NOTES FOR A THEORY
Something has been transformed since the mid-1990s. Shortly after taking part at the Venice Biennial, many things changed in my work. The start of the Gulf War (1991) and a focus on the profound cultural changes produced shortly thereafter by the advent of the Internet – the revolution in the hierarchical structure of processes of knowledge and information systems – made me look at life, art and its mechanisms, and my works, above all, in a different way. I can point to the commission for a public work in the Tuscan town of Peccioli (1994) as a crucial moment in the development of my practice. In the processes of the making of that project I structured a method of approach to the work, with regard to public space and the art system itself, which from that point on became the backbone of all my projects done outside the private spaces of galleries or museum institutions.
Actually, it was precisely with the Peccioli product that my practice took on a new guise, determined by the methodological approach that gives it structure. From 1994 on, this critical and aesthetic “method” of production of each of my works has become – in its complexity, as a whole – the work itself.
“The method is the work”.
What reflections led, and in what way, to the need to develop a new strategy? The “method” found its nature starting with a precise realization – ethical and in some ways political in character – about the function and role of art in a society in transformation. It was no coincidence, in fact, that all this developed when I had to come to terms, for the first time, with a public commission, and therefore to think about the relationship between art and its audience outside the specialized context of the art world and its denizens.
Specifically, in Peccioli I decided to take a critical position regarding the art system, creating not so much a site-specific project as a sort of work-manifesto, with the aim of attributing new responsibilities to the role of the artist. Working on the spaces of the city, artists are all too often more interested in showing their own expressive prowess than in redesigning a new relationship between the work and the host context. I tried to redefine my role and to give physical form to my reflections through an aesthetic form that would embody this radical position as clearly as possible.
The process of ideation of the public work for Peccioli began with repeated meetings with the citizens, at the main cafe of this small town. Thanks to these many encounters, I selected a small theater built in the 1930s, a crucial element of the social fabric of the town – the residents themselves pointed it out to me – which unfortunately had fallen into a state of abandon and serious neglect.
I believe that for a work to exist as a public artwork, it must establish a dialogue with the social and geographical fabric of the place. Only by setting up a form of encounter – confrontation and seduction – between the work and its context is it possible for the work to take on independence and meaning, becoming an active organism capable of adapting, modifying itself while also altering the social space and the landscape in which it is inserted.
Therefore I decided to use the whole budget I had available for my work to restore the building and bring it back to its original state. The townspeople cooperated on the various phases of the project, becoming both the beneficiaries and the unwitting clients of the project. There are no stylistic factors to distinguish this intervention from a simple renovation, except for an inscription engraved on the threshold of the theater’s entrance:
THIS WORK IS DEDICATED TO THE YOUNG WOMEN AND YOUNG MEN WHO WILL FALL IN LOVE IN THIS LITTLE THEATER.
The encounter between the work and the community – indispensable so that the work can become, in turn, part of the context, generating and propagating its story, its narrative – can happen only if the artist gets down from the rhetorical pedestal granted him by the art system, starting to operate amidst the people as a skilled director able to coordinate, choose, subtly convince, manage and seduce the context and the citizens, on the one hand, while developing, modifying and restaging the city on the other, implementing and linguistically experimenting with the meaning and function of the work itself.
In this way the work was specifically conceived as a work on method, on the artist’s approach to public space, and as such it turned out – in terms of process and content – to be an openly critical statement on the figure of the artist, while also becoming a form of narration at the limits of visibility, infiltrating and propagating in the urban context that had generated it, at the same time, intimately touching the citizens and their sensibilities.
The motor of the process, in fact, is very often precisely the city, the heterogeneous urban setting of places and, above all, of people. In the work “Ai Nati Oggi” (1998 – in progress) the city is the stage, the context, the very material of the project. The resulting visual event has a nature that is somehow intentionally ambiguous. It is a nativity scene with a pictorial character, on the one hand, and at the same time it is an urban glow that mingles with the pulsating lights of the city. “Ai Nati Oggi” alters the existing condition of luminosity of the city to reveal to passers-by the universal event of birth, the construction and generation of the community itself that composes every urban structure.
