M A I N O L F I


- INTERVIEWS -


LUIGI MAINOLFI AND ANGELA VETTESE: FRAGMENTS OF A CONVERSATION

ANGELA VETTESE: You prefer to speak in terms of "work" rather than "works of art": you consider the terrn 'work' to be more appropriate to the research. you have been carrving out for almost thirhy years now. It e's almost as if "work of art" conjures up the idea of an artist who does not reallv work, one who Iets himself be inspired by things external and whose creation does not require a great deal of effort. The effort of work has always been to the fore, exhibited even, in your output, a truly courageous move considering that you started out during a time when conceptualism was rife, with all the emphasis shifted onto the ideation and little if any attention paid to the realization. Your studio looks Iike a workshop and you yourself have acquired the appearance of someone who actually works wrth the material.

LUIGI MAINOLFI: It all stems from the fact that the way I go about my work is a natural part of my life. I have never thought of art as an easy option, a vice or a whith. It may seem paradoxical, but all that I want is to be with my work. It is as if it were part of my body. It is always the material, the life in the material, that prompts me. It is a chance for freedom. It is what I dreamed of doing when I was young. I have never set out to be a Morandi with a recognizable sign. I notice that nowadays, even the most unbridled strains of the avant-garde tend towards having a recognizable sign, an object that is readily recognizable to the masses. That is not for me. I am always wary of being identified. That has always been the way with me. It is a constant struggle against all forms of monotony. In this sense, the avant-garde has failed to keep the promises it made to me at the beginning. You can see Guttuso and Itounellis together in the same exhibition although they are entirely different in their contents and the paths they have followed. I have often been denied the opportunity to measure up to my contemporaries. I have always striven against the system that imposes the way we behave.

A.V. I'our most fortunate work so far has been in terracotta. I particularly remember the well you built for Gori at L'illa Celle in the earlv '80. A striking tube reminescent of bodily entrails, it predates so much recent art with its references to the human body and the organic. If you had been paying any attention to trends, you could have picked up on that are early the 90s, yet you did not. The human body is one of the great protagonists in recent art.

L.M. The well was a way of modifying the space: wherever I go, the idea is not just to insert something into the setting but to modify it. I had not planned to use terracotta: it was merely a way round an economic problem, other materials proving too expensive for me at the time. That work brought me everything, it took me to the Biennials, museum exhibitions... And I had the courage to continue. I have only just started to play the earth again with the cages, the iron as the structure and the terracotta as the skin. But I also love copper, iron, wood, and let us not forget that even before terracotta I was working with plaster: La Campana (The Bell, 1979) was made of plaster, and that was the first piece of mine really to get noticed. At the time, plaster was very cheap at only 600 lire a bag. And since the sculpture would end up being broken, it was just the job.

A.V. This idea of breaking the sculpture after its creation, concealing it, was a constant in your early work and one which is perhaps still present. On the one hand, there is a socriticial valence to this, as if you were demonstrating what you are capable of doing onlv to derry it. There is an alrrrost oriental spirit of renunciation at play bere which. is not a conseguence of laziness but th. e opposìte. It is as if there comes a certain point, u,h. en you have completed th. e work and demonstrated that you are capable of it, u,hen you turn on your achievement as if to demonstrate just hou, irrelevant it all is, ultimatelv. Elsewhere, I detect a polemic angle to this constant of destruction and concealment.

