by Lorenzo Respi
But how many human minds are capable of resisting the slow, fierce, incessant, imperceptible force of penetration of common places?
(Primo Levi, La tregua)
Almost half a century has gone by and the answer, today, is a dramatically simple one: they are a minority. The hope pinned on the advance of civilization, undermined by the tragedy of the world war and racial hatred, has foundered pitifully in the torpor of 'human minds', which have been trained to accept repeated opinions, common places, as incontestable truths. Aristotele had defined as τοποι the principles from which arguments and dialectical syllogisms are derived and which consist in commonly accepted statements given validity by the authority of the person who has made them. The critical faculty of each of us is weakened by persuasive use of the word and the message. The information that we receive is partial and biased because it is selected a priori at the discretion of its source. This straining of communication, characteristic of the mass media, deliberately conceals some 'awkward' aspects of reality, precluding knowledge of the fact itself in its complexity. As a result a pre-packaged reality is spread to the benefit of those who have formulated it and is passively accepted as the only one possible. In this system of communication it is impossible to resist the 'penetration of common places'.
But if we go back to look at the semantic sense of the expression common place, we will find that the bases for a possible alternative are implicit in the meaning of the two words. In fact their combination defines a physical or mental space, circumscribed within defined and recognizable boundaries, in which collective intentions are at work that are committed to attaining a shared and universal objective. Here ideas circulate, opinions are exchanged and pluralism is guaranteed. Well it is precisely in this place that the minority to which Primo Levi was speaking puts up its resistance.
Thanks to the coherence and sensitivity of their work, Perino & Vele participate by rights in this sense of common place, tracing in the history of Italian sculpture an nonconformist and highly critical attitude towards current events. For sculpture to be truly 'contemporary' today, it has to make itself the voice of its own time, contributing with an original and modern language to the interpretation of evolving complex phenomena and denouncing the contradictions, violence and hypocrisy that result in uncivilized behaviour. Like any other medium, sculpture conveys a message through its material and through its plastic structure, or form. Perino & Vele model papier-mâché into forms that allude to news items, burning themes of social denunciation and the distortion of reality carried out by the mass media, i.e. by the main tools used to construct uncritical common places.
In 2006 the journalist Pino Corrias published Luoghi comuni. Dal Vajont a Arcore, la geografia che ha cambiato l'Italia ('Common Places. From Vajont to Arcore, the Geography that Has Changed Italy'), ten reportages motivated by a sense of civil passion on events that have taken place in the country since the Second World War, collective dramas of violence cloaked in mystery that have inflicted deep wounds on the history of our democracy. 'Certain landscapes', writes Pino Corrias, 'contain people and circumstances that have changed our history and for this reason belong to us. Their sequence has no precise order, apart from the one assigned by time. Time passes, blurs and erases. Writing stops time, brings memory into line, puts places in print.' They are stories of blood, cruelty, cynicism and squalor which lead to that common place, a safe refuge for the non-aligned minority with faith in the future: 'Federico Fellini's Teatro 5, at Cinecittà, which is a homage to his dreams and ours.'1 A point on a map becomes the pretext to tell a story.
Perino & Vele have grasped the suggestive value of the symbolic place and transferred into their sculptures the communicative potential of the narrative space, with the declared intention of presenting an original and evocative interpretation of contemporaneity through art. It is no coincidence that this important anthological exhibition is entitled Luoghi Comuni, 'Common Places': the physical space of the museum has been transformed into a great narrative container, a modern common place of comparison and reflection for the minority that will experience it, to be explored following the plot 'written' by the layout of the exhibition, which guides visitors on their discovery of the themes of denunciation of the works on display. Over seventeen years of artistic partnership Perino & Vele have consistently tackled social and civil, political and military, environmental and biogenetic themes which are little discussed or about which little is said. Objects of everyday use, vehicles, road signs, crush barriers and animals become the pretext for focusing attention on events that have been deliberately covered up and for criticizing harshly violence in all its forms, from the private or public to the political and military. The facts and the people, methodically removed from collective memory, re-emerge from the wrinkles of the papier-mâché, obtained by soaking and kneading the pages of the very newspapers and magazines that reported the events. Each sculpture bears witness to a moment in our history, marking a coordinate on the map of the exhibition at the Fondazione Arnaldo Pomodoro and documenting the successive stages in the evolution of the artistic thinking of Perino & Vele.
