INTERVIEW WITH GIAN MARIA TOSATTI
Elisa Muscatelli – How would you describe your artistic practice to an audience encountering it for the first time?
Gian Maria Tosatti – Well, I build devices that generate performances, which is the most correct term for my work, which is normally defined as environmental installation, but what does environmental installation mean? It means the creation of a machine into which the visitor is placed, and when he or she is inside it, he or she has an experience. The experience is the work of art, also because as Marcuse said in an essay in 1938, when a man is unable to fully live his experiential capacity, art ceases to make sense. The problem is that today we still have enormous difficulties in knowing ourselves fully, in experiencing life fully on all its levels, and art is a tool that helps us to appropriate these capacities that we should have, in any case, to live a full dimensionality of our life experience. There are meanings that often escape us in our daily actions, confessions that we are not able to make to ourselves and that also determine the way we live our lives every day; here, art comes to the rescue and tries to provide a solution, a solution to an impasse. My machines, these large environmental installations that I build in cities around the world, are fields of friction between what we are used to being outside and what we are inside.
EM – You often exhibit in different urban settings. Have you encountered different looks from the ordinary public, the classic museum-goers? Do the cultural specificities and traditions of the place where you work influence the presentation of your work?
GMT – There is no classic public for art, in the sense that the typical public is not necessarily a public that places itself in front of the work of art in the way that it should be placed, what I mean is that art is always for everyone, sometimes the museum regular expects something specific from art, linked precisely to his or her expectations. In reality, I have often had a more satisfactory relationship with people who had no training whatsoever, with those who at first say “Well, I don’t understand anything”, because art does not have to be understood, it simply has to be confronted and made to work, that is to say, to activate something that concerns us from that device that is the work of art, so here there is this difference between those who stand nakedly before the work, without even imagining that they understand it, and they are able to experience it to the full, and those who instead are there and try sometimes, even clumsily, technically to understand something, which then is not even what needs to be understood. Art is not a quiz; many times I find myself in front of a public that pretends to be more prepared and almost tries to say ‘ah but this comes from this, art is not a quiz because it would be like taking a person and saying “ah but this comes from his mother, this comes from his father” and at that point, you have completely emptied the identity of this person, you have made him a Frankenstein of pieces, it is not like that in reality, when you do this you lose the truth of that person, and it is the same with art. In reality, there is no public other than the general public, in the sense that it is the way in which you approach the work of art that changes things, so I always try to work by deducing the knowledge that I am looking for through the work, because I myself am a researcher, for me too the work is a mechanism of knowledge. It works like this: the artist knows something and then leaves the work open as if it were a trap for other people to fall into, the artist builds the trap to fall into and then leaves it open so that it is not just he who falls into it. I go around the world building works because every city, every community has a certain amount of knowledge about certain important topics. Fortunately, we do not live in a country at war, for example, while I was recently in Ukraine where there is a war that has been going on for many years. Fortunately, some elements of being in Italy cannot be understood today, but instead, you have to move, go elsewhere, understand what it means to live in a condition where death can arrive for such brazenly political reasons. So it is obvious that when I try to extract the secret of a community and then expose it, the relationship with that specific public, which I repeat is not always the whole public because many people travel specifically to see these works or maybe come from other countries or see them through documentation, but the public of that country often feels deeply revealed, revealed to themselves, not revealed to the eyes of the world, they do not think about that, but they feel revealed to themselves. I have often realized how powerful this can be because there have often been scenes of deep emotion, of tears, even of difficulty at a certain point, spectators who have been physically in difficulty during the opera, but not because there were particular difficulties, but because facing certain images that belonged to them so deeply had activated that sort of seeing a mechanism that we know from the scene in Hamlet’s play when the king becomes blind, or in any case can no longer see because he is faced with the truth of what he has done. In that case, it is an accusatory act, in my case I never try to put myself in front of the public in such an aggressive way, but certainly showing them something that concerns them so deeply means that the reactions are not the usual ones you might expect in a museum visit, like “ah beautiful”, and usually this never happens, many very particular things happen in my works, especially when people go out. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to be able to meet or be recognized by the people who come to see the work and outside maybe they approach you and tell you what they think, other times you stand to one side, especially in faraway countries, you stand to one side and observe the way people leave and you realize that they have completely changed their way of being compared to when they came in and this means that the work has worked.
