Interview: Cecilia Alemani

With Frieze New York now open, the curator of the fair’s Projects and director of the public art program for the High Line talks about all that went into organizing this year’s program, the challenges of site-specificity, and the delicate balance of entertainment and education.


Last year, Aki Sasamoto’s project Coffee/Tea (2015), a 3-D personality test, worked particularly well for me because it engaged with the context and psychology of the fair while wryly undermining the very notions of choice, taste and preference. As a curator, how do you reconcile commissioning works in which you only have limited control over the end product?

I’ve been doing this for five years, and I’ve always used the same approach. Basically, I choose five to seven artists; on the High Line, I would take them for a site visit, but of course, at Frieze, there’s no “site” during the rest of the year, so instead we do a kind of fictional visit. I walk the artists through different installation options, discussing the pros and cons of each location. We look at projects that worked in the past and those that didn’t, and then the artists are free to develop their proposals. Besides physical restrictions, I give the artists carte blanche to do whatever they want—but interestingly enough, when we gather the proposals, there’s usually a common theme or a mood that comes up, even though I haven’t imposed a curatorial topic. This year, for instance, we have a number of projects that evoke a surreal or fantastical atmosphere, while last year, there were artists like Aki, who constructed very physical spaces for people to interact with: the maze, the labyrinth, and so on. Again, these aren’t things I chose or thought about beforehand, so it’s interesting that you can pinpoint these specific themes that emerge organically.

Do you operate with a certain sense of confidence in the artists and their ability to work with the space well?

I invite artists because I believe in their works and understand what they do, but I also always tell them that they should use Frieze as a platform to try something more experimental. Aki is a good example: not only was she a good artist, but she also understood the architecture of the fair. I actually thought she’d be doing a performance, but she did the opposite—an intense sculpture installation that has in it a performative and interactive element. This is something I quite enjoy, because it means the artists see these commissions as an active and exciting opportunity to try something different.

Have there been projects that diverged from their original intention?

For sure. Last year, for Pia Camil’s project, the artist designed ponchos with recycled cloth and fabric from Mexico. The project was intended to work as a kind of punctuation within the fair, where you’d see people wearing this garment spread all over the venue. Instead, it became a phenomenon, where people wanted this object that was being given away for free. We knew it would be quite successful and participatory, but it got to a level of frenzy. I mean, it was insane: people started queuing up two hours before we actually opened the project, and it totally changed what the project was meant to be. The fact that the ponchos were free completely threw everyone out; the idea that you can’t buy something but have to line up for two hours… The same goes for the outside commissions—you never know when the weather might turn. It’s a risk that we take.

Do you foresee each Frieze Projects work having an afterlife?

It depends. We commission, we produce, and then the works belong to the artist, who can do whatever he or she wants in terms of recreating them. If the artist doesn’t want to keep the work, we then have to destroy it after the fair, save a few cases, but for the artists, these projects can always have an afterlife through other exhibitions, if they’d like. But the nature of the projects is very site-specific, so it’s often hard for the artists to present exactly the same configuration.

Speaking of site-specificity, have artists proposed projects that were at odds with the landscape or the context?

There are artists who try to be integrated with the landscape, like Marie Lorenz, who did this great project where she took visitors on boat rides around the island in a makeshift rowboat. In a way, it highlighted the context of the fair by allowing you to see the same space from a different perspective, literally. And then there are other projects that try to disrupt the landscape: this year, we have a giant balloon by Alex Da Corte that will be floating above the tent, visible from the highway and the river as a new iconic landmark.

In working on the High Line commissions and Frieze Projects, you organize projects that not only entertain, but also inform and educate. Over the years, have you noticed a certain evolution in how the public responds to “public art”?

