interview by Shirin Neshat:
My reading from your art is that you are, on the one hand, rooted in a sort of classical approach and training; yet you also engage the viewer on a very conceptual level which breaks all traditional conventions. Would you think that is a correct reading of your work?
My background could certainly be called academic: I studied in Rome at an arts-oriented high school (Liceo Artistico), followed by the Academy of Fine Arts (Accademia di Belle Arti), and then spent three years painting in the studio of Riccardo Tommasi Ferroni, a figurative artist and major printmaker influenced by the sixteenth-century Tuscan tradition. My great-grandfather was a painter, my grandfather was a painter, my uncle was a sculptor, my father is a sculptor. So a traditional approach to art is definitely part of my DNA, and that’s pushed me to pursue a more conceptual vein in developing my own work, informed by the idiosyncrasies between traditional and contemporary practices.
One of the aspects of my work that most interests me is breaking through commonplace interpretations, and then triggering that same mechanism in viewers. I view art as a responsibility expressed not only on a personal level, but on a level of social and civic participation as well; for me, therefore, it’s fundamental to work in a direction that takes those aspects into consideration. The role of the artist is, I think, that of a pioneer who must bring his own line of thought beyond the more restricted conceptions of ideologies—or supposed ideologies—be they social, political, geographic, religious, or cultural.
All of your art work has a sharp political edge, yet it’s kept very ambiguous; making it difficult for the audience to pin-point—to define your point of view. How do you explain your relation to the question of politics and power? Who are you ultimately attacking?
My intent is to avoid giving a one-sided interpretation of my work; I always try to dissect the kind of commonplace thoughts imposed by politics, religion, and the individualist bourgeois mindset; I say this because I think art has value on the collective level, as opposed to the merely individual level—art is a democratic, progressive force, so it should ideally serve society, not the powers that be. In my work, the use of icons, symbols, and forms from various cultures is a way of drawing attention to their true meaning, tied to dogmas or other forms of power; they’re a way to open up a dialogue with the viewer and stimulate a reaction.
More than once I’ve described my role as an artist like that of a virus; for me, the work has to be something that creates a mental shift, and drives the unconscious into new, unexpected realms.
The “political” character of my work is just one of many possible interpretations of what I do. I naturally use images that are a part of popular culture, so as to offer a sociopolitical key by which to read the work. Art is a political opportunity because it doesn’t need any translation or subtitles. We have to be aware of the fact that communication, currently, takes place in a myriad of forms and ways. Consequently, it becomes increasingly difficult to create images that can really play a decisive role. That’s another reason I’ve chosen to “use” a toolkit of symbols and icons that are not only a part of my background, but are also part of the global collective conscience. This allows the public a more direct interpretation. I think that even in my most radical works there’s a way for everyone to read them—an interpretive key that opens various doors, which lead to countless possible viewpoints: this triggers a mental mechanism that can transform primitive prejudices.
An artist can create a new form of communication—not only from a technical standpoint, but in terms of visual language, too—so what interests me most, ultimately, is the idea of pushing people to think by attacking their spoiled mental structures.
Paolo Canevari, Monuments of the Memory, 2011 (Photo by Francesco Carrozzini)
I find three obsessions recurring in all of your work, and they are: sex, politics, and religion. Would that be an accurate reading? And, if so, how would do you define the relationship between these three themes?
As a human being, I have certain preoccupations regarding my present and future. The influence of political and religious power has become an internal obsession for me, and that’s naturally reflected in the works I create. Even though my education wasn’t strictly religious, it was certainly quite influenced by Catholicism. I was born in Rome, home of the Pope and the Vatican, where, historically, power and religion have been symbiotic; growing up, I became more conscious and critical of the dogmas and taboos dictated by the system, both religious and political. My grandfather and uncle were artists and worked between WWI and WWII, a period when Italy was lead by the Fascist regime. Through their works and experiences I came to understand how depressing it can be for an artist to work in the service of a regime or system of power without being able to criticize it or otherwise maintain any creative freedom. Unfortunately the idea of being free of political and religious power structures is an illusion, and in the West it began in the postwar years, with American propaganda. There is no such thing as absolute mental freedom, we’re inevitably influenced by our geographic and cultural backgrounds; I think freedom of thought is a lofty goal that can only be reached through the realization of one’s own limits.
Growing up in a Catholic society, people’s relationship to sexuality is clearly compromised by the distortion of the Christian message that centuries of ecclesiastical power have imposed on the masses (and I’m fairly sure that the manipulation of sexual freedoms through taboos and prejudices toward political ends isn’t unique to Christianity). Individuals who freely inhabit their own sexuality are much less easily moved by the sense of guilt society would impose on them. I think sexual freedom is synonymous with freedom of expression, our bodies are the means through which we express our character, our personality, and being comfortable with our bodies is the first step toward attaining true freedom of thought. I don’t think there’s a single power system that doesn’t share such interests with a likeminded religious system, and there are clear examples of this happening in various countries. These themes are present in my work—sometimes patently so, and sometimes in a more subtle, hidden way.
For me, it’s important that I not only express my preoccupations with such subjects, but that I do so in a poetic way.
