Interview by Luciano Marucci for the publication “Juliet” n. 92, April / May 1999
Do you think artists should give indications on how the culture industry works?
When we say ‘industry’ we normally mean an activity which produces objects useful to a community and which, in a sense, has these objects commissioned by the community in order to meet its needs or its aesthetic or technical aspirations. In the case of culture, and in particular in the case of the visual arts, I’m not sure we can use the word ‘industry’, because there is no explicit commission between work of art and society. In fact, I think often the work of art does not coincide with collective desire and aesthetic aspiration. I understand you can think (and maybe should think) of art as of a long term investment for the good of all. But when we talk like this, I feel art becomes akin to information; I feel art gets reduced to a state in which by ‘aesthetic’ we mean ‘pleasant’ (or even unpleasant, when fashion dictates it), and by ‘functional’ we mean according to pleasant taste (or, as I said, unpleasant). I think art is outside of all of this, or even against it, because it doesn’t recognise the same aesthetic and functional rules. The pleasant and the unpleasant continue to appear in art, exaggeratedly, individually, varyingly. The parameters of art sit uncomfortably with the parameters you would use for industry or indeed for social communication.
Can art change people’s aesthetic taste, and their perception of the world?
Yes, deeply. It’s the engine that changes reality. If you stop this engine, reality stops, or rather it just disappears. Art operates on an occult, almost terroristic level. Art is to communication what terrorism is to politics. The problem is that the engine of art doesn’t move on an industrial (again) rhythm, and that we cannot know its modes of transmission, their mysteriousness is implicit in the functioning of art. If we accepted this, everything would be different. Problems arise when certain social and economical factions who think they can represent REALITY (now we think of fashion, we used to think of stalinism) steal the images of art in order to imbue themselves with dynamism. There are artists who have lost hope and think that this is the way to keep the system running. I think it’s a way of brusquely pulling on the brakes and making the engine stall.
But can art enact a sociopolitical function?
People sometimes say that ‘the problem of art is that its influence is measured with different parameters’. What does this mean? That somebody or someone has the privilege of knowing what these parameters are? I don’t think so. I think this sentence, by way of common place, underlines the specific outsizeness of art. Saying ‘different parameters’ makes no sense, because it’s not like reality contains ‘different constants’ yet art is at the same time constant (not only in time, but in action) and different (not only in variety, but in perception). So if we see it as something made of both action and perception, we can better understand its political nature. So I’m more interested in finding the intrinsic political aspect of art than I am in finding its ‘function’. In fact when the question of competency is underlines, action becomes propaganda and perception becomes soliloquy, and loses its political essence, which is always dynamic (action) and excessive (perception). And then, we also need to avoid art ‘paying back’ its debt towards the world and towards politics; in a sense, we need art to stay in debt, so that we can all feel akin to art, always on the verge of failure.
What are the fields of the real in which, for you, the voice of art is heard?
In affect, which is the fundament of the real. I refer to the way we relate to others (neighbours, family, and also distant people). Through art we can share a mystery, we can realise how open reality is to change.
It’s been said that visual arts open the way to other languages…
It doesn’t only open up ‘unknown universes’ (as we say these days after science fiction); some works also continue being a trace, a model, for a very long time, sometimes for centuries. There are artists from a very distant past travelling towards a very distant future, because their action is continuous, permanent. Their traces come from a distant desert, cut through our cities and take us into another desert, perhaps a different one. As you walk the paths of art, the traces aren’t always recognisable, not explicitly, you can’t always follow them. If we interpret them, we could look for them forever. They often veer off route, they walk into the footprints of the artist, and they’re pathetic. Naturally I’m not referring to poets, to musicians, whose traces often mix with the traces of painters; I refer to all of those ‘creative languages’ we’re constantly surrounded by.
Does the work have a poetic and metaphysical role above all others?
‘Poetic’ yes, undoubtedly, even in the original sense of ‘poiesis’, the creation of a form that puts us in relation to one another in a less private sense. I don’t know about the term ‘metaphysical’. In philosophical terms, with this word we mean the progressive, and violent, move away from the world of things in Western thought. A moving away which imposes and elevated, and authoritative point of view. So art shouldn’t be metaphysical. I believe in an art which can both evaporate from things and at the same time fall back down onto the earth, like baptismal rain.
Do you believe in the rigour of specificity, then?
Yes, although for me specificity is more of a prize than a kind of rigour. “Rigour” makes me think of two things: one is related to sport, the idea of being punished for a violent act committed on the field; the other is a meteorological word, something to do with the cold, something to suffer. Both words take me to the idea of guilt, of suffering for something. I think of specificity as of something joyful and healthy, as something expansive.
