]: By mentioning the genius loci, which was also the title of an exhibition you curated in 1980, you anticipated a question I wanted to ask you. That is, do you think it is useful today to reinterpret this concept, which was so successful, particularly in the 1980s, from an ecological perspective too? Or do you think this is taking it too far?
[A.B.O.]: No. I think it seems natural. There is also a reference to an ecology of art. A reference not only to what surrounds us, in line with the traditional way of understanding this concept, but also to the fact that it is in the nature of art to reflect while creating new things. What is interesting is that art succeeds not only in supporting a fertility of expression, but also in affirming a conceptual moment in art. In those years especially, art almost stripped itself of its apparent forms in order to document an essential aspect. We might say that art dematerialises itself in order to confirm its conceptual side, in order to confirm the skeleton, the essence of art itself. All this is interesting because the 1978 Biennial exhibition, which as you rightly pointed out had a historical and international dimension, produces a representation and an itinerary of art that from full forms arrives at an almost Franciscan aspect.
[CR]: In Venice, the ecological question raised by artistic operations emerged, we could say, from the waters. The first striking episode was the performance in 1968 by Nicolás García Uriburu: the artist coloured the Grand Canal green with fluorescein, a harmless substance which, however, had raised fears of disaster for the lagoon. Ten years later, your Biennale was held, aimed at questioning the issue of nature, albeit in a broad sense. So was this still a concern? Why did it seem urgent to you in 1978 to deal with these themes?
[A.B.O.]: The time was ripe to document precisely how art was moving away from its traditional forms, how it was moving out of the indoors into the open. Moving outdoors means precisely this: not making protest art but managing to develop art en plein air, making forms capable of taking on, of absorbing, a breath, a connection with the outside world. And I say external to indicate also the fact that, if you remember, in those years art was seen as touching all possible fields. Somehow art does not deprive itself of anything; it assumes a total linearity and naturally also touches on the theme of ecology.
[CR]: The fact that art can really touch any field was very evident in that edition of the Biennale, because through the exhibitions the visitor was presented with a multidisciplinary experience: there was a station dedicated to architecture, one to photography, feminist experiences, visual poetry…
[A.B.O.]: It was an interdisciplinary, multimedia exhibition, capable, through all possible means, of not stopping merely at a representation of things. Impressionism, with its en plein air, had already touched on this possibility of producing art by relating to nature and also outdoors. It was therefore a theme that came from afar and that found in “From nature to art, from art to nature” the possibility of crossing over into all possible languages.
[CR]: In this multiplicity of languages there was also the possibility of considering the Giardini of the Biennale as a place of representation, to be interpreted or looked at anew. In the Brazilian Pavilion, for example, there was an intervention by Roberto Burle Marx, who proposed a redevelopment project in the form of landscape design for the Giardini in Venice. After all, this green space is extremely characteristic for the Biennale. To visit the pavilions, you have to walk around it…
[A.B.O.]: The exhibition is an invitation to go beyond the pavilions, to come out of the pavilions and relate in an open path that also develops an understanding and a dialogue between artists from different countries.
[CR]: It’s a dialogue that is always very varied. Among the works that characterised that edition, there were some – especially those that made use of animals – that caused a scandal and much head-scratching, attracting the interest of the media. For example, the sheep that stood in the Giardini, exhibited by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman. Or the bull brought by Italian artist Antonio Paradiso, which mated with a mechanical cow under the gaze of visitors. This was not the first time that live animals had burst into the Biennale. In the previous edition, Jannis Kounellis had already presented his famous installation with horses; in this one in 1978, he limited himself to a parrot. Today I don’t know if you could use animals in this way in an exhibition. Did you have any particular problems? Did you have an ethical problem with the presence of these animals?
[A.B.O.]: Actually, the theme allowed us to organise an exhibition characterised by an attitude that I would call ‘libertine’, that is, without limitations, without moralism and without even the suspicion of exploitation. This is very important. Indeed, we felt that we were producing an invitation to participation, an invitation to humanity in all its aspects.
[CR]: Earlier you mentioned Land Art as an episode of openness to a reflection on nature in a manner typical of the English-speaking world. Can we talk about Land Art in Italy in the strict sense of the term? It seems to me that Italian artists were more interested in the value of matter.
[A.B.O.]: Naturally, also because you have to take into account that a few decades earlier there had been the affirmation of Informal Art, of Action Painting: a total liberation and an opening to the possibility of a creativity able to touch every field.
[CR]: The previous Biennale, in 1976, dealt with the environment. This theme was also widely investigated; so much so that it was the focus of the Trigon Biennial in 1967. Can we say that “From nature to art, from art to nature” was a continuation of that discourse?
[A.B.O.]: It was the most mature moment for presenting the breaking through of borders that we documented in the exhibition. It was natural to arrive at this point of reflection. The 1978 Biennale also went beyond what seemed to be a political commitment, in which a sort of need to participate in political movements prevailed on the part of the artists. They did this through forms that were metaphorical, symbolic. We also wanted to overcome a certain unease caused by the political situation. Art can be a medicine; it can have the ability to cure.
[CR]: We must remember that, together with you, the other curators were Ammann, Del Guercio and, above all, Filiberto Menna…
[A.B.O.]: It was a dialogue. I really must say that there were no relational gaps, no theoretical distances, but a frank participation, and then also a trust in me and Ammann on the part of the other curators, who accepted the proposed openings and got involved in the theme, actively participating with their own indications, including historical ones. To all intents and purposes it was a balanced exhibition. Without friction or conflict.
[CR]: Not an easy thing to do. In the history of the Biennale, we can say that it has not always been like that. As you yourself know. That edition was in fact the beginning of a long relationship that you had with the institution the following year…
[A.B.O.]: With Harald Szeemann, we organised an exhibition on young artists that was very important as it brought attention to emerging artists, who over time went on to become producers of international art. I have collaborated in many Biennales, up to the 1993 Biennial of which I was the director.
[CR]: Can we say that the experience of the Biennale in 1978 was an inspiration for the one you organised in 1993? I am referring above all to the fact that this last one, the XLV edition, was totally dedicated to the notion of breaking through borders.
[A.B.O.]: Yes. By nature, I am extravagant, open and not confined by the rules, and art is a matter of trespassing, surprise, adventure. In some ways, the Biennale has allowed me to create an exhibition theatre in the various situations in which I have collaborated, especially bringing to fruition this idea of multimedia, transnational, multidisciplinary art.
[CR]: What do you think about the choice of this year’s Italian Pavilion to focus on themes such as ecology and the Anthropocene? Is it still possible for art to say something about this?
[A.B.O.]: I believe that art and the Biennale itself have played a role by bringing awareness to the debate and confirming an appointment that is always aimed at dialogue and confrontation and not isolation. At a dramatic time like the present, due to the war in Ukraine, it is very important for the Biennale to be open. It is also a way of combatting some of the feelings that have emerged over the last ten years, such as the sovereignty and nationalism of some Northern European countries, which,, through art, can testify to the fact that art is always an adventure, a way of overcoming the singular creative self of the artist in itself and affirming a “we”, a collective afflatus that in some way allows the general public of the Biennale to become aware of how art speaks to everyone. I think that art is by nature open to dialogue and confrontation. It allows a knowledge that goes beyond pleasure, the tasting of the work itself, to an awareness of our condition. I have always worked with this openness (do you know that an exhibition about my whole life was organised at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin?) and I have always had a behavioural attitude towards art criticism. The critic is not a cold, detached witness, but a participant; with his themes he confirms how in some way the value of ‘we’ exceeds that of ‘I’. I believe that vanity is the prêt-à-porter of narcissism; it is an anthropological aspect that pertains to the character of all men. I believe that the Biennale, like all exhibitions, should confirm the nature of the creative act. This is what the nature of my 1993 exhibition, which was entitled “Cardinal points of art”, was ultimately intended to document.
[CR]: One could write a treatise on your narcissism, but I think you have also encroached on that of other personalities. Considering the number of people you gave the opportunity to have an exhibition in 1993, I think it is necessary to underline a trait of great generosity. Each curator involved was able to express and bring their own vision.
[A.B.O.]: Well, naturally.
[CR]: I would not say it is so natural! There are so many curators who have been very careful not to enable others to emerge. Can you explain why you think this generosity is ‘natural’?
[A.B.O.]: I say ‘natural’ because it is a character thing. It is not by chance that I have laid myself bare. Art lays bare, and it also lays bare those who reflect on art. The critic is not someone who goes to a meeting in a double-breasted suit. In my opinion, the critic must absolutely be undecided about everything, ready to verify, control and read even the most hidden movements, to take time, to open up and allow other artists to take on forms that then allow them to arrive at completed works.
[CR]: One of the remarks you made about the ’93 exhibition was that it was a very autobiographical exhibition, because in some ways it took up some of the points you had always dealt with. After all, it was your Biennale…
[A.B.O.]: It’s true, I can’t deny it.