Luca Vitone was born in Genoa in 1964; lives in Berlin. Luca Vitone’s work was shown at the 55th Venice Biennale 2013.
A conversation about his artistic research
A conversation about the work he presented at the Venice Biennale 2013
A conversation about “Per l’eternità“
A conversation about his artistic research
Tiziana Casapietra: Your works investigating the idea of “place” were the result of a very accurate research, but they required great effort from the audience as not much consideration was placed on the visual impact of the work. In your most recent work, instead, I mean from the monochromes, passing through the work presented at this year’s Venice Biennale and the video “Per l’eternità” now on show at Pinksummer (Genoa, Italy), there is a greater level of visual seduction. I would like you to tell me more about this change.
Luca Vitone: It is not very easy to explain. I have not clearly focused on this change. However, I would say that my present work is the result of the development of my analytical research, which has naturally evolved, like life itself evolves, like a human being, who becomes old and grows up.
It is true that there are some very essential moments of change in my work and in the course of my research. Twenty-five years ago, I had the desire to annihilate the image. I worked with photocopies in black and white. At that time, those methods were simpler, more direct, cheaper, and easier for a young artist. It was this great desire to fade the image through photocopying, a tool which depersonalizes the subject through duplication and pixilation of the image. My initial desire was to question the status of the object. I went further on this path, with the metaphors of places, places of our being, of our living, places that we inhabit. For some years I used cartography to tell about this existential loss in orientation that my generation went through in the ’80s. A loss that may also have emerged on aesthetic and political levels, in what I called my Carte Atopiche (Atopic Maps). At the moment, at the Galleria Milano owned by Carla Pellegrini, there is an exhibition done on the occasion of the publication of the book I wrote with Franco La Cecla fifteen years ago, Non siamo mai soli (We are never alone). Here, I am showing works that are included in the book, works done in 1994 which go through a very intimate and personal itinerary related to “places of belonging”. I have realized that in ’94 there was the first great change in me. Analyzing the place that represents this loss, I have realized that most of my works done in 1994 were very intimate, and I would say even personal. However, there are also some works that speak about the community, such as my cartographic works. In that year, I had my first exhibition titled “Der unbestimmte Ort” at gallery Christian Nagel in Cologne, where I invited a Rom community to come to the gallery. In 1994, I also did a work on Islam at the Italian Cultural Institute in Cairo. It was about the Islamic community of Milan; in the same year I made some drawings of India, Appunti di viaggio (Notes on trips), which are typical hand drawn maps. This was when I recovered a kind of manual dexterity as in the drawings for Non siamo mai soli (We are never alone). And this was also when I quit with the idea of photocopied duplication. There is some change there. At the beginning of the 2000’s, there was another change, which tells more about the formal aspect of an object, trying to maintain that kind of coherence, that modus operandi which is uniquely mine: investigating places, working on a territory, and on specific exhibition places. Even food, which has a convivial aspect, in 2000 became a sculpture as for the project I showed that year at Maria Colao in Rome, a work which is now on show at Silvia Geddes, Rome. This is when I started making monochromes, as a sort of painting. Maybe it was also my wish to test myself with the practice of painting. Being a visual artist, I inevitably confront myself with sculpture, which I think is everything that exists in space. During the last twenty years, sculpture has become installation. It is always an explosion of a tridimensional object that involves space in its totality. Sometimes, it involves the experience of the visitor, and sometimes it involves the senses of the audience. If I think of one of the cartographies that I made at the end of the ’80s, L’invisibile informa il visibile (The invisible informs the visible), here I find my first monochrome. It is a topographic map mounted backwards on the wall. The greater attention that we placed on this white sheet of paper, made us recognize some lines, colors, a territory, a cartography. Depending on our attention to it, we can manage to understand and read the territory that is described in this work. In 2000, for an exhibition in Florence where I displayed a saffron garden, I made some watercolors with saffron. The watercolor became a monochromatic painting made with a food element. This work was a diptych and on one watercolor I have drawn the geographical coordinates of the saffron’s place of origin, and on the other those of the exhibition place. These monochromes brought me to a further step in my research. I remember we were at the “Island of Art” in Milan, those were the years when the Stecca area was occupied with the sole aim of making the city of Milan aware of