an intimate dialogue

The charm adorned by something born from a thread
Antonia Alampi and Doris Maninger

D …it’s like I felt this desire to throw myself out of the window.

A:.. But what made you feel so bad, after all? Did you think someone would have found the idea of making so many of them weird?

D:.. I don’t have a lot of confidence in general in showing my work and having to “explain” why and how I do it. And then there was the attitude of the assistant of one of the other artists…

A:.. Do you think that was scorn, that behind it was a chauvinist attitude?

D:.. No, not scorn, I would say condescension. Chauvinist, maybe… but to hear my work labeled as “an army of naked bitches” was terrible, and in any case I didn’t feel confident to start with. What helped was another artist’s assistant who would occasionally come over to ask for a cigarette when I was already at a more advanced stage in my work. There were a good number of women by then and they were objectively impressive, as a whole. He just said “this work is so direct and clear, it moves me!” From that moment on, I worked with less fear, I felt like a weight had been lifted. It’s incredible to think that such little things can influence you so deeply. It made me reflect on my need for confirmation. And on many other things, of course. He was still a man… maybe in the end result I digested all of this.

A:… Now tell me about how you started making women and fabric. Did the fabric come first?

D:… No. I started with what I called “esserini”. Do you remember, those small figures, or rather, non-figures I used to make? The only visible part were the feet, everything else was covered by cloth under which the figure could be glimpsed. In this complimentary sense the fabric was already present… The name esserini is a translation of the German “Seilinge,” figures-inbecoming, unsure about their real state of being. In substance, they were broaches of white papier-maché. This time the Seilinge, or “ephemerals” as I called them in English – I always have a great confusion of languages inside my head – had to be small because porcelain is heavier than papier-maché, and as jewelry the weight would have been excessive. I could have kept producing them for months, but I didn’t think it would make sense to carry on the same track. Therefore I “opened” them, making them out of larger pieces of fabric, also to get to know a material, porcelain, with which I had never confronted myself with in depth. I also started drawing everyday from the start: The first woman emerged precisely for a textile, the largest one produced up until that moment. I created her like a sketch, quickly, using only my hands. The next day, once it had dried, I was surprised by its beauty.

A:… And the woman in question was not covered by fabric?

D:… Precisely. And I made another one straight away. I understood afterwards that I had to put them in relation to the textile: without it, they remained incomplete. I knew that the women needed the fabric, that this gave them confidence… aesthetically, as well as physically.

A:… In general, the fabric precedes the woman in your work.

D:… Textile has always been present in my work. Perhaps I always felt the charm adorned by something that is born from a thread. A thread is capable of creating a world. And then the thread as a necessity. Us, naked bodies, need cloth to protect ourselves.

A:… You say “Textile has always been present.” But from when exactly?

D:… Since, at four years old, I learned how to crochet. Working with fabrics always made me feel free, free from the artist’s need to have an amazing idea that precedes the form. For me the impulse to create and express myself was always guided by an almost physical need.

A:… Let’s linger on this point. You say “It’s like it had freed me…”

D:… From having to be, or to act as, an artist. An artist with a capital A, the one’s with a Mission. Textiles are not only art, but also something else… to work with them is by definition applied art, the most applied of arts, actually. What you make can always have a function, and this for me drives out the terror of the concept.

A:…Do you think that the period when you painted directly on fabric was also somehow linked to this idea of applied arts, that do not require a concept to have value?

D:… Yes, because for me this particular kind of painting was at times pure decoration, at times fun, often experimentation. In any case, not Art, understood as a process that should make you feel responsible for adding something to the “creation,” as it had been up until that point. Perhaps the issue is linked to the amount of narcissism within us all, or the modesty in displaying it. Consider, in any case, that a canvas is also a fabric, and therefore for me it is a question of approach, not only of medium. In the sense that also with canvas, I always painted without seeking a justification in something cerebral to precede the gesture. Although it is obvious that the body and hands are somehow intimately linked to the brain and to its baggage of experience, that one cannot perhaps speak of something exclusively physical…

