by Pallavi MehraJan 12, 2023
In the ever-evolving world of contemporary art, curators play a pivotal role in shaping our understanding of the cultural and societal dynamics surrounding us. Irene Campolmi, an independent curator and researcher based in Copenhagen, stands as a testament to the transformative power of curatorial work.
Born and raised in Italy, Campolmi’s path to becoming a curator was unique, driven by her curiosity and a thirst for meaningful engagement with art. Without prior connections to the art world, her family viewed museum visits as an investment in cultural capital, making her aspiration to work within those institutions appear distant. However, one invaluable piece of advice from her father would set her on an extraordinary course—seek a mentor whose path or principles you admire. This guidance ignited Campolmi’s passion for challenging the status quo, creating profound visitor experiences, and addressing complex topics in the art world.
Over the years, Campolmi's curatorial journey has defied convention, pushing boundaries and fostering dialogues on subjects ranging from climate change and gender to art, technology, and postcolonialism. Her unique ability to collaborate closely with artists and institutions has paved the way for thought-provoking exhibitions and projects that resonate deeply with audiences worldwide.
In an exclusive interview for STIR, we delve into Campolmi's perspective on the evolving role of a curator, the significance of her background in shaping her approach, and her commitment to engaging with art as a catalyst for societal reflection and change.
Zeynep Rekkali Jensen: You have had a diverse and extensive career in the art world, including research, curation, and work with institutions like the Max Planck Institute and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Could you share some essential experiences or insights from your earlier roles that have shaped your current curatorial approach and interests?
Irene Campolmi: Research has always been the point of departure for the curatorial methodologies I have approached. Research and intuition, which I realised later in the years, are intrinsic and interdependent aspects for developing ideas, projects, and eventually discoveries, both in the artistic and scientific research fields.
Upon graduating with my MA in Art History and Museology from the University of Florence in 2011, I was awarded a scholarship to join the research group "Objects in the Contact Zones: The Cross-Cultural Life of Things," where I explored the evolving field of Arab Modernism and its impact on redefining Arab contemporary art, necessitating a departure from Western art historical norms and museum displays. During this journey, I engaged with artists, curators, institutions, and museum workers globally, including visits to renowned institutions like the Louvre and Quai Branly in Paris, The Met in New York, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, leading to a transformative mentorship with curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, whose recent appointment as directors of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin marked a historic shift.
I moved to Denmark in 2013 to work as a PhD fellow at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art's curatorial department, which was a dream come true due to its innovative approach to art. During my time there, I co-organised an international conference with my colleague Marie Laurberg, focusing on immersive display solutions and the presentation of curatorial and artistic research in the art museum context, addressing trends like Anselm Franke's 'essay-exhibitions' at Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the curatorial practices of institutions like Tate Liverpool, Stedelijk Museum, and the New Museum.
Curating research throughout immersive display solutions that trigger people's perceptions rather than talking to them has been a key target that I have tried to reach since then, and which I feel has culminated with the exhibition I conceptualised and co-curated with my colleagues Jannie Haagemann and Line Wium both at CC both and in public space called Yet, it Moves!. In September, I will take on a new position as Senior curator at Køs Museum of Art in Public Spaces. I look forward to working on questioning and exploring notions of space and the public that seem so straightforward and accustomed in Western cultures and, actually, are very unstable.
Zeynep: Your curatorial work delves into postcolonial, queer, and feminist themes. Can you elaborate on the significance of these themes in contemporary art and how they inform your curatorial approach?
Irene: I view addressing postcolonial, queer, and feminist issues in both historical and contemporary contexts as my dual responsibility as a curator and a concerned individual to champion these themes, fostering meaningful communication and impact within institutions, particularly in light of increasing engagement from Western museums and universities.
My work often centres on the aftermath of colonialism and the resulting amnesia and memory displacement, particularly in countries like Italy and Denmark. Italy's extensive colonisation in territories like Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Libya left an indelible mark, yet Italy denied its colonial history, affecting its relationship with Eritrean migrants. My collaboration with artist Dawit L Petros led to the Spazio Disponibile (Available Space) exhibition, which challenged Italian perceptions of African territories.
Similarly, Denmark grappled with colonial amnesia, painting its occupation of Greenland and the Faroe Islands as a mere land occupation. I co-curated the One if by Land, Two if by Sea exhibition with the Indigenous artist collective New Red Order, shedding light on Scandinavia's amnesia regarding Indigenous histories.
My curatorial approach is deeply rooted in feminist philosophy, characterised by a fluid and collaborative methodology that encourages the evolution of ideas and projects, particularly evident in my work at Enter Art Fair, where I have explored performance art alongside exceptional artists focusing on queer and feminist themes.