THE STREETLIGHTS OF THIS SQUARE
ARE CONNECTED TO THE MATERNITY WARD
OF THE HOSPITAL OF GHENT
EVERY TIME THE LIGHT SLOWLY PULSATES
IT MEANS A CHILD HAS BEEN BORN.
THE WORK IS DEDICATED TO THAT CHILD, AND TO THE CHILDREN BORN TODAY IN THIS CITY.
The “method”, once again, takes the form of a programmatic statement: the work has a minimum physical/environmental impact, it reuses the existing architecture and infrastructure and is intentionally presented as an anonymous intervention, a pure system of revelation-detection, in which the artist’s role seems to simply be that of an editor, a director of reality. The choice of “nativity” as a theme is not random, but an integral part of a strategy that sees “going toward”, the attempt to meet the spectator-citizen, as the only possible path to the “life” of the project. The work, in fact, is like a story that can be deciphered on multiple levels.
On the one hand it appears as linguistic experimentation on a classic theme of art history – the revealed nativity, the “putting into the world” in the Boettian sense of unveiling and showing – while on the other the work speaks of the city, of ordinary people, transforming a public space into a place charged with a new meaning, that of expectation, of the idea of participating in the community through the ritual and social moment that more than any other describes its formation: birth.
The light slowly increases in intensity, filling the place, the square, the street: it is both the image and the metaphor of the very idea of “revelation”. On one side, however, this coincides for the occasional visitor or the citizen with the possible discovery of a birth – a child is born in the city – while on the other it is synonymous with a new awareness with a figurative and ethical value: art that transforms a place of the city through the narration of a universal value.
The methodological approach, then, is always organized as a dual strategy, a two-sided coin that relates to the territory by following the principles of a tactics I like to define as Machiavellian.
Once crucial device to allow the work to take form, to touch and transform the place, is the caption.
NOTES FOR A THEORY
The caption is the means through which the public work is communicated. It is the device of mediation between the object and the townspeople, the image and the viewer. The caption is an integral part of the work and it is necessary and indispensable in the context of the city and the territory, to narrate the work and bring it into contact with its audience.
Often composed of a short text in which it is always possible to find a dedication, the caption can appear in a wide range of formats. The physical form of the caption is different for each work, and is based on the need to broadcast the idea of the work in the most efficient way. In Ghent, for “Ai Nati Oggi”, the text describing the work was not only engraved on a large stone installed flush with the surface of the square. The short text was also printed on thousands of napkins and distributed to all the restaurants facing Viedermark Platz. In Istanbul – on the bridge over the Bosporus – and at Kanazawa – for the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art – the caption was transformed into a large advertising campaign on billboards and posters scattered through the city squares. For “Arte all’Arte 10”, the caption became a colored brochure, while for “Temporali” it was the cover of one of the most widespread free newspapers of the city, distributed on public transport, benches, sidewalks and other corners of the cities where the work was set up, in Rome, Turin and Camogli, and so on.
The caption is the device that “turns on” the work, that allows it to propagate even when it is apparently not “on”. It is an object with many forms that produces participation. It announces, explains and adds levels of interpretation and meaning to the work itself. The public space of the city is transformed, for the visitor, after the encounter with the caption, into a place of waiting, charged with new meaning, an altered urban scenario, an environment for the production of infinite images. Each passer-by, reading it, will imagine his or her own birth, for example; each passer-by, after reading, will remember it or tell it to others, producing a positive form of gossip that spreads the thought and the story of the work. This short text that accompanies every work produces, as a natural consequence, a widespread and heterogeneous atmosphere of images, stories, word of mouth, places and persons over which I obviously have no control. My work was simply the activating mechanism, the motor of all this.
I am thinking about the captions on the benches of the “dogs” of Trivero, done for Fondazione Zegna, or the large stone attached to the facade of “Corale Vincenzo Bellini”, produced for Arte all’Arte 2000. The caption encourages the participation of different audiences – passers-by, residents, tourists, art experts and others, etc. – always including a sort of dedication in the text that suggests a possible mode of appreciation of the work, a condition of approach to it from a collective side, but also from a more intimate, private side.
