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Italian envoy: Phl art fan

Jojo G. Silvestre

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It has only been a year and a half since His Excellency, the Italian Ambassador to the Philippines, Giorgio Guglielmino, has been posted to Manila but already he has made a big dent in the Philippine art scene.

Just recently, Ambassador Guglielmino hosted two separate talks, the first one at the Manila House where he spoke about “how one can appreciate and enjoy contemporary art,” he told the Daily Tribune in an interview held at the Italian Embassy in Legaspi Village, Makati.

“I am deeply convinced that contemporary art is not as difficult to understand as most people think,” said the Ambassador, who based his talk on a book that he wrote about contemporary art as he has seen them in the countries where he had been posted, whether these are local art works or international works on exhibit at the time.

He described his book as “a sort of a tour of the world. I talk about 60 works by 60 different artists. And they are divided into geographical areas. So, I talk about Latin America, United States, Europe, Africa and Asia. So, compared to 40 years ago, contemporary art is much more global. Artists from various countries that move to Europe or the United States bring with them their traditions and work, but you also have a lot of things happening in areas where, maybe until a few years ago, nothing much was happening.”

The Italian Embassy also hosted another talk, this time at the Manila Art Fair, given by Laura Chiari, Director and partner at Galleria Lorcan O’Neill, Rome.

AMBASSADOR Guglielmino with Isa Lorenzo (left) and Laura Chiari.

Ambassador Guglielmino explained, “My idea is to bring here every six months a player of the art world. So I started in the first half of 2018. I arrived August of 2017, so in the first half of 2018, a curator came here. During the second half of 2018, an art critic came here. First half of 2019, a gallery director.

“The lecture and conversation that was recently given by Laura Chiari at the art fair was very interesting because the subject was ‘How Contemporary Galleries Evolve,’ how they change, how they face the challenges of globalization, the increase in number of fairs, the Internet.

So I put together Laura Chiari from the Lorcan O’Neill Gallery together with Isa Lorenzo of Silverlens Gallery. And the conversation was for about an hour. And it was interesting because at the end of the day, we saw that the issues and problems, difficulties and challenges they are facing and the enthusiasm is exactly the same.”

In our personal conversation with him, the Ambassador told us that he himself does not create art, although briefly in his youth, he did try but realized soon enough he had better skills when it came to diplomacy. He also shared his encounters with artists from various parts of the world while naming two young Filipina artists whose works he admires.

THE Italian ambassador gave a talk on contemporary art based on a book he wrote.

Art as parallel interest

Daily Tribune (DT): You seem to know a lot about the arts. Were you an art student? Is it something that you saw when you were growing up?
Ambassador Giorgio Guglielmino (AGG): No, I was not an art student. It is something that I saw, thanks to my mother who brought me to museums, theaters and exhibitions.

DT: What is your mother’s name?
AGG: An unusual name, Viola. And my background in university, to answer your question, is more related to my job. I studied politics.

DT: You took up politics, but you never left the arts.
AGG: Yes, I took up politics. No, I never left the arts. And I’m glad because I think that whatever job you do, if you have the parallel interest, it saves your life.

DT: That’s right. There’s something else to amuse you, or distract you, or to take you away from drudgery… or to retreat to.
AGG: Yes, yes…I agree…
DT: So, when you were growing up, were you also creating or just watching? What would you be more of, a spectator or a creator?
AGG: No, no, just for fun, I tried to do something that I realized was not for me. So, I was just watching, and studying and reading and looking…I think it is so important to look. I always tell friends or people to whom I talk that if there are exhibitions, you have to go and see works in flesh. With the Internet, you can see all the works wherever they are in the world, but it’s different if you face the painting. You have to face the work to understand or to appreciate it, or to say you don’t like it. But I think that it is very important to train your eyes.

I believe that people should be free to say what they want about a piece of art.

Embassy of Italy Award

DT: Is this your second art fair in the Philippines?
AGG: Yes. Last year was the first but, of course, I was new here so I didn’t know much. Now it’s more interesting because I know the galleries, I know the artists, everything looks more familiar.

