58th Venice Biennale, Venice Pavilion
Clever reinterpreter of symbols and acute juggler, Fabio Viale mocks and distorts every common sense by creating familiar connections between times and peoples through elements of surrealism. At the center of his time and those who live it, in contrast to Roland Barthes, Viale tells us that sculpture has still something to say. He takes Michelangelo out of museums, classical torso in plastic poses show the symbols of Russian crime gangs, he tattoos the Venuses from ancient Greece and makes the Renaissance look like polystyrene. Yes, because what appears in Viale’s works is never what it seems and at the same time it is what it is. With “Ahgalla” he literally sails a marble boat that seems to have the consistency of wood, then makes a big tire, which obviously isn’t made of rubber, and spins it around the streets of Turin. With his latest project for the Venice Biennale – in collaboration with Ferzan Özpetek, Plastique Fantastique, Lorenzo Dante Ferro, Mirko Borsche, Giorgos Koumendakis and Sidival Fila – we see him create monumental Briccole (dolphin structures), in wood-like marble, over three meters tall they stand out in the water that runs along the Venice pavilion, as if they were symbols of direction and metaphor of the human bodies at the same time. The Venice Pavilion is certainly an immersive experience, the concept is inspired by the urban fabric of the city, exploring its history and mythology. A water basin recreates the Venetian atmosphere, in an inflatable structure visitors are immersed in a dream-like dimension where, while passing through it, they are surrounded by the fog, and they find themselves in contact with reinterpreted symbols of a Venice of the past, but that is evolving.
It is the city of Venice conceived as a living body that lets itself be crossed and the briccole carved by Viale, as a living bodies themselves, hold it upright. The curator Giovanna Zabotti explains: “The pavilion is a work dedicated to Venice, which is the place of possibilities, and no longer just a container of different works”. The metaphor of the city as a body defines the theme around which the creative idea of a ‘Venice Pavilion’ develops, something that wants to be, first of all, a synthesis and evolution at the same time of the characteristics that have always described, in the collective imagination, Venice. The city is seen, therefore, as a ‘human body’, where the parts that make it up constitute life and, despite being the same since its birth, they evolve and interact with each other outlining an identity that allows itself to be interpreted by the thoughts of those who meet it, visit it and live it. The pavilion of the city, therefore, is a synthesis and an experience and its ‘crossing’allows the visitor to listen to the pulsating beat and tune in with a synaesthetic approach. Venice thus takes shape in a place and at a time that are possible, alive and interesting.
All your production focuses on what we can define as a poetic of the oxymoron, between perception and estrangement, like a theater stage where the material, while interpreting itself, defines an infinite variety of declinations and material possibilities, resulting extremely credible. The marble here pretends to be wood, polystyrene, paper, rubber, etc. Between fiction and contrasts by subtraction – of weight and meanings – the viewer, even in fiction, cannot avoid being in the presence of something that is recognizable but that can also be recognized as what is not. Can you tell me more about this material dualism, and where does the idea of lightening the weight – also historical – of the icons you reinterpret come from?
About fifteen years ago I made “Ahgalla”, a marble boat that was able to navigate and transport people, giving them a unique sensation: to float on a stone. This sculpture was such an important experiment for me that it allowed me and convinced me to demonstrate not only that marble is able to float but, above all, that it is important to go beyond the preconceptions that often the matter imposes on us. Since the beginning, art has used metamorphosis in order to transform nature into an object and vice versa, this atavistic process produces enchantment and this dimension is a human necessity. There are therefore in my work two important aspects, the first is linked to this mechanism, the second, instead, represents the narration or the action that the sculpture is able to generate in the space and time in which it is placed. The mechanism could be compared to what the believer does when he enters the church, a suggestion is needed to generate an act of faith.
There is therefore here an effect of disruption of the usual perception of reality, in order to reveal new or unusual aspects through the expedient of different perceptive levels, between icons of the past and of the present that coexist and convey a message that passes outside a specific time. Different observers are indeed able to engage different relationships with your art, a lover of classical art will certainly recognize Laocoonte, a wing of the Greek Nike, the hand of Costantino or the Venere Italica, while a teenager who’s passionate about Trap music will attribute a familiar element to the tattos of the singer Young Signorino. Roland Barthes identified the society of his time as that of the era that had stopped relying on the monument, deciding to rely instead on perishable supports, such as the photographic one, for the preservation of memories. Even at that time, modernity had already chosen not to associate itself with stone, bronze or marble, but rather with a material more easily perishable, like paper, for the preservation of its memories and thus highlighting its inability to pass on testimonies to future generations. And this is even more the case today, when the engagement with the image is even more immediate, in an age when its fruition happens through something even more ephemeral and ethereal, the cloud. This is where the shifting in the meaning of the image that you use in the tattoos is expressed, it becomes something destined to last over time, as part of the less perishable support that belongs to all ages, the stone, actualized as a recognizable means of communication through which the image, as it ideally happens on the skin with tattoos, wants to be imprinted forever on the marble. The consumer society is fast and needs fast concepts and a good dose of scandal in order to slow down and think, is this re-actualizing the sculpture perhaps the key to the eternal? Maybe it is the common thread to actualize classic communication and make it usable in our days, and in a similar manner the contemporary modernity could be experienced through the classical model, in a perceptive game of consistencies of materials, their ambiguity, the image and the man at the center.
