Italian artist Michele Giangrande has an extravagant, sophisticated, conceptualist personality; he is inspired by archaic, primitive things yet driven to reflect on politics and other topical matters. He seems to have never-ending energy and an urge to create, but when I asked Michele about where this energy comes from, he answered paraphrasing Descartes “Crĕo ergo sum” which means “I create therefore I am”.
Michele, you work in the studio, you teach students and you also meet with curators and galerists in your free time. Could you please describe your typical work day?
A great question to start with. In fact, many ask me this and often, I confess, I ask myself too. Being a teacher in high artistic training takes a lot, but at the same time it stimulates me because it allows me to be in contact with new generations of artists, designers, creatives of all kinds.
All this gives me a lot of energy and satisfaction. Then there is writing, cinema, exhibitions, travels and so on. In short, I lead a life with which it is impossible to get bored. Thanks to my assistants and my partner, every day I manage to put a piece in place. It takes a lot of energy, patience and dedication, but above all an innate organizational ability. So it can happen that, after a long and careful planning phase, the work passes, under my very close supervision, to irreplaceable professionals – before tireless craftspeople – from every sector: a carpenter, a blacksmith, a neonist, a ceramist, a marble worker, etc. As Voltaire said: “He who has not the spirit of this age, has all the misery of it”. At this point I guess you are wondering where I find the time for creativity. But I can’t reveal all my secrets to you!
Of course, as Francis Bacon said: “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery”. But let’s go back in time to the beginning of your career. How did your journey as an artist start?
My research draws from a vast object and cultural universe, a world made up of studies, markets, shops, basements and warehouses mixed with my childhood memories, of a time when I built toys myself to always have new ones. They were all homemade toys I made by combining all sort of things I found around the house. I really think it all started very early and naturally. Added to this today is an intellectual element. I do want to express and communicate something, I want to leave my mark, make others think, but most of all, I like to pretend I’m still playing with my toys.
Are your works planned out before you start making them or are they a sort of improvisation?
Improvisation in my work cannot exist. It is a condition that I cannot afford. Everything is designed down to the smallest detail especially when I am involved in monumental and public installations. Obviously, an unexpected event can happen that leads you to make decisions on the spot, but nothing is left to chance, ever. Art is responsibility.
Several of your artworks are enormous in size. For instance your project Gears (Ingranaggi). Is there an explanation to this giant size of these artworks?
I have always worked on the idea of “visual architecture” based on the concept of environmental location as a philosophy of space. The installation “Gears” (Ingranaggi) was born in 2011, the year in which the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy took place, as an unpublished work for a big retrospective exhibition curated by ARTWO in Rome, which collected about thirty works (2001/2011) in an industrial area converted into an exhibition space: the Officine Farneto. The idea of “Gears” basically comes from an obsession: the wheel, the symbol of human inventiveness and the similar geometric figure of the circle. The circle represents perfection, completeness, union. I am passionate about geometry and ancient history, especially pre-Christian history. For years I have been carrying out research inspired by the archaic, the primitive, the reinterpretation of the past, starting from my origins, making a backwards route through popular traditions and through the same History of Humanity, to achieve the primitive artistic expressions and to grasp their initial spark.
The circular shape of the “Gears” (or other works such as “Mandala” of 2008, a circle consisting of the succession of colourful 70’s ties or the more recent “Lost in the magic white wild circle” of 2014, where the circle is generated by signs that nature produces, in this case on stones) and their monumental dimensions, humbly pay homage to what I have often reverentially defined as “the best contemporary art installations ever”. I refer to megalithic sites, an expression of Neolithic spirituality, symbols of the circularity of time and of the idea of rebirth after death, such as the so-called Bodgar Circle (about 2,500 BC) which is located on the Orkney Islands, in northern Scotland or the most popular Stonehenge (3,000 BC) located in Amesbury in Wiltshire, England.
