almost transparent nature Chiara Bertola
I don’t know how long we spent walking through the museum together, contemplating it, studying it, and trying to understand where would be the best place to intervene amongst the 'hubbub' of the historical works. Elisabetta Di Maggio has tried to make space and create passages she can infiltrate; she has concentrated on identifying openings through which she can penetrate the stratification of the solidified memory of the home/museum in a new way.
This is how the installation Natura quasi trasparente (Almost Transparent Nature) came about. The artist has allowed ivy plants to invade the central salon of the palace, making the time that has passed visible through her action. By the time climbing plants have penetrated the interior of a place, it means that its inhabitants have abandoned it, leaving it at the mercy of nature and time. And precisely because we are dealing with a museum, a place in which the objects and works have been frozen (preserved) for centuries, the surprise and vitality of this natural invasion is even stronger. The power and exuberance of a living and germinating element transforms the crystallised space, endowing it with the possibility of unexpected meaning and new significant directions.
Nature and time
With a few simple elements Di Maggio reflects, and makes us reflect, on profound concepts such as nature and time, and she does so through the instability and equilibrium of a work which, being alive, requires constant care, ministering and attention to halt its inexorable decay.
Elisabetta plays with a clear contrast between different times: that of real life _ an ephemeral, precarious and changeable time _ which vibrates in the fragile ivy leaves; and that of fiction, the eternal time of the stuccos; plant simulacrums that the real plants intertwine with to weave new trails. Affiliating herself with the pulsation of nature, and almost intensifying it, Elisabetta Di Maggio has reiterated the rite of life and its ineluctable progression: at times she allows the dried branches to die and at others she exaggerates the vitality of the collateral branches, which she carves and transforms into something magnificent whilst simultaneously contaminating them, signalling their ruin. The natural beauty that resides in this ephemeral balance between life and death is what Elisabetta, aware of its fragility and unpredictability, tries to pinpoint with her complex and discrete art.
The ivy branches, which have penetrated inside the palace and begun climbing the walls alongside the stuccos of leaves and flowers decorating the salon walls, assume their role as the 'originals' next to their copies, inverting the hidden relationship between fiction and reality, imitation and substance. For a moment the exuberance of the ivy seems to breathe life to its plaster copy, just as in the myth Pygmalion gave life to the marble effigy of the woman he loved. However, in this case only a brief moment is permitted: just enough time to highlight the transience of existence which radiates life and quickly wilts, dying in the vicinity of the eternal art.
But the time evoked by Di Maggio is also that of memory and its constant and silent endurance under the surface of things. Her work, an intricate tangle of branches and leaves in the palace salon, ends up occupying the centre of the building as if it were the main inhabitant. The ivy leaves have climbed the perimeters of the rooms and the walls, they brush against the works and objects, creating a visionary pattern in which the weave of the past is woven with the new and vibrant threads of the present. The living and present element provides the past with a voice; it instigates a dialogue, revealing a tenacious meaning below the flow of things. 'I based my research on the concept of time, inflected in all its forms to make time itself the real subject of my work. Memory and its stratifications have always been a source of inspiration for our existence, giving us valuable indications and provoking mental short circuits that ideas are able to spring from.'
The nature Elisabetta Di Maggio has decided to reflect on, returning to the work and expanding it, is imagined as an unstable, changeable dimension that is almost transparent; a nature which cannot be circumscribed in a garden or crystallised in definitive forms. The artist has established a creative competition or a collaboration with it: in reality it becomes her tool, a sort of 'parasite' with which she patiently decorates the leaves with a delicate carving. This is how she transforms them into a unicum, into a work of art, but at the same time makes them unnatural and almost fake, provoking the reconversion from being an original to a copy, in a cycle which blurs the ambiguous parameters of mimesis.
The artist wants to stick close to the work of nature. She knows it and knows how it can also be transformed through woodworms and insects, which embroider magnificent patterns on the vegetal surfaces while they devour them. It is also a question of imitating nature in its apparent cruelty, bearing in mind the fact that, as the biologist Richard Dawkins states:
'Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous _ indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.'