Do you see spectacularisation, and more generally work made to get common consent, as perverse?
The easy answer would be a firm yes. I would save my soul and I’d earn more points with those who think, or pretend to think, that art should have no other implications. ‘Spectacularisation’ distracts, and is negative, when the critic brutally introduces elements which share nothing with the intentions of the artist, when it takes us so far away from the work that we forget it, when it supposedly ‘facilitates’ relationships with the audience, with reality, and so forth. But if we use the word to denote an affective emphasis, if we’re highlighting the background upon which the work takes place (although they remain ultimately solitary), if we use it to speak of the chorality of experience in its formal aspects, then I don’t dislike it at all. I think it belongs in our cultural tradition, and it’s the mise en scène of the work, which evokes its dramatic nature, we could say its ‘theatrical nature’. The problem consists in keeping alive the visibility of the work, even though we have to negotiate with something spatially complex that isn’t the mere visual figure on a painted surface; although it is indeed that surface which we need to ultimately come to terms with.
So art shouldn’t enfranchise itself with contaminations from other disciplines.
Although it keeps itself at a distance, art lives off a very strong relationship with other disciplines. But these are mere ‘cultural’ considerations; all reflections on contamination tend to have a solely anthropological nature. The crucial question is somewhere else: should art express itself through the era’s dominant discourses, such as expanded communication, cataloguing sociology, intimacy without subjectivity etc.? Should art camouflage itself amongst all of this and lose its foundational role as purveyor of originary forms? I don’t think so. I think if art gives up on form, it loses its principal tool of independence and of conversation with the real, which is what makes it both irreducible to rules and victorious against attempts to annihilate it.
Besides, if it’s too closed in on itself, the work of art loses the sense of complexity of the real, and tends to be even more isolated.
My experience as an artist and as an observer of the work of others leads me to believe that when the work looks closed in on itself, when it truly is closed in together with all the problems it arises from, then it’s actually a resolved work of art, as well as a highly communicative one.
Does the radicality of your thought stem from a system you see as degraded, and fromthe loss of identity of the work of art?
If you use the work ‘radicality’ in its proper sense of being rooted in a place (the place of art) from which you can move outwards, rather than the political annoying sense that the word so often carries, then I accept it wholeheartedly. It’s quite important to me that my thought and my work has roots. And from this point of view, I don’t think the work of art has lost its identity, in fact I’m quite optimistic, because I see the need for identity arise forcefully at the moment also in work which is very unlike my own, as well as in all of those ‘other languages’ we often invoke to save art from its alleged communicative malfunctions.
I’m referring especially to the subjectivity of your poetics and to the way you defend your ideas.
The work has to find a root in an idea, in a poetics and in the body of he or she who makes it. Like this we arrive to a correspondence between the identity of the author and something collective which he or she manages to gage. Following this route, we can see the creative act as something which has its own value, which doesn’t exhaust itself in social communication but which is somehow foundational; without that act, that gesture, reality loses meaning.
Do your works contain the concepts you attempt to make present verbally?
The ideas are inside the work, or rather they are incarnated in the work. We shouldn’t imagine the work of art as a box that needs filling. In fact the work of art often refuses and rejects ideas, like a failed transplant. Works are made of the same stuff as ideas, they express ideas directly. Perhaps they do so more simply, more immediately than words ever can because, unlike language, which often veers one way or another, art is synthetic, while all the time remaining expressive.
Do you also want to provoke a reaction within the dominant system?
It certainly isn’t in my intentions; I wouldn’t know who to provoke and why, since there isn’t a class to be in struggle with but only a series of communicative systems which have turned to scandal and provocation to infuse current language. If there isn’t an ethic there can never be an aesthetic, but only a whipped up concoction of respectability and evil.
Does your active participation in the debate about the future of art make up for the silence of your work?
I think my work is more silent than I am; I’m someone who likes to talk.
Do you think it’s important for an artist nowadays to speak about their thoughts outside the work of art?
As I said earlier, the ideas of an artist are deposited in the work; outside of the work there is nothing to transmit. I’m interested in writing, but there are artists who make incredible works and refuse to write or speak about them; and sometimes ideas circulate all the better for not having to deal with the weight of words. I’m interested in writing, first and foremost as a formal dimension.
Has the moment come to react to the decline of the power of art and of culture more widely?
