If you ever find yourself hiking on and off trails in the mountains, or wandering around an industrially-shaped countryside landscape and looking for places that are not heavily trailed by human footsteps, then you might be able to spot Italian artist Maddalena Granziera at work. Explorative hikes are creatively and spiritually meaningful to the Veneto region-based emergent artist, whose painting and photographic artwork is imbued with surreal geographic references echoing cosmic allusions, her imagination, and a planet Earth untouched by human presence. Initially chatting with the artist in her reclaimed country barn studio, we then continued the interview some time after in the Rail office in the Chiesa delle Penitenti. The following is an edited version of the longer conversations we had with the artist, for your reading pleasure.
Angela Brisotto, Victoria Stephanie Uzumyemezoglu, Sara Antoniolli, Olga Lepri (Rail): We would like to start by asking you, how did you start having a curiosity for art and which artists influenced your work?
Maddalena Granziera: Well, I actually cannot answer exactly, I have always liked art. I cannot recall a particular anecdote. I have always liked the practical act of drawing, coloring, and painting. In my family there has always been an artistic atmosphere, on another level though because my parents act. My mother has always been passionate about art and painting. So, I grew up in a creative environment. There are many artists that I like—for example, Mark Rothko for his sensitivity to the use of color. Anyway, to be honest, photographers are among the artists that I prefer the most. Among the painters who influenced me most there is Gerhard Richter, I love the way he paints. But I feel a greater affinity with photographers, especially with the German school of photography, the Düsseldorf School, so all those photographers who have an objective approach and who have been the students of Bernd and Hilla Becher. I’m referring to industrial archeology: these artists captured photographs of old construction sites which have been abandoned, of big equipment and cisterns. Thomas Ruff also comes to my mind, who instead has a more experimental approach. But the photographer who influenced me most is Luigi Ghirri. I think he is the one who influenced me the most, especially for the way he creates the image. I feel myself close to his approach, because he tries to maintain a detachment: he creates an image in which he does not intervene too emotionally, but these images still remain personal and profound.
Rail: Recently you took part in an artistic residency program promoted by the Villa Greppi consortium in Lombardy, Italy. Can you tell us about how this experience influenced your artistic research?
Granziera: Essentially I did a territorial investigation. That’s because I saw that all my most recent works had more explicit references to the places where I found myself walking and exploring. I noticed that I always started with photography.
Rail: So during this period you had a chance to focus on your work all the time. It must have been a precious time to dedicate just to your artistic practice.
Granziera: Yes, it was magnificent. I already knew during my first day of traveling what I wanted to do. When you are focused on one thing it’s a good feeling. The work I did was divided into two parts. In the first phase, I was leaving in the morning with my backpack and camera and beginning my exploration at the entrance to the path. In the second phase, I took a portion of a territory that extends around Lake Como which has two branches: the Como branch and the Lecco branch. On this map I identified some areas and then cut out the lakes, thanks also to Google Maps, and then my aim was to bring everything back to scale onto the canvas. Instead of using the technique of photo transfer—a technique I’m often using at the moment—I have reproduced the landscapes of those places that I had seen during my exploration onto the canvas. Basically, I print the images with a laser printer, and then by using a solvent I transfer the images onto the canvas obtaining a printing-like effect. Obviously it took a long time for me to start working from tracks, maps, and charts. I put photographs, drawings, and paintings together in an abstract way trying to make them something different. For example this photograph (isola senza nome, 90 × 60 cm, a digital print on paper, permajet matt plus 240) looks almost like an aerial view, but actually it is the rocky wall of the mountain that I had in front of me. I cut the top of this mountain from the photograph, then I flipped it horizontally. Then when I printed the image, I slightly blurred it, so as to almost make it look like a painting or an aerial view. I like starting with an objective fact, if we want to say it is objective. Actually, even the map is still a form of human representation, but let’s forget this for now.
Rail: These places of your imagination remind me of science fiction and dystopian novel settings. How do you explain this almost alien dimension of the places you have painted? I am thinking especially of works such as you love to walk, it’s a matter of fact (2018) or una storia lunga miliardi di anni (2018) (a long story lasting billions of years).
Granziera: I actually filter out things, so I eliminate what I don’t need and keep what is essential for me. So yes, in some of my works you can see that references to the areas I explore are more blurred. In everything we see there are circles, cylinders, parallelepipeds…At the beginning I was doing this schematic work by bringing into the paintings these geometric elements which all constituted a landscape for me. Now that I am trying something else, references to a specific place have become more explicit. Nonetheless, I always try to abstract the subject in some way. I always try to remove what is not essential for me, without leaving a precise reference neither to time nor to place. However, more than science-fiction landscapes, I like best desolate and ambiguous scenarios in the style of David Lynch, who is one of my favorite directors.
