Conversation between Matteo Negri and Lorenzo Bruni to introduce the exhibition “Piano Piano” in GenoaMilan – Rome, October 2016
Piano Piano, Installation view, Matteo Negri | Piano Piano, ABC-ARTE Genoa
Lorenzo Bruni: Can you explain what is the conceptual core of your solo exhibition in Genoa “Piano Piano” from an external point of view?
Matteo Negri: The answers given from the exhibited works are basically related to the question of how images are “stuck” to artistic objects. How does the external context become part of the object itself? From this point of view, this is not an exhibition about sculpture or painting, but about the role of “public” works of art. For this reason, my process method moved the attention from the form of the object to its essence.
LB: Your peculiar approach to this project highlights a great change for you, especially in the process rather than the style of your last period. Considering your past creations, such as the 2004 engine sculptures made of pietra serena, the unexploded ceramic mines of 2006 or the wall sculptures reminding Lego bricks (introduced in 2009), you moved on the borderline between industrial and everyday object, popular imagination and artist’s freedom. Your recent works are focused on showing, measuring and realizing the space and time, which divide and connect the observer and the object under observation. You might have been inspired by what happened in the history of art, where the attention moved from form to the perception of form itself, and in the social media and digital screen era, where the human subject is able to experience things in a real and virtual way.
MN: Everything is real and virtual at the same time. These standards must be reconsidered, they are not opposite categories anymore as it happened by the end of the Nineties. My last works – including the video, in which I throw the sculpture/spinning top into the sea, and the wall drawing, including two paintings, made of special resins, representing oblique surfaces – are this: devices to study the influence by digital images in our society, or the culture and perception of the past, going beyond the superficiality connected to our present times’ haste. My “Piano piano” work, conceived for the main gallery’s room, is the core of the exhibition and was realized following this necessity of mine.
LB: The sculpture you mentioned is made of two reflecting surfaces crossing each other. They do not show only themselves but, through their pictorial, lyrical and plastic effects, they also show the environment containing them, both in physical and conceptual ways.
MN: The two surfaces form a kind of disordered composition. Thanks to two special films applied on them, they produce unique color effects. These films are industrial products, they are mainly used in architecture to modify the impact of light on glass walls. In this way, I could create a concrete object and an optical effect in progress. The results are the endless points of view highlighted on the object himself. All these points of view are aware of themselves. I feel these two surfaces, one horizontal and one vertical, finding a balance in the space between them, are a kind of “image hoover”.
LB: This sculpture turns on with the observer and his fruition. Did you mean this when you wanted to create not a sculpture or a painting, but a reflection on public works of art?
MN: That is exactly what I meant. Once the structure of the work is placed, it becomes a proper environmental installation. In this case, the artwork is not activated only by its perceptional relationship with the architecture, the observer or the concept of sculpture, but also by the “images”, applied on the walls, representing monkeys I recently filmed at the zoo. This “presence observes us” and moves all our questions from objective to subjective dimensions and vice versa.
LB: That is?
MN: At the beginning, with this sculpture I wanted to reproduce two sheets easily fitting together. Considering then the laws of perspective, I wanted to make the orthogonal surface the center of the perspective vision. During this phase, I analyzed some considerations I had about monkeys since a while. In some ways, monkeys learn instinctively from what they see. So I studied the idea of connecting instinctiveness and planning on different levels. Perhaps this is the reason my way of working has been influenced by a rational and evaluating side. Later I tested the sculpture with a fully instinctive approach towards reality and works in progress, as evidenced by the images taken at the zoo. The connection lies in the dialogue with the animal in its own instinctive dimension (its instinct). Its freedom is limited by the space of the cage. This is the same condition we all live in, not in the real but in the virtual world today. We are always under observation. I believe that the originality of this work of mine underlines how the discussion between art and reality goes in both directions and is continuously in progress.
Piano Piano, Installation view, Matteo Negri | Piano Piano, ABC-ARTE Genoa
LB: Do you mean that the monkeys – both as subject and as black and white photocopies of video frames – are effectively the privileged observers and not the objects under observation?
MN: Yes, guinea pigs in guinea pigs. They are attentive but not aware observers, to allow the human side to emerge when relating to the work. I think the monkey is not only a disturbing image, a kind of mistake, like a stone falling into the pond and rippling it. It is the representation of its own instinctive limits in recreating such a magical object like a sculpture. Basically, it is connected to it just because it observes it, as it happens with the prism in “Space odyssey”, through which the monkey observes itself and the world around him at the same time.
