ART IS A POLITICAL OPPORTUNITY: Paolo Canevari with Francesca Pietropaolo

On the occasion of his forthcoming exhibition Odi et Amo at Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna e contemporanea in Rome (October 9 – November 7, 2010), Paolo Canevari met with art historian and curator Francesca Pietropaolo to discuss—among other things—art, superheroes, and simplicity.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Francesca Pietropaolo (Rail): You come from a family of artists—your grandfather and his brother were artists, and so is your father. In Rome, where you were born and grew up, you studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, focusing primarily on painting. Can you tell me a little bit about your choice to become an artist, particularly in relation to your family and its tradition?

Paolo Canevari: I don’t think it was a matter of choice, but rather an obligation, in a certain way. I believe that one is born an artist. You cannot choose to become one; you are an artist, period. In my case, there was a rich tradition in my family. As you said, there was my grandfather, a painter, and his brother, a sculptor. They both worked during the fascist regime—some of their works, mosaics and sculptures, are in the Foro Italico in Rome, for instance. My great-grandfather was also a painter and my father is a sculptor. For me, being born into such a situation automatically made me feel quite conscious of having to measure myself up to such a long tradition. I had to find my own ways to deal with that situation which was to a certain degree anomalous: I had to come to terms with the weight of history—not only family history, but also the cultural history of Rome, which can be overwhelming.

Rail: What you say makes me think of a photograph of a 2002 performance, in which you carry on your shoulders a sculpture you made of the Colosseum. It seems to me a poignant image encapsulating your relationship with Italian, and particularly Roman, culture. By coming to terms with that tradition you tackle the very idea of monumentality in sculpture. For instance, by employing a material like rubber from inner tubes or tires, as in the case of the Colosseum object, you celebrate fragility, as opposed to the monumentality one might traditionally associate with sculpture.

Canevari: Yes. I think that once you arrive at a concept, the chosen medium is not important, at least not anymore. But when growing up I was still immersed in an academic tradition where a sculptor is a sculptor, and a painter is a painter. In the 80s the role of the artist was very narrowly defined.

When I was 25 years old I came to New York and met Nam June Paik, and I had the good fortune of working as his assistant for a short period of time. Well, Nam June Paik was a “video artist” at that time. I gained a technical background through him, but began making videos only later in 2002 – 2004. Before then, video was something very complicated. With the advent of digital technology, this complication has vanished and the boundaries between mediums have broken down. Being an artist and making art now has a broader meaning. There is a larger panorama within which an artist can act, and the medium is not particularly relevant.

At the beginning of the 90s I chose to work with tires. I thought that would be a difficult material to bring into an aesthetic context given its widespread presence in everyday life. It was this challenge that triggered me. I wanted to make things that could be conceptually and visually poetic with a material that is not. I chose the tire because it is the quintessence of modernity: after all, the invention of the wheel marked the passage from the primitive to the modern. The tire is not only a symbol of that passage, as image of the wheel, but also of modernization and of the ante litteram globalization which took place in the 20th century: it evokes the great industrialization and the pollution brought about by that industrialization. At the same time it suggests that the material itself is “natural,” meaning that it originated in a forest and ends up being a victim of itself, in a way, since it turns into a polluter of nature. This was the conceptual root of my choice for the material, but then I explored different directions. Colosso (Colossus)—the 2002 performance you mentioned earlier—refers to the name of a Roman sculpture that no longer exists, but originally was situated near the Colosseum.

Paolo Canevari, “Colosso” (2004). 95cm x 210cm. Performance, B&W photograph.

Rail: Yes, the amphitheater, which had been built by emperors of the Flavian dynasty and was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater, came to be known as the Colosseum; the name probably did come from the Colossus of Nero, an enormous bronze statue. Nero’s successors transformed it into a statue of Helios and moved it from the Domus Aurea to the area near the amphitheater.

