CLEANING UP THE NON-ESSENTIALS
Maria Vassileva in conversation with Valentina Sciarra
Maria Vassileva: What is the connection between law (your first academic degree) and art? And do you see an extension of your master’s thesis on European cohesion policy in your art?
Valentina Sciarra: Many people over the years have asked me this question, and I have never changed the answer. The link between the study of law and art is such a close link, based on the common root of the two disciplines that I simply define as the art of interpreting our society.
This was my interest when I decided to study law and, in parallel, photography.
I wrote my thesis on European cohesion policy while travelling in Eastern European countries – between Hungary and Romania, thanks to scholarships from the University of Law – when these countries were about to join the European Union in 2007. I was researching not only the legal process of cohesion between the new states, but also photographing/capturing the reality of the people of these countries.
It is widely believed – a serious mistake – that legal rules are an a-priori concept of society, capable of imposing abstract rights and duties “from above”. Thanks to the personal experience of studying both disciplines, I can instead confirm that both follow a “hermeneutic process, or a study process, aimed at identifying the deep meaning of our society. And this (perhaps utopian) goal of getting to know our society inspires me to continue to be an artist today.
In my opinion, the law describes our society through the interesting correlation between rights and duties: just think about the word right. In specialist language, it is used as much to describe a situation of “faculty or permission” as a situation of “power”.
Furthermore, as Norberto Bobbio – one of the great legal philosophers of our time, unfortunately little known outside the legal field – argues, the law speaks in an emancipatory language. “Ex-mancipium” translates literally as “liberation from slavery”. Finally, for me, the system of law has the great purpose of developing an ethical awareness of humanity. That is, recognizing the individual does not only have the right to live…
I could go on for a long time, identifying other intersections between art and law, but I hope that the brief references I just mentioned will emerge from my works. Like the materials I use in my sculptures to show the tension between right and duty, and the topics explored in my exhibition projects, such as ex-mancipium declarations and the right to go beyond the simple act of breathing air (but also to think consciously!).
M.V.: I did not ask this question by accident. Your works seem abstract at first glance, but in most cases they say a lot about the world we live in. It is no coincidence that you have a constant interest in public projects. Tell us about some of your more successful interventions. Do you think that art can change the way people think? What are the ways, in today’s image-rich age, contemporary art can contribute to audience literacy?
V.S.: I do not consider literacy one of the main purposes of art, but I believe in its capacity to clean up our society by removing non-essentials to humans.
Let me explain better:
The aestheticisation of all experiences that characterises our contemporary era has led to a modification of the aesthetic behaviour of the “human animal”, with people increasingly in search of extemporary and carefree sensory satisfactions that transfigure the dimensions of everyday life, as well as looking for opportunities to escape and for experiences that help a person recognise and identify themselves.
Art – or rather the art that I like – affirms the opposite, i.e. a procedure for “cleaning up” the non-essentials. This art is capable of identifying only those experiences, objects, colours, smells… everything that is essential to ourselves and capable of fulfilling our need for perpetual search and completing us. A goal even more difficult to achieve when it comes to art in the public space.
I have in mind two works in public spaces that I love very much, because both show there are really still immense possibilities for development in public art, especially here in Bulgaria.
The first Energetika was made for SAW (Sofia Art Week) 2020, and it is a site-specific video installation on the (already) splendid façade of the Bulgarian Ministry of Energy. The façade has a circular stone relief about 10 m in diameter and only the name Energetika at the bottom. Note its fantastic font and the absence of any institutional title, only the name!
With “swan song” being the main theme of SAW 2020, which is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort or performance given just before death, I chose this place as the last or first act of fire, a meteorite or incandescent sun capable of transmitting pure energy.
In addition, phrases and concepts containing the name Energetika that spread one after the other to describe energy as industrial, scientific and technological power, but also internal, of the body and mind. Energy in the widest possible sense.
I had previously worked on video installations but never on public buildings.