What function do you think sculpture can still have in today’s era?
I believe that there are universal values that sculpture embodies and they have never died but they have simply been set aside. The perception of what happens artistically around us is made by the microcosm that surrounds us because it is impossible to have an overall view. The world of art itself specifically creates a small reality made up of Biennial exhibitions, Fairs and Museums and in order to be part of it the artists are carefully selected and in some ways standardized. It is therefore impossible for the visitor to know what happens artistically outside of that reality. The world of art is not democratic because gallery owners, museum directors, curators, all operators have interests and preferences. Contemporary art is often expressed with an incomprehensible language made of contents that can be communicated at the dialectical level but are inconsistent from an aesthetic point of view, therefore an aesthetic expression based on painting, sculpture, etc., is useless, even harmful. This mechanism of contemporaneity today, however, is questioned by media such as Instagram for example, which are making us think about how these “parallel” form of art are instead necessary even compared to institutional ones and many artists are converting to them in order to satisfy the needs of an audience that is growing more and more. I would say that the use of marble is now abused by both newcomers and acclaimed contemporary artists. And this is good because aesthetics is coming back into contemporary art. As for me, the “father” of my work is the result of this reasoning, but the mother is an intimate necessity of expression.
How was it for you to be part of a great collective stage like this Biennale and to collaborate with excellent names such as Ferzan Özpetek, Plastique Fantastique, Lorenzo Dante Ferro, Mirko Borsche, Giorgos Koumendakis and Sidival Fila?
When you climb up high as you do climbing mountains, you start to feel the lack of oxygen, everything is more tiring if you are in Venice, where it is difficult even to find a roll of Scotch tape and watching you at work there are the most distinguished and attentive spectators in the world of art, the tension rises. I have to say that Giovanna Zabotti (the curator) was a great mediator: the artists “are like stallions, or better, crazy horses, it’s hard to keep them together in an enclosure everyone wants his space and kicks instinctively when you get too close“. This group also had architects, engineers, coordinators, assistants, wives, husbands and children, but in the end, an hour late, we saw the pavilion open. The great caravan of art began in the best way, the president of the Biennale, Baratta, opened the doors on an unprecedented Venice Pavilion that sensorially surrounds the viewer, transporting it into a dimension that becomes a metaphor for the peculiarities of a unique and tiring city.
We can undoubtedly find these elements in the installation at the Venice Biennale. Mastodontic figures, the Briccole , now a symbol of the city of Venice and by definition nautical structures used to indicate the waterways in the Venetian lagoons, rise jut above water and float in the Venice pavilion as if they were very light floating bodies or bent and cyclopic figures of men at the mercy of the water. Two symbols that still coexist, between past and our time. Which, as emblems and witnesses of passages and shipwrecks, of journeys and migrants, unite in this same path myth and reminiscences of the Risorgimento to one of the greatest tragedies of the contemporary age. So that, as a symbol of piety they refer to the human figure – looking at two groups of Briccole, one with two figures, two woods tightened together by vigorous iron chains; the other with three figures, always linked together – it is possible to recognize in those forms human bodies in the same position and situation as those sculpted by Buonarroti in his two Pietas, from Milan and Florence.
So which is the way that your Briccole indicate? Can you talk about the parallelism between the human body and the Briccole?
The Venice Biennale I attended this year was undoubtedly an experiment: I was involved in a project that led several artists to collaborate by looking for a common direction. My sculptural contribution manifested itself in the use of a symbolic image, the Briccola. I have been in the lagoon for several days trying to document myself as much as possible and after seeing hundreds of briccole I started to see in them differences, then characters and finally personalities that made these objects different from each other. They have turned into figures and these in turn have begun to assume almost dramatic theatrical positions in the lagoon. The action of time and its consequences continually jeopardize the static nature of these initially very solid objects, but over the years, as they age, they become symbols of the precarious balance that is a characteristic of the city of Venice. As regards to La Pietà it’s a correct reference because I decided to use these abraded ‘marble columns’ consumed by time and held together by rusty chains as if to create a symbol of resistance as well as faith.