Lorenzo Fiaschi

The co-director of Galleria Continua talks about opening a new space in Havana

By Mark Rappolt

Arte Continua space in Chinatown, Havana. Photo: Lorenzo Fiaschi Maurizio Rigillo, Ai Weiwei, Lorenzo Fiaschi and Mario Cristiani on occasion of the exhibition Ai Weiwei, Galleria Continua, Beijing, June 2015. Courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Havana

Lorenzo Fiaschi is one of three directors (with Mario Cristiani and Maurizio Rigillo) of Galleria Continua, which has for a number of years operated out of three spaces, in France, their native Italy and China, and besides the last, often away from urban, financial and hence traditional-artworld centres. Now the gallery has opened a fourth space, in Havana. ArtReview set off‡ to find out why.

ArtReview: How did the new gallery come about? What made you decide to open it?

Lorenzo Fiaschi: Our history with Cuba began more than 15 years ago with a Cuban artist, Carlos Garaicoa. And the Havana Biennale was one of our must-see events: a place of discovery. But our relationship with Cuba intensified thanks to another biennial full of surprises and treasures, in Marrakech.

In Morocco, in February 2014, a Cuban, Laura Salas Redondo, then studying to become a curator, came across Michelangelo Pistoletto’s project The Third Paradise (2003–12) and said that it would be important to bring the artist and this project to Cuba. We proposed this idea to the director of the next Havana Biennale, Jorge Fernandez Torres, who immediately understood the importance of the project and invited Pistoletto. At the time he let us know the theme of the 12th Biennale – Entre la idea y la experiencia (Between the Idea and Experience) – and naturally we also proposed a number of other artists who had an affinity with it. Alongside Pistoletto, Jorge Fernandez chose Daniel Buren, Anish Kapoor, Shilpa Gupta, Nikhil Chopra and José Yaque. And consequently we jumped into this adventure with enthusiasm.

Jorge Fernandez’s own passion (in addition to directing the Biennale, he’s the director of the Wifredo Lam Centre for Contemporary Art), the heartfelt support of the president of the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas and Ruben del Valle Alvarez, along with the interest and motivation offered by the Minister of Culture, Julián González Toledo, gave us an even greater desire and determination to get fully behind all the projects, to ensure their success for the artists involved and all the Cubans who helped us. We also came up with other projects, emphasising spaces like the Cinema Fausto and the Cinema Aguila de Oro.

It ended up being not only a success but an emotional experience, shared by artists like Pistoletto and Buren, both with many decades of experience behind them. And so we decided to ‘continue’ the Cuban cultural experience by opening a space in Cinema Aguila de Oro, in the Chinatown district of Havana.

AR: What interests you about the Cuban art scene and Havana in particular? Will you be adding new artists to the gallery as a result of the new space?

LF: When with Mario Cristiani, Maurizio Rigillo (always friends, companions and cofounders of the gallery) I came to Cuba for the 12th Havana Biennale, already working with a Cuban artist and given the large number of other artists we work with, we had no intention of working with other Cuban artists. But we couldn’t resist the temptation to visit artists’ studios. And that was it! You never know when the spark will ignite. So we let our hearts guide us towards one, then two, then three artists, culminating with the opening (on 27 November) of the new Continua space at Aguila de Oro, with six Cuban artists. Given the richness and quality of Cuban art, it would be nice if Cuba changed the law banning private galleries to allow art lovers and supporters of Cuban artists to open spaces and show off the quality of Cuban culture to the world. Art must circulate. Thanks to art we arrived in Cuba, and in creating the performance of The Third Paradise on a boat on the Havana sea, drew a symbol that represents the possibility of merging two opposite roads into a third common way: and that was 16 December 2014, the day before Obama and Raul Castro spoke on the telephone after 54 years of insults and silence. One example of a positive sign, blown by the wind on the water – does that suggest it was the right choice? We don’t know, but we do know that art is magical and that the wind and art have little to do with boundaries!

AR: What are your ambitions for the new gallery?