Even though I personally am not a fan of spectacular multimedia installations, Energetika – I hope – can go further. In fact, in this case, the purpose of the work was not just to stage a fiery show, but to materially transform the façade of the building into something totally different from what it represents, using the immutable elements of the façade.
Energy is not only electrical, solar, thermal, but also vital and mental lymph. But how to represent all forms of energy in the same place and at the same time? I believe it was only possible on that September night in Sofia.
The second work is a land artwork at the Strupanitsa Rock Formation, Lukovit.
Strupanitsa is the largest ancient landslide (rock-fall) in Bulgaria, and it has immense rocks that look like titanic geometric shapes.
The only problem: everything was inaccessible when I discovered it.
At the end, the work I created, The Path of the Oscillating Stones, can be described as a walking path between vegetation and rocks, capable of taking us to the centre of the landslide, where, in addition to a breath-taking landscape, we can also end a kind of “inner” journey.
I know that the path has been partially shortened because it is difficult to keep clean, but it is still there, waiting for new visitors.
M.V.: I listened to an interview of yours entitled by the journalist “Valentina Sciarra is looking for the soul of the stone”. The interview was conducted in connection with the presentation of the video The Stone King at the National Museum of Natural History. You have a certain attitude towards stone, but not as a dead material for sculpting, and rather as something alive, part of nature. Maybe that’s why it’s not enough for you to only work with pieces of stones in the studio, and you also make land art, looking for the image of the stone where it lives, in nature. Do you think that art has moved too far away from nature and the world around it? It will be interesting to learn more about your opinion of art from this point of view, as well as about projects related to the nature around us.
V.S.: I believe – as all people, I think – that nowadays not only art but our entire daily life (material and spiritual) has definitely moved away from nature. Our relationship with nature has profoundly changed in the last two centuries.
If before the industrial revolution our relationship with nature was based, for example, on the fair exchange of resources with it, on a “sacred” perception of nature, or on the principle of mere aesthetic contemplation; I think we now live in a transitional period, in which we have understood the urgency of finding new principles to follow in order to reconnect with nature, because it is evident that fighting it represents a losing strategy.
But even if the concept of “environmental protection” is perfectly right and desirable, it has condemned us to a state of nostalgia for purity; where the concept of “love of nature” is like an advertising slogan, a shared attitude but devoid of meaning…
One of the most recurring research themes in my works is exactly a new attitude of “living naturally” or in total communion with nature, without denying the great technology at our disposal and without escaping from the metropolis and taking refuge in the trees. I call it deliberate living in nature.
I seek – in my daily life as in my works – to acquire an individual awareness. For this purpose, concreteness is needed, not abstraction.
This research is carried out in particular in stone: starting from a participatory observation of the stone, I believe there is an involvement of the observer’s body, gaze and mind, all at the same time. As you rightly said, it’s an attitude towards stone, but not as a dead material for sculpture, but as something alive.
Among my works, the one that perhaps expresses this the most, I believe, is a video called The Stone King – paradoxically a digital work.
The video presents the act of a man walking relentlessly over immense rocks, following the rhythm of a voiceover, probably his conscience.
I believe that, during the 14 minutes, the infinite expansion of the individual and the mind is confronted with the continuous rediscovery of the finitude of the impressive rocky forms. And perhaps, if I think about it, this constant confrontation with the limit is the final ecological message that I would like to convey to all of us…
M.V.: In 2019, you showed the work Madre Terra in the exhibition Finale at Structura Gallery. What is the idea behind it?
V.S.: As I said in answer to your first question, the focus of my research is probably simply our society. Using a multimedia language – sculpture, video, sound – I explore aspects of collective and social life, structuring an invitation to confront this reality in an unprecedented way.
And I hope MadreTerra fully represents this binomial: conceptual research through aesthetic materials and forms (to me, aesthetic = perfect balance between spirit and matter). More specifically, MadreTerra is a (heavy!) mural sculpture of a particular Turkish onyx marble chosen by me for its geological conformation.