EM – Indro Montanelli, Edward Colston, Christopher Columbus, vandalized monuments and the desire to rewrite a part of history. How does the urban art installation fit into this debate?
GMT – The urban installation is not a monument, and this is an essential thing, it is something else, and if it were to become a monument it would have no reason to be torn down, and I will explain why: the classical monument is something that was born in a different society from ours, we have been through different eras, clearly the Greek era, the Latin era, the monument against which we are lashing out or a part of society is lashing out, which I don’t really feel like belonging to at the moment, is the monument that was born in feudal society, that is, a family of powerful people, whether princes, counts, marquises, kings, build statues that represent their dynasty and therefore, from a certain point of view, generate idols of their own power. This is the opposite of this, which sometimes also meets figures not necessarily linked to this type of logic, for example, Christopher Columbus is an explorer, but in his own way he represents the power of a certain type of society, I understand. Obviously, the problem is then to untie them from their historical reason, however, the idea is always the same, in the sense that this person discovered this world that is America, he represents our European power, Spain and then the other countries that since his discovery has founded this country, obviously I repeat it is a dynamic that does not belong to us anymore in the sense that now we are in a totally democratic society so absurdly there are no more monuments like these that are erected. The one that was erected for Montanelli was already quite funny in its own way, in the sense that you could see that it was a gesture out of time, so in my opinion, its destruction does not concern so much the issues of how to say related to alleged violence, but primarily concerns the fact that you can not try to put in a museum of contemporary art a picture painted as in the twenties or as in the mid-nineteenth century, and no matter how well made, and which that monument obviously was not, it is still something out of time. Quite apart from the beauty or ugliness of the monument, it is something out of time, so rightly it is a mistake, then mistakes should indeed be eliminated usually, especially in art. In a democratic society, there is another type of monument that is gaining in popularity, and that is the monument that is the result of an artistic gesture, which can be a work of art of any kind. I happened to create some that went in that direction, but not consciously; you never build a monument consciously because what makes a work a monument is recognition by a community. A few years ago I happened to work in this place called MAAM, which at the time was not yet called MAAM Museo dell’Altro e dell’Altrove in Metropoliz on the outskirts of Rome, a large factory occupied by migrants and also by Italian people who had arrived from all over the world. I practically remember that mine was the first work made inside the factory, and it was this big telescope that had to frame the moon as a place of utopia, a place to move towards. It had to do with the logic of the migrants, the same workers who were the people who lived there and helped us, who in short would later become the managers of this self-managed contemporary art museum, an inhabited museum.For the first time they were confronted with this work that spoke of who they were, and so they told me: “We want to take the work to the top of the tower”; there was a forty-meter tower on this factory, which was more or less unreachable because there was only an iron ladder to take you up to it, so it was already very difficult and dangerous to get there by yourself, let alone carry a giant object over four meters long and three meters high; it was really suicide on a physical level. When they told me this, I said why, because the work of art was conceived to be in the courtyard of the factory, which seemed to me to be a sufficiently clear and ideal place for a work of art, and they answered me because even in this very remote suburb of Rome, where basically everything is rather hard and even ugly, let’s be honest, even down here nobody wants to see us, as long as we are behind the walls of this factory and we are invisible then everything is fine, but when we go out to do our activities to take our children to school then nobody wants to see us. We would like to put this telescope on top of the tower because for us this telescope is a symbol, it says the reason why we are here, we are here because we have dreams, we are here, we move, we travel because we are looking for a better life. Well, let’s say that my telescope was just a work of art, a sort of sculpture installation that certainly had this meaning inside, but it becomes a monument when the community tells you that for us this is a symbol, and you would not have imagined that it could become one. The work of art when you create it, you create it to be a stimulus, not to be a symbol, it becomes a symbol when someone really recognises it as such, elects it as such, and creates the monument, so this community created the monument, and the work of art, in the end, we took it to the top of that tower really risking our lives. There’s a film called ‘Space Metropoliz’ by Giorgio de Finis and Fabrizio Boni which tells the story of this rather daring gesture, and we took it up there, and now it’s been up there for ten years, it’s ten years old this year, and it’s been ten years since anyone entering Rome by the Via Prenestina, a road that has existed since the days of the Roman Empire, whoever enters Rome by that route, before entering the city, sees this tall tower with this enormous telescope made of spent oil barrels on top, and this is the way that that community tells the rest of the world that they are not a group of thieves or whatever the worst racist culture has attributed to people who come and travel to find a better life, but they are dreamers. They are people who help us to think of a better city, and among other things they are men who live in and have created an inhabited museum, a marvelous innovative element that has been talked about all over the world, so, among other things, this is a monument that does not make a vague promise that we don’t know about, that we don’t know if it will be kept, but speaks precisely of a community that has been so dreamy as to have created at home, in Italy, in Rome, one of the most luminous and beautiful museum exceptions ever seen. It is probably a rather ‘lopsided’ prototype if you like, but certainly, no action or discovery is born perfect, but the important thing is to have taken the first step in a new direction, and the MAAM certainly is. I believe that public art today has this kind of logic and function, which is to create monuments that are proposals, even unconscious proposals, but capable of being collected by a community and transformed by it into a monument.
