Cortney Stell on Exhibiting Denver-based Artists in Venice
on the Occasion of the 57th Venice Biennale — Written by Katie Lunde
Katie Lunde interviews Black Cube ED + Chief Curator, Cortney Lane Stell
For those of us to do not know, can you tell us more about the Venice Biennale? What makes it unique?
The Venice Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious biennial. It first opened in 1895. A biennial, within the context of contemporary art, is a large-scale exhibition that happens every other year. In the past, the Biennale has been known for supporting the avant-garde, promoting new artistic trends, and a nationalist view of contemporary art. The Biennale has two major platforms: the large curated exhibition that takes place in several enormous exhibition halls and the Giardini, which features pavilions that are organized by countries. The Giardini is particularly interesting because it’s like a large-scale Tiny Town in Venice; each country has built its own pavilion and its quite nice to see all the different architectural styles together. It’s also a pleasant experience to wander in and out of buildings placed within a beautiful garden. The U.S. pavilion has large Greek-influenced columns at its entrance, as one can expect.
I am curating a satellite exhibition that will coincide with the opening of the 57th Venice Biennale set to open this coming May. Black Cube is partnering with the GAA Foundation, a Dutch nonprofit, to produce an exhibition titled Personal Structures. The exhibition will be in the Palazzo Bembo, along the Grand Canal – it’s a spectacular site. It’s an honor to be able to present Denver-based artists, Joel Swanson and Laura Shill, at this exhibition.
As Black Cube’s first international exhibit, what are some challenges? How do you see this positively impacting the organization? What is Black Cube most excited about with this exhibition?
Well, this exhibition is exciting on so many levels and challenging on so many as well. To start, Venice is not particularly adapted to the presentation of contemporary art, from a practical point of view. Even shipping art requires hiring the equivalent of a water taxi or water Uber. Not only is the aquatic transportation tricky, but the humidity and cultural differences all require care. But these are all challenges that we are very fortunate to have.
I am unbelievably excited to bring two Denver-based artists to Venice during this important moment and a particular moment with a lot of attention on the United States, for various reasons including politics. The two artists are in very different situations with the exhibition from a logistic sense and both will be walking away with different experiences. Laura has staged the work in her studio, crated, and shipped it to Venice. She already has been managing a lot of logistics from Italian customs brokerage to prepping her work so she can hit the ground running when we arrive. Conversely, Joel is fabricating his neon works in Italy. Given that Europe's electrical system is different from ours in two ways – the voltage of the current and the shape of the plug – we felt it was better to fabricate the work in Italy to best overcome those differences.
All in all, I think I am most excited for the experience of the exhibition, and to see what it may bring to Joel and Laura’s practice. I am also excited to build Black Cube’s native for the year – producing exhibitions at such diverse contexts as the Venice Biennale and downtown South Central L.A.
How will this long-standing exhibit further both Laura and Joel’s careers as artists?
Only the future will tell. I hope that it brings them more international connections, with potential exhibitions, patrons, critical feedback, or fans.
Both Laura and Joel’s exhibitions suggest that gender exists within a spectrum instead of within two binaries – how do you think this will be received by an international audience? Do you think the audience response would be noticeably different if these two installations were exhibiting within the U.S.?
I selected these works knowing that the Venice Biennale situation is organized under a nationalistic lens. So, I felt that it was important to select works that were representative in some way of the current socio-cultural climate. Both Joel and Laura’s works speak to our relationship to “the other” and also blur boundaries between perceived binary systems. I feel like these subjects are super current in the U.S. and are evident in current topics such as bathroom rights, or the populist turn that the presidential election took. It’s a little tricky to anticipate this audience, as it is so international. Also, the audience for the exhibition changes a lot, given that the exhibition is open for over six months. At the vernissage you will see lots of big fancy folks (I have seen Yoko Ono or Elton John). You also see a lot of professionals in the sense of critics, theorists, artists, curators, etc. Venice is also a tourist destination, so I imagine that a lot of the general audience will be international. Given all of this, I have open expectations. I also feel that given the range of audiences and duration of exhibition, it was important to partner with a European organization that has Venetian offices.
Have you heard about other exhibit’s that will be showing at the Venice Biennale along with Laura and Joel? Do these exhibitions touch upon similar gender notions?
I am not aware of others in the Personal Structures exhibition that deals with the same subject. I assume that this topic will be touched on in some way, somewhere, though.
Christine Macel, the curator of the 2017 Biennale, has stated that this year’s exhibition is inspired by humanism. She frames humanism as a celebration of humankind’s ability to avoid being dominated by the powers governing world affairs. Her framing of humanism is neither focused on an artistic ideal nor is it characterized by seeing mankind as dominate over the world. I anticipate that with a concept such as this, the shades of gray will be explored, which is very connected to the Personal Structures exhibition that I curated. But, we will have to wait and see!
Additionally, the U.S. is bringing Mark Bradford to represent us this year. (Which is also amazing because Becky Heart is curating a Bradford exhibition at DAM.) His work is abstract painting in essence, but it’s not abstract in content. His work is often influenced by his concern for marginalized people and has a strong sense of new materialism…. also concepts that deal with empathy and seeing the other as part of you (which are also present in the Black Cube exhibition).
Is Black Cube hoping that the exhibition at the Venice Biennale will promote further international exhibitions?
Yes! We are already working on other international projects… but we certainly hope that this helps us in the future.