Pavlo Makov – An Interview

Pavlo Makov

by Luca Fiore

“The air outside has become unbreathable. Smoke, dust and the smell of burning.” These words are uttered by Pavlo Makov, 63 years old, the artist chosen to represent Ukraine at the next Venice Biennale. We contacted him by phone at the Yermilov Center, a space in the basement of Kharkiv State University, which in recent years has been used for contemporary art exhibitions. It is there that he and other artists and their families are taking refuge from the bombings of the Russian troops. Their internet connection is not good; it often breaks up and so the dialogue moves to Telegram. He promises us that he will respond soon, “Not now, though, because I’m getting very little sleep.”

            He spent the night between Thursday and Friday, when he was still in his home, standing guard so he could wake up his wife, son, daughter-in-law and 92-year-old mother to the sound of sirens “What are my feelings in these hours? Very different. They depend on the situation, on the news we receive. But what prevails is the pride of being a Ukrainian citizen. I always have been, even though I was born in St. Petersburg to a Russian family. But now more than ever do I feel a Ukrainian citizen. In a different situation, such a statement would have sounded pathetic, but today it is not at all.” We ask him what has been, so far, the most difficult circumstance. He answers that it was not the first siren or the first explosion, but the period of uncertainty that preceded the attack. “The Russian invasion has been going on for eight years already. The scale of conflict has now simply changed. For those who live here it was already evident; those of you in Europe struggled to see it. Now it is before everyone’s eyes. But we reached this moment ready. I am not able to shoot, I am not trained. There are those who will do it for me, better than me. But the people here are ready to resist, everyone will do everything they can.”

            Yesterday, Makov and the three curators of the Ukraine Pavilion, Lizaveta German, Borys Filonenko and Maria Lankro, released a statement saying, “We absolutely support the statement of La Biennale di Venezia that international exhibits are platforms for collaboration and dialogue.” They note, however, that despite having received solidarity and offers of help from many of the Biennale participants, no message has come “from the Russian artists or commissioners of the pavilion whose army is currently bombing us and forcing us into shelters or exile.” The only person to contact them was Russia’s curator, Lithuanian Raimundas Malašauskas, who resigned from his post on Sunday. “We believe that dialogue is about two-way communication, not an imposed agenda. That’s why we don’t believe Russia should be part of La Biennale.”

            For Makov, participation in the Biennale is not just an opportunity to make his work known to the art world: “We will be like the eyes of our country which everyone will be able to look into. We will offer our gaze and, whoever wants to, will be able to better understand not only who we are as artists and curators, but also what Ukraine is. We are an independent country, a young state. It would also have been an opportunity to dispel the silly myths that we have been carrying around since the Soviet period. But now, since the day of the attack, these myths have already been largely swept away. But at what price?”

            The Kharkiv-based artist plans to exhibit a reworking of an old project he conceived in the early 1990s at the Biennale, entitled “Fountain of Exhaustion.” It is a pyramid of 78 bronze funnels with two blowpipes each. Water is poured into the funnel at the top and, dripping into those placed below, gradually seperates itself until it reaches the pyramidal base in the form of water droplets. The work is inspired by the crumbling infrastructure characteristic of post-Soviet cities, in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. The water supply was precarious at that time and none of the public fountains worked in Kharkiv, where the artist has lived for almost forty years. Once, he recounts, an accident at the local purification plant caused flooding and a four-week interruption in water distribution. It is a work conceived three decades ago, but which touches on very topical themes, the curators explain: “The work aims to denounce not only the depletion of natural resources, but also post-pandemic burnout, the exhaustion caused in people by social media, and the exhaustion of populations caused by wars.” Makov’s fountain is a metaphor of how the lifeblood of man or nature is wasted because of inhuman structures, choices or logic.

            The work planned for Venice, however, differs from Makov’s usual way of expressing himself, who first trained as an engraver. The artist usually creates printed works using two or more small matrices, produced using the technique of etching, whose design is imprinted, successively, on different areas of the same sheet. The result is sometimes very complex compositions. While traditional printing uses the matrix of an image to print several copies of the same work, here the process leads to the creation of unique pieces that the artist can then add to using pencils, inks and other materials.

            In a corner of his studio, on the third floor of the Soviet building still owned by the Union of Ukrainian Artists (without which, during the regime, it was not possible to practice any creative activity) there is the desk where the artist works on the matrices with the burin, with the help of a magnifying glass. Next to it, occupying most of the space, is the large press with which he makes his works. The matrices depict trees, plants or buildings, with which Makov composes landscapes or maps of real or imaginary cities.

            In recent years, the Kharkiv artist has returned several times to the theme of war. Such is the case with the artist’s book “Donrosa. Diary of a Ukrainian rose garden”, a tribute to the city of Donestk, in the Donbas. The book is inspired by the drawings and notes of a rose enthusiast from Kharkiv who, between 2008 and 2010, recreated a garden in the Russian-speaking city that was designed in the 19th century and said to have been conceived by English landscape architects on the model of a Dantean circle. “Donrosa”, a cross between the words “Donetsk” and “rose”, opens with the verses of Canto III of Hell: “Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned, / all cowardice must needs be here extinct/ We to the place have come, where I have told thee / thou shalt behold the people dolorous / who have foregone the good of intellect.” The garden is seen as a labyrinth with a central plan, composed of hundreds of rose bushes, printed one by one on the same sheet. The work was then divided into sections and paginated in a small volume of which one thousand copies were printed. It is an imaginary place where beauty, pain and madness coexist. The image of a city at war.

