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Special Exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum – Interview with exhibition designer Gerard Gauci

Opera Atelier’s Resident Set Designer, Gerard Gauci, recently designed an exhibit for the Aga Khan Museum. Below is an interview with Gerard, conducted in advance of the exhibit opening, about his experience working on Arts of the East: Highlights of Islamic Art from the Bruschettini Collection. Enjoy!

From lavish textiles and intricately patterned carpets to paintings, Iznik wares, and metalwork: Arts of the East: Highlights of Islamic Art from the Bruschettini Collection is a choice selection, spanning the 13th to 17th centuries, from one of the world’s most important private collections of Islamic art. The exhibition takes visitors from Spain to China, Egypt and Iran to the Caucasus on a dramatic journey orchestrated for the Aga Khan Museum by guest exhibition designer Gerard Gauci from Opera Atelier. “These objects are inherently theatrical,” says Gauci. “I wanted the visitor to feel moved by their beauty and inspired to unravel the stories they have to tell.”

See this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now! On only until January 21, 2018.

Photo by Philip Castleton Photography. Artworks courtesy of The Bruschettini Collection.

What was your approach in designing the space for the Bruschettini exhibition?

When I first saw the object list for the Bruschettini exhibition it was clear that this was a show that would tell its story largely through carpets. Their brilliant colours, technical sophistication and often immense scale would make them the dominating presences in the space and it seemed important to display them in a manner that would allow the visitor to experience them in a number of ways. We will have carpets hung on the walls, resting on raised floor platforms and cascading from the ceiling on display slides. Amidst the carpets I have created satellite areas showcasing ceramics, metal works, textiles and paintings. The collection can be viewed and understood in a number of ways. The curator, Dr. Filiz Çakır Phillip, and I have respected the chronology of the collection and arranged the objects from the 13th through 17th centuries. We have also grouped things regionally so that objects from specific cultures can be viewed together and in relationship with each other. And finally the show can be viewed as an expression of the knowledge and tastes of a collector who has spent his lifetime searching for the most exquisite examples of all the arts of the East.


What are the elements of the show you will employ to make it unique and perhaps theatrical?

This is one of those exhibitions where employing overt theatricality seemed like the wrong approach. I am working with an important and rarely seen collection that has been gathered with exceptional care and scholarship over many years and I felt that it needed to be displayed in a manner that didn’t trivialize or distract from the objects themselves. That said, I am fortunate to be working with objects that are breathtakingly beautiful and inherently theatrical. The scale and colour of these objects, particularly the carpets creates a highly dramatic effect that merely needs to be highlighted by arrangement and lighting. When laying out the show I imagined the placement of objects as a procession in which the visitor follows one carpet to the next discovering treasures of metalwork, ceramics, textiles and paintings along the way.

When designing an opera I tend to like a dark stage in which the set looks a bit mysterious. The lighting for the Bruschettini show will be similar in that each object will glow in a darkened environment. This will create not only a sense of mystery and import around the objects but will allow the visitor a more intimate space in which to experience them.

Gerard Gauci in his studio.

How have you applied your experience with Opera Atelier to this show?

Designing an exhibition is very much like designing for the stage. In both cases you assist a director (or curator) who has a story to tell and an individual way they want to tell it. As a designer my job is to help tell that story employing visual techniques and devices meant to clarify the story to the audience or in this case the museum visitor. At Opera Atelier I have learned to collaborate with performers, painters, carpenters, prop makers, and technicians. I work closely with lighting designers, costume designers, choreographers and music directors. Here at the museum I’m working with a similarly diverse team of museum professionals and together we are creating an experience that is every bit as complex as any opera production.

Interestingly, over the years I have designed two productions with Opera Atelier in which the action was set in the Middle East (Lully’s “Armide” and Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”). The designs I created for these shows were inspired by Islamic calligraphy and miniature painting and working on these projects gave me an opportunity to study and better understand Islamic art and design. Not surprisingly that understanding has been enormously helpful when designing an exhibition such as this one.


