PEREGRINATIO – exiles and ambassadors
conversation between Alberto Zanchetta and Davide Graziolili
AZ > Conceptually and linguistically you have been called a “nomadic artist”, a quality which not by chance is reflected in your frequent travels between East and West, preferring destinations such as Asia and India. This cultural nomadism, so dear to the Eighties, intertwines life and art, but it remains to be seen whether you are more cosmopolitan or more stateless. I am asking you this because at times you have declared that you wanted to << forget your European roots>> and because I find the title of one of your works in 2003 significant: Spogliarsi dell’identità (Stripping oneself of one’s identity). Are we talking about drifting and landing places, loss and discovery – rather than about recovery? – of identity, between individuality and community…

DG> Already, this first question unleashes within me a way of thinking which I absorbed in India and which is a kind of circularity of approach. Specifically, it suggests a connection between these two apparently antithetical situations: the stateless and the cosmopolitan. From the very beginning, a certain degree of uprooting from my own place of origin has been a necessary, driving condition of travel and of the possibility of absorbing the other. It would have been difficult to become acquainted with Indian reality without prejudices, in other words without retaining, to some degree, my European heritage. One can say, in general, that it is useful for the traveller to be able to strip himself of his identity, however he manifests himself. In this sense it is true that I have felt the need to strip away my origin, while making clear that this dispossession is more in the nature of a goal to be aimed at, even if it proves difficult to achieve fully in practice. The result is to alleviate the difficulties which might otherwise make such an exchange problematic for the traveller. I wouldn’t want my statement to be misconstrued, the one which you quoted. I am, and in a way always will be, European, and I see no harm in this. But my interest in people who have embraced and assimilated different cultures remains keen. As soon as you embark on your travels you realise that there are many people like this around the world, but despite this, a too-impermeable identity might still constitute an obstacle. One of the most intense experiences I have ever lived was with Indian billboard painters, because at the highest point of their work I felt I was perceived as one of them. At that point we were a well-integrated group of people with a common purpose. This is not an ordinary result, especially if we consider the fact that in such a distant society each physical and even mimic characteristic risks stigmatising you as an alien (in India even the “yes” or “no” movements of the head are different from our own). To find oneself in situations where you are the only foreigner is an incredibly stimulating experience and it forces you to question your way of thinking. After that experience I have always tried to push myself into situations where interaction offered a challenge and where, in some way, I would be forced to put my own paradigms to one side, even in my approach to working. But this so-called stripping oneself of one’s identity, still referring to my work with enamel on tin painting which you mentioned, is also a reference to Buddhist and Hindu concepts which have permeated practically all creeds. In fact people speak of relinquishing “the conditioned self”, one’s worldly identity, in one’s search for the Unborn self, for that drop of divinity present in each man and which puts us into contact with the Totality. In this sense, by taking a step backwards, in and through “identification” we return to a level in which, being less ourselves, we manage to find the other and we discover that we are similar to others. In my case, I don’t know if I am more stateless or cosmopolitan but my feeling is that both things are inter-dependent. An attitude of non-definitive identification with another culture, understood in a traditional sense, remains alive in me nonetheless.

AZ> Let’s continue the discussion on the principle of physical migration and mental pilgrimage. Various legends exist that suit our case perfectly. Specifically, there is one that dates back to Medieval times which narrates the story of a wandering Jew condemned by Christ to walk to the ends of the centuries until judgement day. An exhausting, tormented ordeal towards an unreachable destination. For you, however, this restless wandering across the world is an indefatigable and at times even romantic modus vivendi, before it even becomes a modus operandi. Many Italian artists are fascinated by exoticism, and among the many striking names are: Alighiero Boetti, Luigi Ontani and Aldo Mondino. With the latter, moreover, you have shared part of your artistic journey. What is the spur, the experience in itself or the dialogue between cultures? How distant are these realities from each other?

