Frieze Projects curator, Cecilia Alemani, reveals her unrealized (and occasionally unrealizable) projects
Since the inaugural Frieze New York fair in 2012, Cecilia Alemani has curated an annual tribute to an influential artist’s project or artist-run space. It’s difficult to construe these projects—they’re not exactly re-enactments, with the deference to historical accuracy that term suggests. Instead, they aim to evoke a sense of community and collaboration—of artists working in concert in a place insulated from the market.
The first tribute was to John Ahearn’s legendary “South Bronx Hall of Fame,” an array of plaster likenesses first presented at art space Fashion Moda in 1979. In 2013, Alemani paid homage to Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD of 1971—a working restaurant, with artists preparing salad, carrot soup, and beet juice, among other delicacies; 2014 saw the resurrection of Allen Ruppersberg’s Al’s Grand Hotel (also 1971), replete with a lobby, a bar, and two rooms; and last year brought the redux of the famous 200-foot-long Flux-Labyrinth from 1976. Each tribute brought the spirit of its original to a new audience—broad and sometimes unsuspecting, but always appreciative.
With this year’s fair approaching, I spoke to Alemani about her interest in artists’ spaces, the daunting logistics that attend these tributes, and the many projects she hopes to realize in the future.
Dan Piepenbring What compelled you to begin this series of tributes?
Cecilia Alemani When people think of art history, they tend to focus on the art, but I’m interested in the circumstances. What led artists to come together and create? We can all name a few of the places—non-profit spaces, galleries, studios—that came to define certain scenes, but too many of them are forgotten.
I wanted to pay homage to those, to capture the spirit of different cities, different eras. It’s interesting to recognize those places in a new context, especially at an art fair, which are associated for a lot of people with mercantile behavior. When they walk in and discover, say, a 200-foot-long labyrinth modelled on a project from the 1970s, it grabs their attention in a new way. I don’t know if I’d be interested in doing these projects in a museum, where everything becomes “art.” These aren’t art works. They’re situations. In 2014, we presented Al’s Grand Hotel, Allen Ruppersberg’s project from 1971. He took over a house in LA and turned it into a functioning hotel. I thought we’d never be able to do it—design the rooms, offer the services—but it worked. About 16 people stayed there overnight during the course of the fair. The context made it even more surreal. It felt like a living fiction—brought to life for five days and then gone.
DP Can you say a little about this year’s tribute?
CA It’s the first time we’ve done a tribute to a commercial space—Daniel Newburg Gallery, which was active in New York City from 1984 to ’94, in Tribeca and then in SoHo. We’re working with Maurizio Cattelan, who had his first show in New York in 1994 at the gallery—it was, coincidentally, the gallery’s last. This gallery is special to Maurizio: as he tells it, he had moved to New York in 1993 and for the first year he had mainly just tried to survive. When he got invited to exhibit at Newburg Gallery, he was thrilled and terrified, as it was his first show in New York. He really didn’t know what to do. He suggested knocking down the wall Newburg shared with David Zwirner, the gallery next door, and staging a mirror image of Zwirner’s show. That didn’t fly. Around that time, Cattelan had been obsessed with the famous 1969 Jannis Kounellis show at the Galleria L’Attico in Rome, where the Greek artist displayed twelve live horses. That resonated with Cattelan, who thought of himself as a bit of an “ass” at that point.
I won’t say what we’re doing, but will say that, if it doesn’t come off, we’re keeping sausages as a backup. Since Cattelan’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2011 (“Maurizio Cattelan: All”), he has officially retired from the art world, but he was very happy to work on this tribute to Daniel Newburg Gallery because that was his first show in New York and Daniel’s last—I think Maurizio liked the symmetry. We have often joked that if he came out of retirement he should go through his entire career, remaking an exact replica of one show after another, starting all over in a sort of perverse Sisyphean task.
DP I’m curious about your dream projects. What would you recreate at the fair if absolutely anything were possible?
CA I’d love to do a project by Marta Minujín, the Argentinean artist, called La Menesunda, meaning “may- hem” or “confusion.” It was an immersive environment that she built collaboratively with the artist Rubèn Santantonín and others in 1965 in Buenos Aires, a series of maybe 16 rooms with various participatory elements that the viewer had to navigate, led by neon signs. You’d walk into these very tactile, sensory rooms: you’d find, say, a bed with a couple who looked like they’d just made love. You’d have confetti thrown at you; you’d smell something greasy cooking.
There was even a walk-in freezer. Minujín paired complex installations with performance art. It was so ambitious.
Another I think of is Fabio Sargentini’s Allagamento de L’Attico di via Beccaria, which he put on in Rome, in 1972. He knew he wanted to close the space, so he just flooded it and posted a short note announcing its end. Or there’s the Ward Line Pier Project, from early 1983, when David Wojnarowicz and Mike Bidlo turned Pier 34, in New York City, into an underground art space. They painted on the crumbling walls of the pier. It wasn’t around that long—it “opened” in June of ’83 and was busted by police pretty soon after that.
It’s hard to find ideas. It’s not like there’s a master list of alternative spaces or exhibition spaces to consult. So I’ve been putting together a compendium, a gigantic working document of every possible project or space we could recreate, compiled by city, by neighborhood, by decade. My assistants and I update it monthly. Since 2012, it’s grown to 250 pages. It’s full of stories, scenes, forgotten chapters in art history. I’d share it with you, but I’d be giving too much away.
Dan Piepenbring is an editor at The Paris Review.
This article appears in the first New York edition of Frieze Week magazine published in April.
Frieze Week magazine is the insiders’ guide to our art fairs with a preview of the best works on view, news of curated projects and talks, and tips on the most important exhibitions and events taking place around town. Frieze Week is published in anticipation of Frieze New York in May and Frieze London & Masters in October