I think there’s been a huge difference. At Frieze, people expect to see these commissioned projects. It’s certainly an art-educated crowd, but I think we manage to surprise them each year. Especially for those that don’t come to buy art, it’s meaningful to see more than just these three paintings on a white wall in a booth. So with the projects, we add a new layer to the fair experience by showing things you wouldn’t otherwise see. Last year, for instance, when we recreated the Flux-Labyrinth, which was this fully immersive labyrinth designed by George Maciunas, there was a crazy line every day. It was incredible, because I’m sure at least half the people waiting in line did not know what they were going to see. Many probably had no idea what Fluxus was—they just saw a line and queued up.With the High Line, it’s a bit different. There’s been a notable shift recently, in that a lot of what we do becomes a backdrop for visitors’ selfies. It wasn’t like this in the beginning, but now, even the more subtle and secretive projects we install on the High Line end up in personal photos. Not that it’s anything bad—at least they’re engaged.
When I first started this job, I spent a lot of time thinking about public art, what it meant, and whether I needed to be populist. But at a certain point, I stopped this kind of thinking, because I realized that whether they’ve studied it or not, people understand art when they encounter it. They might not care who the artist is, or they might laugh and say “I could have done that myself,” but they still stop to look. Especially in a park like the High Line, which one experiences while walking, that’s something.

Alongside Alex Da Corte, Heather Phillipson, Eduardo Navarro, Anthea Hamilton and David Horvitz, this year’s edition of Frieze Projects presents a special project by Maurizio Cattelan, who’s an old acquaintance of yours. What were the circumstances that brought him to Frieze and again in collaboration with you?

Maurizio and I have worked together a number of times over the years, but this project we’re doing at Frieze is slightly different, as it’s part of an ongoing series of tributes we’ve made to alternative spaces and artist projects that have shaped the way we think about contemporary art. This year, we’ve paid tribute to Daniel Newburg Gallery, which operated in Tribeca and Soho from ’84 to ’94, and which hosted Maurizio’s debut New York show in 1994. So when I approached him, it wasn’t to commission a new work, but rather to re-stage that first installation.
For that show, Maurizio decided to leave the gallery completely empty, hang a beautiful chandelier from the ceiling, and have a live donkey underneath. Like many of Maurizio’s works, the show became a kind of iconic image, but few people actually saw it at the time, as it was shut down in less than 24 hours, due of the noise of the donkey—which I believe he replaced with a string of sausage hanging from the chandelier—and the gallery moved on soon after. It was an important show in an experimental and influential space, so it was the perfect project for us to work on.

Given that these tributes are often homages to spaces and galleries that no longer exist, they almost function like a subtle joke on the very institution of the gallery system and the art fair. How have current exhibitors at Frieze responded to them?

In the past, we’ve only done non-profit spaces or independent artist projects. This is actually the first time that the tribute features a gallery. I’m quite excited, because it’s such a well-known exhibition, but literally nobody’s seen it in person. I want to see whether we are good at re-staging it, and whether people feel nostalgic when they see it. Personally, I’m not really interested in the nostalgic aspect, which is why there’s never been an exact same reconstruction for the previous tributes. For instance, when we did FOOD, the eatery founded by artists Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark in 1971, it wasn’t about reconstructing the restaurant as much as about emphasizing the artists and their relationships with cooking. I’m more interested in the experience these spaces provided, and what an equivalent of each space would be now.

Aside from those you’ve organized, what’s the most impressive piece of public art you’ve seen recently?

I recently saw Elmgreen & Dragset’s Van Gogh’s Ear, which is this gigantic swimming pool propped vertically at Rockefeller Plaza. To me, at a certain point, public art has become so much about logistics and pragmatic things: How do we get things made? How do we secure the permit? So when I see something like that, something very challenging to produce, I’m always fascinated.

Cecilia Alemani serves as curator of Frieze Projects and director of the public art program for the High Line, New York. She has been appointed to curate Italy’s Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. She lives and works in New York.

Frieze Projects runs from 5-8 May at Randall’s Island Park, New York. “Wanderlust,” a group exhibition curated by Cecilia Alemani, is currently on view at the High Line through March 2017.

Xin Wang is a curator and art historian based in New York. She is currently building a discursive archive of Asian futurisms in contemporary art practice at, and will begin her PhD studies in modern and contemporary art at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Select past curatorial work and writings can be found at

Images: Portrait of Cecilia Alemani by Jonathan Hökklo. Courtesy of Jonathan Hökklo/Frieze; Alex Da Corte, Easternsports, 2014. Installation view, ICA Philadelphia, 2014. Courtesy of ICA Philadelphia and the artist; Documentation of Pia Camil event at Frieze 2015. Photo: Tim Schenk; Portrait of Maurizio Cattelan, 2007, Photo Pier Paolo Ferrari.