Curran Hatleberg – An Interview

Curran Hatleberg River's Dream

by Luca Fiore

Snakes, alligators, dogs, bees. And then woods, wrecked cars, bodies of water, domino games, watermelons. Curran Hatleberg’s is a rosary of objects, perspectives and situations in which the animal and plant worlds often intermingle seamlessly, as if were only chance that earned them a shot – and thus the photographer’s attention. River’s Dream (TBW Books, 2022), the volume signed by the 40-year-old U.S. artist, which was among the finalists of the Paris Photo-Aperture PhotoBook Awards, the most prestigious prize in photography publishing, is the result of a whole decade of wandering in the southern United States, between Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Presented in 2019 at the Whitney Biennial in New York, it is conceived as a chapter in a single project on contemporary America: an attempt to gauge the country’s pulse in these years of turbulent transition. In the previous instalment, Lost Coast (TBW, 2016), Hatleberg immersed himself in the atmosphere of the northern California town of Eureka, where the majestic beauty of the redwoods of Redwood National Park coexist with the social unease of deep America. “In River’s Dream I try to approach these places from a particular perspective, which is that of individuals, of families, of community,” Hatleberg tells Il Foglio. “I longed to go to Florida in search of the paths off the beaten track. I was not interested in the Florida of Miami beaches or Disney World, or that ends up in the newspapers. I knew nothing about that state, and I was curious to understand what happens in normal places and in everyday life. And I wanted to do it in the middle of summer, when the humidity is unbearable, to better immerse myself in the atmosphere of those places.”

Hatleberg visited Florida for a couple of years, returning to see the same families he had met by chance to spend time with them. “I even lived for several months with some of them and became part of their daily routine. These are people I met while photographing: they were as interesting to me as I was to them. And there was a spark. It was a kind of magnetism, an unspoken connection.” This close relationship allowed Hatleberg to enter the world of these people, to access their moments of intimacy and vulnerability. A deep relationship that grew out of complete strangeness. “I relied on them, as collaborators, subjects and guides,” he explains. Hatleberg is not afraid to use the word “friendship” to describe this relationship. The volume opens with a blank page that reads, “This book is dedicated to the Huggers.” The artist explains, “The Huggers are ‘those who embrace,’ but they are also the Hugger family, one of the families I have grown most attached to.”

It is thus a book about friendship, but also about summer: “The heat forces people to be outdoors. And the photo opportunities are endless. People go out on the streets just to walk, letting themselves go out into the world without any planned thoughts. In those temperatures, you take off your shirts, your skin is laid bare. Crime increases. Waves of moisture wash over the landscape, driving weeds out of the concrete.” After his experience in Florida, the photographer landed an artist residency in Galveston, a coastal city in East Texas, which also allowed him to spend periods in Louisiana and Mississippi. “The weather there was incredible, too: you had wet clothes on all day long. It’s the swamp where snakes and alligators live; whose images recur throughout the book, as do those of the families who hosted me.” Places, seasons, people. Hatleberg records and documents. But there are no captions or notes in the book to associate the images with the circumstances in which they were taken. This is not an oversight, but a conscious choice. “When, by showing a photograph, one answers too many questions about who, what, where, and why, you close off many of the possible interpretations. If immediately after looking at an image you read the caption and think ‘oh, it’s Florida,’ the game is already over, the imaginary is already circumscribed. Whereas in this way the viewer has a chance to dream. And the hypotheses of interpretation are neither confirmed nor denied. It’s a kind of ambiguity that I really like.”

It is no coincidence that Hatleberg’s photography was chosen by Paul Graham for the group show “But Still, It Turns,” presented at the International Centre of Photography in New York and the Rencontres d’Arles, in which the British photographer put forward a new generation of artists who have restored vitality to the tradition of photography based on life “as it is.” It is, in different nuances depending on the author, a lyrical documentary, in which reality is represented without technical distortions, but without deluding oneself or claiming to be objective, but rather winking at the narrative of fiction. River’s Dream begins with an image of a ruined house, whose white door is dotted with red, black and yellow spray spots. The next picture is dotted, however, with a swarm of bees around two slices of watermelon. In the subsequent image, two more slices of watermelon are leaning against a yellow-painted wooden windowsill, and in the background is a sign that reads “Pure Honey.” We turn the page and find a man in a yellow T-shirt who, with a scowl, sports a beard of bees around his chin. The following photograph shows a family at the side of the road around a table eating slices of watermelon. The browsing continues with three men around a small table playing dominoes. In the next shot, the framing is close up and you can make out the domino pieces positioned like a snake. Turning the page, there is a photograph of a little girl, sitting amid piles of rubble, holding a snake. Hatleberg explains, “It’s a sequence of images that proceeds according to the logic of a dream. Later in the sequence, more images of snakes appear. One in a tank, the other in an inflatable pool. If you think about it, even the river that gives the book its title proceeds in loops and resembles a snake.” These are not metaphors or symbols, although it is difficult to separate an animal like the snake from a symbolic connotation, but recurring themes, like melodic lines in a piece of music. A score built by counterpoint, in which recurring images are woven into a visual flow that has little or no narrative, but much that is poetically atmospheric. Hatleberg’s is a work about the humidity, the water, the river, the life that comes alive in these regions unfamiliar to those born and raised on the East Coast’s big cities. “These are places neglected by more than just media attention. They’re places you’ll never hear about except that, for one reason or another, you’re forced to go there. America is a really big country, but probably 70 percent of it is more like these places than big cities like New York, Miami or Los Angeles. If there’s a standard, it should be looked for here, even if it’s the part of the United States you know the least about.” Hatleberg explains that, especially at this time, in such a polarized country where division dominates, photography is a great excuse to bring people from different worlds together and give them an opportunity to share something. “While working on this book,” the photographer says, “I had someone say to me, ‘I’ve never met an artist or someone from the left. But you’re nice, you’re okay.’ Ultimately, looking at it as it is, it is more what we have in common than what sets us apart. I think people are good by nature. At the heart of work like this, there is probably the belief that it’s possible to understand the meaning of family and community. Maybe that sounds trivial, but it’s probably not so obvious: people can be together even if they are different. And this I was able to see thanks to my work as a photographer.”

