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Being Time
A Dialogue with Francesco Arena

Francesco Arena, Angolo vuoto (Hommage à la mort de Kurt Cobain), 2021, Palazzo Carignano, Turin, courtesy DAMA, the artist, Galleria Raffaella Cortese and Sprovieri

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Lorenzo Madaro

When it comes to reflecting on Italian artistic identity, one artist who comes to mind is Francesco Arena. What does he think the concept of identity represents? Is there an identity in his approach, in his method, in the materials he adopts for his works, in which he reconstructs recent Italian history through a conceptualisation of facts, experiences, places and protagonists? In his reflections, Arena confirms that he is an artist who thinks deeply about the temperatures of reality, drawing on a wealth of citations, perspectives and analyses that belong to History in its plurality.

For you, what does the theme of identity in art represent?

Identity is one of those words that lends itself, more than others, to different kinds of interpretation: there is an exclusively personal identity, the identity of Francesco, of who Francesco is, and what Francesco thinks; there is another identity of a collective kind, a shared identity. In. some periods of history this latter kind of identity, has given rise to movements, manifestos, and I think now it is more internal to things, almost underground. Today, we recognise ourselves as part of a collective identity, made up of individual identities in a totally unconscious way, without the need for programmes. Art, the artist’s work, is always identitarian, it is made by a person with his own thought, sometimes a precise and clearly defined one, but much more often confused and opaque, which ‘represents’ an identity, almost as if art were always a self-portrait.

Identité italienne, Germano Celant’s 1981 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, zeroed in on the Italian imaginary after 1959. Today, what identitarian aspect is there, in Italian art and culture?

Perhaps a certain idea of form, a need to concentrate ideas, suggestions, hypotheses, in an object that, in the end, has its own form, finished or unfinished, but form nonetheless.

I was recently reading an interview with a now historic Italian artist, Mimmo Paladino. He bewailed the fact that in the contemporary world there is no longer the vigorous exchange between artists, poets and writers that seemed only natural in the past. Why? What is different about the relationships between intellectuals today? Perhaps that dialogue between visual artists and poets was also part of an identity.

Certainly, there is a quantitative difference between the period Paladino is talking about and the present day. At that time, there were fewer artists, fewer writers, and a greater need to form a group. However, I do not believe that these links between artists, writers, poets, no longer exist; on the contrary, there are more areas in play: there is music, cinema, fashion, there are other worlds that are part of the intellectual sphere and that in years gone by somehow went unconsidered. I have relations and exchanges with many intellectuals from other spheres, but often these exchanges are absorbed into the work of the respective actors, without seeking visibility for them.

What element of identity is there in your work, both in conceptual terms and in terms of process and use of materials?

My work is who I am, often my works are openly declared to be self-portraits, sometimes they even have my name, much more often my own person is a ‘constructing’ part of the work in its final form. The identity in the work is in the stories that inform it, whether public or personal, in the deliberate coldness of an apparently dis-identifying formal execution; but for identity to be identity it does not have to be pre-constituted and programmed, otherwise it is fiction, just an appearance of identity, like when you see parents in their sixties and children in their thirties all the same, dressed the same, speaking the same, with the same arguments, all forever young or all forever dead.

Let’s delve further into the identitarian materials of your work: what are they, how do they act, how do they participate in the genesis of the work?

I do not believe one can speak of identitarian materials and non-identitarian materials, precisely because of the argument I have just mentioned, the impossibility of pre-constituting the question of identity. If I thought that some materials belonged more to an identitarian conception than others, this would lead to a falsification regarding the making of the work. But for me, the work arises from a conceptual truth of its own, which solidifies in a formalisation, which, however, consciously refuses the comfortable refuge of belonging.

Which Italian artists do you think express a certain Italian identity, through their research?

I will answer you, but I believe that a fundamental aspect of our era is a need for a completely personal path, far removed from the comfort of the group. You can share objectives without taking shared paths, and this is what I think many of us have been doing for years with our work on materials (and by materials I do not mean only those that make up the works, but also the cues that the works are informed by). Having said that, I believe that Giuseppe Gabellone, Diego Perrone, Rä di Martino, Rossella Biscotti, Gianni Caravaggio, Francesco Gennari, Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Ludovica Carbotta, Luca Francesconi, Gian Maria Tosatti, Pietro Roccasalva, Renato Leotta, reflect, each in their own way and some with greater points of contact, on an idea of Italian identity. I’ve given a limited number of names, but there could be many more. The enormous inheritance that the exponents of arte povera have left us, in terms of its – both physical and ethical – approach to materials and artistic production, certainly provides material for many artists of subsequent generations to engage with. I often hear sarcastic comments about my generation and its relationship with the poveristi, but it would be impossible to ignore the quality of the work they produced in the 1960s and 1970s; and it would be stupid to try to do so (as it would be stupid to think that artists do not have fathers and mothers, however much they might not want them).

In recent years you have travelled and exhibited a lot abroad. How are we observed, outside of the Italian scene?

For many abroad, Italian art is arte povera and then, with a big leap, Maurizio Cattelan. Between these two moments, there is a gap that museums and galleries are now starting to deal with, dedicating exhibitions to artists who did not have the same fortune as arte povera. As for my generation and the previous one, an attempt at ‘historicisation’ is now beginning, as in the recent exhibition on Italian art after the 1990s, curated by Marco Scotini at Villa Arson in Nice, at the same time as an exhibition at MAMAC in the same city, curated by Valérie Da Costa, on the Italian art of the 1960s and 1970s. Then, each artist’s work is his or her own, we Italians do not have the same appeal as artists from other countries, but I do not believe that appeal or exoticism is a good yardstick for the work of an artist, which lasts a lifetime and can often only be grasped in its entirety with time. Short time periods belong to sport and the seasonality of fashion; art, like man, has fallen into History, but the fall never crashes to earth.

There is, as you say, an attempt to historicise the work of artists active in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Which among the more contemporary, very young artists that you respect and observe?

No, I am referring to artists who worked between the 1970s and 1980s. I think that with regard to the Italian artists who worked, or rather were young, between the late 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium – the generation of Mario Airò and Liliana Moro to be precise, which includes authors with complex work – little has yet been done. Among the young and very young, I have especially great regard for Pamela Diamante, Diego Marcon, Namsal Siedlecki, Gaia De Megni, Gianluca Concialdi, Antonio Fiorentino and Valerio Nicolai.