We’re not interested in shipping crates of work from other continents and then sticking them on walls in Havana. We also want it to be an opportunity for Cuban artists to show their work to the world

LF: If we open a space in Havana, it’s to build a bridge between different cultures, to create opportunities for meetings, for exchange, for an enriched reciprocal culture. Our intention with this Cuban project is to transport humanity, not the objects, even if they are artistic. It’s important to us that artists, the whole world, should come to Cuba to breathe in the air, talk to people, understand the country, have a life experience that allows them to create art beyond experience. We’re not interested in shipping crates of work from other continents and then sticking them on walls in Havana. We also want it to be an opportunity for Cuban artists to show their work and its sensibilities to the outside world, and that the journey should be, for them too, an opportunity to see other places and a source of cultural enrichment. We’ve already brought José Yaque to do exhibitions outside of Cuba – in Italy this February and in France this May – shows that intrigued and fascinated a very demanding public. We asked Alejandro Campins to undertake a residency of almost two months in France, in our space there, where he produced a great exhibition for an international audience. And next, in February 2016, it will be the turn of Reynier Leyva Novo in San Gimignano. And that’s just the beginning.

AR: At the same time as you opened the gallery in Cuba, there have been controversies within the country regarding free speech – involving, most notably, Tania Bruguera. Did that make you nervous? How does the situation impact on Continua?

LF: We love Tania Bruguera’s work and we worked with her in Tuscany on the project Arte all’Arte in 2000. We were very upset about what has happened to her in Cuba, like it upset the whole Cuban artistic community. Cuba has supported her work and Tania has been free to travel the world and express herself as she wished, she could come and go to Cuba when she wished, and was also invited – which she accepted – to teach and give courses at the ISA-Instituto Superior de Arte I didn’t understand her gesture of flying to Cuba immediately after the telephone conversation between Obama and Raul Castro to try to do a performance that she had already been permitted to do in Cuba in 2009 for the 10th Havana Biennale at the Wifredo Lam Centre, which is owned by the Cuban government and has been the heart of the Biennale for 30 years. Tania knew only too well that in the mythical space that is the Plaza de la Revolución this would be a problem. I don’t think that the church would give me permission if I wanted to go to Rome and be in Piazza San Pietro and give a speech on secularism and then give the floor to everyone. Tania knew what she was up against and will have had her own reasons for doing it. But I found it excessive that they took away her passport, and I’ve said that both publicly and privately to public figures and politicians in Cuba. That they have this law in these circumstances is something of which I don’t approve, but Tania would have known this was the case. I also hope that Cuba, when it ends this isolation from the rest of the world, which has been imposed for almost 55 years, can resolve the issue of freedom of expression, and the other measures that they have put in place to protect themselves. We have faith that many things can change and that an outcome where there is respect for difference, which is the essence of culture, can soon establish itself. But this is the case anywhere in the world. Over the last 18 months we have travelled to Cuba seven times, for more than 15 days at a time, so we have seen a lot of the true reality rather than reports in newspapers or on television or other media outlets. We think, however, on the basis of our modest personal experience, that in reality things are a long way off from what we have heard about Cuba in recent years.

AR: You work with Ai Weiwei and are currently showing his work in Beijing. Did the experience in China inform the operation in Cuba?

LF: It’s important to understand from the beginning that the stories of Ai Weiwei and Tania Bruguera are miles apart. We’ve known Ai for 11 years. His route and story have led him to choose to undertake an artistic voyage along a risky, bumpy road that merits the greatest respect. It’s a choice that comes from a long way back, from his childhood. The histories of China and Cuba are very different but touch on one point: communism. Our experience of China was initiated by one of the greatest artists of our time, Chen Zhen, and it was he, although he died in 2000, who brought us to this country. It’s a very rich story, with both beautiful and difficult experiences, success and failures, in which we had to understand who we were and who we were with. It’s been a wonderful adventure for us and fundamental to our way of life. We were the first foreign gallery with an international programme to open in China, and we’ve established a solid relationship with the Chinese cultural community and beyond. But to tell all that would take up your entire magazine. I can only say that we our proud to be in China, where we have learned a lot, and now Continua Beijing is hosting the first solo show of Ai’s work in his own country, which can only tell us that we made the right choice. Last year the Fondazione Italia Cina, sponsored by the Italian and Chinese governments, awarded us the Premio Eccellenza. But Cuba is a whole new story to write, and we can only write it with the Cuban people, just as we did with the Chinese in Beijing.

AR: You now have galleries in three continents, each with a very particular location. Are the programmes in each separate entity responding to the local contexts and conditions? Or does the gallery have an overall programme that’s international?

In order to exist, art needs an audience that’s rich in diversity, but it also has a need for an economy that allows the financing of adventures

LF: We’ve been friends since we were thirteen. When, in 1990, we decided in Italy, in San Gimignano, a small village in Tuscany, to launch into the contemporary art adventure, it was immediately clear that we had to aim at a public that was as big as possible, because culture must be for everyone. We left San Gimignano, a decentralised reality, with the idea of giving some continuity to our heritage of cultural renaissance, which is where the name ‘Continua’ comes from. When we have tried to create a programme aimed at a specific audience, it has never worked out as we hoped, but when the choice has been more risky and casual, we’ve had some positive surprises. We’ve carried this experience with us over the years and to the new openings, like in China and France and now Cuba, to do what pleases us, almost as if the three of us were our initial public. At least we were the first to be satisfied. To a degree, this has been our recipe: to be ourselves everywhere.

