by Manon Slome
M: This may seem like an odd way to begin, but yesterday
I went to see the Cristo Velato at the Sansevero Chapel. Are you
familiar with this sculpture? It is an incredible work, a magical transformation of marble into something like love, that defies the senses. It made me think that the tradition of breathing life into materials like this, this turning of stone into flesh, the transparency and fluidity given to stone, is not part of the practice of sculpture today.
Looking at your work again in the light of this experience of the veiled Christ, I was struck by how you are able to take a very humble material – the papier-mâché which is the basic building block of your
work- and breathe life into it. You have managed to invoke a sense of pathos and physical pain into inert material. So my first
question is, do you see yourselves, growing up in Naples,
in Italy, as coming from this sacred and long tradition?
P&V: Well, we know that statue and we understand your concept. We are, of course, artists from Italy and that tradition is strong in us, deep in our veins. Our sculptures are monumental but we use a material that is much more ephemeral than marble. At the beginning of our career, our challenge was to find a more affordable substitute for the traditional materials of sculpture. But back then, we tried to find ways to mask our material and obtain the same effects as bronze or marble. We felt we needed to hide the fact that we used paper because of its undeniable folk-loric connotations. Here the craftsmen use papier-mâché to make the figurines for the Nativity scenes. We considered ourselves as sculptors and wanted to be seen in that same serious light. But we gradually came to understand that we were wrong and stopped trying to conceal our materials. We saw their was a terrific potential in the papier-mâché and that we could create the same plasticity, chiaroscuro, the same nuances that could be achieved with, say, marble.
M: The slumped angel, which you call, Michelangelo is of course relevant to my first observation.
P&V The Michelangelo was a very special piece for us as it was the only time we have taken inspiration from something that was sacred. It is an angel at rest.
M: Absolutely, and you did call it Michelangelo and placed it in a church.
P&V: We made Michelangelo for an exhibition on angels in a church, but now the sculpture is in a private collection in Chicago. We actually played with the title: Michael and Angelo are
very common Italian names and Michelango is also the name of an important angel – we like that double play.
M: I must admit, I also read the image of B-2 Spirit … as a wing, a remnant of a shattered sculpture of an angel.
P&V: It’s a bat, with outstretched wings! But we were also thinking of the Stealth Bomber that flew over Italy during the war. So the piece can also be seen as the wing of an aircraft. The two ideas fuse together in the exploitation and torture of animals to test the effects of arms, weapons, gas etc.
M: So your work very much springs from a narrative, from what you read or see in the media? And, of course, the source of your papier-mâché is newsprint.
P&V: We often do begin with narrative. We want to tell our audiences something, not speak about ourselves. Newspapers, for instance, bring us daily information about our world – in a two dimensional form. We transform the news from two dimensions into three. Newspapers are daily, ephemeral – they last 24 hours. With our work, we freeze the information. The information we present can be real or parallel to reality but it can also be a way to upset the status quo. But to go back to your idea of pathos – We think that probably more pathos can be seen in the work we are doing now with animals, which mean a great deal to us. Maybe that is why our more recent works are more dramatic - in the past we were more ironic than we are now – but tomorrow we may change again.
In the very beginning we used any kind of trivial information – like
flyers or sport pages but we have become much more serious about what we select to make the work from. But this may change in time, too!
M: Last time we met, you spoke about newspapers in the sense of the suppression of information, rather than its dissemination. I want
to connect this notion of the suppression of information to a sense
that I get, particularly in your two dimensional work – how do you refer to the paintings?
M: ..the sense, then, in the drawings of confinement, of not being able to get out, of being trapped in a certain system. It seems to me that same system of confinement is then transported onto the sculptures as a kind of web or transposed grid.
P&V: No, no, not at all. You might see it as a net but that is not our intention at all. We don’t like the idea of confinement, either in the drawings or the sculpture. We see them – those sections - as covers or pillows. Many people see those lines as the virtual networks of
computers – but actually it is not that either. For us they are pillows. or quilts
M: But just let me push that concept a little bit. You have a drawing of a rhino (Rino) – that is very much confined within the plane of the work and then again, From Left to Right – the drawing has this sense of imprisonment, the ability to see out becomes smaller and smaller, more and more restricted.
P&V: No these are drawings of rooms or places for the animals – we don’t think they transmit a sense of confinement or imprisonment.
M: But there is no way out.
P&V: Yes – or no – but they are infinite. Some look like mazes, (I point to the Rino image) yes it is confined by the frame but it has the hope to get out some and as you see body parts are already breaking outside the frame..
