Contemporary life, as you know, is a busy life comprised of many commitments and interests that take up all of our days, our weeks, our months, our years. And in this hectic series of commitments that we constantly schedule, move, cancel, reschedule … it becomes increasingly difficult to find a fixed point, a short time for ourselves, to reflect on what we do, as well as who we are or have been or will be. We have forgotten the pleasure of simplicity, of sharing, of patience in doing things and in being able to wait for our efforts to pay off. Sabrina Mezzaqui, an internationally known and appreciated Italian artist, uses simple materials such as paper, cloth, wire and beads, and utilises simple manual practices related to the domestic sphere, like sewing, embroidering, braiding, copying, etc., to create extraordinary art of great aesthetic and emotional impact but also full of deep meaning. I talked with Sabrina Mezzaqui on the occasion of the finale of her solo exhibition, La saggezza della neve (The snow’s wisdom) at Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, and it was very interesting, especially regarding the ideas and thoughts that she offered about the Western cultural crisis.
Il mantello della Regina delle Nevi (The cloak of the Snow Queen) is the title of the artwork presented in this exhibition – a cloak made up of hundreds of tiny white paper flowers. How was this piece born and where does it fit on the path of your artistic research?
The artwork idea is born from reading Andersen’s story The Snow Queen. Reading the fairy tale, I had been very impressed by the image of this strange fairy: beautiful but not good. The fairy tale is a very complex story; it includes seven stories in a single tale. All the characters are female except one: the child kidnapped by the Snow Queen. There are archetypal figures of women: the good girl who looks for and saves the kidnapped child, and who is helped or impeded by other female characters. I let the friends of the working table of Marzabotto read the fairy tale and one of them, Debora Domenichelli, helped me with the design of the cloak of the Snow Queen, which is made of many small paper flowers, beads and wire. It was a very long and detailed project that involved a dozen people for about a year. The work was then finished in the gallery with the whole group. It was an experiment and a very beautiful moment.
Did you think of this project as including a performance element?
I do not know if it is correct to speak of performance because there was not really a director, a script, etc. The intention instead is to make public a phase of the creation that normally is not public; to share an intimate and confidential moment with the public. This was an experiment, an on this occasion, because it was not an official opening, it worked very well. We were working in a room and visitors arrived in small groups, distributed throughout the day. There were no rules. There have been people who asked if they could sit down and work with us and since there was no reason to say no we welcomed them, and it was very nice.
There is a very close relationship between your artistic practice and the literary world, as demonstrated by a very interesting exhibition held last year at Galleria Passaggi Arte Contemporanea in Pisa. Of this, Silvana Vassallo wrote, "Beautiful dialogues with density of poetic and philosophical contents, and the slow gestures inscribed in the embroidery becomes a metaphor for a careful and thoughtful reading of the texts, tracing the meaning word by word, sentence after sentence". What is your relationship with literature and what is the link between your artistic practice and literature?
Actually this is a complex question that is difficult to answer in a few lines. From the reading of novels, short stories, and essays I find that images are created with lines, pages or the words of the book itself.
Many of your works are produced with the cooperation of the participants in the so-called "tavolo di lavoro di Marzabotto". Can you tell us how this groups was born and how it contributes to the works?
This is a method that was initially created to respond to the urgent delivery of pieces that I had to finish by a certain date, especially since in the past I have realized that I cannot finish everything by myself. Since then many people have helped me. Sometimes these were people with specific skills such as knowing how to draw, to cut, to sew, to embroider, etc. Other times it was simple patient laborers. Gradually some of these people who have sporadically helped me started to attend to my work more assiduously. I understood that they liked to work with me and that it was not only my need. Evidently in this mode they found something for themselves and in this way we have formed a group. I already knew some people from my childhood; some other people have come by word of mouth. It is a meeting place. There are people who meet there, at the table. In the last two or three years this mode has been consolidated because, both for me and for the other participants in the group, it is an added value to the artwork. The realization of the work becomes a collective experience. The work, once completed, is an object with its own strength, an image that has a value in itself. But when the realization involved more people, the work became embellished with humanity.
Is your work the only thing done collectively, or is there also sharing of the project?