Elisabetta Di Maggio's research maintains this awareness while she studies, observes and mimics nature: she imitates it because she wants to understand how it works, and this is why we could call her way of working 'organic'. Her works 'sprout', following a slow growing time that is almost biological like the growth of plants. The artist imitates nature in an attempt to crystallise a vision, aware of how hard it is to take on the eternal: all of her attention is on the unstable and precarious condition of things which can be swept away from one moment to the next, but which, precisely because of this weakness, contain an infinite grace. As mentioned above, some of the leaves of the installation are perforated, cut with scalpels, and they seem blighted by a disease. At the same time they reveal beautiful shapes, highlighting the subtle and almost invisible veining which cuts through the surface: 'They all look alike, but each one is different from the others. They are complicated mathematical functions which the work highlights by emphasising their perfection and complexity...'
Thus we have a 'transparent' nature yet again; barely visible and often ignored. It is precisely this imperceptible, arcane, ephemeral dimension of nature that interests the artist, because it reminds her of human precariousness. The 'transparency' Elisabetta refers to is somehow the metaphor of this rarefied visibility. The look that penetrates it through the diaphragm between the surface and the depth, executes a passage and in doing so evokes the most arduous 'passing' from the present to the past, and from life to death. For the artist 'almost transparent nature' thus has something in common with the act of seeing and with the mind's vision. It means giving visibility to that totality of things which, although existent, we can no longer see due to ignorance or a lack of attention: 'Reality is teeming with almost transparent nature...'
As I mentioned earlier, the organic work of this artist is her way of aligning with nature in order to try and imitate it. This is why the manual gesture of 'doing' has become unavoidable and fundamental in all of her work: in her 'making by hand', the rhythm of artisanal tradition _ female work, which is constant, patient and delicate _ merges with a creative time which for the artist corresponds to existential time. It is through this lengthy time, these repetitive, slow and precise gestures, that an abstract and meditative experience is made possible. Elisabetta's work is nourished by time and is exposed to time, to its flow and to its passing. It is impossible not to think of the sacredness which imbues the creative gestures of the Tibetan mandala, in which the monks' graceful hands work day after day to create an arabesque of coloured sand, swept away in an instant by the wind after being contemplated. Everything flows and disintegrates, but the ephemeral moment of equilibrium permits an experience of beauty and emotion.
In some of Elisabetta Di Maggio's previous works, time was a process which dismantled the form. I am thinking of a work like Dissonanze (Dissonances, 2010), in which ice objects needed time to melt and transform into sound or into another substance; or the work Stupro (Rape, 2000), which over time aimed to wash away the pain of the violence evoked by the word inscribed on bars of soap. It was the time of waiting, intended as something that would be capable of curing all ills. The theme of 'nothing lasts forever in nature', already popular in the seventeenth century, is loaded with drama when considered in relation to an age like ours, in which meaningless gestures shatter repetitively and futilely above a constantly bright and increasingly empty horizon. 'My work, the result of incredibly lengthy creation times, can be destroyed in an instant and for me it becomes a metaphor for a way of existing.'
As well as the idea of precariousness in Natura quasi trasparente, there is the idea of movement and transformation, which is also sought in fragile substances: it is about the idea of making visible and experiencing the passing of time in order to make it the object of observation and awareness. This artist's work focuses on the experience of change and its setting: paradoxically, it is change that establishes the permanence of things and which guarantees survival.
When looking at the invasion of ivy in the museum salon, inevitably one thinks of the concept of 'intrusion' and everything it entails. Jean-Luc Nancy talked about it in his insightful L'intrus (2000). He was inspired to work on the notion of intrusion due to a personal event: a heart transplant, which he had undergone many years earlier. The ivy that invades the museum space in some way recalls the intrusion of a foreign body: it is sudden, invasive, exuberant and overwhelming; like all experiences of intrusion it is overwhelming; like all experiences of intrusion it triggers something important, another movement, but also a new life. This is what happened in the museum: the intrusion of the ivy on the museum walls reactivated life (I am thinking back to Jean-Luc NancyÕs heart); at the same time something foreign, something heterogeneous, has put the entire museum organism to the test. Elisabetta's work has shaken the crystallised balances and the usual hermeneutic attitudes, forcing a critical-aesthetic re-reading of the works exhibited in that space. Nothing is as it was before, either for the social body which tends to reject the foreign object, activating its own immune system, or for those few who recognise it, who make space for it and if they let it contaminate. In this sense the artist herself becomes an intruder, entering the museum and altering the perceptive and temporal order, forcing us to see the works in unexpected relations.