                        In a prophetic work, entitled “Dorothea. Siege of Kharkiv” and made between 2015 and 2016, Pavlo Makov reproduces with some accuracy the plan of the city. Different types of buildings are repeated, creating the texture of the streets. You can recognize the main square in the bottom left, highlighted in red pencil, where you see the silhouettes of military convoys. Smoke rises from the chimneys of many houses. It looks like an ancient document, worn out by time. Instead, it is a work that speaks of a near future that has turned into a tragic present.

            The first time the writer visited Makov in his studio was in the summer of 2016. On his desk was a copy of the Italian edition of “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino. At one point the artist opened the volume and read the last page in his Russian accent: “The hell of the living is not something that will be: if there is one, it is what is already here, the hell where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accepting the hell and become such a part of it that you can longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, is not hell, then make them endure, give them space.” He looked up and added, “There, that’s what I’m trying to do. And that many in Ukraine are trying to do today.”

Domani, 1st March 2022

Pavlo Makov, Shelter Landscape, 2017

Jason Martin – An interview

Jason Martin

by Luca Fiore

“Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury was asked which celebrities from the past he would like to have a beer with in the pub. The boxer replied: Eric Cantona, Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley. Should they ask me the same, I would choose Lucio Fontana, Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein”. Jason Martin, born in 1970 in Jersey, the largest island in the English Channel, is one of the heavyweights of contemporary abstract painting. The three names he cites, as his own personal artistic pantheon, are also a declaration of poetics. Although, in the early nineties at Goldsmith College in London, the cradle of the Young British Artists generation, the work that insinuated him into the seed of artistic research is a painting by the American artist Robert Ryman. “The all-white painting consisted of five span-wide bands of color, probably made with five uninterrupted brush strokes. They were the trace of a gesture that took place over a period of time, they outlined a time frame within which the color had been spread on the canvas. I liked the idea and started trying to develop it. It was a work on time, after all, and it was about why we are here now”.

Martin’s first works consist of monochromatic oil or acrylic paintings, stretched on surfaces of aluminum, steel or Plexiglas with spatulas or combs that create swirling and hypnotic surfaces. Sometimes they look like the texture of a crazed vinyl record, in which the grooves are no longer concentric, but drawn with voluptuous elegance to produce visual vibrations of mysterious silent music. Black, bright red, metallic blue, white. When touching the color, light enhances the dynamism of the color surface. Over time, his research shifts to the use of pure pigment mixtures, which are applied on modeled panels, in which the exasperated sculptural effect seems to magnify the contortions of matter on a rippled palette of color. In recent years, the artist has also created works in mirroring metal (copper, silver and gold), made through casts of the paintings, in which the material painting becomes a real sculpture.

The latest works, conceived during lockdown, that the artist spent in his studio in the Portuguese countryside, exhibited in the recent exhibition, “Tropicalissimo, at the Galleria Mimmo Scognamiglio in Milan, are mainly small-sized paintings, in which he is used more than one color. “It is a series of paintings that are a bit of a synthesis of the paths that I started to follow during the time of the pandemic, in which I worked freely, without the time pressures of the art market”, Martin explains: “I followed a playful and experimental attitude, in an attempt to conquer ground within the sphere of my pictorial language”. Parallel bands of color, spread with a rough spatula, in which the tones blend to form atmospheric shades. From pink to pale pink, then yellow which becomes a soft pistachio green. Or vertical textures of yellow that blend, in the brushstroke, with a soul of red, producing orange halos. Elsewhere, blue and white are mixed. Or green and yellow again. Leaving the narrow circle of the monochromatic world seems to have opened the door to figurative suggestion for the painter. “I feel like a landscape painter disguised as an abstractionist”, he explains with a smile. The masses of color and the composition of the forms lead the viewer’s imagination to reconstruct natural images in his own mind. Sunsets, vegetation, flames, water, ice, fog. “In painting, this is almost inevitable, even when we are in the field of abstraction”, continues Martin: “Leon Battista Alberti already understood this: painting recreates the illusion of depth on the surface. We are used to seeing something that goes beyond the flatness of the canvas. The painting is a threshold where a dialectic between surface and illusion is created. And the challenge is to look through, to see beyond”.

Martin has a very particular way of telling the history of art of the twentieth century: using his body parts. “Artists of the turn of the century painted with their wrist. Braque and Picasso, to create their Cubist paintings, drew signs by articulating the movements with the elbow. De Kooning, with his shoulder, drew even wider brush strokes. Finally, Pollock placed the canvas on the ground and painted with his whole body. Fontana also used gestural language. Yves Klein threw all of himself into the void of the work. Here, I feel part of this club”. Yet, it is the same who recognizes a debt also towards minimalism: “Yes, but it is as if I had found my personal way that combines abstract expressionism, action painting, and art that wanted to eliminate all body traces. It is as if I had filled the empty vase of minimalism”. This seems to be the common thread that binds all the work of Jason Martin who, in hindsight, has significantly evolved in almost thirty years of career: the dialectic between opposites. Abstraction and figuration, expressionism and minimalism, painting and sculpture. “I don’t think that, in an attempt to evolve my language, I will abandon this path, it is the only way I have to say something interesting to develop my own personal pictorial vocabulary”.

