Lara Verena Bellenghi - #coordination #curiosity #enthusiasm
An interview curated by Daniela Veneri
“If one has skills that are unique but cannot be applied to what lies beyond one’s own field, they are of minimal use. It is much more beneficial to transgress categories, disciplines, nations and so on. Almost everybody, apparently, wants to do it, but then another question is how far one is willing to go in order to achieve it.” - Lara Verena Bellenghi
Lara, what projects are you currently working on that you are most passionate about and why?
I am currently working on more than one project. One is ongoing work in the education department of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the other consists of workshop preparations for Into the Night, an exhibition currently on at the Barbican in London.
When I started working the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna a little over a year ago, the idea was to employ me to give tours in several languages and, as an artist, to propose workshop programmes that would focus on specific aspects of the museum’s collections or for temporary exhibitions. As an artist, I tend to approach such projects – tour formats and the optional additional workshop part – from the creative end; I generally put the selection of works and an art historical discourse second, and think of the activity for our workshop space first. It is very rare nowadays to get paid by institutions for one’s individual ideas, especially when they are creative.
I have recently worked at the Belvedere (Austria’s National Gallery) and back then reached out to an institution I hadn’t previously worked with, the Barbican in London, on the grounds that both institutions present Into the Night: Cabarets and Bars in Modern Art. It struck me as necessary to propose a creative educational project that both exhibition venues would offer. There appears to be no interest in such an enterprise at the Belvedere, but the Barbican – and I feel very lucky here – was particularly welcoming. When I mentioned that I had written my dissertation on postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte (the Viennese Workshops that acted as the Secession’s main funding body) and that, as part of my Courtauld MA in London, I had proposed an exhibition set in a Parisian cafè, I was invited to run a workshop in the Barbican on December 8th 2019.
Based on the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) so intertwined with Vienna 1900 and other contemporary movements of the European avant-gardes, I suggested a typography-based workshop so that exhibition visitors could compose their Dada-inspired compositions with a variety of fonts from all over the globe. For this, I photocopied the letters visible in reproductions of the exhibited works, cut them up and now they are ready to be mixed and matched. Also, I have just come back from Milan where I made frottages of original signs and bottles in the Campari archive. Campari and the Futurists have a shared history. Fortunato Depero in particular influenced typography for its bottles and signs. I also visited a wonderful type-press office, the tipoteca Bonvini 1909 in Milan to make frottages from type characters of the 1920s and 30s when Depero had designed the Cabaret del Diavolo and which features prominently in the Barbican show. There is also the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, where Dada was invented in 1916, so I thought to get as many fonts, letters and numbers together that could be traced directly to artistic movements represented in the exhibition. The frottage is the closest to the original and the photocopy the closest to that. I am really looking forward to this because it means that visitors in London will add new life to my souvenirs from Vienna and Italy by (re)composing the fonts I am bringing.
What I think is particularly exciting about typography of the time is that it’s use went far beyond understandable communication. Expression went beyond grammar; it is, rather a principle of fragmentation that influenced the sound- and sight-scape. And so, the words that you put together with letters don’t have to make sense as with Dada or in Jazz. Scat in jazz are expressive nonsense syllables made up by random letter compositions. Expression is important as it is, sense can be made of it but does not need to. If the outcome for the Barbican turns out to be successful, I'd like to propose it to the English speaking communities in Vienna when the show will be here. The Italian Cultural Institute, the British Council, some international schools or bi- or multilingual communities may be interested. This way, could become a project that exceeds the connection between the two cities hosting the show. The essence of the workshop is that the method of extraction and (re)composition undergoes exciting metamorphoses as more and more communities apply it.
I also think I am arriving at a point where collective practice really does match the methodologies I have been developing in my own artistic work. I have a tendency to focus on surface materiality, mainly in the form of dust, patinas and crumbs. The surfaces I select for my works always are of sites or objects that reflect socio-historical events. Geography therefore almost always is integral too. I think that focusing on letters for Into the Night will be the first big test of this fusion of independent and collective practice.
What values and principles are at the base of your methodology, why did it take that shape?
I think the base is always frustration. With that I mean that there ought to be a problem that moves you and which you have to define; first you're sad about the way things go. Then you try to figure out solutions of some kind. This is a very vague way of putting it but when you think of it on a grand scale and then relate it to individual experiences, you start seeing parallels between smaller and larger systems. You realize that on a much smaller scale your own life with the events and relationships that you're in yourself may parallel dynamics of world politics, for instance; it takes time to be able to look at the world and one’s own lived life with a critical distance in order to find a way out of mess and a way into better phases. You start learning to define what really bothers you, even if it's just the dynamics in your interpersonal relationships, and as years go by you start to learn more about yourself. It is when you are truly upset that you are forced to do something about it, otherwise you continue repeating what has already lead to disappointment. So at first, to follow the cliché of a romantic artist, you are convinced to be alone in the world with nobody who understands. Then follows apathy and a complete block. And eventually, you realize that perhaps you have had enough of isolated self-pity and so you ask yourself: what can I do about this?
