Asian Curator

Marion Zilio

4 days ago

12 Min Read

“I see criticism and curating as platforms for theories and thoughts in action; a kind of laboratory for experimenting with the relationship between artistic and philosophical practices, or other fields of thought.

French contemporary art curator Marion Zilio talks about finding her niche in the art world an exclusive interview by Anjali Singh for Asian Curator.

Art interview

How do you describe yourself in the context of challenging people’s perspectives via your work? 

Contemporary art is traversed by so many societal issues. Ecology, anthropocene, de-colonialism, feminism are indicative of trends; even revealing a new conception of public space. Alas, their systematic approach has become suspect; their programming a fashion or a communication strategy rather than a real commitment or a real reflection. I am wary of exhibitions that deal, often opportunistically, with these issues. I believe in the long term need to develop new narratives, allowing us to participate in the transformations that the world is demanding. 

We are in a period of constant re-evaluation of our values. Ethics are invited into aesthetics, and politics are invited into art. To avoid denying the sensible in favour of a political message, a viable balance must be found. Being committed also means refusing the evidence of public utility; the mythification of the role of the artist, the demonstration in the media of his or her effectiveness. On the other hand, I believe that it is absolutely necessary to create alternatives to dominant discourses and ideologies. I believe in working on the imaginary and sensibility, but also by acting at a structural level.

There is a lot of work to be done behind the scenes. For example, I am an active member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics). I was elected deputy secretary general of the French section in 2018, and C-E-A (French Association of Exhibition Curators), where I have been on the board of directors since 2017. While these modest, voluntary commitments require time and energy, they enable us to work for the common good as well as for the individual, to improve our working conditions, and to structure and enhance the value of our professions. It should be remembered that in France, curators do not currently have any social status. There’s a lot to do…

Exhibition view Générescences (with Julien Verhaeghe), 2015, Carrousel du Louvre, Paris, France. Charlotte Charbonnel, Syphonie pour orgues, Sound installation, 2015. Crédit photo Boris Lafargue. Contemporary art curator Marion Zilio. Portrait.

Lets start at the beginning (of your choice). Tell us what lead to this journey with art?

I discovered contemporary art very late in life. The first time I visited the Louvre, I was 24 years old! However, I drew and made all sorts of things very early on, and had the desire to reconfigure my living spaces, following the example of Dominique Gonzales Foester, who explains that “The bedroom is [for me] a natural dimension of art, the first place where you hang personal or collective things, it is a mental space where you create an atmosphere”.

 Becoming an art critic and curator was not an obvious choice, simply because I didn’t know these professions existed. I was interested in participating in the transformations of reality; while not imposing my ideas on it. More specifically, this meant producing polymorphous thoughts that are educated by sensitive engagement with the world. After my thesis, I travelled a lot in a completely improvised way, and then I got closer to the works and the artists thanks to art criticism. Curating was the logical continuation of this movement.

What inspires you? Lets talk about your frameworks, references and process.

Writing about artists is a permanent inspiration and a way to open multiple horizons. Each one develops a universe of his own. My greatest pleasure is to slip into their world in order to modify and transform my writing. I like to say that I have a chameleonic writing, which transforms through contact. This autonomy of writing, feeds me in return, builds me as an individual. Writing is a motor, despite my dyslexia, it is free and works by accident. In this, it often surprises me and helps me to get out of my comfort zone by opening me up to other points of view.

Exhibition view B lob !, 2018, Galerie Bertrand Grimont, Paris, France. Nelson PERNISCO Le palmier des ghettos (Du temps dont je suis fait), Anne-Charlotte YVER, Storage Facility II, Vincent MAUGER, Sans Titre. Courtesy Galerie Bertrand Grimont

Tell us about your curatorial philosophy. How does it all come together? 

If curating has become an essential link in the ecosystem of contemporary art, it cannot, in my opinion, be reduced to the strict game of producing exhibitions. It must interrogate us on the way we bring thought and works to life, how we curate, possibly take care of the unthought of history, participate in the present and cultivate our future.