A:…  Yes indeed, but what does decoration mean after all? I remember your great imaginative capacity… you created monsters, cities, imaginary women. You had fun, and you made your viewers have fun. You told stories, you were less serious but not less “relevant,” I believe…

D:… Sure, I had fun and possibly what I made was not irrelevant. What I mean is that I didn’t have – and didn’t want to have – the need to be relevant… perhaps this rejection was born when I was at the Academy in Vienna. It was the beginning of the 1980s and conceptual art was everywhere. One had to have a concept, otherwise one didn’t exist. I simply didn’t have this concept, and didn’t want to have one! There was in me, I realize, a good dose of rebellion that ranged from the family codes of the Austrian bourgeoisie to the new artistic canons that were at this point codified. I started to study painting with Professor Gustav Hessing, a painter almost forgotten nowadays. His work was somewhat expressionist in character, but aside from what he did, he was the only one to be really present. He spoke with us students and really engaged in our education. He tried to light fires… Unfortunately he died a year after my entrance to the Academy and was followed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a person I consider insufferable, both from an artistic and human standpoint. It was then, perhaps, that I gave up a certain way of understanding and making art and started looking in new directions.

A:… I’d like to return to the discussion on fabric. After painting on fabric, you suddenly decided to stop, bought a loom and started to create tapestries.

D:… Yes, it had been a dream since I was a child. I bought this loom without knowing how to weave. I bought the largest existing loom, 180 cm of textile width. I transported it from Finland to Calabria (where we lived) and assembled it with the help of a motorbike mechanic, because I had no idea of how to do it alone. All very adventurous. I bought the Ravensburger book on weaving… and started. In any case, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to get to.

A:… That is to say?

D:… I wanted to mix weaving and painting, and to do so I invented my own technique. The type of weaving, that is the loom’s arrangement, was a kind of semi-Jacquard (a rather complex pattern with four rows of heddles, and six pedals). I painted directly onto the warp of white linen with fabric paint. This technique allowed me to continue to use the loom while painting. The drawing and fabric became a single identity, reciprocally completing each other. It was like I was weaving through my drawings.

A:… Then you started inserting other elements into the tapestries, like pieces of maple bark, giving it a more sculptural form.

D:… Yes, I also started using un-spun, un-refined wools. In this case too, it was a discovery, little by little of the means I had, and so I started making increasingly brave things, or, as you curators would say, more experimental things.

A:… And then you understood those “means” in such depth that you became bored and moved on to something else?

D:… No, I really enjoyed it! It’s not that I got over it, but just that then I moved to Florence, for a new adventure.

A:… Really?! Because I also remember a period dedicated to restoration, between the tapestries and the jewelry, while still in Calabria.

D:… Yes, right. Restoration also played an important role in my work. Frescoes, paintings, frames. At first it was to earn a bit of money, and then this too became a passion, it enriched me. Repairing, giving new life to objects, taking care of them, continues to have an important role in my work. Without mentioning the knowledge that restoration gave me of natural colors and how to obtain them. In any case, you make me realize the fact that I believe to experience great difficulty in repeating myself.

A:…Fabric is perhaps the only element always present in your work.

D:… No, the human form is also always there. It’s the other constant

A:…How did you then move on to jewelry?

D:… At the beginning it was simply a passion for the materiality of metal. I fell in love little by little with jewelry as philosophy…

A:…You also wove with metal, you made work with yarn. And then you also used fabric directly in your jewelry, covering daily objects.

D:… Yes, old spectacles for example.

A:… Yes, for a piece of jewelry that was entitled Miss Italia, right? The series seemed to mock a bit the idea of jewelry. I also read something ironic in your sculptures of women. A muffling of the seriousness with which the female physicality is often represented. The bodyof women has been the quintessential “artistic object” for such a long time… whereas these women seem to play, they hold positions that in academia would maybe not be considered worthy of representation.

