From curator to curate: Achille Bonito Oliva Reflects on Himself and on His Long Creative Journey

May 12, 2021

An Intense Dialogue between Friends/Critics in Occasion of the Upcoming A.B.O.’s Exhibition at the Rivoli Castle

The announced and upcoming opening of “A.B.O. THEATRON. Art or Life”, the exhibition organized by CRRI (The Rivoli Research Institute) in collaboration with the Curatorial Department, which will occupy all the rooms of the Castle from the 17th of May till the end of Autumn in a sort of homage/reflection on Achille Bonito Oliva, who donated his Archive to the above mentioned CRRI, triggers an unstoppable flow of considerations/ memories, many of which are personal (if only because of a frequentation mostly developed between the end of the 60s and the very early years of the 70s in that period of nomadic life which led me from Bologna to Rome, Turin, Milan and then Naples and that has been consolidated over the years, despite the obvious, logic and multiple time-related inconveniences) and, at the same time it confirms and reaffirms that sort of behavioral strategy of the critic (but also poet, teacher etc.) from Salerno on which I many times dwelled on. This means, maybe, narrating one’s own story.

"The artist is my dearest enemy"

But also, and especially, trying to sew the threads of a common creative period that belongs to us, made of intuitions, transgressions, proofs and confirmations. Starting in 1967 from the chance meeting in Bologna with the 34 poems “Made in Mater”, printed on single numerated cards by Sampietro editor, but even more from the evening everyday life we spent together in May 1968, when he devoted all his time to “Teatro delle Mostre” (Theater of Exhibitions) in “La Tartaruga” gallery at number 3 in Piazza del Popolo in Rome, with “the most renown artists in the 60’s” (Fioroni, Marotta, Ceroli, Mambor, etc. and then Busotti, Balestrini and Parise in a clear and visible “beyond”), putting in place the relation between art and theater, living that time stream that goes way beyond the instant of perception for turning into performance. Later documented in the volume of the same name by Marcalibru/Lerici editor, with a text written by Maurizio Calvesi and Achille Bonito Oliva’s captions which clarified the twenty exhibitions/ performances/actions. And then meeting again two years after in June at Palazzo Ricci in Montepulciano for “Amore Mio” (Love of Mine), his first curatorial event, besides the start of a sort of a choice later re-used which conferred the status of autonomous territory to the exhibition space and its catalogue (no longer a guidebook and/or tagline, but a real analysis tool), also unfolding the critic’s irony in accrediting himself the contextual role of artist and “authenticator” and anticipating the consolidation of some collaborations, with the artist involved and subsequently re-involved and with Piero Sartogo, coordinator of “Vitalità Del Negativo nell’ Arte italiana, 1969-70” (The Negative’s Vitality in Italian Art) and “Contemporanea”, the two exhibitions that were organized by “Incontri internazionali d’Arte” (International Art Meetings), the association founded by Graziella Lonardi Buontempo in Rome.

"Art is not an answer but a question about the world"

The first, in November 1970 featured more than thirty Italian artists with differ backgrounds and modes of expression. It took place on the ground floor of the Palace of Expositions in Rome and made Filiberto Menna write: “The Capital never hosted such an event”. Ugo Mulas even gave a photographic interpretation of the exhibition. The second, still in Rome but set up in Villa Borghese’s underground parking lot from November 1973 to February 1974 with, was divided in ten sections/categories and the art-related one saw Achille Bonita Oliva placing himself beyond the dispute between the synchronic and diachronic methods inside the specific nature of the territory, that is “the circular space in which the artistic experience takes place, occurs and is performed”. And, between these two, in the summer of 1973 and in the Royal Palace in Naples, there was “The Delicate Chessboard: Marcel Duchamp 1902/1968”. It was a strategy exercise and an analysis of metaphors between time/ space, laterality, disorientation, eroticism, performance and irony. Then, ahead in time up to the 39th Biennale in Venice with Luigi Carluccio as director of the visual art section and Achille inventing “Aperto 80” (with Harald Szeemann), crediting Italian art with a “transavantgarde” position, in the act of establishing “the artwork as the place of transition, the switch from a style to another, without ever focusing on a fixed pattern”. The one that he later would have theorized and documented, also in that year, in the “Italian Transavantgarde” volume by Giancarlo Politi Editor. And from that moment on, others fairs and exhibitions including the acrobatic Biennale in 1993 that he entirely directed and other public and/or private meetings, up to this mutual flow of words which, among answers and questions, confirms that Achille Bonito Oliva’s cross-sectional strategy consists, in the end, in the persistence of his own representation.