For as far as I am concerned, I had to get to a point where wanting to be understood became a necessity and this required stepping out of protected isolation. I think that choosing to open one’s self to the risk of rejection or derision is an important value. Courage perhaps isn’t the exact word, but I do think it is what it takes, after all. It is easier to just not put yourself out there, and I guess you see lots of people that do what they see everybody else does rather than posing questions and doing things without prior validation. I think this idea of standing up for your own belief regardless of what others think is key. And that then translates into what I do as an artist.
It took me very long to develop any kind of artistic methodology because it took me a while to define problems. I am happy to say that concept and form are finally starting to make some sense and I feel I can work away for the time being with less anxiety. My current practice feels more corpo-real because I don’t just refer to the human condition. I draw from my own experiences which is something I feel is often being discouraged. We are, rather, used to follow demand, not bring up new issues.
I went to the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford 10 years ago and I don't feel that much of what I was doing then was in any way substantial. There was always the option to approach individual tutors for expertise and learn by observing what course mates did. At some point, though, you have to develop your own artistic language. During my studies, my ideas about any aspect of the world were totally nebulous and so the thought of developing a creative form appeared silly and obsolete. Maturity of concept is key and it is not something that one can force into any course structure. To my mind, maturity is the outcome of a serious approach to the world and to one’s own biography. Otherwise, the risk is that one’s art is a mere imitation of someone else’s personality, someone else’s necessary path.
Back to your question about methodology: I’d like to answer as an artist and art educator alike because I am convinced that an artist is – or at least ought to be – driven by a need to pass on information. When giving tours at the museum, for example, I want to do more than inform audiences about the lives of artists like Tiziano or Raffaello. You sometimes get an audience that wants to see what you know (dates, geo-locations, where battles were fought, etc.), but that is, I think, only a small fragment of an inspiring tour; it’s not an exam, after all. A tour, like an artwork, is a filter offered that one can use to get one of many views of the world. Also, you can feed somebody information but I am more interested in people's reactions in front of an object or artwork, without actually saying too much about it in the first place. I offer a bit of context at the start and the rest, ideally, turns into dialogue; if attendees of my tours feel they’re mind is caged in by the information I’ve fed them, then I’d feel not to have done a good job. I apply a similar approach when making my own art; I love reactions! A valuable tour, then, should be understood as a sharing platform rather than a fixed monologue. Representing nuance and being honest about the difficulties therein – of not having precise answers – that’s what I hope to do. Discovering, defining and discussing fragility is valuable.
What questions are you exploring with your artistic practice?
“Analogy” has become my favourite term recently. I think that everyone needs to go through a process and arrive at some kind of signature methodology, and these steps are comparable almost in every discipline. They get you thinking more generally about the world and about what you do within your immediate surroundings. I certainly am not the only one attempting to form some sort of universally applicable language – I only wish it were a thought more people would consider. What frustrates me most about the art world – or any defined world for that matter – is that it tends to get very self referential, and I think that is boring and not very useful to anybody. If one has skills that are unique but cannot be applied to what lies beyond one’s own field, they are of minimal use. It is much more beneficial to transgress categories, disciplines, nations and so on. Almost everybody, apparently, wants to do it, but then another question is how far one is willing to go in order to achieve it. I am interested in the unique solitary journeys of those that have gone against all odds to eventually offer something that is beneficial to a wider context, be it international, cross-generational or cross-temporal. I don’t see the point in a “best before date” mentality, for instance. All thoughts are valuable and can be revisited and re-contextualized in order to, hopefully, be applied with a commonly beneficial use.
All of this language seeking and creating tends to take a very long time and strong nerves. Sometimes it requires the courage to let go of things; people, habits, property. At some point, it is necessary to define priorities. You don't want to get by with lies and hegemonic society’s dictations. You want to work honestly and this requires letting go of a lot and – that’s the hardest part – without certainty that results will ever be noticeable. Still, fear the absence of acknowledgment is worth more than living in pretence and on success based on illusion.
I suppose that the above partly relates to specifics in my artistic practice. I'm interested in souvenirs and talismans because they figure as contemporary relics: they represent a form that can hold time and place and spiritual significance. They tell us something about the way we look at objects and their potential to make connections, what value we ascribe to things when we know where they have come from.