You seem to be very fluid, moving from one form to another; you make drawings, sculptures, shoot photographs, and make videos. Yet I sense that, in a way, your approach to all of these mediums stems from drawings. For example, your rubber sculptures feel like drawings in space; your black and white photographs share a similar aesthetic and sense of three dimensionality. Can you expand on this sort of nomadic relationship you have built to forms?
On occasion I’ve termed my work a kind of “baroque minimalism,” and I think this contradictory definition might aptly be used to describe my personal poetics. I try to capture multiple aspects in my work (I think a work of art is a highly independent thing, following its own autonomous path, and shouldn’t be limited to one absolute interpretation) and this approach applies to the various techniques I use as well. My academic training gave me a solid foundation in drawing, and I’ve always viewed the definition and development of an idea like a drawing in space; I’ve sought to capture the concept of anti-monumentality, and to negate the rhetorical weightiness that is often tied to sculpture, and drawing has always helped me do that.
Sometimes it’s good to delight in pure sensation, like when you think of a work of art and it’s as if you were mentally drawing it. Drawing also allows for a technical immediacy and direct benefit—it’s the first idea, the first intimate mark, the note expressed without the dogma of writing, which requires the knowledge of a language and its grammar.
From that same perspective, I’ve aimed to bring the ephemerality and fragility of drawing to my installations, videos, etc. I’d like viewers to recognize themselves in the aching, acute, unconditional simplicity of a gesture, and for that gesture to be the epitome of a universal idea. The idea is to capture an image, an existential essence, poetry itself in a gesture. Drawing is, by its own technical nature, a prime example of fragility and poetry. In that sense, I think it’s safe to say that the minimalism I’m after is a minimalism of the sign, the mark, and the baroque part of the equation pertains to its sense and significance, which is always manifold.
Exodus, 1997, photo by Martino Meli
I can’t help but sense the traces of the Italian movement of Arte Povera in the work you did back in the 1980s, in the way that it employs found objects; they become highly conceptual yet political and extremely poetic as well. Were you exposed to the Arte Povera movement as a young Italian artist? Where did your early resources and inspirations come from?
In Italy history is often forgotten—or memory is only short term, so to speak—so, unfortunately for young Italian artists, the greatest influence often comes from a history (or re-reading of history) that doesn’t take our forerunners into much consideration. My relationship to my own forebears was rather unique, I studied Italian artists and discovered them little by little in my family’s library, or by trying to see where I was coming from in the shows I saw and the galleries I visited. When I was a teenager I didn’t have access to the means of communication and information sharing we have today, so my interests were guided by a desire to combine my knowledge of contemporary American art and Italian art.
The Arte Povera movement—which included artists like [Jannis] Kounellis, [Luciano] Fabro, [Giulio] Paolini, [Pino] Pascali, and [Francesco] Lo Savio (a key yet little-known figure)—was one of the most important international avant-gardes of the late twentieth century, but many of its protagonists aren’t widely recognized, especially when compared to American artists of the same period such as Warhol, Judd, and Serra. The same holds true for artists of the previous generation—[Lucio] Fontana, [Alberto] Burri, [Alessandro] Manzoni—who have only recently begun to garner broader recognition. I say this because, over time, I’ve come to realize how American contemporary art got more attention than Italian contemporary art through communications systems aimed at creating a contemporary mythology.
In the immediate postwar period Italy came up against American systems of ideology and propaganda, which strongly influenced Italians’ perception of their own culture. My culture and its values are tied to the earth, to nature, to the inherent beauty of art history; those were also the core values of the Arte Povera movement. I grew up in a country that has an enormous artistic heritage, so the expression of my personal poetics is undeniably linked to the experiences of the artists who came before me (just as it’s natural for American artists to consider themselves children of Andy Warhol, so artists like Jeff Koons are re-reading their predecessors, and are deeply rooted in Pop Art).
An artist’s main inspiration is the world, in all its virtues and vices, and that’s why I’m interested in looking at society’s failures—I view them as contemporary monuments.
Paolo Canevari, Monuments of the Memory, 2011 (Photo by Francesco Carrozzini)
You relocated to New York from Europe only a few years ago and are busy making the adjustment to this culture. How do you find and compare the New York cultural climate with the European model? Do you still identify yourself as an “Italian” artist? or do you think such categorization is now obsolete and you are a “global” artist, particularly since you live outside of your own culture?
I don’t think artists really have one single homeland, they belong to the world: an artist’s identity is made up of his cultural heritage and the indelible marks it leaves. Sometimes that mark is just a faint nuance within the artist’s soul, and sometimes it’s a wound. For me, New York is a non-country; it’s a city that belongs to no single, specific nation in particular; it doesn’t have one sole, precise identity; it’s everything and nothing, all at the same time. It is a cultural chaos that has, in some strange way, found its proper place, its real meaning, all pent up on the island of Manhattan. New York is so different from any other city, especially any European city; in Europe, history is omnipresent. Coming from Rome, I’m aware of how much weight and meaning history really has. There, every stone is covered in the blood of history, it’s a city that can’t be summed up in any single architectural style or artistic experience; it was built in layers, one atop the other, and things were absorbed and transformed by history’s continuous metamorphosis. I think borders still exist, geographically and culturally, and we’re just at the beginning of a period that has all too quickly been labeled “global.”