And even more: Common Places (2011) is also the title of the work specially made for the show in Milan, fixing an important goal for the two artists: in fact an awareness has developed that what they are expressing is a provocative and unconventional judgement of reality, asserted in accordance with the principle of freedom of expression that is inescapable for the preservation of the tradition of memory through the language they find most congenial, that of sculpture. To paraphrase Zygmunt Bauman, we can argue that Perino & Vele have overcome the limits imposed by the post-modern avant-garde, its moral disengagement and its lack of interest in the past, demonstrating that it is possible to 'use the art form as protest, both against the artistic establishment and—more ambitiously—against the society that isolated artistic work from any relationship with the other spheres of social life'.2
At the entrance of the exhibition three galvanized iron posts, crammed with road signs made of papier-mâché, greet and disorient visitors, inviting them to go in opposite directions in order to reach a full understanding of the events indicated on the arrows. Twelve common places that have left deep marks on the history of our country: the villa at Arcore, the record lottery win at Peschici, the bombs at Capaci, the mystery of the DC-9 in the sky over Ustica, the dramatic night at Vermicino, the earthquake in Irpinia, the saint of Pietrelcina, the Casalesi clan, the inquiry into the waste-to-energy plant at Acerra, the Mafia bosses of the Corleonesi clan, the scandal of the Pio Albergo Trivulzio and the events at the G8 in Genoa and the Diaz School. The dreams of Italians (power, money and popularity) intersect with state-organized killings, political corruption is intertwined with Mafia violence, social dramas collide with faith. It is a sculpture to be read, a mental map to be explored, like Pino Corrias's book of the same name: Perino & Vele want the viewer to linger and observe the work in order to decipher its message. Partially legible inscriptions celebrate vicissitudes of the collective imagination with slogans; large black Xs signal the danger of a 'Harmful/Irritant Substance', command 'Stop!'. Think! Sheets of yellow papier-mâché resembling enormous Post-its are piled up and overlaid in a chaotic visual mixture that recalls the layers of indiscriminate and unauthorized billposting in the daily urban experience. Perino & Vele explain: 'Espousing the theory that the poster is often an element characteristic of the country and the society that creates it, we start out from those posters of popular protest handwritten one by one that, repeatedly and continually breaking the rules on fly-posting and advertising, especially during electoral campaigns, end up covering rubbish skips, rolling shutters, road signs and more. We develop this strange way of acting, a thought taken to excess, almost awkward and unregulated. Common Places is an installation in pastel papier-mâché and galvanized iron, marked by fixed routes on which the informative prerequisite is provided by road signs and crush barriers that indicate and delimit places on the map of Italy and the world that are now part of our collective imagination.' Respecting the rules is the first step towards a more civilized communal life without abuse of power or violence.
The thought is taken further in Help?? (2011), the other sculpture never shown previously that stands alongside Common Places in this space of introduction to the exhibition. The title is a cry for assistance, for everyone to work together to oppose the violence of war. A series of galvanized-iron crush barriers, similar to the ones used to contain crowds at demonstrations, bounds an enclosed circular space which it is impossible to enter. The technical function of these barriers is symbolically turned on its head: people are not kept 'in' to make them easier to control, but kept 'out' to stimulate them to exercise their right to expression and to formulate a personal opinion free of conditionings. On the barrier are stuck giant maps of the world on which regions that are hotbeds of violence and terror are marked with the recurrent symbol of 'Harmful/Irritant Substance'. Once again the interpretation of the map of the world is complicated by the action, the artistic blitz, of Perino & Vele, who superimpose the continents in a sort of geopolitical jigsaw puzzle through the practice of unauthorized billposting, displacing the nations for ideological reasons and camouflaging the regions in a superfluity of Cartesian coordinates. The message is clear: don't let yourselves be infected by the inflammatory state of the warmonger. 'The best revenge', wrote Marcus Aurelius (emperor, 161-80 AD), 'is not to be like your enemy'.3
The metaphorical representation of the present condition of the nation, and of a world, that has to deal with a turbulent political system and a strife-torn social fabric is completed by the sarcastic Goodbye (2007), a banner declaring 'Welcome to Italy' riddled with small-arms fire. The greeting offered to the foreign tourist is contradicted by the intimidatory warning of the bullet holes. It is an installation that provokes a bitter smile, like the farcical Matamore in Pierre Corneille's L'Illusion Comique.4
In the works of Perino & Vele time is an essential component in both the realization of the work and its comprehension.
