On criticism of Time is out of joint. Interview with Cristiana Collu

Interview with Cristiana Collu, director of the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome, on criticism around 'Time is out of joint.

We bring you today, as the first article of 2017, a lengthy interview with Cristiana Collu, director of the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome, on the criticism received by the Time is out of jointproject , the Gallery’s new exhibition-format display. This interview follows one done with Professor Claudio Gamba in November (note: this interview was conducted on several occasions over two months).

Time is out of joint
One of the Gallery rooms revisited for Time is out of joint

Dr. Collu, in regards to the new arrangement in the form of an exhibition, which will run until April 2018, criticism is being made that the Gallery, thus rearranged, would look just like one of those exhibitions that aim to appeal easily to the public by playing on emotions and leaving the museum’s educational role somewhat on the sidelines, and not like a gallery that has a long, precise, well-defined history. On the assumption that the past can still be reread and reinterpreted, is it true that the history of the National Gallery of Modern Art has in fact been cast aside in favor of what is seen somewhat as the concretization of the Futurist dream of destroying museums?
Your question echoes some of the (dismissive and often ill-motivated) criticisms that have been directed at Time is out of joint, especially in a part of certain university circles, probably in the wake of the controversy that followed the resignation of two members of the Gallery’s scientific committee. That said, I do not think at all that activating emotions is something that erodes or debases the educational role of the museum; on the contrary, I believe that emotions can be transformed into an input capable of stimulating the viewer to a personal quest. The museum cannot be thought of as an institution that caters only to an ideal viewer (a kind of potential art historian), but as a place that must be able to speak to different kinds of audiences, must be able to offer a chance even to a general viewer, even to those who visit the museum as mere tourists, therefore, offer the possibility of an encounter with the work, even without necessarily predetermining what the visitor will have to see, how he or she will have to interpret it, what he or she will have to think about it. The specialist or university student (natural but not exclusive viewers) are by no means disarmed; they have, or should have, the preparation to understand what is on display and the ability to detach themselves from interpretations they find objectionable. The same goes for high school teachers certainly capable, when needed, of reassembling the core of an artist’s work that appears in different rooms.
But, to return to your question, what does “the history of the gallery has been set aside” mean? Isn’t this new arrangement also part of its history? Is it missing the inaggirable masterpieces of the collection? It seems to me that from Canova to Modigliani, from Mondrian to Pascali, from Lega to Twombly, from Pellizza to Kounellis, from Cézanne to Van Gogh, from De Chirico to Pollock, from Fattori to Burri, from Morandi to Fontana (to name but a few), the works are all on display and perfectly visible in the rooms. On the contrary, the demolition of some superfetations extraneous to Bazzani’s project and the restoration of the building’s original spatiality and luminosity allows for a better enjoyment of both the works and the space. As a result of these operations, which were unanimously appreciated, some works were, temporarily, placed in storage, just as other extraordinary works that had never been exhibited or had not been exhibited for some time came out, perhaps for the first time. Depots as well as the possibility of the rotation of works make the richness of a museum. Hardly a collection is exhibited in its entirety, it is not in this display as it is and was not in previous ones.
Precisely from the fact (I believe unquestionable and indisputable) that the past should not be embalmed, but can (and indeed should) be reread and reinterpreted, I claim the legitimacy of the new arrangement as a stimulating contemporary reading and reinterpretation of the history of the Gallery and its collections, light years away from what you call “the Futurist dream of destroying museums.” Those who visit the Gallery free of pre-judgments do not feel at all that they have witnessed a destruction of the museum, and there are many, many, I would say the vast majority, people who thank us for the new look at the collection offered by Time.