D:… Are my women ironic or not? Is this what you are asking me. Because it’s something I have also asked myself: irony, mockery, not taking oneself too seriously has always been important to me, but I am not entirely sure that all this “passed through” to the women, or that it was within me while I worked. Let’s say that there is not irony in all of the women, but that they are a small, varied universe. However, in the babies there is a strong sense of irony, and in the juxtaposition of naked women and male newborns. Here I wanted to place together two platitudes of Art History. Going back to working with fabrics, I think I was fascinated by the fact that potentially it’s never finished, that you can always pick it up again. Even if it breaks, fabric can be eternally repaired. I imagine a fabric started by me, that you could continue (if only you knew how to sew!) and that will continue for generations, transforming and regenerating itself…

A:… But in the case of your new work, sono qui [un esercito di donnacce nude] there was an additional passage: from fabric as a material you moved on to its representation.

D:… Fabric here becomes the representation of itself. Hard, almost eternal, as representations should be.

A:… So, more so than women, in your work fabric has freed itself, becoming an independent subject. It is there that it exposes itself, in the grandeurof its folds, of its weaves, but it’s not there to cover, it no longer even has a function.

D:… Yes, in fact it could also be put like this, the crafted object – here I have difficulty in Italian because the artisanal object in Italian doesn’t have the same meaning as the English word “craft” – it becomes self-sufficient and without a function, it’s no longer applied art but art. Perhaps I completed a trajectory (I hope not!). In this work however, the women are essential to the fabric and to its dimensions. In a certain sense, it’s as if the women functioned as measuring units.

A:… Of course, thinking about it, it would be beautiful if you created a gigantic fabric.

D:… (Laughs) It could be a future project, this time with lots of my assistants!

A:… Now let’s focus on the women, there are so many. How many? You also undertook to make one every single day. Why?

D:… There are 100 women and I did – it’s true – set this number for myself, but I did not create exactly one every day. I need to set some rules for myself, always, I need self-discipline so as not to derail. The number 100 is quite random, in the sense that there is no numerical mysticism behind it. I needed an important number to force myself to work quickly. My women had to be “tri-dimensional” sketches; I wanted them to retain immediacy and lightness. The fabrics also look as if they were thrown together and not theatrically arranged. In that sense, the women and fabrics are similar: a frozen instant. I wanted them to be like my drawings, a rough imagining without, we could say, post-production. And it is speed and the imposition of a certain quantity that allowed me to do this.

A:… And why only women?

D:… Once again, it was an almost physical need… many artists also asked me the same question. Everyone asks “why only women?” The answer might be because I am a woman and know women’s bodies better than anything else. They are all representations taken from my memory, from my internal bodily memory.

A:… And the positions? Are they linked to a certain type of emotion?

D:… No! The intent there was also physical, stemmed from the moment, just like my relationship to clay. I never used a tool…the women were created using my hands only, and they have that dimension, the one of my hands.

A:… Was this your decision from the start?

D:… Yes. I didn’t want to use something that would prevent me from perceiving the material, I didn’t want to lose the direct sensation of body on material body. It is also for this reason that I almost completely abandoned metal. Because when it’s hot I am unable to touch it. That is why I passed on to metal wires.

A:… And the babies? They also look like an army, more compact than that of the women. How many are there?

D:… The babies started almost as a joke. They are a kind of residue in reality. To create the women I took a heap of clay in my hands, and at the end a small ball of it was always left over. I made the first one, then the second one a little smaller, and then another three or four. And I had a lot of fun making them. They’re all male, at the beginning I thought of them as a juxtaposition. I also know the body of a male baby, I have the memory. And then I went to the De Pont museum and I saw Marlene Dumas’ newborns… gorgeous, strong! And from then on I decided to continue, I had the confirmation of being able to do so (always in need of confirmation, I know…). I started making babies as if obsessed. One evening we were chatting at the EKWC (the residency in Den Bosch where I was staying and where I produced the whole piece) and we were joking about David Zink-YI’s giant squid. And at some point the question emerged: “I wonder how many babies it would take to make a stuffed squid!” The thought stayed in my head and the next day I started working…