Rail: In these desolated scenarios of your works, human figures do not seem to be present. How important is the distance or absence of human figures in your work? I am thinking of settembre 015 – gennaio 016 (2016) (september 015 – january 016) and of per una naturale predisposizione ho la tendenza a riconoscermi nelle cose esterne (2018) (for a natural predisposition I have a tendency to see myself in external things).
Granziera: So, as underlined in the second title you mentioned, I in fact see myself in the objects in front of me and in landscapes too. So I prefer to represent the human presence with the elements of the landscape. I really don't need to display the figure, the human shape. That's not what interests me.
Rail: Was there a particular reason that encouraged you to remove the human figure from your works?
Granziera: Well, actually not. Whether something happens on an unconscious level [laughs] I cannot tell, but I can say that I am not looking for the human element. I don't remove or delete the human figure during post production. It's something that I don't want to research at that moment and therefore I avoid it. I don't feel the need to send my message through the presence of the human figure.
Rail: You visit places and map them. Have you ever thought about abandoned places?
Granziera: Well, actually no, not about abandoned places. However, I often spend time in not overcrowded places, where the human presence is not prevalent as it could be in a city. I’m not interested in looking for a kind of place that used to be full of life and now it’s not anymore. That’s not my aim. I search less-accessible places as a mountain path. Some works evoke a state of abandon, a state of neglect. I’m thinking about Misurazione della Terra (I) (2015) and Misurazione della Terra (II) where geometric figures recall abandoned places, and a sort of mysterious, ghostly presence can be perceived; but I have never been really focused on this topic. And the reason why I have never done this kind of research is because it’s inherent in my working method, in my way of thinking about images. In my opinion, the human figure is the viewer, who is watching the work of art, who is looking at the landscape in front of them. This could be linked with other topics such as ecology, climate change, climate crisis because it is as if to say, “watch what is in front of you.” I think that on one hand we can say Earth is fragile. The universe is unknown and unpredictable: Earth is a planet full of life thanks to some flukes—for example, the right distance between the Earth and the Sun. But on the other hand we should take into consideration that probably we will disappear and our planet will survive with a new balance. Scientists say that we are getting closer to a no-returning point, but this concerns us, not the planet which is our home. Our planet is undergoing huge changes for sure, but I think that it will find a way to stabilize itself: nature works like this. We, as humans, are fragile and in danger as other animal species are. The evanescent images that I create through photo transfer have thus a double interpretation: on one level, the environment around us is changing and on another level, humans are changing. These images could also be read as a blurred vision people are trying to bring into focus. Our sight is not clear and images are disappearing, because our existence is fading too. Trying to be less tragic, these images could be seen as whoever’s memories that, as time passes, due to their nature, fade and become faint appearances. In works such as una storia lunga miliardi di anni and you love to walk, it’s a matter of fact I have tried to represent all these different points of view.
Rail: I’m interested in your works on mountains where you depict mountains from a distance with the use of transparencies. How do you deal with these concepts of mountain and transparency in your work?
Granziera: Recently I made a lot of works on mountain landscapes and I did it because I was meditating on earth and on rocks as primordial elements. If I think about the Earth, the place where we live, rock comes to my mind as an original element. No doubt that in the mountains rock is the protagonist of the landscape. I have tried to examine what is not permanent by pairing the concepts of impermanence and transformation with the figure of the rock. We have always considered rocks and mountains as solid, concrete, permanent. Obviously they are more so than us, for sure. But they undergo laws of transformation too. During its history, the Earth has lived five moments of great extinction and continuous geomorphological changes. Accordingly, rock is fragile, and my way of seeing landscape emphasizes that everything changes, everything is transformed. I like to play with the image’s ambiguity by showing something not so recognisable at first sight, something that is not clearly corresponding to reality, and photography suits well for this. I’m also interested in transforming a realistic image into something new, for example by cutting off some details and intervening on a printed photo with different agents, sometimes I also do so by using digital manipulation. Sometimes a simple expanded detail can destabilize our certainties and raise the question, “what is this?” This is interesting because it makes us conscious of how a simple thing can be full of meanings, and how powerful and evocative photography can be.
Rail: Have you been studying rocks? Are you interested in some specific rocks?
