A conversation with Patrizia Giambi

Monday, 25th June, 2001 

By Mauro Panzera

excerpt from ' Patrizia Giambi, Carta dei dieci anni ' , Mauro Panzera , Edizioni Galleria Neon, Bologna, 2001


I’d like to go through with you  your years of artistic activity and, as an ideal place to talk, we’ve chosen Gino Gianuzzi’s Galleria Neon in Bologna, the site of your “baptism” in the winter of  91.  Physically , the place has changed - different street, different district - but the same ideals remain.

But for you, Bologna signifies a step backwards in time, way before 1991. So stopping the clock at the beginning of ’91, there’s a story before that to tell.

In ’91  I showed Gino and Roberto Daolio four photographic prints in black and white, the result of research that had been going on for some months 

So they were four prints of documentations?

No, they are a finished work and the way in which I kicked off this research into language, born out of necessity after the study of Kosuth’s Art after Philosophy. For me, this work marked the final passage of an elaboration, lasting several years, towards my humanistic, linguistic formation; writing and giving form to thought, also through the work of other artists. With this leap into pure visuality I concluded a personal voyage.

So you took an unusual route…

Taking my M.A. degree, I had finished a cycle of traditional, humanistic study. It seemed the next step was the usual career as a teacher. But I threw everything up. When I came back from London in ’82, I tried an experiment at my house in Forli’, proposing to local artists to construct this open space: I wanted to create situations.

The spirit was that of the manner of show biz?

No, the step was a life-art circle, I brought my experiences, I put myself into it, and  whatever came out was an experience that had the taste of Fluxus.

Let’s get this straight. Sensitivity towards artistic language on one hand; a need to create situations on the other: two characteristics that can be found in your work but which are born in different contexts and times. So in Forli’ you managed to create this situation which continued and also produced an official moment that involved both local and European administrations. Let’s talk about that story about “Palazzo del Diavolo”

There’s this magnificent Palazzo del Diavolo, a historic palace where my family lived. I made a very large attic space, I managed to get finance, there was a constant stream of publications, up to the 1988 catalogue “Prove Generali”.

It was an exciting climate and an experimental laboratory took shape.

Several personalities were involved in this situation: Angelo Schwarz, today teacher at the Accademia Albertina, a true pioneer of the history of photography in Italy; Richard Martel, a Canadian Fluxus member, a collaborator with Filliou and Maciunas; Maurizio Cattelan; Pierre Restany; Simon Patterson, then connected to Lauren Mabel’s Milch Gallery in London. the so-called slim art.

This volume of exchanges and interests led to an irreversible discrepancy with the local art community who were so old-fashioned that I felt anti-historical.

How do you connect your experiences up to the winter of ’91, when you had your first solo exhibition?

1990 was a crucial year; because up to then I felt my activities as part of an organism which included other individuals. In ’90 there was the concept of two works, very different one from the other Le sedie - , something apparently made very simply; and Il Casanova - a hard work in which I tested myself.

Il Casanova is technically a stage design, a project for Venice: there you created a space that was architectural and, at the same time, sculptural, utilised by actors but offering itself also as a separate object.

Yes, it has the characteristic of being of itself   and by itself, with a functionality that has no sense, because it’s circular, an experience of its own structure. Made for the Centro Teatrale La Giudecca, it is the   turning  over of the theatrical situation, which is frontal and comprises of successive acts, into one which is circular with simultaneous vision. But I felt that, even if this tension in the construction is strong and constant in me, I had to resolve the question of the elaboration of the work starting from an autonomy of language.

The chair becomes that place; there’s Cezanne’s seat, De Kooning’s, Kosuth’s… I think that every artist should suggest “their” seat as a manifesto of intent.