The large stone slabs were mounted at an angle almost “inside” the wall of the Structura Gallery (I still remember the anxiety of installing it vertically, as the sculpture weighs more than 350 kg in total).
In fact, the goal was to clearly show the grandiose process of layering from within.My intention was to present in a direct and “material” way the concept of social stratification, in my opinion one of the main drivers of our society.
In concrete terms, every society, in a given historical period, is stratified on the basis of a specific combination of external dominating principles (for example, political, religious or cultural); but ultimately the stratification is the effect of internal and relatively spontaneous differentiation processes.
Stratification has always played a decisive role for me in determining social behaviour; in particular now, in our technological age – which is only at its beginning. I wonder what will be the guiding principle of stratification of our future technological society?
M.V.: Very often you juxtapose stone with plaster – a material that look more fragile and artificial, or make objects out of paper that resemble stone. What is the rationale behind these comparisons, behind this play?
V.S.: The works you mentioned are precisely part of a research dedicated to stone sculpture that began here in Bulgaria, from which a new code of stone sculpture was born. I call it a “bloodless stone sculpture”.
The way of acting is not directed at shaping, moulding, giving form to the stone, but the focus is on growing or transfiguring the potentiality of a “stone rock”.
And the plaster has a fundamental function in this sense; because it manages to complete the process of “cancellation of time” thanks to its “being negative”, both for its colour (white is by definition the colour of death) and for its shape which is the immediately obvious negative of the stone rock.
The series was born from a reflection on contemporary ruin – a very fashionable topic in artistic circles even if I have so far seen few interesting artists in this regard.
In my opinion, contemporary ruin has dissipated its ability to restore a vivid image of history and to manifest the present forms of a past life.
My ruins are not a recovery of an origin, but unlimited “distractions”, suspended and unfinished forms. In this sense, plaster, associated by osmosis with stone, represents precisely that negative portion of the vision.
The ruins are in fact intermediate objects, placed on the border between the real and the imaginary…
Finally, origami are simply ruins… light, light ruins… of stone, ready to be blown away by the first breath of wind.
M.V.: You made a series I Giganti where you used old furniture from the 50s, totally abandoned and unwanted, and combine parts of it with marble. Please tell me your thoughts about that project and the meaning of the title.
V.S.: The series of sculptures I Giganti was born in 2019 thanks to a commission of the Italian Cultural Institute in Sofia. The Institute does not have a real venue for exhibitions or meetings; mostly it consists of a large “office” for language courses –no comment on the value attributed to Italian culture abroad.
But, in the end, it was the “place”, an apartment, that gave me the inspiration for this new series of sculptures, dedicated to the concept of historical memory and its presence/absence in our contemporary culture and life.
As suggested by Pasolini in the Corsair Writings, in particular in the article “The Disappearance of the Fireflies”, our relationship with historical memory is characterised by a progressive destruction of the past, or to put it better, of the social mechanisms that connect the experience of contemporaries to that of previous generations.
The younger generations have grown up in a sort of permanent present, in which there is no organic relationship with the historical past.
The recent history of Europe is summed up in this inability to “fall in time” and recognise it, to work on memory, but also to go beyond it to extend its borders and build on it. In my opinion, Bulgaria – like Italy, of course – fully reflects this contemporary attitude.
The Giants are like tombs that make us meditate on our own mortality, evoking existential loneliness and a delicate sadness, awakening a vague bitter-sweet comfort linked to the awareness that every form of life shares the same destiny. An ephemeral and transient destiny.
Nos esse quasi nanos gigantum humeris insidientes – we are like dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, said Bernard de Chartres.
The giants are our stories, the successive and contradictory faces we have had in the past, and as such, they personify the personal and collective experience that we carry around like our cultural luggage.
From their tall shoulders, we can see more things and a little further away. Despite having very weak eyesight, we can, with their help, go beyond memory and oblivion.
M.V.: Your new film is called The Divorce. What is all about?
V.S.: The Divorce is my last video made possible thanks to the invaluable support of the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart.
