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Into the depths of water: an interview with Valentina Buzzi, curator of the Italian Pavilion at the 2023 Gwangju Biennale

Sanghee Kim

Apr 29, 2023

Installation view of Camilla Alberti, Learning in dis-binding, 2023 as part of the Italian Pavilion for the 14th Gwangju Biennale at the Dong-gok Museum of Art, Gwangju
Courtesy of the artist and IIC Seoul
Photo: Parker McComb



With an extensive academic and professional background in art and culture, independent curator Valentina Buzzi sheds light on the Italian Pavilion at the 14th edition of the Gwangju Biennale in this extensive interview with eazel. Amidst the biennale’s theme, “Soft and weak like water”, the Italian Pavilion launched its own “What does water dream, when it sleeps?”, aiming for a balance between fluid harmony and gentle provocation.


Produced by the Italian Cultural Institute of Seoul and hosted by the Dong-gok Museum of Art, Gwangju, this exhibition, open from April 7 to July 9, 2023, brings together the works of five contemporary artists from Italy: Camilla Alberti, Yuval Avital, Marco Barotti, Agnes Questionmark, and Fabio Roncato. eazel had an insightful conversation with Valentina Buzzi, the curator of the pavilion, to gain a more in-depth understanding of these individuals and their work, as well as to get a first-hand account of the intricate steps that go into the organization of such a show. From the initial sparks that bloomed into the exhibition to the hurdles they encountered on the path, Buzzi eloquently recounts the adventure that was the realization of the Italian Pavilion at Gwangju Biennale 2023.



eazel: Thank you for joining us for this interview. Shall we start from the beginning? How did you come to curate the Italian Pavilion at the 14th Gwangju Biennale?


Valentina Buzzi (VB): The curation of the pavilion happened thanks to the trust that the director of the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano di Cultura) in Seoul (hereafter IIC Seoul), Michela Linda Magri, put in my figure as an academic and curator after several collaborations since 2021. Last September, specifically during Frieze week, the Biennale contacted the IIC and myself about the pavilion project they were implementing and their interest in involving Italy. It was such a good opportunity to be able to present a show that would introduce Italian contemporary art to the Gwangju Biennale and offer an image of the country beyond what it is usually known for, extending past the classical arts, archeology, cuisine, and opera. This is the first time an Italian cultural institute organizes and produces a pavilion in Asia. While setting up the pavilion was a somewhat “crazy” adventure, it is of utmost importance to show the side of Italy that is not only rich in contemporary creativity and art, but also interested in themes that matter very much in the present, such as the environmental crisis or the quest for a more sustainable existence.


eazel: What were the main factors to consider during the curation of the pavilion? How impactful was the Gwangju Biennale as a whole, with the title, “Soft and weak like water”, on your curatorial rationale?


VB: From the very first meeting with the Biennale team, we were informed that it was not necessary to establish a curatorial connection with the main exhibition. We were free to take the direction that we wanted. However, I was very impressed by Soo-Kyoung Lee’s direction, and I thought that it would be interesting to work on a curation that could exist on its own while also being connected to the main exhibition, ultimately unraveling into a harmonic consonance. 


The Italian Pavilion, “What does water dream, when it sleeps?” uses the metaphor of water to narrate a theme which is very dear to me: the idea that we exist “in constant transformation” and that once we acknowledge that the boundaries we establish within our paradigmatic framework can evolve, we can let the possibility of change embrace us fully. This is the leitmotif of our pavilion, which I consider to be an invitation, a gentle nudge, for everyone to take in and be (hopefully) inspired by. I have been profoundly interested in the doctrine of change of Heraclitus for many years and some of you may know the famous saying “everything flows.” The Greek philosopher was able to capture this fundamental condition of transformation that exists on a cosmological level. I owe some academic friends of mine credit for this as they helped me dive deep into a better philosophical understanding, not to mention my curatorial assistants, whose help was crucial in bringing this vision alive throughout the whole journey. My full curation stems from there. It was also deeply informed by contemporary thinkers I admire, such as Donna Haraway and Elizabeth Grosz, among others. We wanted this framework of change to connect with important themes such as post-anthropocentrism, sustainable coexistence among species, and also the ritualistic and performative aspect of the artists’ individual practices. Additionally, it was important to us that all of the works contain a link to South Korea as we believe that, if rooted in cultural exchange, the experience - especially that of the audience in the host country - becomes more insightful and transformative thanks to the balance between elements of proximity and distance. In the end, every artist was able to give a special contribution to the overall curation, and I am extremely thankful for their brilliant work, which enriched this Pavilion immensely. We were able to present unique perspectives, and at the same time create a coherent journey. 