The work Le sedie has a clear rapport with the work of Kosuth, but where he makes evident the ontological statutes separate in the linguistic process, you on the other hand…

I would like to make plain, though, that Kosuth’s work is certainly not my only influence. There were at the time important works by Agamben and Perniola; there was the world of Fluxus and there was the Historia Abreviada  de la Literatura Portatil, which was  only published in Italy about ten  years after I had studied it in Spain, which introduced  me  to the avant-garde from a less conventional angle and which illuminated my take on the understanding of the twentieth-century. Not to mention the decisive influence on me by the thought of Pareyson, his “la verita’ non si afferra se non nella forma  di doverla cercare ancora” (truth cannot be ascertained, you can only keep looking for it) is almost a daily chant. 

You, though, as I was saying, bring into play a sleight-of-hand. The image becomes a deception; it is the light that makes the magic, between the linguistic formulisation and the silhouette: not direct images, but images in shadow.

All this was linked to the moment, the passing of the decade: we were at the beginning of the 90’s, with the decade of Cold Art behind us. I felt a great need of visuality, of a clear image - and the shadow and the light - and the necessity to overcome The Word; I needed that The Image contained The Word. In fact, immediately after I expressed myself in a work that was very colourful, very sensual and visual.

Which was the modified typewriter. I want to know, though, how the determination of exhibit solo was born, in an art gallery, even if Neon is above all a place of experimentation rather than of the market.

Because I felt that I could make  my contribution to what I was seeing and for me  it became urgent to do so. I was already part of artistic society.

It was a precise line that separated the sooner from the later: the end of Summer 1990, an epiphany, a clear memory. I took the risk.

Gino Gianuizzi took you in and Roberto Daolio presented you.

I already knew them both , there was understanding between us.  One lovely day I went to see Daolio at the Accademia  with my prints rolled up under my arm and in the little studio I showed them to him.

Did the decision to go to Los Angeles coincide with this moment of artistic consciousness?

No, I went to Los Angeles by chance. Friends invited me, so I went. I tucked under my arm a bit of work I’d done in Italy and I went around the galleries, the art spaces, I knew the scene and sometimes I showed my work: someone offered me the chance to exhibit, the feeling was there. Very soon I met Sue Spaid, at the beginning a gallery-owner before following her true vocation as a curator, critic, essayist.

Her space on Beverly Boulevard was at that time the true heart of Los Angeles; interesting artists such as Jacci den Hartog and Steve DeGroodt came out of there.

It should be said that in Los Angeles in ’91, the generation of Mike Kelley, Lari Pittman, etc… once dominant, had already surged.

How did you find the Californian artistic world?

Excellent! I ended up living in Los Angeles for five years, between ’91 to ’96, building up relationships, I didn’t only have a house and a studio, but friends, intellectual sustenance. I had to immediately compare different  artistic methodologies: the lesson of American pragmatism  made  itself felt. Above all, I had to live with a frontier mentality: great open-mindedness and speed. Shoshana Wayne, three days after first seeing  my work, offered me a one-woman show. Shoshana Wayne was already a gallery of powerful dealers, of elevated international culture, producing artists like Bruce Nauman, Kiki Smith, Yoko Ono, Anselm Kiefer… try to think of the same situation in Italy… such power that produces a show by authentic debutante: unthinkable!

Three years later the same thing in Chicago with Zolla/Lieberman.

Shoshana Wayne, Roberta Lieberman were all brilliant with me, true friends. Their guiding spirit is the best part of the art system. Here the system is hidebound, bureaucratic

O.K. , there you conceived and exhibited the new work… let’s talk about the project: we’re still dealing with the problems of communication…

At  the time I was still very much taken up by the “l’inguistic error” - what I took to other and what other brought to me in communication? On one hand I have  the burden of a cultural  education based on the written word; on the other, my experience founded  in the oral tradition, connected to encounters, a militant culture. To work all this out again, that was the task; to bring a sensual dimension to the mechanical, inventing a language for oral transmission.

A type of bridge between the written and the spoken…

It’s a plurilinguistic exercise: on one side mine, Italian with an Anglophone culture; California on the other, which is no longer an Anglophone culture, rather a cross between the South American and Oriental.