L.M. Breaking part of that bell was like saying "See, there is not point to what I can do". And at the time, there was a very precise significance in doing that. I did not take the decision lightly. As a young man I really wanted to draw. I used to draw day and night. But when I actually started to work as an artist proper, knowing how to draw was something to keep under wraps. When the Transavantgarde emerged, I was already a sculptor and while it was not long before the painting took off, new sculpture took considerably longer untd a part of the Arte Povera movement got round to defining a concept of sculpture. When I started out things were different: at the time, you were expected to come across as shaky, downbeat, dispirited and to put across the idea of ineptitude. I took note. At the time, I was camoufflaging the drawing, disguising it as something contemporary. For instance, one piece I made, which is now at the Turin City Gallery, consisted of 99 drawings. I was fresh from the academy and had gone to Turin. I asked myself: what am I going to do here? Shall I go for Arte Povera? That would have been grotesque and very few of those involved were taking any interest in young artists anyway: I was somewhat troubled and perplexed by the whole thing. So, in 1976, I came up with these drawings which were like explanatory tables depicting ancient methods used in sculpture. There was no such thing as computers at the time, except for the tìrst IBM machines. I also loved writing, so I wrote a diary on how to sculpt using old techniques which are actually no different from the techniques still used today. I was describing how to create and destroy a sculpture: it was my way of promoting an approach of research and process over result.
In truth, it was all a way of disguising my desire to draw. It was not unlike putting on a mask in the 1700s to meet your beloved. Now I draw all the time. I thought about producing 5000 drawings a month, holding an exhibition in a small town and giving the works away, one per person.

A.V. I do not get the impression that there is any specific political undercurrent to your work, though there is a definite aspect of critique towards the art system. It is strange that you did not insist on making the 5000 drawings: it would have meant 5000 little provocations aimed at the system. Your own self imposed isolation is a kind of challenge to the way contemporary art is organized, at least in Italy: we all know how difficult it is for isolated artists to get their work into museums and public shows. I am curious to know how important the soclal aspect is to you.

L.M. Early on in my career I was very committed politically, but there is not necessarily a social angle to my work. How the work ends up being used is of no interest to me. The 'art system', meanwhile, is something I have consciously steered clear of. Self defense. All of my research has been based on difference. If sculpture had been in during the Transavantgarde years, I would have turned my hand to painting: I fail to see a strong formal difference between painting and sculpture. The same solutions apply in both cases. There again, I often do not distinguish between scientitìc and artistic research. All that I want, quite simply, is to avoid being put into a situation or group.

A.V. In fact I can think of ao 'tendency' that your work could be alìgned to. On the corrtrarv, your work seems to revolse arourrd urriversal terms, eschereing issues of strictly curreat interest. Take the public space, for instaace, which. is very much at the center of debate nowadoys. An increasirrg number of artists have been commissioned over the 90s to produce works for cities in a bid to forge a contact wr'th the public which had fallen by the wayside in the two previous decades. You yourself were contacted by Rudi Fuchs to project a work for the rail connection in Turin (Scarabocchio (Scribble), 1993). The idea was for a sort of drawing made with an iron pipe, an enormous doodle that was also a children's game, a bench for adults, a touch of fantasy appearing almost rriexplr'cably amidst the rigid structure of the city. Yet I would not go as far as to say that this work alone were enough to place you in the current of 'public art'. Judging by your installation at Marrana di Montemarcello, one has the impression that you enjoy a more privileged relation with nature, an age old theme...

L.M. The fact of the matter is that I have always considered architecture as being born of nature. In the final analysis, trees, molecules, they are all compositions that call to mind architecture, and architecture in a certain sense imitates this use of raw materíals. However, I am inclined to keep a certain distance when talking about nature, not wishing to lapse into romanticism. What I really like most is when the work changes color on coming into contact with nature. It takes on a life of its own. I would love my columns to spring horns or turn into trees! They are not meant to be closed in an art gallery but to live outside, to weather the elements, the rain. For a time I was making pipes which I put outside where they would turn lighter or darker with the changing weather and form mould the color of the sea. The installatìon at the Marrana is an ad hoc work. But I never speak explicitly about nature in my work, if not in the same terms as Lucio Fontana spoke of it. Here was someone who really did change art, in much the same way as Giotto who took the middle ages through into the renaissance. As far as I am concerned, Fontana is an historical starting point; I am intrigued by the way he went back to nature through an extreme gesture.

