Alfredo Jaar Interview: In step with Gramsci
Posted by voidmanufacturing on December 14, 2008
In step with Gramsci: an interview with Alfredo Jaar
Yulia TihonovaThe mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence … but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator …
Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison (1)
These words of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist and humanist, may aptly describe the artistic position of Alfredo Jaar, the Chilean-born, New York City-based artist who has chosen the commutative strategy of being an active intellectual for more than twenty-five years. By virtue of his expressive medium, Jaar creates evocative artworks that not only inform viewers about the tragic events all over the world but also attain a personal meaning for the artist and viewers alike. The artist impels and organizes public perception in such a way that viewers are inspired to take action and confront issues.
With the geography of tragedy dictating the itinerary of his travels, Jaar is driven by his dynamic social position to find the places where the intervention of humanity is urgently required such as Angola, Nigeria, North Korea, Rwanda, and Vietnam. Visiting combat zones, the artist portrays what often has been marked as “unrepresentable”–trauma, pain, and grief. Without further didactics, his message is clear and empowering, interrogating and demanding a resolute position in response to the world of injustice and torment. (2)
Although Jaar intends to remain invisible and eliminate his subjective view from the visual scene, the artist is nevertheless present through his choice of interpretive strategies that speak not only to just a western audience but reach beyond the boundaries of narrow localization.
Using installation, video, and photography, Jaar manipulates light and mirrors as media to bring about transient qualities of light and time. These two, in turn, articulate the spatial architectonics and, when combined with other parts of the artwork, form installations where one is simultaneously an interpreter of an artwork and the means of its affect, whereby every detail affects various stimuli of human perception. In so doing, Jaar forces the viewer to decode the emblematic signs and compose meaningful connections between the actual and implied, visual and imagined. While providing almost minimal information, the artist orchestrates the medium through a musicality consistent with his metaphoric references. Whether it is an image of an exploding galaxy, which denotes the dissemination of Gramsci’s ideas, or flickering TV screens that hint at Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire, the medium reinforces collective and subjective interpretation.
Jaar is equally able to respond to the anguish of the Other. The haunting language of a metaphor is essential for the artist on a personal level and even more so for someone who has witnessed countless incidents of poverty and death. These experiences never grow into a habitual acceptance of the scenes of catastrophe, whether natural or ersatz.
This interview focuses on the series of projects titled “The Gramsci Trilogy” (2004-5), which Jaar produced under the auspices of several Italian cultural institutions, including Foundation Antonio Ratti in Como, Galleria Lia Rumma in Milan, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome (MACRO), and Studio Stefania Miscetti in Rome. By reinstating the once celebrated Gramsci–the extraordinary philosopher and organic intellectual, founder of the concepts of the cultural hegemony and the quiet revolution, and the source of inspiration for the theoreticians of the Frankfurt School–Jaar sought to reinstate the specter of intellect. In step with Gramsci, Jaar exemplifies a figure of the “permanent persuader” that the Italian Marxist had long searched for.
The artist draws attention to Gramsci’s concepts of social equality and decentralization of power in the wake of a corrupt and consumer-ridden Italian society. By drawing on historical connections between Gramsci and Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, the artist also pays tribute to the indomitable spirit of the latter. “The Gramsci Trilogy” presents five distinct works combining text and image: a prologue titled “Searching for Gramsci” (2004); the trilogy itself that includes “Infinite Cell” (2004), “Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom” (2004), and “The Ashes of Gramsci” (2004); and an epilogue titled “The Aesthetics of Resistance” (2005). These sequences narrate a persuasive account of the steps of Gramsci from the past into the present.
YULIA TIHONOVA: What are the sources, stylistic affinities, and concepts that inspired “The Gramsci Trilogy” project? Did your “epistemological privilege of being a foreigner,” that is, having a unique perspective on the country, give you an advantage while working in Italy? (3)
ALFREDO JAAR: For the last five years I have been rereading Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and reviewing films of Pasolini. In my view, they are the most outstanding thinkers and intellectuals of the twentieth century. Both believed in the capacity of art to affect society and to change the course of history. I think that these ideas are more important than ever, and this is what has prompted me to pay homage through my work to these two illuminating intellectuals. As soon as I received the invitation to work in Italy, I decided that I would focus on them and their work. While conceiving “The Gramsci Trilogy,” I was also evaluating how I was going to address the legacy of these key figures of our social history, who have been shamefully neglected by contemporary Italian society. I wanted to draw attention to Gramsci’s incisive concepts of the intellect–that is, an instrument for the organization of human life. I was mostly interested in Pasolini’s ideological precision, not very common in a poet. Hence, I draw upon Pasolini’s 1957 poem “The Ashes of Gramsci,” which occupies a special place in Italian poetry. I feel that my distance from the Italian context was essential in creating this meaningful project that addresses the larger issues of power, consciousness, and history. In this body of work, I stay outside the frame, so to speak, but remind the viewer about the timely spirit of Gramsci and Pasolini by impact of the medium that I use.