But another legacy also weighs on the artist’s shoulders, the one that comes from having participated in Sensation, the exhibition that the collector Charles Saatchi sponsored in 1997 at the Royal Academy in London (later shown also in New York and Berlin) and that consigned the Young British Artists to history. We talk about artists like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sara Lucas, Jenny Saville, Marc Quinn, the Chapman brothers and others. Jason Martin was among them. “I remember that they hung my paintings upside down… Which, for works like mine, is not a serious problem… If the painting is good, it works the same. It was a great opportunity, but – even if we were more or less all peers (Hirst is five years older than me) – I don’t feel like belonging to it. It’s a story I ended up in without really wanting to”. If those artists were seen as the expression of a return to a shocking realism, it was evident that Martin was not in the game. “It is clear that, from the media point of view, my work could not compete with the shark in formaldehyde. Mine is another way. Although I have a lot of respect for the work of Emin or Lucas, for example. But of that generation, the one I feel closest to is Ian Devenport who was eventually excluded from the Saatchi exhibition”.

Martin’s painting is much quieter, more intimate, than the roaring English art that was successful in those years. And he remembers well his fellows at Goldsmith, all busy finding their own way to create the installations that became popular in the following years. “I was one of the very few to paint”, he explains: “There I met Steve McQueen, the videomaker, now an Oscar-winning director for 12 Years A Slave. He too had started painting”. As in the tradition of abstract painting, even for the English artist his work carries a marked spiritual and meditative dimension. And maybe for the same reason, perhaps, aged 24 he wrote to Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo to offer him his works. “He never answered me back. Perhaps because I was too much distant from the minimalist style he favored. But painting is also a spiritual exercise for me. It arises from the need to find my place in the world and, at the same time, to try to leave a trace for when I will be gone. I remember that astronaut from space who covered the Earth from his sight by stretching his thumb in front of his eyes. And he said: all I know is behind my finger. Everything else is unknown to me.”

Domani, 30th January 2022

Alberto Garutti – An Interview

Alberto Garutti

By Luca Fiore

Alberto Garutti (Galbiate, 1948) shares Conceptual Art and Minimalism’s interest in the procedures and systems for describing phenomena (maps, diagrams, geometric forms). The artist, however, merges “human matter” to this analytical approach, consisting of doubts, fragilities, personal and collective stories. “I Think I Remember,” a work made for his first exhibition in 1975 consisting of 32 black-and-white photographs, depicts the artist in the room in which he was then sleeping. Around him, represented in a systematic way, are objects usually found in a bedroom: a mattress, shoes, a glass, a pillow, records. In an extremely politicized historical period, putting an “individual narrative” into play was tantamount to going against the grain of the more radical experiences of conceptualism, which then dominated the art scene. It was in that context, marked by ideologies and dogmatisms, that Garutti decided to take a stance aimed at recovering a dimension of attention and sensitivity towards the other, and of course also towards things.

Garutti, like the conceptualists and minimalists, uses artistic language to trigger subtle games of mental associations, but he also opens up for us personal narratives associated with the emotional dimension. This is the case with the ‘Skeins,’ a series of works made with colored nylon yarn coiled around a spool of cardboard. The length of the material used varies and corresponds to the distance between two locations. In some cases, for example, they tell the story of the space that separates the artist’s studio or home from that of the collector buying the work. “I grew up in Milan in a family with four children, and when any of us would get sick with measles, Mom would send us to isolate at our grandmother’s house in Olginate, on the Lake of Lecco. And there I would feel really blue. An unbearable homesickness. And that feeling measured the distance between me and my parents.” Thus ‘Skeins’ represents the objectivity of a physical distance that corresponds, ultimately, to an emotional closeness.

When working on a conceptual level, the work is all the more successful because the simplicity of the idea is able to touch on complex and profound topics. From 2004, Garutti began placing a stone slab on the pavement of public places in several European cities (Siena, Milan, Florence, London, Lugano, Antwerp, Kaunas) on which he engraved the inscription “Every step I have taken in my life has led me here, now.” The inscription is an invitation to reflect on the uniqueness of a person’s human journey. The work also takes on a new depth of meaning each time it is looked at. It is a silent narrative that follows the viewer wherever he or she goes. It suffices even just to evoke it in your memory and you will be led to trigger a mechanism that will make you think back over your life, leading you to say, “Everything I have lived was, in some way, necessary.”