For “Temporali” (2009): “…This work is dedicated to those who passing here will look at the sky”. For Arte all’Arte: “This work is dedicated (…) to all those who, passing by here, will hear music coming from this house”. For the benches of Fondazione Zegna (2009): “The dog shown here belongs to one of the families of Trivero. This work is dedicated to those dogs and to the people who will sit here and talk about them”. For “Ai Nati Oggi” (1998): “Every time the light slowly pulsates it means a child has been born. The work is dedicated to that child, and to the children born today in this city”. And so on, all the way to the work “Tutti i passi che ho fatto nella mia vita mi hanno portato qui ora” (All the steps I have taken in my life have brought me here, now, 2011).
This was a work conceived precisely as a caption. “Tutti i passi che ho fatto nella mia vita mi hanno portato qui ora” (2011) was designed as a phrase without an author, that a passer-by might glimpse by chance, walking hastily through the corridors of a station or an airport. An integral part of the surface of the city, engraved on a stone mounted flush with the pavement of the site, the stone is an example of a “pure caption” that puts the work in motion, encouraging the viewer to think and imagine the dense network of relationships every person activates with his or her own existence, suddenly revealing the complexity of life experience, underscoring the value of the kinetic and potential energy enclosed in the life of every human being.
This work-caption, once again, is a precise statement: it is an anonymous object that speaks the language of the city, of its stones, its surfaces, and at the same time it is a device capable of producing images.
Thus the caption turns out to be part of political discourse – the caption as platform of distribution of the artwork that might also not be recognized as such – and at the same time of the figurative discourse of the work. It is a utensil, an “explicit statement” of that movement towards the viewers, whom I sense as the recipients of all my public projects.
NOTES FOR A THEORY
I think of the people who will see my public works as the clients of those same works.
This might seem like a paradox, but it is decisive for the construction of my practice in public space. I am so concerned with adhering to the reality of life, with finding a way to enter the folds of the city, inside its social, economic and political mechanisms, that I see the constraints imposed by the context not as limitations but as opportunities and challenges. Restraints as fertile ground for experimentation and advance. To make a work for a non-specialized audience means operating on delicate territory. This is why I call my tactics, my method that becomes work, Machiavellian.
The work seduces, approaches, courts the audience. My concern is to almost disappear into the crowd, to establish a dialogue and encounter the shared, and in some cases popular, image. My works explore the theme of birth, for example, or that of dogs, the sublime landscape of nature, the architecture of houses, birds, neighbors, spirituality and so on, but always operating on a dual register. Almost like a “bifrontal” figure, I approach people to gather useful, necessary information for the development of the work. I approach them to discover and glean the secrets of the context, to then give them back an image, a scene, an object that can be appreciated on multiple levels by different types of viewers. Only through dozens of students of the schools of Trivero, for example, was it possible for me to catalogue the dogs of the area in which Fondazione Zegna had asked me to operate. Precisely through the relationship between dogs, their owners and the city, I managed to intervene in the territory in a useful, non-invasive yet at the same time unexpected way.
Nevertheless, my aim is not to fall into a kind of populism: the work is a contemporary linguistic experiment, on the one hand, but on the other its process disrupts and confuses the hierarchies between object and author, viewer and client, citizen and visitor.
Clientele is a key theme in my work. I am thinking about the time, a few years ago, when I was commissioned to make a work for a church in Italy. The theme was complex: the statue of a Madonna. I didn’t want to approach questions connected with Catholicism in this work, but to address a certain widespread culture, to explore that latent need for lay spirituality our society expresses in a wide range of ways. The work was not done by means of a true sculptural process; it is a ready-made. I had a 19th-century Madonna sent from Naples, I made a cast of it, and then a ceramic copy. It was a classical sculpture, the most traditional of icons, and very beautiful. I say it was “beautiful” precisely because I did not make it, it was subtracted from real life, from that popular context in which the borderlines between the sacred, the profane and the mystical are very blurry. Inside, in a hollow part of the ceramic object, I had a small device installed so that the statue could heat up. The sculpture reaches the temperature of the human body, about 36.7°C: almost as if it were maternal warmth. So my intervention consists only in increasing the temperature of a statue, disrupting its meaning in an invisible way. The object is thus positioned in a new territory, a sphere halfway between the religious world, that of the faithful, and the art system with its iconography.