M: Have you seen the work of the British artist, Richard Billington? He became well known for his photographs of his own very dysfunctional family, but the last show I saw of his were images of animals in confinement and he captures the very repetitive, neurotic behavior, that they get into because of their confinement.
P&V: It is true that we are accustomed to see animals in confinement,
M: This giraffe bellowing at the sky…
P&V: No – the idea was that we were having this animal visiting our studio and we wanted to make an overcoat for him (Cappotto grande). The idea is to protect the things we cherish, the animals we are fond of.
M: Oh – that is why an interview is a very useful format! My reading of the work was very different.
P&V: This overcoat can also be read as a quilt. The appearance of this soft texture draws in the viewers – they are attracted to these surfaces and want to touch but the work may not always have such a gentle meaning.
M: In your reproduction of everyday objects, baskets, beds, bathtubs etc, your work has been likened to Pop, in particular the work of Claus Oldenburg. How do you take that comparison?
P&V: That’s Emiliano’s fault - because he is from America…
Actually I don’t really like this comparison. Oldenburg is not one of my favorite artists. Usually he magnifies – while we respect the scale. Before making a work, we go to great pains to avoid doing something that has been done before. Of course one can never be completely free from influence. Many people have seen in our work an element of Pino Pascali because we work from animals and we use a material that is deemed poor. We were associated with Arte Povera – very much because of the colors; we used rust sometimes which gave a dark gloomy appearance to some of the early work. This is why we started to use a galvanized iron to get away from this sense of decay.
Of course lots of young artists are influenced by others – we try to avoid it, but it is also true that not even Picasso was completely immune to influence.
M: But I would argue in respect to Pop that your content makes a big distinction. Pop tends to be very flat and cool – more ironic- without the social content that is so much a part of your work.
P&V: Maybe the earlier work was more Pop but it is in our studio and only Emiliano and I have access to it! Anyway we are unusual here in Italy in the sense that we make sculpture – the more popular forms of art today – video art, photography – have no appeal for us at all. When we finished school fourteen years ago, our challenge was to find something new. We wanted to find a material that was not so frequently used in contemporary art but we knew we would pay a price for being sculptors.
– Paradoxically we also pay for it now – in terms of transportation, it is much more expensive than transporting photographs which makes showing our work abroad more challenging. Also working abroad for a sculptor is not so easy… –
M: Let’s go on to talk about your work with archives. Those pieces have a very different feel.
P&V: They are different. At a certain point we felt we were processing too much information and we wanted to stop. We went on strike – so to speak – and only wanted to talk about what was happening in our studio. We went back to the origins of our work and tried to find the ground zero of our research. Maybe that’s what you have found in our archive works.
M: So in fact these are very self-referential works about the process.
You remember how I saw in the drawings a sense of confinement that you say wasn’t there? – Well to take the risk of misinterpretation again, in your archive installations, I really feel a sense of secrecy, of confidentiality, of papers being systematically stored out of sight.
P&V: No, you are really picking up the right feeling here. For example we were thinking about the torture of prisoners in Iraq when we made “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation”. We were told there was a CIA manual which explains in detail how to torture prisoners. These manuals also describe the interrogation rooms, how they should be set up, how to create an atmosphere where a prisoner would be most likely to talk. So we took this manual as our staring point and made a representation of each page for the archive. This work is connected to Dick. In order to understand this archive installation, you should get a sense of how it was set up in the exhibition where we showed it first. As viewers went through the exhibition they first came to the spiky bed of an Indian guru – and then they entered this huge room and encountered the camel – a camel being tortured. The paper grinder is grinding the torture manual – it’s very noisy – and as the viewers approached the camel, they would be splattered with pieces of paper from the grinding machine, as though they, too, were being contaminated by the scene. The base of the camel would gradually become full of these pieces of paper which started to resemble sand. So here the torture manual is disintegrated, ground up and then in the next room it is reconstituted into the archive of manuals.
After the works dealing with the torture of prisoners, we wanted to focus on the torture of animals. In the UK there is a farm called Porton Down, a UK government and military science facility where they perform animal experiments to test bacterial weapons, armor effectives and the deadly effects of biological nerve agents. Horrendous things go on there. We hope our work can bring attention to these abuses.
M: You constantly say, we. Can you speak a little about this notion of collaboration? How does it work? When did you start working together and how does a piece evolve collaboratively?
P&V: You really believe that you come from New York and we will tell you all this!!
We have been friends since high school so we have known each other for a very long time. For a time after graduation, we worked separately but in the end we would end up with very similar works and ideas and even used the same materials.
M: So you both started using papier-mâché independently?
P&V: In high school we were both using gesso and paper as our materials – many others were using these materials too - but we had a personal touch, a particular way of working with it. But like the formula of Coca Cola – our way is secret. Our papier-mâché is much harder than most.
