Guided by the universe

While researching the Brussels art scene, Monica Holmen discovered that a show entitled Zodiaco was on view at Hopstreet Gallery. Here, the zodiac was employed as means of curating. This seemed too intriguing not to look further into, so she had a chat with artist Davide Bertocchi, curator of the show.

Zodiaco, installation view. ©Hugard & Vanoverschelde, Courtesy Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels

Zodiaco, installation view. ©Hugard & Vanoverschelde, courtesy Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels

Can you give a brief description of Zodiaco?
To make it very brief, I consider it a project in the form of a group exhibition generated by a very ancient system, the zodiac. It’s also a kind of tribute to one of my favourite artists, Gino De Dominicis.

Intriguing, yet some might say that to employ the zodiac and the artists’ astrological signs as framework is a somewhat unconventional curatorial concept. What inspired you?

From the beginning I didn’t want to just “curate” a show as, first of all, I’m not a curator. I rather wanted to collaborate with other artists around a shared concept. The idea of using the zodiac as a framework sparked in my mind after I saw a work by the Italian artist Gino De Dominicis called Lo Zodiaco. He did a performance in 1970 at Galleria l’Attico in Rome where all the zodiac signs were personified by living creatures, persons and objects. It was a way to connect the infinite, the cosmic and the divine with our ordinary mortal reality.

De Dominicis never wanted to have photos taken of his work, but one photo of the performance was agreed upon with photographer Claudio Abate. I saw this very powerful image at a collector’s house, and since then I’ve always wanted to do something related to it. So I figured I’d apply the universal system of the zodiac as a selection criteria, in order to be able to make choices without really taking responsibility for them, and thus form a complete zodiac with artists. Each artist I contacted was informed about the origin of the idea and the piece of Gino De Dominicis.

What’s great about this is that astrology is a very “absolute”, yet open concept that everyone can relate to. It’s an ancient tool of knowledge that has transformed through time, from Mesopotamia via ancient Egypt to Greece, where it was used as a divination tool, and keeps a message of enigma and prediction even in the popular culture of today. Astrology also used to be a navigation tool, and I thought it could be used to orientate myself among the quite intricate landscape of contemporary art. There are so many artists all over the world today, and it’s difficult to make choices. I also wanted to see how different art works, combined through this kind of “standard”, universal system, would “talk” to one another, and how the audience would respond to it.

Evariste Richer, Le Mètre Lunaire, 2012. Courtesy Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels

Evariste Richer, Le Mètre Lunaire, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Meessen De Clercq, Brussels

There are fifteen artists in the exhibition, representing thirteen zodiac signs, one more than the commonly known twelve signs. Whether or not the thirteenth zodiac sign should be taken into account is widely debated. Why did you choose to include it?

Once the selection process started, it kind of went out of my control. I contacted artists I knew well, who were more or less around me, and I found out that some of them had the same star sign as others I’d already invited. So I had to “refuse” some, and as I’m sure you can imagine, at times that was a bit awkward.

The thirteenth sign, the Ophiuchus (or Serpentaire in French), was a new discovery for me. I did quite a lot of research about star signs and their origins. This thirteenth sign was abandoned for a long time, as it spans over fewer days than the other signs, yet it existed in Antiquity and was associated to the figure of the wise man with healing powers, the shaman, the doctor, the physician, holding a big snake around his neck. When Evariste Richer told me his date of birth we discovered that it corresponded with those few days. I also thought it suited him and his personality very well. So there it was. On top of that, Evariste suggested a perfect work for the exhibition. His “lunar meter” displays a unity of measurement calculated in the same way as the original prototype metre, but employing the proportions of the moon instead, which means that the lunar meter turns out to be 27,27 cm long.

For the “double” signs, Gemini and Pisces, I decided to invite two artists each, also because so many artists seemed to be either Gemini or Pisces. Those two signs were the most common star signs among all the artists I contacted.