It is a decidedly daring video, dealing with an essential topic for me, but still far from common knowledge: the perception of time and the abolition of the concept of absolute time – I mean, our (wrong!) conception that time is physically represented by the passage of seconds, minutes, hours, etc…
Einstein had already clearly expressed his opinion about it, through the theory of space-time relativity, but science has only in recent years physically proved the correctness of the statement that time equal to all and measurable by clocks does NOT exist.
In short, science has shown that the experience of time is created by the mind and, therefore, what remains are only personal and unlimited perceptions of time. The Divorce is dedicated to this concept.
Thanks to the fantastic team – editing by Rayna Teneva, camera by Tilmann Rödiger and sound by Ivo Paunov – I tried to open the way towards this new conception of time, which in my opinion is closely linked to the main and most urgent unresolved questions of our era, such as and not only, the search for a sustainable lifestyle, a harmonious relationship with nature, criticism of the concept of working and the society of abundance. In fact, a new world is hiding behind this simple “change” of the definition of time.
As I have already said, I believe we are in a time of transition, full of disorientation and confusion. We see that the old social canons can no longer represent the future and we are looking for “new canons” capable of calming this general anxiety. Personally, I believe that a different conception of time can really be the turning point in overcoming this state of transience.
I hope we will soon leave absolute time to the machines, which without they obviously could not work, but will retake possession of our perceptions of time as the first act of individual freedom, because from this choice a new path could truly open up to humans. It might seem trivial that a simple change in the conception of time can truly revolutionise an entire planetary system. But I believe that I am not alone in considering it possible.
M.V.: You have a particularly broad view of the world, which does not move on the surface of today, but includes historical accumulations and philosophical perspectives. And, of course, includes nature as a witness to history and an inspirer for reflection. We do not often see such an all-encompassing view as a duty of contemporary art. Do you think today’s art is too focused on its own problems?
V.S.: As you have probably understood, I am very critical and wary of art as an end in itself. In 1851, in Opera and Drama, Wagner theorised the breaking of the boundaries between the arts: all of them would be expressed under the guidance of ars una through the creation of a single artistic object, the total work of art…
Fascinating and I believe, apart from its historical past, this Wagnerian intuition is very appropriate nowadays. The ideal work of art is therefore a total work of art; in other words, a synthesis of all the expressive and representative forms human beings are and will be capable of. Art is a powerful tool, since it can give a physical form to our representations and use distinct and sometimes opposing grammars, combine emotions and reason, material and technological, hell and heaven. In our world full of artists, we must only look in the right direction, il resto e’ noia (I like this Italian expression very much).
M.V.: Even though you shoot video and use technology, your works seem to be anti-technological, as if they stand opposed to it by going back to the primary, to the bone. How do you feel about new technologies and their connections with art?
V.S.: I am very happy you said this! For me, your opinion means that I am succeeding in my attempt to bring the “technological unconscious” – that’s what I call it – out into the open (and thereby make it material or alive in a certain sense). This “technological unconscious” is already inside us but is still struggling to get out.
I firmly believe in the potential of technology, and thanks to this process of materialisation, we will finally be able to be happy! Yes, to be happy thanks to technology and not only suffer from its radiation…
It is now not just a question of stimulating collective reflection on what kind of “human” and “humanity” is co-emerging thanks to technology. There is a provocative hypothesis, which I think is interesting, is that new technologies streak by building a world in which “life” begins to flow from the future to the present and no longer from the past to the present, as it has been until now.
My generation, being the last one between a pre-digital and a completely digital world, I believe, has serious responsibilities on this issue. I find exclusively technological approaches or, the opposite, exclusively material approaches to art, simply superficial. For this reason, in all my works, I try to convey the sense that the limit between the material and technology is almost imperceptible. My desire is to be able to precisely shape “matter”, technological or not, without any prejudice and in total freedom. And so go to the bone…
M.V.: What do you want to show in your upcoming exhibition in Structura Gallery?
V.S.: Let’s just say that, after abandoning the conception of absolute time, I just have to offer ways to no longer be afraid of death.