Granziera: Yes, I am not an expert in this field but I like it, I am interested in it. For instance, when I worked on the residency project in Lombardy, I studied the area and I discovered that many mountains in that area—I am talking about the Lake Como district in Lombardy—contain a type of rock called dolomia (dolomite), which is the same you find in the Dolomites, a mountain range located in the Western Italian Alps—in Trentino-South Tyrol, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and in the Veneto, the region where I live. And finding this mineral in a different area was such a discovery for me. Actually, I like to do a bit of study and research. I deal with some things with a more philosophical than scientific approach, but I also need the scientific side of it…
Rail: Is there something mystical about it?
Granziera: No, it's more about reasoning, about conjecturing: I think about how things transform in nature, how this is a part of the natural process. I don't report scientific data, but I like to draw from them, to get to know what I am going to see.
Rail: According to you, is landscape a vehicle for building a connection between photography and painting? What is this limit for you, the balance that makes sure that this link exists?
Granziera: It's a bit difficult to answer because very often I start a work but I don't know exactly how it will end. I often perceive the limit when I am approaching it, I don't make a decision as I start. I find my work with transferring photos very close to my painting process, at least because photography is ordinarily used for capturing reality with fidelity. Utilizing this technique enables me to move away from reality, to detach myself from it. I mean, I use photography not to report reality with fidelity—which is something you can do very well with painting, because painting opens hundreds of doors, and maybe it's still one of the most powerful means that exist. I enjoy seeing where painting and photography can reach, and how they can interact. Photography too can be used to depict things in a non-realistic way—you can experiment a great deal with photography, it's a very eclectic medium.
Rail: Is the map an image for you? Do you consider images enclosed in your artworks as imaginary geographies?
Granziera: Yes, for sure, the map is an image, created with the help of mathematics in order to try to reproduce the most accurate possible visual representation of a certain area. The images I create are certainly imaginary geographies because they are the outcome of my mind's re-elaboration of a certain place.
Rail: In a way, can we say that the collage of maps and various images is a preparatory phase in your work?
Granziera: Well, it's not exactly collage, because I don't use cut outs in the final artwork, but I use them during the process.
Rail: You are using stencils?
Granziera: Yes, in my most recent works I use stencils a lot. It's as if the stencil was the objective data for me, do you understand? The map itself is an abstract drawing because it was created by people in order to try to make clear, to make easy, to make understandable something that is wide—it is an attempt to synthetize. The map is an imaginary drawing, too. But, what I am trying to say is that the stencils I obtain both from maps and from photos that I shot are for me the reference to reality.
Rail: In your work, travel, the itinerary, and hiking are fundamental. Are these activities part of your creative process?
Granziera: Yes, they are, and they are getting more important with time—I have always felt the need to walk, it's really part of me, of myself, in some moments in a more latent way. Hiking challenges the body, so I see it as a very important physical experience that gets you in contact with your body, with what you feel.
Rail: So, before everything else, you need to live the landscape…
Granziera: Yes, I need to create a sort of intimacy with it.
Rail: In SciameProject—a project on immaterial art started after the earthquake that hit central Italy in 2016, and to which you have taken part in—one of the key themes is rooting. Can you tell me what makes you feel or not feel part of a place?
Granziera: Rooting lives together with its opposite that is uprooting. I actually need to try to create a connection with the places where I go working and that I want to get to know. But this is not real rooting because I perform an action—hiking—that is substantially nomadic. It's not really about literally taking root because I constantly move, and I need it. I felt a weaker connection to some of the works I created after exploring some places, because I couldn't feel a strong connection with those places; maybe I didn't feel these places as part of me and so the connection was weaker; therefore I felt those works were feebler.
Rail: One of your works is entitled per un attimo pensai di essermi persa (2019) [for a second I thought I got lost]. The fact of getting lost while you are traveling, and probably also when you are working, is interesting. What does getting lost mean in terms of your creative process?
Granziera: Getting lost is key because the means that we use to orientate are means that we can control, but there can always be things that happen and are outside of our control. I allow myself to be surprised by what can happen outside, in the world. When I go hiking I try of course my best not to literally get lost while I am exploring areas that I don't know [laughs]. By the way, that work's title recalls a moment when, while hiking, I got lost in my mind's wanderings and it seemed to me that I almost truly got lost…For a moment I felt that that wasn't really the right direction…
Rail: And there's also a psychological level in this travel? I am thinking about Petrarch's “Ascent of Mont Ventoux.” I mean, are you also developing an intimate process, are you interrogating yourself about your life?
