Vincent Fournier: a time traveler taking the past into the future

Vincent Fournier: a time traveler taking the past into the future / In conversation with Alice Zucca

Vincent Fournier is interviewed by our Editor in Chief Alice Zucca

It is easy to cross the border between fiction and reality, while diving in the imagery of Vincent Fournier, and this is not only because of the suspended atmosphere and the unusual representation of spaces and human figures. He explores the conceptual frontier between concreteness and imagination, between past and future, and in this intermediate parallel reality he identifies a non-space, the ideal scenario to document the possible forms of a possible future. Like a tireless narrator, he builds his stories through elements that are based on a tangible and familiar ground, which at the same time is also ethereal and impalpable, proposing a solemn and cinematographic staging, which with enchantment extends to what is and what’s not perceptible, made of imaginary universes, epic stories and futuristic utopias that cause a feeling of bewilderment and estrangement but simultaneously a sense of familiarity that lengthens the dream, making it in some way possible and including it in the sphere of things that, although they never happened, they echo in our memory like a deja vù.

Space Project, Mars Desert Research Station #9 [MDRS], Mars Society, San Rafael Swell, Utah, USA, 2008

Fournier’s world is, in fact, made of intuitions, a world in which one can remember what has not yet happened, and what’s possibly about to happen in a near future which, however, already echoes in the present moment. The artist ranges between the most captivating themes and the most significant utopias of the twentieth and twenty-first century: between anthropomorphic robots, futuristic architecture, space exploration, artificial intelligence, ambiguously oscillating between documentary and fiction, nature and artifice, thus triggering a reflection on our way of living, our perception of time and space and their evolution. Fournier seems to recall film sets capable of bringing to memory an novel temporal dimension, a sort of future that is dissolved in the maze of a past-present. What is going to happen? What are the variables of the possible future? An imagery that shows the nostalgia of a fictional time that does not belong exaclty to this era but, at times, becomes frozen in a utopian limbo that has not yet taken place, echoing as trace in the present.

Space Project, Mars Desert Research Station #11 [MDRS], Mars Society, San Rafael S 64 well, Utah, USA, 2008

Photography thus provides new interpretations and alternative ways of describing reality, albeit unreal, contributing to the generation of a simulated space within the already “built” contemporary space. Moreover there is no present that cannot be established without referring to another time, to another “present”, the present is a trace as theorized by Derrida. It indicates that time gap with the present element of non-contemporaneity, which is in all aspects a space of freedom, since it is interpretable. The matter is all about understanding whether the human being is able to stop in this space of “uneasiness”, if he is up to conveying the trace. In my opinion Vincent Fournier is able to achieve this.

Space Project, Robonaut 2, NASA’s Johnson Space Center [JSC], 

Alice Zucca: What is the path that led you to this type of deconstructive / reconstructive reflection of reality? Where does the idea for the development of the narrative come from?

Vincent Fournier: My photographs and other works are allegories of childhood dreams where reality is mixing with fiction. They are stories where the meaning is floating from opposite themes : serious and playful, sense and non sense, reality and fiction, organic and artificial… like an encounter with Jules Verne and Jacques Tati. I think this feeling is linked to the world of childhood, when the meaning of things is blurred, when things can have a different meaning. My stories are fed from several mythologies of the future – space exploration, humanoid robots, the transformation of living things through technology or utopian architecture. It can be the past future or the future we imagine for tomorrow. How we see the Future is my main playground. Then the starting point is often a familiar, comfortable and aesthetic situation in which I introduce a disruptive agent… At the end I like my images to be somehow like UFOs!  I’m looking for tension between support points and break points in between a documentary and fiction. 

I believe this “obsession” comes from my childhood and many visits to the Palais de la Découverte in Paris with my grandmother. All these evocations of the “wonder of science” and the mysteries of the Universe have nourished my imagination and stimulated my curiosity for utopias and the field of possibilities. I also grew up in the 70s and 80s with many representations of the future, both in fiction but also in the development of technology, space exploration, internet, robotics, architecture… I still have a romantic vision of this future and maybe I am quite nostalgic about it! I know that it sounds completely out of date, but I think we need to feed our imagination with images of the future that are both credible and somehow attractive. It gives a perspective and a goal especially at a time when it is only a question of an eternal present, as if urgency had everywhere repudiated the future as a promise. For instance the space adventure proposes a perspective and a new angle to better see and understand our Earth from a distance.

I think my main inspiration comes again from the memories of my childhood: the first image that really struck me when I was ten was a reproduction of the «The Hunters in the Snow» by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s a funny coincidence because you can see this painting in the movie «Solaris» by Andreï Tarkovski that was also an important reference for me. As a kid I was very fond of science fiction, from comics, to series and novels…  I remembered as well that with some friends we rented the movie «2001: A Space Odyssey» by S. Kubrick. It was a revelation: the aesthetics, the ideas, the narration… but not with my friends who all left before the end… I also listen to many podcasts about science, history, philosophy, art… and TV series as we all do!  I have also been deeply influenced by “rationalist” compositions, such as the grids used by architects or graphic designers.

Self Portrait Vincent Fournier ©

Space project” is a collection of strange terrestrial landscapes with which Vincent Fournier stimulates our imagination between reality and dream. They are visionary photographs on space exploration, which offer science fiction-like visions of missiles, astronauts, research stations and spectral scenarios. Fournier was able to create such stunning images through his collaboration with major space organizations such as NASA, ESA and the Russian space agency, as well as the world’s largest astronomical observatories. Therefore he had access to information on the first Sputnik and Apollo programs, on the future missions to Mars and on confidential projects such as NASA’s SLA rocket, which he transfigured and sublimated through his peculiar artistic vision of space exploration. Fournier’s intent is to induce us to question our perceptions of space and time and he suggests a reinterpretation of our past and future utopias, revisiting them with evocative images that recall myths and fantasies of mankind about the future. To achieve this, Vincent Fournier brings together innumerable subjects: from the clothing of Captain Boris, a Russian astronomer, in his daily space, to the Norwegian astronomical observatories and the Atacama desert, in Chile. From the multitude of antennas scattered in a field to the collaboration/interation between robots and men.

AZ: Can you tell me about this project and how do you perceive the relationship between man and machine? And what about technological progress?

VF: Space Project is my founding project, started in 2007 and is still going on. It tells the story of space exploration, from the memories of the space age to the new futuristic projects such as the NASA SLS launch vehicle which is expected to go to Mars. The strong relationship that I have created with the most representative space organizations around the world led me to see behind the doors that are normally kept tremendously secret. My latest images are from last December show the Artemis project, at the NASA Glenn Research Center, whose objective is to return to the Moon in order to develop a base (orbital station) that will serve as a starting point to go to Mars. The plane that looks like a “big whale” is the NASA Super Guppy, which carries the famous ORION capsule that will go to the Moon next year. 

I love machines, the ones that fly, talk, count, observe… I am fascinated by the magic of science where the universe and the complexity of the world seem to be summed up in a few mathematical formulas. There is a certain irony in giving a visible and understandable picture of the mysteries of the universe. Waves, time, space, stars, light, all make sense. Observing, indexing, measuring, treating… the universe is not as perfectly organized as our machines. It acts irrationally, in a chaotic, violent and mysterious way.

Space Project, Ergol #11, S1B clean room, Arianespace, Guiana Space Center [CGS], Kaurou, French Guiana, 2011
Space Project, Ergol #12, S1B clean room, Arianespace, Guiana Space Center [CGS], Kaurou, French Guiana, 2011
Space Project, EISCAT Svalbard Radat [ESR],
 Spitsbergen Island, Norway, 2010

The cinematographic reference constitutes a fundamental element that has influenced the conceptual matrix from which his creativity is inspired. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as stated by Fournier himself, was a source of inspiration for his imagery and in a certain sense is able to vividly describe the fundamental assumption of his creative process. The film, made in 1968, describes facts that refer to the year 2001. Inevitably it describes more the world of 1968 than that of 2001 but it continuously intertwines the past with the future, and places with non-places. The initial scene “the dawn of man”, as Fournier points out, shows an ancient past in which monkeys, in an atmosphere that feels permeated with sacredness, from harmless animals begin to transform into dangerous and violent beings, that is to say, into human beings. This ancestral scene is connected with the future shown in the next scene, full of technology, space stations and spaceships flying to the rhythm of the waltz “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss. The realistic narration of the life of the astronauts on board a concrete place such as the spaceship DiscoveryOne and the final journey of astronaut David Bowman through a hallucinatory non-place, a psychedelic tunnel made of stars, nebulae, geometric figures and unknown worlds, which will take him to a surreal and white mansion furnished in a neoclassical style.

Brasilia, The Itamaraty Palace – Foreign Relations Ministry, stairs, Brasilia, 2012

The architectural formalisms of the architect Niemeyer appear in Fournier’s photographs in “Brasilia”, they are almost like abandoned movie sets that recall the flavor of those by Jacques Tati. Built in the late 1950s according to the plans of the urban planner Lucío Costa, the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx and the architect Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia is an example of speculative architectural hypotheses for the future, which today, about sixty years after its creation, are still unspoken utopias, crystallized between past and present. The contrast between the austere urban fabric of Brasilia made up of bureaucratic and governmental locations and the irrepressible liveliness of the streets of the Brazilian metropolises of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo appears extremely striking, as an interesting spark that points out the transitions of the human element that is well distributed in Fournier’s work . In his landscapes, the French photographer, hovering between the dreamlike and reality, also shows normally unpublished spaces, such as engine rooms or training rooms for astronauts, places that, although concrete and real, appear at the same time as almost virtual, elusive and inaccessible.

Brasilia, Chamber of Deputies [Annex IV] #3, Brasilia, 2012

AZ: Can you tell me about your relationship with cinema, from Kubrik to Tarkovskij? And the relationship between staging space and architectural space? The one between space and the human figure (which in your representations is often “evident” for its lack rather than its excess)?

 VF: I have made numerous film references along my work. David Cronenberg or Stanley Kubrick are amongst those directors who had such an influence on me because of their technological approach and the forward-thinking aspect of their work. Indeed, “Solaris” by Andrei Tarkovsky  fascinated me and one can easily see this movie together with “2001, Space Odyssey” as heads and tails of the same coin. Both movies show the cosmic sphere as the reflection of intimacy and both directors actually question our perception of reality with unexpected spaces – always imaginary rather than real – or time inconsistencies, such as the final of “2001, Space Odyssey”, where you can see an astronaut evolving in a Louis XVI decor. 

I also like Jacques Tati’s movies because his sense of humor has always been very close to the absurd. His vision of utopias was far ahead of his time even though it was also often satirical and of course I like him because of his aesthetic approach, very sharp, architectural and with several layers of meaning. It has certainly influenced my work about Brasilia that explores the utopian Future of this city which was born at the same time as the beginning of the space age. Indeed, the date of the “pilot plan”, conceived in 1957, coincides with the launch of the Sputnik, the first artificial satellite of the Earth. Brasilia was born at the beginning of the space age and the whole aesthetics of the city is largely inspired by it. It is the dream of space and the race towards the future that is embodied in a metaphorical and anticipatory way in the city’s architecture. The portholes are reminiscent of those in Gagarin’s space capsule, the passageways connecting the various buildings evoke the long corridors of orbital stations and the architecture on stilts anticipates the “chicken legs” of future moon landing modules. The metaphor is even more obvious as with the National Museum surrounded by a ring of Saturn. Moreover, this city which has fantasized space and invented its own future, has remained frozen in time. Indeed, the city plan, identical since its origin, is registered since 1985 in the Unesco Heritage, which preserves it definitively from any change. Brasilia is therefore a bubble out of time, a time capsule where the dream of the future of the 60s is nostalgically offered.  The book «Brasilia – a Time capsule» will be released in November with a text by the MET curator. Several images from the Brasilia series are part of the MET permanent collection.