I think that artistic practice shouldn't be giving answers, it should tell everybody that there are no answers and that you'd better learn to deal with the complications of, well, living. I suppose that is one reason for why I work in different media; I don't follow just one technique, it's not enough. I collect dust, but I contextualize that collection with other things like a sound piece for example. My work almost without exception is site-responsive. I try to explore how a site, from the moment that I engage it in my work, can resonate with other places and their respective (hi)stories. It’s always the same, really: an obsession with analogy and dialogue as opposed to detached monologue. I have no choice but to deal with contamination. I grew up with five languages so I am a good example of contamination (the Italian contaminazioni perhaps bears less negative connotations). This shows in how I work as an artist: most things I do revolve around fragmentation, the discontents it evokes, and an obsession to tie lose strings together. Liquid thought and solid substance or the inversion of that makes a lot of sense to me. Water and dust are constant Leitmotifs, as are abundance and scarcity.
What are your most important objectives as an artist?
I think that exploration and – by necessity – curiosity are the most important objectives. Artists each have to have their own foci, things that get them going; I have no patience for imitation and market-speculation, no nerves for artists that do what could guarantee social success.
Of course it would be silly to claim that I don't care about what people think of the art I produce. I do want people to understand, in the same way that an inventor or a scientist cares for people to make use of their brainchild. I don't ever want to come to a point where I can say that I've known it all, that I’m tired of research. There's always more to learn; it does not matter if you are young or old, you should never be tired of asking questions. It’s sad if you do get tired of asking. I don’t ever want to become lazy, to feel satisfied about having fixated my methodology point and carry on with it for another sixty years. That's not my idea of a lived life, I wouldn't be very proud as an artist that way. New challenges in life demand adjustments in continuation. Life is mobile and so one has to adjust ideas to a flow, not arrest them.
Who have been your most important partners or interlocutors so far in your learning process, including people or situations you lived that helped you clarify your ideas?
This is an interesting question because I think that most of the key things I have learnt and continue building up on have come my way by chance, not necessarily mentors, if that’s what you mean by interlocutors. At times, as an artist you work without any external influence, in those moments you want to be alone anyways; there is also this component - that in first instance I'm my own interlocutor.
I used to get the most support from my maternal grandparents and that’s really been my fuel until now. It is only rather recent encounters that have proven similarly supportive, in a seemingly unconditional way.
I studied fine arts and in that period I wasn't happy with my own ideas and I didn't really care about anybody else's opinions either. There was little to be done about it then, though I think it was a shame because some people in Oxford would have been valuable mentors. So, with a delay of seven years, I've started to get back in touch with professors and some former artist colleagues. The Barbican project is a result of such a return to contacts.
My most important interlocutor in my own learning process has always been my grandmother. She was my best friend and when she fell ill it felt like my entire world collapsed. I was fifteen then and when you're that age you generally don't really know what loss looks – or feels – like, let alone how its consequences manifest themselves and what to do about them. Accompanying someone dying prematurely was certainly the most strenuous task I can until now identify for myself. At the same time, because I was studying abroad, it amplified what had always been integral to my life: always saying goodbye to a place or someone and not knowing whether I would find it as I had left it. As a result, I learnt to live moments fully so long as I enjoyed them; there was never a good enough reason to not put in the effort. My grandmother made me believe that living for the moment with someone treasured is worth more than anything else. I think she is right, though her passing makes this thought, at times, unbearable.
As for people that in recent years have been an important presence, I would say they were a natural consequence to my own development until now. Their commitment to and respect for my joys and worries, in a way validated what until recently has felt like a solitary journey after a universal language. It’s reassuring that these solitary journeys eventually converge and become a collective phenomenon.
There is, I suppose, also always the necessity of an innate sympathy for someone to be an interlocutor.
Which of the feedbacks that you received over the years have been particularly meaningful for you and which surprised you most?
During my university studies, I seem to have taken to heart too many superficial ideas that were stamped onto my forehead like a label. Also, I internalized many complaints about me as a child. I was restless and curious and fidgety and often this was met with anger and impatience and so I believed I was a problem to start with.
Eventually, this changed. I was lucky that my grandmother always allowed me to be whatever way I wanted so I am happy that in recent years and months her ideas on how to raise children freely resonate with others’ observations of me as a free spirit. And that this is fine! I am surprised that the moment that I ended up being selfish brought me my best friends.
How can contemporary art influence the way we remember and understand the world?
