Cesare Pietroiusti is an Italian artist based in Rome. Trained as a medical doctor, he studied Psychiatry in the late 1970s. His work focuses on paradoxical situations that are hidden in common relationships and in ordinary acts. His book “Pensieri non funzionali” (Non Functional Thoughts) published in 1997 gathers many of his projects, both realized and un-realized. His work has been widely shown in Italy and abroad. Selected exhibitions: “Exhibit A,” Serpentine Gallery, London, 1992; “NowHere,” Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk, 1996; Venice Biennale, 1990, 1999, 2003; Tirana Biennial, 2005; Performa 07, New York 2007; Athens Biennale (2009); “When Art Comes to Life,”Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, 2011; “Impossible Community,” MMOMA, Mosca, 2011; “Wide Open School,” Hayward Gallery, Londra, 2012.
The Negotiation of Paradox
Conversation transcription below
Tiziana Casapietra: What is the role of our work nowadays? We take care of communication through art in a world that is overwhelmed by hyper-communication. How can art find its own room?
Cesare Pietroiusti: The role of art has always been that of questioning the modes of language and therefore of exchange, of knowledge as well as of emotions. Besides working on a specific knowledge’s contents, art has always acted on the modes through which said knowledge would be exchanged among human beings. This work on modes should always be taken into account because, within language, we are talking without realizing it. When talking, we are conveying an amount of cognitive content using a language that is not necessarily limited to the verbal one.
I believe that the function of art is that of trying to explore the margins, the abnormalities, the heterodoxies and the peculiarities of language to highlight the modes through which we are using it. This means offering an example of the possible alternative and invented uses, playing with all the components of language. While I realize that this is a rather vague answer, to me the role of art is to offer a critical tool to analyse one’s own way to exchange knowledge and emotions, because it’s not only about contents and knowledge but also about the impact this knowledge has on our sensitiveness and our emotional life.
TC: Another question I had in mind is on the ethical sense of our work. The issue of sustainability is increasingly important and popular, but it also means reducing to a minimum the production of objects that have an environmental impact. I see the world of contemporary art scarcely reflecting this issue: the production of works and objects such as books and editorial productions goes on uninterrupted. Why are we not strongly addressing the issue of the impact of our work and of the production of our objects?
CP: I would tackle the problem with a slightly different approach. To me, placing guilt on the production of objects itself is a losing attitude. An object is not only a question of fascination: there’s no comparison between the beauty of a book or an artifact, even an industrial one such as a car, and that of a PDF on a PC screen. Producing objects is in fact deeply rooted in action, in the human poiesis of improperly using natural resources.
I always refer to my interpretation of the initial passages of the Genesis. The problem is that we always associated the tale of the original sin with sexual desire and sexual intercourse. To me, this interpretation is wrong: the fact that man and woman would couple and reproduce through the mechanism of desire had been wholly designed. The actual original sin is that when Adam and Eve realize they are naked and feel ashamed of it, they take some leaves from the trees and use them as drawers. This is the real original sin: the presumption of being able to change the use, the purpose and the nature of Nature.
Obviously, I don’t believe this to be a historical fact, but mythologically the fig leaf says a lot about how the human adventure — with everything it entails, as marvellous as it may be — is inextricably connected with such an usurpation of nature. As such, I don’t think that we can stop producing objects. We are very far from even the imaginative hypothesis of no longer producing objects. Maybe the point is trying to see things differently.
What I often say about the relationship between a critical look and the work itself is rather more connected to the concept of unfinished. One of the aspects we can work on is to free ourselves from the ideological bottleneck that leads us to consider objects, artifacts or even works of art as finished objects, and to think that they need to be because they must be placed on the market. An object has to be closed and defined to become merchandise. Not only its use, but also its meaning must be enclosed within a very precise definition, otherwise it could not enter the market because what is for sale would be unknown. This could generally apply also to books in general, and not only to works of art. The point is trying to imagine that a work is never finished or even that is was ever made, because if I say that I made something, just by saying “made” I’m enclosing it within a definition that joins my authorship with my action’s completion. Therefore, rather than trying to imagine a world where we produce PDFs rather than books and files rather than works of art, I would try to work on the concept we have of a work of art, which is to say of an object, an artifact or whatever, be it material or immaterial.
