An interview with Francesco Stocchi, curator of the Swiss Pavilion
by Francesca Interlenghi
A journey back in time, which flows back and forth between ritual and rhythm, an interplay of harmonies and dissonances imbued with scenes of impermanence and catharsis. These are just some of the suggestions around which the offering of artist Latifa Echakhch, commissioned by Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Foundation for Culture, to represent Switzerland at the 59th Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition, has been shaped. The project entitled „The Concert“ was conceived and realised in collaboration with the percussionist and composer Alexandre Babel and the curator Francesco Stocchi. It is an exploration of the wonder and surprise that overturns the definition of the known and the unknown. „We want the audience to leave the exhibition feeling like they do when they are leaving a concert. To make them feel an echo of this rhythm, of those fragments of memory,“ says the artist.
Born in 1974 in El Khnansa (Morocco), Latifa Echakhch lives and works in Vevey and Martigny (Switzerland). Using her multifaceted approach which embraces painting, sculpture and installations, she investigates the contradictions and stereotypes present in our society, the themes of memory and migration, by transforming objects and materials from everyday life, turning them into important carriers of identity, history and mythology. Celebrated internationally, after gaining many experiences all over the world, after winning the Marcel Duchamp Prize in 2013 and presenting „Screen Shot“ in 2015 at the Museum Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich, for which she was awarded the Zurich Art Prize, Echakhch now returns to the Venice Biennale – she has previously participated in the 54th edition – with her current project presented jointly with curator Francesco Stocchi.
Francesca Interlenghi: „The Concert“ is a project that speaks with several voices; one might say it is polyphonic, as there are different motifs that interact in a way that, while each preserves its own identity, all carry the final melody together. Can you tell me how you approached this very important event from a curator’s point of view?
Francesco Stocchi: It is certainly an interesting project because it is different from any other work I have done before. That is why I call it interesting, because if there is one danger in our profession it is that of getting trapped in a reproductive, not to say repetitive, loop. There is a risk of becoming formulaic. Instead, I use the term interesting primarily because, at an operational level, we are in an unprecedented situation: there are four of us and the metaphor of a musical band describes it well. There is a lead singer, Latifa Echakhch, and we, around her, each play a different role, which differs from the usual nomenclature of curator or producer and so on. It is a piece of work created by a group with the clear intention of creating the artist’s pavilion, but it is a synergistic union. In terms of content, we all admire what Echakhch is trying to do. The Venice Biennale is an important stage that she is using to create something new and unexpected, something that was probably previously hidden and that was perhaps waiting for the right opportunity to manifest itself. But no one would have guaranteed the result. In recent years, the artist has offered us a new kind of painting that has been widely welcomed by both critics and the public and, following this trend, many would have expected her to exhibit this type of work in this context too. Instead, Echakhch decided not to use the pavilion as a podium to present and celebrate herself but rather to use it as an opportunity to do something completely new, both in terms of the language and medium used. We’re talking about music! Which she has always been passionate about but this is a first from the point of view of her being a creator and it may open up a new chapter in her life.
FI: The term „new“ is frequently used to characterise this project. A definition that does not suit settings like fairs or institutions like this one, as they have been shown in the past to be places that are rather unlikely to welcome innovations and experimentation. New describes not only something that has never been done before but also something that is unexpected. Can you tell me about it?
FS: The way in which the artist looks at the Venice Biennale is new: not as a consecration of the interesting things produced so far but as a starting point for a new beginning. And I think that’s worthwhile. This project summons the new and the unknown in a way that puts us all on the same level, and it is this that I consider admirable when I think of the artist, regarding the way in which she has decided to deal with an event like this. Especially in recent years, we have been witnessing a sort of standardisation in production and language perhaps and in part due to a generation that is tired of words being put in their mouth but also due to an excess of information that we are all experiencing in real time, and this makes being original artificial. Therefore, the new itself is becoming a difficult exercise. The young artists whom I follow regularly tend to do new things not because they are feeling like it but as a reaction. And this is how, by wanting to be original at all costs, you end up being like everyone else because everyone is trying to be original. For these reasons, I find a project like „The Concert“, which is so characteristic in both form and aesthetics, that risks doing something new at such an event, wonderful.
FI: It seems to me that, in addition to being new, the question of its timing is another crucial element. On the one hand, because everything flows backwards, from the bright light of the day to the previous evening. On the other because, just as happens at a concert, the project tries to transport the spectator’s senses beyond the time of the event, beyond the space of the pavilion, into fragments of their memory.
FS: When the artist asked me to accompany her on this adventure, she said: „I only know one thing: I would like the audience to come out of the pavilion feeling like they do when they are leaving a concert.“ This was our starting point, and we then worked backwards. This was the only baseline we had – a rather poetic baseline, I would add. Thus, Echakhch’s reflection was developed not so much based on what to do or what to show but on how she would like the audience to feel after visiting the exhibition. Shifting her attention to the audience meant questioning what is left behind in their memory, supporting an idea of catharsis that the spectators experience at the very moment when they are enjoying the event but, above all, that they take with them. This was the starting point and I must say it was something new, also first and foremost for the artist. Going backwards means starting by confronting hope and desires, to confront the desire for what has been and what you want to hold on to. Hope for what isn’t there. Or again, always going backwards, a hope for one’s past? I can give you no answers, due to the extent that the layers overlap.