On which language do you base your keyboard?

I use twenty-four sounds which are not English but Western: twenty-four sounds are recurrent in Western languages. The combination of these sounds can originate words in English, French, Italian and Spanish.

So the Italian version will have an Olivetti typewriter, but the keyboard  will remain the same.

Certainly, because the field of application is extremely vast.

The result is visual; there are the strips with lips in different positions, that beat out the sounds, which then compose words.

It’s a work that I’ve utilized for situations that are diverse between themselves. I’ve said things, I’ve  told secrets, I’ve written road signs. I’ve  made intrusions  in public situations, in bars or on the Rome underground, but also in private galleries, even in Bologna, at Neon. They’re the writings with a secret and a visibility.

How was this work received in Los Angeles?

The Americans accepted the seduction intrinsic in the sensuality of the work. Then critics worked on a feminist reading: strangely, I should say, regarding my intentions. Strange because, in the first place, the mouth was considered as a female mouth, whereas in reality it’s a male mouth that speaks; in the second place, a critical authority such as Susan Kandel, from  the intellectual stance of  Irigary, pointed to, as a qualifying element in my work, the secret and out-of-the-way language of the female oral tradition, as opposed to the male power of the written.

All things that don’t really interest you…

Yes, for the attention given to the oral tradition, for the natural/cultural rapport but not in the male/female counter position.

But  the oral tradition is central from a feminist point of view also in Italy.

And, in fact, also in Italy the work was viewed in this way - for example by a critic as sympathetic to feminist thought such as Francesca Pasini, who uses the same approach as the American critics in a completely independent way.

To be honest, there is not, nor has ever been, a feminist approach  in my work, because it is not an archetype  that interests me: I feel myself an individual artist, independent of my sex.

So female art is then without sense…

Yes, I don’t really understand what female art means. Do angels have a sex? I’m a woman artist but my hands can do the same things as a man and so can my brain: we all carry our personal historical baggage inside. This brand new woman is a swindle, the feminist swindle, an ideological umbrella imported from America, and not just yesterday. But what methodological use can it have? Cooking, private things, embroidery? As Gertrude Stein said, the artist is an appendix of the work, and not vice-versa. What is this proliferation of little dolls and vaginas? It is a life-jacket for the identity but it’s not a category capable of generating anything important, a sociological bracket  useful for talking about an artist without having anything to say about the work.

Staying within the universe of languages and codes: in ’94 you began a new investigation that was connected  with weights and measures.

Let’s go back to California: I was in the New World, in a context that had its criterion: the light was different, it was pink; the sky was huge; the cities were all low architecture. I was giving up more and more on materials - the strips with the lips were rollable, they were film of plastic material. And so this approach towards elasticity: really as if my thoughts expanded or contracted, the renunciation  of my native tongue was like a regeneration. I am very passionate, testing myself comes from within. These measures don’t change by numbers or mass, but change for their extension in space.

They are self-contradictory.

Yes, we still have to confront cultural outlines and I introduce subjectivity into institutionalism .

It seems to me, though, this also connects with the theatrical sculpture: here we enter the experience of space. The elasticity, which is mental and experienced, is also physical-spatial.

True, and it is asked of the visitor to enter into a direct relationship…

These measures must be manipulated…

Yes, they must be manipulated to be understood, because they give you your limits. Then I ask the public to actively enter into the work, it’s something that remains in the successive work.

This is new, even in respect to the typewriter, which was working but couldn’t be used by the spectator: it was there to show the productive process, but no printer connected to it could reproduce the new pronunciations. The new element which characterized your European  return  is this unity with to do and to make other people do. You have, in fact, used other subjects in a demonstrative way, with respect to this work.

Yes I have created  situations to experiment with elastics. Using two people, I sometime printed words on rubber bands and depending on the tension exerted these words lost their legibility. See, I’m interested in the “do” that while you do, a “way of doing” is invented. It is an attitude of bias that allows me to enter and exit the technology without having  to conform to it.