In the statement, you speak of heterodoxy and disobedience. Faced with this statement, those most critical of Time is out of joint might wonder whether we are not rather faced with the more classic conformism of nonconformity, given that the actions of government on the one hand and of many major private entities on the other seem to be taking precisely the path of detachment from tradition (or at least from academic orthodoxy). By this I certainly do not mean, as one reads on social media these days, that there is a shadow of governmental directions behind Time is out of joint: I make it clear from the outset that I do not share this view. Rather, I wonder whether it is really possible to speak of disobedience, given that the members of that world to whom the new arrangement in the form of an exhibition disobeys now consider themselves a minority, or at any rate believe that their vision of art history must often succumb
The meaning of your question escapes me, and I do not know which majorities or minorities you allude to. The choices in the installation do not respond to any mandate, so much so that they have been criticized for diametrically opposed reasons, and even for being too beautiful. It seems to me more interesting to point out the authoritarian and scandalized tone of some stances aimed at delegitimizing any narrative of art history that deviates from the linear and progressive one of a historicist and scholastic vision, assumed, moreover, uncritically, as natural and, above all, as the only one adequate to guarantee the formative capacity of a museum display. I believe that every work of art lives and draws its sap from the historical period in which it is born but also (Aby Warburg docet) from suggestions that sink into the history of images and from daring and springing from an intuitive or theorized openness to the future. If a work were wholly and absolutely bound to its own time, if it had no possibility of escaping its influence in ever-changing ways, it would turn into a mere document. Art history has the task of contextualizing a work but has no grip on the ulterior senses (suggestions and evocations) that emanate from it. Countless and authoritative voices have, after all, insisted on the irreducible plural character of the work of art, its ambiguity, and claimed the right to relentlessly remake its history. I think that every work of art is irreducible to contingency and that it is precisely this peculiarity that defines it. The work,“ Roland Barthes pointed out, ”is not surrounded, designated, protected, guided by any situation, there is no practical life to show us the meaning we have to give it, and still whatever societies think or decree, the work goes beyond them, goes through them, in the same way as a form that certain more or less contingent, historical senses come from time to time to fill: a work is eternal not because it imposes a unique sense on different men but because it suggests different senses to a unique man, who always speaks the same symbolic language through a plurality of times.
The operation put in place by Time’s few detractors rests on two strategies: the first tends to transform this exhibition, which will run until April 2018, as the final set-up of the collection, despite the fact that the start and end dates have been made explicit from the outset, both by insinuating the idea that the operation makes use of a strategy based on unwarranted juxtapositions for effect, geared to preemptively stir up scandal with the intention of increasing the influx of visitors. The latter is the thesis that, predictably, has found the greatest resonance in the press, partly because it is moved by professors in the discipline. However, it is a criticism that blatantly disregards the minimum criteria of the exhibition: it is in fact all too easy to assume (but the more exact term would be to invent) biunivocal relationships and nonexistent juxtapositions between works and then dismiss them as impractical or uneducational. Instead, it is paradoxical that champions of contextualization take and, indeed, decontextualize only a few works from the rooms, thus arbitrarily reducing a constellation of plural relationships to a specious relationship of biunivocal correspondences or filiations between decidedly distant artists. Again, the arrangement does not in fact aim to establish any direct relationship between work and work, much less between artist and artist. For example, the sense of the neoclassical sculptures scattered throughout many of the rooms in fact functions as a kind of metric or paradigm designed to measure the difference from time to time between the beauty of the works offered in the rooms and that derived from a classical ideal. Also decidedly questionable are the reservations that arise from other juxtapositions that at times lead to calling the works of one of the greatest contemporary Flemish artists, Berlinde De Bruyckere, carrion, judging the space given to the artist and especially the juxtaposition between his works and those of Burri as scandalous, not realizing that this position ends up echoing that of those who cried out in scandal at the appearance of the first works of the great Italian artist, judged similarly unworthy of being received in a museum. More generally, we believe that critical commentaries are often vitiated and rendered useless by interpretations that (as in the aforementioned example of the neoclassical sculptures) derive from an unjustified extrapolation of individual works from the context of the room in which they are exhibited, interpretations that thus deliberately tend to schematize nonexistent relationships between artists unapproachable outside the web of relationships woven by the exhibition. We will limit ourselves here to a few paradigmatic examples, starting with the opening room, which serves as a prologue to the entire exhibition. Here again (ignoring the totality of the works in dialogue) the comments are directed at establishing singular biunivocal relationships between Pascali and Canova or Penone and Canova, artificially isolating them from the rarefied, and therefore difficult to ignore, context in which they are placed: complaining then, from time to time, of the alleged impossibility of seeing Penone’s work in its entirety, adducing as proof of this opinion, the boldly foreshortened photographs with which the work was taken in the press (as if the human gaze suffered from the same restrictions as the photographic one), and finally inferring from this the fact that the work is reduced to becoming a mere stage set for the Hercules.
A similar fate is reserved for Pascali’s sea reduced to a mere reflective surface of Canova’s sculpture. Finally, reservations are feared about a juxtaposition that others might deem far too scholastic between Mondrian and Castellani. Instead, I believe, and with me those who curated this installation, in particular Saretto Cincinelli, that the room in question presents some of the most surprising but also most judicious juxtapositions in the entire exhibition. By suggesting a close-up view of Penone’s work, the set-up in fact allows one to note, from the outset, its materiality and workmanship (eluded in a more backward fruition), and encourages the establishment of that immersive and tactile dimension claimed by the work’s very large format. It is a perspective that allows, moreover, an adequate view of the back of Canova’s sculpture as well. On the other hand, as already pointed out, we do not detect any problem in the Mondrian - Castellani juxtaposition (two high examples of rigor and reduction of painting toward its own boundaries). In short, those who object do not look at the room in its entirety: they do not take into account the fact that while Pascali mirrors and somehow duplicates and depotentiates the monumentality of Canova’s Hercules, he simultaneously dialogues with Mondrian’s grids and chromatically the other works and, finally, the fact that the set-up in question favors the establishment of an unprecedented relationship-to-distance between Canova’s classicism and Twombly’s, so to speak, deconstructed classicism. On closer inspection, moreover, ironic allusions to skin, in both Canova and Penone, find a conceptual echo in the punctual tensions that characterize Castellani’s pictorial surface.

