Following the opening of his latest solo-exhibition at London’s Frith Street Gallery, The Net Gallery sat down with Italian artist Massimo Bartolini to discuss the pieces in the show and how they relate to his wider practice and conceptual interests.
Massimo Bartolini is an artist whose work is riddled by philosophical and meditative currents, existing somewhere in a transitory zone between the man-made world and nature, between the creations of our understanding and the world in itself.
Questions about perception, agency and accountability permeate his work, balanced by a spiritual elegance and a seemingly reassuring sense of calmness: a quality that Bartolini himself projects. When we meet at Frith Street Gallery in mid-February 2020, a few days after his exhibition ‘Credits’ has opened, the artist is walking around the floor-based piece Grotoni e Malocchi using a horticultural-style sprayer to water the clay lumps that lie strewn over a large carpet. The dehydrated lumps represent dry (Grotoni) clods of ploughed earth. Once watered and made wet, they become the Malocchi. Bartolini sees the watering as a kind of ‘devotional’ act, with the expectation that it will be carried out every day of the exhibition – a task that will be both a form of performance art and a physical meditation.
The clay clods are the most obvious visual reference in the Frith Street show to the overarching theme of Landscape that anchors the exhibition, as well as much of Bartolini’s practice in general. As Bartolini suggests, the work shown in the gallery represents “a way to think about Landscape with different media.” While the individual pieces may not immediately seem connected to the art historical tradition of landscape painting, Bartolini sees himself as using these different mediums, “to face the same problem, in a more physical way.” As he says, he has adopted three techniques, “one more sculptural, one based on music and one based on films or videos.” Across them all he adds, he is, “talking more or less about, or on, the same thing – that is the Landscape.”
Living in the Italian countryside, Landscape is an inescapable reference point for Bartolini. As he says, “It’s what I see everyday.” The way he frames and comprehends that everyday perception, though, is key. “My definition of Landscape” Bartolini explains, “is to see nature from the side, in a protected spot: a little bit out of the nature, rather than in the nature. Landscape is the edge between you and the nature. A no man’s land.”
The way in which Landscape comes to occupy or equate to a kind of “distance” between us and nature, between observer and observed, is the epistemological vein Bartolini seeks to explore. “My idea” he continues, “was how to fulfil this distance without corrupting an idea that is so poetical in a way. You feel the distance with words, with poems, with actions. I want to be involved with this feeling of the distance.”
Bartolini says that his conception of Landscape comes both from the immersion of living in a “beautiful” place and from the “suggestions” he takes from books and music. The literary influence on his work is evidenced by the fact that Grotoni e Malocchi takes its title from a piece of writing by the Italian author Maurizio Maggiani. Similarly, the artwork that sits at the centre of the Frith Street exhibition, In a Landscape, takes its title from the piano piece of the same name by John Cage. A musical machine sitting inside a black wall that acts as both a kind of invisible cloak and the pipes of an organ, the installation piece was previously exhibited in 2017 at Ireland’s Lismore Castle. As is common with Bartolini’s work, the prompt for the title is but one line of thought connected to a piece that can illicit multiple interpretations.
“Normally when I use music” Bartolini says, “most of the time I like to show the source – I like the idea of where the music came from. It must be seen.” Made in collaboration with organ makers from Pistoia in Tuscany, In a Landscape encapsulates that statement, but with added resonance. The piece relates, he elaborates, to the story of Clair de Lune, in that, “looking for the moon in the well, actually you find the machinery that makes this beautiful music.” As a visitor to the exhibition, Bartolini adds, “you have this beautiful music spreading out from this strange spot and then you approach and you look, and you see this kind of – I would say – torture machine that makes the music. I like this contrast: first the enchantment and secondly the brutality of what produces the enchantment.”
Bartolini notes that the poetical and linguistic concept of parataxis bears an imprint on his work, with contrast and juxtaposition often at play, as well as a subtle simplicity that leaves interpretation open to his audience, albeit guided by trains of thought he has initiated. An appreciation and considered use of space are also integral to the practice of an artist who began his professional life as a surveyor. Such factors come to play in the two channel video work Credits, where a pair of eyes blinking in an otherwise static shot of floorboards look across at a screen displaying a list of extinct animals as if they were the end credits of a film. The title of the work, and the exhibition, might then be ‘Extinction Credits’, were it not too unsubtle a summary.
Acknowledging himself as part of the process, as a member of the species that has largely been responsible for these extinctions, Bartolini portrays Credits as more of a lament than a eulogy. “The eyes” he says, “are looking at what you’ve done, at what has happened. I don’t say it’s a blaming kind of thing, but through the eyes of the place where you walk, you see what’s happened.”
As well as playing with the idea that the earth under our feet, or the “place that sustains us”, is looking at what we have done, the spatial relationship between the two screens is critical. “It has to be one in front of the other” Bartolini explains, “It’s a loop. Normally when you have a screen, the screen is always waiting for the public. Here there is already the public, there is the other screen. You enter in a place where the relation is complete, you are like an extra. You have to see the relation, not only the extinct animals and not only the blinking eyes, it’s the relation that you have to look at. Paradoxically, when you look at one screen you miss the other one. If you go too close you miss the complexity of the work. They keep I think, and I hope, a little bit of mystery.”
Bartolini feels secure in a space where he is not trying to make clear statements, where the role of art is to embrace something more opaque. He also sees himself as a co-author, a person who looks to realise ideas, but through collaboration with others. As we finish, and go through the process of saying our goodbyes, Bartolini expresses his hope that the imposition on the gallery staff – who will be the ones to water the clay sods when he has returned to Italy – will not be too irritating, and that they will not feel ill-disposed towards the “artist” who has bestowed the task upon them. His intention, though, and the point of the work, is that it can be an act that in its regularity and isolated purpose becomes something transcendent. It is also an act incongruous to the gallery setting that changes normal approaches towards the space – something that might be read as a hallmark of Bartolini’s artistic touch.
Interview by Richard Unwin
A virtual walkthrough of the exhibition ‘Credits’ and a HD video of the show are available to view on The Net Gallery, here.