Art critic
“Most contemporary images, videos, paintings, plastic arts, audiovisuals, image syntheses, are literally images in which there is nothing to see, images without trace, without shadow, without consequences. What we perceive is that behind each of these something has disappeared. These images hide nothing, and reveal nothing”
Jean Baudrillard, The transparency of evil, Sugarco, 1991
The relationship between East and West is one of the many problems which philosophy has been unable to resolve. If the migrations of symbols in the artistic arena have thrived off chance and blind discovery, often occurring fortuitously and never through a conscious program of implantation, it is somewhat different in the philosophical arena: there, some issues are destined to remain on the sidelines or at least considered inaccessible to clarification. And yet a third way often lies between forms and thought itself – Art, an indefinite term but the only term we have.  This, indeed, establishes a kind of identity of opposites which draws simply on the history of forms and which pretends to ignore its deep roots in the culture and history of man. It is not ignorance, so much as an intentional amnesia, willed and controlled. Art cannot thrive off memory otherwise it would be an auxiliary science of history. It lives on betrayals, impossible challenges, aspirations. In its world of appearances there is a fugitive and transitory solution to every problem, even to problems which philosophy has been unable to resolve until Marx proclaimed its inadequacy, opposing ideology to religion and hypostatizing transformation as act instead of sterile potentiality. Davide Grazioli has been working along these lines for almost a decade, in a stable nomadic lifestyle led between Italy and Southern India. His travelling lifestyle has a meaning and sensibility which is suggestively modern. He does not seek total seclusion in the new culture, as might have been the case for past generations, rather he seeks forms of cohabitation with this culture, implantation: he seeks to become “incorporated” – to achieve a synthesis of different elements – as he said not long ago in an interview with an Indian journalist. But we cannot deal with these issues as if they were simply a matter of cultural exchange, akin to a governmental program! In actual fact, Grazioli takes it for granted that he will remain a westerner. There’s a similarity here to the way symbols migrated in the Romanesque period: dragons and all the marvels of a far-away and fabled country were imported in the form of jewels and Chinese sphragistics, and modified in a European style. The roots don’t change, but the symbols move forward, these too driven by a nomadism fertile with images and migrant forms. To this cultural breathing space, Grazioli adds a contemporary note: his strong awareness of the present. The polarity in his work opposes West and East, as the more or less distilled literature from Snow onwards has shown, but it also pits Present against Past. And here, the interesting and unusual thing is that it is the artist himself who is concerned to protect something which in India is passing away. For example, the tradition of billboard painters of Chennai (Tamil Nadu): having realized in 2003 that they were succumbing to the new digital technology, he produced a few extraordinary works with them which will stand as the final vestiges of a workmanship devoid of the profit motive.  In this way, art formally reconciles its opposites, creating a new object from the elements which it integrates. Because it is clear, however, that the tradition which is protected and saved is not the same tradition. Grazioli reaches to the depths, but he has no choice but to belong to the world of art – the contemporary world – which he creates and betrays at the same time. The tribute to animals which are close to extinction, the Tiger or the Rhinoceros or the Elephant, either in the form of Buddhist prayer flags or in the form of incense statues, is the trace of a past which realizes itself, and of an artistic present which functions to awaken astonishment as much as to stimulate learning. Above all, the series called Sanctuary is extraordinary, in that the symbolic value appears on the same level as this substance, the incense (biological) which, in burning, overruns the environment with a religious sense and a sense of death. Few other features illustrate the artist’s work better than these: the very poetry of a material which is difficult to handle, the smoke of a world which transfers its identity into another dimension, the ritual and hence formal character of the whole process. Probably between 2005 and 2006, a series of works perfectly describing the poetics of the artist were born with the help of a chance meeting (chance, so beloved of the artist!) with an Italian who had begun cultivating biological incense in India. Something analogous occurred with the last series of unravelled embroidery produced in Vietnam between the end of last year and the start of this one. Of great beauty, this embroidery carries images as various as hermits, animals and, above all, the sacred tree; the danger to which they are subject is symbolised by the abrasion of part of the embroidery itself. Once again, rather than there being a synthesis, what prevails is a mark of condemnation, of attack against a tradition which clearly no longer has the tools by which to defend itself. The other side of the paradox is this: Neither Indians nor Vietnamese seem to suffer greatly from this eclipse of knowledge. This is quite clear, in that they perceive change as something almost necessary,  as a step forward and not as a loss to be mourned. In a few years they too will make up for lost time, but right now they are not disorientated in the face of such a loss. The incense sculptures and the recent embroidery have a different way of dealing with the relation, not only and not so much with the past, but with archetypes. In fact animals, especially those depicted – from the whale to the tiger – have a sacredness which places them in a cultural realm hermetically sealed from the practical danger of extinction. In the end, survival consists in their very reinvention in the world of art. Grazioli is an aware, cultured artist. The theme of the tree constitutes an authentic model on which to base any discussion on how East and West can co-exist and enter into an in-depth exchange, through images and organic interaction. And it is in this way that cross-fertilization can occur, rather than through the medium of personalities who can certainly give a culture its particular stamp, but who remain in essence no more than cultural indicators. The tree is a symbolic crossroads which unites opposites in a natural way, such as Sky and Earth, connecting through its roots the elements of earth and air. And it is also an image of unfathomable archetypes which link the cross of Jesus with the Jewish Menorah. It is as if religions had regarded the tree as epitome of the physical and spiritual universe. Its symbolism places all living things in relation, it represents progress, development. Tree of life, tree of knowledge; mirror of the secret desire to reduce the encyclopaedic disorder of the world to a single image. In the hieratic representation chosen by Grazioli, the threads weave together to form the vital tissue, but the solitariness of the tree testifies, ultimately, to their absolute quality. There are no relations if not symbolic ones. The abrasions do not damage the form or sacrifice the material, given the impossibility of obliterating it. It is a powerless gesture because these trees will survive for all time. In any case, it appears that Grazioli achieves his best results in the very process of finding a way to continue indefinitely this nomadic lifestyle, which is not alone cultural, but betrays the substance and the sweat of travel itself. If amusement is to be found in the Dieux trouvés of 2004 or the just-preceding digital prints such as Auto  rickshaw or Ambassador – in which an amused and amusing pop sensibility prevailed but which turned out to be remote from spiritual concerns – certainly his current work is characterized by a synthesis as happy as it is authentic. But as always it is the Jungian perspective, in the conception elaborated by the first Wittkover, which for once – and, we hope, for all – illuminates our human insatiability. As if to say that art feeds off simplicity, that the tree we have in front of us has complex roots but the evolution of its branches and leaves follows precise and extraordinary rules, obeying a secret discovered by a medieval mathematician, thereby lending it his name: Fibonacci. The foundation of identities and diversity. Identity erased by repetition. The very function of art is not merely to reveal these, but to communicate them to a world not yet present. The accumulation of memory has its risks, the files of western memory may disappear but with them would also disappear the mirror-like correspondences which rise with the sun in the East. To remember is to choose; for this reason the tree is remembered, because it grows within us while we are looking at it, as the poet Rilke wrote. So that art is an archive of images to be saved, however few and beautiful, like the trace of a tiger fused in bronze, like a prayer embroidered in images, like a thought which materialises itself in the intense perfume of incense. All this is essential to art.
Valerio Dehò