Canevari: My Colosso is a reflection on the meaning of sculpture and on the ephemeral quality that history grants sculpture, in the sense that we always think of sculpture as something very solid, three-dimensional, and imperative. It is not so. The Greek Colossus of Rhodes, for example, was a gigantic sculpture which may never have actually existed. I often say that memory is the greatest monument. The memory of the Colossus of Rhodes has exceeded its material semblance. The material is gone; the memory remains. I believe that memory is the greatest monument precisely because it is the idea that has to be transmitted. So for me an image counts much more than its physicality.

Rail: As I walked through your show on view this summer at the Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato (a survey of your sculpture, drawing, installation, video, and performance works, curated by Germano Celant), I could see that you are first and foremost an image-maker, moving fluidly across mediums. I noticed that you tend to focus on a single image, such as the eagle or the Roman she-wolf, with their symbolic values, or else images culled from popular culture and everyday life. Is this so that you can intensify the emotional and conceptual power of the image, so as to be able to reveal its contradictions more directly? You explore power and religion and their distortions in much of your work, for instance. And one finds the same approach in the composition of your videos, which are generally made with a fixed camera: there is a tendency in them to isolate and concentrate on a few elements and thus intensify the experience.

Canevari: My premise is simplicity. I would define my aesthetic approach as minimalist, and my conceptual approach as baroque. There is an idiosyncrasy, so to speak, in the work that must be respected, in my opinion. There are symbols which are very banal, if you will, because I take popular icons: religious images, as you said, or, more generally, images shared by various cultures. I have often used the she-wolf, which is a symbol of the Roman Empire, an empire that fell into decadence. The she-wolf, though, is not only a symbol of ancient Rome, but of many other cultures—think of how important the wolf is for American Indians or Nordic cultures. This is to say that the work of art is open; it has a range of possibilities. This is what I am interested in: that the work be an encounter between the viewer, who has the sensory experience in front of an artwork, and what that work then becomes in that person’s memory. We have a consumerist impulse; we want to own things. But one cannot possess art in the sense that one possesses a fraction of time, a temporal fraction of art, of the object, of the artistic product. What we really possess is what the object can give us at a sensory level, right? I am talking about the sensations, the kind of memory, that a work of art can create, from a romantic point of view. To me that is the most important thing. I’m trying to create a sort of short circuit between those sensations leading to a knowledge of the image and those others that de-contextualize it and put it at risk.

Rail: Your 2010 performance “Nobody Knows,” is, in my mind, a realization of your approach to art as an experience that can stimulate critical thinking, and thus is a political experience in a broad sense. Can you tell me a little bit about this most recent work of yours?

Paolo Canevari, “Nobody Knows” Performance (2010), Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Pecci. Photo by Marco Anelli.

Canevari: “Nobody Knows” began as an image. In the performance, I sit on this big sphere made of a wooden frame covered with tires which becomes a sort of small world. As an image, it might call to mind that of the little prince sitting and watching the sunset as described in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous novella. It conjures others references as well—loneliness, Baron Münchhausen riding a cannonball—but my goal is to emphasize the mystery of art, which is ultimately the mystery of life. The artwork has a life of its own which is autonomous, independent in that it exists beyond the meanings we lend to it. Consider, for example, the Neoclassical era. At that time, archeology had given an interpretation of the classic which turned out to be the total opposite of what classic art actually was. Back then, they defined it as ethereal, pure, white, and undecorated, while in modern times we have discovered that the classic was quite different. It was polychrome, a feast of colors for the eye, and hyper-decorative. I believe that interpretations are always relative.

I put a lot of information into the work so that it is as though bringing together a world. “Nobody Knows” is about the idea of artistic inspiration originating out of itself, if you will. You carry it inside of you, and God only knows where it comes from! In my opinion, 90% of the time even the artist does not know exactly what he or she is doing, but does it nevertheless. There is also a funny element to it, for there is a sort of need to actualize something in art through a creative act. Thus an artist could never be a murderer, because she is a mother, in a sense. My performance reflects this notion of a world being given to others.