DG> Movement and repetition of the same are the bearers of incredible gifts. If I associate them with concentricity very different situations spring to mind: walking around a pagoda while praying, drawing circles of prayer with one’s own body, the sufi dervishes who travel around or the more implosive movement of the Jews, up to the repetitive walk of a pilgrimage. Travel, even my own, is nothing other than different ways of emptying oneself and tuning in. Ways of transferring interior movement out to the exterior, and consequently of creating a moment of stasis within oneself. Let us say that it is an exercise in emptying oneself, so that we become able to see once more. Our eyes and our mind become accustomed to the context in which we live, distorting whatever is other; however, by forcing ourselves to remain in motion we force our perception to become highly active. Therefore I keep myself in motion. And within the context of this motion, experiences occur which may be exploited in a more indirect and less conditioned way. Contact between cultures is a consequence of this. Just recently we were talking of “porous boundaries” between cultures. To answer you, my spur is to attempt to flee this myopia which covers the eyes when we look at something consistently from the same viewpoint. Perhaps, as Terzani would say, << I am like the water of the stream, if I stop I stagnate>>. I fully share some of my fascination for other places with that of masters like Boetti, Ontani, Mondino; one feature, however, distinguishes my approach, the way in which I feel. I am speaking about the fact that today these worlds are no longer so far away and the figure of the Orientalist, who used to be the only one to travel, now belongs to the past. I have experienced this change as a direct spectator. If to talk about Asia (a concept which, in itself, is already a geographical abstraction) at one time meant to dive into a dream, today it would be impossible to understand contemporary life properly if you ignored it. During my brief decade of travels in Asia, I was witness to such a metamorphosis that I came to see it as the most representative place of the modern world – as Rampini declares – the social laboratory where the destinies of the world are played out, where solutions to planetary problems are tried out, such as the co-existence of different religions and the challenge of the environment.

AZ> Some years back you produced a sculpture which you used as a heraldic self-portrait. Conceived as a symbol of the infinite (where the All and the One are to be found in oneself), we see a lotus flower develop into an opium flower: neither have roots but they share the same stalk. Can we interpret this as a metaphor: the metaphor for wanting to and being able to transplant oneself elsewhere/anywhere, to connect once again with a reality which is not subjective, geographic or ethnic? Would you like to clarify the concept you have of unity and also, therefore, your concept of the place of return and of the regenerating power associated with it?

DG> The sculpture you allude to is exactly as you say, it represents two apparently opposite facets: one is associated with vice and the body, the other with spirituality and purification which unite into a unicum. At that time there was also a lot of talk about “healing” and the idea emerged that drugs alone cannot bring healing unless the soul too is healed. Both facets complement one another. Again, the idea of unity is something I have learnt in the Indian world and which can be applied to everyday life. In hundreds of different ways, Indian culture suggests that all the different forms of life, including man, are like drops of a single stream and that we are made of the same material of the universe. As to the idea of return, I live it on two levels: the first is the real return (backwards) towards home, which becomes a litmus test of change. Returning from a long stay in distant lands, the moment you re-immerse yourself in your home environment you may discover that you are the same as you always were, or you may discover that new bits, as it were, have been stitched onto you and become a permanent part of you. At one time my returns were of the first kind, now I would have to say they are more frequently the second. To be permeable and available is a central issue for me, perhaps the most demanding part of my work. One of the greatest rewards from my earlier travels was the discovery that my turn of mind seemed different, depending on where I lived. Features which had always appeared structurally necessary to me seemed different, then I understood that our beliefs are profoundly dependent on the place we find ourselves in. And that the outcome would be largely different, were we to live in different circumstances. One thing is the hardware of the character, another the software, or what we require in specific situations. My feeling is that we often fool ourselves into believing that we are the sum of the two, when what counts is really the first. Since that time, in one way or another, I have put what I think I know about myself to the test by travelling around and observing with my reactions; often I am very surprised. But on another level I feel I am living the return paradoxically, moving forwards instead of backwards. Only when far from home did I understand, for the first time, the value of transmitting traditions from one generation to the next, and so I have re-appropriated elements of my culture which had passed me by. After spending time with families in which the adolescent still asks his or her grandparents for advice on important issues, I understood the value of a kind of family structure which had disappeared in my own home at least a generation before me. I loved what I saw and I re-appropriated it thanks to my experience of another society… this for me constitutes a return. A return which is won by a kind of self-distancing is evident also in my discovery, while in India, of an interest in the figure of Christ, and I came once again to appreciate certain values from my world which I had not been fully aware of in Europe. This is the kind of oneness I am alluding to. Hinduism has 330 million deities but I have never met a Hindu who would hesitate for a second to tell me that God is a single entity.

AZ> Distance and proximity; you don’t mind if I insist on the similarities or discrepancies between East and West, but I think it is a focal point of your research. From the start it would be necessary to analyse the polemic, more condemnatory component which pervades your work of more recent years, with the ability to lead you from concrete, lived experience to the universal or ideal realm, and vice versa. Then there is a not insignificant thing that deserves discussion, namely the fact that Indian art is suffused with horror vacui and that it often tends to border on the kitsch; therefore much attention is devoted to ornament – abstract, symbolic – which reduces the world to pure appearance. Take, for example, motives which turn into prayers: these are proof of the desire to debunk the decalcomania of reality, a typically western vexation. Not least, tradition tends to prefer spiritual themes, which you yourself have cherished (obviously in your case not sacred art but work which has religious implications) but also eroticism, an ars erotica which our culture has preferred to convert into a scientia sexualis… but your work shows no trace of this.