LB: The “Piano piano” sculpture, through the estranging presence of the monkeys and especially the refractions of the surfaces in space, activates a kind of “performing” fruition, both in a physical and cognitive way. This activation destabilizes what could have been considered as a work studying the codes of Minimalism. It is like as if your work puts Frank Stella’s motto “What you see is what you see” under question, not only on the interpretative but also on the communicative level. Can you explain this peculiar condition characterizing the artwork and us observers, please?
MN: First of all, I can say that this sculpture was jumping like a “monkey” in my mind since a long time, as we say in Milan. The object itself shows the contradictions of our social and personalizing society. In this way, the interpretation prefigures the communication of the facts. The technical result cannot be classified only as sculpture, image, illusion, architecture, idea, real or imaginary space. The truth lies into the interconnection of these elements. By a conceptual point of view, I conceived this result – the production of reflections between metal, chromium and glass sheets – to create several vanishing points destabilizing the Renaissance vision based on one unique point of view. As you mentioned before, today the observer is in continuous movement, on a physical level and also in the world of digital communication. This is why I chose to use a monkey as a kind of neutral observer. He cannot choose or understand what lies behind the different perspectives or surfaces. That image can only observe reality as it merely appears and highlights vanishing surfaces. The eyes of the observer, including its perceptional processes, feel them as perpetually on the edge of vanishing.
Wall, Installation view, Matteo Negri | Piano Piano, ABC-ARTE Genoa
LB: So are these “virtual and perspectival” surfaces, which must be considered also as physical and concrete components, your answer to the de-materialization of space through the emerging of social networks, or is it related to a more ancient aspect, such as Escher’s reflections on optical mistakes in the last century?
MN: Mmm… I try to squeeze the de-materialization you mentioned. Only in this way I am able to create not only a sculptural object, but also a device activating in the observer’s mind a reflection on the perceptive mechanism of the observer itself. To observe and imagine these two surfaces means we must be aware of the point of view through which we imagine/observe them. So this work focuses more on materializing spatial references, rather than being a representation of space. As observers, we find ourselves observing a sculpture reflecting on itself. So we are not necessary. It exists even if we do not look at it, but if we stand in front of it… it “turns” on.
LB: Is this process method the same used for the wall drawing, including the PSA paintings?
MN: Yes. The PSA wall drawing is based on the concepts of fullness and emptiness. The serigraph pattern on aluminum and the glass varnishes increase the focal depth of the painted surfaces. Here the pattern is a leitmotif, it “draws” the surfaces and the wall on which all paintings are hanged. So, as soon as the installation was ready, it was possible to notice how the painted plates and the wall could dialogue on the continuous space created by the perspective surfaces in an irregular but poetical way. That is why I inserted an empty space at the start, I needed to represent also emptiness before moving into the narration. This pattern made of holes, basic part of the wall drawing and connecting my paintings with the architecture, is a kind of matrix (dot-space, dot-space) or language for me. It helps me to anchor myself somewhere inside the infinite visual possibilities. I am sure that these surfaces exist just because I see them, even when they are seen from a diagonal point of view or even when they add dynamic and irregular elements to the frontal vision of the wall. The most extraordinary thing is that I (and the observer) can imagine and plan them at the same time.
LB: This consideration of yours confirms that these works represent a turning point, by a formal point of view, in your artistic itinerary. I am talking about your first ceramic sculptures or your modernist Lego paintings shown at a former exhibition organized by the same gallery in Genoa.
MN: My past sculptures, made of deeply colored ceramic and connected to the concept of unexploded mines, represent a sort of simple architecture, a bit Gothic and a bit Romanesque. When I use the Lego imaginary, I do it to reconnect to my idea of constructing. This is the seed I want to develop. Lego was a simple and iconic method to face and resolve dynamics I was interested in relation to the concept of harmonious space. They also helped me to reconnect to the world of childhood and possibility, and also to the modernist theories by Mondrian. Everything was related to the idea of repetition and variation of primary forms.
Navigator, Installation view, Matteo Negri | Piano Piano, ABC-ARTE Genoa
LB: … and what about your last works?
MN: My last works put in connection the concept of public space and the reflection on the role of making art today. This is the question at the center of the first video I realized for this occasion: on the beach of Boccadasse, you see me throwing a sculpture / spinning top into the sea. Simultaneously, we produced three big photographs including, like a postcard dispenser, a series of smaller photos showing public locations in Genoa and Cinque Terre as in an “epiphany” dimension. This aspect is suggested by the presence of the sculpture / spinning top suspended from the ground, reflecting the urban and social surroundings. These photos do not only represent the documentation of public sculptures, but also a new kind of job. It is a new way of imagining the urban space, and therefore the concept of community.