My exchanges with artists, time, space, objects and logistics have shaped the coordinates of my research field. My approach is therefore ecological, in the sense of an interaction between several disciplines and learning trajectories. In the course of my texts and exhibitions, I have experimented with more creative or performative methodologies of knowledge, oriented towards orality, other modalities of writing, such as fiction, video editing, or motivated by protocols of constraints. It is around these ways of doing and thinking with art that I am currently orienting my curating practice.

How do you balance the contradicting elements of your work? 

I do a lot of commission work for galleries and institutions, especially as an art writer. In the past, I have refused because the conditions were not met, whether ethical or financial. The institutions rely on our visibility and allow themselves to underpay us. But in general, I don’t have the feeling that I’m insincere towards my thinking, serving the market or doing promotion or communication. Each text is the fruit of a reflection that is constantly developing, through the variety of artistic universes.

In 2016, I was appointed artistic director of the Young International Art Fair. The model of fairs absolutely must be revisited so as not to become a kind of Disneyland for rich financiers. I also wanted to meet the expectations of the public by offering content, meaning and a certain political commitment. To do this, I invited a curatorial committee of critics, curators and emerging theorists. Together, we set up about fifteen events in prestigious Parisian institutions (Picasso Museum, the National Archives, the Museum of Arts and Crafts, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, the Centre Pompidou). The program included exhibitions, series of performances, dances, screenings of short and medium-length films, but also moments of privileged encounters between the curious, artists and professionals, on the occasion of visits to workshops at the Cité Internationale des Arts, exhibition mediation and talks about the challenges of contemporary art. 

I believe that it is necessary to have a vision and to maintain a certain ethic when dealing with the delicate issues of the art market

Exhibition view, Newwwar. It’sJust a game?, Bandjoun Station, Cameroon, 2017-2018. Barthélémy Toguo, Joli bébé, Emeric Lhuisset, War Pictures, Thibaud Brunet, First Person Shooter, Alain Josseau, War Games, Harun Farocki, Serious Game. Contemporary art curator Marion Zilio. 

What were you working on when the lockdown was announced? How has it affected your practice and plans?

I had several commissions to write for artist monographs, but I was also working on a curatorial project in duo with the artist Boryana Petkova. Our problem was, “Who contaminates whom?” “What are the zones of f(r)ictions between artist and curator”? We exchanged our roles and attitudes. This performative exhibition around drawing was to be in both France and abroad. The project was almost completed when the health crisis locked down the world. Suddenly, travelling was out of question, and above all, we were faced with the avalanche of information and fake news around Covid19. 

At such a time, talking about contamination or parasitism seemed out of place, or worse, opportunistic. Yet the art world has been dealing with these subjects for years. I became interested in these issues very early on.  Traces of them can be found in the exhibition ‘Cannibalism< >animalism‘, and Générescences that I co-curated with Julien Verhaeghe at the Carrousel du Louvre, or in the exhibition B l ob! at the Galerie Bertrand Grimont.There is the idea of dissemination, of an aesthetics of encounter, even of a “becoming-world”; all these ideas resonate with the contemporary thinking of Donna Haraway, Achille Membe or Edouardo Viveiros de Castro.

What kind of critical inputs does the art world need at this moment to overcome the loss of income and opportunity as a direct result of the lock-downs worldwide?

The health crisis is a multidimensional event whose individual, social and economic consequences redraw the map of power relationships. I am not very optimistic, but I do see many solidarity initiatives, and above all the desire to completely restructure our ecosystem. The rifts have burst dramatically with the crisis, we can no longer pretend not to see the precariousness, sexism, injustices, structural racism or the glass ceiling that structure the workings of our ecosystem. Many voices are being raised to denounce this structural conservatism.

Matthieu Boucherit, Sous mes paupières tout disparaît, 2018, installation. Courtesy Valerie Delaunay. Contemporary art curator Marion Zilio.

What would elevate artists’ life during this period?