YT: You conceived “The Gramsci Trilogy” as an ongoing search for Gramsci’s ideas that are alive today. MACRO curator Dobrila Denegri characterizes this investigation not only as an artistic record of the places you went to but also a metaphor for conscious living, where you act as a trenchant observer of the political environment of present-day Italy. Could you walk us through your project? (4)
AJ: In the prologue, “Searching for Gramsci,” my early morning journey starts at the Rome cemetery where Gramsci is buried. My camera follows the graveyard pathways, the nearby trees and sunlight–everything is quiet. His grave is enlivened by the fresh roses recently placed on it. Obviously, people remember him. Here I am thinking of Gramsci, whose legacy will never die. My next stop is at the home of Antonio Negri, a philosopher, a disciple of Gramsci, and a prisoner himself for thirteen years. In this portrait, I wanted to capture the penetrative expression of his face. After visiting Negri, I continue my walk around the city looking for signs of Gramsci’s presence, trying to make connections between Fascist Italy of the 1930s and contemporary society. Looking at the bridges across the Tiber River, the symbolism of divisions between rich and poor, powerful and marginalized, and progressive and conservative comes to mind. The concept of bridging these opposites provided for Gramsci’s revolutionary thinking. I ask myself, where is Gramsci today? In my walk around Rome on that special day, I am searching for him–he who was one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century, someone who believed in the capacity of culture to affect social life. Here I am taking a nostalgic trip, almost a lament, wondering if there is someone writing the Prison Notebooks for the twenty-first century. These are some of the questions I reflect upon in each of the thirty-six images of the prologue.
YT: You continue your poignant journey in the steps of Gramsci into the first chapter, “Infinite Cell.” How do you develop confined architectonic space that carries out your conceptual undertaking?
AJ: Most of my works are site-specific and orientated toward the viewer who is always required to actively participate in the perception of the space and the work. Here, prior to the “Infinite Cell,” one encounters a silkscreen print of the intense red surface imprinted with the numbers … twenty years, four months, and five days. This is Benito Mussolini’s dreadful prison sentence for Gramsci. I think that the malicious cruelty of this verdict transcends its time and can be read as a symbol of the present Italian administration: Berlusconi’s government is drowning in a black cloud. The past and the present are inextricably linked, as is the connection of Gramsci with the politics of today. To amplify the evocative qualities of this work, I sought the most intense gradation of the red pigment, which was finally achieved by layering twenty-nine coats of the color. This surface never dries and one can still mark one’s finger with the color red–the allegory of blood.
YT: Gramsci’s intellectual strength is admirable, especially while participating in the so-called “prison university,” which was created by prisoners. During his time there he never lost touch with the guiding principal of his “philosophy of praxis,” that one labors to understand the world as precisely as possible in order to change it. How did you translate this understanding into visual effects in the context of a contemporary gallery?
AJ: The viewer enters a reconstructed prison cell, which is made up of continuous mirrors along two opposite walls. A real window with metal bars offers the only light inside the cell. The emotions of claustrophobia and fear overpower the spectator when encountered with a myriad of self-reflections. The intimidating continuity of this space is another metaphor for Gramsci’s nearly half-life sentence. Purposefully, I reduced the entrance to the cell as if to imitate the scale of this space, to show how it would have felt to Gramsci–a person of small stature. The architectonics of the space was utilized to a maximum effect and gives an impression of infinite captivity. When I think of the vision and values of contemporary society that are about consumption and wealth, I do not see light or future among these people, and this somber infinity of the installation reflects precisely that.
YT: In Re-Visions: An Introduction to Geography = War, Ashley Kistler insightfully defines your use of mirrors as a critique of “our narcissistic, self-obsessed society.” (5) Mirrors offer the perfect ironic instrument for introducing the image of the “Other” into a realm of “self.” How does this device work for you in the “Infinite Cell”?
AJ: My history of working with mirrors started thirty years ago when I was trained as an architect. I have always considered the mirror as a kind of invisible threshold between real and reflected spaces. It announces a distance that is at once perceptual, emotional, and physical and separates oneself from the “self” reflected. In this case “self” becomes externalized. This allows for new relations to occur between a subject and his or her double that prompt evaluation of these confrontations, viewed in the larger context of contemporary society. In our world of catastrophes, which is oversaturated by images of pain, blood, and anguish, we become numb to the pain of others. We simply deny such events being immersed in our own individualistic space where we feel safe and distant from troubled reality. That is why I thought that the space of the mirror was the ultimate space to create an encounter with someone we have never met. The mirror facilitates what I call “an infernal triangle”: we watch ourselves watching other people watching us watching them watching me.
