An Interview with
Donatella Bernardi

Filmmaker, visual artist, art critic, curator, academic, manager: Donatella Bernardi has plenty of feathers in her cap. Ranging from scouts’ slogans to Hannah Arendt, her research topics mix disciplines and unsettle the order of things.

Catalogue: I first came across your work in the exhibition Utopics (2009) in Bienne, where you showed as part of the collective Zorro & Bernardo. Tell me about your collaboration with Andrea Lapzeson, your partner in that group.

Donatella Bernardi: Zorro & Bernardo results from my encounter with the KLAT collective in 2001. This is how I met Andrea Lapzeson, who was part of this group. Together, we wanted to test the ideal of the collective, and decided to be at once entrepreneurs, authors, publishers and curators. In a cultural context still favouring individualism and the ‘author’s signature’, we investigated the autonomy paradoxically offered by a collective structure. Our thinking on popular culture, power, migration and historiography was a kind of resistance to the tabula rasa of ideas, ‘hyper­contemporaneity’ and generational phenomena. What does it mean to be an artist from the ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s? I’m uncomfortable with these kinds of categorisations.

Your first work together didn’t fail to get attention…

Out of Ooze (2001) is a three-by-three metre embroidered banner meant to serve as a backdrop for the graduation ceremony at the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Geneva. The title comes from a scout group’s motto found on the internet: ‘Out of the ooze and born to cruise’. We wanted to ironically critique the teaching system at the Beaux-Arts and to question the value of its degree. It didn’t go down well with the director, who removed the banner from the graduation hall and displayed it in a normal exhibition room. It was taken very seriously, too seriously perhaps…

Your work encompasses curating, publishing, art criticism and public talks. Is there a common logic linking these various activities?

Everything I do, I do as an artist. I find it exciting to work in different fields and choose formats according to the subject I’m working on. My research occasionally needs to be carried out by others—that’s when I collaborate with other artists, a process that I find particularly rewarding. It’s not about using them, but about creating a situation enriched by the perception of their work. Let’s take, for example, the book I made with the collective Zorro & Bernardo L’Ane et le Lion (‘The Donkey and the Lion’, 2008). Every year, the Classe des Beaux-Arts, part of the Société des Arts in Geneva, invites artists to publish a booklet documenting their work. We undermined the commission’s premise by producing an artist book rather than a catalogue of our previous pieces. In close collaboration with a specialist of Italian literature, Demis Quadri, we translated and re-wrote a piece based on twelve fragments from The Candlestick (1582) by Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk, philosopher and theologian burnt alive in 1600 during the Inquisition. I wrote a piece on the relationship between time and translation. Quadri composed a fable based on the story in Zorro & Bernardo’s statement and he finished the book with an enormous ensemble of notes, itself including thirty-six footnotes—an absurd kind of exegesis. The artists Nicolas Wagnières and Dr Shlomo illustrated with a black and white plate each of the twelve textual fragments.

History has a major place in your practice. How do you tackle this discipline?

I like to mess around with historical data, and love, for example, the model of artist Alejandra Riera who teaches the ‘history of the present’ at the Beaux-Arts in Bourges. It’s such a great formula. I always start with the now, the why, the how. For example Eternal Tour 2009 XZY—a scientific and artistic festival we organised in the canton of Neuchâtel—started with the histories of its various venues to investigate particular themes. For the exhibition Le monde selon Suchard (‘Suchard’s World View’) at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Neuchâtel, we invited the artist Stephen J. Shanabrook and displayed his chocolate moulds realised in Moscow’s morgue. Beat Lippert’s work was displayed within the permanent collection. He showed L’épine du Spinario et le garçon qui cherche à sortir du musée (‘The Spirnario’s Thorn and the Boy Who Tries to Get Out of the Museum’, 2009), a take on the Boy with Thorn, currently kept in Rome at the Palazzo dei Conservatori, part of the Musei Capitolini. All my projects are linked to the context of the exhibition, be it the city where it’s taking place, or a local anecdote. For Utopics, the 11th Exhibition of Swiss Sculpture in Bienne, Zorro & Bernardo suggested the piece Les Barbus (‘The Bearded Men’), a direct response to the exhibition’s context, one of the first glass facades in Switzerland on a building currently occupied by Bienne’s Reformed Church. We put the characteristic beards of four famous Swiss reformers—Jean Calvin, Théodore de Bèze, Guillaume Farel, Pierre Viret—on the church’s windows. This is a typical example of the way I work: with a playful and associative re-reading of history.