the need for a public space devoted to contemporary art. Milan pays lots of attention to European changes. It is very receptive of what happens internationally, but at the same time, if we compare it to other Italian towns, it is far behind in the field of public contemporary art spaces. It has changed, lately. Now there are some private and public spaces that are doing interesting exhibitions. In that period there was not a space for contemporary art in Milan. This is why we occupied that area. However, it was difficult to make an exhibition in an occupied place with no economic possibilities, and try to produce works for a space that aims at being a high quality museum space without funds. This is why I thought of working with the dust of the place. By collecting the dust of the place – we were working in a semi-abandoned space where dust was sedimented over the years – I managed to make some watercolors. Seven large watercolors on paper were placed on the corridor of the exhibition space to look like opened windows. From there, my reflection on the idea of monochromes evolved. Monochrome is seen as the culminating moment in western painting, a noble period in the history of western painting, the most extreme example of Modernism. It is a modernism that includes the concept of “rational absolute” on one hand, and of spiritual insights on the other hand: Ad Reinhardt and Piero Manzoni on one side and Marc Rothko on the other side. We have this kind of dialogue among different approaches to monochromatic painting. I am not a painter, neither by academic training, nor as an artist. I just wanted to give my contribution to this reflection by using anti-pigments. Thus, I used natural elements that are generally accused of destroying the idea of painting either materially or conceptually. The debate over restoration is always on what should be removed from the work and how the work should be restored. The dust I use comes from closed spaces, dust of the outside environment, all ashes that surround us. These are the elements that nullifies the state of painting. So, maybe these elements, these anti-pigments, are the last act of a utopian idea of progress which was typical of the 20th century, which does not exist anymore, but for many years was considered crucial to the social growth of our western world. These dusts, perhaps, are here to tell us about this ideological failure. I started with these kinds of dusts and then to those in the open air, to the atmospheric agents and at the end to the ashes of incinerators, of garbage. The idea was to tell about the rhetoric that we have in the consuming society, on our environmentalism, on the environmental ideas that collide continually with selfishness.
Jessica Genova: How do you plan your works? What kind of people do you involve, what tools? And more specifically, since you use harmful dust, how do you protect yourself?
LV: I take advantage of the opinions of people that are close to me, friends of different backgrounds, some of them are collaborators of mine. I start with consultation, and then the work grows and comes to its definition. We protect ourselves at work. According to the work we are doing, we put on overalls, filtered masks, and glasses that allow us to complete the work.
JG: Looking to the future, how is your work evolving? What are your current projects and what do you have in the future?
LV: It had a very busy summer, with a lot of exhibitions including the Venice Biennale at the Italian pavilion and at the Latin-American pavilion. Recently, I have opened three solo shows. I am working on some projects in Germany, in South America, and in Italy. But it is too early to talk about them.
A conversation about the work he presented at the Venice Biennale 2013
Luca Vitone: In order to tell about this ideological path, which started in the 19th century, but which found its best expression in the 20th century, I have tried to find a type of dust that was even more harmful. After some considerations, I came to Eternit (the building material made with asbestos) with the intention of bringing it to the Venice Biennale this year, but it was not possible. Now it is an illegal material, but we are surrounded by it.
We got in touch with a company that does asbestos removal, but we did not manage to bring the material to the Biennale. There is a sort of hypocrisy or fear around this issue, and for many other reasons, at the end they said “No, you cannot do it”. But I persisted on this idea, as I really wanted to bear witness of this material through a monochromatic approach.
I was thinking about some previous experiences of mine, for example the work that I made in 2000 for the exhibition “Stundàiu” at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, where I recreated the odor of the sea; then at the Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena, a couple of years later, where I created the odor of wood. At this point, I said: “If I cannot bring the material, I will bring its odor.” When I realized that its odor does not exist, I decided to invent it.
Smell is also a mnemonic experience that brings back to us past moments in life. However, an odor that reminds us of something, does not mean it is exactly the odor of that particular moment in our past.
The memory of the odor takes us back to some moments, some days or some experiences we have lived in our past.
