Interview: Andrea Giunta
by Claire Ruud
Andrea Giunta has been a scholar of León Ferrari’s work since the early 90s. She curated his retrospective at the Recoleta Cultural Center in Buenos Aires in 2004, and recently contributed an essay on his work to the catalogue for Tangled Alphabets: Mira Schendel and León Ferrari, now on the walls of MoMA. In anticipation of the exhibition, I invited Giunta for a cup of coffee at Fluent~Collaborative talk about her history with Ferrari.
Giunta joined the Department of Art History at UT Austin this fall, and is the author of Goeritz/Romero Brest: Correspondencias (2000) and Avant-Garde, Internationalism, and Politics: Argentine Art in the Sixties (2007). Her book Postcrisis, a compilation of essays on art in Argentina after the economic crisis of 2001, is forthcoming in Spanish.
…might be good: Do you remember the first time you saw León Ferrari’s work?
Andrea Giunta: Yes. In 1989 I remember seeing La civilización occidental y cristiana [Western-Christian Civilization, 1965] installed in the center of a spiral staircase surrounded by windows at the Centro Cultural Recoleta, and it was very striking. But it was the second time I saw his work, in 1992 at the National Library, that I decided I had to meet him. León’s piece in the show was an homage to the condom: he had made tree-like forms out of wire, and hundreds of condoms were hanging from the branches. On a political level, the piece protested the Catholic Church’s statements about AIDS—that the only protection from HIV was abstinence. But what struck me were the formal qualities of the piece. The way the light played through the transparent latex elevated this object of religious contempt into something so beautiful.
…mbg: So when did you first meet him?
AG: After I saw that piece, I called him, and he said, "Come in the morning.” When I arrived, he asked, “Would you like something to drink?” And I said, “Well, I guess so.” So he brought out a bottle of holy wine. So there we were, drinking holy wine at ten in the morning. That visit, I was immediately struck by his intelligence and sense of humor.
…mbg: What was the reception of Ferrari’s work like in Argentina at the time?
AG: In the early 90s, when I began to research his work from an art historical point of view, it was difficult. Many people thought that I shouldn’t be working on León whose work, they said, was not art but politics. Since then, Ferrari’s reception has changed dramatically. After the 2004 retrospective, everyone wanted to exhibit and collect his work—not just the drawings, but even his most controversial work, the excrement series, everything.
…mbg: You curated that retrospective at the Centro Cultural Recoleta. When did you decide to start working on the project?
AG: Really, the project began in 1997, but institutional parameters kept getting in the way of putting on a complete retrospective. Over and over, the project was halted because the institution did not want to include large portions of León’s body of work. Finally in 2004, it became possible.
…mbg: What had changed by 2004 that made the institution willing to host the retrospective?
AG: By that time, León’s work—including the most controversial work—had received more institutional recognition outside Argentina. It had been exhibited here at UT in 1999, at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 2001, and at the Museum of Fine Art in Houston in 2004. Luis Camnitzer also facilitated the growing reception of León ’s work by arguing for its centrality to the development of conceptualism. This international context made it easier to exhibit the work in Buenos Aires.
…mbg: But even in 2004 you met a huge amount of resistance and controversy once the show opened.
AG: Yes, it was very hard.
…mbg: Would you do it again?
AG: Even in the midst of it, I never had doubts about what I was doing. If I could go back, not knowing what would happen, I would do it again. But I would not repeat the show for the sake of the scandal. I never imagined there would be so much scandal. For example, when the exhibition traveled to Sao Paulo, I edited it, and for many reasons, the exhibition was smaller.
…mbg: The censorship of the retrospective received a lot of press. What did the controversy obscure about Ferrari’s work?
AG: The press was just interested in scandal, that’s all. The controversy actually introduced a whole new audience to León’s work—an audience beyond the usual circle of academics and collectors. He was like a pop-star in Buenos Aires after the exhibition. Walking down the street, people would stop him and ask for his autograph. But now, since the retrospective, the press has become much more attentive to the aesthetic qualities of León’s work.
…mbg: In this conversation, we’ve been distinguishing between Ferrari’s “controversial” work and the rest of his artistic output. What do you see as the connecting tissue between these two parts? Can we understand all of it as one unified body of work?
AG: I consider it to be one body of work, even though León disagrees with me and sees it as two. Even the works that are apparently based on beauty are controversial. For example, take Noah’s Ark, a wonderful drawing based on a rewriting of the Biblical story of the Flood. In his version, all the men die, but the women survive by making floating devices out of their breasts and buttocks. Then Satan cuts the penises off all the men and puts them into one big tree. The women go into the tree and copulate. God is looking from the heavens, unable to do anything to stop life from reproducing. As with this example, many of León ’s rewritings of Biblical stories are based on an enduring love for life. For him, Eve is the goddess of knowledge; she was the curious one, not Adam. León often says that we have to give homage to Eve because she was the first revolutionary; she sought after knowledge.
…mbg: So similar themes run throughout Ferrari’s body of work. What about formal qualities?
AG: León’s most controversial works aren’t just controversial because of the content, but also because of their formal articulation. In La civilización occidental y cristiana, for example, it’s the formal choices that make the piece powerful: the proportional relationship between the two objects involved, the way it’s installed hanging from the ceiling so that you can walk all the way around it.
…mbg: Ferrari stopped making work around 1965 and then he started again about ten years later. Have you talked to him about why he began making again?
AG: That’s a question even he can’t answer. He just couldn’t avoid it. He’s told me that when he started making art again, he did it in secret and didn’t tell anyone. The abandonment of art was something that marked many people of his political and intellectual generation. Many artists never went back making art; they couldn’t. That’s why he couldn’t tell them that he had gone back.
In the late 60s, he wasn’t making drawings or wire sculptures, but he did participate in political exhibitions like Homage to Vietnam (1966), the exhibition for Che Guevara (1967) and Malviendo Rockefeller (1969), usually contributing collages of news stories. The first drawings I’ve seen are from 1975 and are completely abstract. At the end of 1976 he went to exile in Sao Paulo. After the drawings, he moved into wire sculptures. Slowly he started showing work again, his first exhibition was in 1978.
…mbg: Did he know Mira Schendel while he was in Sao Paulo?
AG: He knew of her, but they weren’t working in the same artistic circles. They may have been in some of the same exhibitions at some point. Putting them together at MoMA, I think, is more of a curatorial intervention that will open the work to new and interesting approaches.
…mbg: What do you think the pairing will do to León’s work?
AG: I think it will be a powerful aesthetic approach. One big work from the excrement series was selected for the exhibition. I am curious to see the public reaction to it.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good and Associate Coordinator of testsite.