Brasilia, The Claudio Santoro National Theater, Spiral Staircase, Brasilia, 2019
Brasilia, General Army Headquarters #1, Brasilia, 2019
Brasilia, The National Museum #3, Brasilia, 2019

The documentary element confirms itself as another distinctive element of Fournier’s approach to the variables of what exists. In the Post Natural History project, Fournier imagines an extraordinary collection of upcoming living species, that mutated to adapt to changing environments and events. Are they the result of the adventures of a reckless space traveler committed to visiting unknown worlds and cataloging new forms of life? The combination of the traveler/collector figure strikes me as spontaneous and evocative. Fournier like Captain James T. Kirk of the famous TV series Star Trek, set in the future, which tells the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise of the United Federation of Planets, “dedicated to the exploration of new worlds, in search of other forms of life and civilization, to get where no man has gone before”.
AZ: Can you tell me something more about this project?

The Bestiary [Post Natural History – Cycle II] Monitor Lizard [Varanus imitabilis] Mimetic Lizard, 2012
The Bestiary [Post Natural History – Cycle II] High Speed Shark [Squalus moleculo]
Autonomus shark with the ability to control the speed of which molecules travel, 2018

VF: With my last body of work, «Post Natural History» I am telling the story of the transformation of life using technology. I think for the first time in History man has the tools to transform, create, reprogram the living and merge it with the non-living. This future is much further away so we don’t have images yet, that is why this body of work is based more on our imagination. It is inspired by synthetic biology and also by Surrealism. I think biotechnology and Surrealism both share a fascination with mixing things that have nothing in common. They both create strange, hybrid and uncanny species, composed, cut and pasted, of different parts just like a chimera or an “exquisite” corpse. 

The Post Natural History is composed of 3 cycles. The first cycle is called the Flesh flowers. It shows the result of tissue engineering techniques that create artificial flesh using edible plants. And what I am presenting are the remains of those flesh flowers, their skeletons. This work is made with 3D printing. The second cycle is a bestiary of upcoming species inspired by medieval bestiaries. Those strange and hybrid creatures are the mirror of our wishes, hopes and fears. The bestiary is presented just like a curiosity cabinet. Each image of the species is like a taxonomic illustration with a plate describing their particular features. Those creatures are engineered species with special features designed by man. For instance if you take a closer look at the scorpion, you will realize that this is not just a scorpion but also a remote controlled robot which is able to perform surgical operations. A closer look at the body of the dragonfly makes you realize that it contains sensors that measure the quality of air, or the Fennec is able of mind-reading. 

The last cycle is called the Unbreakable Heart. After being created outside the body, the technology is going inside the body. And what organ is more symbolic than the heart? So I have created the first advanced unbreakable heart made of gold and lead, and designed to live forever. As in my other works I forged a link between the past and the future. This unbreakable heart is inspired by alchemy, which sought to turn lead into gold in order to create the elixir of life, but it also echoes the desires to live forever of the transhumanists and the Silicon Valley. And since living forever is quite expensive, this advanced organ is made of pure gold and set with precious stones.

Alice Zucca

SAVE THE DATE ▼

Paris Photo – November 12/15 2020 – event + book signing > Vincent Fournier will present Space project and Brasilia and will also do two book signing – Space Utopia and Brasilia (Noeve, Rizzoli)

Vincent Fournier / BRASILIA – coming soon – solo show at Paris Photo with MOMENTUM gallery (Miami).

Diet Sayler: being an artist in the Romania of Ceausescu

Diet Sayler: being an artist in the Romania of Ceausescu

Diet Sayler is interviewed by Catalina Enciu

Diet Sayler (b.1939), one of the greatest European representatives of Abstract Art, tells us about the daily life of artists in Ceauşescu’s Romania. Sayler was the first Romanian artist to experiment in his artworks with the spatial aspect as perceived by visitors in motion. These were the cultural years (1956-1973) characterized by cunning political escamotages by Ceauşescu in order to improve his position leading him to take charge as General Secretary in 1965. One example of these political means was the exhibition at the Kalinderu Art Gallery (1968), which was only a chance to show the emancipation and the destalinization of the country to the entire world. It was a brilliant mise-en-scène specifically planned. Indeed, as soon as the French president Charles de Gaulle left the country the exhibition was closed. Inevitably, these political games left a mark which materialized in a new flourishing of creativity and the purchase of one of Sayler’s artworks by MoMA.

Diet Sayler © portrait 2007, Courtesy of the Artist

Cătălina Enciu: In 1968 you took part in an exhibition with Roman Cotoşman, Constantin Flondor, Ştefan Bertalan and Molnár Zoltán at the Kalinderu Art Gallery. Can you talk about it?

Diet Sayler: The Exhibition was inaugurated in May 1968 in Bucharest during the occasion of the Official State Visit of the President of France Charles de Gaulle. Roman Cotoşman, Constantin Flondor, Ştefan Bertalan, Molnár Zoltán and I were invited to display our artworks, but not as a group. It was not a collective exhibition. We all displayed our personal works as a heterogenous mix even though we all had something in common. Bertalan, Molnár and Flondor, studied Art, while Cotoşman studied Philosophy and Theology. They all had a Humanistic education, except me, I studied Math and Engineering. I can say this Exhibition was the result of intense research we started after Cotoşman’s trip to France.

CE: Why did Cotoşman go to France?

DS: Cotoşman at that time was very sick. In 1963, thanks to the Romanian patriarch he managed to obtain a passport to go to France and receive medical treatment. It was a miracle that he got a passport to travel outside the former Soviet Bloc. These 6 months staying abroad allowed him to approach and immerse himself in cultural Western Art History. When he came back, he brought a new vigor to the local artistic atmosphere like a breath of fresh air that immediately influenced all of us. In my opinion he was the most intellectual of the group, he was a pictor doctus.

CE: Did you know each other?

DS: I met Cotoşman for the first time in Podlipny’s atelier while I got to know Flondor, Bertalan and Molnár 5 years later.

CE: What was the cultural artistic influence in the year 1968?

DS: To understand the relevance of ’68 it is necessary to know how people used to live in the two decades before. The 50s were a very dark period as they were marked by strict Stalinist policies. It was impossible to find any kind of publication coming from the western world. At the beginning of the 60s, as in the year 1968, we witnessed a kind of unfrozen period. In Bucharest we had a kind of Spring very much like what happened in Prague. It was a time that offered more openings to the artistic environment. In the 70s the home policies underwent a sudden change characterized by very strong oppression that caused dramatic suffering to the citizens of the country. Those were the hardest years when the people had to face the rationing of hot water, heating, electricity and food. We could say 1968 has been a year of light in the dark communist period.

Diet Sayler. A.K. 59 1969, oil on paper, 100×70 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Courtesy of the Artist
Diet Sayler, Untitled  # 1 – 1970, oil on paper, 100 x 70 cm, TATE MODERN, London, Courtesy of the Artist

CE: In 1969 MoMA bought your artwork A. K. 59. Can you tell us how they contacted you to buy it?

DS: During his State Visit, the French President Charles de Gaulle was joined by the Minister of Culture Andre Malraux and a lot of French journalists who took pictures and wrote about our works displayed for the occasion. That’s why one day, Andrew Stevick, a gentleman from New York, came to see me. It was very hard for journalists and critics to be allowed to meet a local artist to interview him or buy his works. The state maintained the control on everything and everyone. They had to have special permission from the minister which was almost impossible to get. It is still unknown to me how this exactly happened. We were not allowed to know this kind of backstage. I didn’t know this man or what expedient was used to get him permission. I never heard from him again. Shortly my work arrived at the MoMA and I got a ridiculous payment of 50 dollars. When Ceauşescu’s police found that I had sold one of my works it was really dramatic, as according to the Dictator’s law I had committed 2 offences: firstly I received dollars as payment which was forbidden, secondly I had commercial interaction with duşmanul de clasă.

CE: Where did you use to meet the journalists?

DS: In Bucharest I lived in a space 2 by 4 meters large with no windows and toilet facilities. This was my house and at the same time my atelier. I wasn’t the only one living is such conditions. There I met most of my visitors.

CE: Were all these meetings official or were you secretly meeting them?

DS: Obviously some of them were official meetings and others were not. For example, when Cornelia Olivier came to Romania to interview me, at first she wasn’t allowed to talk to me. She didn’t give up and, I don’t know how, in the end our meeting was approved. She was escorted to my atelier by a Securitate member in charge of controlling everything we were talking about. Ironically, I was asked to answer in Romanian even though we could have been speaking English. I knew the language, but I wasn’t allowed to speak it.

CE: From 1969 to 1972 you took part in several international exhibitions, but you were not allowed to leave the country to participate in the setups and see your works displayed. What is the reason why you were not issued a passport?

DS: In that period, it wasn’t easy to get passport especially for people like me, since I was considered a suspicious person from a political point of view.

CE: What was your feeling about this?

DS: Well, is was not easy. It was painful to see other artists being able to go because they were close to the Regime or even members of it.

CE: How were these Exhibitions organised?

DS: Most of the times, everything was organised by the UAP. We were not allowed to travel with our art works. Gallerists had to plan arrangements with the UAP. We, as artists, were not involved in this.

Diet Sayler. Spazio Cinetico 1971, strutture di alluminio, specchi murali, Technic Club, Pitesti, Romania, Courtesy of the Artist

CE: Can you talk about your work Kinetic Space at Tehnic Club in Piteşti?

DS: It was a commissioned work. Even if between 1971 and 1972 the government started to lean towards a closed-political model, it was still possible to realise this type of works. I realised two kinetic rooms. They were 3 by 3 by 3 meters and it was possible to go inside them. The work Kinetic Space at Piteşti Tehnic Club may be considered the first Kinetic installation ever realized in Romania. No one was aware of these type of works. I was the first one doing that in the country. This work had a huge impact, like what we did at the Kalinderu Art Gallery in Bucharest. It was something new, never done before. The installation remained there for several years and it was even shown on television. But as soon as I left the country, even if they kept promoting my work, they removed my name from it. After some time, when I was living in Germany, I heard the installation had been destroyed. I don’t know what happened exactly, I just can’t stop thinking that it was a huge loss for the Romanian art scene.

Diet Sayler, Solo Show 2020, Neues Museum, Nuremberg, Courtesy of the Artist
Diet Sayler, Solo Show 2020, Neues Museum, Nuremberg, Courtesy of the Artist

CE: What was your impact with the new artistic scene in Germany?

DS: It was a huge change! When I left my country I couldn’t bring with me any of my works. I arrived in Germany with nothing in my hands, not even my birth certificate. I had to start everything again. Obviously, it was very hard because everything was different in Germany. It was a cultural shock. This great change affected my art because all the time while I was in Romania I used to work only through my imagination using only black and white. I worked using colour at beginning of my career, between the ’50s and the ’60s and then from the 60s till the 80s I didn’t use it anymore. Immigration is an act of violence because it leaves a mark. I remember that in my first period as an immigrant I started a cathartic phase, my artistic production started to be become whiter and whiter.

CE: What about the artworks you left in Romania?