From the technical viewpoint the production of papier-mâché is a long and complicated process that entails steps which require a fixed length of time and great skill in the mixing of paper, glue and dyes, in the modelling of the paste and in the drying of the sheets. The quality of the papier-mâché, made by hand in the studio, ensure that the material attains its full expressive potential, making a decisive contribution to the final effect of the work. For Perino & Vele papier-mâché is not just a material used in sculpture, but an expressive language in its own right. In demonstration of this, it suffices to point out that in the captions of many works, in addition to the generic medium of 'papier-mâché', the names of the newspapers utilized are specified, as the choice of the paper is not only an aesthetic or practical matter, related to its colour (pink La Gazzetta dello Sport, beige Il Sole 24 Ore, yellow ItaliaOggi, grey Il Corriere della Sera), but also a cultural choice determined by the contents of the publication (La Repubblica, Il Mattino, bricabrac). In this first phase of conception, two temporal components overlap: the concrete time of production and the abstract time of narration. When the sculpture is finished, ready to be shown to the public, two new levels of time are added that no longer act on the work but on the viewer: present time, needed for understanding hic et nunc; past time, to be retraced back to the source of inspiration, to the event, to the motive sparking off the reflection. Private memory and collective memory meet on the same terrain, that of artistic creation, which focuses its attention on contemporary history, proposing a critical and mindful interpretation of it. Perino & Vele's sculptures require time to be understood. They are not immediately comprehensible because they spurn banality. At times they appear difficult and obscure, almost refractory to aesthetic common sense, or even superficial: but it is sufficient to play the game in order to discover their strong civil engagement. Just as in a game of poker it is necessary to be able to read the signs of your opponents if you want to clean them out, with such complex sculptures you have to be able to read the stylistic clues in order to grasp the sense of their denunciation: the forms and the colours, the slogans and the titles, the positions and the spatial relationships.
The artistic partnership between Emiliano Perino and Luca Vele was formed in 1994 and over a period of seventeen years has developed with coherence and ever greater consciousness into a sculpture of a militant character that is putting up a resistance to the standardization of youthful artistic languages. Social and environmental engagement, condemnation of violence in all its forms and cynical sarcasm are themes that emerged clearly from their very first sculptures dating from the end of the nineties.
In 1999 Harald Szeemann invited Perino & Vele to take part in the 48th Venice Biennale, where the very young artists showed Pelle d'Elefante (Elephant Skin, 1998), an accessible installation on a large scale. The effect was absolutely alienating: a mock elephant hide made of papier-mâché was laid on the ground and embellished with jarring and severe armchairs of rusty iron, as if to reconstruct a slick aristocratic drawing room. The visitors could walk around freely on the sculpture, violating the value of the object of art as a fetish, and sit down on the hard and uncomfortable chairs. By involving viewers actively in the life of the work, Perino & Vele aimed to encourage them to reflect on the significance of the sensorial experience: the emptiness caused by the death and desecration authorized by a society indifferent to violence, that sits down unconcerned to enjoy the spectacle of what is going on around it.
The sociological interest in the individual, seen as a person free to act in society and to express himself according to his own aspirations, that polemically inspired Perino & Vele's sculptures of those years appears prophetic today. Social immobility, the lack of prospects for the young and the decline in civil and moral values make civil coexistence difficult and favour alienation and the recourse to extreme acts. Processes of evolution 'in harmony with nature' clash repeatedly with the trappings of modern society in an obsessive dialectic of oppression that will in any case find its resolution in the mortal destiny of the human being.
