Handle with care

by Lorenzo Respi

To better understand the poetic in the work of Perino & Vele we must use one of the fundamental concepts of critical analysis. Not only will it be at the base of this writing, but it is also the main inspiration and working material of the works created by these artists from Campania. Specifically, I am referring to ‘the word’. Oral or written, shouted or translated, confessed or denied, given or taken back, the word is the most ancient and spontaneous form of communication, because it is immediate and accessible, it adapts to circumstances and evolves over history, it remembers and forgets. Precisely because of its flexibility, over time the word has become a very powerful and dangerous instrument of communication for the masses: though adhering strictly to grammatical and syntactic rules of a language, it always and everywhere expresses man’s thought and this can be translated into act or behaviour and thus intervene to modify the reality in which we live. The entity of a word’s impact on human actions depends on the quality of the formulated concepts and the way in which they are expressed. In this almost obligatory passage from thought to action, if the contents are inappropriate, the consequent actions can be extremely damaging for an individual’s life and civil society. We can deduce that the word and its message must accept much of the responsibility for the degeneration in today’s communication system, independently of the type of media used in spreading it. Printed or verbal, over the airwaves or digital, across the web or the social networks, vulgar and violent language has become a widespread practice, accepted and tacitly shared, to state one’s thoughts, which are often debatable and superficial. In fact we live in a society of storytellers and salespersons, narcissists and conceits, opinion makers and technicians, liars and megalomaniacs, all of which assume they protected by their right of free speech have the right to express an opinion on any issue. There would be no reason to object to free speech, if on television or at political debates one could listen to speeches by intellectuals, thinkers and pacifists. Today however the political stage is occupied by showmen, sportsmen, delinquents and troublemakers that only know how to communicate with slogans and insults, ads and clichés or by giving us numbers and percentages.

Twenty years ago, at the beginning of their artistic career, Perino & Vele became aware of the hidden risks in the media short circuit and they decided to study the mechanisms that fed it. They set out to look for a possible alternative communication using the language of art. They watched the seemingly uncontrolled proliferation of electoral campaign posters in the cities, looked through newspapers and read contradictory headlines referring to the same news item, listened to the comments of the guests on the radio and the "calls from listeners", watched junk TV and the talk shows, navigated the web among information and counter-information sites, used social networks and discussion platforms. They realised that something was not working anymore. The communication had become a powerful weapon of mass "distraction". And they reacted immediately. They started to reason on active and passive communication strategies with the aim of thoroughly understanding the dynamics used in communicating news, information and opinions and the relation between real facts and their interpretation. A significant intellectual effort becomes a practical act, or in other words their way of understanding and doing art: in their art they use the same mechanisms of communication to unmask tricks and deceptions. To Emiliano and Luca the word is form and substance, material and thought, style and language. Present in their work from the beginning, the word is visible or latent, written or thought. Every sculpture is mute, but in its silence it has much to say about what happens around it. It is an exercise which is critical of and autonomous of society, of current events and of the system of contemporary art. It is a concrete action to intervene on reality. It is everything that a correct communication should be, but that today it is not. In their essentiality, the works of Emiliano and Luca are neither banal nor superficial, and often they pay the price of careless analysis making them too difficult to understand. The duo from Campania invented an original and immediately recognisable language that, though it always uses papier-mâché, it takes on new aspects and evolves over time adapting itself to the changed and changing needs of communication. Thoughts have matured, subjects have changed, new materials have been added, but the sarcasm, the polemic vein and the ethical sense have remained unaltered, only the form has changed. To reach their objective they materially destroy information, they shred the printed word of newspapers and magazines. They void the message, de facto annulling communication. Then they knead, recompose and model the shredded paper, giving information an unusual form: sculpture. In this way they reveal the contradictions and violence of the word and openly declare their thought. Papier-mâché is the corporal state of the word with its physicality it holds the work and its content up statically and it becomes the uncorrupted support for new writing. The sheets of papier-mâché and the textured grills are covered with allusive writing and symbols of danger that warn the observer or stimulate him/her to reflect. Perino & Vele have given life to a system of participated communication: artist-work-observer, in which the spectator has an active role in the process of affirming the meaning of the work and of its success in the media. The idea of "Handle with care" came from and has developed from these premises, the first solo exhibition in the rooms of Anna Marra Contemporanea.

"Handle with care" is not only an explicit reference to the intrinsic fragility of papier-mâché, but above all it is a warning to the public, a warning not look at the works of Campania duo superficially, an exhortation to go beyond the material and the technique to reflect on the deeper sense of this mixture of media. From the fragility of papier-mâché – and from the awareness they themselves are fragile – Perino & Vele set out to reconstruct a different but still possible reality. Laid out in thin colourful sheets, kneaded into checkered quilts or coated in resin making them immune to the weather, the papier-mâché constructs shapes and condenses meanings, dialogues with the spectator using the spontaneity of the visual language, to communicate a new message, the artists’ points of view on society and our times.

