Veronica Botticelli, Claudia Peill, Perino & Vele, Daniel Rich, Chiara Valentini
text by Donatella Mezzotero
“Generations are becoming ever worse.
There will come a time in which they will become so bad
they will worship power: the power which means rights
for them, and respect for goodwill will vanish.
Finally, when man will no longer be able to
be offended by injustice or ashamed
before meanness, Zeus will destroy him.
However, even then, there will be hope, if
only common man will rise up and overthrow
the tyrants that oppress him”
Greek myth on the Age of Iron
Migration today has become one of the key issues both as regards government policy and public opinion, creating political clashes and ethical and moral debate.
The question is really about the large numbers: 25,000 people landed in Europe between June 2018 and May 2019, and in the previous year there were 35,000. A significant decrease, thanks to the invisible walls set up by the European Union. In fact, starting in 2017, agreements were signed with Libya whose objective was to hinder the departure of immigrants by strengthening the patrolling of the Libyan coast. The agreement obliged Brussels and Italy to supply the Libyan Coast Guard with funds, ships, motorboats and military equipment. More recently similar agreements have been reached with Tunisia and Morocco. This continues, though a UN report released in late 2018 documented crimes against the migrants carried out in Libya by the state functionaries and militias: illegal and arbitrary imprisonment in official and nonofficial centres, torture, rape, kidnappings for ransom, extortion, forced labour and even killings.
So, to promote internal security, the political urgency of putting a stop to these arrivals has become more important than human rights, and we, as if psychically self-censored, are have become blind to these abuses.
We have lost sight of the fact that the problem, rather than immigration, is xenophobia, or the diffidence we feel towards those who are different from us, foreigners. Our behaviour is determined by fear, that can only depress our social intelligence. Even Plato in one of his mature works expresses his concerns regarding travellers. Whatever their motivation might be, a traveller is only a “migrating bird”, and as such he should be welcomed; certainly, but “outside the city”. Magistrates should be careful that, “no stranger of this type introduce any innovation” into the city, and that relations with him are limited to what is necessary and “that these are as scarce as possible” (Dialogue on Laws XII, 952).
Instead today Regina Catrambone, the co-founder and director of MOAS (the first humanitarian organisation to send a ship to sea to aide migrants attempting to crossing to Europe) says; “Migrants, refugees, asylum seekers are being more and more often represented as numbers, their tragedies are minimised and their lives used in compiling statistics. When the official story is limited to numbers and data, the people disappear. (…) They become invisible because though we speak about them, we never speak to them and we do not listen to their stories. It is easy to depersonalize someone about whose story, face and dreams we know nothing. It is not necessary to be particularly strong to offend or be cruel with a number. Numbers have no sentiments or scars. However, behind each number there exists a person, in flesh and blood who has dreams and a soul in search of a future in which peace reigns”.
The first work in the exhibition THE INVISIBLE at the Galleria Anna Marra is an interactive environmental installation entitled Presenze (2019) by Chiara Valentini. The artist created this work as part of the project Passaggi (Passages), organised by the McZee Cultural Association together with the Macerata committee of the Italian Red Cross and sponsored by ICOM Italia.
Collaborating with asylum seekers staying with the Red Cross in Macerata, Chiara Valentini set up ten scarecrows, those dummies with human characteristics used by farmers since antiquity to scare off birds and protect their crops. But here the face of each is a self-portrait of one of the young people who participated in the relational art project, placing in the inert and anonymous dummies a trace of personality and vital energy.
The artist here is making a direct reference to Lyman Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz in which a scarecrow accompanies Dorthey on her trip to Oz and metaphorically toward an understanding of herself. Many scholars find social and political allegory in Baum’s children’s story, and in particular, the scarecrow is seen to represent farmers/agricultural workers.
Valentini herself chose this figure as a reference to the fact that many immigrant children find work as agricultural labourers and that land as a source of support and a fertile place is a universally shared concept.
The scarecrows in this choral work, becomes a representation of an object of prejudice, offered to the visitor with the hope that he/she overcome their initial fear of these enigmatic figures. Okoro Prince, Akhgbe Damian, Ahmod Shamin Soumamoro Namoury, Kieta Moussa, Howlader Nur Jamal, Muhammad Amjad Jayedm, MD Azizul Islam, Darboe Sheriff M.L., Sharmim Ahmod, Njie Dawda: are the ten protagonists that have contributed their faces to the work whose power fills the room. They are presences, but they remain invisible without interaction with others. In fact it is only as we approach these scarecrows that it is possible to hear their voices, which are activated by an electronic system that makes the work sensitive to nearby visitors. Their stories reveal little clues to their young lives, that create a mental link to them even outside the physical space of the exhibition and an empathy based on common experiences and feelings.
Continuing through the exhibition we encounter the works of Daniel Rich, Manhattan (2019) and Bauhaus (Orange) (2018). Here as is usual in the works of this artist from Berlin, are detailed and meticulous portrayals of buildings and exteriors. Though without people, Rich’s artistic research focuses on man. In fact the artist investigates how architecture and urban space are expressions of the way in which we live and of our several political and social structures.
