“I work with ideas, I do not work with materials,” Alfredo Jaar said about his practice, in an interview with Artsy’s editorial director Marina Cashdan this week at the Venice Biennale, where he is representing Chile. Jaar’s arresting work takes the Biennale’s main Giardini garden, where many of the national pavilions are housed, as its subject, submerging and re-emerging a miniature replica of it in a lagoon-like pool. This cycle represents not only the necessary rebirth in artistic establishment and thinking but also the artist’s invitation for the Venice Biennale model, too, to be thoughtfully re-considered. See what else the iconic artist has to say about his practice, this work, and the Biennale.
Marina Cashdan: Can you walk us through your work?
Alfredo Jaar: So, the first encounter is with this suspended lightbox with a black-and-white image of Lucio Fontana discovering his destroyed studio after the Second World War. He’s coming back from Argentina where he was born. And this image for me symbolizes a key moment in history where Italy was destroyed morally and physically. And in less than 20 years, an extraordinary group of Italian intellectuals—filmmakers, writers, poets, and artists—they changed the course of history with their work. And it was a demonstration how culture can effect change. For example, in 1942 [Luchino] Visconti released Ossessione during the war, and in 1945 [Roberto] Rossellini released Roma Città Aperta (“Rome, Open City”). So, “Rome, Open City”, that was with a script from [Federico] Fellini. And then in ’48, you had Vittorio de Sica who releases [the film] “The Bicycle Thief”. Those are extraordinary works that invented Italian Neorealism. And then you had an extraordinary amount of writers, like [Cesare] Pavese, [Alberto] Moravia, and [Giuseppe] Ungaretti, for example, that release extraordinary books. For example, Ungaretti released “The Pain” (“Il Dolore”), or “La Terra Promessa” (The Promised Earth), and most importantly, Moravia released “Il Conformista” (“The Conformist”), that became a film 20 years later by [Bernardo] Bertolucci. And then you had [Pier Paolo] Pasolini coming in, and then Fellini, and then you have [Michelangelo] Antonioni, and then the Arte Povera artists, you had from [Alighiero e] Boetti to [Michelangelo] Pistoletto, [Pier Paolo] Calzolari and so on.
MC: So over the course of 20 years, artists were making significant changes to the cultural landscape in Italy.
AJ: In 20 years, these artists changed the face of history as a demonstration that culture can effect change. So after you see this, you’re invited to cross the bridge. And you cross the bridge, but it’s not only a physical bridge, but it’s also a mental bridge, an invitation to rethink, because you have to go somewhere else.
MC: The platform represents the bridge?
AJ: Yes, and then on the bridge sits a structure with water that seems to be from the lagoon. And then for three minutes, nothing happens. And then every three minutes, from the water emerges a perfect replica of the Giardini with the 28 national pavilions. But it stays up for just 30 seconds, and then goes down again. And this happens again, and again. During the Biennale, this is going to happen 24,860 times.
MC: Is there anything particularly significant about that number?
AJ: No, it’s just the rhythm that we’re using.
MC: It seems that there are a few stages of experiencing the installation?
AJ: There are two important levels of reading the work. On one level, it’s about “rinascimento”, the “renaissance”, the “rebirth”, after the destruction it’s the rebirth. But then it’s death again, and then rebirth and death, rebirth and death. So basically, it’s about the culture of resistance, how culture can resist. Cities can be destroyed, people can be killed. But you cannot kill ideas. So it’s about that. And so it’s always about resistance, resistance, resistance. That, on one level. On the second level, it’s an invitation to rethink the Biennale model. Because when the model is down, the lagoon becomes a “white canvas”—like an empty screen, where you can project ideas, dreams, possibilities. You can speculate, “What can we do?” What can we do to make the Biennale more inclusive, more open, more generous? What can we do to effect change? So it’s a poetic invitation to rethink the Biennale. So it has this double meaning.
And the third and final component is found here [points to the back of the lightbox]. This is the Fontana sculpture. He started puncturing the canvas and the papers in the 1940’s, and at the time of the war there was very little light, so that’s why this line is...very, very, very thin. But it was with the work of these incredible intellectuals, including Fontana, that they shine light on the culture and change and distribute it.
MC: Can you talk briefly about the process in making a work of this scale and ambition? Does your background in architecture influence the process?
AJ: Basically once I have a project, we develop it with professionals in the field, because I’m not a specialist in any of these things. I create models of things in the world. I work with ideas, I do not work with materials. So I consider myself a project artist, not a studio artist. I do projects. So for this one we first did a rilievo (a relief), a survey of the Giardini. We invited an office of architects to do that. It took three months. They gave us drawings of all the pavilions and of the Giardini. And then we gave this information to a model maker and with a team of seven people—a team based in Rome—they created the model. It’s the biggest thing they have ever done.
MC: What material is the Giardini made with?
AJ: It’s made with gray resin. And of course we had to do a lot of tests to study what’s going to happen with the color, with time, what’s going to happen with the movement, etc., etc., So maybe a fantastic study and then we realized it.
MC: And why is the color of the Giardini gray?
AJ: Because it’s a monument from history. So it looks like the monuments from Venice.
Photographs by Alex John Beck for Artsy