In France, the art world has multiplied collective and individual initiatives. First, there were auctions to support caregivers. Then the need to directly help the actors of the art world; by alleviating present and future economic and social difficulties. 

Many online sales platforms emerged, in an improvised way. These included the collective « Les amis des artistes » (Friends of Artists), which offered a solidarity fund of 30% of the sale of works, with the remaining 70% going to the artist; and the “Smarty’s Arty” project, which allowed artists without galleries to sell their stock of works. Collector Antoine de Galbert offered to help a hundred or so associations by the end of the year. And gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin launched the #Restonsunis (stay together) initiative, inviting 26 galleries to present a selection within its walls. There were also initiatives to help students, or women artists (AWARE). There have also been exceptional acquisition commissions or emergency funds to help Artist-Authors.

On the other hand, others have spontaneously sought to create content on the networks, cultivating a certain visibility and continuous production, at the risk of sometimes capitalising on their own image and maintaining a culture of gratuitousness. Gratuitousness will not allow the culture to recover financially, nor will it change the mindset of audiences. It is a task of pedagogy and support for cultural policies and industries that needs to be put in place.       

Digital technology will never be more than a complement, it cannot replace the aesthetic experience. However, it is likely that hybrid “on line” and “off line” forms will develop. The risk would be to enrich capitalist platforms, such as Instagram, whose number of live videos has exploded. The GAFAMs would be inspired to redistribute a percentage of the money they receive thanks to creative people from all sides.

Go Canny ! Poétique du sabotage (with Nathalie Desmet et Eric Mangion), Villa Arson, Nice, France, 2017. Claude Cattelain, Composition empirique N° 7, 2016.

Tell us about your own personal evolution, vis a vis your journey with art and the work that you do today. 

I studied History of Art, Philosophy and Visual Arts at the University, then I obtained a PhD in Aesthetics in 2013. My intellectual practice has developed in recent years through the publication of collective and personal works (Faceworld. Le visage au 21e siècle, Presses Universitaires de France, 2018 and Polity Press, 2020, and Le livre des larves, PUF, 2020), but also within art criticism and curating, which have extended my reflections and enriched them with new thought material.

For the past ten years or so, I have been regularly active as an art critic, working with specialized journals, reviews of ideas or commissions. I am also co-founder of several experimental critical spaces and I accompany the reflection on the evolution of critical and curatorial practices. As a curator, I have organised exhibitions in France and abroad for galleries, art centres, foundations and institutions, including the Lieu Unique in Nantes (2018), the B’Chira Art Centre in Tunisia (2018), Bandjoun Station in Cameroon (2017/2018), the Villa Arson in Nice (2017), Le Carrousel du Louvre (2015). 

I have also been invited to several creative residencies, including the Under the Sand project at the invitation of Souad Mani and Wilfried Nail, which took place on the territory of Gafsa located at the gates of the Tunisian desert. These long lapses of time allow me to follow and participate in the elaboration of the works. And discover other scenes, but also, quite simply, to take the time for research without production finality. I see criticism and curating as platforms for theories and thoughts in action, a kind of laboratory for experimenting with the relationship between artistic and philosophical practices, or other fields of thought.

Contemporary art curator Marion Zilio. Portrait.

How are you balancing life and work at home during this period?    

There is no balance; my daily life is woven by my practice of art and art by my daily life. I live with an artist and not a single day goes by without art at the table. Fortunately, I also have friends outside the closed circuit of this ecosystem. This allows me to see the world with their eyes, their doubts and their hopes. With art, we can quickly become trapped in a bubble, completely cut off from certain realities.  It seems to me that it is necessary to make exits in order to better return to it.

Future projects: What are you working on now? What should we look forward to?

My second book, The book of larvae, will come out in September. How we became our prey. It is an essay of theoretical fiction at the crossroads of aesthetics, biopolitics, economics and cosmogonies. It is nourished by art, entomology, popular culture and the latest developments in contemporary thinking about life.

For enquiries contact : ziliomarion [at] gmail [dot] com

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