Damiani, Giulia: Conversation with PF for Eros/London

2015

· Last January you exhibited at the thriving Fondazione Morra Greco in Naples. The title of the show was Things that Happen, Things That Are Done. On Beginnings and Matter. Would you tell how the title relates to the show and about the context of the exhibition? The title is meant to be descriptive and essentially it means what it says – it exemplifies what one can expect from the show. ‘Things that happen’ relates to unpredictable events such as natural disasters (that influenced a lot of the local history and even the mentality of the people) or it can be understood as the things that are given to us, that which we receive. On the other hand 'Things that are done', relates to our ability to create; to create as an attempt to replicate the first ever creation, that is, the creation of the world and its perfect system. Humans are the only species that are able to create. Even though there are some animals that use tools, but they use them in order to satisfy their basic needs. Not too long ago I saw a video, where a crow used a piece of wood as if it were riding a snowboard. It seemed to do it just to have fun – that is a fairly human kind of behavior. Some see a correlation between art and entertainment, but I would really disagree there. · Alongside other works, stones, casts of clay, egg boxes supporting shells, air chambers, passages from texts by Xenophanes, Thales, Pythagoras and others, carved elephant tusks forming stalactites and stalagmites as well as totems, black and white prints and videos from different times were dispersed among the rooms. The exhibition took its visitors through different historical periods and human attitudes; some objects seemed to ask for contemplation, others for empathy and identification. And then the book by Mircea Eliade offered a strong support to the non-homogeneity of the space of the exhibition: in his theories, the manifestation of the sacred ontologically founded the world and allowed humanity to orientate in a profane expanse, homogenous and neutral. How did ideas behind the manifestation of the sacred and profane influence the exhibition and are present in your art in general?

I generally work with found, already existing images. I believe an image is meant to be found, observed and associated with some literal, historic, or political reference. I am essentially playing with the possibility of sharing the same feeling that I experienced when I found it. I am also exploring the possibility of people seeing as if through my eyes, even though I often work with quite complex or intimate topics. Recently, I discovered the object; I very much worked with the object as a concept at the Venice Biennale. I practically brought in all the objects, with which I have a certain connection or an affinity, but also objects, which survived only by chance and thus became relicts. It was all about an almost nonsensical journey and about the transport of very personal items to the Venice Pavilion, where I quasi re-installed my original inner and ideal space. Later, I began to examine these objects, which have an endless lifespan, together with the relationship to matter, to material and to the object itself and its significance, its meaning. For the exhibition at Morra Greco I pondered the idea of immortality of an object. There is a myth, according to which people are made of rock, or more precisely inorganic matter, which makes them immobile, but also allows them to live eternally. The material of vegetation is different – it moves only during growth and it too endures. In the myth it is also written that people were formed of rock and tears.

· The exhibition also gathered texts written in the Sixth and Fourth century BC, through extracts from Xenophanes, Pythagoras , Anaximenes, Anaximander, Thales and Archelaus; how did this ancient literature become involved in the unfolding of the show and to what degree did it inspire your creative actions? In what way do you think these texts can be relevant for the present time? Considering your practice as a whole, what is your approach towards written sources and other authors?

For me, text is a material – almost matter, suitable for handling. I need to work with text alongside images. When I was thinking about the exhibition, I was studying the surroundings and the history of Naples. At first, I wanted to base the whole project on invention and the ability to improvise, which are typical traits for Naples. I started with Winckelmann, moved onto the Eleatics and ended up at Giordano Bruno. Naples is incredible in the way it endures the force of exceedingly diverse outside influences. No wonder, the inhabitants of Naples live with a permanent sense of the presence of an active volcano – under such circumstances one probably starts to view things differently. Last year I worked with a text from Greek mythology; I used the parts, which mention birdlife and comprised them in a guidebook (Bird Guide II). I studied biotopes and collaborated with my aunt, a professor of ornithology, who determined the species of the birds and presented them using this mythology as if these living creatures were a human invention. The process was similar when I worked with the text on cosmogony and the system of the world by pre-classical philosophers. I tried to depict their ideas through drawings, which I made very quickly, because my children do not sleep long. I only get to work when they are in kindergarten or asleep. Most of my work reflects my time, my being, my possibilities and also my limitations. They are ideas that I consciously work with; for example the small pebbles, which were piled up next to the texts. They appear to be various sorts of stones, but in reality they are all out of clay. I do this almost therapeutic action whenever I get a free moment during the day. These pebbles manifest my attempt to appropriate the flawlessness of nature through the simplest of actions – molding out of clay – something anyone might do if they would get their hands on clay. On the other hand, the artificial stones are about the pressure a human hand exerts against the force of air and water. How much force would my hand have to apply to form a stone into shape, not out of soft clay, but out of actual stone?