What matters most in art, the artist says, is the mysteriousness of the visual event. He demonstrated this well in a work, also from 2004, created in the Certosa di Padula, in the province of Salerno, where, on a wall of one of the cells of the monastic complex, he affixed the inscription, “A sheet of gold 20 centimetres wide, 20 centimetres long, with a thickness of 3 millimetres had been hidden inside the walls of this room.” Here Garutti asks the viewer for an act of faith (the actual realization of the work is attested by a notarial deed) asking them to believe in the existence of something that is there but cannot be seen. The very instant the visitor reads the inscription, the empty space of the cell is filled with a precious but invisible presence. Just as, in centuries past, the same room was occupied by the mysterious Presence recognized by the faith of a monk. It is the theme of the spirit, of the mystery of existence. This theme is fundamental for Garutti. For, as he often repeats, “If we take spirituality away from art, what would be left?”

From the early 1990s, Garutti began to reflect systematically on art in public space, contributing to the redefinition of the concept of the monument. This no longer included the equestrian statue of the founding father of the fatherland, the hero or the martyr in the middle of the city square, elements alien to the fabric of the city’s human and social relations. These works involve a process of creation that is simultaneously critical, ethical and poetic and that, as a whole, constitutes the work itself. “The method is the work,” the artist states. What this means can be understood in his recent Three Thresholds for Ca’ Corniani made in 2019 in Caorle (Venice), with landscape curatorship by Andreas Kipar and artistic curatorship by Elena Tettamanti and Antonella Soldaini, commissioned by Genagricola, Generali’s agri-food holding company that own the largest estate in Italy (17 thousand hectares). It consists of three works placed at access points to the area, which arose from his initial involvement with the life of the place, made up of meetings and dialogues with those for whom the work is intended. They are, he explains, the “unwitting patrons.” The works speak of them and they will be the ones to benefit from them. This is how Garutti identified the three places and three themes.

The first theme are the animals from the only farm that the business, to this day, continues to rent to a private farmer. They are three horses and two dogs whose life-size portraits the artist has produced in acrylic resin and white marble powder, lined up along a canal. “They are not just any animals, they are those of Renzo, the farmer I met in person. The work speaks of his work, his presence in the area, his toil and his affections. It is an invitation to reflect on the relationship between that man’s work and that particular landscape.” The inscription on the pedestals of each statue reads: ” The horses and dogs portrayed here live on the farm and are the custodians of this landscape. The work is dedicated to them and to the people passing through here who will see these fields cultivated like a great garden.”

Garutti then singled out another “emotional” place in the area: the abandoned farmhouse of Ca’ Cottoni, which he had secured and cleared of Eternit roofing. The work consists of 7 thousand square-based pyramids of gilded metal sheet, which reflect light differently according to its intensity and from different points of observation. The “caption” reads, “The great golden roof lends a precious touch to this farmhouse. The work is dedicated to its history and to the people passing through here who will imagine its empty rooms filling up with life again.” In the past, the building was home to many families in the area. There was also a rectory in it, where the parish priest lived. “That was where the life of the village took place. They told me that the faithful would go to those rooms to celebrate Mass in the winter because it was too cold and damp in the nearby church.” At the project’s inauguration in summer 2019, the local residents who attended, Garutti recalls, spoke of their relatives who had lived there. The new golden roof restores dignity and revives a history of relationships that time was making people forget.

The last site-specific work is that placed between the earth and sky. It is a large inscription of light (the handwriting is that of the artist) that bears these words, “These lights will vibrate whenever lightning strikes in Italy during thunderstorms. This work is dedicated to anyone passing by who will think of the sky.” The installation has a light intensity control device connected to Meteorage, which monitors the fall of lightning. It is a work that invites a relationship with that part of the landscape that is the sky: a place of imagination, where Zeus sits, or where the Eternal Father dwells. The theme, Garutti concludes, is “the enigmatic nature of natural phenomena and their seductive mystery. It is the mystical sense of nature, which art has always tried to represent.”

Domani, 24th December 2021

© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista
© Agostino Osio Courtesy dell’Artista

Felix Gonzalez-Torres – Untitled (Perfect Lovers)

Felix Gonzales-Torres Untitled (Perfect Lovers)

by Luca Fiore

The instruction guide to re-creating the work Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990, reads as follows, “1. Purchase two identical black-framed, battery operated commercial clocks with a 14” diameter. 2. Set both clocks to the same time. 3. Hang clocks at a height and location desirable to you. Place clocks directly next to each other touching.” Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres has said that this work is the scariest thing he has ever made. “Time is something that scares me … or used to. I wanted to face it. I wanted those two clocks right in front of me, ticking.”

The work is a shameless readymade, capable of becoming a powerful, yet ambiguous and poignant metaphor for the love between two people. These are common objects that can be bought cheaply and are used in everyday offices and public spaces. It is a universal image, which is direct and understandable. Two soul mates, whose movement is synchronized, whose heartbeat, whose breath proceeds in unison within the passage of time. The epitome of an idyll. They are two beings who mirror each other, recognize each other and, despite their individuality, exist as one. For Gonzalez-Torres, however, the work – thus conceived at an ideal level – must come to terms with its own physicality. In fact, as time passes the two clocks first tend to go out of sync and then, as one of them runs out of battery, it stops while the other continues to move. When this happens the collector, or the institution exhibiting the work, has to replace the batteries, synchronize the clocks again, and restart them. Untitled (Perfect Lovers) is dedicated to the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991.