Art gives us the great possibility of considering works of art as continuously being made, unsaturated, incomplete. Therefore, to answer your question, we should start thinking before producing more works of art, because there’s still work to be done on the ones already made.
These works are incomplete and they are contemporary not because they have anything to do with the present but because they exist within the same time. It means they are all with us now, and they are contemporary because they’re here with us. As an artist, I can speak primarily of the works of art I have started, which I define as “made” in order to be understood when I talk at presentations.
They’re here with me now, and they’re not older, younger, livelier or more obsolete depending on whether they were made sooner or later.
I call “unsaturation” such contemporaneity, such incompleteness, because I like to imagine these molecules a bit like the ones of proteins, which feature the ability to change their conformation in space, and as such offer several parts of their structures to diversified bonds. They are unsaturated because in certain points they may create bridges with other molecules.
It’s clearly a metaphor to say that each work of art, when reconfigured, re-contextualized, questioned and rethought, immediately creates new connections of meaning. It is therefore no longer logical to say that a work of art was made in whatever specific year, because it is actually being made now too, and becoming as such contemporary. This double valence of the unsaturation of contemporaneity could be a key in helping us to lose the compulsion — forced by the market ideology and the museum ideology — to make things, to imagine and convince ourselves that what we have made is an accomplished and defined object that can be moved and exchanged for money and, therefore, merchandise. Even just releasing ourselves from the idea that a work of art is merchandise would be a good step in this direction.
TC: Before talking about your work, I would like you to address the ultimate issue: in this vast universe of communication, information and images, how can we give visibility to our work?
CP: I don’t know, I don’t think I have an answer. I believe the answer lies in what I recently heard at a convention. Lacking an artistic education background, I thought for a long time that, although I was doing it, I wasn’t really capable of being an artist and I always referred to the dilettante’s freedom.
The “perfect dilettante” is a person that doesn’t know how to do anything and as such is attached to no specific technique and maintains its freedom and its potential to do anything. The contemporary situation is in a way actually moving in such direction, because — as you highlighted — we have thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions or hundreds of millions of people that produce videos and upload them to Youtube or produce images and upload them to Instagram. I don’t know how they work, but I somehow realize what is happening. For instance, I see photographers that no longer shoot photographs but gather images they find on-line, as there’s so many that it even seems a waste to get down to producing new ones.
The idea of amateur artist is actually booming, and this is a very interesting situation to me. Maybe it’s all about seeing things in a different way. To me, it’s all about releasing oneself from the anxiety that one of these images should prevail on the others, that one’s production should necessarily be seen by anybody in order to exist. For an artist, the fact that the artwork should be seen by anybody in order to exist has always been a challenge.
Yet, I believe that an even greater challenge lies in the strong sensation of renouncing authorship.
Although I do understand that it’s complicated, I often realize that if somebody with an artistic project in mind carries out a good search on-line using the correct keywords on Youtube or on other Web sites, he/she will often find it was already done. Rather than depress us, this should give us the sense of a collective identity, of a collective authorship where, although the personal and individual contribution to an exchange of meaning is really small if not infinitesimal, it’s in any case there as part of a sort of Matrix-like mind. Obviously I’m referring to the movie, although with a rather less distressing approach, but also to several considerations in feminist theory on the concept of individual author and on the extent to which the latter is connected to the patronymic and the father’s name. These tools suggest how to create a subjectivity that is actually hyper-connected and therefore has a sort of collective nature.
In my laboratory experience, which I dearly love and always refer to, it sometimes happened that people started to think together from an individual’s spark, and ideas were produced that couldn’t be ascribed to a specific person but to a collective mind. These are magical moments that nevertheless happen and are normal, there’s nothing transcendental in them: it’s when we realize that our thought finds meaning and also pleasure in sharing the collective belonging to a group mind. It’s where I see the same embryos that can be found in the Net, in this oceanic dimension that can make us feel a bit like castaways or potentially drowned. To me, the only way is not so much an effort to try and emerge as much as an attempt to see whether one can sink a little deeper and lose the boundaries of the ego.