Once again, the work is not invasive, in fact it intentionally mingles and blends with the infinite quantity of religious objects scattered around the world, purposefully establishing a dialogue with popular culture – just consider the devotional gesture of touching the foot of the Madonna – producing a type of aura that is intentionally on the borderline between what is generated by an almost pagan kind of worship and the one produced by the art system itself.
Perhaps, however, to conclude this short reflection on clientele, on constraints not seen as a frustrating part of the project but as an interesting expression of potential, it is crucial to describe “Campionario”, a work done for the first time in 2006, which can be reshaped in relation to precise contexts and clients. These are large framed digital prints that contain an abstract drawing, an interrupted sign that measures the exact distance, for example, between the home of one of my collectors and my studio, or the route between the gallery for which I am making the exhibition and the headquarters of the institution that sponsors it. It is a work that is made ad hoc, specific, conceived and designed for a precise target – as if it were a catalogue, a sample set of drawings I can make on commission, like a collection of clothes.
In Venice, for “Italics” (2008), the traced line measured the distance between Palazzo Grassi and a bank in that city. In Brescia I recorded the spatial gap between the Minini gallery and the headquarters of Banco di Brescia, and then I organized an encounter with the executives of the UBI banking group, who were very interested in the project, opening the way for future collaboration with the world of art. Through this long line, without form, I want to touch and put into relation not just persons, but also crucial places in the fabric of the city, like certain political or financial institutions. The distance between the degree of abstraction of the work and the way in which it touches and shifts reality is an important theme in this catalogue of projects. In fact, the abstract, enigmatic, threadlike drawing in the prints should actually be seen as a sort of “lure”, “a positive trap”.
This work, on the one hand, is a true sample set of “portraits”, framed “abstract figures”, while on the other it is a project that can be differently shaped, capable of creating contact between the client and the city, the space of the art market – the collection, the gallery – and the public space of the urban places in which we live.
Once again the work is a dual device, ambiguous and seductive, a generator of reality and relationships.
NOTES FOR A THEORY
I mentioned that the “method” can be considered, in substance, the work itself.
It is part the structures the project, the critical approach to the context, the system of reference in which all this takes place. The “method” produces objects, images, detournements, encounters between people, animals, statues, captions distributed in a thousand different ways. The “method” is deployed in relation to places and produces a “physical and visual” restitution that can vary greatly, taking heterogeneous forms: for “Ai Nati Oggi” I use urban streetlamps, in Colle Val d’Elsa and Peccioli I worked with artisans and musicians, in Rome for the solo show “Acqua” (2004) I intervened on the plumbing of an old building to reactivate its lymphatic and hydric system and to bring back to life an old Roman fountain on Via dei Prefetti, and in Bolzano I produced a small concrete building.
Several public commissions have “imposed” specific work on the natural and suburban territory, thus forcing me to explore the theme of the landscape today, crossing the critical, methodological and political aspects of my work with reflection on the relationship between Art and Nature. In 2004 in Antwerp, for example, when asked to propose a project for the architecture of an old silo that had been abandoned for thirty years on the outskirts of the city, I decided to have a door removed on the upper level of the building and replaced by another door of the same size, but in glass. I wanted to let visitors see the flat roof of the silo. Many birds had nested there, so I decided to have a large quantity of bird food placed on the very high roof of the structure. The work respected the context, it was somehow a useful gift for the “inhabitants” of that place, and while on the one hand it also took the form of a critique of the art system which often overlooks the delicate balances in the territories it invades, on the other the work was a tribute to the “sublime” relationship between that dizzying architectural ruin and the sky above it.
While the mechanism of production of my public works is often also based on the idea of “revelation” – “Ai Nati Oggi” (1998), “Buonconvento” for Arte all’Arte 10 (2005), in Kanazawa for “Dedicato agli abitanti delle case” (1997-2001) – when I decide to touch and explore the natural world the principle of “detection and revelation” is even more evident. The attitude of total respect for the context is transformed into attention, care and observation of the landscape as the meeting place and layered, complex account of the relationship between man and nature. In this way, the sculptures commissioned for the Tiscali Campus in Sardinia become “Innaffiatori” (waterers) useful to distribute nutrition to the plants of the place, and the sculptural benches of the dogs produced by Fondazione Zegna become a place of lingering and contemplation, public objects for the city, but also the precise place for the meeting, the exchange of two ways of living and mapping the landscape: that of dogs and that of humans.