DS: Nearly all the them disappeared. The works of mine which were in the museums or at the UAP are not there anymore. That is because when I left the country they deleted me. It was like that. The other works remained with my friends.

CE: Have you found them?

DS: I managed to have some works located back in 1985. Thanks to some friends who risked great trouble to save something, a few works remain that I produced at the beginning of my career. We must realize it was very hard to hide these kind of art works. People were terrified of the Securitate. However, some of my friends tried to save them, also hiding them even in places not suitable for the conservation of artworks, like garages, cellars and attics. Of course, they got damaged with time, inevitably. Nevertheless, some works which survived have had even a more mocking fate. Some of my colleagues decided to keep my works instead of giving them back to me for a matter of money, they were convinced my work had a significant value in the western market.

Catalina Enciu

Saad Qureshi: Something About Paradise

Saad Qureshi: Something About Paradise / In conversation with Kostas Prapoglou

Saad Qureshi is interviewed by Kostas Prapoglou

British artist Saad Qureshi(b. 1986) graduated from The Slade School of Fine Art, London in 2012. His work engages with notions of space and time filtered through the prism of his diverse visual lexicon. With a keen interest in the process of experimentation with a vast range of materials, his installations embrace mysterious landscapes and surreal environments. Qureshi’s recent solo shows include Aicon Gallery, New York and Gazelli Art House, London. Group exhibitions include Bo.Lee Gallery, London; the Saatchi Gallery, London; and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery, London.

His work can be found in public collections such as the Leeds City Art Gallery; Dipti Mathur Collection, California; The Farjam Foundation Collection, Dubai; the Creative Cities Collection, Beijing; the Al Markhiya Gallery, Qatar; the Bagri Foundation, London and the Boston Consulting Group.

Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Kostas Prapoglou: How do you choose the narrative of each of your installations? How important is site-specificity to you?

Saad Qureshi: Site is absolutely central to my installations. It is the starting point for the work, and the first thing I focus on when I am invited to make a new piece for a venue is “where am I making this for?” The work has to be relevant and rooted in the location, and it’s only once I feel I’ve really taken that in properly that I begin to think of what would be right for it. I’m lucky in that I’m always thinking about new works I would like to make, so I’ve ‘banked’ away a lot of ideas, ready to revisit when the time and circumstances come together. So the two go hand in hand from the start: the place and the story I set out to explore through the work.

Once I have made the installation, and it has this very direct connection to its place of origin, then I feel it is conceptually strong enough to travel, and to activate new reactions and associations. It has an inner structure and unity that means it can stand its ground wherever it goes.

Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Ruins and debris seem to have a particular place in your visual vocabulary. In what ways does architecture and its constituents inspire you?

SQ: It’s funny, because I never set out to refer to ruins and debris, but they have arisen as a common element in a lot of the work. I would go as far as to say that it’s actually the viewers who have brought them in, because as part of my working process, I often ask people to contribute memories of places –be they real or imagined– and these places are by their nature quite fragmentary. Mindscapes function like memory: there are the sharp bits you can describe in great detail –the bits that mean most to you– and as the contours of those soften, so do the edges begin to fray and fade away. This naturally leads people to think of ruins, which to me, makes the work more interesting and multi-layered.

I believe in the significance of place in the stories we tell to and about ourselves. And sometimes place is a landscape, but more often than not, it is a built environment, and that brings with it architecture. The thing about buildings throughout the world, until relatively recently in human history, is that they also have a very distinct vernacular: so a building immediately places you within a culture, a region and a time. I find this fascinating, and the source of so much imaginative as well as aesthetic pleasure.

Gates of Paradise. Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Are the materials you choose related to the conceptual parameters of each work?

SQ: Absolutely. The work has to originate from an idea I want to realise, but as soon as I’ve settled on that, I take great joy in selecting the materials with which I will work. The idea needs to go hand in hand with a sense of excitement around making. I like to get physically stuck in, and enjoy being immersed in the process, so materiality is key. It’s the language through which concept is translated into an object in the real world, and whether that be sculpture or drawing, I can’t wait to get into the studio and get my hands dirty.

For example, with Places for Nova, my commission for the LandSec development in Central London, I asked people who were passing by or living in the area to give me a memory of a place that was important to them, but which they no longer had access to –either because it no longer existed, or they hadn’t been back. So I was looking to create a middle ground, between real and imagined places, and I was looking for a material that would visually articulate this. That’s when I came across brick dust. The idea of taking a building block out of which so much of our environment is constructed, grinding it into dust and using it as a pigment, added an otherworldly dimension to the works. It bridged the space between the memory and its representation.

Night Jewel, 2019, Mixed media including fibreglass, resin, Idenden and paintDimensions approximately 55 x 67 cm 
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Your works seem to reflect on human absence. Are humans really absent in your narratives?

SQ: Not at all. I’d go as far as to say that –even though it may not look like it at first glance– on a personal level, the works function almost like portraits. Again, this goes back to how I start these works: speaking with people, asking them a question and spending time with them as they share their memories with me. When I go to translate these memories into places, it’s a very intuitive process, where I’ve taken in what they’ve said, how they’ve described what was important to them, and in bringing these places into the mindscapes, I am thinking about what best evokes the emotion as well as the location they’ve shared. So conceptually, I see these works as portraits of all of these people. This is why they are mindscapes: the landscapes, buildings, in the works don’t exist without that very specific connection to someone existing in the world at the time of their making.

Something About Paradise
2019
Mixed media including metal, wood, Celotex, Idenden, marble dust, sand, paint
Dimensions variable
Photo © Jonty Wilde. Courtesy of the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

KP: Your solo exhibition Something About Paradise at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park embraces an amalgamation of surreal scenes imbued with a sense of otherworldliness. To what extent do spiritualism and allegorical meanings are embedded in your repertoire and how do you balance them with elements of the world we live in?

SQ: I am interested in stories, and I was born into a religious household, where the Quranic allegories formed part of the backdrop to family life. I think the way we make sense of the world is by telling stories: for many cultures, their holy scriptures lay the groundwork for this; but there are also parables, fables, a wealth of archetypes and symbolic languages which consciously or unconsciously give us the frames of reference we use to describe and measure our own life experiences against. This is what psychoanalysis is too, after all.

Some of my works have their origin in spiritual themes, but what really makes them take off in my imagination is when I see a connection between what first caught my interest, and the wider human imagination. For example, When The Moon Split takes as its starting point the Quranic story of a miracle performed by Mohammed. But from the very earliest civilisations, human beings have stood on the earth and looked upward at the night sky to see the moon lit up by the sun, speculating and weaving mythologies around it. So the work evokes this original story, whilst also confronting us with the purely secular frissons more commonly associated with fairy stories, science fiction and Hollywood films.

Similarly, with Something About Paradise, it was realising that although I had been brought up with the one very specific conception of paradise, drawn from the Quranic allegories of the Seven Heavens, there were hundreds of different definitions and ideas about what paradise might look like. That paradise is a very personal universal place, that we all imbue with meaning. I am an optimist by nature, and it’s this common ground of the imagination that unites us.

Kostas Prapoglou

Silent General / A conversation with An-My Lê

Silent General / A conversation with An-My Lê

An-My Lê is interviewed by Kostas Prapoglou

The practice of Vietnamese American photographer An-My Lê engages documentary reportage exploring the ways warfare and human conflict have an impact on natural landscapes. Her work surveys how collective memory, national identity and geopolitics are filtered through media interpretations of war and the emergence of newly shaped realities. An-My Lê is a professor of photography at Bard College in New York and has presented her work in various solo exhibitions at the MK Gallery, Milton Keyes (UK) and Museum Aan de Stoom (Belgium) in 2014; Baltimore Museum of Art (USA) in 2013; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (USA) in 2008; Dia: Beacon in 2006-07 and MoMA PS1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York in 2002. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (USA) will feature a major solo show of her work in March 2020. She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2012); the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (2010); the National Science Foundation, Antarctic Artists and Writers Programme Award (2007); the John Gutmann Photography Fellowship (2004) and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship (1997). 

An-My Lê, Fragment IV: The Monumental Task Committee press conference with Demonstration by Descendants of General
P.G.T Beauregard, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2017 PIgment print 40 x 56 1/2 in. (101.6 x 143.5 cm) 

Kostas Prapoglou: Your solo show at Marian Goodman gallery in London presents the ongoing project Silent General (2015– ) along with selected works from 29 Palms (2003-04). What was the source of your inspiration for both series?

An-My Lê: By the time 29 Palms came about, the phrase “another Vietnam” had become a universal phrase invoking the idea that America had a past it should and could learn from. So, when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it seems that we were willing to risk another Vietnam. For the first time, I felt that I was finally participating in American life as an American. My past was now part of the American present; not as a refugee but as an American among Americans wondering what “another Vietnam” could possibly mean. I was feverish and photographing at the Marine Corps Base in Twentynine Palms allowed me to share space and place with the young men and women who were going to be in harm’s way. We were all standing at this precipice, them training for the unforeseeable, me contemplating and trying to preserve the moment before the losses. Silent General is about what it might mean to respond to dramatic events at home and their intimate relationship to landscape and conflict. The fever-pitch level of rhetoric talks of civil war, and of breaches of the constitution gave me a sense of purpose and challenged me to photograph the American landscape. Elements of chance such as an invitation to photograph on the set of a period film taking place during the Civil War, the break-out of the controversy surrounding the removal of the Confederate monuments also came into play. They increased my sense of possibilities for finding meaningful contradictions in an American landscape characterised by competing realities. 

An-My Lê, Fragment II: Lutheran Church Melville, Montana, from The Silent General, 2019 Pigment print 40 x 56 1/2 in. (101.6 x 143.5 cm)
An-My Lê, Fragment VII: Swamp, Film Set (Free State of Jones), Chicot State Park, Louisiana, 2015 Pigment print 40 x 56 1/2 in. (101.6 x 143.5 cm) 

KP: You were born and raised in Vietnam and fled with your family to the US as political refugees in 1975. To what extent does memory and identity influence your work?

AML: I hear people talk about memory as inspiration for their work especially in photography. The problem I have with memory as being raw material is similar to issues people have with photography itself. For me, the literal is less interesting than the formal. I realise that my work generates questions about my story. Memory is only valuable to my process because it has provided me with a series of curiosities. Trauma is not a gift. I don’t see my work as a confession or an act of healing. Memories about abrupt shifts, insecurities, being an outsider, fear, chaos, trauma and a refugee’s experience of a dramatic culture shock influenced my work, they are not things I am trying to describe or use to give somebody a vicarious experience. Most importantly, I have learnt about the urgency of adaptation, being taught new rules, the significance of grasping new context as quickly as possible. Making work that is a direct political or institutional critique, the need to dig and unveil, would not make sense for me. Growing up, I always knew there were hostile forces and good intentioned people with influence. Power and authority were always at play. I saw it with the catholic nuns, at the French cultural centre, in the refugee camps. I have always been aware of multiple agendas being promoted in these different institutions even in the microcosm of my family. Ultimately, the ways you maintain connectedness to a landscape of authenticity when you have no control, no roots. This may explain why I have gravitated towards the notion of skilled labour as transportable commodity, something tangible you can take with you when everything falls apart, when the world is pulled under you and you must run. My experience is mirrored by what I choose to photograph. Skills, knowledge and confidence (or lack of) are all important subjects I have been interested in depicting over the years. Looking back, it seems that I am testing myself over and over again by placing myself in high-stake work situations that require urgent adaption whether we are talking about spending time with Vietnam war re-enactors in the woods of North Carolina, berthing on an ice breaker in the Bering Sea or a nuclear aircraft carrier in the North Arabian gulf, living at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica. Over the years, I came to appreciate the individuals. I also learnt to value landscape; it resists no matter how fierce the military.