Camille Henrot, Collection Préhistorique, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris

Camille Henrot, Collection Préhistorique, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Kamel Mennour, Paris

That is peculiar, almost as if Geminis and Pisces are more prone to be artists? I must admit, I had to google it, and Geminis are supposedly fascinated by “almost everything in the world, they have a feeling as if there is not enough time to experience everything they want to see”, which is said to make them “excellent artists, writers and journalists”. Pisces are supposedly “more intuitive than others and have an artistic talent”. Do you think this is a mere coincidence, or do you see it as proof of a cosmic plot?

I don’t really know, but it feels good to leave a lot of space for speculation. This project is also about coincidences, conjectures and superstitions.

I saw the exhibition a few weeks ago, and it came off as a logical entity wherein all the parts work well together. In the exhibition text you say that you’ve “allowed the limitations of the system to guide me in making aesthetic and logistical decisions within what is an overwhelmingly vast artistic cosmos”. I’m curious; was it really only the zodiac signs that guided you, or did you also take other parameters into account? For instance: why Camille Henrot and not any other Gemini artist?

Well, as I said before, there are a lot of good artists around, which makes for a somewhat confusing situation. Consequently, I thought I’d consult artists in my personal spectrum, that I knew well and who I admire. This was also the case with Camille. When I talked to her about the idea of using the zodiac as selecting system, she told me that she had actually come up with a similar solution for her exhibition (The Pale Fox), where she distributed objects in spaces according to a grid of equivalence between principles / cardinal points / ages of man / the four elements, etc., all sorts of pre-set systems. So she really liked my idea and wanted to participate. She shares the Gemini sign with Elise Cam.

As the framework for a curatorial concept, what has the zodiac system brought to the show as a whole, compared to other possible parameters or frameworks one could employ?

I think the application of the star signs and the evocation of Gino De Dominicis’ work gave a particular feel to the show. A kind of lightness, but also a mythological, absolute and enigmatic atmosphere. Although most of the works in the show were not made following the zodiac as a “theme”, they all share a particular emanation. Only a few of the artists decided to make new work specifically for the show. I myself am one example – it’s a self-portrait, but it also plays with the iconography of my star sign, Aries. Also, Benoit Maire and Alessandro Di Pietro made pieces specific for the show.

All in all, the show suggests that there may be a real interest for artists to enter into dialogue with this kind of universal framework.

Benoit Maire, Sticker Being. Courtesy the artist.

Benoit Maire, Sticker Being, plate 14. Courtesy the artist and Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels

As a kind of guidance from some sort of high power from beyond?

Or, put more simply, in order to do something that escapes the usual conformism and that can still be read by anyone – which is what art should be universal. But what I also think is important, is the idea of mystery and how an artwork can speak the enigmatic languages of light and primordial forces.

In the same text you say that you are interested in how “the works interact with each other, […] their ‘astrological’ influences on each other and the public”. What have you discovered after opening the show?

For me it was important to experience how the works could engage in dialogue with each other, once they were “forced” together by imposing this kind of selection protocol, and also how the viewers would perceive them.

The installation of the exhibition was particularly complicated; it was like making a puzzle. Mainly because I wanted to respect the image of De Dominicis’ 1970 show, but, as we all probably know, some artworks don’t work together, aesthetically. Eventually, I discovered that they actually fit quite well together if kept in astrological sequence, and now I cannot imagine how it would be possible to change their position in the show. What I mean is that there is no other solution. It’s a very delicate balance between space, form and sense.

The public perception of the works and the exhibition turned out to be quite astonishing, as some people were attracted, without knowing it, to works that would correspond to their star sign. Again, perhaps it’s a coincidence, but that would require a dedicated study on its own.

G. Küng, Bench, 2015. Courtesy Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels

G. Küng, Bench, 2015. Courtesy the artist and galerie Antoine Levi, Paris

Perhaps that is why I felt attracted to Camille Henrot and G. Küng’s Bench, respectively Gemini and Taurus. (Depending on whether you employ the Tropical or the Sidereal zodiac, I myself am Gemini or Taurus.) Fascinating! So, if forced to choose, what is your favourite work in the exhibition?

I would say Zodiaco itself, as I consider it an entity, a single, collective work. Each work, without this frame, could be a wonderful work in itself, but combined with the others, it becomes a vital part of this particular project.

