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Cai Guo-Qiang: Thank You Germano!

Program of events for Germano Celant’s memorial at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, 2022.

On April 29, 2020, famed curator, critic, art historian, and founder of the concept “Arte Povera,” Germano Celant (1940–2020) passed away in Milan due to complications with the new coronavirus.
On October 28, 2022, a special memorial service was held for Germano Celant at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he had worked for twenty years (1989–2009). The Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry; former director of the Guggenheim Museum, Thomas Krens; artists including Cai Guo-Qiang, Kaws, Laurie Anderson, and Tom Sachs; as well as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Goven—all Germano’s dear artist friends and colleagues—gathered on stage to share their touching stories and sentiments toward the late curator, recalling his brilliant and impactful life.

Cai delivers a speech at the memorial service, grieving Germano. New York, 2022. Photo by Ziyan Ying.

Cai Guo-Qiang: Thank you Germano!

 Germano has curated my exhibitions, written about me, lectured on my art, and even guided me as I dipped my toes into the work of curating.

Germano and Cai Guo-Qiang in Milan, 2018. 

Our two families remain very close! I still remember when my older daughter visited Milan during her college years, she stayed in Germano’s house—to the shock and awe of all of her friends who were also studying art at the time!

Germano and Cai's daughter, Wen-You Cai, at the Special Special store founded by Wen-You. New York, 2017. 

In 1997, Germano invited me to participate in the Venice Biennale. In response, I transported a wooden tower to Venice and hung it on its side at an angle. To the base of the tower I attached spotlights and a generous number of red flags, with electric fans blowing them outwards, evoking the image of an old rocket slowly rising off of the ground as flames shoot out from its base. The installation was rather noisy and must have polluted the scene for the artists exhibiting nearby.

Installation view of The Dragon Has Arrived at the 47th Venice Biennale, 1997. Photo by Elio Montanari.

I was a bit poor at the time and insisted that the organizers of the Biennale pay me a "salary" in addition to covering the production and transportation costs. However, the organizers repeatedly explained to me that the Biennale never paid artists because after being exhibited in the Biennale, artists were bound to become rich and famous. In response, I repeatedly asked, "Do you think those installations of mine are even saleable?" On the last day, with Germano’s indulgence and help, I managed to receive a "salary" and happily left Venice. 

On the opening night of the Biennale, Germano took me, Ilya Kabakov, and Marina Abramović to a stage where we had the chance to communicate live (via satellite) with NASA astronauts. This was quite a fashionable thing to do back in 1997.

Germano Celant, Cai Guo-Qiang, Ilya Kabakov, and Marina Abramovic communicating live via satellite with NASA astronauts at the opening of the Venice Biennale in 1997.

Kabakov and I both speak very little English and had to rely on translators to chat about how Earth should celebrate the dawn of the year 2000. I suggested: "The moment we enter the year 2000, we should shut off all the lights across the surface of the earth and let our planet rest a moment. This would allow the astronauts and aliens watching earth from out in the universe to see a dark planet, peaceful like all the other planets. Earth, as it stands, is too noisy right now!"
One of the NASA astronauts replied, loudly: "No, I don’t agree with your point of view. On the contrary, the moment we enter the year 2000, all of the lights on planet earth should be turned on. The earth is too beautiful, we must allow the entire universe to see how bright the earth is."

Hearing this, Germano smiled happily! Most of the audience below the stage were people from the art world, and were happy to see the differences between artists and scientists. The next morning, several newspapers reported my conversation with the astronaut…

The June 15, 1997 edition of Italian newspaper Terza Pagina. The title of the article translates to "A Work of Art Made of Darkness"; the text continues: “Provocative proposal by Chinese Cai Guo-Qiang sparks controversy between Venice and Houston. Artists vs. astronauts, and Damato criticizes Celant: 'Rude to U.S. Guests'". 

I was raised under the care of curators like Germano. I once joked with him, "I am a little rebel that you have managed to create out of this exceedingly self-indulgent era of art."

Germano and Cai Guo-Qiang at Cai Studio in New York, 2018. 

On February 20th, 2020, Germano wrote me an email saying he would be in New York at the beginning of March and wanted to speak about a potential new collaboration. Originally, I wanted to see him right away, but COVID had affected Milan rather severely and the chefs in my studio felt a bit apprehensive…To ease the concerns of my chefs, I arranged to meet Germano right before he was planning to leave New York!

Germano enjoying lunch at Cai Studio in New York, 2018. 

