Cecilia Alemani’s favorite work of public art is Maurizio Cattelan’s massive statue of a hand that stands in front of the stock exchange in her native Milan, with every digit severed but an insouciant middle finger. While Alemani enjoys the provocation, she mostly admires the way it confounds expectations about what public art should be.
Photo © Tom Medwell
As the director and curator of High Line Art, she brings that spirit of disruption to the elevated New York City park designed by James Corner Field Operations (with Diller Scofidio + Renfro). Since taking the job in 2011, Alemani has exhibited a pickup truck with a brick-filled bed, an exihibition on miniscule sculpture, and artist-designed billboards that riff on commercial imagery, among many other works along the park’s route. This season a new exhibition, titled Busted, shows artists tweaking the tropes of monumental portrait sculpture. As the show opens, Alemani is also reprising her role as curator of Frieze Projects, programming presented alongside the Frieze New York art fair. Begun in London 11 years ago, Frieze has its second turn in New York from May 10 to 13. Once again, it will occupy a 1,500-foot-long tent designed by Brooklyn architecture firm SO—IL, pitched on Randall’s Island, a grassy stretch in the East River accessible by ferry from Manhattan during the event.
The Frieze fair will shift the New York art world’s center of gravity to an out-of-the-way island for a few days. How does your programming respond to that?
This year, we’re showing work by five artists. They’re all pretty young and almost all female. The idea is to highlight the communal spaces that people create out there—we want to emphasize squares, plazas, and benches. Andra Ursuta is even creating a cemetery for art. Andra says when she grew up in Romania the only way she saw art was traveling to visit churches. In a way, that’s similar to what you do when you take a ferry to Frieze: you go on a pilgrimage.
You're also doing a pop-up recreation of Food, the artist-run restaurant cofounded by Gordon Matta-Clark in the early 1970s. Why revisit that project?
When first started working on Frieze Projects, I had the idea for one of them should always be an homage to an art space that was very important in our tradition but is now closed. When I decided that the theme of this year would be gathering and a communal space, I started thinking about Food. It's such a part of New York’s history and the underground scene. What people remember with lots of joy is the artist-designed menus on Sunday nights. Gordon Matta-Clark’s famous menu was all different varieties of bones.
At Frieze, it’s going to be a small stand outside where the tent does a zigzag. We will have four different chefs, one every day, do a menu, and it will be a mix of people from Food reinterpreting their legendary dishes or others who might not have been to food but whose practice is inspired by it. It’s going to be simple and cheap. For me, it’s not just about recreating the idea, but it’s about making the same gregarious gesture.
The High Line draws a much wider audience than just art pilgrims, but as a park, it certainly makes a gregarious gesture to the city. How is curating for it different?
Last year we had 4.4 million visitors, so it’s definitely about creating a dialogue with an audience that is not an art audience. Visitors don’t expect to see art. They encounter it, and the encounter could be disturbing. It could be pleasant. It takes them by surprise. The architectural and horticultural side of the High Line is so perfect, I see the art as an intervention to disrupt the beauty.
How do you determine where to intervene?
I just invite artists to come and take a walk with me. I want to see an artist’s take on something that shapes a location, something that breaks it or makes it even better. We use the city as a pedestal, but the tricky thing is, the landscape and the cityscape changes every week—you walk by one day, and wow, that building went up five more stories.
The High Line has been criticized for contributing to skyrocketing development in nearby neighborhoods. How do you respond?
It’s easy to blame the High Line, but galleries moved into Chelsea in the 1990s, and that was already part of its gentrification. The High Line could have been torn down and you would just have more buildings, but now it’s a free public amenity.
How will the High Line’s third phase and Hudson Yards development affect your work?
I’m excited, because half of section three will be renovated like the rest of the park, but half will be left wild. There I could see big monumental sculptures, but I really don’t have any idea yet. I usually just go to an artist I like, and I’m usually pleasantly surprised.