It’s as if Hatleberg’s documentary approach brings him closer to a specific subject and theme. In this case, the South: unfamiliar and foreign to a man born in Washington DC and a Yale graduate. But it is the logic of the dream that carries forward the lyrical argument of the conversation. Yet each shot is an image that stands on its own, capable of communicating even in isolation from the final sequence. Many of these photographs convey a mysterious charm, difficult to decipher. A skewed, off-axis beauty. Lester Bangs would have called it “grungy.” “Yes, I desire to show beautiful things. That’s where I want to get to. But what I prefer is to make an image that thrives on the friction between extremes: happiness and sadness. Hope and despair. It happens that you find yourself in really tough situations, socially or personally, but something appears inside the frame that opens up a possibility.” The photographer suggests looking at the ending of his book: there is a sequence of images showing a middle-aged, red-haired woman. She is sitting at a table by a river. In front of her are empty bottles. Some full of water, some of beer. She looks at the arm of a person outside the frame, on which a praying mantis has rested. “It was an ordinary day in an ordinary situation. It looked like it was going to rain. Then this beautiful insect comes out of nowhere, like a small miracle. It’s on such occasions, when the everyday flirts with the sublime, that life becomes exciting.”

Speaking of small miracles, in 2020, shortly after taking the last photo in this book, Hatleberg’s first child was born. He was registered at the registry office as River. This is not a key to River’s Dream, but something the artist greatly cares about. “The whole time I was working on this book, he didn’t exist yet. My son had not yet been born. Now, looking back on it, though, it’s like I went through these vivid, intense, beautiful experiences as if in a dream. The dialogues I had in the places I ended up, the excitement of not knowing where photography would take me at the end of the day, and trying to find the most visually appropriate way to communicate all this. And today I think that, in a way, the first person I wanted to share what I saw and experienced with was him, my son. Even though I didn’t know him yet. And today I imagine him as having participated in this impossible dialogue. And what you now see in the book, ultimately, is also his dream of what was happening to me.”

Il Foglio, 5 November 2022

© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW

Antony Gormley – An Interview

Antony Gormley Lucio Fontana Negozio Olivetti

by Luca Fiore

He somewhat resembles T.S. Eliot, a little Roald Dahl, a little Roger Moore. It might be the shape of his nose, or his high forehead. Maybe his haircut. He is cultured, polite, elegant. Antony Gormley, the most important living British sculptor, has Britishness plastered across his face. Born in 1950, he studied Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History at Cambridge before going to art school in London. He took a two-year trip to India in the mid-1970s. His work, for which he was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize in 1994 and that has been exhibited in major museums around the world, is a reflection on the form of the human body and its relationship to space. His perhaps most iconic work is the Angel of the North (1998), created for the town of Gateshead in northern England along the A1 motorway. It is a human-shaped steel colossus, twenty meters high, which has two wings instead of arms, fifty-four meters wide. It is an enigmatic presence amid the landscape, just like many of the other sculptures that Gormley has often placed in evocative views by the sea or above city buildings (in 2019 one of them was placed atop the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence).

We met with him before the summer and he told us that on Easter Day, April 17, he had been in Venice to set up the “Lucio Fontana / Antony Gormley” exhibition at the Negozio Olivetti in St. Mark’s Square. Although he is no longer a believer, he wanted to participate in the solemn celebrations in St. Mark’s Basilica and was struck by a mosaic: “On the left, looking at the altar, there is the scene of the incredulity of St. Thomas, in which the apostle makes to touch the wound in Christ’s side. I noticed that while the other wounds on his feet and hands were drawn as a circle, the one that Thomas’ finger approached was square. And I thought of Kazimir Malevič’s Black Square.”

     This idea came to him from his confrontation with the theme of the absolute, an undercurrent throughout his work, which he has explored more deeply in recent years through the comparison of his work with that of Lucio Fontana. We suggested to him: the same happens in Caravaggio’s painting of the same Gospel episode, in which Christ’s wound seems to anticipate Fontana’s cuts. Gormley confirmed this and put forward: “It is so also in the Guercino in the Vatican Museums, but even more so in Verrocchio’s sculpture at Orsamichele. They all pre-empt him.”