Granziera: Yes, absolutely, it's personal as well. Yes, more often than not the mind and the body are not disconnected. It's not about trying to climb 1,600 meters in three hours as a bohemian pastime, absolutely, it's not about that. Feeling my body speaking to me while I am hiking, while I am experiencing exertion, these are intimate moments to me—moments in which I need to connect to my mind.
Rail: Do you ever refer to or take inspiration from literature, narrative or theater in your research?
Granziera: Yes, it happened, mainly with Calvino, who is one of my favorite writers.
Rail: Speaking of getting lost…
Granziera: Exactly, his cosmic travels gave me a lot of inspiration, reading Calvino helped me a great deal—reading Calvino is a travel experience itself. I give some of my works titles that recall some of his short stories…First and foremost it's about him, and then I am inspired by many other things, such as song's lyrics for example.
Rail: Indeed one of your artworks is entitled “you love to walk it’s a matter of fact.”
Granziera: Yes, it often happens…Being interested in manifold aspects of art, I think it inevitable to be influenced by them.
Rail: In some of your works I see a mixture of realistic and surreal elements, of what is real and what is imaginary. Namely, as regards photos, I am thinking about your series entitled Solaris (2017), which comprises surreal images of a mountain landscape. What does the imaginary sphere represent in your work?
Granziera: Well, dealing with what is imaginary is a fundamental part of my research. For me what is imaginary comprises everything that is indefinable and everything that is possible too. How can a certain thing evolve? What can it become? I think about the sphere of possibilities that are not immediately visible to our eyes, about what is potentially imbued in an object. Therefore, what is imaginary for me is everything that is unknown, indefinable, and it is also about the transformation of things. I find it is linked also to the transformation of everything that exists in nature.
Working with series enables me to deal with the extension of a space. In my works, I try to represent this extension and it's not easy because a work has got a frame, it has got a limit, instead what we see has not, let's say, a limit in the present moment. The photo series settembre 015 – gennaio 016 comes to my mind. Each of the three pieces is about a different place and comprises many combined photos. And my reasoning was that of trying to narrate a place covering a certain extension in the landscape; and the best way for me to talk about this extension was using series, and fragmenting the given place for then rebuilding it using many images. One image probably was not enough—I find one piece is constricting for me. It's as if I needed to narrate a sort of story. In this sense, working with series becomes key because it allows you to narrate something.
Rail: And how do you use this concept of series in the exhibition process?
Granziera: Well, actually this process takes a long time. When I create these photographic compositions, I avoid putting them in series from the first picture to the last. I try to look for formal links since, in the end, the shape is always the subject of the works, no matter if it is more or less recognizable. Consequently, what drives me to create these works in series are relationships between shapes, between the main elements of a photo. It usually takes a long time to plot a narrative that seems to work. Anyway, my compositions are well thought out; they aren’t casual. The only series I kept as it was initially is the Solaris series, where I didn’t change the shutter click sequence as they spoke to me the moment I saw them: they worked together so I decided to keep them that way.
Rail: In Solaris you work with an expired celluloid so the photos seem to capture timeless images…
Granziera: I find that there is an analogy between physical time and the time it takes for an artwork to be devised. In Solaris the expired celluloid makes images look surreal, and that’s the reason why I honestly can’t remember where I shot some of those pictures. It’s nice how the expired celluloid generates this detaching and ambiguous effect which for me is so important.
Rail: When we talk about telling a story we could consider many different levels. Do you actually do the same by combining different techniques?
Granziera: Certainly I do so with the composition of techniques too. I indeed work on the surface by creating many layers as if I overlapped several sheets of paper. But for me the most important thing is to put together shapes. The technique is not as important as the relationship between the painted subject and the shape created with the photographic transfer. For me the composition is always a game of relationships between shapes.
Rail: At the beginning of our interview you mentioned Gerhard Richter. How did this artist influence you?
Granziera: Actually Gerhard Richter artistically influenced me as a whole, even though he makes use of painting in a completely different way.
Rail: I would say in the opposite way as compared to you.
Granziera: Yes, in the opposite way. Actually in his artistic research he asked himself, why should he be a painter who makes only faded or textured artworks? So he researched the meaning of painting, that’s what struck me about his work. Most people believe he has no precise poetics because they first see one of his painted artworks which comes from a photo, and then they see a completely abstract and textured work. In his entire production he has been extremely eclectic, that’s what most impressed me. In an interview collection about him, I remember him telling that he was very conscious about that, he said he was made that way. This also struck me because I often find myself looking at my works and saying, “These seem to be done by two different people, they are so far from one another”. Yet I feel there is something, I know these works, they are mine. And actually the study I carry on is the same. That’s why I find Richter such an interesting artist.
