ZegnArt was founded by Ermenegildo Zegna in 2012 in order generate a platform that brings together all of their activities in the field of contemporary art. On the occasion of the opening of EXPO MILANO 2015 the Zegna group presented the project ‚Fabulae Naturae‘ by artists Lucy and Jorge Orta: a performance event in the headquarters of Zegna Group in Milano. We met Maria Luisa Frisa, the curator of ‚Fabulae Naturae‘, to talk about the project as well as about the function of art foundations by fashion brands …


You were invited by ZegnArt to curate a show and an exhibition dedicated to the opening of Expo Milano. What were the guidelines given by ZegnArt for you as a curator?

There is a long standing cooperation with Zegna which in fact started with 100s anniversary celebration of their company. I cooperated with them for the exhibition in the first way but we generally share aspects concerning fashion, art as well as commitment to artistic creation. From this point on, nothing has been imposed by Anna Zegna so that I could realise my project individually without external influence.

Let´s say, in this particular case, we intended to combine aspects of fashion with the external environment a company like Zegna operates in to relate to the current theme of the Expo Milano: “feeding the planet”. Furthermore I have already worked with Lucy and Jorge Orta in Rome in the past. Therefore we decided they would be ideal partners for this project as the major theme of the work focuses on environmental sustainability and Lucy and Jorge already involved these topics in their former work.

A guiding theme of this year’s edition of Expo Milano is also ‚art and food‘. So the idea of a performance dinner was inspired by that. But how did the idea for this performance dinner came up exactly?

The project was originally designed as a double project which grounds in the acquisition of the Heberlein Fund by the Zegna Group. So we decided to work with the Heberlein Fund to exhibit small parts of it like the floral patterns. Then we connected this prior development with the Milano Expo 2015. We therefore decided to use the patterns from the Heberlein Fund for the headquarter here in Milano. We furthermore invited Lucy and Jorge Orta to Trivero. And Lucy started her studies of the Heberlein Fund. All the panels which were used to design the headquarters are based in the Heberlein Fund.

This also led to the development of another idea which is part of the exhibition: There are ten different plates that have been designed by Lucy and Jorge which were presented as a limited edition. The plates will then be sold and the revenues support the FAI, an Italian environmental fund. It was a general aim of the artists involved to make their work as understandable and accessible as possible for the wider public.

What makes the work of Lucy and Jorge Orta so important to you as a curator that you decided to continue working together?

I believe that today art means to have a special focus on the centrality of the world. I also believe that art needs to have a social and political dimension. I am pretty much convinced about this but then obviously the Orta’s create works who don´t involve politics at all. But I think that artists such as the Orta’s who developed art which in a way appears to be simpler and more understandable to the audience are important because they actually intend to attract and educate the visitor. Their works also matters for Zegna because they have the same background and the same idea of protecting the environment and nature.

Your collaboration started in 2012 with ‚Fabulae Romanae’ which was created for the National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome. What are the main differences between ‚Fabulae Romanae’ and ‚Fabulae Naturae’?

The project ‚Fabulae Romanae‘ started in Rome and was developed especially for Rome. It was organized for the opening of a Zegna fabric store in Rome. The artists have always been working in this area – concentrated on the city Rome  by showing  it’s beautiful works through their performances. For us this project was very important because it was organized in the most important museum in Italy which has been designed by Zaha Hadid.

In this case there was  a group of people, almost metalogical characters, that moved around the city and stopped at different historical sights in the city. The whole performance was documented in a video to show their movement within the city. In contrast to the performance, the museum showed an exhibition consisting of different pieces and materials taken from the Zegna archives.

The characters walking around the city should show the presence of Rome inside the museum. But in the piece we exhibit now you can only see the spirits of this performance. These characters that are singular in a way. This time we transformed these characters by letting them wear animal masks but we still want to create this link to the area of Rome which has been developed under their influence.

What is the connection between the food and the performance in terms of the content?

Well, performance can be very intensive from the emotional viewpoint as the characters will appear on the staircase, surrounded by beautifully terrifying music that will emphasise the side of nature which is full of sounds that we might not be aware of. This should be experienced as some kind of shared moment which allows the viewer to relax and contemplate. This contemplation will be accompanied by the served food, symbolising the essence of culture, nature and daily life as everything elapses without food. So the idea of this second performance within the main performance – the food performance – is not a frivolous idea but rather adds a different dimension which was intended by the Orta´s. Furthermore the tree on the floor should work as a guidance to try the simple and daily food offered at the different stations.