I started to think of how to present this idea, keeping in mind that I wanted it to be a monochromatic or achromatic object, even a reminder of Piero Manzoni. What we see, perhaps it might seem to be a pun, but for me is a sculpture. By working within the art system, I inevitably find myself working within the two categories of painting and sculpture meant from a broad point of view. And within this, I think that from since ages past, since people started scratching pictures on rocks thousands of years ago, we all work within three main categories: portrait, landscape, and still life. I am a landscape artist, who works on monochrome and sculpture. It is not a painting involving dust or atmospheric agents anymore, but it is something that involves the environment in its totality. At the end, this becomes an object per se, something that besides being intangible and invisible, it invades the space and transmits an everyday environmental experience.
After various tests, we have worked on one material only, the rhubarb, of three different typologies. It all worked out very well, because we kept focusing on one unique material, seen as a unique color, like the shades of Ad Reinhardt’s colors.
We decided to use three different types of rhubarb. I have tried to work only on rhubarb, using the ones coming from Belgium and Switzerland, meaning the places where the families owning the Eternit companies live. In the 20th century, Eternit was seen as an essential building material; it was considered essential in the construction industry as it was fire resistant, water proof, inexpensive, lightweight, malleable and apparently secure. But only 80 years later, it was found to be seriously harmful to human health. But in reality, they knew from since the very beginning that this material was poisonous, there are many documents proving it. The most tragic thing is that the ownership acted as if everything was ok. In order to maximize profits, they paid politicians and scientists to minimize their responsibilities. At the end, they could not do that anymore. The material has an incubation period of 20-30 years; after a certain time people started to die and the problem could not be hidden anymore. Most of those deaths were not even attributable to work. At the end the factory was closed. The multinational company Eternit stopped producing in Europe, where the removal of the material took place immediately, but they went on producing it in the countries of the third world, such as India and Brazil. They ended up repeating what happened in the previous decade with the production of food additives – such as E123 – for drinks. Even in the post-colonial era, this material keeps telling us about the authoritarianism of Europe. With the work presenting the odor of Eternit, I also meant to speculate on the formal aspect of the sculpture. If dust may destabilize the integrity of a painting, odor certainly destabilizes the idea we have of a sculpture. A sculpture is part of the visual arts, where the accentuation “visual” is crucial, but in this case, mine is an invisible or non-visible sculpture. I would say that my work at the Biennale is a non-sculpture which we might connect to my anti-paintings made with anti-pigments. This makes us also speculate on our devotion to the visibility of the objects. Indeed, at the Biennale I decided not to show any object. If I had exhibited a visible object, the odor would have become merely ornamental.”
Tiziana Casapietra: How did you manage not to be tempted by the flattery of the object?
Luca Vitone: My idea was to make this odor become a monochromatic sculpture and this should have been the only thing to be perceived of my work. That’s why I decided not to show anything else; the presence of objects would have diminished the cornerstone of my work.
I decided to be at the Biennale with an invasive work, even violent to some extent. You can smell it even outside the pavilion, or in the nearby room, where other colleagues were showing their works. An artist might end up occupying other people’s territory even though there is nothing visible to see. But mine is a delicate invasion.
My idea was to work on a transparent monochrome alluding to a violent and shocking experience. The idea was to refer to a material which was considered essential to the development of the construction industry, but which little by little was revealed to be nothing more than an illusion, as much as any other western attitudes and ideologies that prevailed in Europe and its colonies from the end of the 19th century onwards.
Jessica Genova: Referring to the Venice Biennale and to your “olfactory sculpture” focused on the idea of invisibility, it comes to my mind that for the Little Prince “what is essential is invisible to the eye”. As an artist, with what eyes do you think we get the invisible?
LV: With the eyes of knowledge and through the eyes of desire, the desire of imagining other worlds. In the visual arts, we are all used to enhance our eye and imaging a gigantic invisible sculpture requires a confrontation with the history of the object, the history of volume and its relation to space.
JG: For Aristotle, “the essence of something is what makes the thing be the very thing that it is.” How has your research on the places developed from the presentation of real objects to the elaboration of essences?
LV: Essence is a real object; even an invisible odor has its own borders. You can find its borders right in the space where the art work lives and is perceived.
JG: Referring to the comments by Barbara Rose concerning the Italian choice of evicting Italian artists from their Italian pavilion, what is your opinion about it?