What makes the space stand out among other exhibition designs you have worked on?

The wonderful thing about working in this space at the Aga Khan Museum is that it is essentially a very large blank canvas. I have been given a beautifully finished box that can become anything I want. Within it I have devised a series of spaces that separate the objects by period and region but also link them in such a way as to demonstrate the connections between the diverse cultures from which they originate. Having an expansive floor space like this is vital since the show features many important and very large carpets. The most challenging aspect of the design has been traffic flow but happily in the end the size of the room has allowed us to exhibit all the carpets together with enough space for each one to breathe and for the visitor to move freely and experience them from many angles.

What type of experience do you hope visitors will have when in the space?

Though it’s a bit of a cliché to say it, I want the visitor to have an immersive experience in this space. When I first saw the photos of the carpets in the exhibit I had the sense of wanting to enter them. By that I mean that I find the complexity of their design, the beauty of their colour combinations, the stories told by their symbolic imagery and the complexity of their manufacture so fascinating that I feel enveloped by them both intellectually and emotionally. For me the deeper I look into a carpet the more I find and the more questions I ask. Since this is a show dominated by rare and precious carpets I want the visitor to first feel moved by their beauty and then inspired to unravel the stories they have to tell. I look on the areas displaying fine ceramics, metal work, textiles and paintings as oases in which the story of Arts of the East embraces and links all the art forms contained in this stunning collection.


How does designing a visual art exhibition differ from a performing arts environment?
There are several important factors to consider when designing a visual art exhibition that rarely if ever come into play when designing an opera. First and foremost is the fact that in a museum everything is real, often extremely rare and usually has great monetary value. In the theatre you are creating illusions and atmospheres. I think of the theatre as being impressionistic rather than realistic. Everything is fake and suggestive and nothing has any great intrinsic value.

In a museum you are explaining history. Chronologies and cultural connections must be scrupulously researched and presented in a clear and concise manner so that in a short period of time the visitor will come away with a deeper understanding of a moment in time and their own relationship to it. An opera is a work of art and as such it allows for a fair degree of artistic license. In the theatre I have a captive audience for more or less three hours and I can unfold a story slowly and artistically in a way that is sometimes advantageously ambiguous. On the opera stage it is often permissible to play fast and loose with history.

In a museum I must consider the protection and conservation of precious objects. I have to think about visitor traffic flow and opportunities for education. In the theatre while I often have to deal with traffic issues and student workshops I most often worry about making things performer and director-proof. In the opera world I am forever being asked to make props and scenery that can be thrown across the stage, jumped on repeatedly or smashed on the floor…..and in that sense it’s the exact opposite of working at the Aga Khan Museum.


Gerard Gauci Biography

For Opera Atelier: Resident set designer Gerard Gauci has worked with the company since its inception. Over the years he has designed sets for all of Opera Atelier’s repertoire including Alcina, Orfeo, The Coronation of Poppea, Médée, Iphigénie en Tauride, Idomeneo, The Marriage of Figaro, La Clemenza di Tito, Don Giovanni, Armide and Der Freischütz (The Marksman). Gauci has received Dora Award nominations for outstanding scenic design for his productions of Persée and Lucio Silla.

Elsewhere: In 2010 Gauci designed the exhibition Drama and Desire at the Art Gallery of Ontario featuring theatrically inspired works by Ingres, David, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. In 2015 he exhibited his designs for Armide at the Aga Khan Museum and most recently he designed the exhibition Arts of the East, Highlights of Islamic Art from the Bruschettini Collection at the Aga Khan Museum and running now through Jan. 21, 2018.

Et cetera: Gauci has an extensive history of exhibiting his paintings in public and private galleries in Toronto, Montreal and across Canada. He currently exhibits his work at the Galerie de Bellefeuille in Montreal. In August 2018, Gauci will make his Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival debut designing the Festival’s opening production of Rossini’s Ricciardo e Zoraide.

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