TC: Yet, in reality the artist must face its gallery, which expects an object, therefore we find ourselves exactly denying what we just said. The gallery expects a closed object signed by a specific artist and none other, rather than a collective object, because even an artist must face everyday life; the curator itself needs its event to be communicated and call in visitors in large numbers, otherwise it would end up losing financial support.
CP: Yes, I perfectly understand all this. But I’m thinking as an artist because it’s obvious that when I’m operating as an organizer — as I have done and continue to do — I follow different logics. As an artist, I intuitively understand paths that also have an existential nature, because since I started I’m used to negotiate contradictory needs; my point is that right shouldn’t be separated from wrong in a polar way. I consider polarities interesting because they create tension fields, not because they point to a right direction as opposed to a wrong one. In this field of opposed tensions, the artist may suggest this approach, this challenge.
What happens then from a purely practical standpoint in the relationship with the gallery lies on a different plane, it’s another issue that shouldn’t be intimidating. I see many very clever youngsters, a lot cleverer than when I was young, and they have a lot more energy and determination. But they are hindered by this fear that was somehow put in their head that they might fail to find a space in the system, in the world and in the cell-like organization of work. The first duty is to abandon this fear and try to achieve autonomy. The self-sustainability you were mentioning earlier is very interesting to me.
I’m taking part in a project in Apulia where we are trying to work in total self-sustainability, total independence from electric and water networks. I’m interested in self-sustainability especially if seen as independence, which is to say in considering our work, our existence and our access to pleasure and enjoyment as not determined by pre-ordained structures only. It’s impossible: I refuse to think that my own pleasure is organized in advance, according to a scheme that was established before me. We have to find a way to conceive our life in trying to obey neither to the ideology of merchandise nor to the ideology of individualism, while also trying to dilute individuality in this collective intelligence, in this collective thought. We must also be able to consider that our individual contribution to this collective intelligence is actually an individual and independent one that is ours, something we have that wouldn’t have been there hadn’t we donated it.
It’s not about penetrating the cell but about creating connections, possibilities of existence, and this is the greatest fear that is injected in young people’s head nowadays. When I was a child, perhaps the greatest fear one had to face was Communism, whereas now it’s failing to find a job, as if life was about identifying a place that somebody else created for you and enter it, a bit like what happens at the end of one’s life. Studying psychology, certain psychology, taught me that when one has a problem that seems impossible to solve, one should try to think counter-intuitively, for example by making it bigger rather than striving to contain it. A bit like what we were saying earlier on about the ocean, which is to say to try and sink a little deeper rather than desperately trying to remain afloat.
TC: I would also like you to tell us about the projects you are currently working on.
CP: The one I was mentioning before is a project (editor’s note: called “Lu Cafausu” and launched in Salento, in the South of Italy) that I hold very dear and is just starting, so it might be a bit early to talk about it. In any case, I am creating a foundation in Salento with a group of old friends — Emilio Fantin, Luigi Negro and Giancarlo Norese — with whom I shared the Oreste experience in the nineties, together with Luigi Presicce, a newer friend. The idea is to create a training place that also allows living together. It’s a sort of crossroads between some of my past experiences, such as the Laboratorio Arti Visive (IUAV) and the Oreste open residencies. It’s a dream, an ambitious project, but I believe that the time has come to create something like this; I’m investing the resources I can, we’ll see what happens.
From a more individual and artistic standpoint, I enjoyed an exhibition I organized recently. I’ve been thinking of a retrospective for many years — perhaps too many. Even everything I was saying earlier on about unsaturated works of art and the contemporaneity of all works are all reflections coming from the idea of creating a retrospective that should go beyond taking the works of art and putting them all one after another. I created this exhibition in a small space in Rome, the Zoo/Zone Art Forum, managed by artist H.H. Lim and his partner and curator Viviana Guadagno. It was a retrospective of unknown works.