A.V. So, with your work at Marrana, you accept that the bushes will interplay with the pieces made of metal mesh that you have installed in the woods. Then there is the goat you have placed in the tomato patch and the other goats, not to mention the larger animals scattered among the bushes...I also get the feeling that it is no coincidence that you have positioned the various works in such a way that they become almost invisible as they blend in with the greenery, the result being that we virtually 'stumble' upon them as we go on our way. And you have devised no footpath, presumably to ensure an element of continued surprise for your public. Never do we have the sense that there is something we should 'go see'. The unexpected is a recurring cipher in the installation in general. In no way could we expect to find ourselves face to face with an enormous iron grid tower, especially one which is topped with streaming iron hair.

L.M. That is a self-portrait, and a throwback to the work I was producing in Naples in 1971 which was conceived as a reflection on the language of conceptualísm. In these drawings, I portrayed myself naked playing chess with Duchamp or putting a real moustache on the Mona Lisa. Another self-portrait consisted of a small boat afloat in the middle of the sea, hair tlying in the wind. Ideas I had when I was 18. After all, works are contemporary to themselves. There is nothing to prevent me from going back to an idea and conceiving it again from scratch.

A.V. Looking at the current tower-self portrait and the u,orks featuring cages in general, I notice that the iron grilles share an aspect of repetition u,ith other verv different works of yours: the terracotta forms with their thousands of little growths, not unlike abnormallv villous intestines; the recent portraits, heads riddled with pores which are transformed into windows onto a city, the face turned city reflecting the hive of activity that is the typical town as the windows plot out a visual rhythm of repeated emptiness and fullness. The gaànt mussels which you titled Nacchere (Castanets) (1988-9), also come to mind, with their shells that maintain the same shape however they are positioned. And not forgetting the Ori (Golds), the paintings and spheres made with copper scales that darken with age: even the copper scales are arranged with obsessive repetitiveness. You seem to be forever reconciling minimalism and the organic.

L.M. Obsession, yes...You are one of the first people to mention it in those terms. All this repetition introduces a degree of relaxation into the creative process. There is this aspect of the skin as a city in the portraits: I call them landscapes and I see them as regarding the concept of the city as a body and interaction. However, repetition is also the key to biology: seen under a microscope, everything reveals this geometrical or repetitive nature. There is no form in the world that does not start from, or at least belong to, a geometrical composition with a mathematical rhy,thm, whether it is grass or television: even a television set is constructed from modules. I actually consider myself someone who constructs, positioning the bricks one on top of the other: even our bodies are composed of cells and building blocks.

A.V. So you are not averse to the idea that artists use the same methods as nature, or even, as Aristotle said, that artists imitate nature in the way they operate. I think science has made it possible for us to see the infinitely small For some decades now, science has been making its way irrto advertising and publicity in non-scientific publications arrd this has altered the way we perceive evervday things. All the bricks nets, the structural aspects you feature in your work are, in a sense, indebted to the electronic microscope not directly but in the sense that science has affected contemporary manis perceptual approach. Moreover, the net itself is the form of our times: with neither a center mor a periphery it is a directionless labirynth yet it is capable of constructing a space. In your case, it is a tangible, physical space. Elsewhere, it is a space for information, the order in which nearly all information today travels.

L.M. I have always thought we are part of a representation by a sculptor that is using us, arranging us like pieces in a mosaic. He is the director and I feel like his son. As a force and an energy I derive from nature and I would hope that my thought is closer to nature than it is to intellect.

A.V. One aspéct of.the cages that cannot be overlooked is the idea of prison that they convey. The house with the iron among the bushes, for instance, with its balcony opening onto the woods might well evoke a yearning for freedom. If it suggests freedom to me, it is because it is preceded by an idea of deprivation. And in the light of your years of political commitment and the fact that you have stated that there is no prevalent social aspect to your work. I can only include, that there is a definite existentràl angle here, which addresses the conflict we all experience between th. e need for svfety and therefore a degree of self-imposed isolation within a house and a desire to be free to fly beyond familiar limits.