Rich starts with images taken from Google, newspapers or photographs, and then by applying a precise and laborious technique that uses hand-cut stencils, hundreds of colours, brushes and spatulas, he creates paintings rich in detail, straight lines and smooth surfaces. The resulting paintings are lively, luminous compositions depicting an alienating world, that presumes but does not include man. Structures and buildings crowd each other suffocatingly, cities become hive-like, characterised by a horror vacui that leaves no space for man and reminds us of the “City of Freedom”, described in the Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain: a dense grouping of coffins, the form of which remind us precisely of the cells constructed by bees, though these are well publicized to convince workers they have no need for either home or family.
The works of Veronica Botticelli and Claudia Peill present a contrast to this vision. They instead show us a more intimate setting centered on the uniqueness of the individual.
The work by Veronica Botticelli is a soft, melancholic work, made of personal experiences, familiar and domestic objects immersed in dreamy, evanescent and abstract backgrounds: Botticelli repeats infinite series of sofas, bicycles and sewing machines, as if they were mnemonic fetishes and so makes them true archetypes able to awaken the spectator’s memories.
Her titles for these two works, Lontano da Roma (Far from Rome) and Via di qui (Away from here) (2018-19), betray her nostalgia, having moved from Rome to Paris where she lives in the unease of strangeness. The armchairs are clearly defined against the background, wallpaper which covers the entire canvas, but at the same time wallpaper is partially covered, wrapped and crossed, as in an incoherent dream, a flash of a sudden and indistinct memory.
Each of the objects portrayed appears suspended in both time and space, as if just waiting to be moved, “to return to life”, a momentary stillness that allows us to perceive human presence and evokes it without ever representing it directly. The visitor’s rapport with Botticelli’s pictures comes to a climax when he/she recognize themselves in the familiarity of the representations and thus become the tangible presence to whom the artist only alluded on the canvas.
Claudia Peill merges photography and painting in her works in a constant deception. Her work PdO_17_4 (2017) is a series dedicated to the Portico di Ottavia, an ancient Roman monument.
One of the characteristics of Peill’s research is to place photographs of architectural details, rendered irreal by postproduction manipulation of the images, next to areas of colour – abstract or monochromatic. In this way a well-known place becomes unusual and viewers have contrasting and disturbing sensations that keep them on edge between senses of familiarity and strangeness. The details and spaces in the works challenge viewers to reconstruct the universal using the mental associations the works stimulate in them.
The places immortalized by the artist seem but pretexts: drain covers and shutters become graphic patterns, classical sculpture and elements of industrial archeology become one after the other indistinctly, counterpoints to painted areas in a play of references among images, shapes and colours. Photography and painting are perfectly fused, to the point that the viewer finds it difficult to perceive them exactly. This though Peill creates precise borders between the two types of area: the recurrence and precisely delineated duality of her works is so balanced it creates a delicate harmony. Technique and composition disappear and the picture is perceived as pure, subliminal image that communicates directly through form and colour without being self-referential.
Though the human figure is again absent it is a protagonist, precisely because it is placed in the centre of an intention to connect between what is portrayed and the viewer’s experiences.
The exhibition closes with the paper mâché sculptures of Perino & Vele, an artistic duo that has always used art an instrument to make social statements.
Kubarkbag (2005) is a bag full of disorderly sheets of paper, the reference is to the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual used by CIA agents that illustrated military interrogation techniques. It was top secret until 1997. The text describes in detail coercive methods which can be used to obtain information from captives. The pages of the Kubark, rendered metaphorically illegible by the maceration process of the paper for the paper mâché, has been reduced to leaflets ready for distribution, becoming a symbol of the affirmation of personal freedom, of the victory of democracy over violence. Before the invention of movable print news could only be transmitted orally, or, for the higher social classes, as manuscripts, so leaflets represented the answer of the people against the powerful, becoming an instrument of mass communication and propaganda fundamental in uprisings and revolutions.
In the Elpìs series, to which the work shown here Elpìs 04 (2013) belongs, paper mâché is not used by Perino & Vele as in its destructive aspect, that literally shreds newspapers and metaphorically the everyday life they contain, but rather as a material that intends rather to open up to a hope for a better future. In fact the word “elpìs” comes from classical Greek and literally means “hope”. The series made up of paper mâché sheets of paper piled in large amphorae was inspired by the myth of Pandora, the young lady who disobeys Zeus and opens the vase he had entrusted to her, and so frees all the ills of the world, but finally, also hope.
The use of Vases as the figurative containers of adversity and tribulations is found in other myths and stories. The last task Psyche must complete before she can reunite with Eros is to descend to Persephone in Hades to ask her to place some of her beauty into a vase. Overcome by her curiosity and vanity, Psyche opens the ampulla before giving it to Venus and faints from the poison that was what in reality it contained.
Instead in the Odyssey we read: “(…) bad council won out. They opened the leather bag, all the winds flew out, grabbed them and whisked them far out to sea, crying, far from their homeland”.
In conclusion the exhibition is an open cycle, that speaks about mankind, offering the visitor ideas on which to reflect, regarding some of the key issues linked to our society, from the most intimate and familiar aspects to the alienation typical of our metropolises, from the uniqueness of individuals to our collective consciousness. Each of the artists has used a different point of view to tell mankind’s story.