FI: I would like to return to the topic of the public, who I think are given a role here that is not only passive, as spectators, but an active one, as the activators of the work. I would like to ask you if it is possible, and to what extent, to describe the project as participatory art.
FS: The project is participatory not to the extent that the viewer is asked to complete the work but because the work only works with the public’s participation. In other words, a pavilion with paintings requires the pavilion to function even in the absence of an audience. But here, just like at a concert, you need the audience’s presence. The viewers are not asked to act, to participate in the creation of the work but their being there, their heartbeat, their footsteps on a creaking floor are necessary. Moreover, while having visual access to the works via a written order and a rhythmic sequence of lights, the audience enters into a silent narrative linked to an orchestration. This is another interesting participatory element.
FI: Talking about the public it is thus not a stretch too far to speak about bodies and their metamorphosis. This is the broad theme chosen by Cecilia Alemani, curator of this edition of the Venice Biennale for the exhibition entitled „Il latte dei sogni“ [The Milk of Dreams].
FS: Is this because this is the spirit of our time? Would you say that bodies are an important part of the concert? Would you say that we use the body as a way for us to engage the public? All of the senses are activated through sensations of heat, noise and sound. Not to mention that the wooden sculptures themselves created by the artist represent parts of the body: there are heads, ears, fragments. In fact, there is some very important work to be done around the body, and it is certainly an interesting topic to address nowadays.
FI: What works are on display in the pavilion? And how is it structured?
FS: There are a series of wooden sculptures that borrow from the folklore style of carnivals, whose burnt, black wood creates a resistance to the light. From dawn to darkness. The route is structured as a journey that moves backwards, as if, at the end of a concert, you were moving backwards through the night you have had. The loss of light accompanies this burning of the wood and leads into the final room which forms the central space and is completely dark. Here, there are other large sculptures illuminated by a sequence of lights, whose movement and rhythm resembles that of a specially written music. The sound, however, is not heard, it is not a translation of notes into light in the manner of Parreno, for example. Rather, they are luminous beams that allow one to direct one’s gaze towards the unburnt sections of the sculptures, i.e. those that are less blackened.
FI: The project enters into a dialogue with the building designed by Bruno Giacometti in 1951 – a space characterised by precise specificities, which you had to deal with.
FS: It turned out that we needed to integrate the peculiarities of a space which was created to accommodate art and which was only secondarily designed to hold a collection of the various artistic mediums. The Swiss pavilion is the only one with a front wall that delimits the external exhibition space from that of the gardens. A wall that defines an inside and an outside space and that already in itself forms an indication of the path. It is also represents a special architectural context, the non plus ultra of modernism. So combining this almost stereotypical image of modernism with the idea of an explosion, of burning and the vocabulary of the carnival and its ephemeral floats, I believe, is a stimulating undertaking that allows us to consider the contrast between utopias and dreams, between the modernist utopia and dreams of the carnival.
FI: You have described this project to me making reference, even linguistically, to its popular appeal. You are telling me about concerts, carnivals, floats. How does this fit in with the idea of art and the Art Biennale?
FS: What are pavilions if not a succession of floats set out in a sequence? And what is the Biennale if not a book in which each pavilion acts as if it were a page to be perused and looked at one after the other? We have explored this idea, the context and unique peculiarities that the Venice Biennale presents. Because beyond the importance and predominance of the event itself, I was interested from a curator’s point of view in understanding how this project could be inscribed in a sort of carnival, where there is an idea of succession and of the general public, a recurrence and a collective vision that is never absolute but relative, in the sense that the pavilions are very often perceived in comparison to each other and not as entities in their own right. Just like for a concert, I wanted this to translate into a secular and not religiously artistic experience. On an interpretative and critical level, it means introducing art into society. Because, as beautiful as it is, it is not a world that is separate from the rest. It is something that is drawn from life.
FI: Finally, what do you expect from this experience?
FS: To tell the truth, I don’t know what to expect. No one can know until the last minute what is going to happen, and I like that very much. I expect, perhaps, that the risk taken, the choice to tread a new path, can also highlight the Biennale’s function as a bridge: a guide towards what can be rather than an underscoring of what has been. How we can take a step forward, wrongly or rightly, towards something different, an attempt at tomorrow rather than a confirmation of what has been in the past. I intend to work organically with this context that is different from all the others, which is why it is here. In fact, everything was produced on site and everything will end here. The sculptures were made on site with materials recycled from previous Bienniales and will not be transported elsewhere. What happens in Venice stays in Venice. Exactly like a concert, at the end of it the stage is dismantled and everything goes back to the way it was before. And like at a concert, I hope to dance until dawn.