I gathered from the studio, the garages and several other places where they were more or less hidden, the artworks I had actually created in the past for some other occasion, but that at the last minute I had considered wrong or ugly, or that somebody else had held too similar to those of another artist, and which therefore couldn’t be shown. In one case, it was even a photographic work that I had considered too beautiful, and thus wouldn’t represent my approach to the specific performance that those photos were intended to document. Ultimately, they are all works that were more or less created between the end of the seventies and 2010. I got them out and created an exhibition called “Lavori da vergognarsi ovvero il riscatto delle opere neglette. Una retrospettiva di Cesare Pietroiusti” (“Artworks to be ashamed of or the revenge of the neglected works. A retrospective by Cesare Pietroiusti“) with all those works I had created, finished and put away without showing them to anybody.
As you may have gathered, I like paradoxes, I like counter-intuitive thinking and I like so called paradoxical requirements, all the pragmatics of human communication and relational psychology. I enjoyed creating this exhibition because the more wrong things I found, the better.
Obviously, all these works together acquire a new meaning and even a new time. I’m extremely interested in this and I have to say it opened a wide field of research, which is also a retrospective and individual research. It led me to consider all the things I carried out wrongly, all the wrong interpretations, all the thoughts or writings that an individual may have considered wrong at a certain point, and put away for this reason. In this occasion, to let it all out, somehow.
TC: Where was it?
CP: In Rome, in Via del Viminale 39. The exhibition was dismantled last week, because it was opened in May and lasted for the whole summer, rather a long time. I really enjoyed it and I see it as a perspective for further work in this direction: art can always question right and wrong, failure and success. I believe it opens many possibilities exactly because, among other things, it leads one to reconsider one’s own approach to time: what was considered wrong and suddenly becomes right again for whatever reason, and acquires new temporal presence.
Another scope I’m working on — and if you attended the Forum you know it already — is protecting the Italian language, the mother tongue. Italian is clearly a special language because it’s Dante’s language, the one invented by poets. But the problem is that, as a skill, it’s no different from the one of a French person or a Turk, it’s the same one. The point is that all of us, French people, Turks or Italians, have the problem of having to communicate. And it’s also a will, because communicating using this lingua franca that is not even English but basic English — a specific English — is a great opportunity.
TC: I remember that at a conference we were said to speak Bubble English.
CP: Bubble English. Like a bubble.
TC: Exactly, a bubble English.
CP: A bubble English that you might even chew.
TC: And also a very elementary one.
CP: Certainly. The problem is that using an elementary language makes thought elementary too, makes it childish. I feel such a risk on myself, and when I talk in English I become more stupid, it’s just the way it is.
TC: It happens to us all.
CP: When I talk with mother tongue English-speakers I become more stupid because thought adjusts itself to linguistic skills. Articulating elaborate and clever concepts that would be difficult to articulate even in one’s own language would take too long. In basic English mode you simplify things, there’s no time and you put up with being a little more stupid. Therefore, my proposal is to try and find systems that allow avoiding fully abandoning the basic English and communication haste ideology by including some terms from one’s own mother tongue in basic English, while somehow trying to explain them.
Italian has three words for “face”: “faccia”, “viso” and “volto”. “Viso” is obviously connected with “seeing” (in Italian, “vedere”), “volto” with turning (in Italian “volgere”) one’s attention and face, probably, with frontality and therefore with facing somebody.
English only has “face”. But if I want to express the nuance contained within the word “viso” or “volto”, how do I do it in English?
Therefore, I am forced to say that, in my language, the word is “viso” and that it’s connected to the Latin word “videre”, the concept of “visus” and “visto”. The fact that, while they have the past participle “viewed” we have “visto”, and that they have no equivalent word for “viso” while we have a whole etymology around this concept, must be explained to them. It takes five minutes, and I explain it. And this obviously requires me to use a lexicon from my mother tongue. In connection to this issue, I’m currently working on a series of conferences on Italian art history held in Italian for people that do not speak it.
English translation: Fulvio Giglio