Antony Gormley Lucio Fontana Negozio Olivetti
Antony Gormley (Foto: Luca Fiore)

For the exhibition in Venice, he had access to more than 4,000 drawings by the Italian artist. Among them, he was struck by his notes for the “Technical Manifesto of Spatialism,” which Fontana presented in 1951, proposing an alternative to the way in which, until then, Western art had approached the problem of verisimilitude. It was no longer a matter of following geometric perspective, based on the point of view of a man resting his feet on the ground. The artist was asking to take a leap, which was conceptual, and look at the world from space. It was a cosmic view, almost two decades before the photos of our planet taken by astronauts orbiting the moon. “Fontana takes a canvas, which is the traditional site of representation, and carves a cut into it. He denies, in a sense, the idea of mimesis and paves the way for the representation of the infinite.” For Gormley, this approach is opposite and complementary to his own: “My way of recognizing the cosmic truth of an ever-expanding universe is to step out of the zone of perceptual appearance. Just close your eyes and you find yourself in darkness, in a space that has no objects, dimensions or age. It is the place of consciousness, which everything in contemporary society tries to make us evade.”

     All of Gormley’s work since the early 1980s is an attempt to depict this space of consciousness. Among his first endeavours at this is Rise (1983-1984), a sculpture representing the space occupied by the artist’s body: a cast made on himself and enclosed by a lead envelope, across which orthogonal lines have been drawn like on a globe. The figure is placed on its back with its shoulder raised slightly off the floor. “What I wanted to show is the darkness inside me.” Another work that is very similar to Rise is Untitled (for Francis), created in 1985, which is now kept at the Tate Modern in London. In this case, the human figure is standing, with its legs slightly apart and with outstretched arms, showing the palm of its hand. Holes can be seen on its feet, hands, and ribcage. “That work was born out of the failure of Rise,” the artist explained, “People did not understand what I wanted to communicate and said it was a boring mummy. The idea for the new work came to me from seeing Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert at the Frick Collection in New York. My father was a fan of the Canticle of the Creatures and the Little Flowers … So I took the saint’s position and drilled holes that are shaped like eyes. It is not a Christian image, but it is a gesture of openness to the world and space.” In 2012, however, he made the monumental work Model: a building in the shape of a human body, 37 meters long and made of 22 metal parallelepipeds. Visitors can enter and move inside the sculpture, having the experience of being in the same infinite space contained within Rise or Untitled (for Francis).

     Another way of developing the same theme, which is perhaps what Gormley is best known for, is achieved by the use of orthogonal lines. Rather than marking the surface of an enclosure, these take on a texture of their own and go to occupy the volume of the interior space. They are not skeletons, but architectural structures that represent the intimate place of consciousness. In a paradoxical game, the artist uses Cartesian axes to represent a dimension in which Cartesian logic loses its meaning. One of the most iconic examples from this series can be seen on the upper floor of the Venice exhibition: Subject III (2021), a man kneeling against the wall. “The idea on which my work is based,” Gormley explains, “is that consciousness inhabits the body and the body inhabits architecture, and I use the syntax of the latter to describe our organism as a space of transformation. Our body is the arena of experience and consciousness. Mine is an invitation to take the time to rediscover this dimension. I am not interested in the viewer just being a spectator, but in them participating in the work. That is why, whenever possible, I make works in which one can enter and interact.”

Such is the case with Frame II (2021), the large-scale work that was the highlight of the “Body Space Time” exhibition that just closed at the Continua Gallery in San Gimignano; this occupied the former stalls of the small cinema, home of the exhibition space. It is a structure composed of interpenetrating aluminium frames. Gormley intended for the interweaving of the lines to evoke the third position of the Islamic prayer sequence, in which the praying person rests on their knees, with their forearms and head on the ground. “It is a position that we might associate with that of the kneeling supplicant in Christian worship. It makes explicit that man depends on Allah’s will and that also speaks of his connection with the earth. And it is also the posture in which the body occupies the least possible space. The work is open, and although it is the size of a house, it cannot be a shelter. It is placed where the stalls used to be, where the audience sat in silence, waiting for the performance to begin. It was the place of waiting and attention.”

     More recent works include Hold (Pieta), 2019, which seems to allude to an embrace, despite the fact that Gormley’s sculptures usually only depict one body at a time. “Yes, it is about an embrace. But it has nothing to do with a romantic concept.” The artist took out his smartphone and showed us a photograph of him naked while clinging to one of his life-size human body works, made of cast-iron and steel parallelepipeds. “It is a reflection on the relationship between the sculptor and the sculpture. I think it has to do with Michelangelo’s obsession with the image of the Pietà, the Christian symbol where the mother of God holds up the dead body that she generated. I think it is a metaphor for the relationship between the sculptor and the inertia of matter. Between energy and stasis. I have the wish to create an equivalent of the human experience that, in a sense, can only contemplate death as well.” He made it at the height of the pandemic, when contact between people was prohibited. “If it was just an attempt to illustrate a need related to the Covid period, it would be a complete failure,” the artist explains, “I wanted it to be a meditation on the experience of sculpture, in which a living body attempts to imprint upon a piece of inert matter the possibility of empathy and feeling.”

