Marina PuglieseApril 14, 2016
Studio Sessions offers behind-the-scenes access to Bay Area artists, writers, curators, and creative individuals through a variety of tête-à-tête conversations that consider the how, and what, and where of making art. Studio Sessions are presented as interviews, profiles, and studio visits through text, photo essays, and videos.
When Marina Pugliese decided to move from Milan to San Francisco in July 2015 to take up a stint as curator for the Italian Cultural Institute (IIC), other than a plan to take her work outside of the physical location of the IIC itself, she intentionally didn’t arrive with any set notions as to the kinds of shows she would put on.
“I didn’t come to San Francisco with a specific idea,” Pugliese recalls. “I came here and I thought, ‘OK, let’s see how this place inspires me.’”
Pugliese’s willingness to let the city suggest the framework for her exhibitions is proving an intriguing decision for San Francisco’s artistic landscape, and the process has been liberating for Pugliese as well. Having taken a multiyear sabbatical from her role as director of three important Milanese art institutions — the Museo del Novecento, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, and the Museo delle Culture — Pugliese says she “feel[s] much freer here” in California.
Whereas her own point of research as an art historian is installation art, after immersing herself in the cultures and histories of San Francisco, what Pugliese found inspiring was the city’s diversity. “Here I am more interested in intercultural issues and in understanding the place itself,” she says. “I’m studying Bay Area art history, I’m getting to know what happened here, the different communities…”
After her immersion, Pugliese threw some curatorial darts out into the San Francisco art-world ether to see what took hold.
The result is an exciting trio of exhibitions called Mapping the City. The project, so called because it refers to a series of collaborations between the IIC and different San Francisco institutions, intends both to promote dialogue between Italian and Bay Area artists, and to showcase the products of their artistic exchanges outside of the Italian Cultural Institute in order to engage the city more broadly.
Mapping the City’s first iteration, which concluded last month, was Fragile, a collaboration between the IIC and the Chinese Culture Center (CCC) of San Francisco. Comprising a site-specific exhibition at the IIC (February 18–March 13), a performance at Opera Plaza Cinema (February 18), and a closing performance on Ross Alley in Chinatown, Fragile paired contemporary Milan-based artist Marta Dell’Angelo with Chinese American artist and Bay Area native Summer Mei Ling Lee.
So why a collaboration between the IIC and the CCC, and why these two particular artists?
After arriving in San Francisco, Pugliese found that whereas the art scene in North Beach is relatively sleepy these days, Chinatown is very lively and the Chinese Culture Center a hub of creative activity. “I started thinking about this and how the two places border each other, and I realized that in the U.S., Chinatowns and Little Italys are often close to each other.”
Despite the proximity between San Francisco’s Chinese and Italian immigrant communities, there seemed to be little exchange between them. So Pugliese met with Abby Chen, curator and director of the CCC, and the two agreed it was time to create a dialogue.
Chen suggested Lee, whose multimedia work addresses issues of the body, identity and the gaze. This resonated with Dell’Angelo’s interests in and artistic investigations into the connections between anthropology and neuroscience. So Chen and Pugliese put the two artists in touch, and then let the artists take it from there.
“What I was most interested in, and [Chen] agreed,” Pugliese explains, “was the process, not the end result… I wanted to have a chance to be surprised, and I was.”
Thus a long-distance artistic relationship began months before Lee and Dell’Angelo’s meeting. Or, in Lee’s own words, an “arranged marriage.”
Living a continent apart and not sharing the same language, Lee and Dell’Angelo created their own rules for their artistic exchange. They started by turning Skype on at specific times of the day in their respective homes and studios. Rather than speak to one another during these sessions, however, they simply left the application running while going about their daily tasks.
After that, they sent each other a picture a day, each artist responding to the image sent by the other with an analogous scene. Often, the photographs are surprisingly similar.
Finally, the artists corresponded by way of the language translation apps on their phones, sending each other audio recordings of computerized voices reciting their often poorly translated sentences. If the Skype sessions and the call-and-response series of photographic images frame Dell’Angelo and Lee’s intimacy despite their physical and linguistic barriers, the awkward and frequently nonsensical communications of the robotic voices highlight their distance and foreignness to one another.
Collectively, these correspondences—assembled online in Fragile’s “Ephemeral Catalogue”—tell a moving story of the fragility of the artists’ relationship. Together with their subsequent site-specific installations and performances, Lee and Dell’Angelo’s collaborative work examines the tenuousness of the relationship between North Beach and Chinatown, always bordering one another yet historically estranged.
Whereas Fragile introduced an Italian artist and her work to San Francisco, Mapping the City’s second iteration, High Up: Graphic Design Around Town, promoted by the Municipality of Milan and San Francisco Design Week, represents collaborations between San Francisco- and Milan-based practices, introducing their work to both cities.
High Up, conceived with Geoff Kaplan, senior adjunct professor of design at California College of the Arts (CCA), presents a creative exchange between graphic designers in San Francisco and Milan. For this project, Kaplan selected five graphic designers or design studios in San Francisco (Stripe SF, Megan Lynch, General Working Group, Brett MacFadden and Scott Thorpe, and Bob Aufuldish), while Pugliese selected five design studios in Milan (Alizarina, Studio FM, LeftLoft, Massimo Pitis, and Zetalab). Pairing each Milanese designer or design studio with one in the Bay Area, Kaplan and Pugliese gave the newly formed design teams the broad theme of “landscape” to work with and asked them to collaborate on the production of two large-format posters together.
As in the case of Fragile, the High Up artists were deliberately left to create their own rules. The results are as varied as the designers, and will be up in urban locations throughout Milan at the time of the acclaimed Salone del Mobile (posters up April 8–30, 2016). The following month, the posters will be up in San Francisco (May 16–June 12, 2016), bookending SF’s own Design Week (June 2–9). An exhibition of the posters in the atrium gallery of CCA’s Hooper Graduate Center will coincide with San Francisco Design Week.
Mapping the City’s third and final installment, Neon Afterwords, will take place this fall at Kadist Art Foundation (September 21–October 1). Although it’s still too soon to discuss the details of that show, it will present some kind of artistic exchange between Italian American artist Fiamma Montezemolo and other artists. Montezemolo’s work lies at the intersection of art and cultural anthropology, and her work at Kadist will include an immersive installation incorporating sentences spelled out in neon lighting and appropriated from Jorge Luis Borges’ 1969 short story “The Ethnographer.”
What’s so compelling about Pugliese’s curatorial work in San Francisco is that it creates dialogues where none would have taken place otherwise. At the same time, her exhibitions don’t presume to dictate what kinds of dialogues should occur, leaving the artists involved free to do what they choose. In Pugliese’s words, just as coming to California was a move toward her own curatorial freedom and flexibility, “It is my privilege now also to give freedom—to have freedom and to give freedom.”
Pugliese’s work here has therefore partly been that of curatorial matchmaking, and as Summer Lee and Marta Dell’Angelo would likely attest, arranged marriages often work very well.
Moreover, rather than present Italian or Italian American art just to those communities in San Francisco, Pugliese’s exhibitions depart from the traditionally insular framework of cultural institutions. Introducing Italian and Bay Area artists to each other, taking exhibitions outside of the IIC to other San Francisco institutions, as well as to the streets of San Francisco and Milan, Mapping the City’s ambitious project is to inspire connections between the distant communities and urban landscapes it brings together.
It remains up to us to take up Pugliese’s provocation, to keep these dialogues going, and to reject our own insular tendencies, starting new dialogues that might never have taken place otherwise.