These were years of controversy around the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. federal agency that supports the most promising art projects. Notably, in 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art was forced to cancel a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective – funded by public money – because of accusations of “obscenity” by the religious right. According to Gonzalez-Torres, the Republicans needed some fear mongering to tighten the ranks of their electorate. Since even the Soviet Union had fallen, it was controversial artworks, particularly those by artists using homosexual imagery, that now had to have the visual and symbolic force capable of mobilizing opposition to the Republican base. But as the Cuban artist confided to critic Robert Storr: “That is one thing that bugs me about artists who are doing so-called gay art and their limitation of what they consider as an object of desire for gay men. When I had a show at the Hirshhorn, Senator Stevens, who is one of the most homophobic anti-art senators, said he was going to come to the opening and I thought: he’s going to have a really hard time explaining to his constituency how pornographic and how homoerotic two clocks side-by side are.'”

Untitled (Perfect Lovers) has the capacity to reveal the breadth of human desire; it reaches a depth that touches primal truths. Although it speaks of a love story between two men – the clocks are identical, there is no sexual difference –, its themes are universal. Eros and Tanathos, the aspiration for eternity colliding with the destructive force of time, the need for one’s own heartbeat to have an echo in another person’s. And, perhaps, it is not by chance that the outline of the two clocks touching each other resembles the mathematical symbol of infinity. These are two hourglasses, memento mori, gaugers of the finiteness of existence that evoke, through that form that from minimalist becomes symbolic, the aspiration for perfection that is never exhausted. It is a paradox that manifests itself with each movement of the hand, impossible to represent in a photographic image that captures only an isolated instant in the life of the work.

There is a letter written by Gonzalez-Torres addressed to Ross that is titled “Lovers, 1988.” It is typed, and two stylized clocks have been drawn at the top of the paper in blue pen marking the same time. The message reads, “Don’t be afraid of clocks, they are our time, time has been so generous to us. We imprinted time with the sweet taste of victory. We conquered fate by meeting at a certain time in a certain space. We are a product of time, therefore we give back credit where it is due: time. We are synchronized, now forever. I love you.”

Il Foglio Arte, 24th September 2021

Danh Vo – An Interview

Danh Vo

by Luca Fiore

“A light cut of a saber will separate my head, like a gardener cuts a spring flower for his pleasure. We are all flowers planted on this earth that God reaps in His due time, some earlier, some later. May it be the purple rose, the maiden lily, or the humble violet. Let us all try to please the Lord and Master according to the scent or color that is given to us.” Thus wrote St. Théophane Vénard, a French missionary to Vietnam, on January 20, 1861, in his last letter to his father just days before his martyrdom. The full text in French, transcribed in beautiful calligraphy on a sheet of paper, hangs on a wall of the Milanese Viale Lombardia branch of Galleria Massimo De Carlo, which is hosting an exhibition by naturalized Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo. The artist himself, who has participated three times in the Venice Biennale and has exhibited in major instructions around the world from the Guggenheim in New York to the Reina Sofia in Madrid, admits that it is the work that best summarizes the terms of his poetics, which he likes to display in every exhibition. “If I could have created only one work in my whole career, I would have produced this one,” he tells me.

Vietnam is the only Asian country that switched to using the Latin alphabet during French rule. The artist’s father, who fled the country with his family in 1979 and landed in Denmark when Dahn was only four years old, had never made use of his calligraphy skills except for a few signs to put on display in his own grocery stores. The man, now 72 years-old, never learned Danish or any other Western language. The work, first created in 2009, comprises of Danh Vo’s father, Phung Vo, copying St. Vénard’s letter in beautiful handwriting despite not being able to understand what is written. Thus, the artist explains, it is in fact a drawing and not a text. The “drawing,” in blue pen on an A4 sheet of paper, is re-done each time a collector requests it. “So far we have made almost 2,000. It is not an edition – each sheet has a fixed price of 300 euros – but it is a single work that will come to an end with my father’s death.” And it is no coincidence that the dating of the work entitled 2.2.1861 is 2009– ongoing. Vo continues, explaining that “it talks about how language travels, returns, and mutates. It references the fact that the writer cannot read and that the text is also an image. It is a work that reflects on how violent power can return cyclically in the history of a country. But it also speaks of the distance between the creator and the observer, the distance between the French reader of today and the 19th century, and finally the distance between me and my father.” It is a reflection on the difference between human beings, but also on their possibility to be connected. And again, it is a poke at the meaning of work, the toil of manual dexterity, the precision of the calligrapher.”

This sheet dictates the atmosphere of the artist’s entire intervention in the spaces of the Corbellini-Wassermann House, designed by Piero Portaluppi in 1934, home of the gallery. Vo enters into a dialogue with the marble and wooden flooring of the former apartment, using marble scraps he procured from a producer in Bolzano. The artist uses the stone, along with softwood, iron clamps and fragments of antique sculptures, to make installations that Vo says play with the concept of “interlocking.” The fragments of ancient sculptures rest on marble, which, in turn, rests on wood. The idea is to create a pedestal for the sculpture, but the work is a dialogue between the two types of stone. “It is an attempt to look at works from the past in a different way, through the lens of time and other elements that have intervened in the material, including the human hand,” he explains. He adds, “The point is to observe the different types of beauty of the stone, what has happened to it: the cutting of the machine, the chisel that carved it, or the time that polished it.”

