Curating the outdoor museum: Interview to Susanne Neumann on the Giardino sculpture garden in Seggiano

Curating the outdoor museum: Interviews to Daniel Spoerri and Susanne Neumann on the Giardino sculpture garden in Seggiano

LC: Early on today, I had a conversation with Daniel Spoerri about the role of the artist-curator, the overall project of the Garden. He mentioned that you are coming three times per year. Let’s start from your background and expand more on the role you are having in preserving the sculptures.

SN: I am an artist. I came to Italy in 1995 and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. Then I needed a job. I wrote a postcard to Daniel Spoerri, saying “I can do everything,” and he said “perfect, this is the person we need!” Once I came here, I immediately had a good feeling. At the beginning I was selling tickets and helping in the restaurant, but after only half a year I became his assistant. Since 1999 I see the Giardino project growing, and I keep on assisting in his artistic work. I know lots of artist that came here and even friendships developed out of that, so whenever there is a problem, I can just call them and ask. Additionally, since it is a sculpture garden, there is also the aspect of gardening to it, and I am good at „gardening“ around the sculptures. You need to cut trees and plants and pay attention that nature does not get too overwhelming.

LC: Are you completely in charge of decisions about the sculptures?

SN: Well, I always ask Daniel Spoerri. I have a little book where I write everything, I make a dossier of the works to do and the works done. While working on the sculptures I also change the artworks somehow. Right now we have a restoration on a Tinguely sculpture; I know the former assistant of Tinguely, Seppi Imhof , so I call him up and he tells me what might be best to do, but at the end it is me working on it and of course, while working on the sculptures I change them – not remarkable, but that is of course immanent in restoration. I also talk with Daniel and we „repair“ the work in a Tinguely-style - since they were friends he knows best.

LC: So, there is also your contribution.

SN: First of all a lot of decisions to take. It has a lot to do with being an artist myself. To me it is a very intuitive work. Plus: I am very sentimental about the Giardino, since I came here when I was twenty-three and i almost grew up with and in it – in a physical as well as in an intellectual way.

LC: Do you make decisions on where to place the sculptures by yourself, or rather does the decision come out of a dialogue with Daniel Spoerri, you make choices together?

SN: We always talk about it. We walk around, and we talk about good spots. I remember for one of the latest sculpture we made a photo with him in the area, then we checked in the computer to see if this could be the place for the sculpture: if it’s good with the background, if there are too many plants over there, etc. But it is always Daniel Spoerri‘s decisions!

LC: Do you also transport the sculptures in different places of the garden?

SN: Very rarely. A lot of decisions are very precise, the sculptures stay where they are. However, once we had to change the Soto sculpture because it was too loud for the neighbors.

LC: Where was the Soto sculpture?

SN: It was up there by the Pyramid, and the Pyramid was where the Acrobatic frogs are.

LC: What do the artists think when they give their pieces to the garden? Do they have any particular requests, like having their pieces placed in an area, rather than another? Do they specifically ask for something?

SN: No, never. They bring the work and they totally trust him, they are honored to be in the Giardino. Daniel Spoerri is the artistic director.  This spring we had a new installation by Erwin Wurm, and he gave his piece and told us to put it wherever it fits best! And Daniel Spoerri found a very good spot.

LC: The garden is open year-round, but nobody is here all year: you are here in some periods, and Spoerri is here some periods, too. How do you manage your time?

SN: We are here on Easter, that’s for sure. And then in this period [late spring], because before summer the garden grows and nature is strong and uncontrolled – trying to overrun the sculptures! In October there is closure of the season, and sometimes Daniel Spoerri comes here during the winter period, when he wants to do large-scale series of his own work  in his studio here. In Vienna, he has a smaller studio; additionally, he likes the working situation in the Giardino, so whenever he wants to work on a big series and my help is needed we come here.

LC: And then you have your own studio as well?

SN: We work in periods. Now we are on an intense three weeks here, but then I also have my own shows. When I need to leave for a month to prepare for my work, it’s never a problem.

LC: What work did you do?

SN: While I was in Firenze I studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts and pretty soon I was invited to shows; so I hung my paintings in these exuberant florentine palazzi, and I realised that my paintings disappeared and sort of dissolved in these strong surroundings of Renaissance architecture. For this reason, I decided to work with the spaces and surroundings and that’s what I am doing right now. I am doing site specific installations.

LC: Is this something that you developed out of your relationship with the Giardino?

SN: Yes, for sure I think it influences my work a lot. I can’t really intellectually explain it, because I’m too close to everything. On a practical point of view I totally have to separate my own artistic condition from my work as assistant. But intellectually I am totaly involved and influenced by it. It is hard to keep the right distance.

LC: I am interested in the relationship between the types of freedoms you have in your own work versus the types of freedoms you have here, being these two different roles.