L.M. This house is a project-sculpture, the memory of a house, a dream you can touch. The bushes were already there so I built it in the bushes. The result u,as that it became a patch of color, yet another little dream cloud. Yet it is also a place for an ascetic and inside it there is a chair. It is also an informal picture: below is the disorderly jumble of the plants, and above, the order of my geometry. And then there is what you mentioned, the freedom... The ideal vantage point from which to observe any of my works is from above although they tend to be seen from below. Looking at them from above makes us want to fly, to take wings, to see them as if through a zoom. I tend to see us as still being somewhat unrefined: all we use are our two hands, our ears, yet we are unable to lift ourselves from the ground. I am not content only to fly in my dreams. I would love to rise above everything and get the real view.

A.V. You have arranged a number of other domestic elements around the house, addressintg the woods and gardens at Marrana as if they were all part of the home: the various objects you have positioned, from the more or less domesticated animals to the furniture, suggest traces of home life. The huge double bed where Aurelio tried to photograph the stoical Ivana is a typical metaphor for sharing your life with someone else.

L.M. I wanted it to be like a magic carpet that never truly takes off because it is held back bv all this stuff. Before I actually got here, I had imagined this place as a sort of casde, a more monumental place, yet what I actually found was a house, a real house. That is why I decided to set up the bed, the ostrich that turns into an arch, the goat with homs -- svmbolic of the devil, defense and good luck -- and the rickshaw with its wheels which are actually a game. This was suggested to me by Kimitake, my Japanese assistant, so, in a certain sense, it reflects an aspect of my everyday life. What I actually miss is the noise. I would have liked there to be some sound, a drum. Originally, I wanted some poetry by Paolo Bertolani who writes in a local dialect coming out from among the bushes. We spent a lot of time together when I used to come to Lerici. You know, voices coming from the earth. There is, after all, an archeological flavor to the place.

A.V. There are a lot of flavors here. One is tempted to lose oneself and feel all of them. This might explain the labyrinthine nature of the path. There is the domestic feel, as we mentioned, but there is also the archeological slant and a profoundly Medi= terranean feel to the natural surroundings: here we are, on top of a hill, overlooking the plain and the sea. In front of the house you have built two colonnades. What could be closer to Mediterranean artistic culture? Yet you have conceived it all in tbe most ordinary materials: tbere is a sort of forest of columns representing a synthesis of women and columns, piles of vases and statues made from terracotta, a material laden with stories of everyday existence. Animated as they are by every change in perspective or change in light throughout the day, they look like findsngs from an archeology of thought as well as manmade objects. On the other side of the open space, in the orchard and in response to the forest, stands a temple of columns made of long white coats draped like statuary marble. Yet again, an or
dinary material is dressed in a quintessentially Latin architectural heritage. The two grouprirgs counterpoise and call to eacb otber; one is static, the otber trembles in the breeze: one is red and bas life the other bas a phantasmal quality. Both have something metaphysical about them in that they are jolting, instantaneous apparitìons. This is where your exuberant imagination comes to the fore, what Annelie Pohlea defined as 'tbe plastic language of the signs of the dreamer.' You have also taken quite a risk; if the cages assume the structural, even 'conceptual' aspect of the drawing, the colonnade highlrghts your love of beauty. The theme of beauty as the high-risk factor in weak Italian art though considerably less dangerous in stronger foreign art has already been addressed by Rudy Fuchs in an essay on your work.