This also refers to the catholic sacred idea of sharing bread with each other. Thinking of religious procedures like weddings, baptisms or funerals, food takes an integral part of the celebration as it either takes the pain away by sharing with other people or it connects people to each other. So food has always been a very important element with a strong symbolic connotation. However, this aspect links to theme of the Expo again as it integrates the idea of not just feeding the planet but also of feeding people in general. It also builds up awareness of the what needs to be done to feed people, the planet and of course the future.

Furthermore you curated the show „Flower Landscapes. Fabrics. Flowers. Recipes.“ … What was particularly important to you in curating this show? Did you have some principal criteria in choosing the fabrics of the over 2.200 volumes of the Heberlein Fund? How was the process structured?

The exhibition in Trivero was planned to be easily accessible. It aimed to explain the creative process of fashion. Fashion gains inspiration from archives and from what has been done in the past. So the idea of using Zegna´s archives and the Heberlein Fund was very important. Not just because we wanted to connect this idea of fashion to the idea of taking things from the past but also by taking elements from the past which were directly developed further in the future.

We also decided to show the Heberlein archive in a very simple manner. This created the topic of the floral patterns as they were the most minimalistic images which corresponded with the simplicity aspect of the topic. These floral patterns also referred to the surrounding flowers that are present in the area of Trivero which emphasis the value of this area for the Zegna family who planed a respectable amount of trees and flowers there. Therefore, free association processes were welcomed by us to create an imagery based on the floral patterns of the archive which can directly become part of fashion in a re-developed form.

What fascinates you about the Heberlein Fund?

First of all what fascinates me a lot was the time frame covered by this fund. It started at the beginning of the 20th century and was active until the late 1980s. Another fascinating aspect is the incredible repertoire of textile decoration that obviously grounds in the simplicity of the floral pattern as outlined before. Nevertheless, they cover a bright variety of geometric and abstract patterns which you can explore in different types of fabrics. In general, the fund offers a unique experience to showcase decorative arts and textiles.

And again the exhibition is also about food…

Well after all Italy is the only country in which you speak of food while you’re eating.

So the flowers of the pattern are connected with the recipes in the exhibition catalogue?

Yes, absolutely. There is a connection amongst the nature, archive, flowers and herbs of the region. This contains a simple dimension which is at the same time quite complex to evaluate. For this reason we chose a woman from Trivero who developed this recipes on the basis of ingredients coming from the region. Then a graphic designer developed tables and drawing of plants and flowers to illustrate these recipes.

It is a way of entertainment. Like when friends meet together and develop a project grounding in free association combining different ideas and aspects. This was basically what happened with the book, although everything is based on the idea of the circle of families in conjunction with past and current developments in the arts, nature and the region.

Within the last years a lot of art foundations from major fashion companies were and – as we have seen for example with the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris a few weeks ago – they become more and more important. But there’s also still a lot of prejudice … So why did art foundations became important to fashion brands?

Art foundations are important for fashion companies because these brands are the supporters for the arts. In the past the popes and important families were the major philanthropists but now this has been taken over by fashion brands.

That’s kind of interesting because it’s the same target group but in fact art and fashion are not as connected as they could be… So do you think that art foundations of fashion brands could be a way to connect art and fashion even more?

Well in my opinion fashion and art have been looking at each other very carefully for quite a while already. They need to respect each other and need to stick to their own obligations without creating too much confusion. The projects that are developed between the fashion and art world need to follow an intrinsic reasoning to let both benefit from each other. In the case of this specific project the benefit is given by bringing a renowned fashion brand in connection to contemporary artistic creation. This developed important values and intentions shared by the brand as well as the artists. Considering this interaction between arts and fashion, art foundations naturally become very important and nearly similar to museums supporting the fact that nowadays contemporary art is relying on communication to be recognized and this aspect can be supported by foundations of fashion brands. Fashion brands have the ability to reach a worldwide audience as they are internationally present and artists who get supported by these brands automatically gain international attention through their collaborations.

Thank you for your time!

// by Sabrina Möller




A Project by Ermenegildo Zegna 

Fabulae Naturae, Lucy + Jorge Orta

Curated by Maria Luisa Frisa

Performance by Davide Oldani

More informations: www.zegnart.com


The trip to Milano was sponsored by ZegnArt.

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