Zeynep: You have been involved in the Enter Art Program since 2019, focusing on live art and performances by emerging artists. What do you believe live art adds to the art fair experience, and how has it evolved?
Irene: In 2019, Julie Leopold Alf founded Enter Art Fair with the vision to create an international art fair and a nexus of creative and commercial exchanges in Copenhagen. The Enter Art Program is a testing ground for experimenting with new approaches to making, curating, and experiencing art in less conventional forms.
When I began working with Enter Art Fair, I wanted to create an art programme that would become a constellation, a guide, in the universe offered by the art fair. I wanted a program that would present a curatorial framework for a live art program filled with time-based art. I also wanted the art program to offer what an art fair cannot: commissioning new works by artists not yet represented by an art gallery. Last year, I commissioned Jules Fisher and Josefine Opshal to present their performance It doesn't look like anything to me. It became viral and was presented at the Roskilde Festival with great success.
This year, the Art Program showcased Austrian/Uzbek artist Nikima Jagudajev's ongoing live performance, Basically, at the fair's main entrance, featuring nine artists who invited visitors to participate in a role-play that blurred the lines between the art space, staged drama, and real life. Additionally, I collaborated with the art research centre Art Hub Copenhagen to introduce four early-career Danish artists who performed newly commissioned works, including explorations of masculinity, capitalism, pop song tropes, and an ironic take on art fairs.
Zeynep: The concept of time explored in the recent chapter of the Enter Art Fair's Art Program is super intriguing. How do you see art's role in reshaping our perception of time, and what are some memorable moments or performances that have successfully challenged traditional notions of time during the Enter Art Fair?
Irene: This year, I aimed to challenge art fair goers to engage with a unique performance that defied the conventional experience of defined spaces and encouraged a dynamic interaction with time, recognising that time-based media like performances hold the potential to alter our perception of time and space within the rigid confines of an art fair.
The title Timelapse presented Nikima Jagudajev's ongoing live performance, Basically, and encouraged visitors to experience time differently through this hybrid exhibition, blurring boundaries between art, space, and interaction. The meaning of the word 'timelapse' indicates a fracture in the perception of time and, thus, of the space we move through. Jagudajev looks at space as a complex entanglement of social relations, exploring how humans assemble in fulfilling and considerate ways. Harnessing the play's choreography as a framework, performers and visitors were incorporated into an open-ended game. The visitors were invited to join the performance space, eat the food, lie down, or move along with the performers.
Zeynep: Yet, it Moves! at Copenhagen Contemporary is a fascinating project that bridges art, science, and collaboration. Could you share more about the inspiration behind this project and what you achieved by bringing scientists, curators, and artists together in this context?
Irene: The exhibition Yet, it Moves! has been a dream-come-true project. When I first proposed the idea to Copenhagen Contemporary in 2020, during the pandemic, our perception of the world was different. Everything moves above and within us, even when we stay still. Being on the move had been my life mantra since childhood, so being forced to stay still during the pandemic became an opportunity to understand what movement would create in someone's life and the universe. Movement is an aspect of life often taken for granted. It is how any life form in this universe can self-regenerate.
The project delves into three core areas—movement above, within, and around us—to foster an open and judgment-free space for collaboration between artists and scientists, utilising my two-year presence at DARK, the Astrophysics research section at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, as a hub for discussions, idea sharing, and joint projects that harness the power of both intuition and scientific knowledge to drive innovation.
These two years of collaboration resulted in public artworks and installations, including Argentinian artist Cecilia Bengolea's Neutrino Ensemble film, co-created with scientific expert Irene Tamborra, and Danish artist Cecilia Waagner Falkenstrøm's AI project MADE OF STARDUST, which transformed viewers into stardust avatars, bridging their connection to cosmic heritage. This initiative, involving astrophysicist Arka Sarangi from the Niels Bohr Institute and collaboration with Områdefornylsen ved Skjolds Plads, underscored the profound impact of artists and scientists working together, making science more accessible and promoting interdisciplinary dialogues.
Zeynep: Your work often involves international collaborations and projects. How do you navigate the challenges and opportunities of curating exhibitions and programs in various cultural contexts worldwide?
Irene: I guess that's the blessing of this job: to learn and unlearn constantly and feel part of an endless journey. It's like travelling with a set itinerary and stopping where your gut feeling tells you to pause and stay.
Having an open mindset is the essence of life and certainly of curating. There is no best practice, only good processes.
I would love to keep working abroad and across collaborations, because this cross-contamination of methodologies, ideas, and problems allows humans to accept with enthusiasm that, like seeds, we travel, we change according to new contexts, we grow in different ways, we are all the same and yet all different, and for this reason, we can produce new fruits and flowers that will still leave a trace of their presence.
I think collaborations are the essence of curating; otherwise, there's no curation at all.