An-My Lê
Infantry Officers’ Brief, 2003-2004
Silver gelatin print
Image: 37 1/2 x 26 in. (95.3 x 66 cm) Frame: 38 1/4 x 26 3/4 in. (97.2 x 67.9 cm)
An-My Lê, Marine Palms, 2003-2004, Silver gelatin print26 1/2 x 38 in. (67.3 x 96.5 cm)

KP: Your practice embraces –amongst others– elements of conflict journalism, documentary reportage and media representations of war. How do you see such elements influencing or interfering with collective consciousness and the way viewers understand contemporary realities?

AML: Collective consciousness is interesting. When you commit to a medium, you learn about what character that medium has in the popular imagination. As you learn about a medium, you learn what people think about that medium. Photography seems to be capable of regularly scandalising people. Photography wears so many hats and serves so many needs in our visual culture. The moving image seems to have done nothing to undermine photography’s grip on people’s imagination. Photography always appears to be evidence (in art or journalism) of something and therefore it often raises issues of ethics and privileges in a way that makes these issues inseparable from the medium. People ask more questions about formal approaches in relation to content when talking about photography than they do with either documentary or narrative films. Sometimes it seems like photography becomes a social contract in people’s mind and while very few art photographers would ever use the word truth, in describing their photographs, I believe we all, as artists using photography, benefit from the existence of this idea of photography’s paradoxical relationship to truth.

An-My Lê
Fragment VIII: US Customs and Border Protection Officer, Presidio-Ojinaga International Bridge, Presido TX, 2019 Pigment print
56 1/2 x 40 in. (143.5 x 101.6 cm)

KP: Landscape photography plays a pivotal role in your visual vocabulary. Why have you chosen to capture through your lens the relationship between natural environment and human intervention, especially during conditions of war and conflict?

AML: Regardless of your training and the context in which your work evolves, there is a point in time when you are going to ask what is going to be most challenging for you as you forge ahead. I know that there is a wide belief that photography is easy. Production value, lighting, sophisticated cameras contribute to some of the ideas about what makes anybody’s photography art. At a certain point, regardless of their medium, a certain kind of author is going to want to challenge themselves. I wanted to take on a subject that is larger than me in every way, a subject conceptually and formally larger than my experiences. I wanted to make in a single image something coherent and visually challenging. It was important to find out what is in my control and what I have to contend with in terms of lighting and other opportunities. I developed an intuition. I learnt to make pictures where I haven’t completely resolved the relationship but found an object balance between my imagination and multiple influences that are competing in my frame. 

An-My Lê
Fragment IV: Family under the Presidio-Ojinaga- International Bridge, Texas/Mexico border, 2019 Pigment print
56 1/2 x 40 in. (143.5 x 101.6 cm)

KP: You have presented your work in many countries around the world. What are the reactions of audiences in different countries, especially with regards to issues involving displacement and war ethics?

AML: This is an interesting question; ignorance reigns. I am not an expert on everything I photograph – even if I never show my work outside the US, I would still expect all sorts of responses from culture to culture. But this can be exhausting to catalogue. I think about the time I gave a talk about my work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. Almost everyone in the Japanese audience was terrified of militarisation. They were still haunted by their own past. They didn’t respond to my work as rhetorical or position taking but through it they were reminded of their deep wound. I related to that. I felt a real affinity. But no one was going to tell them about the reality of war, the grim reality not being a subject to start rhetorical nonsense. Usually, I would be asked: “so, are you for or against war?” It is troubling; who is to say whether I get questioned for not taking a clear stand because I am a woman. I have learnt about people’s deep-seated fear that an artist might be, in addressing a subject with ambiguity, complicit in glamorising, simplifying or justifying war.

An-My Lê, 29 Palms, Colonel Greenwood, 2003-4

KP: How do you see your ongoing projects developing? What are your future plans?

AML: I have been very excited about working in a heterogenous way and allowing my intuition to be more front and centre. I am engaged in what is the classic American road trip, tapping into the zeitgeist. For a long time, I never thought this was something I could participate in. Then I was looking at Robert Frank’s the Americans again after reading Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days and thinking about big ideas about the American landscape. I was reminiscing about how studying the works of Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and Robert Adams was a big part of my education on the American landscape. Even though my subject lied elsewhere then, I had great interest in their formal problem solving, the potential of their visual language. In retrospect, I now completely understand the way they embraced a combination of chance and a set of convictions about what was going on in the country. Their work contrasted the state of American culture and the impossibilities of separating the American myths from the American landscape. Now that I am engaging in this tradition, I have learnt that, whatever that tradition is, it is not about being authoritative or diagnostic. It is all about intuition, signs and one’s sense of where tensions can be seen and depicted. Right now, there are two Americas, left and right – we are looking at the same place from radically different perspectives. Conflict has come home to roost. This is the home front. But I am not interested in rhetoric or position taking. I believe in spontaneous visual expression. This is a moment in time when the world will display the things that the news is hinting at. Like the song goes: “There is something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear…” 

An-My Lê, Silent General, Fragment II, Fourth of July, Party Boat, Bayou St John, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2017

Diohandi in conversation with Kostas Prapoglou

Diohandi in conversation with Kostas Prapoglou

Diohandi (b.1945, Athens) studied painting and engraving at the Accademia di Belle Arti, costume design, graphic design in Rome. She also attended architecture at the Polytechnic of Central London. She has presented her work in 16 solo exhibitions in Italy, Scotland, Greece and Cyprus. She has participated in more than 135 group exhibitions in Greece and abroad and has represented Greece in the VII Biennale de Paris, XII Bienal de São Paulo, X Quadriennale Nazionale d’Arte di Roma, I International Sculpture Symposium / Olympiad of Art, Seoul and 54th Venice Biennale. She was awarded in four international exhibitions of engraving and was also awarded for her artistic excellence during 2009-2010 by the Association of art critics, Hellenic department (AICA Hellas). Diohandi’s research is based on the re-creation of the environment through its relationship with space-time. Her large-scale installations, specifically and exclusively for the new given space and the new given time, complete the environment and act in synergy with it, thus embracing a narrative and creating a certain course via successive alterations of mediums, materials, sound and light. She lives and works in Athens.

I invited Diohandi to discuss with me her visual vocabulary and the way she has been working with space throughout her career.


Without 
title
(1985), installation view
(detail), Dracos Art Centre
, Athens, 
Greece, 
© Diohandi

Kostas Prapoglou: Your practice involves large-scale installations that take into consideration the way architecture and its elements define space and vice versa. How does your visual language adapt to each spatial condition?

Diohandi: Since the time of my studies, I felt the need to break free from the limits of a single canvas frame as a given space. By using several such frames and placing them one next to the other, I created a unified composition, which functioned as a narrative unfolding in space. Since that time and up until today, what interests me is this continuity of narrative, be it painting on canvas, drawing on paper, or a course in space with painterly and sculptural elements. As early as my first works, my intention was to adopt a vocabulary that was plain and strict. In my first black monochrome works of abstract paintings, I started using –at some point– geometrical shapes as well. In the following years, I worked on the relationship between geometry and space. In 1974, I decided to study further the relationship of architecture and art. For one year, I attended architecture classes at the Polytechnic of Central London. My aim is the feeling that will be experienced by the viewers and the message they will receive when they actually find themselves within a large-scale installation, always embracing a narrative that evolves within space-time. 

Without title
(2004), installation 
view
(detail), Pnyka Hill, Athens, 
Greece, 
© Diohand

KP: To what extent did your earlier interventions respond to the chosen surrounding environment? Can you describe this practice based on past projects? 

D: In 1983, on the occasion of the group exhibition 7 Greek Artists: A New Journey, at the Gate of Famagusta in Nicosia (Cyprus), I worked in public space for the first time. The Gate of Famagusta is the biggest of the three gates of the Venetian walls surrounding old Nicosia. It opened the way leading to the most important port of the island. On the outer side of the walls and over a large area, I constructed in situ four pillars, up to 7.50m high and large elements of expanded polystyrene sculptured and painted with different colours. Ruins and stones from the place engaged with the existing mass of the old city walls. The real space became one with the visual art space. This was a visual representation of the historical development of the place by composing architectural, sculptural, painterly features and the environment.         

Since then, my work is concerned with this dialogue that led me in 1985 to the construction of an environment with sculptured elements at Dracos Art Centre in Athens. This installation was materialised on the occasion of the international group exhibition Athènes – site de la création / création d’un site with the participation of eleven artists. I chose the external terrace and local white marble. An environment was created with white “marble”, which was in fact made of expanded polystyrene. It resembled the real marble extracted from the Dionysos quarries, Attica. As viewers walked through the installation, they were able to see parts of the city of Athens in between the mass of the material as well as an entrance leading to absolute darkness. During daytime, one could see the blue background of the sky, the white of the material used as well as the Greek light. At night-time, the black sky, the city lights and the threatening volumes of up to 8.70m high created a mysterious environment while the endless darkness of the entrance enhanced the impression, an entrance that you could neither enter nor decipher where it actually led.

In 1986, in my solo exhibition at Dracos Art Centre in Athens, I developed an ascending course through continuous alterations of numerous elements. Compositions joined each other into a unified work, titled Anelixis, which continued in both floors of the building with the gradual transition from darkness to light. I incorporated ideas, thoughts and techniques that deeply concerned me in the previous twenty years combined with new elements and materials. Emphasis was also placed on the concept of succession. On the first floor, all the elements of expanded polystyrene, fabric, wood, olive branches were painted in black. The lighting was very dim. On the staircase wall, brush strokes of black colour led to a structure of wood and boards of same colour. The structure continued to ascend with frames in red up to the second floor. There, a large corner structure with floor to ceiling curved alfa bloc, pieces of wood and boards occupied the space in a progressively simplified synthesis; all in red colour and more lighting. Moving on to the next space, a series of broken pieces of Pendeli marble mounted on the walls, and at the end one column-like structure, up to 3m high –all in white and intense bright lighting– created a transmission from darkness to light and vice versa.

In 1987, I participated in the group exhibition Erratici Percorsi / XIX Rassegna Internazionale d’Arte Contemporanea di Acireale, with six other international artists. Each artist was given a separate space at Castello Colonna in Genazzano, near Rome, in Italy. I created an in situ installation with black wooden planks. The viewers walked among them and found themselves opposite a red wall-obstacle made from local stones and expanded polystyrene. Behind the wall there was bright light. Through the sides of the wall, the viewer could overcome the obstacle and reach a white column-like form emerged in ample light.

In 1988, thirty artists from all over the world created one permanent work each at the Olympic Park of Seoul for the Olympic Games. From the first moment I received the invitation, I felt the need to visit ancient Olympia in Greece. My work titled Seoul – XXIV Olympiad is based on visualising the notion of the ancient Olympic idea. The work appears on top of a hill in the vast Olympic Park. On the outer side, lay local granite volumes and lava stones randomly placed. Two different entrances to the interior of the work are available to visitors. On the inner side, built granite volumes create a space within the work itself encircling five cement columns 12m high. They symbolise the five rings of the Olympic games sign. The five columns are placed in the same order as the rings of the Olympic symbols. From a greater distance, the viewers see five columns which emerge from an enormous base of lava and granite volumes. However, as they approach, they soon realise that there is an actual entrance to the interior of the base. In there, they find themselves circulated by the built granite volumes, isolated from the environment of the park, and when raising their eyes, they see the five columns joining against the sky. The ascending and never-ending perspective, through transforming the essence of the environment, becomes the deeper meaning of this work. 