We made plans for Germano to come to my New Jersey studio for lunch on March 11th. At 7:40am on March 11th, Germano’s assistant sent an email saying that he had to cancel our lunch and rush back to Milan for personal reasons.
We did not hear anything until April 4th, when Germano’s wife Paris wrote to say: “I wanted to keep you up to date on Germano—since his return from NY he has fallen ill and been admitted to hospital San Raffaele in Milan…the best place in the country.”
Paris reassured us that Germano was recovering well until April 1st, the date she and her son Argento were allowed to visit him, chat and joke with him. She mentioned that through movements in his hands, feet and head, they were able to receive a lot of “positive feedback.” However, Germano was wearing a heavy oxygen mask so he couldn't move much. She said they were taking it day by day…
My wife Hong Hong and I responded to Paris’ email, expressing hope that he could defeat the virus in due time.
Later in the day on April 5th, Paris wrote back, “to keep you informed, he has been transferred to intensive care and finally intubated as he has been working already 3 weeks to fight the pneumonia with the masks—they are hoping this will have better success—but it took a lot of strength.”
On April 7th, Paris told us that Germano’s condition was stabilizing. Over the phone, the architect Renzo Piano had told Germano that he was made of steel like the ships in the port of his hometown of Genoa… Paris told me that our good friend Frank Gehry also called Germano and asked if I would like to phone him as well. I rapidly replied that I would be available right away to hop on the phone…and then I waited…
On April 26th, I heard from Paris again. She wrote, “Germano is still in the hospital—there have been many ups and downs—some terrifying—he has had some days of stability now… Will look forward to having your telephone call to him when he can be on the phone again.”
On April 29th, we saw the news along with everyone else! The whole art world was mourning the loss of Germano… He had resisted the disease for so long, so leaving must have provided him some relief from worldly pains. I was amazed to read in his obituary that he was already 80 years old at the time of his death; his energy suggested someone who had yet to reach their 70s! We all felt very reluctant to part with him…

Germano attending the opening ceremony of Cai's solo exhibition at the Uffizi Galleries in Italy, 2018. (Germano was a contributing author of the exhibition catalog.)

Germano truly loves the cosmos. He often emphasized to me that art allows for transitions between dimensions; he was truly tolerant and expansive in his thinking. I believe that in a world dominated by dark matter and dark energy, there must be some fun things left for him to create!
On our planet, Germano is here to stay in our history of art. He also has a place in the long future that is yet to come. As long as we’re still thinking and talking about him, he will always be with us…
Germano must not forget about us either, as we find ourselves more and more lost on this small, ever brighter and brighter planet…
I am grateful to Germano for protecting me in the last moments of his life, by cancelling our appointment and thus avoiding the warm Italian-style hugs, kisses and lunch that would’ve followed… Because of this, I am able to stand here well and gently recall our memories together while missing him dearly... Thank you Germano!

Mrs. Paris Murray and Cai after Germano’s memorial service. New York, 2022. Photo by Ziyan Ying.

Tributes from other speakers throughout the night included:

Frank Gehry speaking via video at the memorial service. Photo by Ziyan Ying.

Frank Gehry, The Pritzker-Architecture-Prize-Winning Architect:
“Germano, why did you leave me? In Oakland, the first exercise that you brought about was premature for me to understand… You understood me much better than I understood myself at that time. And you wrote eloquently about what I was doing. I couldn't read it, I couldn't understand it. I couldn't see it yet. I wasn't there. I was still struggling, still searching. I go back and read what you wrote many times and find out the questions you were grasping for were incredible in hindsight… I can't believe that I get to see you again. Or, we will soon see each other again…” 

Tom Krens remembering the numerous collaborations with Germano at the memorial service. Photo by Sang Luo.

Tom Krens, Former Director of the Guggenheim Museum, now Chairman and CEO of Global Cultural Asset Management:
“He was constantly creative, constantly striving for more. Germano, as I said, he had style. He had street smarts. He was a scholar. He was intellectual. He had swag. He was a showman. He had charisma. And as Frank said, he liked to have fun…and he was an ultimate collaborator. We used to talk about this one plus one equals three. Germano was actually the two part of the equation that made the three.”

Lisa Dennison speaking at the memorial service. Photo by Ziyan Ying.

Lisa Dennison, Former Director of the Guggenheim Museum, now Chairman of Sotheby's North and South America:
 “Germano was teaching me to make a real pesto Genovese, a lesson that I've never forgotten. And every time I make a batch, I hear his voice ringing in my ears, calling for bravery, for more salt and more garlic… Germano inspired me so much. And whether it was about curatorial practice, cooking, fashion or life in general, I learned to dream big, to think out of the box and swing for the fences, and most of all, to never forget to add more salt and garlic to enhance the flavor of life. We miss you, Germano.”

Laurie Anderson playing the song that she played on the street with Germano in 1974. Video by Ziyan Ying.

Laurie Anderson, Artist:
"There are some people in this world that are just exciting. And you can see them coming. They look different for most people. It would be because they actually seem to be totally there. When they look at you, you realize they're actually really looking at you. You see it immediately…

And I would like to play a little squirt song that was one of the pieces that I played on the street with Germano in 1974.”

KAWS speaking at the memorial service. Photo by Ziyan Ying.