EM – מייַן האַרץ איז ליידיק ווי אַ שפּיגל, the Yiddish name of your project – pilgrimage to map democracy in various parts of Europe. Where do documentary end and artistic abstraction begin?
GMT – There is no documentary in this project, in the sense that an artist’s portrait is never a documentary, an artist’s portrait is always something magical from a certain point of view, magical because it is capable of showing what is not visible. A few days ago I was talking about The Portrait of Dorian Gray and I was saying that this short novel by Oscar Wilde is an interesting element to reflect on, because, on the one hand, the portrait that the painter makes of the protagonist is the only thing that he is able to look at, beyond the external aspect, but above all, there is another important aspect: that portrait in fact kills the evil in the protagonist and in doing so kills the protagonist himself, because perhaps that character Dorian Gray is a person who could not be saved. But to look at oneself, inside oneself, and to find the impossibility of bearing the evil, the evil that we have inside, means that in a certain way we necessarily begin to amend it, we necessarily begin to change it, to fight it, and by fighting it we are perhaps fighting against ourselves, but all this is right. It is never exactly a documenting as much as it is an unveiling, and the works are an unveiling, so “My heart is as empty as a mirror” is a great confession in front of oneself, and a confession is not really a document, it is a revolutionary act because it is the first step to being able to change.
EM – What has been a historical, literary, or cinematographic reference of great impact for you in the development of your artistic and personal career?
GMT – It is very difficult to answer this question because an artist lives with constant references, they are always in front of his eyes, sometimes they are conscious, sometimes unconscious, sometimes someone tells you, but you didn’t realize, that there is so much of this or that in this work. It’s like asking an astrophysicist which star in the galaxy fascinates him the most, it’s impossible, in the sense that the stars are all perfect, all beautiful, so I could name a hundred and fifty thousand and they would all be important. From the one that perhaps had the most structural role, that of creating the very image and idea of how a work of art should be done, or even just how we behave on this earth, to the one that had the smallest contribution from the point of view of volume, but sometimes it is the detail, it puts detail into your formation that is decisive because it is in the details that the really decisive things are. So I won’t answer, I can’t answer this question, it would be too long, the only thing I can say is that yes, you have to live, but this is true for artists as well as for those who just love art, you have to live constantly in this kind of great trans-temporal process, like the protagonist of Auto da fé by Canetti, who puts a team of friends around us, of people who know us very well and who are the great authors, great characters in literature. We must always be in dialogue with them because they are the repositories of the secrets that we sometimes don’t know, that we sometimes forget. The fortune of art is to be able to put us next to men who were born and lived hundreds of years ago, and who are still present with us, through their works and through their voices. Honestly, I don’t find any difference between the voice of someone who speaks to me in the present telling me what he thinks about politics and the voice of Plato who speaks to me about the Republic, there is no difference in the sense that they are two voices, the words come to me clearly in both cases, it is I who make the difference, whether I intend or do not intend to follow that thought, so I don’t think it is important to say what the references are, but the really important thing is to continue to have a constant relationship with one’s own references.