It’s interesting to note that your European return coincided with a new work that brought together many elements of your preceding themes. I’m talking about pedestrian crossings, which are elements of communication which ask a “do” but also ask a participation of those who use this work/experience. The crossings  exist to be experienced, in relation to the freedom of movement.

We can distinguish various working passages in my artistic thoughts; but a constant is the attention paid towards the codes that we share - whether  the alphabet, writing or measure. Now the crossings represent the breaking of the code from inside the code itself and in this case there is no longer an outside or an inside. In the experiences before, the public knew, because they  had all come to an art gallery. Now the public didn’t know,  they didn’t realize  they were walking on an illegal crossing. And that’s what interested me: to modify behavior without having to state so beforehand, without any kind of signs: and, in fact, my zebra crossings are identical to the official ones.

Whoever  crosses, it is committing an illegal act, but complying with the rules, the code. On the other hand, this work involves other people who know what is happening and who are in agreement with the project and its sense: it is a collective work.

This developed into a type of tour.

Yes, self-organized, I  might add: it meant finding the places, the participating galleries where you could contact people who would share in the actualisation - a complex and difficult job.

It’s interesting that you continue to underline the non-organization: an artistic world which is built through personal relationship, on a horizontal level.

It’s in the nature of what I do: the artist isn’t a baby, the artist is a conscious person who seeks out people with  whom to share and create moments. It’s a political attitude. The art system as it stands doesn’t convince me because it lacks the expression  of the artist, who is an adult individual. The hierarchy  doesn’t interest me and it’s a disinterest that costs, but I believe in things, in encounters, in solidarity  amongst equals, in meetings with other artists. I look for the comparison with, and the judgement of, other artists.

It seems to me that you are touching points that are qualified. Today the plan of the art system is to reach a wider public; so one asks, what is the artist’s place? Theirs is a community of values: they are not corporate, but radiate energy and draw society’s energy.

Yes. You see, today rather than cafes or literary salons, people go to art exhibitions; now, does this new ritual serve to sell, to distinguish oneself, or is it  an opportunity  to put into circulation ideas about art, to search for sharing? I don’t believe in the pyramid system of art, but the horizontal.

But you believe in art, in its capacity to make values; your interlocutor is the artist and you don’t try  to disperse yourself in the social, but you ask that your work has a strictness.

I don’t address myself to society, but to the artistic community. I don’t belong to the system of mass -communication; I believe in dialogue, even in the old system such as the Arts (letter), with many friends and colleagues all over the world. The masses are  fundamental to the economy of art: my problem is how to avoid them. Recently one of my works had the very same theme: adding up the weight of the  person present in a certain place for a certain event. The twentieth-century has  posed two problems: bureaucracy and the masses; on the one side Kafka, Benjamin, Simone Weil; on the  other Canetti. But it’s paradoxical that these values are at the centre of the art system. We must survive more than the masses and  bureaucracy; that is, beyond the organization of  art  and the need to legitimise.

With this latest observation you’ve introduced the last chapter of our conversation; it’s the live  chapter, of a work in progress that you have called Inventario Morale (Moral Inventory). It starts  with a decleration of affection for a place, your house.

Yes, exactly. I leave a place  that is an expression of artistic self -my home studio - that is a place of history, and I find myself like a nomad, think about the little shoes with barbed wire. Now there is no more place to make and to create, I see the world as a nomad and I’ve  taken out the  rite of being an artist: re-creating a place by means of the ruins of the house.

In this outside I ask artists to do something with me, to bring themselves  to my work. There, then, the mattress with the little pig; the fake room with the board-games; the rite of drinking a coffee

I feel that everything has a soul: I feel the woods as before I felt the street, I feel that the air must have its own form; I feel the planet.

It’s a phase of great sensitivity, as if “il fuori” is searching for its own formulisation, but we are still inside the Inventario Morale . You sum up a life, you give visibility to a moment in continuous flux - your old and persistent love