For the group exhibition Athina by Art – 84 Contemporary Greek Artists, I searched for a place suitable for creating a work responding to the specific moment of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. I chose the Pnyka hill, a space loaded with history and memories. It is situated on the west side of the Athenian acropolis. The work developed linearly. I designed and built one part of the city wall. Through an opening, eight white marble stelae were inscribed with the names of the Greek Olympic champions between 1986 and 2004. Visitors were able to move freely between them. The city of Athens was visible in the background. There was an interaction between natural light and proportion, the shapes and the environment. Essentially, the idea of the installation was based on the ancient Greek tradition of welcoming the Olympic champions in their hometowns, particularly with the symbolic pulling down of a small part of their city walls. This embraced a metaphor for universal peace transmitted into our age.

Without title
(1985), installation 
view, Dracos Art Centre
, Athens, 
Greece, 
© Diohandi
Without title
(1983), installation view
(detail), Gate of Famagusta, Nicosia, 
Cyprus,
© Diohandi
Anelixis 
(1986), installation view
(detail), Dracos Art 
Without title
(1987),
installation view
(detail), Castello Colonna, 
Genazzano, Italy, 
© Diohandi
Seoul 

XXIV 
Olympiad 
(1987),
installation view, 
Olympic Park, Seoul, 
S. Korea,
© Diohandi
Seoul 

XXIV 
Olympiad 
(1987),
installation view, 
Olympic Park, Seoul, 
S. Korea,
© Diohandi

KP: in 2010, you transformed the 25,000 sq.m. site of the Old Oil Mill in Eleusis (Athens) into a vast installation. Tell us more about this project and the challenges that you had to face dealing with such a unique location.

D: Eleusis was one of the best-known cities in antiquity for its sanctuary of goddess Demeter and the sacred mysteries performed there. Initiation aimed at making peace with death and the expectancy of life after death. The Old Oil Mill was built in Eleusis in 1872 on the west side of the coastal line, next to the archaeological site. Today’s ruined shell of 17,705 sq.m. used to be a lively and thriving industrial space. My solo exhibition Eleusis 2010 was presented in September 2010. I constructed in situ installations in seven buildings of the oil press factory, each of which had one, two or more areas. These installations referred to the deeper meaning of the Great Eleusinian Mysteries. The interventions were absolutely synchronised with the environment of the buildings. Their plan made me design and define a trajectory which was necessary for the visitor to follow through the successive alterations of elements, materials, sound and lighting. The materials were rubble, wood, bricks, stones, concrete, concrete blocks, soil, water etc. that I found scattered in the area around the factory. For the first time, I used sound, locally composed, as well as lighting. There was a different sound and different lighting in each space. 

In Building 1, I constructed an altar right at the centre of the first space made of wooden palettes and old sacks. In the second space, there were six concrete columns. Among these, I constructed six more, the result being twelve identical columns 8.70m high, all standing in the middle of the space. Building 2 comprised of one single space with its roof partially fallen. I created a structure made of pieces of wood from the roof, boards, planks and poles. They all looked like as if they supported each other but at the same time were falling apart. Building 3 had two spaces. A wall was built in the first space that led to the next one, where the floor was covered by shallow water. The water reflected all the elements of the space as well as the windows with the red light coming from the external corridor. The visitor could walk above the water along a ramp made of boards. The two enormous spaces of Building 4 were amply lit from up above; from the external part of the destroyed roof, which had many gaps. The light created various irregular bright shapes on the walls and on the floor. Building 5 was a narrow building, 50m long, with ten columns spread along the middle. The right side was altered giving the impression of a series of graves. On the left, ten torches aligned with the columns led visitors further inside towards a room with light. The next space was dark and deliberately inaccessible. Βuilding 6 (the most ruined building with large quantities of rubble, stone and debris) had six compartments on the same level. It was dark, making it difficult for visitors to find their way through. Suddenly, at a long distance, the visitor would face vibrant white light coming from high above (Building 7). Total silence reigned. This experience would mark the end of the whole course.

The myth of this town is so vivid that you can’t escape from it. For months, I wandered around the archaeological site, studying its history and the Mysteries and used to walk all the way down to the ruined Oil Mill. I was removing rubble, cleaning, putting aside various materials that I found scattered, digging, building, demolishing, illuminating, listening to and experimenting with the sounds of the environment. Facing and competing with this space was a great challenge; it is a work of art on its own. You need to accept and acknowledge its immense power. So I dared to take up the challenge and, no matter how crucial my interventions were, in the end the viewer was not able to tell what pre-existed and what was part of my work.


Eleusis 2010
(2010), installation 
view
(detail), Old Oil Mill, Eleusis

Attica,
Greece, 
© Diohandi

Eleusis 2010
(2010), installation 
view
(detail), Old Oil Mill, Eleusis

Attica,
Greece, 
© Diohandi

KP: You represented Greece at Venice Biennale in 2011. How did the spatial parameters of the Greek pavilion determine your intervention and what was the process that made you decide on each requirement? 

D: Beyond Reform was my installation representing Greece at Venice Biennale in 2011. Starting with the city of Venice, as well as the history and the architecture of the Greek pavilion featuring a façade in Neo-Byzantine style, I constructed both the outside and the inside of the building so that my installation and the pavilion became one. The materials were transported from Greece and the whole construction was made in situ. Deploying, adding other elements or even eliminating some of the already existing ones, Iun-did” the given strict rational space. With my interventions, I transformed it to a new space with a different structure and emotional load, establishing an intense dialogue between the artwork-space and the viewer. The façade was transformed. The dimensions varied and a trajectory was created, designed and defined by me, through successive interchanges of elements. An integrated work was created solely from architectural constituents, water, sound and light. The entire building of the Greek pavilion was covered by wooden planks, placed vertically. This special construction, 10m high, was supported by scaffolding and metal frames. The existing building could be seen through some gaps in between the planks. There was an opening, right in the middle of the new façade, creating a new entrance to the building. A new external corridor, 7m long, was added; its floor and stairs were made of wood, the walls and the ceiling of plasterboards were all white. The corridor continued in the inner space, it was elevated by 15cm, while the entire floor was covered by water 10cm deep. The water had a continuous and slight movement and it reflected the light. Right at the centre of the space there was a vertical floor-to-ceiling opening 60cm wide, which functioned as a source of light dominating the interior. The sound also came from the same place. Visitors followed a pathway within the artwork leaving the daylight behind. They were entering a secluded space facing a different light, which nonetheless was impossible to approach. For me, it was essential to work on the outer and the inner space, generating a dynamic bridge that unites and balances the two.

Beyond Reform
(2011),
installation 
(interior detail), 
54 th Venice Biennale, 
Greek Pavilion, Giardini, Venice, Italy,
© Diohandi
Beyond Reform
(2011),
installation 
(exterior detail), 
54 th Venice Biennale, 
Greek Pavilion, Giardini, Venice, Italy,
© 
Diohandi
Without title
(1978), installation view
(detail), 
Magazzini del Sale, Venice, 
Italy, © Diohandi

KP: How important to your visual lexicon is site specificity and context responsiveness?

D: My work is a continuous quest. On completing the presentation of a project, guided by the experience I gained from it, I create the next one, specifically and exclusively for the new given space and the new given time. I am interested in the direct reference to the cultural history of a place. The work acts along with the space in all historical, social and physical situations. Approaching it at a deeper level acquires a great importance for my work. I always begin by assessing the given space-time. I isolate the characteristics of the domain, its individual features and I measure meticulously its dimensions. I then reproduce the space in scale in a three-dimensional model. I approach the idea deeper and gradually prepare the draft of the work up to the final phase of its construction. Light is always a dominant feature in my composition and my work. I use it in many different ways each time, depending on the needs of the work. For me, the past and present coexist through a reclassification that combines anew the real and the imaginary. There is always a synergy between work and space in all historical, social and physical conditions. Working over and over again, these issues ascribe a growing significance for my visual language. Visitors cannot comprehend such large-scale installations from a description or from photographs only. It is essential that they find themselves within them so that they can experience the relationship of space-time and the artwork per se, the environment, the scale, the materials, the sound, the light so that they are able to understand, feel them and give their own interpretations.

Kostas Prapoglou

DR. HAMED BIN MOHAMMED AL-SUWAIDI The Businessman Who is Cultivating the Cultural Identity of Abu Dhabi

DR. HAMED BIN MOHAMMED AL-SUWAIDI The Businessman Who is Cultivating the Cultural Identity of Abu Dhabi.

INTERVIEWED BY HANIA AFIFI

As I sipped my second cup of tea for that afternoon, Al-Suwaidi turned up for our meeting. Dressed in the traditional men’s white ‘dishdasha’ andaccompanied by his personal assistant, he apologised profusely for the delay. An hour before our due time, he notified me that he was called intoan emergency meeting in Abu Dhabi. Yet rather than rescheduling ourappointment for an alternative date as I suggested, he insisted on driving back to Dubai to hold our meeting as we had planned. Indeed, he appears to be a man who commits to his objectives even when obstacles arise. And when it comes to the Arts and Culture Industry, he is as dedicated to it as to his finance and business affairs.

Al-Suwaidi in front of the private estate of HRH The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall

HANIA AFIFI:

You are a member of the eminent Al-Suwaidi family who arguably maybe regarded as the institutional founders of the UAE’sart and cultural identity. Yet, your entire education and career were in finance and commerce. In fact,you were the CEO of the UAE’s biggest bank for 14 years andyou currently sit on the board of directors for several investment firms. How do you reconcile this discrepancy?

DR. HAMED BIN MOHAMMED AL-SUWAIDI:

I come from a family that is deeply embedded in both industries – business and art. While I have always been active in the arts and culture industryout of pure passion, my educationalbackground and career was within finance and accounting. This gave me the best of both worlds, as creative industries have a valuable place in economy and have been a strategic sector to boost the economic growth in the past few years.

His regard for the creative industries echoes that of the UAE government who continues to view this sector as an integral area of development for their planned economic growth. Indeed, when we review the staggering expenditure levels on Abu Dhabi’s cultural institutions over the past decade which exceeded GBP 1 billion, we are left in no doubt over their commitment to the Arts and Culture industry.

Your PhD which you completed at the University of Portsmouth, UK in 2014 presented a case study for future managerial developments in tourism and the hospitality sector of Abu Dhabi. Would you kindly share your thoughts?

I think cultural tourism is extremely important as it has a direct economic & social impact. It establishes & reinforcesidentity, helps build our image as a nation,while preserving historical heritage. UAE in general, and Abu Dhabi in specific haveidentified itself as main destination fortravellers in the past few years. Tourists get the chance to immerse themselves in local rituals & routines, experience the traditional heritage while still experiencing the futuristic vision of the country. This includes the high-profile events run yearly such as Formula 1, and through the modern destinations such as Louvre, Guggenheim, Qaser Al Hosn & other monuments/ sculptors that have been built for different purposes.