Rail: And the sense of the artist’s authority, I think, is questioned: in the performance and the related photograph you turn your back to the public. You accentuate a sense of mystery and doubt.

Canevari: Yes, but I want to inspire an idea in the viewer that relates not just to me, Paolo Canevari, but rather speaks to a much larger condition.

Rail: It is about the human being in relation to the world.

Canevari: Absolutely. Sculpture has a certain inherent arrogance, in how it presents itself within a space. With sculpture we have that possibility of being able to build a monument. Yet monuments can no longer be built. They are no longer part of our artistic culture, but belong, rather, to our social culture. The failures, not the triumphs, of a society are now our monuments. In my mind, a car dump can be a monument today; it is an edifice illegally built at an archaeological site. These are the monuments that can bear witness to a society.

Rail: Can you tell me about your experience as an artist living between Italy and the United States? Before we started our conversation, you described Italian culture as being characterized by the historical experience of failure, while the American approach to life and art is quite different.

Canevari: I have always been interested in coming to terms with that kind of failure and decadence. In Europe, especially in Rome, history transuding from ancient walls is made palpable in your everyday life. You are surrounded by history, and by the failure of certain ideals and ideologies. The artist is responsible for accounting for the fact that he or she lives in this historical moment of decadence—I am talking about decadence from a social perspective, the decadence of one of the great 20th century utopias of democracy. And this is a responsibility the artist has to him- or herself, not to society. I think it is a responsibility to live in New York and not elsewhere, because this is the country where the phenomenon of decadence is happening.

Rail: Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of the Italian intellectuals who most inspired you. Can you talk about his importance to you?

Canevari: Well, I am neither a conformist nor a follower, though I am fascinated by those who question themselves and the society they live in. Although, arguably, by now Pasolini has become a sort of commonplace, a reference point common to many.

Rail: Yes.

Canevari: He has been used—I specifically choose that word—by many people to different ends. But he was ultimately independent from both the right and the left. I have a kinship with figures who are outsiders, who belong to their own time from a social point of view, and yet are anachronistic. They could be placed in a different historical period and would still give their contribution. It would work the same way for them. In this light, I look up to Pasolini, but also Caravaggio and Curzio Malaparte, to name a few, as figures animated by a personal idiosyncrasy who question the dominant social and ideological structures of their time. They were people who questioned themselves.

Rail: You made some drawings reusing pages from superhero comics, and also incorporated them as part of an installation from the early 90s, “Buoni e cattivi,” which recreates the environment of the elementary-school classroom. Could you tell me about your take on and use of comics?

Canevari: That work was a reflection on the American superhero’s reinterpretation of an ancient Roman imperialistic structure, and, by extension, a fascist structure. The idea of the superman is in itself misleading for a young reader. I grew up with American culture filtered through an Italian lens. As a European, that was something very strange. For instance, there was a comic book character called Captain America who fought against Red Skull, a Nazi agent who was reborn and wanted to restore the Third Reich. Reading this was, as you could imagine, quite a particular experience for a 13 – 14 year-old.

I’ve come to believe that the structure of American imperial and nationalistic propaganda reveals itself deeply through comics. I began to make a series of drawings of black stains on comic book pages. They were not true drawings, rather automatic images thrown on paper—a bit in the tradition of Surrealism—and rendered in a very calligraphic fashion as if they were Chinese or Japanese ideograms. They are pictures of true nightmares: images of monsters from childhood coming to light. I made this kind of work at a time when, in the early 1990s, I did a re-reading of my own childhood through psychoanalysis for five years, also prompted by the experience of deep loss caused by the sudden death, in 1991, of my cousin Andrea who was like a brother to me.

Rail: So personal memory is infused with cultural and political memory in your work.

Canevari: Absolutely. Any artistic production comes from a very personal kind of experience.

Rail: One thing I notice in your work is that, through its reference to childhood, it tackles the tension between vulnerability and violence, play and war.