Ok, on a more general note. You are an artist yourself, but has acted as curator in this context. What, in your opinion, does it take to be a good curator?

I cannot answer as a curator, as I really don’t see myself as one, but rather like a “mediator”. As an artist I’ve always admired curators who have strong ideas without imposing them on the artists, curators who are able to make difficult choices, to be critical, visionary, and who are mainly interested in art works and artists – which is less and less the case today, unfortunately…

Zodiaco, installation view. ©Hugard & Vanoverschelde, Courtesy Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels

Zodiaco, installation view. ©Hugard & Vanoverschelde, courtesy Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels

How so? What are they into today, if not artists and their ideas?

Well, unfortunately it’s more and more about the art system itself, there’s no denying that. Among the younger generation of curators I often see a lack of dialogue with the artists, which reveals a lack of critical position, too. It’s much easier to invite artists who are established on the market than to do deeper research or place your bets on unknown artists. Again, today most research goes through Google rather than an old school studio visit.

You are first and foremost an artist. Why is art important?

I would say it is essential because is a tool of knowledge, comprehension and vision. Our civilisation is historically based on art, and through history it has been in a constant evolutionary process. It is our memory and our soul. It is also one of the only contexts left where you still have a fairly high level of freedom. It’s still quite open and indefinite, so there is space left for experimentation…

Can you give a brief description of your own practice? The process from idea to exhibition?

I’m mainly interested in the idea and that generates the rest somehow, and this is also valid for my own artwork. Each case is different and it’s important for me to maintain that flexibility and lightness. My experience with curating Zodiaco was in fact an experiment on how not to curate an exhibition, but rather let a protocol system do the job and generate the whole thing.

What are your main concerns when creating an exhibition?

I think I mainly worry about the coherence of it, but also the dialogue between the different contextual elements; art works, the space, the public. It’s exactly the same as when I make my individual works, and ultimately I find it more interesting when I have a certain amount of constraint. Limitations are part of the challenge.

Who inspires your own practice?

Many, and more artists than curators. Aside from Gino De Dominicis, I would say that Lucio Fontana, Bruno Munari, Pino Pascali and John Cage are my main references, together with some contemporaries like Christian Marclay or John Armleder. But I also like a lot of old school curators like Jan Hoet, Seth Siegelaub or Harald Szeemann. They curated some of the first exhibitions I ever saw when I was a student, and had a huge impact on me. They also had the strength to deal with amazing artists with huge egos.

Zodiaco, installation view. ©Hugard & Vanoverschelde, Courtesy Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels

Zodiaco, installation view. ©Hugard & Vanoverschelde, courtesy Hopstreet Gallery, Brussels

What about other inspirations? Books, theory, etc.?

I don’t really know where ideas come from. I spend my time trying to find ideas, and I think that today we need to feed our minds with many different things in order to find something original. Not only books – even though titles such as Invisible Cities or Six memos for the next Millenium by Italo Calvino were truly illuminating for me – but also by random research, magazines, exhibitions, records – and mainly, people.

The Internet is at times helpful, but also frustrating and illusory. It reveals what kind of society we live in today. The problem is that there, in my opinion, is less and less “originality”; everything goes through the Google search algorithm. However, the last few years I’ve followed NASA and their research on new planets online, as well as Cassini-Huygen’s mission around Saturn. The images are truly unbelievable and enigmatic.

I am a big fan of randomness. Sometimes we think that things happen at random, but in fact they don’t. It’s a mix of incomprehensible events that slowly build up without our control and suddenly can reveal something.

Speaking of coincidence: While we’ve been talking, and without knowing about Zodiaco, our editor-in-chief of KUNSTforum’s paper edition came up with the idea of making an open call for an exhibition based on the Zodiac, pretty similar to your own concept. What’s your take on such synchronicities?

That’s quite incredible and amusing, but as I said before I’m convinced that coincidences, like randomness, are somehow following a “bigger” logic. I don’t mean in a theological or conspiracy theory sense, but more like something complex that we are not programmed to understand. Maybe it’s exactly the unpredictable that keeps us going on in this world.

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