The most striking work in the exhibition, which the artist conceived as a single installation made on site, is in my opinion the work whose base is formed by a kind of salt-and-pepper granite bench, on which a fragment of sculpture resembling the decoration of a lion’s foot and a bronze face of Christ rest “interlocking.” The two elements are supported by small softwood supports. Christ’s face cannot be recognized except by lowering one’s gaze to the level of the bench.

The use of armless crucifixes, statues of medieval madonnas or fragments of Roman sculptures is common in Vo’s work. Their recontextualization and re-signification resembles what early Christian artists did in turn with myths, festivals, and buildings from the Roman world. In their own small way, the Vietnamese artist’s elegant and balanced compositions participate in the same language as Rome’s Pantheon, where the grandeur of the pagan temple becomes a celebration of Marian worship. For Vo, this is not ancient art at all: “These pieces do not belong to the past. They are objects that we still come across today. And many of the ones I choose communicate the sense of destruction wrought by time.” By the same logic, he took the original frame of the Caravaggio stolen in Palermo in 1969 to the 2013 Venice Biennale: “It was like a scar. It had to do with the idea of the fragment.” In a sense, the words of Saint Vénard, the French missionary, are also used in this same way.

Vo’s relationship with the Catholic Church is not linear. In the 1960s his father had secretly converted from Confucianism to Catholicism in silent protest against the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam’s Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem. As a boy, the artist was educated in his parents’ religion and tells me he went to Mass every Sunday until he was 18 when, hating doing it, he stopped for good: “I got rid of a trauma.”

One of his great points of reference is Cuban artist Félix Gonzalez-Torres, whose exhibition he curated in Brussels in 2010 as part of the “Specific Objects Without Specific Form” project. Vo says that Gonzalez-Torres “taught me to embrace contradictions. He works using oppositions. He could make a private fact public, showing his bed pillows on a billboard, and he could touch the private dimension of a public fact, such as the plague of AIDS.”

Bringing opposites together, showing contradictions remains one of the goals of Vo’s art because, he explains, “That’s the way life is.” Art, he says, must have to do with what one believes in, “and I believe in the contradictions of things. We learn that there is always meaning in life, but things often go in the opposite direction, contradicting it. And these two phenomena coexist. It is important for me to come to terms with this paradox.”

For the past five years, after a stint in Mexico City, Vo opened a studio in Stechlin, a village in the countryside an hour and a half from Berlin. The building is surrounded by a large plot of land that he is turning into a large garden. The artist realized he did not know the names of the plants, flowers and birds he was seeing. “I thought it was wrong,” he says, “So I decided it was time to learn them.” At first, not knowing German well, he tried baptizing plants with invented names. Then he decided to use their botanical names in Latin. This is how a new series of works, presented for the first time in the exhibition by De Carlo, was born, in which photographs of flowers taken by the artist himself are presented in prints with their Latin names underneath, written by his father Phung Vo in his perfect calligraphy. “Having a garden teaches you patience. It is good to watch things change over time. My exhibitions live for a limited time. When they come apart they disappear. Plants, on the other hand, keep growing and changing. The lockdown gave me a chance to notice the seasons. It had been ten years since, travelling all over the world, I had witnessed this phenomenon.” This, like the St. Vénard letter series, is also an ongoing work that is constantly growing. It will perhaps one day baptize the purple rose, the maiden lilac and the humble violet in Latin.

Domani, 19th September 2021

Berlinde De Bruyckere – An interview

Berlinde De Bruykere

by Luca Fiore

To elucidate on the poetics of Berlinde De Bruyckere, who was born in 1964 in Ghent, Belgium, where she lives and works, we have often had to resort to biographical information, such as her being the daughter of a butcher and having grown up in a Catholic context. Even though she became accustomed to seeing quarters of oxen carried on shoulders and bloody scrubs as a child, the artist has always said that her father’s job has not had any influence on the themes she touches upon in her work. More complex and profound, however, is her relationship with religion. She tells us that during her childhood, from the age of five, she lived in a Catholic boarding school. “My first approach to art came from looking at expressions of religious creativity. When I was taken into the institution’s chapel, my attention was drawn not to what was being said or done, but to the sculptures of the saints. I was not so interested in what people they represented, but in the fact that those objects were there, like presences. This deeply affected my sensitivity as a child. It taught me to listen to certain stories and then to see them painted or sculpted. They stayed with me.” During the first ten years of her career, she confides, she never tapped into this reservoir of images. Then, as she began working on the theme of the suffering body in the late 1990s, she inevitably returned to looking at the Great Masters. “You only have to visit one of your wonderful Italian museums to get an idea. How many works, read through a religious or mythological lens, touch on themes of life and death? The art of the Great Masters is like a hook from which I hang my own work, and which allows me to understand more.”

De Bruyckere has absorbed the desire to offer something that can give hope, of showing something beautiful, yet difficult, from Catholicism. “I think of Roger Van Der Weyden’s Pieta, which he says he painted to allow people to mourn the loss of a loved one. I, too, basically want to do something like that.” But the theme of flesh, its suffering and redemption is quintessential of a Catholic sensibility and art. If salvation exists, it must involve not only the spirit, but also the human body. If the possibility of resurrection exists, it must also involve the flesh. And the body of Christ, first crucified and then resurrected, is an image of the destiny of any other body.