Dr. Hamed Bin Mohammed Al-Suwaidi

As western countries continue to cut public expenditure on the Arts and Culture sector, it is refreshing to hear the opposing arguments from a top UAEofficial. In fact when I asked Al-Suwaidito justify the exuberant expenditure levels of Abu Dhabi on Arts and Culture, he proposed to conduct a comprehensive study in which we identify the necessary criteria that will unequivocally measure the impact of cultural projects on tourismand the economy in general.

Since completing the PhD, you began to actively participate in the development of cultural institutions incl. the set-up of the Abu Dhabi Arts Society, the Al-SuwaidiCultural Foundation among others … whatare you aiming for with these cultural institutions?

The Abu Dhabi Art Society was set up as anon-profit organisation that aims to:

a) Highlight the beauty of our Emirati cultures through certain initiatives &special projects

b) Promote Emirati artist who might not necessarily find the right platform to purse their creative careers

c) Compose history projects that shed thelight on prominent figures that representthe past and the future of the UAE through fine arts, poetry & other mediums.

How about art patronage?
Does it play any role in cultural tourism?

I’m quite selective in the initiatives I patron. I do believe that patronage provides support,spotlight and also plays a significant rolein cultural tourism as it creates dialogues between different countries & allows art exchange initiatives. A big example is the UAE/UK year of Cultural dialogue in which we worked with multiple institutes in the UK and invited them alongside their families for different events happening in the UAE during the year.

Perhaps one of the most significant examples of cultural dialogue that took place in July 2019 is the gifting of the 1856 oil painting Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy by Dutch artist Aery Scheffer. It was presented by the British Ambassador to the UAE, Patrick Moody on behalf of the British Government, the Lubin Family and Five Islands Capital Limited of London asa loan in perpetuity to the emirate of Abu Dhabi. The presentation of an arguablycontroversial religious figure during the UAE’s declared Year of Tolerance attests to the genuine spirit of the declared year and the significance of cultural exchangesbetween nations. This seemingly smalltoken of friendship speaks volumes aboutthe city’s national policies and global position.

Al-Suwaidi shaking hands
with Lubin family representative

Arguably, Dubai is renown as the city of trade and commerce and Sharjah positioned itself as the city of art and culture. What identity is Abu Dhabi cultivating?

Every city in the UAE has its own unique vision. Dubai has always made its headlines worldwide as one the best tourist destinations in the world. However, Abu Dhabi has its own line up of attractions & activations that identifies itself differently. Through an extensive cultural program, which includes museum developments, temporary exhibitions and educational initiatives, it hasplaced its legacy on the map as oneof the biggest tourist destinations for a rich & unique cultural experience. In the past few yearsonly, it has become a centre thatengages residents and tourists by preserving and presenting the UAE’s rich cultural heritage and bringing the best of museums expertise, visual and performing arts programmed to the region. This ranges from the beautiful architecture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand mosque, its entertaining theme parks (Ferrari world, Warner brothers, Yas water world) & all the cultural destinations and worldwide museums on Saadiyat island.

An hour and a half into the interview, I shift into lower gear as I try to learn more about thisyoung ambitious man who has committed to follow through his family and ancestor’s support for Art and Culture.

Away from the office … Who is Hamed Al Suwaidi?

An art enthusiast, who enjoys spending time with family,collecting antiques, readingbooks, meeting new people from diverse cultures, gardening & spending time within nature.

Are you an art collector? Do you favour an art form over another? (painting/sculpture/installation/ video/murals/street art/cinema/ literature/poetry)?

Yes, I am. And I collect anythingfrom rare books, paintings,historical clippings to antiques & unique authentic furniture.

To mark the Year of Tolerance, Al-Suwaidi dines with religious leaders of different faiths

You would think that a man of his social standingwould be a regular at Christie’s and Sotheby’s annual auctions. However, he amassed his collection from personal findings at France and Germany’s flea markets, the streets of London and ebay! He is particularly proud of the unassuming Breguet wristwatch he was wearing with the gold rim and leather strap. He explains, “in comparison to other watches, it is relatively cheap. But I love this brand and I like thesimplicity of this watch”.As we talk more abouthis likes and dislikes, I ask him a hypothetical question that may reveal more about how he ticks and what motivates him.

If you can have dinner with any person in the world dead or alive, who would you choose and why?

Winston Churchill. His Persistence & refusal to give up during the worst times has always been an inspiration to me. The way he successfully led Britain through World War Two has made history, and his speeches still echo at the present day.

Indeed, Churchill’s patriotism, resilience and resolve are some of Al-Suwaidi’s palpable qualities. He argued that the UAE government has supported its citizens on many fronts and provided them with the financial, educational and moral support to pursue their creative dreams. And it’s time that its citizens give back. Indeed, he is determined to develop a range of creative projects in Abu Dhabi that will live long after him and add to the enduring family legacy. Only time will tell if this young stallion will prove to be the modern-day Lorenzo de Medici of AbuDhabi.

Hania Afifi

A conversation with Enzo Cucchi

A conversation with Enzo Cucchi

Enzo Cucchi is interviewed by Agostina Bevilacqua

Enzo Cucchi is one of the most prolific and eclectic contemporary Italian artists. His works are famous and in demand all over the world. Originally from Marche but Roman by adoption, his self-taught training is a consequence of his personal need to make art, to be an artist. Conventionally linked to the name of the Italian Transavanguardia, Cucchi’s art is multifaceted. He uses sculpture, drawing, painting and places them in space in an always original way. His range of work is varied from huge canvases to small sculptures. In the same way as the large strokes of blinding color leave room for detailed drawings. Drawings that take shape through words. The large, small, ancestral or ultramodern sculptures take shape from the matter as if they were prisoners from Michelangelo’s time though they want to tell us about the present time, the time of art. There are no conventions or convictions. Cucchi’s works confront us with the only truth which is that the only way to make art is to be an artist.

Enzo Cucchi © Gianfranco Gorgoni

AGOSTINA BEVILACQUA: 

Let’s start from the beginning, from the word, or rather from poetry. In the first poetry collections published (“Head is an extension of the mind”  from 1973 or “The poison was lifted and transported” from 1977) you write that you favour total illiteracy and you are against the language. Language becomes a mediator, a filter through which we transform an idea that by its nature cannot be “fixed”. Words and language change the meaning transforming it into something else. Rimbaud (which you very much love and present in your works), struggled in search of the meaning as the true essence trying to transform the word into pure matter and sound. A utopian and romantic struggle where the medium remains the alphabet. It would seem that you wanted to tear the pages of poetry in a less utopian way, naturally landing in the field of painting and art. If the meaning of the word is the sound, then the sign and the drawing becomes also a meaning. “…Painting is only that of legends, which really happened, because painting is real. They are not things that are told. Here in Acitrezza the cyclops threw the stones into the sea and that is true: here I see the stones where they landed.” (Enzo Cucchi 1979). The words tell a story, but that is a representation and is not enough, painting is reality. In your poems there are always drawings in the middle of words, they’re like children eager to walk with their own legs. Do you remember if there was a moment, a place, a vision, an illuminating thought where the word gave way to art? When the word/sound became sign/painting. Was it a moment of reflection or was it a natural and necessary process? A redemption perhaps for the poet Rimbaud who died in the hope of transforming the word into existence.

ENZO CUCCHI:

I never said I was a poet. If I wrote some texts, I did it out of necessity, like writing a letter to my girlfriend. There was no redemption between sound and painting, there was not even a passage, I have always done only what was necessary for me. Rimbaud did not want to transform the word into matter, Rimbaud wanted the word no longer to change the matter, he therefore wanted to be able to create a material that was “impenetrable” to the word, or he dreamed of enunciating words, sounds free from matter and that would not influence it. Rimbaud investigated, through this research, the temporal crossroads, the parallel universes. If Rimbaud has ever managed to produce a sound whose echo has not influenced the external matter, we will never know it in this timeline of events.

Enzo Cucchi, Quadro Santo,1980

AB: Art is spiritual and conceptual matter that is expressed in tangible and physical artifacts. The idea is shaped by the action and the artistic artifact is the result of it. Having started making art during the period in which many artists used their body as an expressive medium (Acconci, Burden, Oppenheim, Pane, to name a few) were you involved or attracted to any of these actions? Artaud wrote in his letter to the Balinese: “I am a body / a mass, / a weight / a surface / a volume / a dimension / a side / a slope / a facade / a wall / a laterality /…” declaring the importance of the materiality of the body as opposed to the metaphysical vision of the body as a mere ‘prison’ of the spirit. And again he writes in his final work “Ideas do not move forward without limbs, and then they are no longer ideas but limbs, limbs at war with each other” where the release of the gesture is the ultimate goal of the artistic expression. Do you agree? How much are your ideas connected to the body and how are they filtered and modified by it? What is the relationship with your body, hands, legs, eyes? For your works you used many media, paper, canvas, marble, plastic, have you ever thought of using your own body or someone else’s as a medium?

EC: Artaud was one of the greats, his writing in images always moves me. But I don’t think that artistic expression has any purpose (release of the gesture? And from what? From the limits of the body that allowed that gesture to be true? These are frustrations typical of John Baldessari). A purpose is the result of a calculation, performing calculations is stuff for engineers, I decided to be an artist just to not have to deal with engineering. The matter regarding the body is a problem that does not exist. It is the result of a spoiled and luxurious society. The body is what it is. It is an applied and modeled mass serving various functions. Using the body as a medium… I am not a tattoo artist, everything that looks even vaguely medical disgusts me. Furthermore, in a unitary vision of reality, doesn’t holding a pencil and drawing on a sheet of paper mean that my hand, as a part of my body, is in itself the medium, together with paper and pencil, of that drawing? Drawing, together with sex, is the most powerful act that humanity can ever do. With sex, pleasure is elevated with the (potential) act of creating new life. With the drawing, I make the material plane and the conceptual plane interact in the most direct and faithful way possible. That of drawing is a two-stage act: – first I mark the mind with the thought, then I mark the paper with the pencil.

Enzo Cucchi at MAXXI © Agostino Osio

AB: Let’s move on to the last moving work on display at the MAXXI in Rome, on display in the spaces of the Gian Ferrari gallery. A cherub made of black marble peers through the hand making the gesture of the telescope, seeing his own big toe with a scorpion clinging behind it. A work full of iconographic references that run throughout the history of art and mythology. Here the scorpion is peacefully resting behind the big toe and the child does not seem to be terrified but intrigued. What does the scorpion symbolize for the artist Enzo Cucchi? In biological terms it is one of the oldest animals which has remained almost unchanged in evolutionary terms. As for the symbolic and mythological aspect, the scorpion has represented a multitude of meanings related to the concept of death and rebirth. Symbol  of heresy during the Christian Middle Ages. Agrippa in the human body associates it with the genitals and with Mars, his passion and his generating force. It is also your zodiac sign, does it have any meaning or is it just a coincidence? 

EC: How do you know that the cherub was initially meant to be black!?  It is carved in gray bardiglio, but the initial idea was to take black marble, which then I didn’t find. The scorpion looks like an ant, it doesn’t symbolize shit.

AB: One last question. You are a self-taught artist. Outside the academic frameworks. What, if any, are the rules you follow? In your drawings and in life.

EC: What rules… I don’t know. The method is important, as in everything. The method derives from everyday life. Drawing every day, even when (especially when) the head is completely empty, it is necessary.

Enzo Cucchi, Paese amato, 1996

Sabine Moritz, deeply unaware.

Sabine Moritz, deeply unaware.