· Materiality was another telling, strong element of Things that Happen, Things That Are Done. On Beginnings and Matter. Stone, metal, books, paper, film, shells, clay, glass, marble, wood and animal skin expressed the powerful representation of a world created through successions of human acts and crafts. These different materials were repeated across the space, skilfully reiterating ambivalent feelings: on one hand the continuity of time and eternal returns; on the other, the delicate quality of some of these materials communicated a feeling of fragility, of precarious balance among these constituents. How did you gather together this range of materials? Is there a more prominent message that this choice wants to convey. Materiality is in fact the main theme of this exhibition. It represents corporeality. Material as an antagonizing yet also existential part of a thought. Pneumaticos are actually containers for the soul. Air, a breeze or a breath were considered to embody the soul – pneuma – in Ancient Greece. I worked with raw animal skin, which I would immerse in water and leave to dry in a desired shape, which would then be exhibited. Some skins were pierced from a fatal wound and the spectator could either see right through the opening or see into the cavity within them, or rather that, which they were enclosing – air itself. Right at the entrance of the exhibition I had clay spread out across the floor, this pertains to an Eastern European cosmogonic myth on the creation of the Earth, in which God sends Satan to retrieve mud from the depths of the ocean, when there is still only water everywhere. Satan dives several times, but without succeeding, because he never makes his attempt on behalf of God. At his last attempt he finally obeys and manages to emerge with some muck under his fingertips and thus the Earth is created. Further along in the myth, God falls asleep and Satan begins to roll him down a hill, in an effort to drown him, but all the surfaces that God touches, turn to land. Just as dough stretches when you knead it; or the clay in my exhibition, which took some time to dry and cracked in the process, as if creating a lunar surface and diminishing its volume. It moved away from the wall as much as 10 cm, which speaks greatly about the space and its shape. This notion was something I wanted to explore, together with the piece involving animal skin – the corporeality of air. I wanted to find the contours, to be able to define the void. When I was little, I would wave a paintbrush around and wondered why the paint would not stay floating in air, why I could not painted on air. I was also interested in matter from the point of view of alchemy; living matter, a Golem, and also matter determining the character of the first civilizations. The rooms themselves are variations of one theme; they resemble a series of one kind. Repetition and returns remain important themes in my work, which I also deal with in relation to the archive, collecting and a recurring summarization of older works. This relates to the fact that I work with limits and with a restricted amount of material, which I keep evaluating and post-producing. A return disputes the idea of moving forward and opposes narration. The 24 hour film (an archive of old videos from family trips, unedited and in chronological order) was linked to this idea and next to it a 5 minute film projection comprised of various materials, shots lasting one second. Both films were projected next to each other, interchanging images were very evocative, even though they were never in synch. That combination could never be realized. The films disregard a storyline; rather they replace time with their rhythm and a never-ending story, which does not progress, but rather runs in a circle. Up until now I dealt with the theme of repetition in many projects, for example the exhibition Why Do I Keep Reading the Same Books.

· I think that your work on myth and cosmic orders, on the irruptions of the sacred into contemporary reality and humanity tells something incredibly meaningful about the present time. The rise of religious fundamentalisms has generated extreme reactions, and in many Western societies atheism has been turned into a state religion; the fear of clashes and the fear of the ‘other’ have lead religious believes and spirituality to be considered as private affairs. Yet paradoxically sacred rituals, spiritual devotion and forms of worship are fundamental ways to bring people together. Émile Durkheim is one of the many theorists who have investigated the social origin and function of religion. In his pioneering study on religion, the sacred represented the interest of the group and unity, while the profane indicated mundane individual concerns. Do you believe that the arts can stimulate this discussion between religion and secular society and embody a different view on sacred matters, one that favours solidarity and not hostility?

