Pietro Ruffo was born in Rome — where he lives and works — in 1978. After graduating as an architect in 2005 at the Roma Tre University, in 2011 he received a research grant from New York’s Columbia University.
In 2013 he was the “resident artist” at Miami’s Fountainhead Residency and in 2014 he displayed the installation “SPAD SVII” — a paper-and-wood life-size reproduction of a French single-seat biplane fighter used during the First World War — at Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art.
Using media such as drawing, painting and installations, he creates complex works that ponder on the sense of freedom and on political, moral and social issues, leading the viewer to understand and reconsider the world from an ethical standpoint.
During an interview by Stella Santacatterina in his studio, Pietro Ruffo explains his interest both for the theme of freedom and for the symbologies used by the United States and the Soviet Union to motivate the race to the Moon.
Conversation transcription below
Stella Santacatterina: Here we are, in Pietro Ruffo’s studio in Rome; a young but already very well-known Italian artist who has worked very intensely for the last ten years with many subjects. But during the last few years — while spending time at the Columbia University in New York — he has intensely worked on the theme of liberty.
Pietro Ruffo: Yes, in 2010, I received an award and I was working as a researcher at the Columbia University; I had the opportunity to work on the subject of freedom, which I find extremely interesting. Referring to the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin, I began to study the two different ideas of freedom that he proposed. According to Isaiah Berlin, individual freedom is a negative concept as opposed to collective freedom — everybody’s freedom — which he considers a positive concept…
Therefore, I decided to focus my research subject at the Columbia University on a few American thinkers, like John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Ronald Dworkin, and this was very interesting for me because I had the opportunity to work with many young professors involved in this subject.
Building on this experience, I created a large work called the “Atlas of the various freedoms” (2010-2011), featuring over 40 interviews carried out at the Columbia University with people from different parts of the world, asking them what their idea of freedom was, and depending on their country of origin, such as Asia, Europe, United States, South America…
SS: So, from all over the world, really…
PR: Yes, from all over the world. Everyone has a different idea of freedom. So, I found it particularly interesting to understand how the concept of freedom is perceived.
SS: A universal concept.
PR: A universal concept indeed, but everyone perceives it differently, depending on his/her country of origin. This is why I worked on this subject for many years.
SS: Different concepts and different yearnings. In the West, freedom is taken for granted, while in other parts of the world freedom is perceived as the possibility to openly say names and express opinions.
PR: This is absolutely the point. Thus, in some countries you have to fight for your freedom, while in other countries there’s more freedom for men and less for women; yet again, in some other countries, there’s freedom but people don’t really know what to do with it; basically, every country has a different history about the concept of freedom.
What is interesting is that all the wars in the last century were done based on a word: “we will go to war and we will do it to have more freedom”; but you never really know which kind of freedom they are talking about.
Thus, another part of my work, a more recent one, was focused on the yearning for freedom and how people during the last century have depicted their yearning for freedom, mostly focusing on the posters about riots and demonstrations, from the Russian Revolution to Occupy Wall Street in the United States. Depending on the economic model, different artists have expressed this idea of popular will in different ways and with different techniques. For example, we can see that in the socialist world the population is mostly used as a geometrical pattern, as a triangular pattern moving towards a common goal; there is a great Russian poster with Lenin showing the way for all the people to follow, and all these people are following it together, towards a common goal. And in the background, there is a darker part representing capitalism with all its chaos and riots, and this is the opposition.
SS: Recently you have created “Moon walk,” a sort of collage, where you sort of joined low relieves, where you mixed symbologies taken from old newspapers, posters about the revolution, the American Revolution, and mixed all these things together… And here you can clearly see these two different positions.
SS: I would like to learn more about your residency at the Fountainhead in Miami in 2013 and the work you produced there.
PR: Yes. In 2013, I was sponsored by the Fountainhead Residency in Miami. This gave me the opportunity to go to Cape Canaveral, which is just two hours North from Miami in Florida. I was very interested in how the United States and the Soviet Union had expressed their will to reach the Moon, during the space age in the 50s and 60s. What was important for them was to create a sort of space atmosphere for everyone, so that people would understand how important it was to explore outer space. They had to understand why they were paying so many taxes for all these space projects. And what was interesting, in a way, was that in American images, technologies are often in the foreground. You have this big rocket to go to the Moon and astronauts are very small. So, technology is in the foreground.
In the Soviet propaganda posters, you can see people launching the rocket themselves or people going from Earth to the Moon on their own. So what I did was to mix these two sorts of languages to create…
SS: The symbology, in a way.
PR: Exactly, to mix the symbologies to create a work.
SS: We are referring to two different philosophies of life, two different concepts of life. The American one emphasizing technology and the machine… Pasolini used to highlight the confusion between progress, which is related to mankind, and development. Technology can only lead to development, not to progress.
According to the Russian approach, mankind is still the main protagonist, the main subject, and its mind is capable of exploring and conquering space for us.
PR: Yes, it’s mankind that opens the way from Earth to Space.
SS: I would like to go back to the theme of freedom, to the work “Arab Spring” referring to the revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Twin Towers or the Arab spring. This work presents the current situation of the world. I find it a very powerful image.
PR: Yes, one of my latest projects is exactly the one about the Arab Spring, and how for one hundred years we used political posters to express the popular will. Now, with the use of the Internet, everything changes. And the Arab Spring was a perfect example to express this idea. What I did is take an Islamic geometrical pattern, quote some words coming from the poster about the Arab Spring like “change,” “revolution,” “young people,” insert these words into this geometrical pattern and use it as an Internet grid on top of some maps.
The idea is how the positive energy has spread from the Arab world into the rest of the world during the last two years.