Canevari: It is linked to the idea of simplicity we were talking about earlier. To me a work should reflect a technical simplicity—as you said, my videos are not real videos in a sense. You take a digital camera—you could even use a cell phone nowadays—and place it at a fixed point and something happens before it. It is something everyone can do. With the advent of digital technology it is easy and cheap to make videos anywhere in the world. I am interested in the cliché of a person walking into a contemporary art gallery and saying “I could do this, too.” The work should have a deeper conceptual level, but technically there should be a very simple approach. That is why I use popular images: people can find themselves in them. Although technically I come from a classical background, I like to do things the easiest way possible. This also reflects my interest in childhood.

Rail: And in art as a democratic experience.

Canevari: Yes. Things go hand in hand. The artwork is like a chain; the minute you find a link you discover that it is connected to yet another and so on. The artwork takes you on a journey, a kind of panoramic tour, if you will, where you discover deeper levels of reading. I do not give one reading of my work, but just a key to open different doors. What I am telling you about now is not actually the work. I am performing a sort of sleight-of-hand to trick you into thinking certain things. And after you think about it, you start thinking others thoughts. I set a trap to you: I give you a hint, and you think you have found a reading, but then immediately you find yet another.

Rail: There is no single, definitive interpretation.

Canevari: Exactly.

Rail: To what degree and in what way is the experience of Arte Povera important to you? You reference it in works such as the larger-than-life floor sculpture “Io che prendo il sole a Los Angeles” (1997), a direct homage to Alighiero Boetti, or in your installations of tanks, which recall Pino Pascali’s conflation of play and war.

Canevari: I would rather say that I could not avoid them because they are my fathers. I am part of a culture and also of a very important artistic situation that developed in the 60s and 70s in Italy. The peculiar thing is that in Italy it is the opposite of what happens in America. When we consider American art we acknowledge a continuous re-reading of the postwar American avant-gardes—Koons, for example, reinterprets what, say, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist did. This does not happen in Italy. While historically we have a great culture, we have an inferiority complex around our contemporary culture. Perhaps we always experienced the weight of our historical heritage as an inferiority complex because we were accustomed to seeing art as something larger than us. Coming from Rome still gives you an inferiority complex since you have to deal with such a rich art history that crushes you. It oppresses you. And either you become as bad as she is so that you beat her, or else you die. This is the most important thing: to be careful not to die. In this context, Arte Povera was for me not so much a source of inspiration, but a culturally important reference. I studied those artists in school and then at the Academy so in my work I reference elements that are part of my culture. It seems pointless to me to take something from another culture that does not belong to you geographically and carnally.

Rail: Going back to your first experience in New York, you came in 1989?

Canevari: I came to New York immediately after graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. I stayed here one year, and went back and forth for the next several years. I began my “professional” career as an artist in New York because I had my first solo show here in 1989, and then I continued exhibiting in Rome in 1991. Since then I have adopted New York as a city. In fact, it has much in common with Rome; it seems to me a sort of contemporary translation of the culture of the Roman Empire in its decline [laughs].

Rail: [Laughs.] When you arrived in New York were there American artists who particularly interested you?

Canevari: I remember seeing Walter De Maria’s “New York Earth Room” (1977) [the interior earth sculpture commissioned and maintained by Dia Art Foundation] for the first time on Wooster Street. De Maria was an inspiration in spite of himself. When I came to New York for the first time I did not speak English well—I had studied French. I took an intensive course to learn English just before arriving. So I read the title of his installation and I took the word “earth” for “heart.” I even made work inspired by that misspelling and misunderstanding! It seemed brilliant to me that in that apartment filled with earth there was the heart of New York. I felt it had a highly poetic sense, and it did. As we said before, interpretation must be free; it should not be dogmatic. Art history itself is often made of wrong interpretations. I am also reminded of the dogmatic attitude in Catholic culture. Catholic culture is based on a written teaching inspired by originally oral stories, meaning the original interpretation is very vague. It makes me question the power of the word and of memory. [Laughs.] Memory plays tricks. What interests me is the power that an image can have visually and what that image becomes in history, which goes beyond its power as object. It is just a feeling. That is why, for me, it is the idea that is important, because that’s what solicits a mental process. The mental process is always positive because it is a process of growth. So long as that stimulus is actively at play humanity is saved; the moment that stimulus slows down, diminishes, culture is debased. This is what is happening now.