     We asked him why, in talking about his works, he often makes references to concepts or realities related to religions. “Looking at the lexicon of body positions gives us access, in a sense, to the various kinds of cosmology, the worldviews that the desert religions have, rather than Buddhism or Taoism. And all these examples of positions are manifestations of a state of contemplation, which is the attitude we need to make art. They are positions that we associate with the idea of prayer, meditation or supplication. I am not saying that we should go back to the theistic worldview, but that the space of art shares with some religious practices and traditions the idea that we are in the world but we are not of the world.” Is art therefore the last possible religion in a secularized world? “No, this is a simplification that distorts what I am trying to say. In the late capitalist age in which we find ourselves, in which values have collapsed into monetary value alone, art is important because it is a space for contemplation and reflection that, as such, should be protected.”

Tracce, October 2022

”Rise”, 1983-1984 (Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio / Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua)
”Hold (Pieta)”, 2019 (Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio / Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua)
”Space”, 2021 (Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio / Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua)

Alec Soth – An Interview

Alec Soth A Pound of Pictures

by Luca Fiore

Vince Aletti, a leading photography critic, wrote in the New Yorker that Alec Soth is the most influential photographer of the last twenty years. He may be exaggerating, but the consensus around Soth’s work is beyond question. Not only is he a member of the world’s most prestigious agency, Magnum, and his photos appear in the major American and international press, but his books are considered best sellers. The first editions are collector’s items with unaffordable prices, but in recent years his English publisher has begun to reprint them, making them accessible to an increasingly wider audience. He used to keep a widely followed blog; he now posts mini lectures on Youtube, and has just opened a profile on Tik Tok. And, so far, he hasn’t yet fallen into ridicule.

But it is precisely the form of the book, and he himself confirms this, that contains within it the soul of his work. Soth is not really a photojournalist; rather, he is an heir to the American tradition of “poetic documentary,” whose patron saints, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, succeeded not only in recounting the soul and contradictions of a country, but in sparking the flame of poetry that ignites the world of things by portraying nothing other than what was in front of them.

Soth’s latest work, “A Pound of Picture” (MACK, 2022), was born out of failure. His original idea was to retrace the route taken by the train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s corpse from Washington, D.C., to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, in 1865. On that occasion millions of Americans flocked to see the convoy carrying the body of the assassinated president. Among them was poet Walt Whitman, who for the occasion wrote the elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” in which he asks, “O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?/ To adorn the burial-house of him I love?”

“I was thinking about the Civil War,” he tells Il Foglio, “What the United States is experiencing today is something close to it. I live in Minneapolis, a mile from where George Floyd was killed. And I’ve seen a lot of tension over the years. It would be an exaggeration to say that Lincoln’s assassination reunified the country, but it’s certain that if he hadn’t been killed, his legacy would not have been the same. Today he’s an esteemed figure, for different reasons, by Democrats and Republicans. I wished to reflect on that period and that circumstance that, in some ways, was a way out in a moment of stalemate. But it was an abstract idea and the project foundered and turned into something completely different.”

“A Pound of Pictures,” as Soth intended it, is a reflection on the photographic medium, and little of the “Lincoln Project” remains, such as the image of a bust of the President in a car secured with a seatbelt. The book opens with a photo of a cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is sunset, and in the center of the image, amid the tombstones, a person can be seen with his back to a photographer. The man is Ed Panar, an artist friend of his. The two, Soth says, are discussing the idea of a stereotypical image. The cemetery is one such example. But for Panar, there are no clichés in photography and he is not afraid to take pictures of the place. That is how this photograph was born: the two of them go to a cemetery together, and the former immortalizes the latter in order to understand how one can look at the world without too many superstructures and prejudices. The last photograph in the book, however, is an image taken inside the author’s car. In the foreground is the steering wheel, on which a typed ticket is attached. It was the first picture taken at the end of the first lockdown. Soth recounts that at first he felt he had forgotten how to take pictures. As an aid he decided to reread the advice that Allen Ginsberg used to give photography students in the workshop he held with Robert Frank. And he kept them with him while working. The first two lines read, “Ordinary mind included eternal perceptions.” The last says, “Candor ends paranoia.” In between then are images that in one way or another are related to the world of photography, including portraits of Duane Michals, Sophie Calle, Nancy Rexroth, as well as the darkroom of legendary printer Sid Kaplan and Nan Goldin’s bed, on which two works by Peter Hujar stand out.

“One of the issues that is talked about so much today is that there are too many images in the world,” Soth explains. “At different times in my career I have had to wrestle with this idea. But at some point I thought it’s like complaining that there are too many flowers. Why does one, even today, take the trouble to photograph flowers even though, probably, the fate of those images is to end up, sooner or later, in the trash? According to me it’s because, in some way, they testify to the recognition of a beauty. And for me that, for some years now, is becoming important, rather than stressing the negative aspects. For me, now, it is about celebrating what is there. Because that, after all, gives the possibility of a connection between people.” That was also the goal of the project on Abraham Lincoln: to find connection in a fragmented world. “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that. Perhaps underneath the surface of this work there’s also that. If I think about one of the sources I go back to, Walt Whitman, he was like that, whatever he did: from writing poetry to nursing during the Civil War. In him there is a desire to connect with people.”