AR: Could you imagine opening a gallery in a major financial centre like New York or London?

LF: I don’t think that those are cities made for us. But never say never. For certain they are places of great interest, centres of capital and culture full of energy, through which millions of people pass, including, frequently, all the world’s collectors. For us it’s clearly impossible to get the audience numbers that pass through London or New York to San Gimignano, Le Moulin, Beijing or Havana. But those who do come to visit find that when they leave they have an understanding of a different way of making and experiencing art, and that’s important to us. In order to exist, art needs an audience that’s rich in diversity, but it also has a need for an economy that allows the construction of artistic projects, the financing of adventures, and for that you need an economic system, but as a means of creating culture and not as an end in itself. Collectors are fundamental to this, not only to create this economy, but also to circulate works in ways that allow them to be seen by others. Collecting, as well as being an expression of a passion, is a vehicle for culture. That’s why we hope that many collectors will come and find us to share in our project of the decentralisation of culture and to allow us to continue our adventures in art.

AR: It’s been 25 years since the gallery began. What have been the biggest changes in the roles of a gallery and the conditions in which it operates in that time?

LF: From San Gimignano in 1990, to Beijing in 2004, to Le Moulin in the Parisian countryside in 2007, and now Cuba, an extremely diverse reality has given us the possibility of understanding a large chunk of the world and, in a few cases, to anticipate certain aspects of it. A lot has happened and the role of the gallery has also changed a lot. In many cases it’s taken on a more public role, and to some extent this is a positive thing. The gallery has increasingly become a laboratory in which to develop projects, an energy source that can give artists the ability to realise their dreams, including big projects, and so allow them to express their creativity. The ‘Unlimited’ section of Art Basel frequently has given us the opportunity to present large-scale projects. We like challenges, and thanks to this section we were able to express the work we do with the artists. Then there’s the novelty of the art fairs, which in these last decades have taken on an important role in stimulating and appreciating culture. Even New York galleries take part in New York art fairs, London galleries in those in London, and go halfway around the world from Shanghai to São Paulo, from Hong Kong to Paris, Mexico City to Miami and Dubai, to encounter new audiences and new cultures. It’s amazing!

AR: Continua has three founding partners – do you always agree about what you do as a gallery?

LF: There are three of us, but we’re not a democracy. By this I mean that a decision isn’t made by two votes to one. We’ve been friends since 1978, and in the name of that friendship we decided that if one of us falls in love with an artist, that’s because of something the other two haven’t seen. So we let the other pursue his love. But that’s not the end of it. He also has to try to explain what convinced him, to light our way through the darkness. That’s a wonderful exercise that has expanded our field of interest and led to a more open attitude. And this also goes for the big strategic choices we make as a gallery. There are also moments when we can strongly disagree, like over the choice of a format and image for an invitation, or whether or not to host a seated dinner or a buffet.

AR: Your ‘mission statement’ says that Continua thrives on two core values: generosity and altruism. Can a gallery be generous and altruistic and a successful business? What forms does this generosity take?

LF: Yes, we think art should be generous and selfless. To achieve this when we opened Galleria Continua as a for-profit private enterprise in1990, we also set up a nonprofit cultural association, Arte Continua. Galleria Continua set out to be a company that could sustain artists by selling their work, and through this activity we liked the idea that we’re creating jobs. With Arte Continua we wanted to interact with public institutions to make projects with artists and to bring art into the city, in squares, in the streets, with the aim of bringing cultural activities to the people and stimulating as much of a growth in sensibility in civil society as possible. Artists want to create, and to exhibit the fruits of their labours, and if this happens in a gallery, a museum or just in a square, the important thing is to share it and to do that in a way that humanity can encounter it, understand it, accept it, beyond any differences. That can only be the basis for a shared cultural and spiritual enrichment. Certainly it hasn’t been easy to combine a private, commercial enterprise with a nonprofit association; but in cultural terms, for us at least, they share the same logic: to grow the appreciation of culture. If you think, as I said before, that the business must be the means of creating culture, then there’s no contradiction. What matters is that we can look back and say that our lives were rich with experience. 

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of ArtReview.