LB: Does your choice of marking the territory and observing it as your first time, through the positioning of the sculpture and the related photographic “narration”, underline your need, both as an artist and citizen, to take a responsibility and be aware of the physical place from which we observe and receive all the information of the world?
MN: My need of references is the thin red line connecting all works taking part to this solo exhibition. The choice of placing at the entrance of the gallery my photographic work, showing the series of actions made in Genoa with this sculpture, goes into the same direction.
LB: This photographic work of yours is a sort of conceptual matryoshka. One photo contains a series of other photos, which in turn contain several urban landscapes containing a sculpture. The image suggests a relational dimension with the observer, thanks to the exposition of places right outside the location of the exhibition and not far away like exotic places. It represents a complete image to you, in the same way as the stories on the Trajan’s Column. Heroic actions are shared, but in time, not in the process. Today’s heroic actions might come out when you become aware of the details of places you walk through. Indeed, any time you will represent this action for an exhibition, you will re-make the artwork and connect it to the city hosting the event. Also this aspect underlines your works of art do not share the same needs of some artists at the end of the Nineties (Fischli & Weiss, Giuseppe Gabellone, Patric Tuttofuoco, Annika Larson). They reflected on the role and the stratification between the different media. So they tried to create short-circuits using the sculpture technique, which was activated, at times, only to be documented by photographic reproductions. Your necessity rather comes from the need to go beyond the times of social networks and the creation of consensus and demonstrations. You want to show the re-activation of space as social aggregation: the square, not virtual and not even real, is not a project for the future, but is not even a memory.
MN: The core of my work is not only the idea of a nomad sculpture stealing images of the city to then survive only through a document: to place it, photograph it and take it away. My idea is to move the attention towards the time of perception felt by the observer, rather than merely contemplating the object. In my way, I assign more importance to the action of joining context, presence and memory.
LB: Although the idea of the video comes from this process, it does focus on your meeting with the sea and not with the city. How did you conceive the Navigator work?
MN: To throw my sculpture into the sea has been a liberating action. It is something related to my roles as sculptor and image designer. That’s why I appeared in my video, it could not have been anyone else. Mine gesture was intimate and ancient at the same time. It is measuring the infinite. When I sent you the video via WhatsApp, you wanted to exaggerate saying it reminded you of Lucio Fontana’s slashes and Gino De Dominicis’ stone into the water, when he wanted to make water squares instead of circles. With this video I want to represent the timing of the throw, the waiting, the suspension. This time becomes space and it strictly connects this work with the one entitled “Piano piano”, composed by two orthogonal and reflecting surfaces. They are the two sides of the same coin. I think the need to throw my spinning-top-shaped sculpture into the sea comes from my desire to make it corresponding with the very similar and reflecting surface of the water. This video represents the zero grade of interaction between the spinning top and the landscape. I explored the same interaction in every aspect when I placed my sculpture in many urban locations in Genoa. I noticed the landscape of the sea – horizon was not absorbed and reflected by the sculpture’s surface, but the two elements blended into each other. When the object touches the water’s surface, the video looks like slowing down because nothing is happening. The two surfaces correspond and mirror each other, sculpture and water. So the representation of space expands and contracts, materializes and de-materializes.
Detail Navigator, Installation view, Matteo Negri | Piano Piano, ABC-ARTE Genoa
LB: Going back to the different installations you realized for this exhibition at the ABC-ARTE gallery in Genoa, it is like as if you planned an itinerary through which, room by room, you explore a different level of relation between art and life. From the image chosen as poster of the exhibition, we move to sculpture and to the video screened along the stairs. We move from the big photograph at the gallery’s entrance, showing the spinning top in various corners of the city, to the sculpture with reflecting surfaces and to the wall drawing. The final room appears pretty quiet and pure, with the three geometrical-shaped monochrome sculptures hanged on the wall.
MN: These sculptures are called “Kamigami”. They are plates integrated into the square in an oblique way. This is the reason they can be frontally seen both as a flat pierced screen and, at the same time, they show their obliquity re-proposing surfaces for an infinite number of times. Although these paintings of mine are connected to my former Lego works – the circles correspond to the pierced spaces from which the buttons come out – they activate a completely different process. It deals with measurable and not measurable space at the same time. The frame does not divide the painting from the world, but instead it shuts it in itself and moves it towards a vortex made of its own borders’ repetition.
LB: Like the other exposed works, all is part of a research focusing on “live perception”. Which must or could be the role of the artist today, by your opinion?
MN: Simply a not neutral observer.
Kamigami Red Bubble and Kamigami Green Bubble , Installation view, Matteo Negri | Piano Piano, ABC-ARTE Genoa