Fundamentally, this is at the heart of the contemporary art programme organised by the Fondazione: 'Conserving the future', an oxymoron which expresses the meaning of the artists' action, aims to 'defrost' the museum works and overturn them like clods of earth when a plough goes by.
One day we were all working in the artist's studio: Betta and Rodika, her assistant, were cutting; I was writing. We were talking about the injuries they were inflicting on the ivy leaves. Rodika, who comes from Eastern Europe and had had to leave behind her loved ones and things in order to start a new life, gave me her interpretation: when it passes, time always leave a mark, with its lacerations and wrinkles. These bear witness to what has happened and make us what we are. Similarly, the time of the work leaves a mark, which is the injury of transformation.
The display cabinet
In the palace/museum, Elisabetta Di Maggio wanted to open up the small room behind the boudoir, including an intimate and private space in the project that is normally closed to the public and cannot be visited. Here she found an old eighteenth-century wardrobe where some family objects were stored that were too fragile and delicate to be displayed: miniatures, coins, cameos, porcelain sculptures, gems, objects of daily use (seals, compasses, manometers, brooches, buttons, snuff boxes..), fragments of fabric and clothes which recount the life of the family and the history of their home.
This is where the artist has fitted out her 'cabinet des curiosites', a contemporary display cabinet where the artist's archive is mixed up with the historic archive, turning it into a mirror and enhancing our understanding of it. The present illuminates the past. Entering the room and being immersed in the figures and objects it contains is like having penetrated the artist's mind: drawings, notes, citations, arabesques, sketches, and engraved sheets of paper, hanging in precarious balance, activate an image in which nature battles culture. The sophistication of human activity is reflected in the simple and miraculous complexity of nature. The drawings which depict the shapes of the synapses in our brain, for example, recall the roots and fronds of trees, meticulous and detailed like those in an antique botanical treatise. The delicate threads of the plant world and the circuits of the human body evoke relationships, recalling the intricate networks of human communication. Through the items exhibited in the cabinet, our imagination associates the structure of the leaves' lymphatic vessels with the criss-crosses of the human epidermis, the tracks of metro systems, and the complicated outline of a neural cell: if looked at closely, these apparently distant elements reveal numerous assonances. This is a theme dear to the artist: that of communication networks which are indispensable for the transmission of information and that of the time required in order for this to take place. Elisabetta's work has always highlighted the connections, threads, circuits, grids, structures and reticula that belong to different worlds, but which are equally indispensable for our existence. The objects are those of the real world, and range from anthropological and urban planning illustrations to items which belong to domestic daily life, such as embroidery, soft furnishings and hangings.
Elisabetta Di Maggio's entire project at the Querini Museum thus assumes the meaning of a metaphorical reflection on our existence as parts of a whole, fragments of a natural world which, in microcosmic and macrocosmic dimensions, is always changing and new thanks to the extraordinary fecundity of its laws.
Dance, discipline and control
One day in the studio, Betta tells me about what has been determining for her work, which requires extraordinary discipline: the long years of ballet which she did as a child when she lived in Milan. She was supposed to become part of the corps de ballet at the Scala but her family wanted to move, thus she channelled her talent into art. Having been uprooted, Elisabetta 'shifted' the rigour and physical control of dance into her artistic work:
'When I work it is as though I have crossed into a completely new dimension which takes a long time to enter. When I leave I am exhausted, because there is a physical part that is extremely tiring, which requires concentration, strictness, discipline, but above all a mental effort of abstraction; the effort of entering an abstract space.'