I have a rather disheartening image in mind when it comes to the current reception of art. I am thinking of one of the events I attended during the opening week of the Venice Biennale 2019, the lecture performance by Joan Jonas. There was limited seating so I was sat on the floor between the stage and the audience. I had a view of the audience and the performer alike. Joan Jonas environmental activism was greeted by sea of lit phones, not because attendees were photographing or filming but because they were busy messaging around. If a financially secure group of people with moderate to effective influence claims to be interested in saving the planet’s ecology and is busy playing around with phones when a minimum of representative action is required, then I wonder how tenable the claim is that the art-world can sustain itself as a platform for teaching.
Contemporary art I think becomes interesting when it reaches out to the world and I don't think that the art world now has much substance because it is self-referential. Its potential has a chance to flourish when it's exported to other fields. Art should be a catalyst, not an island. I think one of my favourite catalysts of this kind is the Wellcome Trust’s Reading Room in London. In this medical institution, you find book islands that each stand for an organ or to a bodily function. For example, one book island revolves around the lungs and so the literature subjects range from air pollution to kissing. The structure of this reading room reflects open-mindedness and can only be encouraged everywhere.
Where do you sense current shifts in the evolution/transformation of the relationship between the art system and the expanded social field? Where do you see risks and challenges and where do you see opportunities?
As much as interdisciplinary practice is a fashionable term, it is true that there are more and more platforms where the usual grouping of curators, critics, artists is enriched by the presence of, say, sociologists, architects or health-service workers, for example. I believe it is in these unfortunately still rare constellations when one can start to finally compare notes: conversations lead to the realization that all sides have to orchestrate. It’s about conversion, not polarization. In terms of expanded social field, the art world is a job for everybody, there is the art, that is a kind of separate product, but art also requires a whole system of contacts and processes in order to continue existing. Else it runs thin and who wants that, in the long run?
To my mind, there are exhibitions that have been doing well recently in museums; re-enactments of historical exhibitions I think are useful especially when they emphasize similarities in behavioural and social patterns. That is where the museum can function as a platform that goes beyond the art world.
If you were able to change one or two things in the area of responsibility of artists, arts curators, cultural institutions, cultural producers, what one or two things do you think would create the most value and benefit for all? Where would you start from to change things for the better?
Payment. Education is fundamental and it is being treated, in the museum context, as a hobby activity for infants or middle-aged ladies. Consequently, it is hardly subsidized. That’s just outrageous. I wish there were more open-minded people in institutions but, above all, that there will be a return to wanting to know, wanting to learn. Not challenging the status quo is a systemic issue, wherever we look. Education can change this, within the museum but within schools and the home too.
Our planet has been dealing with a public health crisis spreading all over and museums, exhibitions, arts and cultural sites, schools and educational programs, have been closing the doors in many countries. What is your feeling about how these events will influence our approach to producing, sharing and experiencing the arts?
For what it is worth, I can only hope that the collective mind will be more attuned to the necessity of nurturing dialogue between different ministries. We have seen that culture and education are treated as separate entities: museums are equipped with resources and occupy the physical as well as the digital realm via social media. I have found myself wondering, perhaps naively: Why is there no back-up plan to when schools have to shut? Covid-19 may have come as a surprise, but seriously, isn't the current situation a reflection of how unsustainably decisions are being made?
I hope we have understood how precarious all of our existences are and how interdependent we are. I am not an economist but the long-term damage of lacking education will probably impact the economy a great deal. I hope that, perhaps again very naively, that those in the position of power will understand that true power has to depend on dividing it. Such a move - the distribution of power, that is - is a sign of strength, not of weakness. I suspect the majority has grown tired of ego-centric politicians. Most of them have been unable to offer solutions when they were most necessary. And so, when the governed make decisions that the ones governing should have made way back when, I suppose it becomes blatantly clear that power doesn't equal solutions to problems. It is out of this crisis, that the art system, in its own way interdependent on politics and the world economy, can offer sustainable models for anyone contributing to it.
To give one very simple but probably useful thought: one art work needs not cost a couple of millions. Supporting artists needs not go via institutions. One can help save the existence of people paying them a couple of hundreds or thousands. This is sustainable, not the sensation that record prices hold at auctions. That's just immature game-play.
Can you think of three to five keywords that express your impressions and feelings about the topics we just talked about?
Coordination. Curiosity. Enthusiasm.
Lara Verena Bellenghi studied Fine Art at Oxford University and completed her MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She is currently based in Vienna, pursuing her artistic practice and working for the education department of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Lara explores notions language-based anxieties and the inevitability of misunderstandings. Pursuing her often site- and community-responsive practice alongside work with museum audiences, cross-national and -generational frictions frequently form the base of her research. Sites and objects that are informed by socio-historical phenomena provide points of departure for exploring the relationship between souvenirs or relics and collective experience. From her engagement with audiences inside institutions, Lara extracts fragments that are then translated into often performative and documentary practice of her own.