The installation "Public Invasion" (2009), tells of the incursion of art into the urban space, the symbolic appropriation of a public place forced to close because of act of intimidation by the camorra. A shop’s rolling shutter riddled by bullets is lowered and rusting; above it we find an "artistic" message of 19 grey sheets of papier-mâché that illegally cover the entrance. There is still a sign of the intimidation on the sheets and on the wall – the holes left by the shots –, while in this forgotten corner of the city the passage of time restores all to nature – to the prickly pear, so typical of the Mediterranean. Perino & Vele make fun of the heaviness of the sculpture, transforming it into lightness, ironizing on the recognisability of everyday objects and astutely revealing the contradictions and violence of contemporary society. Though apparently innocuous and reassuring because of the familiarity of the objects which are represented, "Public Invasion" is to be treated with caution because it speaks about organised crime and extortion, social plagues both present and widespread over the Italy and difficult to oppose without risking one’s own life. Not until the posters are removed and the rolling shutter is raised, will we be able to say that justice has been done. Rather the opposite is "Business is Business" (2012), the end justifies the means. Dirty jobs are done with violence, blackmail, fraud, corruption, tax evasion… Perino & Vele condemn mafia-like behaviours, but at the same time they put us on our guard against a sneakier and more dangerous power held by bankers without scruples and unprincipled financial speculators as they connive with the political system. They have not even held back a polemical attack against the very powerful economic lobbies that hold sovereign states in their power and decide the fate of international politics. Business is made to look like a prickly pear, a plant already used in Emiliano and Luca’s imaginary, with its tough skin and pointed thorns, resistant to torrid heat and a lack of water. Can we escape? Is there an alternative? Perhaps yes. If Perino & Vele’s prickly pear loses its thorns and becomes harmless; someone has attached coloured posters to it with a framed black X used to indicate harmful products. The symbol of danger identifies "substances dangerous if inhaled, swallowed or if they come in contact with the skin. Occasional, repeated or prolonged exposure to them can produce irreversible effects if they are not handled with care." Perino & Vele are convinced that with a good dose of professional ethics and more respect for human dignity it is possible to give a new base to social relations and to live together peacfully. The responsibility for a positive outcome is on the shoulders of each and all of us. The path to be travelled is long and strewn with obstacles, the signs of these difficulties are found on the surfaces of the bullet riddled sculptures, indicated by repeated signals of danger and bristling with pointed thorns which warn us Do not touch.
You have to be careful not to trip. "Tripping Hazard" (2012), repeats this obsessively. This installation composed of four coloured and designed sheets of papier-mâché, spread around the walls of the gallery and surrounded in a wooden-glass frame. The hanging of illegal or spontaneous posters, electoral or protest is normalized and "museumised" in a protective box to preserve it from deterioration and hand it on to future generations, as if it were a recognised masterpiece. This subtle stratagem forces the observer to stop for more time in front of the work and to find the necessary time to look at it and understand the message. In "Tripping Hazard" the artist-work-observer participated communication system mentioned above is activated. Observing the panels carefully, one reads fragments of slogans, racial insults and camouflaged "stock phrases" among the folds of the checkered quilting. The words tease the observer’s curiosity making her/him want know the original quotes and to discover Perino & Vele’s judgment. The two artists fling in the visitor’s face the savage vulgarity of the words and abysmal ignorance of any who dare think, pronounce and share such stupid biases: Italian men are all mamas’ boys, All Romanians are rapists, Chinese children all look the same and In America kids go to school with guns. These phrases, do all come from the mass communication system, they are self-explanatory and contribute to the feeding of racial hatred. The critical intervention of Emiliano and Luca is limited to attaching to each the symbol indicating it as a Tripping Hazard to stress that if we fall into these idiocies, we will never manage to live cultural diversity as a common heritage and a reciprocal enrichment.
"Luoghi comuni (Common Places)" (2011) are also obstacles to be removed along our path toward a more equitable society with more solidarity among its members, facts and words repeated, commonly accepted and made valid – and thus considered real – by the authoritativeness of their sources and by habit. This is the case of the inconvenient memories of the "mysteries of Italy", which have been intentionally left unresolved, and of the memory of the dramatic happenings that have brought Italians together in the most difficult moments in its recent past. "Luoghi comuni" looks like an foldable easel to hold prints that are printed on both sides or of a mobile sign to indicate Slippery floor, danger of falling. Here again the sculpture is covered with partial writings and danger signs. The sheets of papier-mâché applied of opposite sides testify to two absurd deaths: the massacre of Capaci on 23 May 1992 when the anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was assassinated and the accident at Vermicino on 11 June 1981 when the little Alfredino Rampi lost his life. These tragedies were both given ample live TV coverage and entered into Italy’s collective psyche. The choice of these two episodes is not casual: Perino & Vele are convinced that it is still possible to report the news and give information without concealing the reality of the facts, without anesthetizing public opinion and without distracting attention from inconvenient truths.