Installation view of Fabio Roncato, Follow Me, 2023 as part of the Italian Pavilion for the 14th Gwangju Biennale at the Dong-gok Museum of Art, Gwangju
Courtesy of the artist and IIC Seoul
Photo: Parker McComb



eazel: How did you go about placing the works in the venue? There are a wide range of installations in the exhibition and procuring and designing the presentation must have been an important element in curating the Italian Pavilion. 


VB: Organizing the venue for the show was one of the things we brainstormed the most with both my amazing curatorial assistants and the artists themselves. We wanted to emulate a journey, to set an experience that could be transformative, or at least attempting to be as such. The venue itself, the Dong-gok Museum of Art, was selected by the Director of IIC Seoul and me during our first visit to Gwangju in October 2022 as we thought it was good architecture-wise for a group show. The division of the various spaces allowed us to envision the pavilion there. After that, we spent a countless amount of time trying to find the best way to create a balanced and intriguing dialogue between the artworks that would make sense for the visitors’ experience as well. 


For the venue, one of the biggest issues was the lighting. As you know, lighting is one of the most important aspects in exhibitions, and you can imagine how every artwork needed a specific light condition and smooth transitioning. We didn’t have a light designer and ended up having to do everything by ourselves. We were sometimes there until 2am, thinking and rethinking about how to create the perfect lighting.


We also teamed-up with Doha/Seoul-based architecture and space design firm MOTOElastico, who created a fantastic exhibition design to enrich the visitors’ experience, helping the audience flow coherently like water. If you visit the pavilion, you can really see how their design helped to add a participatory element to it. At the end of the visit, there is an acrylic mirror on which you can stick your own answer to the question, “What does water dream, when it sleeps?” It was primarily made for children, but it generated so many answers from various age groups, becoming a fun and insightful tool to reflect back on the exhibition.  


It was also a great opportunity to work with an Italian start-up technology company, Particle, which designs applications for exhibitions to enhance the viewing experience both online and off-line. By utilizing Particle’s expertise, we were able to expand the exhibition beyond the gallery walls and provide an immersive space through augmented reality (AR) and other exclusive content only available through the application.


eazel: Did you already know the artists you worked with for this exhibition? What inspired you to include their work in the Italian Pavilion?


VB: The five artists presented - Camilla Alberti, Yuval Avital, Marco Barotti, Agnes Questionmark, and Fabio Roncato - were chosen through careful research and selection in collaboration with IIC Seoul as well as with the help of my assistant curators. I will try to be brief, but it will be a slightly long answer. It is important to talk about all of the artists as they each, with their own declination, work together as a key to transform the local via universal connectivity. 


Camilla Alberti had already established a link with IIC Seoul as the winner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Italy’s (MAECI) public competition Cantica21. Thanks to that, we were able to meet 2 years ago, and after a studio visit in Italy in early 2022, I’ve had ongoing conversations with the artist about her practice. Rooted in a deep theoretical understanding of post-anthropocentrism and interspecies coexistence, Camilla’s practice is based on the idea of building worlds and recalibrating our imagination towards a more complex acceptance of coexistence. In partnership with Seoul Institute of the Arts, we developed a three-month research and production residency for the artist, where she led a series of workshops and lectures with students from the academy. It was a fundamental moment of mutual exchange and enrichment, bent not only on transmitting values linked to Italy and the artist's practice, but also on working on common themes and creating connections with the environment. This experience gave rise to the work Learning in Dis-Binding (2023), where monsters, as entities neither defined nor definable, tell of new hybrid, interspecies mythologies.


As for Yuval Avital, I had worked with him before on an important global project called Human Signs (2020), which was developed during the pandemic. It was an opus of voice and dance which included over 200 artists from over 50 countries, presented for the first time in its physical dimension at Manifesta 13 in Marseille. I have always been amazed by Yuval’s ability to work on the archetypal and ritual elements of the human, translating them into what he refers to as “total works of art.” We therefore decided on his multimedia work Foreign Bodies (2017 - 2022), which is about contemporary humanity's detachment from nature, complemented by a performance in collaboration with local dancers, and a series of charcoal drawings and site-specific drawings and paintings in the pavilion space. The work thus became all-encompassing and immersive, combining video, sound, performance, drawing, and painting. This work, which is the last one the visitors see, has a profound transformative essence, touching deep emotional layers.