Then, however, precisely the landscape the work of the “dogs” for Fondazione Zegna attempts to narrate and subtly modify is transformed into an immaterial atmosphere composed of stories and narratives transmitted by word of moth, as the caption engraved on each concrete bench reveals:
THE DOG SHOWN HERE BELONGS TO ONE OF THE FAMILIES OF TRIVERO.
THIS WORK IS DEDICATED TO THOSE DOGS AND TO THE PEOPLE WHO WILL SIT HERE AND TALK ABOUT THEM.
NOTES FOR A THEORY
The City and the Museum
The thousands of copies of a well-known Roman free-press paper distributed around the city at the time of the work “Temporali” (2009) at the MAXXI museum are a good example of the dual nature of the work, in which my way of establishing a dialogue with and of touching the city mingles and intertwines with the primordial, generating power of nature.
Those copies of the newspaper made available for one whole day on almost every corner of the capital, represent the caption of a work that is once again just as immaterial as it is classical, pictorial.
In a room of the new MAXXI museum the lights will vibrate when lightening strikes anywhere in italy during a thunderstorm. this work is dedicated to those bolts, and to all those will pass that room and think about the heavens.
The work thus emphasizes art’s universal vocation, making it not only a centripetal but also a centrifugal gravitational center of forces, connections and languages it attempts to trigger in a moment of new expansion.
What counts most in art is the mysterious quality of the visual event, and the realized work speaks the enigmatic language of light and primordial forces that provoke its apparition.
The museum is one of the rare places in the contemporary city where it is still possible to have a sensation of sublime vertigo, to lose oneself in meditation of narratives that are hard to decipher, mysterious energies. I’m thinking about the light of Caravaggio, the celestial spectacle of Andrea Pozzo, the dream of painting of Baroque Rome.
In this work I wanted to construct a story, a true narrative capable of summing up the relationship of art, nature and city, charging the museum institution with that crucial cultural and ethical role it has always had since its birth.
The museum, the city and the viewer are actors that meet in my works, approaching each other and seeming to reciprocally lead to a sense of completion. From the “Piccolo Museion” (2001-2003) to the room at the MAXXI of “Temporali” – which becomes a place of mediation between the sky and the city – all the way to the hidden gold plaque, invisible because it is installed in the thickness of a wall of the Certosa di Padula (2004), my primary intention has always been to recharge the gaze of the viewer with a sense of aura. To demonstrate how necessary it is for art to address reality, how crucial it is for the artist to redefine his role as “curator” of reality itself or, more precisely, as mediator between the work and the spectator.
NOTES FOR A THEORY
From the space of the city and the landscape to the interior of the museum and the private gallery.
The procedure and the path that constitute my public works are decisively reversed in the specialized spaces of art. While in the city it is the artist who “goes toward” the viewer, in the museum the latter has to assume the responsibility of the gaze, moving in an attempt to approach the work. In the work “Che cosa succede nelle stanze quando gli uomini se ne vanno?” (What happens in rooms when the people have left?), furniture and everyday domestic objects covered with phosphorescent paint blend into the exhibition space, so much so that they are not recognized as art objects. The audience does not notice them, except perhaps as ordinary furnishings. I wanted to modify the audience’s perception of the work: it can only be imagined, thought about, expected. The work reveals itself in this immaterial tension, and comes to life only in the encounter with the viewer: the spectator has to make a patient effort to seek out the work.
The work functions like litmus paper: it is hidden in the belly of the museum, silently revealing its weak points and its rhetorical nature.
We might assert, in fact, that art is everywhere, that what we see all around us is already, potentially, an exhibition, and that this is decided only by our gaze. I am referring to what Blanchot calls the “gift”.
It is as if a process in opposition to that of Duchamp had been developed: I think that the object today, the artwork, has a great desire to get out of the museum, but in the moment in which the artwork returns to reality, it loses its aura. At that point, precisely the spectators and the artist himself, who is the first true spectator, are able to restore the aura of the work.
In the end, perhaps we are the museum; by this I mean that it is necessary, in my view, for us to all become little walking museums: spectators capable of assuming the responsibility of the gaze.