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Engelenkeel (photo: Mirjam Devriendt)
Courtesy The Artist and Galleria Continua

Those who imagine Berlinde De Bruyckere as a sort of dark lady, constantly immersed in thoughts of death, are mistaken. Her vocabulary does not lack words like “joy” or “happiness.” When we ask her about her life as an artist, she sweeps away any doubts: “I feel privileged to do a job that forces me to think about such important and life-related issues. I am a happy person. I have a great family. But in my work I do what helps me as a human being. And it’s very nice to get reactions from people who, in turn, have felt helped.” What sustains her creative energy, she confides, is contact with other people, and the joy of going into her studio every morning and testing her ideas out: “Everything doesn’t always go the way I think it should. Sometimes I fail. What remains is the joy of feeling surrounded by people who try to help me achieve my passion. What also helps me though is what I see on my commute to my studio, or in the news, or in books in my library. There are many sources of inspiration.”

In these days, the Belgian artist is presenting an anthological exhibition at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht entitled “Engelenkeel” (Angel’s Throat), in which she presents, among other things, two new works made during the pandemic: Archangel and Sjemkel. They are female figures, standing on a rough wooden base, covered by a cloak made of cowhide that leaves their bare legs uncovered. The sculptures are made from wax, resin and pieces of authentic leather. “When I visited the churches in Rome as a girl, I was struck by these wonderful creatures placed on the outside of the buildings,” she explains. “I felt they were very significant, both for the theme itself and because of the relationship between the figure and the architecture. I made some drawings and collages of them. I used to collect feathers and attach them to very glossy black paper. But I had never tried to make sculptures out of them.” These figures, almost ghostly, look very much like another cycle of her works made in the late 1990s, in which upright female bodies, made of wax, were hidden under heavy colored blankets. It was the first time that the human figure appeared in the artist’s work, which later became one of the key themes of her poetics. The idea was to create an intimate space, where you could be alone, isolated, with your own thoughts and feelings. “It was interesting to notice the reaction of the models posing for those sculptures. They said they were totally uncomfortable under the covers. Since they couldn’t see who was looking at them, they felt even more naked than they would have had they been completely visible. It’s the relationship between you and me that makes it all the more complicated.”

The external form, the silhouette of those women hidden by the blankets, is very similar to the angels in the Maastricht exhibition. “But when you see them from life,” she explains, “you realize that what looks like a curtain or a blanket is actually wax molded from a mold made of cowhide. This was initially related to the myth of Marsyas, the satyr who, having challenged Apollo on who was more skilled in the arts, was flayed for his pride.”

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Engelenkeel (photo: Mirjam Devriendt)
Courtesy The Artist and Galleria Continua

The idea of the angel came to De Bruyckere when a Belgian journalist, at the beginning of the pandemic, asked her what work of art she would like to have in her home at a time when museums were closed and one could not have direct contact with art. “I started looking through my books. Flipping through one on Giorgione, whom I love very much, I found a painting that I had never seen in real life. A dead Christ supported by an angel, which is in a private collection in the United States.” It is a square canvas occupied for the most part by Christ’s naked torso. Behind it is a large-winged angel holding him up. Light comes in from the side and the angel’s cheeks shine. “That’s the image I was looking for!” – she recounts – “it showed what I saw happening around me. People suffering and people, in hospitals, trying to help. It was a time when we were all asking ourselves so many questions. We didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know what was right. There was a lot of fear, we were scared of each other. But, at the same time, I saw people giving their all to do what they could to help those in need. In my eyes, those people had become angels. I thought it was time to address that theme.”

De Bruyckere’s angels diverge greatly from classical iconography. The figures, posed on a high pedestal, suggest, under their heavy leather cloak, the presence of protrusions that could be wings. The asexual beauty of the art of the great masters is not conveyed; there is no narration. Their face is hidden, as it is in all human figures produced by the artist. The reason why the face is absent is that its hairstyle is related to the fashion of the moment, while the naked body is something universal. “Covering the figures allowed me to imagine the wings. It’s something much more intimate. It’s much more connected to a sense of hope. There’s the notion that these creatures might be able to fly. The way I place the sculptures on the base is also designed to make it unclear whether they are flying away or coming to rest on the ground. It’s something you need to feel, not something I decide. Do you wish for them to leave, or to come to help you? Or do you want them to go to someone else?”

Looking back over De Bruyckere’s career, it is evident that the theme of the human figure was touched upon even when tree trunks or the bodies of exhausted horses are depicted. “In 1999 I worked at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, which is entirely dedicated to the events of the First World War. There I exhibited five life-size portraits of dead horses, made by stitching real leather. The shape of those corpses is a very powerful metaphor for death. It rendered the idea that we are dealing with something larger than the size of our bodies. After seeing a work like that, we will look at a suffering body differently.”

