This interview with Céline Condorelli, on the occasion of her solo show at Stroom den Haag, appeared in Metropolis M magazine in Dutch translation:
Céline Condorelli: Proposals for a Qualitative Society (Spinning) photo: Gerrit Schreurs, courtesy Stroom Den Haag
Agnieszka Gratza: Attempts to Read the World (Differently) is an umbrella project that has many different strands, in which you took part either with other artists or on your own, with Display Show which morphed into Another Reality. After Lina Bo Bardi at Stroom den Haag. And you’re about to do a show there involving spinning tops and carousels.
Céline Condorelli: We’ve been working together for the past two years on a series of linked projects but Stroom is also supporting my research long-term which is really exceptional for an institution. When I was invited to contribute to Attempts to Read the World (Differently), I didn’t know what that would be like. I was trying to think of a starting point that would lead me somewhere. It took quite a long time; that’s the nice thing about a research-based invitation. We started thinking about what ‘reading the world’ meant. At the time, I was interested in forms of display which for me is a way of reading the world: the way things are shown and the way we are able to approach them. Of course that’s very much what’s at stake in exhibition-making. Any kind of presentation of culture has to do with display. So that was my entry point in the ongoing project that started from Display Show with Gavin Wade and James Langdon.
AG: I gather that Display Show had two prior editions in Dublin at Temple Bar Gallery and then at Eastside Projects in Birmingham.
CC: The final one is at Stroom, which allowed us to put some of the displays to work. We started from three historical positions and a contemporary reading – one of El Lissitzky, one of Herbert Bayer, one of Eileen Gray – and these works were then used to display other works on display in the second iteration at Eastside Projects, and were later transformed again for the iteration at Stroom den Haag, which was probably the most complete one but also the most complex one. Part of our argument is that in order to look at something like display, which is a relationship between things, you need to put it to work – to display things and use artworks to display other artworks. That was a really interesting show to have at Stroom.
The work on Lina Bo Bardi came out of the conversation with Stroom programmer Francien van Westrenen. In November 2015, we went on a study trip to Brazil together to visit Lina Bo Bardi’s buildings and decided it was important to look at her, first of all, in relation to forms of display but also through how contemporary practices use her work or refer to it or make further work from it.
AG: What would you say the difference is between a historical approach and the way a contemporary artist such as yourself might approach Bo Bardi’s work?
CC: Well, what was shown wasn’t Lina Bo Bardi’s work but works born from reading or referring to her. There was a Leonor Antunes that refers to the floor in her house; a Wendelien van Oldenborgh reconstruction of one of the display systems with material about the social, historical and political economy of Brazil; there were works of mine in relation to a show that Lina Bo Bardi did. People who went to see the show looking for Lina Bo Bardi materials were probably disappointed because there was not even one. What there was were her ideas and how they live today through contemporary artists – a lot of women, actually mostly women.
AG: Francien, in an email to me, described Display Show transforming into Another Reality. After Lina Bo Bardi as a ‘choreography’ which you jointly set up. Can you describe this process?
CC: We did not finish one show, take all the work away and then do a second show. Each work was removed one by one and then other things appeared every week and in that way the process of construction of display was made public. Something like that relies on having a very good team that communicates what’s happening because there are people walking into Stroom seeing boxes and things not looking finished for a period of three weeks, so it’s really important that an institution communicates what is happening and why that’s important or interesting.
AG: What about the exhibition you’re currently working on with Stroom?
CC: It starts from a drawing by Lina Bo Bardi of the museum of contemporary art in São Paulo, the MASP, with a playground on the square. She said that the museum should contain a collection, popular arts (and by that she meant craft, ‘arte popolare’) and a playground. Then there’s ‘A Model for a Qualitative Society’ by Palle Nielsen for which he turned Moderna Museet in Stockholm into an adventure playground. This was not an educational program; it was the main exhibition and he really meant it as a case study for a society constructing itself.
AG: The dates of these two projects, 1969 and 1968 respectively, are quite close. Is that a coincidence or were they aware of each others’ work?