M: I’m not asking for the recipe! I’m more interested in the collaborative process.
P&V: In the beginning we were exhibiting at different galleries and people were not able to distinguish between our work. So we discussed working together, and thought, why not? The problem was finding a space to work. Luckily, we found these structures which were originally used to shelter victims of the earthquake, so we bought two of these prefabs – another way of recycling! In the beginning our works were more Pop, as we have been over, and we occasionally used paint. We really wanted to develop a new way of working so we focused a lot on language before coming out with this new body of work.
M: Language in what sense? Language as relating to the titles or the subjects of the works or language in the sense of the materials, the newspapers you would be using?
P&V: No the making, the process. Sometimes it is truly amazing; we can be in different rooms, in different places and we think about the same thing, come up with the same concept. We share an idea and then the work progresses from there: we discuss the work and then it is not really important who actually makes it. We can be each other’s assistant – a 20 x 20 drawing takes only one person. The most important thing is the idea. Sometimes when an exhibition is very close, we have to resort to bringing in other people to actually make the works. In that case we are all assistants.
M: So we have covered the works that deal with animals and the archives.
Let’s look at a couple of other categories. You speak about how people want to touch the work – to feel the seductive surface. But what about the cactus armchairs? Is that the repelling aesthetic? It’s certainly very surreal – the exact opposite of what a couch is about – and then the couch itself seems to have been contaminated with the spikes. It’s a little like Meret Oppenheimer’s fur teacup – form and function in complete opposition.
P&V: Contamination is exactly the point as the title suggests, Attention! Danger of Contamination. (Attenzione!!Pericolo di contaminazione) This work, which is still very pertinent, refers to the idea of pollution and what is happening with the garbage situation in Naples. It has become pretty normal for us to find a mattress or a sofa in the street or tossed into a park or forest. But then nature comes up and transforms the garbage. Things grow on it. Nature doesn’t stop.
M: And then the final category of works or themes would be the covered transportations. Maybe I have a dark mind, but does covered transportation read secret transportation…
P&V: In Naples everything is secret! But, no, there is nothing inside but a light – the goods have already been downloaded. This is a typical Neapolitan vehicle that you see on any street –very small pickups used to move house or transport goods – small because they have to go through the narrow streets here. So as this was to be exhibited in Milan we thought of using these small vehicles that go from Naples to Milan. And the title - “Esposito Transinternational”- contains a very common Neapolitan surname. Notice that the journey ends with a crash!
M: So it’s an environmental piece – a call to cut pollution?
P&V: Actually, the message is perfectly clear – particularly if you look at the installation we did for the subway – use public transportation. This piece, A subway è chiù sicura was commissioned for a subway – the Salvatore Rosa station– so sure it advocates the use of public transportation. But this piece is also used to express the irony of Neapolitans. We represented a car that they cherish – the Fiat Cinquecento is the most beloved of cars here. We found them in a scrap yard, and we re-covered them after removing the paint with an overcoat
We use covers here where there is an accident, over a corpse, for instance.
M: So here we are back to the veiled Christ!
Do you do many public projects?
P&V: We completed one about three months ago in San Casciano Val di Pesa, just outside Florence on the façade of a theater. It’s an elephant skin hung from a rope – again we wanted to bring a little of Naples to Florence. The skin on the rope refers to the washing you constantly see here hanging out to dry outside homes and apartments.
M: Do you approach these public projects differently from say a work intended for museum show?
P&V: First, it is interesting to do a public commission, because then it belongs to everybody and it is a great way to give something to people who are not very familiar with contemporary art. Other than that, we don’t approach it in a differently because our work is all about the space it inhabits. And our works can always be interpreted in many ways – the double reading is always there. Given the theater setting for the hanging elephant skin, it could be seen as laundry hanging out and it could be the costume used by actors, but for us, it really has to do with the torture of animals. It is very funny that San Casciano is a town where many of the people hunt. It is also the birthplace of a famous serial killer – but it is also a very interesting place with many artists’ works like Mario Merz and Antony Gormley. The town was not very happy with the piece as they thought the combination of the elephant skin and the bullet holes was a protest against hunting! They didn’t want us to make the bullet holes – we refused -the mayor asked us to make a few less – we refused again! Anyway we got an enthusiastic reception.
M: What haven’t I asked you that you would like to speak about?
P&V: Do you know how we make our paper?
M: I thought that was a secret!
P&V: It is very important that we use and grind printed paper. Sometimes we even select specific articles and cut them from the paper to use for a piece. We select papers released by the magistrate’s court, from police stations and whenever we travel, we try to use newspapers from those areas too.