Rail: Lately you are experimenting with shredding and mixing the excess paper that you obtain from the photographic transfers. Can you explain this process?
Granziera: Well, the pictures are not legible anymore, I’ve already tried that, but you can still see some details—some pieces remained visible in this grayish mixture. Surely, in this process the conceptual aspect is strong because I use the same photos I’ve used before with the transfers, I mean the landscapes. Creating this new paper is for me as making a new image which highlights again the idea of transformation of things. The new image, however, doesn’t represent any type of landscape as we usually understand it. We don’t recognize anything of the previous landscapes, yet these tiny pieces of paper form a composition. Some of these visible pieces gain an almost decorative value, but I see them more as maps, as visions. If you look at one of these works, it might recall a landscape seen from above, from a view far above the ground, almost from space, as if it was a field. Whereas if you look at it very closely it may resemble cement or rock with its peculiarities.
Rail: Some time ago you’ve told us about a process that you define “erasing” and that you’ve used for your recent works. What does erasing mean for you and how does it impact your artistic method? How does this help you strive for a more essential image?
Granziera: I’m working on a series composed of various black and white images printed on plain paper, onto which I apply a solvent to erase some parts of the image. I conceived the idea for this process during some walks I’ve done in the mountains, where low clouds partially covered the landscape. They were even able to erase an entire mountain. This process also recalls the natural world where things transform and often not only just on an illusory level. The final image is no more necessary, since the solvent generates a real spot which adds a new element to the composition. We could talk about essentiality on a conceptual level, as the shooted landscape “loses” a part of itself when on paper.
Rail: A very strange question is coming to my mind right now. You’ve mentioned the clouds as atmospheric agents capable of erasing entire mountains. Are you acting as a cloud, then? [Laughters]
Granziera: I am a cloud! [Laughters]
Rail: Why do you feel the need of this constant transformation? For you, what are the agents that erase our horizons in the contemporary world?
Granziera: Well…This question is hard. It makes me think. The fact that I could be acting like a cloud actually makes sense. Yes. It’s true because on one hand the erasing process makes my images more essential, so I get more focused on some specific things. On the other hand, erasing contributes to the transformation of an image, that becomes more and more ambiguous. I don’t always use the method of erasing, even though it is quite visible in many of my works. While, if we think about the contemporary times, “erasing” is what makes things invisible to us, things that surround us and that we take for granted. I think that when you start acting by habit, when in fact you look but don’t see, this is when you erase your perception of the world. So it’s when you feel out of the world, far from things, you are not in it anymore and you are completely indifferent to what surrounds you. Or, you are indifferent because you take for granted what surrounds you and you are sure that things will go on always in the same way.
Rail: And in your view, to which point is it possible to synthesize or transform something? Is there a limit, or is there a moment when this grows even to the saturation of an image?
Granziera: Yes, it happens very often that in some works I remember to have erased too much, and I’d said to myself, “Well yes I did it, but maybe too much.” Or I sometimes make the opposite, I may have overloaded the image, which usually isn’t my thing. I have to find that balance and that’s never so obvious. I mean, you could start working and you could have something in your head which might not actually be so clear. So it happens that you find yourself between two things. If you ask me what is the right balance, I know the answer only in the moment when I work. It’s hard to say what is good and what isn’t. It depends, each work has its needs.
Rail: And to conclude what field do you feel more conscious of? What are your strengths? Even for the future, I mean…
Granziera: Lately I’m trying to delve into the technique of photographic transfer. It helps me pretty well to combine photography and painting. Even though I’m not a professional photographer, photography has always been significant for me, I need it and I always liked it. Then, painting is hard and often quite complex, sometimes it’s easier to say, “I’ll change to something else,” just because it’s difficult. Therefore I need these two means to live together. I think that this could possibly be my strength. But for now I am not able to say if that is what distinguishes me from others, that there is nobody else doing this. It’s hard to answer this question because I see my artistic process as in a constant flux, but I feel sure that my research is based on the territory, on space. I’m certain about that, I’m sure it’s all about this. It’s true that I investigate different means, but my real personal strength is actually the investigation of the territory where moments of realism through photography always leave space to the imagination.
This interview was held in Venice, Italy, and conducted by a group of Production Assistants working at the Brooklyn Rail’s project Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum.