Interview with Massimilano Gioni on the 2015 Armory Focus: MENAM

We spoke with Massimilano Gioni, director of New York’s New Museum, about this year’s Armory Focus: MENAM, a section dedicated to the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, and curated by Omar Kholeif for The 2015 Armory Show art fair in New York City.

Massimiliano Gioni, 2015 Armory Show

New Museum director Massimiliano Gioni at The 2015 Armory Show

 

DROSTE EFFECT: What do you think about the 2015 Armory Focus on MENAM? We know that you are interested in this topic, since last year the New Museum hosted an exhibition (Here and Elsewhere) hinged on the Middle Eastern territories and cultural practices.

MASSIMILIANO GIONI: It is a curious thing, because when we had the Here and Elsewhere exhibition at the New Museum the issue of geographical specificity was a central question of the show, and also a question to which some artists answered less enthusiastically or less obviously than we could have imagined. In a big fair like The Armory Show [view photo gallery], unfortunately, this kind of deeper thinking does not occur. I mean, I have a lot of sympathy for all these artists, many of whom were also showcased at Here and Elsewhere, and much sympathy for all these art dealers. New York is an international city, but also and above all a provincial one, so these events are a pretty good chance for the City. However, at the same time we need to underline that in international art fairs such as The Armory, questions are neutralized or taken for granted. Even though, when you have a look at the programmed conferences and round tables you’ll probably find they speak about these problems extensively. The point is that I’d rather give the public the opportunity to be more involved, and especially I’d rather not give ideas of alleged cultural and geographic similarities for granted. I’d like it if these questions could be shared with the public itself. For example, in Here and Elsewhere there was a precise definition of cultural geography, that here instead is slightly loose, slightly suspicious if I may use this kind of attribute.

 

DE: We spoke to Omar Kholeif, curator of the 2015 Armory Focus on MENAM, about his selection for the 2015 Armory Show. He said his choice was towards artists he loves, and we felt some of it was also an affective one, because of his cultural roots (he was born in Cairo, Egypt).

MG: Sure. I was very happy when they announced this section, because that helped to get people to talk about Here and Elsewhere again. I certainly don’t mean to overthink it by means of metalinguistic rumination, but sometimes it would be more interesting to complicate certain definitions, or at least to analyze them more specifically. I do not think it exists a MENASA here: it exists for bankers and financial experts, but I do not think there should be a MENASA as a cultural specificity. Or, if it exists in the end, the implications are suspicious, because they appear to be based on alleged religious similarities. In art fairs, unfortunately, to be up-to-date is much more important – and it’s great to have new names, new artwork, but you must always be careful, because things are always more complicated than what you make them appear by presenting them as a package. Even when I’ve taken care of the exhibition we showed at the New Museum, I had to keep being self-critical, and that went on throughout the entire process of realization of the show. Even when the exhibition was presented, there was this strong desire not to reduce everything to a package – that could maybe be a very strong and effective way to communicate the presented concepts, but it could have ended up being overly simplistic from an intellectual and cultural point of view.

 

Panos Tsagaris, Kalfayan Galleries, 2015 Armory Show

Panos Tsagaris, Kalfayan Galleries, Focus: MENAM
Photo © Matilde Soligno

 

DE: At ArteFiera in Bologna, Italy Marco Scotini curated an exhibition focusing on the Middle East (Too early, too late. Middle East and Modernity). Along with the New Museum exhibition, it seems to us like a further interesting, relevant look at this specific theme. It is undoubtedly relevant that this topic of research is being developed by different instances at the same time. Here at the Armory it is clear that the context is very different – and indeed in general it has been shown differently depending on the specificity of the locations in which it has been presented at, and on the curators involved.

MG: I think New York, in particular, is a special place, because it is a humble city that gets curious when it realizes that it does not know something – it equips itself in order to find out what is going on. Therefore, I find that here there is a much more pragmatic approach to things in general. People are always open to learning. People have a bigger desire to go and see what they do not know, rather than to visit exhibitions of renowned artists. The value of an exhibition is also given by the number of visitors, and with Here and Elsewhere there was a positive response from both visitors and critics: I just found out with pleasure that Here and Elsewhere has been appointed one of last year’s best exhibitions by the Association of American critics.

Armory Focus: Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean [Focus: MENAM], curated by Omar Kholeif for The 2015 Armory Show, New York, 5-8 March, 2015.

 

Ahmed Mater, Athr Gallery, 2015 Armory Show

Ahmed Mater, Athr Gallery, Focus: MENAM
Photo © Matilde Soligno

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