“A Pound of Picture” was also included in another book released this year, “Gathered Leaves Annotated,” which gathers all five major long-term projects Soth has done since 2004. The volume, printed on newsprint, also features “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” “Niagara,” “Broken Manual” and “Songbook.” It consists of seven hundred pages in which the books are reproduced in their entirety, including their covers, but to which the author has added handwritten comments, placed captions alongside the photos that were originally placed at the end, and added – in the margins – discarded images that seemed more appropriate to him today. Beyond the curiosities, more or less interesting, leafing through such a book means to immerse yourself in a great account of America of the last two decades. What America is, then, is very difficult to say. “As I realized with the failure of the Lincoln project, I’m not the kind of photographer who goes and tells you what his country looks like,” Soth explains. “For me it’s more about the process, how things happen as you make them. Sure, my books talk about America and say something about it, but I couldn’t really say what. Ours is too big, articulate and complex a country, full of nuances. But one thing I think I’ve realized is that every time I go out to photograph America I end up learning something I didn’t know before, because things were not the way I thought they were.” To explain what that means, Soth takes an image from his latest book as an example. It is of a shirtless black boy in the middle of a tall-grass meadow, bending down to pick a flower with pink petals. “I was in Pittsburgh to photograph Buddhist temples. I arrived at one of them and found that the place was closed. I stopped the car in the neighborhood, and it was a poor area, inhabited by African Americans. I noticed a young couple. They were beautiful. I asked if I could photograph them. She said no. He agreed. After I had taken the photos, I exchanged small talk with them and found out that he usually attends the nearby Vietnamese Buddhist temple. And I couldn’t really imagine a guy like that as a temple-goer. It was like finding something I wasn’t looking for. Does that say anything about America? I don’t know. It certainly says something different than what I thought before.” A note in the book says, among other things, “Photography doesn’t just force me to leave the house, it forces me to leave my head (briefly).”

Reviewing Soth’s books, which alternate between portraits and interior shots, landscapes and still lifes, one often has the impression of being moved. The themes addressed are challenging: dreaming (“Sleeping by the Mississipi”), love (“Niagara”), living outside the box (“Broken Manual”), the religious dimension in the Midwest (“Songbook”). If asked if there was a turning point in conceiving his images, Soth returns to a photograph featured in “Niagara”: it is a portrait of Melissa on her wedding day. She sits outside an anonymous building in her wedding dress. “She had just gotten married in a motel chapel. I took pictures of the couple, then asked to take a portrait of just her. While editing my first book, I realized that my photographs included too many elements. So for “Niagara,” I was trying to work by subtraction. On that occasion, it’s as if I asked myself: can I make a photograph about love that has only one person as its subject? She sat down and took on a much more reflective expression. It was the beginning of a new way of thinking about the work.” The story of this portrait, Soth continues, does not end there: “After years, I sometimes go back to meet or photograph particular people again. I looked for information about Melissa and, on Facebook, found photos of her second wedding. Now looking at this image I can’t help but think about the time that separated the two marriages. Her gaze today seems to be that of a woman thinking about the future.” The idea that you can depict a subject – love, for example – on which light cannot rest and which does not imprint film is one of the paradoxes that has always characterized photography. “I just opened a Tik Tok profile and started experimenting. For example, I filmed myself thinking about the most different things: funny, violent, sad. And I was asking users if they understood what was going on in my head. It doesn’t work. We don’t know what the bride from earlier was thinking about. Maybe what she was going to eat at her wedding lunch. We’re the ones who fill that void. And we do it depending on who we are and when we do it. It’s the viewer who gives meaning to the image, if they want to.”

In this regard, conditioning the way we read images are often the words that are associated with them. Dorothea Lange said that “all photographs – not only those that are so called ‘documentary’, and every photograph really is documentary and belongs in some place, has a place in history – can be fortified by words.” And Soth uses them a lot. Poems, usually. His books have titles that nod to Walt Whitman or quote verses from Wallace Stevens. But not only. Flipping through “Gathered Leaves Annotated,” for example, one comes across a short text that closes “Songbook” and, which, perhaps, can illuminate the rest of his work as well. It is a quote from Eugène Ionesco that says: “The truest society, the authentic human community, is extra-social – a wider and deeper society, that which is revealed by our common anxieties, our desires, our secret nostalgias. The whole history of the world has been governed by nostalgias and anxieties, which political action does no more than reflect and interpret, very imperfectly. No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute. It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.”

Il Foglio, 22 July 2022

Alec Soth, ‘Stuart. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Alec Soth, ‘White Bear Lake, Minnesota’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Alec Soth, ‘Megan. Belle Island, Detroit, Michigan’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Alec Soth, ‘Julie. Austin, Texas’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Alec Soth, ‘Julie. Austin, Texas’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Vincenzo Castella – An Interview

Vincenzo Castella

by Luca Fiore

In 1984, Luigi Ghirri wrote that Vincenzo Castella – then 32 years old – was one of the most important figures of the “new Italian photography.” This was a generation, the Scandiano-based artist explained, whose approach to photography was neutral and impersonal. The “death of the author” was the unifying element of the new trend, which followed the example of Walker Evans: silence, rigor and simplicity.

Almost forty years have passed and Castella has shed the role of the young promise to assume that of the master. His work has evolved, but without betraying the convictions that had founded the poetics of his beginnings. “Every new photograph should be looked at as a new fact,” says Castella. “Not as a variant, nor as a reproduction, or even as a reality or its opposite. The photographic act is neither convenient nor functional; but it is a subtle, elusive and infallible gesture.”