The 2011 series “Into One-Another” in fact dealt with suffering and mangled limbs, in which the artist began to fuse together pieces of naked human bodies made of wax, so that each part seemed to grow from the other. The theme was also picked up on later using horses. It’s certainly a sexual metaphor, but for the artist it is also related to the process of metamorphosis: “It’s about something arising out of something else and becoming bigger and more important.”

What is most destabilizing about De Bruyckere’s work is that the theme of death and suffering of the body is inextricably intertwined with that of beauty, which, as is her intention, appears necessary to deal with decay, anger and fear. “If I leverage beauty, using beautiful, soft and flexible materials such as blankets, horsehide or wax, I can go deeper and achieve greater intensity. If I used bronze or cast iron for my sculptures, which are cold elements, the viewer would be drawn away from the theme. I make use of what people like to touch. Fragile elements.” The dimension of beauty is also linked to silence, “which is what comes immediately after the incomprehensible moment of death. After the suffering of a body, even that of a horse, there is a silent pause, which is very helpful in trying to understand and find calm. The last moments of life are the most difficult, you feel that you don’t want to leave and that you want to keep living. They can be moments of struggle, even aggression. But when it’s all over, silence comes. Very often in my works you can see both struggle and calm at the same time.” But the most scandalous aspect of these works emerges when beauty becomes sensual and is contaminated with a sense of the end: Eros and Thanatos. De Bruyckere is aware of the presence of this figure in her work. “With Thanatos there is silence, while with Eros there is passion and life. They are the opposite of each other, but both are deeply rooted in us. We are always thinking about life and love, but also about death. This is not a duality that I am interested in intentionally bringing out. It appears because it comes from the deepest part of me.”

We all suffer, we all die. And we are all aware of it. But shouldn’t art say something we don’t already know? And yet, addressing such a theme has a sting to it, rubbing salt into the wound. If we don’t know why we die, it’s difficult to give ourselves an answer as to why we live. No one is interested in quick answers. To deal with the theme of death is to confront the great mystery of life.

A few weeks ago, De Bruyckere placed a sculpture, Honte (2018-2019), in a small chapel in Ghent, which depicts a foal that has survived only one day lying on a large rock. “The work was illuminated by natural light coming in through a stained glass window. At the opening, there were many astonished reactions. They said, ‘It’s so beautiful.’ Yet they were faced with the figure of a dead horse. Nature created something wonderful and, after just twenty-four hours, has deprived it of life.” The animal, the artist explains, lies on a large stone. “I see this dialogue between the boulder that took millennia to form and the fragile and wonderful animal that lived just a few hours, lying with its eyes closed with its hoofs on its face, as if to protect itself. It shows no signs of suffering, so much so that someone thought it was sleeping. I like that the position of the animal insinuates this doubt: is it dead or asleep? It depends, perhaps, on a certain kindness that I try to give to my sculptures. But more than kindness, I would say softness.”

Instinctively, De Buyckere’s work has come to be likened to Alberto Burri’s “sacks” and Francis Bacon’s bodies. “With regards to Burri, I think we are united by the sense of fragility that the material used communicates, although recent works made with blankets come from another idea.” After using them as an image of shelter and protection, over the past decade, the artist has tried leaving them outdoors for months or years to expose them to the elements. “Nature is my silent worker. Using this type of fabric fits better with my way of thinking today. Time has transformed the material. And also the way I understand it. The social context has completely changed since the 1990s. Today we are no longer able to protect people, to offer them help. We abandon and let those who cross the sea die.”

A comparison with Bacon has accompanied De Bruckere for years and, she confides, she does not particularly appreciate the work of the great English painter. “At first I was annoyed by it. But the fact that they kept comparing me to him led me to wonder if there really was a relationship. We actually have several things in common.” One of them, she explains, is twisting bodies, deforming them. The other is the way she depicts skin and flesh. “But there’s also another aspect: Bacon presented his paintings behind glass and with large gold frames. I think because his themes are so strong and direct, he felt the need to place something between the work and the viewer. It’s a bit like what I do with display cases to protect horses or human bodies. It’s a filter between the viewer and the fragility of the sculpture.”

There is another artist to whom De Bruyckere feels she owes a great deal: the 16th-century German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. For a long time, she says, she produced drawings from his paintings, interested in the way he deformed figures and the way he rendered flesh tones. The painterly quality of her sculptures, she says, came from him. “Another artist who has influenced my poetics is Pier Paolo Pasolini. The Into One-Another series came about because I was working with my team on his work to find aspects to translate into sculpture. I love the fact that he worked with his friends, his lovers, his own mother and had them act in his films. It’s a bit like working in my studio, where we have become one big family. We hang out, we know each other’s children, we love each other and help each other. It’s a very nice way to work, even if it’s challenging. I don’t just have my family, I have something bigger to take care of. Working in a studio is not just doing your job, everyone takes charge of the works that are created, like real things, not like fairy tales.”

Her next big project is an exhibition at Palazzo Pitti, in the spaces of the Uffizi. The exhibition is scheduled for next November. To work on the project, De Bruyckere will have to go to Florence several times. “Some of my works arise in relation to the work of the old masters, others do not. I’m interested in perceiving whether my most recent works have any connections to the masterpieces of the past. It’s an opportunity that rarely happens in life and I want to give it my all.”

Domani, 11th July 2021