The fate of the newborn Height 190, Blond Hair, Blue Eyes, Profession Engineer (1998) is already sealed. Even before being able to exercise his free will to decide his own future, he is encouraged to follow the simplest road to guarantee a life of reliable certainties. Unfortunately the dream is shattered. in 2006 Aldo Nove published a book entitled 'My Name is Roberta, I'm 40 Years Old, I Earn 250 Euros a Month...',5 a collection of interviews with young workers on short-term contracts—the title has a similar ring to that of the sculpture—testifying to the defeats and vain hopes of a lost generation. But in the sculpture's title lurks something even more disquieting, the spectre of genetic engineering applied to the human being: selecting genes at the cellular level to decide the physical characteristics of the unborn child. Over the course of history medical experiments on human beings have been ordered and conducted in the name of evolutionary science and eugenics, causing the death of thousands of people. Also predestined, however, was that crazy suicide of 'Nineteen Forty-Five' (2006) which, abandoning the baggage of life, set off on the last journey. An unforgettable line of the Neapolitan actor Totò springs to mind: 'You know what death is?... It's a level'.6 In the tomb we are all equal, in life each of us is responsible for his own destiny. Paradoxical and grotesque is the real advert For Sale Living Room Kitchen Bathroom Bed-sit with Panoramic View £ 4.5 Million (1998), to which Perino & Vele have given the form of a life-size rusty iron sofa whose seats have been replaced by two comfortable quilted sinks (synecdoche for the bathroom and kitchen) in which a goldfish swims, prisoner of its circumstances (metaphor for the tenant). But here is the biting antidote: the privilege, costly but justified, of a panoramic view! In the year that marks the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, it is perhaps instructive to read articles 3 and 4 of the 'Fundamental Principles' of the country's constitution, which may help us to reflect seriously on the value of Perino & Vele's provocations: 'It is the duty of the Republic to remove those obstacles of an economic or social nature which constrain the freedom and equality of citizens, thereby impeding the full development of the human person and the effective participation of all workers in the political, economic and social organization of the country [...]. Every citizen has the duty, according to personal potential and individual choice, to perform an activity or a function that contributes to the material or spiritual progress of society'.7
The Neapolitan duo forcefully confront us with the contradictions of the contemporary age, with the economic and political imbalances of the world, with the anomaly of militarism. The bullet holes in objects and walls, the devitalized skin of animals and the demagogic aggressiveness of slogans contaminate the papier-mâché surfaces like viruses and inexorably corrode the galvanized iron. The symptoms of violence arouse the indignation of viewers and stimulate them to react to the widespread condition of barbarism. Humankind is the source of inspiration, because it determines with its actions the causes and effects of the events in which it is involved. On the one hand Perino & Vele translate fragments of reality into the form of sculpture, on the other they transliterate texts and slogans into figurative icons of modernity. The physicality of the human body is absent, invisible, surviving only indirectly in its actions and in the recesses of language.
In the last few years the artists' attention has focused on the condemnation of war as an accepted means of exporting democracy. In the section that brings the exhibition to a close are presented recent sculptures that illustrate the evolution of this thinking. The display takes the form of a deliberately 'interactive' environment that simultaneously involves all of the visitor's five senses in a direct experience of the material and its message: a narrow corridor, unexpected noises, unpleasant smells, obsessive movements and a fiery light. It makes us uneasy in order to put us on our guard against the risks of violence. It stirs our awareness in order to trigger a reaction of opposition.
We are immediately obliged to pass through KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation (2004) in order to gain access to this emotional space. KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation (June 1963) is a manual on techniques of interrogation of hostile sources of military derivation produced for officials and agents of the CIA. The word KUBARK was a cryptonym for the CIA itself. The text was kept secret until January 1997, when it was declassified by the NSA (National Security Agency). The accessible installation, made up of long pointed spears on which are skewered the papier-mâché pages of the manual of torture, is squeezed between two high walls that excite an emotional state of oppression and imposition. The manual states that the interrogator can use coercive methods, manipulating the environment of the hostile subject and altering his perception of time and space in order to create an unbearable situation helpful in extracting confidential information. The installation was created during the years of the war in Iraq.
Emerging from the corridor, we enter a large room, where we are greeted by Dick (2004), at first sight a common camel. A noisy blender sprays pieces of paper onto the papier-mâché coat of a camel, emblem of Arab civilization and culture. The animal's shape is continually modified by the successive layers and constant accumulation of bits of pulverized paper. The atmosphere is rendered hostile by the pungent smell of the paper and the noise of the blender, Perino & Vele's work tool, which obsessively minces the pages of the KUBARK, ideally cancelling out the ignoble clash of civilizations between West and East. The visitor becomes witness to and protagonist of the creative process, which in that very moment is about to repeat itself and which the artists intend as a condemnation of the folly of war between two age-old cultures. Perino & Vele teach us that the peaceful coexistence of peoples is the basis of the cultural progress of humanity, which attains its highest expressive potentialities in differences.
Dying on a gridiron, B-2 Spirit (2005) has only apparently the semblance of an enormous black bat. In reality the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit is an American strategic bomber capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. Stealth technology allows the craft to penetrate enemy defences without being picked up by radar. Its biomorphic form, dark colour and sophisticated radar make it resemble the bat, an animal that specializes in flying by night and hunting in silence. It is the most expensive aeroplane ever built: the average cost per unit was estimated at over 1 billion in today's dollars. Currently twenty-one B-2 Spirit bombers are in service with the American air force. Here it has crashed, shot down; the complement of weapons burns, the pilots die, billions of dollars go up in smoke. The question comes naturally: what sense does all this have? None.