LV: Unfortunately, this choice has proved to be strategically counterproductive for our country. It is sad that this mistake came to the fore thanks to a foreign and internationally acclaimed art historian, who expressed her judgment based on real facts. Our new location is placed at the end of the Arsenale. Visitors reach us after having watched over 500 artists’ works; obviously, at that point they are too tired to be able to properly interpret and understand what happens in the Italian pavilion. Being the Venice Biennale, an Italian event, the Italian Pavilion has always been strategically placed at the entrance of the Gardens, welcoming the visitors right at the end of the main central boulevard. Then, for some reason, it was moved away. I think this is a mistake, which still remains a mystery to us. Special thanks to Sidita Hoxhiq and Garvin Cummings for helping with the English translation. Most of the photographs – inserted in the video with the sole aim of illustrating the conversation with Luca Vitone – are courtesy of the artist and Pinksummer Gallery, Genoa. The photograph of the perfume bottle refers to the scent “Per l’eternità” presented by Luca Vitone at the 55th Venice Biennale and created for him by maitre parfumeur Maria Candida Gentile. The photograph of the room by Luca Vitone and Luigi Ghirri at the 55th Venice Biennale (Italian Pavilion) is by Agostino Osio.
A conversation about “Per l’eternità”
Luca Vitone:In order to come to the idea of a smell, I had to conduct many interviews with the people living in the areas with Eternit (the harmful material made out of asbestos). The stories I have heard are violent and shocking.
I went to Casale Monferrato (Northern Italy), where an Eternit Industry has been located for many years. There I got to know members of the association which has been gathering the families of asbestos victims. Having spoken with them, I then realized the scale of the disaster; a dramatic situation, far beyond any possible imagination.
It is a destroyed territory, where 95% of the people are contaminated by asbestos and there is an average of one death per week caused by Pleural Mesothelioma, a lung cancer often diagnosed in people who have been exposed to high levels of asbestos. The death rate will sharply increase in the coming years, because the infection due to asbestos fibers settled in the lungs has now reached the end of the incubation period (20-30 years). I have heard dramatic stories of decimated families.
The territory around the industry has been totally contaminated. There is a beach along the Po River, now hidden by a sarcophagus made of reinforced concrete and totally covered in vegetation. This beach is made of the industry’s debris: a mixture of cement, sand, and asbestos fibers. For decades, persons who were unaware, used the beach for sunbathing and swimming.
Children went there on Saturday afternoons or after school; many others who could not afford a holiday in Liguria or elsewhere, habitually went there for a bath. Just imagine this polluted beach, people go there to lie down and relax, they take a breath of fresh air, and perhaps, some fibers of this harmful material entered their lungs and after 20 years these people die.
The awareness of the company’s ownership (of the potential problems associated with asbestos) was confirmed by the fact that every week they were donating a liter of milk to each worker, as the belief was that milk helps to clean the lungs. In addition, the company advised the workers not to smoke, because smoking causes lung cancer. But in fact, they knew that smoke stimulates the lungs and activates asbestos fragments, thus hastening the development of the disease.
They also freely gave the waste sand to the people, who used it to pave their yards at the front of their houses. Little mountains of this sand were found literally everywhere; the wind was spreading it far and wide. As a result, people were easily inhaling it. The children were making baby food, cakes, tunnels, etc. What they did not know was that the sand was very poisonous, and by moving it these children were also breathing it. All these children who were contaminated by this material are now adults.
Tiziana Casapietra: Do they know they are contaminated?
LV: They all know it.
TC: How do they live? Do they do medical checks?
LV: They are only waiting. Nothing can be done.
In the video, the woman who talks about the wind, she is the same one who talks about the uselessness of leaving. It isn’t worth going to Sardinia, for example, as this is something you have inside your body and after 20 years it “explodes”. It starts with a backache and cough. In this season everyone coughs sometimes and we do not care. But those who have lived in Casale Monferrato and have a cough must do some medical checks. If the cough is caused by asbestos, after 18 months you will be dead, because unfortunately, at the moment, there are no treatments for this disease. When this disease explodes you have, depending on your body type, about 18 months to live. They know it. Mrs. Marisa is alone with her son, because her other relatives are all dead. This lady knows that sooner or later that deadly cough will come, and she spends every year of her life with this fear.