DG > It is thanks to this very ONENESS by which India is permeated, that there is no real dichotomy between concrete experience and universality. Indians pass from one to the other with the agility of one who is quite unaware of that boundary. My approach in this respect has probably evolved, but I have not been overly conscious of it. And the outcome is that never before have the micro and the macro seemed so close to me. It is this multiple, hyper-contemporary and at the same time ancestral reality which has inspired my recent work. I think you are referring to my work on animals which are close to extinction, created in the form of incense sculptures. In that sense much of my work has drawn from that quality of Indian-ness, whose very fulcrum is impermanence, transitoriness. As for Indian aesthetics, it is so vast and changeable that you can find everything inside it, from horror vacui to extreme visual syntheses. Most familiar, certainly, is the rich and fluid character of the image, but here again India evades easy definition. As I said, what makes the greatest impression on me is actually what is most common, which of course is often destined to be destroyed in some ritual. This impermanence excited me right from the start when in Calcutta, along with Aldo Mondino, I saw sculptors prepare the clay statues destined to be burnt or abandoned in the river current to celebrate the Diwali. One of the most touching things of this classic art are the bronze sculptures of Tamil Nadu, obviously difficult to access. As for erotic art, I actually worked on the theme once, a long time ago, but not after that, probably because this aspect is one of the most well-known in the West and therefore it is less easy to investigate

AZ> Let me turn your attention to two books. The first is a novel written by a friend of mine, Occidente nonoccidente (West, non-west) by Gianni Actis-Barone

[ Piero Manni Editor, Lecce 2002]. What I want to look at here is the title; if related to the hemispheres of the brain, left and right, rational and irrational, we may note the opposition between the civil West and the barbarous non-west (“non-west” is not only a bland omission of the term “orient” but an opposition, in and by default). In the same way as we insist on saying that the East is all the more close, the author for his part has one of his characters say: << what remains certain is that the West is close>>. We need to break down the preconceived notion of the Third World, especially now that India and Asia have shown how underdevelopment can evolve into (a) super power. Thinking by way of defined identities, and paradoxes, I find the personal show inaugurated in Madras in 2003 equally indicative, the one which you called Accidental Occidental.

DG> The antitheses, civil/barbarous, scientific/irrational, have origins as ancient as they are questionable. It still remains true to date that much of the West reproduces the prejudice without even realising it. It is precisely because of these stubborn attempts to seal off civilisations that, at a certain point, I decided to look at the same history, but from the perspective of the other side. The first thing I had to realize is that there was a whole civilisation in the Indo valley – Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro – which represented the broadest political experiment prior to the advent of the Roman Empire. An urban culture of the Bronze age, with buildings on four levels with hot water, all this a few thousand years before Christ. These “barbarians” already possessed a complete pantheon of divinities and had techniques for body control based on breathing and the use of sound which we might call proto-yoga. Much later on, while the Holy Inquisition on our behalf was condemning people to burn at the stake, India had already known emperors like Ashoka and Akbar, famous for having promoted religious tolerance and even non-interference by the State in all creeds. And I could go on, but what I would like to emphasize is the extent of the re-interpretation of history which was made to serve our western-centric outlook.

AZ> And now to the other book. Following the successful Il Secolo cinese (The Chinese Century), Federico Rampini has become an authentic best seller, confirmed by the recent L’impero di Cindia (The Empire of Cindia) (Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Milano 2006] in which he explains – as you have just hinted – that << Cindia is not only the aggregate of the two most populated nations of the planet: it is the new centre of the world, where the future of humanity is decided>>. Rampini notes that America and Europe will be downgraded, giving way to a millenary civilisation, the Sino-Indian one, an authentic demographic, economic, cultural reservoir. Some parade their fear, invite a reaction, hope alongside others to confront this imposing “new” nerve centre. But let us leave alarmism aside, true or false as it may be; let us interrogate another issue, which posits an opposition between globalisation and tradition. Do you think there will still be space/time to be “entranced by the music of serpent enchanters”, or will we end up crushed by the background humming noise which modernity brings with?

