interview by FLORIS MÜLLER

The Italian city of Venice is once again the scene of the most significant art fair in the world, the Biennale. In the coming months, the works of emerging young and leading artists will be displayed in the dozens of national pavilions in the historic arsenal and the city’s most important buildings. Numéro Netherlands attended the opening event and spoke with Carlo Bach, the Creative Director of illycaffè, about the fair indigenous South American art, and the latest illy Art Collection launched at the Biennale. illycaffè is proudly the main sponsor of the Venice Biennale.

Only a few days are left before the festival site officially opens, and the city is already overcrowded…

Yes, you can say that. I have always loved seeing Venice continue to attract so many art lovers. 2024 is the third year that illycaffè has sponsored the art fair; I have been closely involved in all preparations.

You have had a lot of contact with the curator of the Bienniale, Adriano Pedrosa, among others.

Of course. It is a tradition for us to ask the curator to select artists for the illy Art Collection. Pedrosa, a South American, has invited four artist collectives from the region around Amazon in South America for this year’s collection. 

Bull’s-eye for illycaffè! South America is critical for your company. 

It is. Many coffee farmers we work with are in Brazil and the Amazon region. Even before sustainability became a marketing decision, our coffee company was already committed to a fair price and good working conditions for farmers in the 1980s and to the protection and conservation of nature. We are very much involved in that part of the world. 

I see the works for the illy collection by the Brazilian collective Mahku, artist NichoCumez from Guatemala, the Peruvian Rember Yahuarcani and Aycoobo from Colombia as an interpretation of our relationship with nature; it is about mysticism, about faith in nature and the relationship of people with their environment.

Why is illycaffè actually the main sponsor of the Bienniale?

Cafés have always been meeting places for artists and enthusiasts. Drinking coffee offers a moment of peace and contemplation, just like art. Coffee also gives energy to think of new things and to persevere in developing artistic ideas. I think illycaffè’s collaboration with the Biennale is logical; With the illy Art Collection, our company has been committed to a closer bond with art.

Illy’s Art Collection has been presented annually for three decades, with an artist or artist collective being asked to design cups and saucers. I don’t want to sound negative, but how long will that idea remain original?

It’s very long if you ask me. Times are changing, and new inspiration is constantly emerging. The canvas, the cups, and the saucers are always the same, but the interpretation always turns out different. This year’s designs stand out, even after so many other collections. They are colourful and imaginative, and nature plays a more significant role.

To what extent do you, as creative director, have a determining role in the design of the artists of the illy Art Collection?

I select artists every other year. At the Biennale, we leave that up to the head curator. I have a creative mind, but I have never rejected a design to date. Years ago, the widow of ex-Beatles singer John Lennon Joko Ono designed the collection. She indicated in advance that she wanted to make the cracks in the cups and saucers; this was to depict the destruction of the atomic bomb in her native Japan and the murder of her husband. That initially seemed like a rather heavy approach…

But,…?

Her message in the end was beautiful. One cup was ‘undamaged’ [ed. It didn’t contain painted cracks]; Joko Ono said it will never break if you take care of it as a coffee drinker. The collection depicted our shared responsibility for the world around us.

Will you still be seen at the Biennale these days?

Of course. I can walk around the grounds for hours and am constantly inspired. Of the more than 300 artists exhibiting at the Biennale, I know only 10 per cent. I still have a lot to discover.