Performance view of Yuval Avital, Foreign Bodies, 2017-2022 as part of the Italian Pavilion for the 14th Gwangju Biennale at the Dong-gok Museum of Art, Gwangju
Courtesy of the artist and IIC Seoul
Photo: Parker McComb



I got to know the work of Marco Barotti after an exhibition in Seoul about a year ago. I was drawn in by the way he combines art and technology, and in the work that he did in collaboration with scientific institutions at a global level. On top of that, with my in-depth background in art, science, and technology as a curator and an academic, I found many connections between his practice and mine. Marco had already exhibited in Korea on several occasions, and we really liked the way he scientifically studied and related to the terrain, to then rework that information in the poetry of his kinetic-sound sculptures. This led to the idea of bringing in Clams (2019), a work in which microtonal soundscapes respond to water pollution data, in this case from the rivers of Gwangju.


Agnes Questionmark brought with her a very strong performance - Drowned in Living Waters (2023) - in an aquarium that was specifically created for the pavilion. I was fascinated by the artist after seeing one of her performances at FOROF in Rome. Agnes has a very powerful ability to capture the audience and lead them towards her idea of fluidity, transformation, and deep connection with the marine element. She explores the possibility of becoming "more than human," pushing the body to its limits, in a necessary return to the water from which we all originate. We also introduced her sculptural piece Draco Piscis (2023), which embodies her interest and research in science and mythology, inspired by the illuminated manuscripts by naturalist Ulisse Aldovrandi in the 16th century. Her unique take on posthumanism, together with her strong bond with water, are both fascinating and thought-provoking in a very timely manner. 



Performance of Agnes Questionmark, Drowned in Living Waters, 2023 as part of the Italian Pavilion for the 14th Gwangju Biennale at the Dong-gok Museum of Art, Gwangju
Courtesy of the artist and IIC Seoul
Photo: Parker McComb



After a series of conversations with Fabio Roncato, I was touched by his interest in the relationship between materials and their historical, cultural, and geographical connection to a place. For Fabio, we opened a production residency of six weeks at the Dong-gok Museum of Art, which is the venue for the Italian Pavilion. The artist worked in collaboration with the artisans' studio Chang Art on an interpretation of Onggi (traditional Korean vases used daily) made of alabastrine plaster, which were then eroded by the waters of the waterfalls and rivers of Gwangju. The artist was also able to consult the archives of the Asia Culture Centre (ACC) on the city's history - very important, especially in the context of democracy. This inspired his work Follow Me (2023), which translates a transformative experience rooted in a specific historical place into a universal dimension. 


eazel: Was including Clams by Marco Barotti in the exhibition influenced by your passion for and knowledge about technology? Does this play into your work often?


VB: The intersection between art, science and technology has been one of the key drivers in my research as a curator and writer in contemporary art. Both art and science open up incredible possibilities in terms of research and practice.Before moving to Korea in 2020, I was lucky enough to work at the artistic residency program of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), one of the biggest scientific laboratories in the world, which is located in Geneva. There, I researched fundamental science, specifically exploring the possibilities of how our universe was created. Under the guidance of Mónica Bello, the head of the program, I researched how artists and scientists can work together and how their practices can be mutually inspiring. I am also grateful to Ariane Koek, a fantastic senior curator and cultural producer specialized in art and science who was kind enough many years ago to meet me at the National Theatre in London and introduce me to this fantastic world. We’ve been in touch since then, and she always inspires me. This interaction, combined with a previous experience in the exhibition team at the Foundation for Art & Creative Technology in Liverpool (FACT) while I was getting my graduate degree at Warwick University in the UK, deeply informed how I imagine art and its relationship with other disciplines and society at large. 



Installation view of Marco Barotti, Clams, 2019 as part of the Italian Pavilion for the 14th Gwangju Biennale at the Dong-gok Museum of Art, Gwangju
Courtesy of the artist and IIC Seoul
Photo: Parker McComb



eazel: Negotiating your autonomy as an independent curator working with different stakeholders may have been challenging. How did you overcome dealing with this? 


VB: In the case of the Italian Pavilion, working directly under the direction of IIC Seoul enriched the presentation and credibility of this project. I had the chance to work with the institute previously, such as on occasion of the “Italian contemporary art day”, and this led to a beautiful synergy that continued in this ambitious project. 


As an independent curator working with institutions or governmental bodies, I always need to negotiate the execution of the exhibition by balancing institutional and curatorial direction. It may be a struggle for some, but I find it extremely satisfying when it all works out and find the process rather enjoyable. Alongside art history and cultural studies, I have a background in cultural policy, and my academic research is often informed by the intersection of these disciplines. Working in the field allows me to experience first hand how this complex connection works. Biennales are historically both places of diplomacy and resistance, and this peculiarity makes them a very interesting subject for research and practice. A take-away that I find fascinating from these experiences is that there is always a negotiation of purposes, of intentions, of messages, and so on. Being able to balance and calibrate the various forces that come into play is a great challenge, but a fun one to deal with (in most occasions). Once you accept the existence of these forces in the field, the paths become clearer to navigate with fervor and integrity.