CC: I had no idea. I don’t know if they even heard of each other because they were in very different parts of the world. Lina Bo Bardi never went back to Europe after she moved to Brazil in 1946; she might have visited her family in Italy but I don’t think she was very present in Europe and she wasn’t famous.
AG: But what is it that made you want to bring these two projects together?
CC: They’re references that help me think through this idea of display, on the one hand, and secondly I’ve been interested for a long time in thinking about undoing a certain elitism of contemporary culture. Even a four year old knows that they’re not supposed to touch anything in a museum. This idea that culture should be something you look at from a distance is a strange construction, one I don’t necessarily agree with. Intimacy with culture is, I think, extremely important.
AG: Francien told me that the objects you’ll make for the exhibition are designed to be handled and touched, which is not ordinarily allowed in a museum.
CC: The playground is a recent addition but I’ve made museum benches, for instance, as artworks – another object in the museum that’s not normally part of the art but is nevertheless in the room. The idea of a playground or play object is related to objects I’ve been making for a long time but also to this idea of intimacy with form that’s not normally allowed with cultural objects. Even more so perhaps because it relies on an interaction with children, not exclusively, but mostly with children who of course have a different encounter with form – as something to climb on, sit on or play with; the body is very important in that encounter. It’s not just vision, the eye or the ear.
AG: What is the relation between the spinning tops and the carousels?
CC: The spinning tops are models of the carousel, miniatures if you like. The first thing I made were carousels for MASP.
AG: This was for the group show called Playground in 2016?
CC: Yes. There were two carrousels called Conversation Piece, one inside the museum and one outside, on the square on which Lina Bo Bardi had imagined a playground that was never built. I thought it was doing some kind of poetic justice to complete her project in a way that she wanted by restituting the carousel for it.
AG: And why are they called Conversation Piece?
CC: I thought it was non-verbal conversation between people and form, form and the social. Like this interaction I was trying to describe that is of the body rather than the intellect or just of eyes.
AG: And how did people in Brazil react to this work?
CC: I don’t know really, but the one feedback I got was through Instagram; that’s how you know how people interact with you stuff and there’s a number of Instagram posts of people photographing their children, making little films with the carousels, posing, or whatever. That I think is the biggest compliment.
AG: Well, I hope it will be the same at Stroom. I’m sure it will be a fun show.
CC: It doesn’t really have a title yet. What we’ve constructed is another conversation between exhibitions and public art, which is also something that’s often missing in contemporary art. The public art category is completely separate – different artists, systems, places, exhibition practices – and I’ve always wondered why. I think I fall somewhere in between those two and so I had this idea of showing a series of carousels in the exhibition space, working with local schools. They would pitch in order to choose one for their own playground, so at the end of the exhibition the carousels would leave the exhibition space and become public art but also just infrastructure in local schools, properly public objects. This allows me to have a series of workshops with kids making spinning tops and colouring them, which will inform the making process, the production of the carousels themselves.
AG: Are these carousels and spinning tops merely inspired by Lina Bo Bardi’s and Palle Nielsen’s ideas or do they more directly reference the form of these works?
CC: The reference is in function, not in form. I try to apply their program. I take it as instructions. And then that’s interpreted or produced through forms that are entirely my own.
AG: I know you’ve curated a Puppet Show at Eastside Projects in 2013. How does that relate to your interest in spinning tops and carousels?
CC: For me everything is connected; it might not be clear from the outside. My interest in puppets is in relation to sculpture, putting things into the world that are not dead but articulate – they speak – and in many ways any cultural production speaks for itself independently of its authors up to a point. Playgrounds or play objects articulate certain ideas of what playing, childhood and culture are. Play is supposed to be low culture.
AG: Perhaps we could probe this notion of play and what potential, subversive and other, it holds.
CC: I think that play is a direct relationship with form, objects. It’s exactly this relationship of intimacy that I was trying to describe. But it’s also a relationship to objects in which objects are somehow instruments for things; not that dissimilar to musical instruments. When you play a musical instrument, you use the object to create something: a piece of music, an experience. The musicians take enormous care of their instruments because they need them to perform. You touch the object in a specific way in order to get it to do something.