At the turn of the 70s and 80s, Castella’s lens rested on urban landscapes, the interiors of houses or shops, industrial areas and glimpses of archaeological ruins. Color images were made with large-format plates, capable of accurately recording even the smallest details. “Everything seems to be guided by a skilful direction, which discreetly indicates, emphasizes, leads the path of our gaze,” Ghirri writes when looking at these images by Castella. “Not to force our vision but to better make visible the theatre sets of the world.”

In the following decades, Castella focused on the fabric of the city shot from above: Milan, Naples, Turin, Athens, Amsterdam, Cologne. “What I have tried to do is to convey the continuous intensity of the urban machine, which develops a life beyond the concern of the person who designed it,” he explains. “My idea of the city is that of a spaceship built elsewhere and dropped into our reality. So I focused on the hooks, the hinges, the connections where you can better see the city; the Italian city especially develops more on lived experience than on urban design.” These are images in which the gaze can get lost in their many details, all rigorously in focus. They demonstrate an effort of precision that is a gesture of affection towards the web of streets and buildings within which the lives of men stir.

The years at the turn of the 2000s, on the other hand, were years of technical experimentation, which led him, among the first in Italy, to scan photographic plates, printing them from files. Within him was the desire to reflect on the nature of digital transformation, which he does not consider a neutral process, along with the curiosity to obtain far from naturalistic chromatic renderings, but more resembling to industrial products: “A particular green that, more than resembling the colour of a meadow, resembled the colour of an Apple screen.”

More recently, Castella’s interest has shifted to art history: Santa Maria Novella in Florence, San Maurizio and Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. His attempt was to return, through peripheral shots, to a poetic reading of architectural spaces or frescoes. This is the case with Leonardo’s Last Supper, where he focuses on the walled-in door that punctuates and wounds the work. The concrete rectangle, which the photographer makes almost disappear into the darkness at the bottom, appears as a metaphor both for Leonardo’s impenetrable masterpiece and for the diaphragm that separates us from ultimate knowledge of the world.

Parallel to this, the artist is also pursuing projects concerning nature. These are close-up photographs, made with nineteenth-century lenses, with an uneven focus. The effect is painterly, now far removed from Evans’ surgical precision. They are often photographs taken in botanical gardens, although they give the impression that they were produced in wild settings. “In such cases I try to raise the temperature of the visual action. Nature allows me to create uneven backdrops of plants in captivity. I’ve almost never photographed a forest,” Castella explains. “I don’t photograph the created or the creator, but something I consider a text, often treated in art history in the peripheries of paintings, in the margins. I am attracted to the color green; it’s a color that is not beautiful, but is ambiguous, which gives you the perception of understanding more. I don’t think it’s by chance that it represents hope in popular culture.”

In his recent “Il libro di Padova” (The Book of Padua), published by Silvana Editoriale, Castella combines these two thematic strands – the art of the past and nature – by proposing a journey that starts from the Botanical Garden, passes through the Venetian city’s main historical buildings, and then returns to its starting point: Goethe’s Palm, Galileo’s desk, the Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel. “It’s a path manual, where you add up what you know and what you don’t know and at the end you get a mysterious mathematical derivative that, somehow, allows you to know something.” Until then, the artist had conceived his work in terms of “parataxis,” that is, the juxtaposition of main, independent and interchangeable sentence-images. In Padua, however, he tried to construct a ‘hypotactic’ text, in which the discourse is articulated by main and subordinate clauses, in order to help the cognitive process.

One of the book’s most intense moments is the page with four photos of the “Martyrdom and Transport of St. Christopher”, Andrea Mantegna’s fresco in the Ovetani Chapel of the Church of the Eremitani. The vertical, panoramic-format images dissect the work in three intervals, somewhat imitating the movement of the gaze that follows, from left to right, the pictorial narrative. This choice allows him on the one hand to include the dimension of the time of observation, and on the other hand to enter into a relationship with the work by going beyond trivial photographic mimesis. The artist includes not only the painting, but also the portion of the wall below it and a section of the floor. “We cannot understand the enormous heritage we have in Italy if we do not extend our field of vision to the place where the works are kept. I’m not interested in denouncing degradation – and that’s not the case in Padua – the point for me is broader observation.” Castella’s images of the Ovetani Chapel have also brought to light the losses sustained by the March 1944 bombing: the work and its wounds, those of time and those inflicted by the hand of man.

For Castella, reality is not what we see. It is better. “Because the visible is made up of what is framed by the lens and is captured on film, but also by what is invisible to the eyes and the camera. I’m not talking about ghosts, but about what – although not seen – we can only get to know through what appears to us.” This is why the artist always tries to work in “negative space,” both from the point of view of his choice of subjects, and his framing. On the one hand, he depicts fragments of cities or works not worn out by the gaze of the mass media, and on the other hand, the widening of shots to capture the outline of the subjects, often also achieved by use of the panoramic format.

Another choice that recurs in Castella’s work is that of the reverse shot. This is the case with the wooden horse in the Great Hall of the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, which has been shot from behind, capturing only its pedestal and legs at surface level. The space from which the monument is usually observed by the visitor is instead at the edge of the shot. “It’s the work that begins to look at you,” he explains. He had done the same in Florence, when he shot Santa Maria Novella from the apse towards the façade, depicting the iron and wooden back of Giotto’s crucifix in the foreground, which stands out against the backdrop of the black and white stone vaults.