DT: Of the ones you saw this year, which are your favorite?
AGG: I like a couple of very young girl artists. One artist is Jel Suarez. She works with West Gallery and she was the winner of an art award that I started last year. In the framework of the Ateneo Art Awards, we added in 2018 what we call the Embassy of Italy Award. (It) is an acquisition award in the sense that the embassy chooses one artist among the 12 finalists of the Ateneo Art Awards. When the 12 finalists are there, I go there and the embassy chooses one of them and acquires a work of that artist. And the first winner was Jel Suarez.
The idea is to build a small but significant collection of works of younger Filipino artists that will be shown in the Italian embassy. In 10 years’ time, there will be an interesting selection. The works are not intended to be brought abroad. They will stay here but they will be exhibited inside the Italian Embassy.

DT: Who made the choice? What was the basis for the choice?
AGG: (laughs) I made the choice, but I did it together with Boots Herrera, who is involved in the Ateneo Art Awards. First of all, the first selection among the 12 was done for practical reasons. One of the works there was a complex installation with moving things. Another one was a video projection. These things are not exactly what you expect to place in an office. Just for technical reasons, I said not to consider these works. So, what I saw as interesting, I told Boots. I shared with her my views about the painting that I liked. And she agreed. And so, this was the choice.

DT: What about in the recent art fair? Was there an artist whose work you found interesting?
AGG: There was another young girl. I think she’s very talented. Her name is Brisa Amir. And she works with Art Informal and Mabini. Jel Suarez and Brisa Amir are both very young. I suspect they are about 25 or 26.

DT: Sir, you said that the book is about several countries. How did this come about? Are these the places to which you were assigned?
AGG: Not all. For example, I’ve never been assigned to China but I talked about a couple of Chinese artists. I have visited the United States but I’ve never been posted to the United States. And of course, if you talk about contemporary art, you cannot avoid talking about some American artists.

DT: In the case of China, how did you become exposed to Chinese art?
AGG: Because Chinese art is quite famous worldwide. I saw exhibitions in London, I saw Chinese works in many art fairs. So, they’re very well known.

DT: Can you name all those countries in the book? It’s quite a number.
AGG: I started the book when I was in Buenos Aires. I started the first part of the book which is about Latin America. Then I talked about Africa. Then I put together China and India, two mega countries. Then, I talked about a group of artists who come from different countries. There’s a girl from Israel, an artist from Korea. If you visited certain countries, you would not expect to see the contemporary art scene, although they are getting there and they are very, very important. Then, I talked about the United States.

DT: Is your approach very academic or very personal?
AGG: More personal. Some of the artists, I was lucky enough to meet. The idea is always to be very open, even very relaxed because sometimes galleries, museums or curators tend to scare you. Or that they want to make you feel that you don’t understand. I believe that people should be free to say what they want about a piece of art. And even free to say I don’t like this. Again, to approach the work with simpler minds, with simpler attitude, without being afraid of saying something. That’s especially because in contemporary art, there are lots of bad works. (laughs) Not everything is good.

When you study the Renaissance, or art 500 years ago in Italy, you of course study the geniuses, the best artists. But 500 years ago, even in Italy, during the Renaissance, there was a lot of bad artists. Of course, time canceled all the bad artists. The problem with contemporary arts is they’re all still here.

Two or three hundred years from now, when our grand-grand-grandsons and granddaughters will study this century, they will just study the real good artists. You don’t know who will remain or who will not. But of course, there is such a vast number of artists and then there are lots of artists which are so-so.

Prada Foundation

DT: How is contemporary art in Italy now?
AGG: That phase is a little bit the challenge of the past because we have so much ancient and classical art, Renaissance art. Until a few years ago, the museums were a little bit skeptical to deal with the contemporary. They didn’t want to deal with the contemporary — it was too complex. I kept on with classics where I could not make any mistake which has led to acquiring contemporary art. So, in the last 50 years, I think the museums in Italy should make more effort to buy contemporary art. It’s going to change now, thanks to some private foundations.

There are some significant foundations basically linked to famous Italian brands. For example, Prada, the famous clothes and bags (brand), opened only a few years ago a beautiful foundation in Milan. Trussardi, the brand, opened a foundation in Milan. Thanks to them, contemporary art in Italy is getting more and more attention.

Also because young people and young audiences want the contemporary. So, contemporary is very popular now. There are not so many people very interested in the very classical arts. Now people want to see the contemporary works while collectors want to collect them. Maybe it’s also because it’s a little bit in fashion.