Rail: The image of fire appears often in your work, both in video and drawing. Does this suggest that an image is always built, yet can always be dissolved, or does it point out the ephemeral?

Canevari: A little bit of both. For me it is about the ephemeral because you destroy something. The act of destruction has always been an important theme in my work. My 2004 installation “Seed,” for example, concentrates on the image of a bomb that becomes a seed. The idea for this work came from watching documentaries of the B-52 planes bombing Europe during the Second World War: it appeared a kind of seeding. It brought to mind the gesture of the peasant throwing seeds in the soil as captured in Jean François Millet’s “The Sower” (c.1850), which van Gogh made a copy of in 1888. It was just the idea of planting something: sowing destruction, in that case. The idea of destruction is antithetical to its own concept: destruction presupposes reconstruction. The beauty of it is the creative element it contains. I am neither the first nor the last to employ fire to build an artistic act—the important thing was for me to use other elements that were part of my own sowing, so I burned my sculpture of the Colosseum, which referenced the burning of Rome by Nero. I then burned a skull, and the skull refers to a whole set of icons: not only the image of death—particularly of death as personified by the devil burning in hell—but also the image of the Hells Angels. Moreover, there is the image in Ghost Rider from Marvel Comics, where there is a character—played by Nicolas Cage in the film inspired by it—who is a skeleton on fire who drives a motorcycle.

Rail: So your personal passion for motorcycles and cars comes into play, too.

Canevari: Yes. They are all icons, absolutes which are so mundane, banal in a certain sense that they can find a vast range of readings—encompassing tattoos (like the skull in flames), as well as classical, medieval, or Buddhist references. I aim to bring together a multiplicity of possible meanings and make them available.

Rail: A very interesting aspect of your work seems to be the approach to drawing. Rather than emphasizing the intimate aspect of it, you tend to draw on a large scale, usually in pencil on large sheets of paper. As you said, you work in different mediums with the image and its power, but in the case of drawing, it seems that you approach it from the perspective of a sculptor’s mind; that is, in your hands, a drawing almost becomes an object. I am thinking about “Decalogo,” the series of etchings you realized in 2008 at the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica in Rome, which will be shown in New York at the Drawing Center’s Drawing and its Double exhibition in April 2011. I also have in mind the 2010 series of works made on black Belgian marble where a carved mark is made by subtraction rather than by addition, which is precisely a sculptural mark, right?

Canevari: Absolutely.

Rail: What is drawing for you?

Canevari: Drawing is an intimate act. It is the most direct of creative acts involving the mind and its ramifications, the hand and the body. The first thing the hand makes is a drawing. This archetypal aspect of drawing is what triggers me the most. What I have done is question the medium through the use of materials and surfaces which do not traditionally pertain to it. You made reference to my work in the 90s which incorporates comics: there I used comics as a structure, preferring them to a blank sheet of paper as the support for my calligraphic, anthropomorphic images. I also discovered that drawings on 19th century prints have more or less the same meaning conceptually. But it is also true that the underlying, pre-existing image adds a layer of interpretation, unlike the blank sheet which is, instead, akin to a white screen on which to add or project an image. You already have a surface that tells you a story. The story of the comics is childish, basic, while the story the 19th century print tells is culturally redundant, full of subtleties and intrigues. I like to experiment with materials other than paper as well, moving away from its ephemerality. Drawing is in itself the quintessence of the ephemeral, the intimate and the fragile. And personally I find that everything fragile is poetic. Therefore the very idea of drawing as such attracts me very much. By drawing on a large scale I wanted to transpose this idea on a larger surface, thus amplifying it. The technique is the same as in earlier drawings—pencil on paper—but the drawings now measure about four by three meters! So it becomes a little bit more complicated. I like the physical aspect of drawing, which is no longer a matter of the hand, but involves the movement of the body. It becomes a kind of performance to enter the space of drawing rather than remaining out of it.

