1999 - 2019: An odyssey out of common places

by Gaetano Centrone

1999 was a particularly dense year, full of significant events for international politics and culture: from the conflict that led to the independence of Kosovo to the Columbine High School massacre, from the murder committed by the born-again Red Brigades of judge Massimo D’Antona, to the Hollywood triumph of Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, from the birth of the Euro to the birth of MSN Messenger, from the first manifestation of the anti-globalist movement to the seizure of power by Vladimir Putin.
That same year, the young Emiliano Perino and Luca Vele, whose works have often been inspired by recent history, participated in a splendid edition of the Venice Biennale, curated by the unforgettable Harald Szeemann. Perino and Vele had the good fortune to participate in a Biennale where one could still view and admire strong, dense and meaningful works, before it became the self-referential circus to which we are far too often subjected to in recent times. Undoubtedly, they were granted this opportunity because they deserved it, even if the duo had, at that time, only a couple of years of an artistic career with just a handful of exhibitions. Simply put, it was an explosive beginning for Perino and Vele, and it indicated the course of what was to follow: participation throughout the 2000’s in an impressive amount of generational, collective exhibitions that tried to take stock of the existing state of the art – be that Italian or international – even sculptural language itself.

But why was their work immediately considered significant in the contemporary art world? Why did critics and curators feel the need to include Perino and Vele in extensive art surveys, exhibitions and reviews?

Probably the reasons are multiple. But it might be a good starting point to first set the cornerstones of theoretical dialogue since their work informs all levels of critical-artistic discourse: form, content and the materials used. In essence, their strength lies in having created a language of signs that is exceptionally actual, rooted in the urban dimension; one which grows in depth thanks to their origins, which express a strong cultural heritage. The signs that Emiliano Perino and Luca Vele create are based primarily on a great archaeological tradition and, more widely, on the cultural legacy of their place of origin, the Valle Caudina.

Even more interesting is their unique rediscovery in the practice of the contemporary visual art of papier-mâché, a typical material of popular craftsmanship, but one which they personally reworked to an entirely new chromatic intensity. This aspect is also contemporary, a daughter of the artificial consumer society. Similarly, at the content level, Perino and Vele take on original positions that have few points of contact with contemporary practises, or with previous generations. This work oscillates between a private dimension, symbolized in their classic design of the quilt (exclusively their own), and the public one, which references current events and recent history.

But this political dimension never takes on dramatic tones. If anything, this latter dimension is enclosed in moments of reflection even when it seems to launch an S.O.S. or simply shift the spotlight on a given topic. Alternating with this criticism is their register of irony, which is never feigned, but is simply their way of being in the world. This stance allows the duo to smartly combine the trophy animals with the laundry hanging on clotheslines, the work on CIA torture with the characteristic three-wheelers of southern Italy.

Their sharp and disenchanted eye, with which Perino and Vele observe both the reality that surrounds them as well as international scenarios, led them to reflect from their beginnings – when the word ‘crisis’ had not yet entered the daily news – on the contradictions and false promises of the society we currently find ourselves living in. The broken promises, the great Western phallocracy that allows Europe and the United States – realities light years apart from each other – to be united in a noun that never turned out to be so false: The West. With the benefit of hindsight, the only thing these two continents have in common is their claim to be the dominant force against the Other, African or Eastern or whomever that may be.

Western Promisesis a re-reading of all this work, an attempt to find a scarlet thread that runs through their different creative periods. Common elements to these works are the materials used, their views on society, the register adopted - both emotional and intellectual. Pelle d'elefante(1998) is the monumental work that Harald Szeemann sought for the XLVIII Venice Biennale: the habitable sculpture in the shape of an elephant skin made from papier-mâché and arranged like a carpet. Above the skin are positioned two iron armchairs that are anything but comfortable. The great dreams of opulence and well-being of the Western world are revealed here for what they are: false and uncomfortable promises based on oppression and cruelty. In this case, the sculpture not only becomes acute social reflection, losing its status as a fetish, a work of art that must be admired and collected. Instead Pelle d'elefante can beliterally trampled on by the visitor who becomes an active part of the process, precisely at that moment when they find themselves interacting with the work.

Common Places(2011) is a sculptural installation made of galvanized iron posts that recalls road signs, whose writings are made out of their signature papier-mâché sheets, containing symbols and parts of sentences addressing twelve key places and events. These signposts are reminders of very specific episodes that are etched in the collective memory of many Italians: the mystery of the DC-9 plane destroyed over the sky of Ustica, Berlusconi’s villa in Arcore, the Diaz school in Genoa where the police assaulted protesters during the G8 summit, the record win of Peschici in the lottery, the killing of the Italian judge Falcone who was ambushed in Capaci, the child who died in the well of Vermicino, Padre Pio di Pietrelcina, the Casalesi clan, the scandal of the Pio Albergo Trivulzio, the Corleone Mafia bosses, the Irpinia earthquake and the scandalous incinerator in Acerra. Common Placesis a sort of historical-political geography of Italy, imbued with a certain emotional element. But this facet is a component that should not be attributed to the artists but to the society that exposed these events and has kept the memory of these places alive still.

The same goes for Goodbye(2007), a papier-mâché sculpture reproducing an actual banner, tied with wire cords to the walls, bearing the words ‘Welcome to Italy’, riddled with bullet holes. This rendering conveys a touch of sarcasm, reminding us how violence and bloody events represent a characteristic element of recent history. It really is of no interest here to make a distinction between political guerrilla warfare and common crime.

One of their most famous series is dedicated to Elpìs, the Hope of Greek mythology, offered by Perino and Vele as an old amphorae of various shapes made from organic bitumen and covered with papier-mâché layers: archaeological artefacts of daily use, veiled in contemporary interpretations, mixing periods, symbols, identities and belonging.

Retracing the creative and artistic experience of Emiliano Perino and Luca Vele gives us the sense of a path that was solid and well-defined from the outset. The route taken by these two artists is immediately recognizable and adherent to the reality we find ourselves experiencing, expressed through an up-to-date language that never leans toward tinsel or strives for self-referential decoration. A universe of signs that we have learned to decipher and that, we assume, will take other, unexpected directions.