The rhetoric-free attention to a landscape unknown to the collective imagination, which he shared with the “new Italian photography,” now appears transfigured. He still has a good dose of nonconformism within him, for whom the image is both a tool and an end to gain a liberated awareness. Society has changed, which has found new ways to imprison images. He himself has changed, who refused to settle for any singular way of desiring the liberation of the gaze.

Domani, 20th March 2022

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

Bruno Ceschel – An interview

by Luca Fiore

What interests me most about photography, and in art in general, is the ability to build the future. Artists have the ability to narrate, to make us think about a different, better future. This is the common thread that holds together what I do: books, exhibitions and teaching.” Bruno Ceschel is well aware that photography has made its fortune on its capacity for memory, of resurrecting people, things and events that are no longer there, as Roland Barthes explains when he writes about his search for an image to revive his dead mother. And yet, in Ceschel, a restless visionary, what prevails is the opposite force: art has to push beyond the limits of the known and, as Luigi Ghirri said of Daguerre, to approach the boundary of the “already seen” and at the same time the “never seen”.

In the world of photography publishing Bruno Ceschel is considered the guru of self-publication. In 2010 he founded a cultural project, which later became a publishing house and a series of popular online masterclasses, with a clever and optimistic name: Self Publish, Be Happy!. Since then, if the way in which photographers think and make books has changed, it is also thanks to the enhancement and visibility given to hundreds of independent publications by young artists who were previously overlooked by publishers and curators. The Guardian called Ceschel’s initiative “the vanguard of the self-publishing revolution.” In fact, SPBH was born as an invitation to the new generation of photographers to send in their publications so that they could be included in the collection of self-published books that, last year, was acquired by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris. Three thousand books and fanzines: a “snapshot” of what has sprung up spontaneously in the young community of artists over the last fifteen years.

Ceschel, born in 1976, began his adventure in Treviso, not far from the town where he was born and raised, Orsago, as part of the editorial staff of Colors Magazine, the cult magazine founded in 1991 by designer Tibor Kalman and photographer Oliviero Toscani for the Benetton group. After studying Sociology in Trento and London, he became editor during the period in which Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, two key figures of the new photography, were directing the magazine, projecting it onto the international stage. Three years later he found himself in London, making do with collaborations with Italian newspapers, particularly women’s magazines. But the new turning point came when he was advised to send his CV to Chris Boot, former director of Magnum Photo in New York and London, former editorial director of Phaidon and future executive director of the Aperture Foundation – one of the industry’s master minds. By that time Boot was working on his own, publishing books by Martin Parr, Luc Delahaye, James Mollison and Stephen Gill, among others. This was greatly educative for Ceschel, who began to familiarize himself with the world of photography that matters.

Bruno Ceschel

In 2008 he was asked to curate an exhibition for the Brooklyn Museum, with an Aperture catalog. The exhibition’s theme, at the time, was avant-garde: Contemporary Queer Photography. The project, however, fell through and nothing came of it. “But during those two years in New York, I came into contact with a community of young photographers and artists who were producing work that resonated with my interests. They were using print, books and fanzines and were self-publishers. The Do-It-Yourself culture in the United States is much more deeply rooted than in Europe, and what I was seeing seemed very valuable.” So he decided to launch an open-call, inviting people to send him their work for promotion on his blog. “I proposed an event called Self Publish, Be Happy to the Photographer’s Gallery in London, in which I showcased a selection of these books and organized meetings with the authors. They were works that were not circulating in the mainstream and people had no idea they existed. It was an overwhelming success. The principle was democratic; anyone could send us their work, then we would select what would become part of the collection. Overnight, I suddenly had a house full of books. I received as many as 15 publications a week. People talked about it, word got around. And the Photographer’s Gallery began keeping some of these books in their bookshop.”

Five years later, in 2015, “Self Publish, Be Happy” also became a book published by Aperture with the subheading, “A Do-It-Yourself Photobook Manual and Manifesto.” Ceschel’s introduction begins, “This is not a collection of recently published photography books. It is not a best-of. It is a call to arms, a rallying cry to take part, to act, to share.” The volume features big names, artists who would later become big, and others who have remained in the shadows. We find “The Little Brown Mushroom Dispatch” by Alec Soth and Brad Zellar, a series of publications in newspaper form documenting the American photographer and writer’s travels around the United States. Or “Nude” by Chinese photographer Ren Hang, which collects works that later became particularly famous after the artist’s suicide, printed by a printmaker friend. We also find “Gomorra Girls” by Valerio Spada, which recounts the story of the suburbs of Naples, alternating material from the police dossier on the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, killed by crossfire in a shootout, and images of the neighborhood where the girl lived. Or “Afronauts” by Spain’s Cristina de Middel, which freely reconstructs, through original documentation of photographs and the artist’s drawings, the story of Zambia’s space programme that dreamed of sending astronauts to Mars in the 1960s.