It is only the realization that is shared. It is not so easy to share a project. In Parma there was another experimental table with outsider participants and the first meetings were based on a collective discussion of a project. But I realized that, although it is not impossible to work together even in the planning stage, you still need a long time or you have to be a group for a period of time so that you have trust, recognized expertise, etc. I often find myself working with people outside the art world and its language and I like this very much. The shared planning is very difficult. In Marzabotto, with these ten people, we are trying to share even the planning so it becomes much more difficult to separate the two roles. I collected a lot of solicitations from the group. Probably to work together you need to share experiences --you must have a common ground of experiences and therefore ideas. In this way people are educated together to a common taste. I'd also like to continue to cultivate the other more individual and solitary aspect of my work because it opens up additional possibilities. The group activity opens the possibility of sharing, discussion and also joy. The individual practice instead leads to different levels of depth and mystery. I would like to be able to maintain these two modes, also because I believe that one can enrich the other.
So there is a cross-over between art and life, as has so often happened or is happening in the practices of artists. The collaboration as well as the participation and the sharing are some of the most used and often abused themes in art, almost trends. What do these concepts mean to you?
I think you've caught this aspect only from the most superficial point of view. These concepts, which actually have existed since the beginning of time, i.e. to talk about art with reference to participation, sharing, and relationships -- I think it is not a trend but a cultural need. Our Western culture is in a period of crisis, of decadence. The economic crisis is only its most obvious feature. The problem with this devastating crisis is that the only unquestionably shared value is money. So the effort to re-introduce some participatory methods is an answer to this cultural crisis. Our civilization is based on this hypertrophic individual emphasis. Consider, for example, the myth of the artist. Some are exchanging human values for excellence. The great discoveries or achievements, the improvement of quality of life, etc., are not only the result of the competition but above all of sharing and collaboration. This perennial incitement of TG and information to be more competitive is leading us faster towards the end. Many artists are instead trying to retrieve the other faculty, the vital one, which perhaps will take us out of this crisis. So I hope that this is not just a trend but an existential and cultural need. The crisis as we are talking about is a crisis that characterizes the "low" level of society, because those who rule us, those with power, are not in crisis. This is a difficult and challenging time. The interesting thing is that at the "basis", in our normal lives, a lot of people are picking up the things that were once controlled. Think for example of the public taking responsibility for politics. Or local organic productions. So these things that at a macro level are not moving a comma, at a micro level indicate a greater awareness, and this is really very interesting. This opens up other possibilities. Maybe in other distant places in the world there are energies, cultural turmoil that we do not know but that may be crucial.
Let’s switch subjects and talk about decoration. One of the first things we look at when we see your artwork is this marked craftsmanship and aesthetic, although after a closer investigation we can find additional levels for analysis. The qualification of "artisan" has always been a bit touchy to the artist who in the Renaissance escaped this label to be accepted for all purposes as an "intellectual". What is your relationship with the craftsmanship and what does it mean in your practice?
A feature of our culture is a dual approach to reality: white or black, artist or craftsman, economic or cultural value, scientific or humanistic knowledge, etc. This fracture has run from 1400-1500 until the last century, creating a certain type of science, technology and world view. We need to mend this rift. Extend the question even to the feminine aspect of my work, as I'm often asked about. It is a bit the same thing. Mankind is made of at least two genders and until recently one of those had been considered predominant.. The discourse between male and female could be the one between the West and the rest of the world. Returning to the distinction between craftsman and artist, to the artist it should open an area of freedom, since the level of thought required of the craftsman who responsible for a very specific technical expertise, aiming to produce something in a perfect way, does not apply. We have to put together all the aspects that we have separated, as we have distinguished between them and us. Think about medicine. We have lost track of things. Maybe in my work there is a small attempt to hold together these different aspects, art and craft, because they have always been together. Why to choose between black and white? We have control of the matter, and of the situation, because it is a simplified, partial, limited view of life. We have become too determined to draw a line. Our brain has two hemispheres so it is logical that we reason this way but remember that this is not reality, but the way we look at reality. Going back to your question, the line between artist and craftsman, I can say that I am fascinated by leaving the border open. I cannot choose. I'm both here and beyond, that is, both together, each other.