A:… Interesting. The measuring unit, at that point, becomes the giant squid. Do you think it was also a question of competition with the male artist, who makes creatures of gigantic dimensions, manly, virile, successful… It calls to mind Louisa Bourgeois’ stories of the intimidating effect on her of DeKooning, Rothko…

D:… Yes, possibly. Or, rather than competition, it was contraposition. The fact that I created small things certainly made me think a lot, and the great number compensated for the dimensions. But I also saw that only in great quantity the babies took on a real form, like small fish which defend themselves from larger ones through strength of numbers. Moreover, I’m fascinated by the change in perspective, from afar the mass of babies looks like a heap of stones, while close up they become recognizable in their individuality and monstrosity. And creating the babies also had a therapeutic effect, because the women demanded an enormous mental effort from me. To make a woman I had to prepare all day; to create her I had to do other things, embroider fabrics, draw. Or make babies.

A:… But why was it so burdensome to create the women?

D:… Because to make her “come into being,” every woman put me in a state of agitation, of tension… to create her I needed a particular moment. I had to gather all of my strength, physical and mental, for this moment. It wasn’t a question of the time taken, which was about an hour, but of concentration. While with the babies, this was not the case. In fact, the babies really liberated me; in a certain sense they gave me the strength to complete the whole thing. I worked practically every day for three months, from nine in the morning to two or three at night. The creation of the hundredth and last woman was a moment of complete liberation!

A:… The drawings also seem to be a kind of metabolization of the women’s tension. They are ironic but macabre, dark humor, I would say. And these were also produced following a strict discipline. One a day.

D:… Drawing has always accompanied me. Before leaving, Lucia (my partner in Alchimia, the jewelry school I direct) gave me a sketch pad with 99 sheets, which more or less were the number of days I spent at Den Bosch. Once there, I decided to produce a drawing a day. I had some beautiful beams in my studio which I used to attach each of them together to. I am very tied to the place where I work, it has always inspired me. Once I enter a space, I make it mine with all kinds of interventions.

A:… Well, let’s say it is also interesting how you decide to observe space, and I am referring to the drawings. In one of the drawings the beam is used for a hanging…

D:… Yes, of course, because as I interfere with the space, the space interferes with me. I always draw from the truth, or let’s say, reinterpret the truth. In this way, the things that I see take on a life and tell me their stories. I remember that as a child before fallingasleep I used to observe for a long time the wall around me, and it was an old house with crooked walls, where I always saw stories and characters in the lines of the plaster, which I would scratch with my nails (which deeply angered my mother) to make the wall different and thus change the stories.

A:… There are also always some notes with the drawings. As if they served as a journal, they are very personal and at times almost separate from the drawings.

D:… The drawings are a journal, what I write are things that I feel in reference to the drawing or sometimes they are sentences or words I want to remember for various reasons, because they occupy my thoughts in that moment, and I find it important to secure them. I want the words and drawings to complete each other in that moment, even if they appear disconnected. It seems that this way the situation I am trying to fix is intensified. In a certain sense, just as a sound interferes with the perception of an image, so can a word or a sentence. Perhaps it could be said that the research of interferences is the other constant in my work.

A:… I’m finishing up, but first one last thing on interferences. Tell me about the title Sono qui [un esercito di donnacce nude]. You reclaimed exactly what at first had offended and shocked you.

D:… I chose it firstly because it contains, at least I hope, a sufficient margin of ambiguity. That “sono” (in Italian both “I am” or “they are”) should disorient the subject: me or the women? In this case the use of Italian helped me. It’s nice to be able to choose between different languages, it allows you to avoid the risk of univocal interpretations and leave space for possibilities. I think of Musil and his amazing parenthesis on the field of possibilities in The Man Without Qualities (Ein Mann ohne Eigenschaften)… I would have found entertaining the idea of the mix of languages in the title, of their rebound or their dialogue, leaving in German ein Heer nackter Weiber, but for an exhibition in Italy perhaps it would have been excessive. And I would like the echo of a challenge won to be perceived…

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