DT: Considering that your education is on the classical side, how did you shift to liking contemporary art?
AGG: Because I was interested in seeing how the artists reacted to and what they thought about the same work. If you see a painting of 300 years ago, you admire and like it, but what was really on the mind of the painter? It is very difficult to grasp. With contemporary art, I like the fact that the artist that is working now is exposed to the same work, the same television show, the same movie, the same news that I am watching now. I like the fact that we share what is good and bad that is going on today. It is all there on television and in the Internet.

DT: Cultural exchanges are among the tools used by the diplomatic world in forging international friendship and peace. How do you see the role of the arts in diplomacy? Do the arts play a significant role in diplomacy?
AGG: For me, yes. Because for me it is something that can put together countries (and I am not talking about the Philippines now) closer even if they have difficulties now. And I think that through art, you can achieve better relations. I am not referring to Philippine Italian relations because we have very good relations with the Philippines. So, no problem with that. But in any case, art is a big help.

Venice Biennale

DT: What is your main focus when it comes to Philippine-Italian relations?
AGG: The main focus of our relation with the Philippines is the huge Filipino community in Italy. It’s the largest community in Europe together with the United Kingdom.

DT: How do you think should Filipinos involve themselves in the arts in Italy?
AGG: I think it is important for the Filipino community in Italy as well as in other countries to see to it that the Philippines takes part in the important art events in the country where they live. For example, the Philippines is taking part in the Venice Biennale. And I think that for the Filipinos residing there, it is something they should be proud of – that the Philippines is part of the most important visual art exhibition in the whole world. It should make them feel proud. The Biennale this year will open in mid-May.

DT: Does the embassy have something to do with the Philippine participation?
AGG: Apart from issuing the visa to the artists (laughter), the choice of the artists and the works is, of course, totally a Philippine matter. What I am trying to do is to help some journalists to go to Venice to report on the Biennale. Serious journalists are easy to sponsor. So, if they want to go and cover the Biennale, I will be very happy to help them. The Biennale starts in mid-May but it goes on for a little bit more of five months.

DT: Of the different places you’ve seen, which one impresses you most for their arts?
AGG: Well, it’s not easy to say. (laughs) I was in Latin America and I was based in Argentina. But I made several trips to Brazil and I must say that I was very much impressed by Brazil not only by individual artists but the strategy that they have. It is something that I never saw anywhere else in the world. When I was going there, each artist was trying to help other artists, critics, the galleries. It was really sort of an army that was moving forward. A critic would tell me you should go to this gallery. And one artist would say visit this other artist. So, it was really a network. The frontline is totally incredible.

Good economy

DT: How has been your Philippine experience so far?
AGG: I had never been in the Philippines before I was posted here. So, I didn’t know what to expect. I was surprised by two factors in the art world here. First, I was surprised by the galleries. And I mean, also by the structures of the galleries. These are beautiful spaces. They could be in New York, London or Berlin. Silverlens is very beautiful. So is Art Informal. The spaces are perfectly done and arranged. The second thing that I was impressed by was the very high level of sales of the galleries. Which means that there is a growing number of collectors and even young collectors buying works of art. And in fact I am talking with some gallery owners and they told me that it’s very new. Ten years or 15 years ago, they were more or less struggling to survive. Now they are doing very well and the art fair is a significant window of this development. I don’t know how many hundreds of works have been sold, but they are hundreds and hundreds.

DT: Even the auction scene has been very active. What can you say about this? Are auction houses here to stay? Do you like the fact that many art works are being sold for millions of pesos?
AGG: You can like it or not but it’s a reality. You have to face it. And even in the international market, when you hear that this work has been sold for $20 million, I should work for 2,000 years but it’s a fact. One of the reasons is contemporary art is very fashionable now and collectors want to have pieces in their houses that people recognize. If they put on their wall a beautiful art work by a minor artist 400 years ago, not many people will recognize it and appreciate its value. For some collectors now, to have some works is a little bit like a jewel for a lady.

DT: Do you see what’s happening in the Philippines now as a fad, or as a part of the seasonal turns?
AGG: A little bit of ups and downs is normal. But I think the Philippines is growing; not only the economy but the interest in the arts.

DT: My final question is, do you think that as far as the arts is concerned, we have come a long way? I ask this in the context of whether we have matured politically and economically as a country.
AGG: Well, the growth in the numbers of collectors is surely a proof of the good economy of a country, no doubt about it. When there’s more money around, more people are able to buy art works. When a country is in a deep economic crisis, art is not sold. If the country goes well, the art market goes well.

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