I have tried to tell this story in the most poetic way possible.
TC: You managed to make a piece of poetry. By watching the video you feel pervaded by a glint of melancholy.
LV: Thank you. I like this interpretation.
I wanted to do that with 9 images.
TC: What images are they?
LV: They are images of the area nearby Casale Monferrato, from there you never see the city, the Po River is in two images, and the industry is in four, including the one with the ants.
TC: It does not look like an industry. It looks like a farmstead.
LV: Because what you see are the offices, the working places have been demolished and their debris are now collected under the concrete sarcophagus on which a lawn is grown. Our images were taken from there. When you see the third image of the factory, you also see a meadow, and we are above the factory where the people worked.
TC: Now the area is all treated? Have you gone there without any worries?
LV: I went there because I wanted to make a work about this story and I do hope I won’t have reasons to worry. But I went without permission and we passed through a net.
TC: Who made the recordings of the video?
LV: I made it with Elvio Manuzzi, a documentary maker, a collaborator and a good friend of mine. I told him what kind of images I wanted, fixed images, like photographs in video format. I got my inspiration from the holocaust filmography. In particular, there was a movie by Alain Resnais, titled Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), one of the first real documentary movies which talked about the drama of deportation and destruction of millions of people. We went to work during lunch time, at the end of June, in a time of muggy weather when the light was more disturbing. I wanted to work on some specific colors, I was thinking about the skin color of a sick person suffering from hepatitis, or the colors of soil used by Giorgio Morandi.
I have recorded hours of interviews, but I selected only a few parts when the sensation of the material emerges. At the beginning the material doesn’t emerge, the recorded voices talk about the wind, the smell, the dust, the environment. Only towards the end they started referring to death. It is a collage of voices that point to the fact that there is no solution, but coexisting with this material. This is narrated by the people who grew up in a territory where this material was the “prince” of the land.
It was also the place where workers were paid better salaries, perhaps because it was all well known already. Those who returned from the war were given the opportunity of choosing a job position: at the post office, the railway service, or the industry of Eternit. When they asked “who pays more?” The answer was “Eternit”. So they all chose the industry of Eternit. This choice caused the death of many workers.
Special thanks to Garvin Cummings, Jessica Genova, and Sidita Hoxhiq for helping with the transcription and the translation of theis interview.
Selected solo shows: 2013: Pinksummer, Genoa; Silvia Geddes, Rome; Galleria Milano, Milan; 2012: Museion, Bolzano; Fondazione Brodbeck, Catania; 2011: e/static, Turin; Galleria Cesare Manzo, Rome; 2010: Michel Rein, Parigi; Pinksummer, Genoa; 2009: Nomas Foundation, Rome; 2008: Christian Nagel, Berlin; GAMeC, Bergamo; 2007: Cesare Manzo, Pescara; MART, Rovereto; Fossati esterni del Castello Sforzesco, Milan; Emi Fontana, Milan; OK Centrum, Linz; 2006: Casino Luxembourg, Luxembourg; 2005: Magazzino d’Arte Moderna, Rome; Franco Soffiantino Arte Contemporanea, Turin; 2004: Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato; ASSAB ONE, Milan; 2003: Galleria Primo Piano, Rome; 2002: Micromuseum, Palermo; Gianluca Collica, Catania; 2001: Lotta Hammer at Westlondonproject, London; Emi Fontana, Milan; 2000: Base, Firenze; Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; P.S.1, New York; Primo Piano, Rome; 1999: O.K Centrum für Gegenwartskunst, Linz, Austria; Neon, Bologna; 1998; Christian Nagel, Cologne; Openspace, Milan; 1996: Künstlerhaus Schloss Wiepersdorf, Wiepersdorf; Special Project for Liste ’96, Basel; 1994: Juliet Room, Trieste; Christian Nagel, Cologne; Emi Fontana, Galleria Paolo Vitolo, Milan; 1993: Marsilio Margiacchi, Arezzo; Paolo Vitolo, Milan; 1992: Galleria Raucci/Santamaria, Naples; 1991: Franz Paludetto, Turin; 1990: Paolo Vitolo, Rome; Galleria Pinta 3, Galleria Neon, Bologna; U7 Gallery, London 1989: Galleria Pinta 2, Studio Oggetto, Milan; Galleria Pinta, Genova; 1988: Studio Gennai, Pisa; Galleria Pinta, Genova; 1985: Libreria Il Sileno, Genova.