“Self-publishers have shattered the rules of traditional publishing, which were very much tied to the standards imposed by big names like Taschen and Steidl. They introduced innovations both in terms of the themes that were presented and the form of the book object,” Ceschel explains. “Not only because the artists often came from minority backgrounds and, belonging to underrepresented communities, told stories and themes that were hitherto unexplored, but they had a freedom and unscrupulousness in their use of the publishing medium. The physical appearance of the publication became an integral part of the narrative. The quality of paper, graphics, binding, printing techniques. They were young people who thought about books in a different way. It was an experience that certainly ended up influencing mainstream publishing as well. Today, even if the trend is that of the book “a la Michael Mack”, which is very clean and classic, we see certain experiments in books published even by more established and official entities. The language of the photographic book has changed forever.”

But there is another dimension that, according to Ceschel, has been brought out by this phenomenon. “Traditionally, photography has always been a parallel reality to the world of contemporary art, for various historical reasons, so much so that in museums it has always been considered a thing apart; paradoxically certain institutions have not even collected it. And the same has happened with photobooks, which have remained separate from the history of artists’ books”. In the last fifteen or twenty years, he notes, there has been a fusion of photography and contemporary art. “This phenomenon is not only seen in museums, but also in publishing: all these experiments do not come from nowhere, self-publishers did not invent them, but it is something that has matured from the experiences of the artistic avant-garde. Some scholars believe that the artist’s book is the form that expresses the quintessence of 20th century art because it has the characteristics that shaped the last century: the adoption of the industrial process, conceptual experimentation, the democratic, social and revolutionary impulse.”

And it is no coincidence, Ceschel continues, that many of the artists of the last generation were trained in universities where photography is taught in the Contemporary Art department and not in the Design or Applied Arts departments. “These photographers thus have a different way of thinking. Their mind is different from the previous generation, and that has always attracted me. But not because I am interested in contemporary art itself, but what is being said through it. In the end, what I am looking for – in general, in life – is to confront myself with new ideas. To be able to live better, to understand who I am and where I am. That is why I am always looking for something unprecedented, for what is being told and how it is being told.”

To explain what this means, Ceschel gives the example of his collaboration with artist and activist Carmen Winant, which he says is based on questioning her preconceptions and ideas about gender identity. SPBH published “My Birth,” the book of a project in which Winant collected almost 3 thousand images of women in the period of gestation and childbirth – a completely taboo topic in Western society – which was exhibited in the same year in the exhibition “Being: New Photography 2018” at Moma in New York. “That book had a visceral impact in the community of people I met at museums or fairs. We received so many messages of gratitude for that book. And for me, from a personal point of view, a world opened up that I did not know.” Another of Ceschel’s partnerships is with renowned American poet Claudia Rankine, with whom he collaborates regularly and with whom he is working on The Racial Imaginary Institute Biennale 2022, titled “On Nationalism: Borders and Belonging.” “Her radical work on the political and social construction of the white race has inspired me to embark on an incredible emotional and intellectual journey about my own identity.” Or his friendship with photographer and writer Nicholas Muellner, who explores the potential of the relationship between photography and literature. “He, too, opened up a world to me that was unknown to me. But the moment one gives you the key to enter it, you have the opportunity to discover how much is hidden behind that. These are all relationships that give me tools to open myself up to new ideas. As time goes by, I find that I am increasingly impatient with what gives me the impression of having already been seen and heard.”

It is from this impatience that, in 2018, the idea of organizing an event entitled “Photobook: RESET” at the C/O Berlin museum blossomed. “I had the impression that contemporary photography was not taking seriously certain topics that today, fortunately, have exploded into public debate. Why is it that museums only offer collections of works produced by men? Are there alternative voices to the heterosexual white man? But there were also the challenges posed by the acceleration of technological progress. These were the questions that I had and that I felt that no one was trying to answer seriously.” The idea was to invite photography’s elite – academics, curators, editors, critics, artists, designers – and ask them, rather than an ex-cathedra lecture, to get involved through the workshop format. “I did not expect solutions to be found. These are huge problems that cannot be solved in a weekend. But I wanted that, through very personal work, everyone would go home with a set of new questions to continue to reflect upon.” What have the results been three years later? “I do not like grading colleagues. But Lesley A. Martin of Aperture and Michael Mack came. Are their books now different than before? To some extent, yes. Things are moving along. I am not saying that event was decisive. Some things were already in the air. A lot of ground is still to be covered. But every now and then we see some jolts. Like what happened at Foam, the Museum of Photography in Amsterdam, where Jane’a Johnson, a thirty-year-old African-American, was appointed creative director. She is the first non-Dutch woman to hold that position.”

In recent months, a new chapter in Ceschel’s life has begun. After a decade spent between the United Kingdom and the United States, mostly in London, he returned to Italy and has settled in Milan. “Reaching 40, it seemed like the right time to think about something new. Brexit provided the impetus. London is a place I love and has given me so much. I had incredible opportunities there, but now by returning to my country I hope to bring back my experience and a way of thinking about this work and photography that is probably different. I have not yet found a way to do this. But things have always worked out for me by experimenting in the field. I am not going to change my method. We will see.” In the meantime, four new SPBH books have been released in recent months. Two monographs, “Promise Land” by Gregory Eddi Jones and “Say So” by Whitney Hubbs, and two short essays on topics – as is typical of Ceschel – that are anything but obvious, “Instructional Photographs: Learning How to Live Now” by Carmen Winant and “To Be Determined: Photography and the Future” by Duncan Wooldridge.

Il Foglio, 28th December 2021

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

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