Sabine Moritz is interviewed by Kostas Prapoglou

For her third solo exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery Paris, Germany-based artist Sabine Moritz presents a new body of work with large-scale abstract paintings accompanied by the Sea King series, a voluminous selection of oil drawings on lithograph

Sabine Moritz, Sea King 98, 2017, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery © 

The extensive use of vivid colours in combination with an abstract visual language pronounce the process of an esoteric and emotional journey. Permeated by a philosophical as well as meditational perspective, the works on view are visual exercises not only for the trained eye but also for those who are willing to engage in a spiritual dialogue with the depicted landscapes and objects. At the same time, the sense of tranquility in her paintings embrace a subconscious disturbance with the presence of Sea King warfare helicopters, a symbolic representation of conflict and military action.

Sabine Moritz, Eden 4, 2019 Oil on canvas Canvas: 78 3/4 x 66 7/8 in. (200 x 170 cm) Frame: 79 7/8 x 68 1/8 x 2 3/8 in. (203 x 173 x 6 cm) No. 22810, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

Moritz’s recent exhibitions include Eden, Galerie Johann König, Berlin, Germany (2018); Neuland, Kunsthalle Bremerhaven, Germany (2017); Von der Heydt-Kunsthalle, Wuppertal, Germany (2014); Concrete and Dust, Foundation de 11 Lijnen, Oudenburg, Belgium (2013) and Lobeda, Kunsthaus sans titre, Potsdam, Germany (2011). 

Sabine Moritz, Rain II, 2019 Oil on canvas Canvas: 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 in. (200 x 200 cm) Frame: 79 7/8 x 79 7/8 x 2 3/8 (203 x 203 x 6 cm) No. 22847, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

Below is a short interview with Sabine Moritz highlighting on the essence of her work and the way she mediates the perception of reality and emotion.

Kostas Prapoglou

Part of your exhibited works incorporates a selection of oil drawings on lithography from the  Sea King  series featuring sketch versions of the homonymous US Navy military helicopter. To what degree WWII, the post-war and also post conflict eras in general have affected your visual vocabulary?

Sabine Moritz 

Although the influences in the choice of my subjects are definitely visible, I let viewers decide for themselves to what extent historical references play a role in my work.

KP: Part of the exhibition also features numerous large abstract paintings on canvas. How has your practice led you to expand on works of such scale?

SM: I  felt  I was missing something, red colour in particular. I  started with abstract works on paper, followed by works on canvas; small ones at first and followed in turn by larger formats.

Sabine Moritz, Sea King 101, 2018 Oil on lithograph Lithograph: 22 1/8 x 31 1/2 in. (56 x 80 cm) Frame:253⁄4×351⁄4×11/8in.(65,5×89,5x No. 22972 Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery
Sabine Moritz, Sea King 100, 2018 Oil on lithograph Lithograph: 22 1/8 x 31 1/2 in. (56 x 80 cm) Frame:253⁄4×351⁄4×11/8in.(65,5×89,5x No. 22971

KP: These paintings transmit an underlying element of meditation and esotericism. How do you reach an equilibrium of diverse emotional conditions in your artistic practice?

SM: When I work, I try out a lot of possibilities. I sometimes spend a very long time observing. A work is often only complete after multiple revisions.

KP: What is your relationship with time and its properties? How do you sense aspects of memory and identity developing and emerging through the way you dream and create?

SM: I am always thinking about time. In my studio, I try to suspend it. Different aspects of time are particularly important in my work, such as freezing, extending, disappearing…

Sabine Moritz, Sea King 99, 2017 Oil on lithograph Lithograph: 22 1/8 x 31 1/2 in. (56 x 80 cm) Frame:253⁄4×351⁄4×11/8in.(65,5×89,5x No. 22970

KP: Kunsthalle Rostock in Germany will present a solo show of your work shortly after your exhibition at Marian Goodman in Paris. Will this embrace a visual continuation of the Paris show or are you planning to showcase a new body of work?

SM: At the Kunsthalle Rostock I will show a selection of works from 5 different bodies of work. I will show a selection of drawings from the Lobeda series, created in the early 90s, with the aim of revealing key places and objects from my childhood. I will also exhibit paintings and works on paper from the Harvest series, relating to the post-war period in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic painted from photographs taken by Robert Capa. I will also present the Berlin Cycle which are works focusing on a young man shot in front of the Berlin wall.  Various seascapes, still-lives and abstract works on paper will also be included in the exhibition.

Sabine Moritz, Night I, 2019 Oil on canvas Canvas: 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 in. (200 x 200 cm) Frame: 79 7/8 x 79 7/8 x 2 3/8 (203 x 203 x 6 cm) No. 22902 Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

Sabine Moritz, deeply unaware will be on show at Marian Goodman Gallery Paris runs until 23 October 2019 / Photo credits Rebecca Fanuele ©  

Alberto di Fabio / Pulvere Reverteris

Alberto di Fabio / Pulvere Reverteris

Alberto di Fabio in conversation with Editor in Chief Alice Zucca

Alberto di Fabio / Photo Daria Paladino

The primary framework of Alberto Di Fabio’s creativity is the invisible infinity, from which he draws inspiration to show clearly, to himself and to the observer, what normally we could not see. In a nutshell, the artist provides us with a sort of virtual optical tool with which to investigate beyond the real and concrete world, beyond what our senses normally allow us to perceive. He does not paint the world as it appears but he distorts it with a perspective that is both intimate and cosmic, despising every trivial homogenization. After all, any categorization is nothing but a blameworthy expedient of analytical simplification that the mind elaborates to facilitate the understanding of realities that are too complex. The matter influences and dominates our understanding of existence.  Being aware of this unavoidable condition, Alberto di Fabio does not dispute it, but testifies and strongly supports the importance of the invisible in the process of acquiring knowledge. We have senses that allow us to perceive matter, sound and light. But we do not have sensory organs that allow us to capture the energy in motion that surrounds us. 

Alberto di Fabio 2015 – Photo Giorgio Benni, Courtesy Alberto di Fabio ©

The works of Alberto Di Fabio possess the evocative power to take our soul into a parallel immensity, beyond time and beyond space, where is possible to embrace the quantum essence of the Universe, which in Di Fabio sublimates the divine concept of a cosmic dance. Voracious reader of scientific texts of various kinds, from physics to chemistry, from astronomy to biology, Alberto di Fabio transfigures his interest in science in relation to the spirit, in visions of astral systems, cellular structures, living creatures of the plant and animal kingdom, DNA chains, stars, globular clusters, creating vibrant chromatic schemes that embed complex abstract entities that belong to non-Euclidean geometry. The intent is to collect and explain the energy of the represented subjects that move in a reality devoid of space-time coordinates, in a meditative journey through the senses, in the desire to achieve an incomparable elevation of the spirit. 

Alberto di Fabio, Paesaggi della mente, 2010 – Photo Mirai Pulvirenti, Courtesy Alberto di Fabio ©

Starting from Rome at the end of the 80s with a collective exhibition at the Alessandra Bonomo gallery, he comes into contact with prominent artists such as of Sol LeWitt, Alighiero Boetti, Cy Twombly from whom he learns and receives support and encouragement. In the 90s, he meets several exponents of the American abstract expressionism in New York where he also meets Larry Gagosian, who buys four of his paintings. Since then he begins a fruitful collaboration with the American gallery owner, by whom he is still represented (solo show at Gagosian – Beverly Hills, 2004; London, 2002, 2007; New York, 2010; Athens, 2011; Geneva, 2014).  His works have been exhibited all over the world, in museums, public institutions and private collections, at the Beijing Biennale in 2005 and at the Dublin Contemporary exhibition, hosted by the National Gallery of Dublin in 2011. Worth mentioning are also his personal exhibitions at Galerie Vedovi, Brussels, 1996 and 2003; Galerie Jan Wagner, Berlin, 2001; Briggs Robinson Gallery, New York, 2002; Galerie Steinle, Monaco 2005 and 2008; Mambo, Bologna, 2012; National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome, 2013; Macro in Rome in 2015.

ALICE ZUCCA:

You tackle the creative process in a cathartic way, starting from a horizontal movement, but that is able to initiate a series of vertical motions. A meditative evolution that through a meticulous and methodical commitment to the Cartesian approach (from the order and the positioning of the mosaic tiles, to the embroidery and the pictorial gesture) is almost a ritual that, starting from the investigation of what is not ordered – the ‘”Unknown”, the “chaos”, the “cosmos” – has a clarifying function, elevating the mind.  An elevation through the path of connections with the harmonies of space and time. Being methodical, you climb that mountain (an element that is present since the beginning of your production), analyze its composition, studying the peaks on which you rest while climbing, trying to understand the physical and non-physical laws thanks to which they could support you up until the summit, from the which you can finally guess the mystery beyond the horizon, discovering that you are part of it.  In a process that feels like something that would encapsulate the line of thought of Novalis, that looks at scientific progress, no longer just at the earth beneath our feet on which we walk and at that sky on our heads under which we stand, but at us becoming part of that earth, and us as part of that sky. Thus natural forms, biological structures, molecules, ecological and astral systems to the genetic structure of DNA coexist in your micro-worlds, that enclosing larger worlds from the object of the “artwork”, continue beyond it and from the physical media give a sense of harmony and connection, of a totalizing relationship between the spirit and the scientific reality. How is it that the deceives to us and the soul connects us with the quantum universe?  Can you tell me about the creative process?

Alberto di Fabio’s studio 2015 – Photo Giorgio Benni, Courtesy Alberto di Fabio ©

ALBERTO DI FABIO: 

You are right when you say that the mind deceives us and the soul connects us with the quantum universe. How can we perceive and describe the invisible? Through the Elevation and Permutation of the spirit.  My works are like vehicles of consciousness that introduce us into a parallel, dreamlike world, and describe the moment when our mind becomes our soul. We, as human beings, are not made only of matter, we are not just physical, we are energy in movement. We are bodies of light composed of different layers that interpenetrate and rotate around the physical body. I often paint in a horizontal position, as if it was a mandala. In this position I try to gather all the emotions of spirituality, science and art, the three elements of a prayer. They are like exercises of elevation and permutation for the knowledge and the revelation of the absolute dogma that I try to convey to the observer. My dream precisely comes out through my forms, the many chromatic veils of colors and the subtle geometric dynamics between the individual elements, is to involve the viewer in the extrasensory kinetic visions that lead to a progressive loss of self-consciousness, a sort of visual trance, traveling to a dream world to parallel worlds far away in space and time, closer to the quantum essence of the Universe, to the perception of hearing and seeing the cosmic dance of the universe. Matter becomes evanescent and the mind finds a possible conjunction with the astral element.  We can witness a change in the state of the human from the physical nature to the ethereal, in a sort of permutation and elevation of the soul.  My works are like prayers, infinitely repeated mantras.  I often repeat the same formulas in order to arrive through the concept of cosmic dance to an absolute meditative state within which we are atoms and at the same time gods.