Or even, to the burial mounds of Newgrange (diameter 80 m), Knowth (diameter 95 m) and Dowth (diameter 85 m) located in Brú na Bóinne, one of the most important archaeological sites of prehistoric origin in the world, located 40 km away from Dublin and dating back more than 5,000 years. The collaboration with the curator Liza Savina (St. Petersburg), the result of the network of contacts of the Pino Pascali Museum Foundation, made it possible to present my gears, in September 2015, as a Special Project at the third Ural Industrial Biennal of Contemporary Art in Ekaterinburg. The operation was successful, thanks to the support and partnership between Liza Savina (project curator), Mars Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow (project partner), Sparta Agency (project partner), Kseniya Bogdanovish (coordinator of the biennial team), Sasha Iordanov (right arm of the gallery), Angela Varvara (inspirational muse, responsible to the set up and life partner), managers of the Ural Chemistry Mechanical Engineering Factory and a large group of tireless workers in the host industry without whom it would not have been thinkable, at least for me, to carry out this titanic undertaking. “Lieve è l’oprar se in molti è condiviso” (Light is the task where many share the toil – Homer).
The bank’s collection includes your artwork titled The Pillars of Creation (Time, Space, Gravity). Can you tell me more about the idea behind this artwork?
The three plates of brass Pillars of Creation (Time, Space, Gravity) make up a sort of contemporary altarpiece, in which these three dimensions of reality and the universe are shaped in a brilliant and poetic manner. The title of the work is inspired by that of the famous photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope April 1, 1995 to the columns of interstellar gas in the Eagle Nebula. The work is also inspired by the commemorative plaques placed on board the probes Pioneer 10 and 11 in 1972 and 1973, along with images of a man and a woman, the plaques were symbols of the present with basic information on the origin of the world. This reflection in exhibition form is moving through time, somewhere between the extremes of origin and projection into the future. This artwork has been exhibited in Rome during my solo exhibition entitled COSMIC MILK, the official name of the chromatic tone that identifies the color of the universe.
This work not only has a great idea behind it, it is very interesting from technical point of view as well, being made from brass. Is this your first and only brass artwork?
So far, yes. I always like to experiment with new techniques and new materials, but I cycle back to some of them out of necessity or desire. So it doesn’t mean that it will remain the only one forever.
You make conceptual pieces using all sorts of different techniques and media. What influences the choice of media you use? Is there one particular medium in which you would best like to express yourself?
For every goal there is the best way to achieve it. The most complex part of my job is precisely finding the right language to convey a message. Honestly, it’s also the funniest part. Were it not for our skill to create something new, we wouldn’t have evolved from primates. We needed to improve our lives and nourish the mind. It’s against human nature to fear changes. We invented new technologies as far as possible and if it was not enough, we resorted to placebos like religion and art. In both cases we created ideal worlds where all our weaknesses turn strengths: we are mortal, so we invented an afterlife; we are ugly, so we conceived Michelangelo’s Prisoners and Raffaello’s Madonnas; we are weak, so we invented the Viagra pills and wrote Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Art has always made the most of everything around us. We wouldn’t have Monet’s Water Lilies hadn’t it been for the tubes of oil paints. As for me, the handmade has never been a problem. That would be a limit nowadays. After all, not even the public seems to mind whether the artist does an entire piece by themselves. Many other artists and I need other people’s skills and experience we lack. When my ideas go beyond the limits of my hands, I look for hands that can go beyond the limits of my ideas.
You have made several very political art pieces such as Babel Towers and Wall of Tears. Would you consider yourself a political artist?
I don’t follow a definite poetics, I would get tired quickly. There is too much in the world to think about. Each artistic operation that I carry out is a pretext to express a thought about what surrounds me, to criticize, reflect, understand. Just as I appear in everyday life, I believe I also express a kind of neo-Dandyism in art.
Some of your artworks include involving the audience. Is important for you to perform to a live audience?
The Covid pandemic makes us live in confinement. For us artists (and not only), now is the time for reflection and planning. The human mind is extraordinarily capable of adapting and finding new strategies with respect to any condition, even the most dramatic, rigid and extreme. Creativity generates ideas that are already “tuned” with the possibilities of implementation and the historical-social context in which it acts. All of this is magical. This is us. The artist is the one who conveys and transforms this intrinsic ability into a work of art. For me it is essential, especially in this precise historical moment, to involve the viewer with and in all senses.