DG> We Westerners, above all, have the feeling that Asia is changing irreparably, veering towards a new form, very distant from that anti-western charm of the past. This conclusion is pretty much inevitable, and it often troubles me. In particular, one can’t avoid asking oneself who is going to chant for us that song of the spirit, so necessary if we are to return to equilibrium, if in fact those cultures are going to give way to a consumerism/materialism similar in every way to our own. This is my response to you as an apprehensive Westerner, but there is always another response, and it is that of my Indian friends, and it opens up further and maybe more fertile possibilities. They are used to considering India for what it is: a fluid, ‘Indianising’ container. They are less fearful of the lasting effects of this “vogue” which they feel is more a “fleeting” adolescent infatuation. India did not even become anglicizes after centuries of colonialism and even this time it will not change too much. In any case she will be the one to have the upper hand, seducing any new arrivals into her own image just as it happened with all the invaders. If we look back over the centuries we cannot say that this view is not fully comprehensible, but we must ask ourselves to what extent the media today is able to impact on this situation. The typical Indian way of “appropriating, Indianising foreign elements” is very well represented by an image, painted in the early 20th century, which shows a Krishna playing his flute; but not on a tree, or on a lotus flower, but on a Rolls Royce. The Indians of the time had certainly taken on board the motorcar which they had viewed in the displays of the English, but it did not take them long to use it as a pedestal for their own divinity.

AZ> A concept very dear to you is ecology. But let us examine this word more closely: the Greek etymology yields two terms, “home” and “discourse”, which enables me to return to the need to tell or recount, to give voice to what is thought and seen. Each journey, even the shortest – for example the trip from door to garden – begs to be described, encountering the surrounding world with awareness (from the dawn of time we find ourselves under a – vital – ceiling of stars). The first step should rouse the mind more than the body, am I right?

DG> Exactly. When you travel and are “available” you welcome the other inside you, you succeed in changing yourself. But you change also because the images and information you have about the world are enriched. If I had restricted myself to observing the planet from my study window, I could have ended up believing that little or nothing was changing. Instead I have run into rivers which are vast and completely dried up, I have seen forests disappear in the blink of a few months, I have seen the age-old migratory route of the elephants usurped by the villas of the wealthy, who now shoot at the pachyderms which, guided by ancient instinct seek once again to run along that track, ruining their gardens. And now that I have seen, I am not the same as before. This too is travel.

AZ> Now that we have ascertained the roots, it is time to unravel the rhizomes. I will use a crucial image, that of a tree, which not by chance runs through the last phase of your work, a motif you have borrowed from ancient cosmologies. As axis, it highlights its presence across religions but also across cultures and the arts, therefore the reference to Paul Klee is inevitable, where he resorted to the analogy of the tree to identify the essence of the artist in the trunk. Precisely because the trunk develops in a vertical way, going up or going down, we are able to recognise a movement within it quite distinct from flat horizontality. The artist is therefore a median point from which a line emerges, a route which multiplies thanks to an unstoppable efflorescence. A potentiality which corresponds to a natural proliferation, from the branch to the bulb to the tuber. A fragmentation which sets off a process of arboreal decentralisation, engaging being and becoming, identity and the other. It follows that it is impossible, and not merely unproductive, to doze off in the shadow of the leafy branches.

DG> From all that you say, the concept which touches me the most is that of becoming…. “the unstoppable efflorescence”, that is very beautiful. I don’t want to glorify the figure of the artist as much as define a feature of change which I feel is inevitable. Nevertheless, today there is a limit to this continuum of several thousand years: our civilisation has come into collision with the planet. At this time I cannot but think that our link to the universe – to the most absolute mystery – is our very own planet and that the superimposition of ecology/spirituality is, therefore, anything but inappropriate.

AZ> We could go on talking for hours, raising questions about the possibility of being anywhere and nowhere, about the One as All, or insisting on the age-old distinction between the indigenous and the original. At least, I think we have approached as best we can the concepts permeating your research. All I need to do now is to cut the umbilical cord and highlight the belly button around which we have taken a stand with all our words, and to do this I intend to inconvenience two great thinkers: looking at your work we may, with Plotinus, agree that << we are many things>>, while the animistic significance governing the journey-quest may be explained as Plato did, he who defined the soul as << that which moves itself >>. To finish, to return abruptly to recent times, I will quote Kierkegaard, because << only thieves and gypsy women believe you must never return to where you have already been>>. Am I forgetting something or can we finish the journey we have shared on the wings of mind and spirit?

DG> Thief and gypsy are perfect adjectives to describe artists. Return, however, is something which I do not repudiate and which has an important function, it is a measure of change, a significant parameter. I greatly appreciated a sentence which emerged on the occasion of the Terzani prize on the theme of otherness: << if we start digging to find our roots, we will only find other roots, which at some level interweave with