I could answer yes or no, it wouldn’t make a difference. Many artists have stopped believing that their work and their ideal and practical preoccupations can be resolved by others (gallerists, museum directors, critics, etc.). But I don’t think this is a desperate or reactionary gesture, I think it’s simply the move you make when you decide to take back an identity which has always been yours; an identity which many, recently, have attempted to steal with the usual system: provoking failure in order to then run off with the goods…
Can theoretical militance contribute to the act of subtracting art from its isolation and giving it the social function it secretly wishes for?
If by ‘theoretical militance’ you mean participation in the culture industry we began from, then I don’t think so. Art only has a relative need to travel down other communicative channels. In fact, other channels can contribute to making it misunderstood, to making it lose that popular aspect (more than that social function) which as you say it secretly aspires to. But like every secret, it loses its allure once it’s exposed. The point in the words artists use, unlike all other words, isn’t to take art out of its isolation, but that’s because art simply isn’t isolated, it isn’t in a ghetto, it’s in the centre. Sometimes it brings the culture of the ghetto into the centre, but only because it wants to. The words of artists are the bricks which build a space where we will finally be able to work in peace.
Do big commissions help you in your relationship with the real?
I’m convinced art needs to claim back its monumental dimension. I know what the criticism to this is: authoritarianism, verticality, auteurism, celebrationism. Clearly I speak of a greater aspiration that any work, even the smallest, should have. I don’t know if commissions can take on this work. Commissions are mostly interested in anti-monumental, anonymous, fragmented work because that’s the discourse that today’s powers that be want to celebrate. I come from a generation that has been very interested in architecture, yet there’s nothing worse than working with architects who have forgotten about the intellectual dimension of their work, who act like they’re the enemies of art and of artists. Other times, the artist is called in to be a decorator. The artist should never be in a position to accept this sort of proposal; I think it’s best to just continue with the freedom of self commission which is what has so far allowed us to be free individuals and the same time public people.
What should the sphere of art be?
I think it should occupy the space between two focal points: the affection for the work which makes us communicative and alive; the hatred towards its most brutal aspects, which continuously try to undo it.
Let’s move onto other things. What do you think about current sculptural and objectual production?
I’m not particularly enthused by the idea of sculpture as object. I don’t think we can consider the objectual aspects of sculpture without connecting them to Oldenburg’s last works and hence also to American culture; or to Beuys’ ‘cabinets’ which influenced so much European sculpture, in which the object takes on an almost ritual aura. Personally I feel quite distant from all of this, because for me form is an autonomous entity, something which has to be constantly searched for anew, something which has nothing in common with the magic object as fetish, be it the pop fetish or the third world fetish. For me sculpture should unweave itself from both of these tendencies, both as heavy as blocks, in order to find a way to develop.
How do you face the dialectic between painting and sculpture?
This is another interesting problem that cannot be resolved (although many have tried) by simply juxtaposing shapes in three dimensions and flat planes. Recently I’ve been making sculptures that are almost classical. It’s something I wouldn’t have thought of in the past, but now I’m interested in the shape in space which can offer the spectator many, different points of view. At the same time, I think of painting as something which expands out into its surroundings. As such, it becomes environmental, almost spatial, it becomes similar to sculpture. The shape to superimpose onto this expansion has to be one which still exercises a sort of pressure on the wall, and which plays the role of calling the expansive motion upon itself, like a magnet.
Do you try to offer simultaneous images, or do you want them different all the time?
Both. If I were to make a comparison, I would think of the relationship, in film, between overall time and single frame. I’d say my sculpture is made of still photograms. In the ever-changing quality of form, the separation between each and every photogram is clearcut and evident.
What relationship does your work acquire with the wall?
It’s both a background and a screen; a huge background, like what in theatre you would call infinite. As soon as something is nailed into this background, its infinity is called to presence: it shows itself to us naked, yet still it continues to pertain to that anonymous space which we can all understand as vastness. Art invades the world around itself, not out of grandeur but out of its (incomprehensible) attempts to reduce everything to neutrality.
Are you not seduced by the idea of using new technological media?
I’m not that seduced, no, also because I don’t really know these instruments. I find them a little backwards, and a little boring, because they’re often used at the service of non creative dynamics. Those who say they can use the ‘electronic paintbrush’ with the same ease and the same possibilities as the traditional paintbrush are those who know how to lie. I don’t think aesthetic problems can be solved in the digital, or in the extended network of the internet.
Are these instruments overly authoritative?
They are, because in spite of first impressions, they’re actually in the hands of a few. These phenomena are really tied into democracy, which is in crisis and will be more and more. We should be working on a solution to the crisis of democracy rather than getting too hung up on technology, which is only one, of many, aspects of the problem.