What do you think, does all kind of art require an audience?
There is no art without an audience. Art is a message and a message needs to go from point A to point B to have the right to exist. The moment an artist imagines a work of art, they are themselves the first spectator of it. So it is impossible to separate art from viewers.
You have made a project together with another our collection artist – Dario Agrimi. Can you tell more about it?
Dario is a very dear friend of mine and an artist whom I respect a lot. We met as soon as we enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bari – and since then a friendship has developed that is difficult to ruin. At the end of 2019, we decided to organize a double solo exhibition in an important exhibition space in Bari, since neither he nor I had ever had the opportunity to do something similar before, because we had been focusing on other objectives. We imagined the exhibition as a series of works (from the oldest to the most recent) as if they were two sides of the same coin. We organized the exhibition in pairs of works in a logical way, as if they were a single work of art. This approach put us in a new light as if we were a single thinking organism. We were amazed to discover that many of our works of art conversed in an almost symbiotic way. The idea was a huge success with critics and audiences. The title of the exhibition could only be GIANO, the name of one of the oldest and most important divinities of the Roman religion usually depicted with two faces since the god can look at the future and the past. The poster, which I personally designed for the occasion, saw my profile and that of Dario fuse exactly as the iconography of the god we were inspired by demands.
If you would need to name an artist you are inspired by, who would it be?
Those who painted the Altamira cave.
Could you share your future plans with us? Are there any upcoming shows or collaborations you can reveal us?
While waiting to resume the activities left pending abroad, in the current “seclusion” I am working on two new projects (actually for some time), namely the third and fourth chapters of the tetralogy of the elements which began with the experiential exhibition BUNKER (the land, 2018) and followed with the film THE HYPERZOO (the air, 2019/2020).
These are very complex, articulated and itinerant projects that require massive intellectual work, great organizational skills and the involvement of several professionals; like the previous chapters, in fact, also for “water” and “fire” I foresee a titanic production that will include metamorphic and experiential installations, performances, sound art, light art, participatory and relational art, sets and costumes, films/documentaries and editorial projects without neglecting the didactic aspect that I particularly care about.
Michele Giangrande is an Italian conceptualist born in the Apulian city of Bari in 1979. The artist currently teaches contemporary decoration and design (public art, urban design) at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bari, Italy. Giangrande has been successful both in his use of traditional media and in the implementation of ambitious projects melding the genres of classical art, public art and environmental design. He is inspired by archaic, primitive things that, through the artist’s intervention, have their initial function changed and become the raw material for his ends. In 2015, his research served as the basis for a documentary film demonstrated on Italy’s national television.
Giangrande’s creations are also distinguished by their gigantomania, with the number of items in use reaching into the hundreds and thousands. For instance his Wall of Tears project in 2008 ridiculed political hypocrisy using a set of 600 wooden crates full of peeled onions. On another occasion, the artist built two Babel towers from waffle ice cream cones to imply the transient nature of worldly delights – and to commemorate the 9/11 tragedy. At the Bari Airport, he crafted a unique installation involving 8050 eggs – encouraging people to think about the fragility of the modern world. In 2011, Giangrande participated in the 54th Venice Biennale. In 2015, he participated in the 3rd Ural Industrial Biennial in Yekaterinburg (Russia).
The bank’s collection includes a piece by Giangrande titled The Pillars of Creation (Time, Space, Gravity). This work represents a contemporary styling of altar icons that poetically represent three aspects of reality and the Universe. The name of the work is borrowed from a composite image of interstellar gas clouds in the Eagle Nebula, taken using the Hubble Space Telescope and published by NASA on 1 April 1995. The triptych’s execution using brass sheets also alludes to the metal plaques attached to the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 space probes launched from Earth into the void in 1972 and 1973 – depicting the bodies of a man, a woman, and a schematic reference to the probes’ planet of origin.