But violence has not died down, it goes on. It corrodes words and spreads through intimidatory and racist statements. One wall is taken up by the installation Silvio Berlusconi vs. Vladimir Putin, Carol Wojtyla vs. George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden vs. Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Achille Bonito Oliva vs. Mary Carey, Neil Young vs. Deng Xiaoping (2008): a series of five advertisements, similar to the ones we see every day in the street, bear slogans and amusing or absurd messages from figures of the cultural and political world. This is how the great of the planet express their personal opinion of their political opponents: 'Rise again, Italy!' (Silvio Berlusconi), 'We'll wipe the Chechen out in the shithouse' (Vladimir Putin), 'Stay the course' (George W. Bush), 'There are no taxes in Islam but rather there is a limited Zakaat totalling 2.5 percent' (Osama bin Laden), 'Israel must be wiped off the map' (Mahmud Ahmadinejad), 'First at all get rich' (Deng Xiaoping). The posters occupy a place, the museum, not intended to house them, contributing to the idea of the defacement caused by the unauthorized posting of advertising and propaganda material.
Perino & Vele sound the alarm about the dangers of the abuse of power and hatred between peoples. Untitled (Map of the World) (2006) collects in a quilted sack nailed to the wall what remains of a world wounded by firearms.
A subtle thread links the last works in the exhibition: the testing of weapons. Animals of small and large size reappear, but once again there are no human figures.
In ALF (2005), a forklift truck without a driver tries to snatch a camel from the fate of certain death before it becomes a guinea pig of military experimentation. The title ALF is the acronym of the Animal Liberation Front, an organization founded in England in 1976 with the aim of 'deliberately causing financial loss to those who are considered guilty of exploiting animals, usually through the damage and destruction of property'. Perino & Vele openly side with those who are acting to put a stop to the pointless massacre of living creatures in the name of security. We linger to look at two small pieces of cloth that cover other victims of ballistics and chemical warfare: a crab (from Porton Down, 2005) and a snake (Snake I Love You, 2008).
The installation from Porton Down (2005) is complex and articulated. Porton Down is a top-secret military research facility, set up in Wiltshire in 1915 by the British government. Its remit is to study the effects of chemical warfare and biological weapons. The experimental laboratories use animals (sheep, goats, mice, rats, guinea-pigs, monkeys, dogs, cats) raised on a special farm to measure the lethal potential of chemical and biological weapons or to test the efficacy of antidotes to them. Some animals are subjected to explosions and conventional small arms fire. The use of human volunteers in the testing phase is provided for in the research protocols.
Perino & Vele have made the small amount of information available on the farm of horrors the thematic starting-point for the creation of a highly symbolic and empathetic installation, capable of impressing and disturbing visitors with sudden noises and automatic movements. Undergoing the experience at firsthand undoubtedly makes it easier for them to understand the macabre experiment and to awaken public opinion to the futility of such practices. They walk between Giovanni, Mimmo, Ciro, Francesco, Alessandro, Nicola, Giuseppe, Paolo, Mario (2006), nine coloured blankets personalized with common names and hung on steel wires, deceived into thinking themselves at the entrance to a welcoming place. Instead comes the discovery: the people's names are actually the nicknames given to animals tortured in the tests.
The atmosphere changes suddenly and the passage through the next environment deepens the feelings of unease. Without realizing it visitors find themselves in the path of the shots at the time of the ballistic experiment. Behind them a Rolling Shutter (2006), the secret entrance to the military laboratory, rises and falls rhythmically, reproducing the dull boom of a bullet; in front of them is Pig (2006), a small pot-bellied pig mounted on two spears and riddled with bullets, covered by a quilt that hides the carnage. Analyzing the work more closely, we see that Pig represents in three dimensions the information contained in the report The Military's War on Animals by the American association PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
The viewer's position is not accidental. It is prearranged by Perino & Vele. Unexpectedly the human being might find himself an actor on the stage and in the lethal trajectory of a bullet. It is a severe warning, harshly condemning the use of firearms and landmines. And for the last time the warning takes the form of a sculpture. Mina (1997) is an empty mattress, with the impression of a human body on it and two crutches propped against the wall next to it. It is intimate in its harrowing pain, spine-chilling in its crude realism, essential in its composed dignity. Silent. But it says a great deal about the profound meaning that Perino & Vele give to life and to sculpture.
In an age of common places, of shouted slogans and the triumph of 'appearing', art has to go back to 'being'. The road to follow is that of the return to an autonomy of language, able to communicate and interpret the complexity of the present with its own expressive syntax. Art has to convey values and ideas, spurn standardization and banality, express a critical view of contemporaneity. Only by opening itself up to the whole of society and encouraging dialogue between the social parties will it contribute to increasing the number of 'human minds capable of resisting the slow, fierce, incessant, imperceptible force of penetration of common places'.