Does the museum, in order to open itself to the public, really need to leverage the poetics of the short circuit triggered by simultaneous relationships? The transformation of the museum into what is seen by many as a kind of big media product (a term I do not use at random: always on social media I have read hyperbolic comparisons between Time is out of joint and Maria De Filippi’s shows, which are certainly simplistic and even a bit of a joke but, given that they come from insiders, I think they help to make the point) does it not carry with it the risk of underestimating the public and, at the same time, of fostering that concept of culture as divertissement that is unfortunately gaining more and more ground and that many are trying to hinder? How do you think it is possible to respond to the criticism of those who think that an operation like Time is out of joint encourages disengagement?
Industry insiders what does that mean? Faced with statements like these I remain dumbfounded, does it mean that I, and the staff of the Gallery, in this case the art historians and the invited curator, Saretto Cincinelli, are, so to speak, infiltrators, clandestine, unauthorized, are we not also insiders as much as and more than the others? I confess to you that the sneaky and allusive, denegation-based manner that characterizes your questions leaves me very puzzled (in this case the hyperbolic comparisons with Maria De Filippi’s broadcasts and earlier the not too veiled allusion to governmental guidelines that you claim not to agree with but nevertheless report). It seems to me that his questions rather than being answered or clarified are, so to speak, interested, directed at casting shadows or fomenting suspicions about the adequacy or competence of the current management and in general of the people who work with me.
As for the risk of underestimating the public, it seems to me that this is as far from my positions as ever, for once again the criticism is shown to be contradictory: on the one hand accusations are levelled at me of elitism and of overly sophisticated approaches that are supposed to escape the general public, and on the other of favoring a concept of culture as divertissement, whereas I, unlike you, believe that the public has the right to approach a work also by stepping outside the pre-packaged pedagogical schemes of the scholastic vulgate, that it can and should have the possibility of negotiating its own way of approaching a work.