Recently I have used alternative materials. In “Decalogo,” the series you mentioned, the etchings were made on copper plates in Rome. I conceived of and made them as drawings, as unique objects, while the prints from the plates are the second product. To me the plate is the drawing—and indeed I did not draw in reverse. I wanted to emphasize the secondary rather than primary aspect of the print. The drawing on the plate is the most interesting thing to me, as is drawing on marble, a material historically associated with sculpture. Using a surface of black Belgian marble, which weighs 40-50 kg (88-110 pounds), as if it were a sheet of paper fascinated me. By contrast, the mark on it has levity, a lightness of its own.

Rail: And it is now a white mark on black as opposed to the pencil mark on white paper.

Paolo Canevari, “She-Wolf” (2010). 35cm x 40cm. Graphite on 19th century print.

Canevari: Yes. It is a negative mark. As you rightly said, it removes rather than adding. There is a technical challenge in making such works, because once you make a mark on a piece of marble you cannot remove it or change it, so you have to be sure when you draw on it. Moreover, it also evokes the archetypal nature of drawing as graffiti.

Rail: You have studied, I am sure, traditional drawing at the Academy, drawing from life. In your drawings the achievement of utmost simplicity nevertheless betrays a mastery of the medium.

Canevari: Yes, that’s true. For a certain period of time I did not draw. I had chosen not to draw. I had received an academic training, and also took private classes in painting from life for three years. I drew and painted from life intensely. Afterward, I realized that in order for me to grow artistically I had to unlearn what I had learned to do. So the work of the 90s, the doodles and the drawings on comic books pages, were related to an instinctivity, and to the experience of automatic drawing. After some time this changed and when I began to make videos I started to have a range of images available. I worked as an illustrator for the New York Times when I first came to New York after having the same occupation as early as I was 19 or 20 years old for Il Manifesto, an important left wing newspaper in Italy at the time. That kind of experience was important to me. And eventually through video I had the opportunity to illustrate what I was doing, that is, I began to have subjects to draw, which I didn’t have before. I had stopped drawing because it made no sense any longer for me. I did not need it as a medium because I did not know what to draw. By making videos and having images with which to tell a story, I was able to resume drawing. And I did so in large format to bring drawing into a new realm, to attain a kind of cinema projection of drawing. Thus it is no longer the intimate aspect of drawing per se, but rather the amplification of that idea.

Rail: And a feeling of involvement.

Canevari: Yes. I already experimented with this in the 90s: in 1992 I made “Ombra,” a drawing for the group show Small Medium Large: Life Size at the Pecci Museum, which is the amplification of a doodle, and it measures 12 by 4 meters.

Rail: The line in your drawings calls to mind Giacometti, and yet it is animated by a strong energy of its own. I am thinking, for instance, about the eagle drawn on black marble which is rendered as a plastic volume, but it is as if inside that volume there were air. In this light it also reminds me of your 1989 sculpture “Colonna barocca,” which is made of inner tubes stacked on top of each other from floor to ceiling. It conjures the same idea of a heaviness which is in fact empty inside. The energy of your line is both physical and mental.

Canevari: That is also because I want to lighten a rhetorical aspect of the image. The image has in itself a symbolic-rhetorical character, which is very heavy to start with. Through drawing I try to create a counterpoint, an opposition—an airy levity, too, as you said. As you pointed out earlier, the material itself is important. When you work at a drawing on a 40-50 kg marble slab you are reminded of the idea of heaviness as monumentality and rhetoric, plus that notion is brought forward by the types of images that you impose on that surface. For that series of works on marble I have drawn very specific symbols—the Roman she-wolf, the eagle, and the octopus that in Italy is a symbol of the Mafia. They are different from one another, but they are all symbols of power. They are part of an imagery shared by different cultures, but when put in a certain context these images have a political weight.