In June 1970 in Montepulciano, with “Amore Mio”, for the first time you gave a body and an image to that thing you define creative criticism. You are the general secretary and the events’ authenticator, but your face photographed by Ugo Mulas is in the catalogue, which is to be read as curatorial practice, and you got eight pages dedicated to you like all the other artists. Desire of personal visibility or what?
I’d describe it as a healthy antagonism towards the role of the artist. I always considered them as my dearest enemies, since they develop, through their creation, a sort of erotic and healthy clash with the critic, who in any case is himself a creative figure.

Still, being a critic and mentioning yourself in the 1974 Bolaffi Catalogue, being photographed in the nude on a floral sofa for Frigidaire in 1981 and again in 1989 and 2011, is a provocation and/ostentation of your own image, or something more?
Let’s say I actually gave a body and a sort of prominence to the figure of the critic that, until the 70s, was a kind of a stagehand, even in the noble, decent, respectable meaning of the word, still occupying a somewhat marginal position. I rather believe, for what concerns our role in contemporary art, the issue is to create an adversarial situation, a clash and a dialogue in a well-defined equal term relationship. The artist creates and the critic reflects. Beside the reflection there’s also the behavioral side and the nudes on Frigidaire are exactly the sign and the confirmation that the critic doesn’t tend to play the part of the invisible advisor. The critic is instead a main character developing original principles and even actions on the scene; so, the nudes on Frigidaire want to point out this too, a healthy narcissism that belongs to everybody. Narcissism is the ecological engine of life, and I’m talking about narcissism, not vanity. Because vanity is the prêt-à-porter version of narcissism.

"My nude pictures on Frigidaire's covers confirm that the critic is not devoted to the role of invisible advisor"

In the book “The magical territory”, the 1969 essay published in 1972 by Centro Di in Firenze, you state: “In the magical territory all the convergences in time and space are thrown open and the process of doing is the link with the historical present…”. Does this mean anticipating the concept of transavantgarde even before “Artworks Made of Art” and “Aperto 80”?
If course, it is obviously a long journey; it’s, let’s say, a search path that looks back on all that is happened. It’s an incessant progression that gets to the transavantgarde, where the critic combines theory and behavior. In some ways, mentioning Flaubert who used to say “Madame Bovary c’est moi”, I could say “Transavantgarde c’est moi”. Meaning that I feel like, in the eyes of transavangarde, I was not a guardian angel but an exterminating one, since I created only five artists and all of them have created more art than I did.

In the interview that was published in the Summer 1974 on “ARTE2000”, when I asked you how your section for “Contemporanea” differed from all the other similar expositions, in which the past was taken for granted and the critic-related time was replaced with the historic-related one, you told me: “I actually turned over this parameter and I brought the historic-related time back to the critic-related one, organizing the art section with a “time” that goes from 1973 to 1955; so, it’s a reverse process in which time turns into a testing space where the past is not a preconceived value, but a dimension to be verified, I’d say almost physically, by the observer. And, right through that examination, the past conforms to a constitutive value”. Do you think this strategy still applies?
I think art designs the past, so it’s always interesting to consider the past as a landing point, since, logically going through a time in the history of art, also with the help of an exhibition, it’s possible to regard the landing into the past as the start of everything surrounding us.

In the total uncertainty that marks our time, what is the role of art?
Art is connected to everything. This is its great chance. As meaning that it hasn’t a precluded role, it can’t be limited. Art is not an answer to the world’s problems, the answer to that it’s a matter for the politics. Art is a question about the world. So, I think it’s very important to grant art the height of freedom and irresponsibility, in order to get to some structures which can produce knowledge and debate.

At what level your Neapolitan nature affected your constant push for the meeting between the critic’s fantasy and the artists’ one?
Very much. It’s a side of my whole being, it’s the result of a kind of irony I’ve always had throughout my life. Goethe used to say that irony is the passion that is released when you are detached from something and I’d say that, in this healthy and erotic clash with the artist, it’s necessary to have moments of contact and detachment. To some extent, irony allows to verify, along the way, my method in approaching art.

And now “A.B.O. Theatron. Art or Life” in the Rivoli Castle, the deserved homage towards you. Is it another episode of egocentrism or a further development of your original critical plan?
I think it’s a sort of an evidence of a journey that finds its recognition in this exhibition. What is certain, and it is to be said, is the courage and the freedom it took Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev for proposing this exhibition that, in this case, put me in the position of being curated, instead of curating.

The Author

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He’s been talking about art (many times even about its different relationships with the applied science) since the early 60’s and he always had dealings with the artists directly. Lecce, Bologna and Urbino are the places where he was formed. Rome, Turin and Naples the places where he took action. Free and creative, he has lost the count of the holes in a canvas, he broke a napoleon glass for freeing a captured fly, he experienced 1968 and debated about it, he has an endless Calendar full of words, he burnt down on a pyre papier-mâché horses, and… Thirty years ago, bearing in mind Minotaure, he invented “ARTE&CRONACA”.

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