He is one of the most eclectic and interesting Italian artists. I knew him above all for his terracotta weapons, but the encounter on which this interview is based introduced me to other very intriguing artworks for which it is worth reading the text of the interview and discovering the world of Antonio Riello.
Let's start with your last project and the lockdown period if this in some way influenced the direction of your research.
I have found myself, like everyone, confined at home and spending a lot of time in the kitchen. A place of love, of care, because you usually cook for someone you love, but also a place of violence and cruelty where you do technical operations on the body of animals and chunks of vegetables as in a torture workshop. So I began to think about my "kitchenscape". A little bit like Mark Dion, one of my favourite artists, I started a long work of classification (perhaps influenced by my scientific background). Thus building a visual encyclopaedic dictionary of the culinary environment and its tools of trade. A mapping and taxonomic process where some tools seem to be real instruments of torture, while others look more innocent but no less intriguing. At the time being, I have created about 250 images.
How did you proceed in this classification? With what tools?
I don't like any more to work with the traditional instruments of the Academy: graphite, pencils, etc. etc. Instead I enjoy working with the ballpoint pen, the original one with its glorious blue ink, because it is the writing tool used by students, housewives, shopkeepers, common people, the people I do like. And yet the ballpoint pen has been famously used by one of my Art heroes, Alighiero Boetti. In this adventure also Alberto Giacometti influenced me through his portraits. I have always been a big fan of Giacometti's astonishing and mesmerizing drawings (more than of his celebrated sculptures).
I started drawing on simple A3 paper that I had at home then I switched to materials with better performances. There is nowadays a digital overdose in the art practice (with the by-problem that everything gets old at extraordinary speed) and really I prefer to deal back with the analogical attitude, in this case by Bic ballpoint pen and paper. These kitchen items of mine seem to materialize from a sort of energy field. In a nutshell, we might imagine somehow a strange and intriguing relationship between Alberto Giacometti's poetics and the sci-fi teleportation atmospheres of Star Trek. By the way, with this work I decided as well to take a step back celebrating a certain degree of sensible "understatement". Currently the art system desperately forges new stars. I believe more and more in a refreshing humility of art, regarding both artists and artistic production. I do think the artists themselves, by their actions, should be able to transform simple and humble things into extraordinary wonders.
We mentioned earlier the concept of ambiguity, on the one hand these works simply depict objects in the kitchen, on the other hand they relate to the theme of violence as it also happened in your other previous works, I am thinking of ceramic guns, rifles, bombs. Is there a line of analysis in your practice that connects violence and aesthetics?
I think actually this is my main leitmotiv. The controversial relationship that exists between ethics and aesthetics has always fascinated me. Mainly I focus on how aesthetics, through its many "tricks", is able cunningly to change the ethical-moral perception that usually we have (let's aside of course the specific cultural issues).
Artists today should be activists, anthropologists, urban planners, sociologists. There are no many artists who simply produces works of art that are getting more and more just a sort of by-products of a more complex commitment and extensive activity. Artistic practice should be able to create visual suggestions to show the hardships and ambiguous misadventures of ethics.
So the choice of objects is not so much linked to the link with violence but rather to ambiguity.
In fact I do think that the "Symbolic Form" (quoting Panofsky) of our time is exactly a kind of semantic entropy. It is this late-modern ambiguity (and its own misunderstandings) that interests me. I don't think that affects just creativity or Arts, it is rather an attitude that deeply permeates every aspect of our society.
Concluding the discussion about this project of kitchen utensils. Is it already a finished project or is still going on?
I confess that my idea, perhaps crazy (certainly ambitious...) idea, is to go beyond my kitchen. I would like to make with the same technique some 1:1 scale portraits of large and iconic objects that are usually "object of desire". I would say I "steal" the, as an artist can do: by portraying them. I started with a motorcycle, a Harley Davidson. Even cars are on my shortlist (Lamborghini Miura and Fiat 500, alpha and omega of the four wheels civilisation) and then also impressive yachts, boats, airplanes. Huge drawings of several square meters, border-line on absurdity and megalomania (which I always have a lot of fun mocking...).
So there is a profound aspiration to classify, what does it mean for you?
The classification attitude is an element that is present in the World of Art, after all it concerns deeply artists, collectors, museums and collections. The whole of the 19th century was dedicated to creating grids and maps of the World in order to become able to control it in some way. Creating images/maps of something means being able to manipulate it. And in confused and uncertain times this broad need for control is definitely stronger: we all desperately need security. But eventually this is an endless matter, it will never be possible to order/archive completely the reality that is by far in constant evolution. We know it: a match impossible to win, but the challenge must be anyway properly honoured.
Wanting to give those who read us more tools to understand your artistic practice, can you express your practice in 3 characteristics, which ones would you choose and why?