Occidental culture is built on pragmatic protestant liberalism– it can hardly defend itself against the dogmas of fundamentalism. We (the occident) constantly judge and assess the rest of the world according to our values. I think socioeconomic fusions only contributed to the religious secularism. I do not dare to define in what sense can art have an influence on this issue. There are such awful things happening every day. One only starts to feel the immense vulnerability and mortality once he or she is under immediate threat and that is where art is quite powerless. I personally have ethical restraints and feel there is need for respect when discussing issues, which are too sensitive or too recent. Art is influential and its fundamental intent is to create a discourse, which is only possible in certain conditions. I do hope that the circumstances (under these conditions) will persist. In any case, I am interested in the history of religion, and in the exhibition, which we are discussing (Things that Happen, Things That Are Done. On Beginnings and Matter), I worked with it, directly on the façade of Fondazione Morra Greco, where I placed large-scale portraits of well-known heretics: John Wycliffe, Jan Hus and Martin Luther. Naples has always been a sort of refuge for those persecuted by the Vatican. At the same time it is also a place, which combines paganism with Catholicism – and both are widely depicted in various ways on almost every building. I have childhood memories of that peculiar aesthetics (perhaps also in the spirit of the Potemkin village): devastated façades covered by large posters depicting heroes of the time. I used the same approach to commemorate my heroes. A discussion as to who the depicted figures were quickly arose at the public square. Since the locals are apprehensive about the unknown and value reverence and respect, I decided to tell them the figures were clergymen, which seemed to please them.

· In his essay ‘On Praise of Profanation’, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben tells how ‘to profane means to return to the free use of men that which has been removed from the sphere of the sacred’. Do you feel there is something of your practice that echoes in this meaning of ‘to profane’?

I do not actually deal with the notions of 'the sacral' and 'the profane' to a great extent, or if so, then I am more interested in exploring (through post-production) the possibilities of uncovering the ‘sacral’ of that, which is usually considered as ‘profane’. My work is closely related to my life, which is tremendously boring sometimes. There are even times when I willingly do not set foot out of my flat for periods of time and then even the act of taking out the rubbish becomes an emotional experience. That is perhaps why the more prevalent themes in my work are the internal space belonging to ideas in relation to the empirical experienced one. Just today, 24th of April, is the opening of my new project within the framework of the Off Biennale Budapest, where I am working with this conversion within the archive of Květa Fulierová. I am exhibiting three decades worth of documentation of her life with Július Koller (a well-known Slovak conceptual artist) and my focus is on a selection pertaining to everyday existence in terms of the domestic space, family, their two grandchildren and close friends. They are mostly private photographs, which - at the same time - are proper to us all. They were not taken with the intetion of being key art works, even though many of them became just that. For me, Květa and Július are pioneers of the family holiday genre of photography. Their private domestic space becomes a political one; and those everyday moments become historical. To peer into an archive, to re-read an archive is as if an attempt to comprehend what liberty is; liberty as a consequence. The liberty to be able, to be adept - to the point of being unable to grasp the vastness of opportunities.

· He also affirms that the spiritual potentialities that once defined people’s lives - such as art, religion, nature, philosophy and politics – have withdrawn into the Museum, which is described as the exhibition of the contemporary impossibility of using, of experiencing and thus of profaning. Another striking aspect of Things that Happen, Things That Are Done. On Beginnings and Matter was for me its relation to Napoli, to its mysteries and mythical landscape. The exhibition was indirectly saying something revealing about the city. What use do you think your art can have? Is it ever related to the places and contexts of your exhibitions?

Yes, my projects are always made for their specific context. They can be a contrast to the reality of the place, as was the case of the Venice Biennale, where I was reacting to the situation and I was knowingly ignoring the format of the exhibition. I took the primary thought of processing the idea of Venice, detached it and took it on a trajectory around the world and ultimately transformed it into an altogether personal and hermetic account of the place. As I have already mentioned, the exhibition in Naples is a study of the location, its periods but also its lava layers, which one peripherally perceives just by walking through them. It is all a rather functioning symbiosis. The city used to be an enormously multicultural center and, in a way, it still remains one today. The exhibition used the city itself as a theme, also through the installation of the handmade large-scale photographs hanging on the wall enclosing the room, creating a narrow corridor so that the spectator could only view the photographs up-close, which is a similar experience as the one of the grand façades of palaces in Naples. Here, the contrast is also present: the sheer size of the inner space in comparison with the outer space, which is only given a small distance to perceive it. The photographs are falling apart; we are unable to perceive the image as a whole. This somewhat deals with the perception of experience, which is very strong in Naples.