Selected group shows: 2013: 55° Biennale di Venezia (Italian Pavilion); 2012: Ritratto di una città. Arte a Roma 1960 – 2001, MACRO, Rome; 1st Montevideo Biennial, Espacio Expositivo Banco Repùblica; In anderen Worten. Der Schwarzmarkt der Übersetzungen – mit zeitgenössischen Kulturen handeln, NGBK, Berlin; D’après Giorgio, Fondazione De Chirico, Rome; 2011: Secret Societies, CAPC, Bordeaux; Italia Ora, Museo Andersen, Rome; Il Belpaese dell’arte, GAMeC, Bergamo; The Impossible Community, Moscow Museum of Modern Art; Secret Societies, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt; ACCADEMIA-STANZE-PERSONE, American Academy in Rome; 2010: Storytellers, Centre d’art contemporain Passages, Troyes with the collaboration of FRAC Champagne-Ardenne, Reims; ORTung 2009, Salzburger Kunstverein, Deutchvilla, Strobl; Linguaggi e sperimentazioni. AGI Verona Collection, MART, Rovereto; Elogio della semplicità, Fondazione delle Stelline, Milano; Ibrido, PAC, Milan; 2009: Sicilia 1968/2008 lo spirito del tempo, Riso museo d’arte contemporanea della Sicilia, Palermo; 2008: Nient’altro che scultura, XIII Biennale Internazionale di scultura, Sedi varie, Carrara; Sguardo periferico & corpo collettivo, Museion, Bolzano; 2007: Deutsche Bank Collection Italy, Deutsche Bank, Milano; Sharjah Biennial 8, Sharjah, UAE; Capricci. Possibilités d’autres mondes, Casino Luxembourg; 2006 Fuoriuso ’06, Ex mercato ortofrutticolo COFA, Pescara; Less, Strategie dell’abitare, Pac, Milan; 2005: Emergency Biennale in Chechnya (travelling toPalais de Tokyo, Paris; Grozny, Chechnya; Matrix Art Project, Brussels; Museion, Bolzano); Padiglione Italia Out of Biennale, Flash art Museum Trevi; Fuori Tema, XIV Quadriennale d’Arte, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome; Alice nel castello delle meraviglie, Sale Viscontee del Castello Sforzesco, Milan; 2004: Shake. Staatsaffäre, O.K. Centrum fur Genenwartskunst, Oberosterreich, Linz; Villa Arson, Nice; EmPowerment: Cantiere Italia, Museo d’Arte contemporanea Villa Croce e Villa Bombrini Genoa; 2003 Moltitudini-Solitudini, Museion e AR/Ge Kunst, Bolzano; Utopia Station at the 50° Venice Biennial; Déplacements, ARC, Paris; Fragments d’un discours italien, Mamco, Geneva; 2001: Dinamiche della vita dell’arte, GAMeC – Bergamo; Leggerezza, Lenbachhaus Kunstbau, Munich; 2000: As it is, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; La forma del mondo, la fine del mondo, PAC, Milan; 1999: Molteplicittà, Fondazione A. Olivetti, Rome; La Ville, le Jardin, la Mémoire, Accademia di Francia, Villa Medici, Rome; 1997: Cartographers – geo-gnostic projection for the 21st Century, Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, Croatia; Officina Italia, Galleria Comunale di Arte Moderna, Castel San Pietro (Bologna); Città Natura, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; 1996: Ultime Generazioni, XII Quadriennale Nazionale d’Arte, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; 1995: Hotel Mama, Aperto ’95, Kunstraum Wien, Vienna; 1993: On taking a normal situation and retranslating it into overlapping and multiple readings of conditions past and present, Contemporary Art Museum, Antwerp; 1992: Ottovolante, GAMeC, Bergamo; 1990: Italia ’90. Ipotesi arte giovane, La Fabbrica del Vapore, Milan; 1989: La “mostra non mostra”, Gallery, Milano; 1988: The Gallery as Artwork, Luciano Inga Pin, Milano.