The Emperor Has No Clothes—And That’s O.K.!

All through university Mr. Gioni earned money translating Harlequin romance novels from English into Italian, but by graduation he had decided that he wanted a job that would let him engage with artists and allow him, somehow, to participate in their work.

At the time, Mr. Gioni said, he did not know that being a curator was a job one could have, and so he began making his name as a critic. He founded an online magazine about contemporary art with a few friends—still on the Web at trax.it– and after finishing school went to work in Flash Art’s Milan office. At the age of 25, he was chosen to be the magazine’s international editor, a position based in New York that has typically been awarded to young up-and-comers.

He moved to New York in 1999, and made quick work of insinuating himself into the art world. One story people tell about him today concerns a cell-phone bill he received a few months after moving here, which totaled something like nine million liras, or $4,500. Mr. Gioni attributes this sum to the fact that he had a girlfriend in Italy whom he talked to a lot without realizing how expensive it was, but one could be forgiven for citing it as evidence of his industrious networking.

But writing and editing “was just a way to be involved with art,” Mr. Gioni explained. “Eventually I started knowing artists more and more, and I realized that there were different ways to be engaged with them, besides writing about their work.”

One of the more unusual ways Mr. Gioni did this was by collaborating with the artist Maurizio Cattelan, whom he served for three years starting around 1998 as a Cyrano de Bergerac-style press guru, pretending to be him while giving interviews and delivering lectures. “People would phone me thinking it was him, and I would give these interviews in his place, and I would make up things,” Mr. Gioni said. “It was sort of first a game, but it became a profession. It was a weird way to be with an artist and collaborate with an artist, because I would literally give words to him. But, from his point of view it was a way to get over a problem, and for me it was a way to learn to talk about art.”

Mr. Gioni had already held a few odd curatorial gigs when in 2001 the editors of Flash Art invited him to work on the Tirana Biennale, which they had just founded. In the course of that work, Mr. Gioni made another fateful acquaintance in the curator Francesco Bonami, who befriended the young upstart and began hiring him to do research for his shows.

For a time, Mr. Gioni maintained two parallel careers, one as a writer/editor and one as an organizer of shows. Then, in 2003, Mr. Bonami invited him to curate part of the Venice Biennale he was directing, and the 29-year-old finally decided to formally shift his energies away from writing and towards curatorial work. “That’s when I said, ‘OK. I need to do this. And that’s when it became a profession.”

Curating art came more naturally to him than writing about it. “[Curating] is, I think, a form of optimistic criticism,” he said. “You’re making things possible instead of saying ‘that thing sucks.’ …The energy’s all in the making, not in the killing.”

Ever since, Mr. Gioni has dedicated himself largely to showcasing the work of young artists, and trying to understand what their generation is up to.

“I think Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke spoke of capitalist realism in the 60s, and I think, with this very inflated market, we’ve gone through 10 years of capitalist realism again,” he said. “We have seen a lot of in-your-face work, and I think this younger generation has reacted by adopting a kind of obscurity and complexity. [They] have taken it to a new level of madness.”

“I think Urs Fischer belongs to that kind of discourse,” he added, looking around the room again. “You can’t really say what this is all about.”

He gestured towards Mr. Hendriks and another museum colleague, who were now crouching next to the subway seat and fiddling with the magnetic cake.

“The fact that two people are working to make a cake float for the last hour, that’s…” Mr. Gioni trailed off, plainly delighted by the idea. “I mean, does that thing have a meaning? I don’t know! But that’s what’s exciting about it.”

Just then the cake slipped slightly, prompting Mr. Giano to let out a big “oops!”

But a moment later Mr. Hendrik made it happen.

“Ohhh, yes!” Mr. Giano bellowed, and broke into applause as he bounded over to get a closer look.

“Wow,” he said. “Isn’t that the most amazing thing?”