I imagine that one of the goals of the new arrangement is to engage the audience more (not least because otherwise much of the framework on which the criticism is based would fall down). However, some people might think that the simultaneous relationships of Time is out of joint, which many people think are only appreciated if a visitor is familiar with an artist’s work and even his or her biographical story (think of Burri, for example), actually establish a clear boundary between the public and insiders, or at least between the inexperienced and the more experienced public. In short, is there a risk of a kind of return snobbery, or is this a danger that is devoid of any foundation? How to respond to this kind of criticism?
It seems to me that I have already answered the first part of your question, I believe, in fact, that one of the tasks of the museum is to engage more with the general or generalist public, not only as a matter of numbers or, putting the cultural heritage to good use, but also because a closed institution, is a self-referential institution and tends to be dead, which gives up a priori its mission, which is not, cannot be solely that, I have already said it and I repeat it, to act as a subsidiary to art history students. With the goodwill of those who think otherwise, Time has never proposed the radical subversion of the Gallery with the aim of gaining great media visibility, it has never set out to scrap anything, nor to chase the tastes of certain television audiences, nor finally to present the museum as a kind of location where to take selfies to share on social networks but, more simply to propose a different and more airy, less congealed interpretation of the works in the collection. An interpretation that does not see the arrangement of the works in the rooms according to the rigid logic of a chronological defile
As for return snobbery, with Jacques Rancière I think that lemancipation of the viewer begins when we understand that looking is also an action. The spectator does not supinely undergo what is presented to him, the spectator also acts, [ ] observes, chooses, compares, interprets. He connects what he sees to many other things he has seen in other scenes, in other places. This position seems to me to be very far from a paternalistic view or an underestimation of the role of the audience.

The most frequent criticism is of the dismantling of the itinerary in chronological order, but you, after all, have never made any secret of your vision of the museum far from that which would like it to resemble an art history textbook. So, Time is out of joint establishes a certain kind of relationship with the public. But doesn’t a display that accounts for a single point of view, or at any rate puts out of play an important point of view, that of art history as a reconstruction of philological relationships between works, risk in your opinion repressing that transversality that on paper should characterize a modern museum’s approach to the public?
I would like to ask you what you think would be the unique point of view that supports Time, but I simply point out to you that there is no single criterion in the layout of Time’s halls. If the remembered Canova hall and the war hall or the migrant hall or the last hall where the works of Morandi, Fontana, Buren, Pollock, Duchamp and Pistoletto are exhibited are partly played on anachronism, many others, on the other hand, follow a more traditional historical type of arrangement, even if not strictly chronological. I will not discuss here whether the icastic juxtaposition and linguistic diversity between works that are distant (both historically and in terms of conception and realization) and therefore aiming to bring out their mutual differences, may not also be didactically more effective in understanding a work than the approaching of coeval works that employ a similar language, I will also limit myself here to point out that, if one looks closely, the exhibition adopts a plural criterion in its arrangement: if some rooms show an explicit temporal unhinging, it is equally true that many others simply adhere to a tendentially historical dimension. Finally, all the rooms on the upper floor (about half of the exhibition space) record, even with a certain punctiliousness, the chronology and historical temperament that probably does not submit so meekly to the scholastic vulgate that induces us to think, for example, that Duchamp’s ready-made is the product of a period far removed from the one in which Monet painted his last water lilies and that, despite formal appearances, Klimt’s three ages turn out to be posterior, and not by a little, to Marey’s chronophotography experiments. And this in spite of art history textbooks that make dozens of pages elapse between one and the other. Or finally that it is that same period when the vague of primitivism and the love of African or oceanic sculpture spread in Paris. Sometimes strictly following chronology unhinges the manualistic arrangement at least as much as wanting to get rid of it. Besides, precisely, where is it written that a museum must slavishly function as an art history textbook?