In dance there is a search for perfection, but above all there is an attempt to make the gesture seem so natural that when the viewer sees it, they almost have the sensation that it is easy and reproducible. The bravura of a ballerina does not merely lie in the perfect execution of a sequence, but in showing the naturalness of a movement, even in the most difficult and complex steps. It is a question of neutralising the effort in order to make it transparent (Forse meglio ÔinvisibleÕ in inglese?).
In this sense Elisabetta's could almost be considered body art. Those who have seen and know her work well, understand this aspect of the body being prepared in that it has to endure being in the same position for hours and hours: 'staying in position is everything in dance and only discipline can help you.'
We know that you are what you do, and that in this sense work is proof or evidence of our existence. In Elisabetta's work what emerges with apprehension is the ghost of annulment or the loss of our boundaries. It is as though, in order to try and capture infinite time in the meshes of the finite, this artist has chosen the route of precision and rigour. They are qualities which are necessary to ward off the fear of disorder, the danger of equivocation and the anxiety of the unlimited.
Memory, details and attention
A final suggestion, again on the subject of time and of the attempt to stem the dissolution and crumbling which are inevitably connected to it.
Walking through the museum rooms, it does not take much _ an oversight or a quick visit _ to miss Betta's works, which are created in close relation to the place. The artist has spent a lot of time there and has been visiting it for years. In 2005 she left an important mark on it with the permanent installation on the wall in the Jappelli Room: once again, if it is not 'seen well' and you walk by too quickly, you could mistake it for a damp patch on the wall. I remember that while I was managing the restoration of the museum in that room, the decorators let me know that they were going to take off the final layer of white plaster. At the time, Elisabetta was trying out a new technique: she was engraving onto the final layer of plaster on walls to see what they were hiding. That delicate engraving revealed the previous layers of paint. I informed her that there was a plaster wall on which she could probably work and she drew five fragments of old soft furnishings to then carve on the plaster. The various underlying chromatic layers emerged through the lattice created by her scalpels: the abyss of time opened wide from beneath the mask. Elisabetta thus 'cuts' the walls, allowing buried memories to flourish on the surface: the artist turns herself into a 'woodworm', digging and letting nuances and memories transpire on the surface.
Again working on memory and its delicate network of associations, in the small room containing Giovanni Bellini's Presentation at the Temple, Di Maggio has left a small and precious object of fragile porcelain leaning on a chair. It is a mysterious, ambiguous and polysemous object. It recalls a bonnet, the one the child is wearing in Bellini's work in that room, but it also recalls an openwork basket, a net, a head, a skull..
'It is a delicate and fragile object because it is made of porcelain..it can be smashed in the same way thoughts and ideas can be broken...'
It is not hard to imagine the scene which could have preceded the one depicted in Bellini's adjacent masterpiece: the mother has just breastfed her baby on the chair on which the artist has placed her work, before taking the infant to the presentation at the temple, forgetting its fragile and precious bonnet.
A detailÉ but in a world focused on the superfluous it is precisely in the barely discernible details, which are almost transparent, that this extraordinary artist's last twenty years of research concentrate on. Elisabetta works and 'endures' in silence amidst the throng of useless things and deafening voices, with courage and an iron discipline. Her eccentric gesture becomes ethical and political precisely because it regains a meaning that has been rendered almost invisible.
Presenting the museum project to me, the artist herself said, 'You know, it isn't always easy to have a white space available, so you need to learn to get yourself one, you need to manage to recognise it and use it. We need to look for our fixed point and take it from there.'
It seems to me that the artist has found hers, but she had to work hard, educating and training each gesture, turning time into a precious resource we have to be aware of, as in life: only by nurturing it and paying attention to it can we live life authentically, weaving it with minute, constant and repeated gestures. For Betta it is a question of transformation, of leaving the traces of its passing in the time that goes by.
In rehabilitating, requalifying and controlling time, in taking all the time one needs to devote oneself to the realisation of a form there is a possibility of harmonising our existential rhythm with that of nature, which we are all a part of.