Could you be described as an ‘artist-anthropologist’?

It’s true that unlike ethnology or sociology, which analyse society by setting up patterns, anthropology looks at particular cases and focuses on singularities. I feel quite close to this approach; it’s probably obvious but I don’t believe in ex-nihilo creation. I wanted to study philosophy at university and I ended studying art history, almost by chance. It’s in this academic context that I learnt how to refine my search for information. Each project is the result of thorough research on a clearly defined subject. For some of them, my research is very scientific, but I always keep an element of instinct, a curiosity, a taste for atypical situations, objects and unlikely parallels that could invalidate my work from an academic point of view. My curiosity is what gets me started. The intellectual phase is as important for me as the phase of realisation. Gilles Deleuze thought that the philosopher’s task was to create concepts. To be an artist is to materialise ideas and situations.

What’s the Talking objects series?

It’s an ongoing project. At the beginning of her posthumous book The Life of the Mind (1978) Hannah Arendt writes: ‘There’s no subject which isn’t also object and appears as such to the other, guarantying its ‘objective’ reality… The fact that I’m aware of myself isn’t enough to guarantee this reality.’ The perspective on life encapsulated by this quote is for me a fantastic incentive to rethink the power relationship within the collective and society at large, to reconsider gender issues, etc. The installation Talking Object HA (2008) was an ‘anti-monument’ dedicated to Arendt, the philosopher of 20th-century totalitarianism. The viewer was invited to walk on a 10 metre-long sticker on the floor. Its patterns combined medieval decorative motifs from the Cosmati School which harks back to antiquity, with contemporary logos and, in the middle of the composition, the philosopher’s initials. Womanhood is a recurrent subject in my work, and I often pay homage to it. Even today, being a woman is synonymous with fighting. Why? Feminism isn’t my primary subject, but I like to go back to it and my books usually manifest these intentions. Post Tenebras Luxe and the Eternal Tour 2009 XZY all have a ‘feminist’ aspect.

You recently worked on another historical figure, Albert Einstein.

Einstein is a staple of Bern’s tourism. There is a permanent exhibition dedicated to him at the Historisches Museum, a place distinguished by its staircase covered with mirrors. For my solo show Gott würfelt nicht, er rundet Ecken ab (‘God Doesn’t Play Dice, He Smoothes the Edges’) at the PROGR-Zentrum für Kulturproduktion lodge in Bern (2009), I started with a sentence he’s supposed to have said, ‘God doesn’t play dice.’ I combined small cubes (the dice) with another, bigger cubed linked to a project I was then also working on (Eternal Tour 2010-Jerusalem) the Ka’aba, a big black square box in Mecca, one of the most sacred things in Islam. During a trip to Jerusalem, I photographed images of the Ka’aba spray-painted on the door of houses, which indicates that the occupier has done his or her pilgrimage to Mecca. In the exhibition space, I covered half of the walls with black Plexiglas, echoing the mirrors in the Historisches Museum’s staircase. The space was repeated ad infinitum, like in a mirror palace, but it was also distorted because of the material’s flexibility. There was nothing else in the exhibition, I simply worked on the walls and spray-painted a Ka’aba next to the exit door. Showing nothing was the best way to link the exhibition and the Ka’aba, freed from its idols by Muhammad in 630 AD. I interwove two kinds of travelling, tourism around the figure of Einstein and the Mecca pilgrimage.

You’ve also used this lexicon of spray paint motifs for the group show L’Intermédiaire (2009) in the Live in Your Head space in Geneva.

I did a wall painting with Sellotape, consisting of three vertical strips using different reds and greens. A ‘forest’ of small spray-painted minarets occupied this large decorative panorama. Their design drew both on the Jerusalem paintings I was talking about earlier, and on the ad campaign led by the Swiss right-wing party UDC, which started an initiative against minarets ratified by the Swiss people on September 29th 2009. It was a shifting process: from the formal signification of this religious sign to a reflection on the Swiss political state of affairs.

Fabienne Bideaud is a curator. She lives and works in Paris.

First published in Catalogue Magazine, June 2010.

Background picture: Le Follet Courrier des Salons, Lady's Magazine, N. 209, 1832. Cabinet d’arts graphiques, Musées d'art et d'histoire, Fonds de la Société des Arts, Geneva.


Designed by Niels Wehrspann
Built with Indexhibit