L.M. We can read as much into it as we want. We might say that the terracotta forest is in prose while the temple of fabrics is saying the same thing, but lyrically. These works are high spectacle and I admit to being afraid of lapsing into an excess of theatricality; it is my histrionic side making up for my tendency to hide things -- goats, animals and cages -- that the viewer has to discover as he goes on his way. At times, the terracotta columns -- being constructed of modules that could rise indefinitely -- call to mind Brancusi's endless column. What I like most about them is their skin, the porosity I achieve using a specific process. The dressed columns (note: Colonne di maggio (May Columns), 1999) originate from a work I made at the Tucci Russo gallery. I have a neighbor who is always hanging out the washing, which gave me the idea of hanging out my own clothes. The idea of transforming the dress into a column and the bust into a capital appealed to me.

A.V. I cannot quite understand whether you are just trying to conceal the theoretical aspects of your work or whether you really are not interested in them. From what you have sa:d you are not looking for any precise reference to the history of the colonnades. You are interested neither in the sacral aspect of the temple nor the portico as the site par excellence of Greek philosophical thought.

L.M. On the contrary. Tendentially I am a classicist, not least because of my origins in the Campania region of Italy. But this is something I have always tried to avoid being influenced by. My earlier works were more severe and more closely linked to theory. Nowadays, however, I find a certain taste for decoration has started to creep in and this stems from a sense of pictorial composition. When I speak about a temple it is to define a place, to make a sign on the earth to delimit a space. Now, all these columns to me are forms although I would like them to have a sex. This is why I have emphasized the feminine, sexual and tactile aspects of the terracotta columns, with their breasts, their hips... Ideally, each object would have a sex: they are like children, you want some to be boys, some to be girls.

A.V. Indeed, classical art has often acted to remove the divisions between different genres. Although columns obviously come from statues, a sort of abstraction of the human form, tbere are no female or male columns in ancient temples. What made you decide to give the exhibition such an evocative and to a certain extent controversial title ("The Wood of the Naked King")?

L.M. Well, vou know, the title should come aFter the event. It is difficult, 'in the early, stages, to decide what title will best suit a mork. The Scribble, for the rail link in Turin, for instance, turned out to be just the right title. The Naked King (i) is a metaphor for the appearance and disappearance of thíngs. Eventually, I got the idea of making some clothes for the naked king. Why not revolutionize the story? Let us not forget that the Naked King was not meant for children but for adults.

A.V. Of course. Clothes and nudity allude to the alternation between truth and illuszòn and therefore to concepts that chil dren will not be familiar with. The story also deals with deliberate deception and excessive deference in the face of authority, something that you have always fought against.

L.M. And always will.

A.V. In the middle of the lawn, in front of the terracotta forest, stands a sort of viewer, which you have called a "sight" an iron frame you suggest we look through at the woods. Originally, you had even placed a throne, the naked King's chair, behind it as the ideal place to sit and veéw the world. There is a lot of talk nowadays about the freedom of the viewer before an artwork, the artwork as a text which is only completed once the viewer has given his own interpretation. You, meanwhile, are almost forcing us to Iook at the work en a certain way

L.M. The idea is actually to prevent certain people from having the freedom to see things as they wish. It is up to me to say how my work should be contemplated. The sight could bring order to someone who has a disorderly way of looking at things. There are certain set ways of interpreting things which really irritate me. A vsitor to the exhibition cannot expect to undetstand in an hour what you or I or Grazia or Gianni are still having difficulty interpreting.

A.V. As I look up, I can see the Solcavallo (Sunhorse) looking down at us from the top of the house. It reminds me of the many suns you have created during the course of your career, one of which I remember particularly vividly Sole Nero Black Sun) (1988-9) in wood which you exhibited in Turin and Venice.

L.M. As the Solcavallo watches down on us, it expands in all I directions as if to distance us from our own all-too-terrestrial
vision. When I was teaching, I used to tell my students: rather than studying, you should be learning to learn to look at the sky in the morning at sunset, at night even. Do not dwell on things that simply happen. Look upwards.


notes: (i) The Vaked hing tIl re nudo) comes from the Italian translation of the story of The Emperor's New Clothes.  Trad. di Chris Martin

from  Mainolfi "il bosco del re nudo" - Modern Italian Art n.116 -