That’s exactly the way toys work, especially spinning tops. But I also think that the playing child changes the relationship to the city. This is something Palle Nielsen describes quite well. He doesn’t mean the Moderna Museet as an educational side program for children; he really means it as a case study of human society.
AG: If I understood what went on at the Moderna Museet correctly, it was a radical proposition; it effectively meant that only children could fully experience the exhibition. Do you know Coram’s Fields in London?
AG: I’ve always been drawn to it.
CC: Have you ever been?
AG: No, because you need a child to get in.
CC: You can borrow children. That’s how I’ve went there!
AG: I love the world-upside-down you get in such places, which is also what Johan Huizinga talks about in his study of the ‘homo ludens‘, the carnivalesque aspects of it. ‘Play is the work of children,’ Maria Montessori said. In a child’s way of apprehending the world, there’s huge potential for reform of society at large. But I’m not sure what makes it so.
CC: Children allow adults to understand collective work in a completely different way. It’s also about not being burdened by existing models, a kind of spontaneous participation. I’m not a children’s or play specialist at all; I’m just interested in taking the idea of authorship and the construction of process-based culture from the hands of artists alone, and protected objects.
AG: This strand of the Stroom program is in fact aimed both at adults and children. I’m equally fascinated by the idea of playgrounds for adults.
CC: What does that mean?
AG: For one thing, they’re not aimed at children: they’re playful outdoor spaces for adults to unwind in. I’ve not tried them out myself, but they were becoming fashionable in New York when I lived there in 2012. Are the sorts of structures you’ve set up in the offices of Kunsthalle Lissabon and which will now take over Stroom playgrounds for adults?
CC: It’s a good question. I don’t really like the word ‘participatory art’ but, like with most things that require or can have an interaction with the public, as an artist you’re only partially in control. What I try to do to the best of my abilities is to offer things, constructions or situations that can be interpreted at different levels; a two-year old child can use it to climb on when he’s learning to walk or an adult can use it to sit on and have a completely pretentious conversation. I would really like to make the contexts that can be used in those two ways and other ways in between.
AG: Yes, but do you think these objects are a kind of one-fits-all size? I like the fact that you have spinning tops which are scaled versions of the carousels.
CC: They are 1:20. The spinning tops are 15 cm and the carrousels are 300 cm in diameter.
AG: And is that a size more suitable for children or adults? I mean that of the carousels.
CC: Carousels are quite big things. I think both and neither. It could be fitted for giants as well. They’re a bit low for giants perhaps.
AG: How many carousels will there be at Stroom?
CC: Three. They’re all inside. At the end of the exhibition they will all be outside.
AG: They’ll end up with the schools you’re working with.
CC: Francien is trying to work on having one in a public square which, if it happens, would be really wonderful.
AG: How did you select the different schools involved?
CC: They’re schools that Stroom has been in touch with. They often work with schools or school children for their public program. It’s a conversation that’s been happening for the last year: finding local schools that were interested and suitable; getting public funding from the city to allow this to be done properly. There’s a tradition of playgrounds built by artists and architects in Holland. Aldo van Eyk made some 300 playgrounds for Amsterdam. I’m intervening within an already existing tradition.
AG: Besides Van Eyk, the show will be referencing architects and designers such as Constant Nieuwenhuys, from what I’ve heard.
CC: You’ve got Palle Nielsen and Lina Bo Bardi. Nieuwenhuys did these play structures for museums that are quite interesting but I don’t know if they’re going to appear in the show. Isamu Noguchi also did lots of play structures but I’ve only seen them in photographs. There’s a book by Peter Friedl called Playgrounds I really love that has photographs of playgrounds from around world and one by Nils Norman on adventure playgrounds, which is also great.
AG: Will you show any documentation from this history of adventure playgrounds?
CC: I’ll try and have some context there. I don’t think it will be archival stuff but more to do with how it’s been used. And there will be a library as well, a bibliography for the project.
AG: Are there any other elements to the show, besides that, the spinning tops and the carousels?
CC: No, that’s it. That’s the important bit. Can’t get too distracted.