Alberto di Fabio, Neurone Rosa N°1, Courtesy Alberto di Fabio ©

AZ:    The seemingly irreconcilable formal contrast between an abstract and gestural quality and the substantial pragmatism inspired by the scientific concreteness represents the most intriguing and suggestive peculiarity of your artistic production, which ranges from astronomy to biology, from macro to micro cosmos, exploring the various realities that can be examined, overturning perspectives suddenly and fearlessly. There is a clear similarity between the utopian and visionary connotation that feeds your artistic research and the curiosity and thirst for knowledge that characterizes the scientific investigation itself. And it is precisely between the incessant desire to understand the laws of the cosmos and the awareness of the ineluctable epilogue that sees us turning back again into stardust, that you try to make the concept of eternity explicit. But can one make the eternal visible? “I believe in a cosmic whole. I believe everything regenerates. We will become atoms again, we will go back into orbit” Thanks to biology, through reproduction, which is one of the key factors of life, we can manifest our existence in the world. And if the purpose of life is to survive forever, it is precisely through what is biologically similar to us and that we share with creation that we manage to leave a trace of ourselves forever, in an infinite cycle of regenerations so vast that it includes all of creation. This makes me think of some experiments made by De Dominicis, of the attempts of Flight, and, even more, of Dennis Oppenheim, who reproduced by intuition on the wall the same drawing his son was drawing on his back explaining that the sharing of biological elements was the connection and the contact between a past state and a future state. “As Erik runs a marker along my back, I attempt to duplicate the movement on the wall.  His activity stimulates a kinetic response from my sensory system.  He is, therefore, drawing through me. Because Erik is my offspring, and we share similar biological ingredients, my back (as surface) can be seen as a mature version of his own…in a sense, he contacts his own future state.” and viceversa him drawing on the back of his son: “I am, therefore, drawing through him. Because Erik is my offspring, and we share similar biological ingredients, his back (as surface) can be seen as an immature version of my own….in a sense, I make contact with a past state.” In light of this what is this cyclical nature of connections for you? How do you see this future state? What is the concept of stardust? Can you tell me about your approach to science, to biology, in relation to your philosophy? 

Alberto di Fabio, Photo Alessandra Morelli, Courtesy Alberto di Fabio ©

ADF:  “Pulverem Reverteris”. I am fascinated by parallel worlds and matter that we do not yet see and how to perceive them and how to represent them. I dream of becoming different matter. I dream that the soul can approach the Magnetars, the Black Holes. We will return to dust, to stardust, we are atoms. I dream of becoming dust again. When we will become dust of atoms perhaps we will be able to recognize the quantum God and enter into the magnetic forces in dimensions of space and time that are completely different from what we perceive now. The three major forces in the universe are gravity, electromagnetism and the nuclear forces. What will we know about black holes if we don’t go through them? It is a mental journey into infinity, the dream of returning to an atom. Everything is created by processes, fusions that stretch between order and disorder, the forces of gravity of magnetism and uncertainty are always present in my cosmo-logical works, where the term cosmos must be understood in its etymological sense of kosmos, that is, in its double meaning of order and ornament. A formal synthesis, where elegance and harmony must paradoxically be reconciled with the instinct and intuition of the brush-bearer, which is by definition something indeterminate and indefinable, it is an observational and at the same time visionary cosmology. The oneiric dimension, represents the conceptual means to understand laws that would otherwise remain hidden, while the physical and concrete means can be identified in a pictorial gesture. The oneiric vision, that overlaps with concrete reality, is the mirror of an personal subconscious aimed at an aesthetic and individual liberation of being. The pictorial gesture is a spiritual gesture necessary to capture that cosmic breath, that divine breath that is the basis of the incessant origin of life. Painting as an expressive means to narrate a dream, and the dream as an ideal state to examine from another point of view the unknown universe, a red thread that connects art, science and spirituality.

Alberto di Fabio, Alba della Materia, 2018, Courtesy Alberto di Fabio ©

AZ:  A few years ago at the CERN, the world’s largest laboratory for Particle Physics, where scientists use particle accelerators to conduct experiments to research high-energy physics, you’ve managed to gain unanimous appreciation for your ideas and for your artistic research by the most distinguished scientists in the world. Can you tell me about this rewarding experience?

ADF:   I started drawing and painting landscapes as a child. Being born and raised in Abruzzo, the mountains represent for me the elevation from the earthly world, an image of purity, a divinity necessary for the elevation of the spirit. Later I devoted myself to reading scientific books, those of my mother Delia, teacher of science and mathematics, and of my sister Simona who studied medicine. From them I copied the cells and other illustrations of biology chemistry and physics. Through the visions of the landscape of the macrocosm I entered the “magma”. I was interested in mineralogy, in the composition of silicas, quartzes and gases. All these things gave birth to my love for science in relation to the spirit. In 2010 the astrophysicist Remo Ruffini found many similarities between my works and the world of contemporary quantum physics focused heavily on the discovery of the antimatter and of the Higgs boson, the God particle. Many of my cosmological works on galaxies are similar to the last photographs taken from the NASA telescope, Hubble. He put me in touch with many astrophysicists and then I received the prestigious invitation from CERN in Geneva to do an exhibition and a conference. It was an occasion that did nothing but materialize the virtual dialogue that I had ideally established with the international study center many years before. At the CERN in Geneva there are the greatest mathematicians and astrophysicists… in the world. They are very interested in my work about our mind, about the hemisphere of imagination, spirituality and the perception of the invisible. Imagination and creativity are not a simple exercise, in fact we never develop enough the oneiric part of our brain. Einstein always said that when you approach the truth of a formula it always appears veiled by a new problem. The rational hemisphere cannot solve the formula alone. A great and important astrophysicist told me: “we invited you here, to hear things that we mathematicians can’t see”. It was a very fascinating experience.

Alberto di Fabio, Spazio Luce #2, 2010, Courtesy Alberto di Fabio ©

AZ:   What are you working on at the moment? News? Future projects?
 
ADF:
  I am dreaming of describing the existence of God with a mathematical formula… naturally painting it. For the years to come I would like to be able to paint and represent antimatter. But unfortunately they are just dreams…

Alberto di Fabio, Vortices, 2007, Installation at Gagosian Gallery, London

INTERVIEW WITH Nujoom AlGhanem

Venice Biennale / PAVILION OF UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – INTERVIEW WITH Nujoom AlGhanem

Nujoom AlGhanem is interviewed by Hania Afifi

While the entire world was preoccupied with the damages of the 2008 financial crisis, the UAE was busy preparing for its debut at the 53rd International Venice Art Exhibition of 2009. It is as if they were determined to tell the world, that culture continues to be produced and deserves to be celebrated despite economic hardships.  Fast forward 10 years later, and we find ourselves in a similar scenario but with different challenges. The 2019 UAE national pavilion presents a solo exhibition for renown Emirati poet and filmmaker, Nujoom AlGhanem.  It is conceived as a single site-specific immersive work.  Composed of a 26-minutes two-channel video and twelve-channel sound installation entitled Passage, it addresses the global pressing issues of migration and displacement.  The immersive nature of this video-narrated poem enables you to experience the psychological, emotional and physical attributes of a journey; whether it be through yourself or a passage onto a different life.  We caught up with AlGhanem and asked her about her own passage through the Venice Biennale.

National Pavilion UAE 2019 artist Nujoom Alghanem.
Image courtesy National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia
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Hania Afifi:

When and how did you know that you were selected to represent the UAE at for its national pavilion?

Nujoom AlGhanem:

It was an indescribable moment, full of joy and wonder. I was alone in my studio when Sam and Till, our curators, called me. Sam asked me if I was sitting or standing. I told him “I’m painting”. He said, “ok leave everything and sit down”. I was exactly in the middle of the studio and when he informed me that I would have been the solo artist for the year 2019 so I started screaming saying “oh my God, oh my God”.

HA: Who was the first person you shared the good news with?

NA: The first person I told her was my daughter, Fatima because she is an artist and shares with me the studio space almost every day. And the second one was my husband.

HA: Poetry is an aural art form deeply ingrained in the UAE culture.  Why did you add another sensory dimension with film?

NA: For this project the film was the first choice. However, poetry is a major part of my practice and introducing it side by side with the moving picture was an artistic decision because poetry is a unique form of expression. 

HA: Do you feel that film will limit the listener’s imagination of the poem?

NA: The project depends on both languages, visual and auditory. The visual image is also powerful and can convey the meaning profoundly. It can expand the significance of meanings. The curators and I felt that poetry will add another important layer to the narrative. As for the central poem used in the film “The Passerby Collects the Moonlight”, it was written in 2009, almost 10 years earlier. 

Nujoom Alghanem, Passage (production still), 2019.
Courtesy National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia.
Photo credit Augustine Paredes of Seeing Things
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Nujoom Alghanem, Passage production still 2019.
Courtesy National Pavilion UAE – La Biennale di Venezia.
Photo credit Augustine Paredes of Seeing Things
.

HA: Passage Is an amalgamation of two art forms: film-making and poetry writing.  Tell me about the challenges you faced in realizing this piece?

NA: Each stage has its own beauty and challenges. Yet, choosing the theme and writing was the longest which is logical in any film project. Shooting with around 100 extras in the desert was the most difficult part technically and logistically. Then shooting in the sea was another challenging part because we were watching the weather forecast to shoot the misty morning. 

HA: There is no doubt that the theme of displacement and migration is a global hot topic, however, the UAE is not at the centre of it.  Why did you choose to explore this theme for the UAE pavilion?

NA: The Committee of the National Pavilion United Arab Emirates, La Biennale di Venezia, Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, the Commissioner, and the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development which accepted me as the Emirati artist to present the country in the 2019 Biennial, were very liberal and supportive of my concept. They respected my choice and helped me and the curators make it happen.

HA: From your point of view, what is the role of the artist in global discourse?

NA: The artist is responsible for his/her concept, style, genera, language, approach, etc. It is important to give him/her the space and freedom to practice their art. If someone doesn’t like the outcome of his/her work that doesn’t mean he can prevent him/her from exhibiting or publishing. 

HA: Some artists say “we make art for art’s sake”.  What are your views on this?

NA: That’s the artist’s choice and we have to respect it.

HA: In recent years, the UAE government has actively encouraged creativity and the arts through numerous programs to nurture and develop young talents. From your viewpoint, is it important that the government takes an active role in the Arts? And Why?

NA: Sometimes societies cannot understand the importance of art because of different levels of education, understanding, awareness or lack of knowledge. However, the institutions can because they are found to support and educate individuals as well as public. They can give the artists the chance to show their creativity in a healthy environment. They can create these healthy environments and provide protection so different art forms can survive and progress.

HA: Impressionism was born in France, Futurism in Italy and Abstract Expressionism in the US, what genre do you hope the UAE will be recognized for?

NA: In our time in the 80s we wanted to create an art movement that stands for its own. With Hassan Sharif we were fascinated by the new forms. After more than two decades Hassan’s work got to be described as conceptual, he even was called the Father of Conceptual Art in the UAE.  Hassan himself didn’t want to be labeled but he got that tag next to his name. I cannot think of something in particular, but I believe that today it is very easy to think of anything and make it yours. I would like to create a movement with my friends and call it the Deformative Movement.

Sam Bardaouil, Till Fellrath, Nujoom AlGhanem

HA: As an Emirati artist, what would you like to say to:

  • Ralph Rugoff, the chief curator of this year’s biennale;
  • HE. Noura Al-Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture & Knowledge Development;
  • Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, curators of the UAE pavilion; The visitors of the pavilion.
  • The visitors of the pavilion.

NA:

  • To Ralph Rugoff: Thank you for making our Times with art memorable;
  • To HE. Noura Al-Kaabi: Thank you for always being there;
  • To Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath:  You are everywhere in my thoughts;
  • To the Visitors of the pavilion: The shadows scare no one here, the water does not kill. These are only our thoughts, imagine the reality.


PUBLICATION LISTED IN THE ITALIAN PRESS REGISTER BY THE SASSARI COURT OF LAW WITH REGISTRATION NUMBER 447/2017.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: ALICE ZUCCA

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