As we observe the new works Perino & Vele created for Anna Marra Contemporanea we note a subtle but decided change compared to their art of the last twenty years. A silent conceptual revolution has been born in the expressive language of the duo from Campania. Though maintaining the unique style which they have made theirs they have modified their approach. Emiliano and Luca seem recently to have become aware of their responsibility of creating art with the objective of a social and civil commitment that demands a closer and more intimate relationship with their audience. They have realised that the systematic distortion applied by mass media has distanced the work of art from the public, with a de facto interruption of a free dialogue with the artist. The reaction by Perino & Vele to this anomaly of the system is to move their public closer to them, gathering into their creative universe new and more intimate and introspective works. Perino & Vele have always sought outside themselves for a creative pretext to produce works that denounce and communicate their thought. Now the moment has come to look within themselves, into their experience and acquired maturity for the inspiration principle and original thought that gives form to their sculpture. In a period of verbal violence and screams of abuse, silence and reflection are rare and precious qualities that characterise those who really do have something to say, as for example Emiliano and Luca. Maintaining their own identities in the syntax of papier-mâché, yet again the two artists have managed to renew their expressive grammar: no longer a "destructive" technique, but "constructive" material to create a better future, of hope. It is precisely from the feeling of hope that the site specific installation "Grande Elpís" or rather "Great Hope" (from ελπίς, "hope" in classical Greek) draws its name. The choice shows clearly the new path that Perino & Vele’s art has taken. This turn in their artistic careers is still fragile, it must be treated carefully. Thus the fragility of hope, of the new creative path – leading where they are still unsure – and of the material papier-mâché takes the shape of a vase, a "fragile" symbol of a Golden Age now lost, outside time, an ideal model to which to aspire.

But with her hands [Pandora] raised the jar's great lid,
released all these, devising grievous cares for men.
Alone there, hope in her indestructible home,
remained within, beneath the lip, nor by the door
escaped, because the vessel's lid had stopped her first,
by will of aegis-bearing, cloud-compelling Zeus.

Ἀλλὰ γυνὴ χείρεσσι πίθου μέγα πῶμ᾽ ἀφελοῦσα
ἐσκέδασ᾽, ἀνθρώποισι δ᾽ ἐμήσατο κήδεα λυγρά.
μούνη δ᾽ αὐτόθι Ἐλπὶς ἐν ἀρρήκτοισι δόμοισιν
ἔνδον ἔμεινε πίθου ὑπὸ χείλεσιν οὐδὲ θύραζε
ἐξέπτη πρόσθεν γὰρ ἐπέμβαλε πῶμα πίθοιο
αἰγιόχου βουλῆισι Διὸς νεφεληγερέταο. (note1)

The installation "Grande Elpís" (2014) is composed of one large vase in precarious equilibrium and by four other vases arranged along the wall. The central vase is surrounded by a disorderly pile of sheets of coloured papier-mâché and is inspired by the esthetic and human fragility of Alberto Giocometti’s filiform figures. The disproportionate dimensions of the object compared to man declare the impermanence of human beings and his impotence versus his fate. The four vases that surround it have the forms of classical ceramics; they are familiar containers though at the same time they testify to a horror vacui. The disorderly pile of sheets, one on top of the other, create a geometric composition of overlapping bands, whose decorative rhythm reminds us of the geometric style in Attic pottery. Though the vaguely archeological flavour of the amphorae transmits a feeling of veiled melancholy, in reality the warm colours of the sheets of papier-mâché frees Hope who is imprisoned within the vases, now open, leaving space for sincere optimism about a future which is still possible.

Perino & Vele fix in the memory of the material what has up till today been their story, to put order back into the violent drifting of contemporary society. The vulgar phrases and danger symbols no longer appear in the sheets, finally silence has descended on art and nothing remains but the thoughts – without words – of Emiliano and Luca, that speak to any who look into the profound darkness of "Grande Elpís".

Lorenzo Respi

Hesiod, Works and Days (Ἔργα καὶ ἡμέραι), vv. 94-99.