YT: Indeed, Gramsci defined the model of an intellectual or artist as being an active participant in practical life, as a constructor, organizer, and “permanent persuader.” Your next chapter reflects upon the destiny of those who have chosen an active social position and paid for their illuminating spirits with their lives. “Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom” ponders the notorious words of Mao Zedong who, in the mid 1950s, called upon Chinese intellectuals to join his revolution. What is the connection between Mao, Gramsci, and Italian politics?
AJ: Mao sought out intellectuals to participate in his cultural project and renew the revolution. To instigate and lure them, he proposed the following motto, based on a very old Chinese poem: “Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom, Let One Hundred Schools of Thought Contend.” After a year, he was finally successful, which resulted in a swell of intellectual vitality but simultaneously there arose severe criticism of Mao’s leadership and the course of revolution. His malicious answer to the critique and proposed innovations was mass prosecution of cultural intelligence. I am “translating” this dreadful historical occurrence into a visual representation by the following approach. On the gallery floor, a large metal base holds a total of one hundred live flowers. Simultaneously, the flowers are subjected to contradictory forces. On one hand, they are fed with daylight and water. On the other hand, and, simultaneously, they are being subjected to extremely cold temperatures and strong winds. On the wall, the image of Gramsci’s grave is projected, as if the ghost of Gramsci is witnessing this painful scene. The poetic metaphor here is quite clear: one can kill people, but one cannot kill ideas. This installation also reflects on the demagogy and false promises of Italian politicians. Someone like Berlusconi, who has almost absolute control over the country’s media, makes any independent publications and critical voices almost impossible. It also references the artistic production that has been kept, semi-alive, by governmental liberties. Although the artist is able to criticize the government, this critique is controlled by the very same power that let it happen. Democracy works, doesn’t it?
YT: Your next act of the trilogy is “Ashes of Gramsci,” where you borrow the title from Pasolini’s 1954 poem of the same name. How do you visualize this connection?
AJ: While conceiving this chapter, my thoughts were focused around modernity and the utopia of a better world, which truly encapsulates the ideas of Gramsci. By using the image of an exploding star, I envisioned a metaphorical dissemination of Gramsci’s concepts around the world. The brilliant fractures of the star image, originally taken at an observatory in Chile, explode into multiple mirror reflections. In this way, I use mirrors again, this time to testify to Gramsci’s teachings. In addition, this piece is my way to bring Pasolini into the picture, as an intellectual for whom I have the greatest regard. When Pasolini wrote his epic poem as an homage and celebration, he also lamented the absence of Gramsci and the unlivable present.
YT: The evocative title of the last act of the trilogy, “The Aesthetics of Resistance,” was appropriated from Gramsci’s book and also served as a trenchant theme of the Advanced Course in Visual Arts under the aegis of the Foundation Antonio Ratti, located in Como, where you were a visiting professor at that time. How did the site of Como affect your concept of this project?
AJ: I was thrilled to find in Como an extraordinarily beautiful modernist building by Guiseppe Terragni built in 1936 for Mussolini. I thought that this structure, the Casa del Fascio (Peoples’ Palace), would be, ironically, a perfect memorial to Gramsci. Therefore, I projected a sequence of images on the right facade of the building, an area that was left uninterrupted by Terragni especially for the display of fascist propaganda such as huge banners or flags. The projection starts with lines that follow the pattern of the windows of the building and create a grid. Within the grid appear eight TV screens with their color bars. These were obviously read in connection to Berlusconi’s media empire. In a few minutes the images on the TV screens diminish to be replaced by the sequence of my visit to Gramsci’s grave from the prologue. Here, the fascist building is transformed into Gramsci’s grave. My trip is thus complete, the circle closed, and Gramsci’s indomitable faith in humanism and the hegemony of intellect is still alive. People were, I think, touched and empowered by my concept of transformation of the former headquarters of Fascism in Como into a commemoration and celebration of Gramsci. It was hopefully a true manifestation of everlasting resistance to tyranny and death. (6)
NOTES (1.) Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison, Volume 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 68. Volume II is titled Prison Notebooks. (2.) Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Lament of the Images: Alfredo Jaar and the Ethics of Representation,” Aperture 181(Winter 2005). (3.) Ashley Kistler, Re-Visions: An Introduction to Geography = War, exhibition catalog (Richmond, VA: Virginia Museum of Fine Art, 1991), 13. (4.) Dobrila Denegri, “Theater of Doubt,” in Alfredo Jaar, exhibition catalog (Rome: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005), 98. (5.) Kistler, 6. (6.) This interview was conducted at Jaar’s studio in August 2006. Many thanks to the artist for his generous time and attention, and to the artists Jeff and Alina Blumis for initiating this interview.
YULIA TIHONOVA is a freelance writer living in New York City.
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