The first word is indeed definitely "obsession", my need to set systematically objects and things is the offspring of the need to find order and balance in my life. The second is "ordinariness". I never thought actually to belong - tout court - to an intellectual elite. I've always been fascinated by pop culture, bordering at times on Kitsch fascination. My tastes are the ordinary tastes of all of us, that of the so-called mass. I don't have a special glamorous background, I had a very normal, ordinary life in Italy when I was a boy and some things stay inside you. This "non-exceptional" world (that I love) should have its epic and someone to create its narrative. We know well, it is easy to report (visually) the stories of the great adventurous lives, it is much more difficult (and intriguing) to turn the everyday common experience into something gloriously moving. This seems to be, I believe, my mission.
I feel that I am also dealing with a special form of "archeology": in this Alter Modern Era we are all archaeologists in some way, the comparison with the past is essential, just as in the 1990s was essential to look to the future. The artist must dig into the past, not because of generic nostalgia but because in the serious game of Contemporary Art, she/he is basically supposed to be artistically a "rectifier of wrongs". A role where is important sometimes to show historical events from unconventional points of view. In the Anglo-Saxon culture (which in any case has permeated the second part of my life) since at least a couple of decades ago, the great issue is Post-colonialism and related studies. In USA it takes on particular nuances, mainly in terms of race and gender. Art absolutely has to deal with history, an issue that I do feel is necessary and urgent.
An aspect that if you want, pass me the term, seems against nature. We have eyes that look ahead, and therefore in a certain sense they project us towards the future and not back to the past.
Of course it's true, but today we must also know how to go backward. Maybe it is a challenge but Contemporary Art is at the forefront and this is its sublime duty. I would say the artist must be not only a "digger" but a clever tamer of historical clichés too.
Technology has probably accustomed us to go very fast and to have little awareness of what we are doing so, you say, it is necessary to stop for a moment and look back, recover the memory of everything we have done.
Yes indeed. Today it seems that exists only what we find in the first 2/3 of the Web we see on our desktop. What does not appear there apparently is a lack of dignity and importance. I want to be an explorer of the neglected areas neglected of the web culture, re-discovering lost events and facts (victims of a dangerous and widespread form of "digital amnesia").
Since I asked you to define your artistic practice through three concepts, I now ask you to choose three works of yours that might be particularly representative of your practice.
The Quarantine Drawings, we mentioned earlier, is certainly the kind of work with which currently I identify myself mostly. Significant is the also Ceramic Weapon series, which has started around 2003. I was looking for something that could express the ethical/aesthetic troubled relationship and I focused on war weapons. But at the very same time I was also fascinated by ceramics, in those years so old-fashioned and mistreated by artists. So I contacted the legendary Bottega Gatti in Faenza that always have had a special affection for artists, the grandfather of the current owner worked for Balla and Boccioni. Carla Accardi, Sylvie Fleury and especially Luigi Ontani also produced some works there. I begin to familiarize myself with the classic Faenza decorations of the Renaissance period, and I discover that these beautiful patterns originated in the Middle Ages as local visual-translation of decorations found on objects (carpets and ceramics) from the Middle East since the time of the Crusades. The great Faenza artistic season made its own style on that, there are eight different types in the canon. The final results: in one hand weapons (bombs, Kalashnikovs, machine guns) and traditional patterns in the other one. The mix produces a fragile aggressiveness: ceramic itself as fragile material par excellence and the war weapons refer to threat and aggressions. This oxymoron perhaps could represent us: we become aggressive when we are scared and we feel fragile. Some aspects of the human condition. I was fascinated as well by the cultural nomadism that passes through the history of ceramics and of the Mediterranean Sea: not only people migrate but also ideas and the motifs that embellish art products.
The third work is Ashes to Ashes, a project born in 2009 when I decided to do something for my beloved books. I have a great number of them, a bibliomaniac guy I am with a well equipped library. At a certain point I was concerned about the books I love paramount and I wondered about what will happen to them after I’ll have passed away? Will they end up on a second-hand stall? Or in a damp basement? Or in a dusty attic dented by woodworms? Inglorious ends. So I puzzled myself: how to save their physical bodies from decay? I started scanning them and saving their contents (texts and pics). Then I burnt their pages and cover in a special oven and (very respectfully) collecting their ashes in a ritual way. Then drawing and making, together with a glass blower, cinerary urns shaped as glass vessels, as if they were medieval church reliquaries with a small space inside where to place and seal the ashes. The title, the author, the date and place of the first edition, the place and year of destruction engraved in the upper part (like tombstones) The soul saved and the body reaching the status of a "work of art", then entrust into the "Pocketable Eternity" of Arts. My beloved books will be so kept and looked after in museums and collections. Each glass urn is unique and its feature is never directly linked to the title but just to my personal feelings that book aroused. It is a visual intimate tale of my intellectual life.
Tantamount a meticulous research on Venetian glass and its tradition (History again ...). I've done about 430 until now and I don't intend to stop.