M: I noticed that in many of your captions you list the specific newspapers that were used.
P&V: That is because when we grind the paper we also grind the words and when they come out, they are reformed or reshaped and become sculptures. We grind information to produce our own information. We don’t use pigment – all the colors that you see on our chromatic scale are based on the paper that has been selected. Unfortunately, we only have four colors in our newspapers – pink, green, beige and grey. (Il Mattino, Il Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica: Grey Italia Oggi: Yellow, La Gazzetta dello Sport: Pink Il Sole 24 Ore: Beige)
But we are able to play a little bit with nuances so, for instance, if we dry the paste in the sun, the grey becomes darker.
It is important to understand what the material is. Many people have difficulty understanding them. They think the pieces are made from stone or marble and that misses the point of the work.
M: How does the paper hold up over time?
P&V: We use glass fiber to make it water tight when it is outside but for indoor works we don’t use anything additional to seal the surface.
We have never seen any deterioration in the work but not even a painting is forever – only bronze and marble.
Conservation is a problem for those who work in the field of restoration – not us!
M: It is interesting that you have expressed a desire not to repeat things that have done before, yet in your own work you revisit images and themes many times.
P&V: Yes but we try and bring a new focus each time. There must be an evolution – there is always a connection between the old and the new – we sometimes do drawings of installations that have been made but try to find something new about it.
M: But it is true to say that you do revisit themes. There is a cactus on an armchair and then you do a cactus on a sofa. Also the very fact that we can speak of your work in categories – say the archive pieces – means that you do revisit or rework a theme.
P&V: Probably until we have extracted from a theme all than needs to be said. I doubt we will do another cactus!
M: How much have you traveled outside of Italy for shows etc.?
P&V: We have traveled a lot in Europe for work. We have been to New York several times and to China. There is an exhibition currently in Shanghai and Beijing where we have a studio.. –
M: That must be an interesting cross cultural exchange for they have such a great tradition of working with paper in China. What was the reception of the work there?
P&V: Interesting. There was an appreciation of the work – but we did not find the curators so open-minded. There is still a focus on Chinese art but everything changes there so quickly and when they are ready for our sculpture, we will be there.
M: I was just thinking though that their traditions of paper and Italy’s traditions of paper could form a very interesting dialogue.
P&V: But their tradition is totally different from ours. Here paper is considered as something poor, something cheap – there it is precious.
M: So I have a final question – the relationship between your drawing and the sculpture. How do you decide which medium you will work with? Or can the drawings been seen as preparatory to the sculpture?
P&V: The two mediums go hand in hand. In the drawings we tend to represent rooms, interior scenes, often animals in domestic settings, covered with our blankets. It’s a kind of virtual reality that we would not be able to make in actual space unless it was a huge installation. In the drawings, there is a lot of architecture and perspective.
M: So you don’t use the drawings as a precursor to the installation?
P&V: Sometimes that may happen – you have seen the prepatory drawings in the studio – but those sketches are studies and sometimes we may do a drawing from them, sometimes a sculpture or sometimes both.
We are very clear in our minds about what we want and rarely make sketches – only in the case of very large installations like the elephant skin hanging outside the theater. For that we made lots of drawings, even models. We also made studies of the whole environment that the work was to be placed in because our work must become one with its surroundings. Often it is difficult for us to exhibit works out of the setting for which they were made, as they do not always work with the gallery spaces in ways that are important to us.
M: You mean that you like your work to be site specific?
P&V: Yes, when it’s possible.
M: Given that, do you also like to see a narrative progression from piece to piece in an exhibition?
P&V: Yes, ideally there must be a thread between the pieces that connects one to another. We try and identify a theme for the exhibition. We group works by theme or maybe a single topic approached in different ways.
M: This was an exciting interview and I certainly ended up seeing the work in a very different way. But this, I think, is the very magic of art, this magic of transformation both in the respect of matter and form and the way a work can effect you differently each time you see it. It can change with a mood or with what you as a viewer bring to it.
P&V: That is why we love to hear alternate ways of seeing – we also learn from this.
1 While I have indicated when I am asking the questions by M:, I have not distinguished between the voices of Perino and Vele. As I have met with them on several occasions, sometimes one, sometimes the other, takes the lead in talking. For the purposes of this transcribed interview, their ideas are so integrated, they always speak as “we”, that to distinguish the individual speaker is of little relevance.
2 The Veiled Christ by Giuseppe Sammartino, 1753, Sansevero Chapel, Naples. In this work, the body of Christ lies on a soft pillow and is covered by an incredibly realistic transparent veil.