KAWS, Artist:
“Often packages would arrive at my studio, and it would be another book he had just published. And I would think, when and how did he do that? … It's hard to imagine Germano not being here. But I'm thankful for the books that I have from him, that I can open anytime I want to get into his mind… As we get close to the holidays, I think about the panettone bread that he would sometimes give me, and I look forward to getting one this year, with honor, and eating with my family.”

Michael Govan speaking at the memorial service. Photo by Ziyan Ying.

Michael Govan, Former Deputy Director of the Guggenheim Museum, now Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:
 “You learn all kinds of things from elders in the art world. I remember when we were working with Mario Merz in Milan, when we were with Mario, Gemano said: ‘Yes, you go with him, He’s going to take you out for a drink!’ And then Gemano goes home. And then I go out and talk to Mario about the article until two in the morning as Mario goes from bar to bar, drinking by color. So we drank the whole rainbow!”

The cover of the zine that Tom Sachs made for Germano. 
Tom Sachs, Eight Germano Bullets, 2022. In the collection of the Cai Guo-Qiang Archives.

Tom Sachs, Artist:
“Now in front of everyone here I made a zine for you. The Germano bullets...I just want to thank you for always challenging me and making things difficult, but better and for pushing me and always championing me. These are eight things that you said to me personally. I’ll say back to you now, because although you said them to me, they are universal truths.

Inside the zine that Tom Sachs made for Germano.
1.' I am a rock. You cannot move me.' 

2. 'Do not let art be a kind of aesthetic ecstatic enjoyment. Rather, it should be a terrifying, dangerous construction.' 

3. 'Display your paintings on the floor as a way of disrupting the sanctity of the picture plane.'

4. 'All of your work is an expression of your insecurities.'
Inside the zine that Tom Sachs made for Germano.
5. 'Tom. You're afraid of flying and the stress of a red eye? Take a pill and it simply never happened.'

6. 'Italians can’t make sneakers because they are incapable of making ugly things. Sneakers are inherently ugly industrial things without style, like a spacecraft. The form is predicated by utility. That's why the best sneakers are American. Duchamp knew this and you know it too.'

7. I don't know if you remember, but there was an incredible lecture seminar thing that Fondazione Prada called 'Art and Terror.' And I'm quoting you back now. 'There is a hierarchy of objects based on utility. The less utility something has the higher its status. From car to chair to sculpture to painting. The less utility the more terrifying because it's harder to understand what it is and thus the higher its status as an object. What is it? A Mies van der Rohe chair. What do I do with it? I put my ass on it. What is it? A Barnett Newman painting. What do I do with it? I contemplate the sublime.' 

8. Last bullet here. 'Sure, Tom, you make art but you also live in the same way. You are designing your own environment, and there is a kind of osmosis between your art and your design and your life. There is no work-life balance. There is only work-life integration.'

Thank you, Germano. I miss you. I love you. I'll never forget.”
Gaetano Pesce speaking at the memorial service. Photo by Ziyan Ying.

Gaetano Pesce, renowned architect and design pioneer of the 20th century:
“The only thing I have to say now is let’s clap our hands for this beautiful figure Germano Celant.”


All photos courtesy Cai Studio.

About Germano Celant
The author of hundreds of books, essays, and articles that coincided with as many large-scale shows, Celant is most closely affiliated with Arte Povera, a term he coined in 1967 for the association of avant-garde artists who made meaning from mundane materials and challenged art’s symbolic function, formal conventions, and commodity status in postwar Italian culture.

Celant was born in Genoa, northern Italy, in 1940. Among his earliest memories are of skirmishes between Communist workers and neofascists; such events would deeply impact Celant, whose practice was shaped by leftist, working-class perspectives largely shared by artists in turbulent 1960s Italy. At the University of Genoa, he studied with Eugenio Battisti, a historian of sixteenth-century Italian art who inspired the curator’s notion of “baroque vision”—a concept he would later employ in his ambitious, multiplex exhibitions. In 1963, Celant took a job at the cultural magazine Marcatrè, where he earned his first bylines and eventually became editor. Four years later, Flash Art published his Notes for a Guerilla War, the manifesto that articulated and largely established Arte Povera, defined as a “poor art committed to contingency, to events, to the non-historical, to the present.” That same year, Celant organized the watershed exhibition “Arte Povera – Im Spazio” at Galleria La Bertesca in Genoa. 

In 1971, Celant turned from criticism to art history and refocused his attention from Italian art toward wider practices across Europe and the United States. From 1988 to 2009, Celant served as a senior curator at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In 1993, he became artistic director of the Fondazione Prada. In addition, Celant served as the artistic director and curator of the Fondazione Aldo Rossi in Milan; curator of the Fondazione Vedova in Venice; curator of art and architecture of La Triennale di Milano; and, since 1981, contributing editor to Artforum. Celant was also the curator of the 1997 edition of the Venice Biennale.

(Introduction by Artforum)

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