Let’s talk about your most recent body of work. In this series, which includes a series of abstract sculptures and paintings, you seem to be directly conceptualizing the idea of void—absence—as if you are forcing your viewer to conjure what is missing. Could this be a strategy to de-spiritualize the art itself? I mean, is this a critique of the form of cluttering, the over-production of art that we have been witnessing in art fairs, galleries and museums, hence an attempt to redirect the audience’s attention to one’s own imagination?
I refer to this cycle of works as “Monumenti della memoria” (“Monuments of Memory” or “Memory’s Monuments”), and it developed quite recently, between 2011 and 2012. I felt a need to describe a certain mood in its most radical expression; the sensation that has stuck with me over the past few years has been a feeling that contemporary language (in terms of visual/artistic form) is losing its meaning and incisiveness—I feel I’m subjected to a form a visual pollution on a daily basis, and it’s invading the sacred territory of art, creating a Tower of Babel constructed of the false information that, little by little, is destroying our sense of imagination. It leaves very little room for imaginative fantasy, for the power of dreams and visions, which are generated by introspection, by observation of one’s own self.
I wondered what might be an appropriate response to this state of affairs, to this chaotic barrage of images and information that incessantly bombard everyone’s mind. Over the centuries, history has created legends of non-existent things, or things that were handed down to us through oral traditions. I’d like to re-create that mythology of the image.
Many religious disciplines and philosophies have, in a highly intelligent way, closely associated the idea of divinity with something impossible to represent or portray (visually). I’m fascinated by the sheer modernity of that thought, which obliges one to imagine something rather than try to describe it.
I think about the relationship of faith and respect that comes about toward places that are considered sacred, or of an image or object that was part of a ceremony. That’s the aspect of faith that intrigues me.
In my paintings, I’ve tried to create a free, open place—a democratic space wherein the senses of fantasy and imagination related to personal experiences and feelings can encounter the infinite. I then decided to take the discourse even deeper, pushing two fundamental aspects of art history to their extremes: the idea of the painting as an open window at the service of the imagination, and the idea of sculpture as a three-dimensional presence in space.
Even as a child I looked at paintings in museums, and I’ve always viewed them as the keys that could open the doors of my imagination, inviting my mind to explore other dimensions. I’ve also always imagined what went on around the painting, and how that world—so clearly described and visible—wasn’t exactly circumscribed by the canvas’s border; I always thought about how much was left behind the painting for my imagination to explore, and everything that surrounded it that had been cropped out by the painter’s vision.
I firmly believe that a work exists the moment it is looked at, it’s the presence of the viewer that brings the work to life: without the contribution of a human eye, the work can’t come to life. The paintings of my most recent series are black monochromes. The paint I make them with is the base layer normally applied before beginning the final painting—it’s primer, commonly called gesso, the preparatory layer, or imprimitura. For me, that aspect of the “initial phase” is particularly important: I don’t really paint, rather, I begin a process that is the basis, the first step in painting.
Conceptually, I associate that first step with the first idea, the first connection with the imagination. It becomes the point of departure from which various destinations can be reached. Black encompasses all other colors, it’s the sum total of the entire rainbow. Matisse said he saw black as a color of light, not of darkness; black can illuminate the pathways of the imagination, the surface of the painting becomes a screen in reverse, upon which images and sensations can be projected. In a certain sense, it’s like closing your eyes by keeping them open.
My paintings’ dimensions are taken from masterpieces throughout art history.
A concept analogous to that of the paintings also underlies my sculptures, where the emphasis is on the absence of the age-old approach to sculpture: its presence as a three-dimensional object in space that must be observed in the round in order to be fully discovered. Given its three-dimensional nature, sculpture has hidden sides that only reveal themselves to the observer when viewed in physical space. My sculptures are Plexiglas parallelepipeds, transparent boxes closed on all six sides. Their interior encloses the measurements of extant sculptures that are part of my own visual reference kit. They’re like museum vitrines that contained something, but their contents have disappeared, leaving behind a void. Inside, therefore, there’s no information we can refer to, nothing that might suggest an image, nothing for us to grab on to. Ultimately, it’s our imagination that is forced to conjure up the work.
The material’s transparency transcends the need to physically discover the work—the sculpture is completely visible (or invisible!) from any and every point. Faced with such emptiness, thoughts construct an image to occupy it.
My ambition—not unlike that of a magician—is to make our need for the physical possession of art disappear, and to bring art back to its spiritual essence, to the elevation of thought as a work in and of itself. I’d like to take the images that I’m driven to create, as an artist, and make them disappear, in order to instead reveal and offer up a “non-place” where the viewer’s mind and individual sense of imagination become the protagonists. And I’d like to do that in the most radical way possible, digging a deep furrow in the viewer’s mind, and planting seeds that will then grow. For me, a work of art is important when it doesn’t limit itself to a one-way ideological or technical structure, but rather opens up various perspectives