Rail: You work without having a studio. Since when has that been the case and can you tell me more about your method of working, in this respect? Over the years you have created, for instance, installations in your home in Rome and then you have traveled extensively, spending periods of time in different parts of the world.

Canevari: I have not had a studio since 1997. I abandoned the idea of the studio because a studio implies a quotidian routine. I had become a little bit like my own employee. When I realized that I was making things that were becoming somewhat manneristic, I tried to divert.

Rail: And escape that temptation.

Canevari: I did it to escape, and to create difficulty. All the installations I made from that moment of realization up to today are more or less installations that were conceived and realized on-site. The risk that this kind of work might fail is clearly very high. I liked and still like very much the idea of making a work outside any kind of professional duty—like an exhibition—and that the work is a sort of apparition. I always thought of art as a kind of miracle. I like the notion of apparition; scientifically it is called a mirage, and religion turns such apparitions into miracles. I like the idea that a work of art appears and then disappears. The element of fire also evokes this: fire destroys something and that something does not exist anymore. You create a documentation of it, which is itself yet another work, distinct from the happening

I’ve made works in completely different latitudes in the world. The installation “Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha” [“J.M.B.,” 2001] was done in the outskirts of Bangkok, for instance, while the first version of “Hanging Around,” from 2008—an installation which consists of a gallows with a Good Year tire hanging from it on a chain—was made in Laos, as was my 2008 video “Beata Vergine (Burning Dress Givenchy),” which shows a white Givenchy haute couture dress burning on a cross. It is unexpected that works of that kind take place in such situations, and yet they happen. They are documented and become something else. I like very much not having a studio because that forces me into a creative space that is very relative to location, space, and the materials I have at hand. In a sense it reduces the opportunities, and I like that a lot.

Paolo Canevari, “J.M.B” (2001). Installation, Bangkok, Thailand.

Rail: I know that as a young boy you wanted to become a clown—you wrote a letter to Fellini about it and he encouraged you, if I am not mistaken.

Canevari: I was 9 when I received a phone call from Federico Fellini. The Maestro called to thank me for a letter I had written him saying that after seeing his movie The Clowns on TV I had decided to become a clown. At the end of that phone call Fellini promised me a book on the film. It promptly arrived a few days later. On the first page he had written: “Dear Paolo Canevari, I wish you good luck, Federico Fellini.” That book was the source of many inspirations and fantasies, and it’s now a little worn and faded from having been leafed through so often since childhood.

We exchanged few words during the call itself, but the very fact that Fellini had called me grew in my memory. With his humble act of generosity towards an unknown child, he infused me with a wonderful, disarming, absolute, and universal sense of poetry.

Rail: In conclusion, I’d like to ask you about your upcoming exhibition at the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna e contemporanea in Rome in October. Can you tell me something about the work you’re thinking of presenting in that context?

Canevari: It will be an anomalous kind of exhibition because it will consist of a series of installations made inside the museum galleries devoted to the art of the second half of the 19th century. In those rooms, masterpieces by artists such as Cézanne, Courbet, Monet, and van Gogh are on view, as well as more rhetorical works such as history paintings of great battles from our Risorgimento movement by Fattori and Cammarano, and a number of academic sculptures.

Presenting installations in a quadreria, itself a 19th century structure—the museum space dates from the Neoclassical period—is a unique experience. It creates a dialogue between the contemporary version of an artistic poetics and the museum version. What interests me is to create a kind of interaction between the contemporary dimension and the museum, a longstanding concern for me given my interest in memory, symbology, and the interpretation of art.


Francesca Pietropaolo