SN: The word ‘freedom’ is very interesting, because when I started working here I immediately realised that I needed to completely separate my own work from my job as assistant. I discovered this the first ten seconds I was here, and I understood; everything is so strong here! A little bit like the renaissance palazzi i was talking about at the beginning.  I really try hard to separate these to artistic conditions -  but somehow I am trapped in the situation and in the place!

LC: I was wondering if there were others permanently working at the Giardino, besides you.

SN: I started to bring people here to help working, often artists, because I can’t do  the whole work alone any longer as there are 105 installations in the Giardino (when I started working we counted 50 Installations). So far I had interns from Austria, Germany and Italy, three times a year. They get an apartment here, then we work and cook together.

LC: Can you divide those tasks you do here in the garden? Considering you have different interns, does one intern do everything, or does one do the gardening, the other the restoration work, and so on, I guess?

SN: We will have to do this in the future. Daniel Spoerri also opened another museum in Austria, therefore it is double work but  only one team. And of course we have to share the work depending also on peoples‘ skills.

LC: I think Spoerri is remarkable: opening a restaurant, closing a restaurant, moving into someplace else, opening another restaurant… It is really tiresome. I wonder, from your perspective, since you are following him: how does this happen?

SN: I am unable to answer this question. I only try to stick to it! 

LC: You mean a lifestyle with a feeling of continuity vs. constant interruption. Not just interruption as being in a place like Vienna and then being here, but also changing completely, suddenly, dramatically, having a new activity.

SN: It is part of my life too and I try to do my best!

LC: Which ones are the aspects of your work as assistant here at the Giardino that you enjoy the most?

SN: That there is a certain continuity in my work here (even if it does not look like that, as I am on a constant move around Europe, but I always come back to this place whenever I have the chance and that for more than 13 years now) and that I have the possibility to be part of the Foundation.

LC: So you share heavy administration as well.

SN:  We all share the administration work. Barbara Räderscheidt as President and all the members of the Foundation.

LC: I see some places where the work seems really isolated in the surrounding setup, but then you see relationships and you have different perceptions of space. When considering the panorama from some particular viewpoints, everything looks so close to each other; some other times instead, the sculptures look so remote from each other.

SN: It happens immediately if you just cut one tree. When we have the Foundation meeting, and usually I have been here  three previous weeks, the members come and say “It looks so perfect!” When I arrive, it’s all just nature, it takes over in just ten seconds, you can’t see anything. But once you start working, it’s a pleasure, because you immediately see the work you have accomplished. I like when I get a good rhythm in between nature and the sculpture; while the sculpture is what it is, I can cut und form nature. So I totally love when I can see that moment. For example, downstairs I opened some areas between shrubs, so while walking downstairs you already see other sculptures and landscape areas. I try to develop a rhythm in gardening and dominate nature, but of course it lasts only for some weeks, and then back again, because in Italy it grows incredibly strong. But this is what I like, if I can create a certain rhythm in both nature and artworks, and visually connect each other.

LC: When you arrive and see nature dominating art, how do you start imagining that the tree should have been cut? Do you have to walk for long hours before, or what do you do?

SN: I just take the scissors… I start around the house and then gradually widen. I am to the point where I think I can trust my experience. By the time I have widened the space, everything around the house has already grown again [laughs]. Gardening is a very good exercise for your modesty and humility. As fast as you are able to see progress in dominating nature, as fast all your work and invested energies are invisible again as nature is always stronger than your scissors...

LC: Can we find an example of a piece that you remember you set up in a place, then nature grew? Or you have some kind of ideas on something else to do around the landscape, or around the piece, in order to deepen the dialogue between nature and the piece?

NS: One that I was just working on today is Luciano Ghersi. I remember when I started working here there was this beautiful weeping willow, and then someone cut it. I am trying to recreate this situation. Now I am totally happy, because I saw it took root and is throwing leaves, so I hope in twenty years this willow will be back. To make another example, on the Unicorni we changed the tiles, because they were too small and broke all the time. I called the mason and we decided to make some bigger ones. We were there yesterday with Daniel Spoerri and he was totally happy about that.

LC: [After a pause with informal conversation] You mention a 2003 project correlated to this small guide of the Giardino.

SN: Throughout the year, visitors received disposable cameras and took pictures of their own path. Then I researched from the photo sequences on how they moved around the Giardino. I was interested to find out if a Swiss visitor takes pictures in a different way than a German or an Italian. Italians have always done things that were prohibited, like climbing on sculptures but they also fotographed themselves while doing it! Germans did like perfect-picture postcards, with no people around. Swiss, who have a very free and open approach to culture, realized an artistic idea behind, and they made artistic projects themselves. It was very interesting and I am very proud of my humble and ephemer art project that I realised in harmony with the spirit of this place and my own role in it. And I could see the Giardino through other peoples‘ eyes! Speaking with Daniel Spoerri‘s words: A perfect „Donner à voir“ for everyone!

Leda Cempellin, PhD, South Dakota State University