Prologue: It has become extremely difficult to work as a freelance journalist. The Internet may have liberated many of us, but it has also switched the attention to a visual world ruled by perfect yet cold digital images that do not leave much space to words. As a consequence, you’re constantly asked to write less, yet that’s not the only reason why journalism may be destined to a sad death.
The problem is that quite a few magazines - yes, also the “independent” and “cool” ones - are essentially run behind the scenes by a bunch of PR agents who usually can’t spell their names but who sell interviews with their clients to the above mentioned “independent” magazines. In return money, favours and adverts are exchanged.
So what happens is that you may have an interview with somebody relevant, but you may find it difficult to place it because the official PR agent didn’t organise it, because the interviewee wants a larger space on that magazine you’re collaborating with or because you’re simply suggesting a feature on somebody who doesn’t have the money to buy (or who is not interested in buying) adverts on your magazine.
I’m personally sick and tired of all these pathetic little games (though I’m even more sick of people asking you to ghostwrite interviews for famous people pretending to be cleverly interviewing historical fashion houses...) and that’s why this interview that nobody wants or that other people may not want to see published is coming out here.
The name of the artist is replaced by his initials, M.C., so that he/his press agent do not get offended about the fact that he’s appearing on my personal site and not on the cover of an arty and trendy magazine, but you can easily guess who he is (Italian, lives between Milan and New York, and, until tomorrow, he’s got a retrospective at NY’s Guggenheim Museum...the feedback and the images in the text will help you, I'm sure). The surreal style reflects the somewhat bizarre personality of the artist and of this unusual encounter.
This interview was made months before the exhibition opened, but I decided to publish it only today since the Guggenheim retrospective closes tomorrow, while today there is going to be an event at the museum celebrating the artist, entitled “The Last Word” (from 6pm until 1am) and featuring 10-minute presentations by 30 prominent artists, philosophers, writers, comedians, filmmakers, actors, musicians, and fashion designers who will contemplate the theme of the end (you can watch the event livestream here). This particular event looks indeed at that crucial moment in life when a person decides to stop one thing and begin another.
Enjoy “the interview that never was” (as I affectionately call in my mind this piece) while I contemplate to stop writing and find a new, more banal yet more rewarding and less painful job. This feature is dedicated to Slovenian artist and curator Polona Dolzan, a fan of M.C. (with many thanks for supporting my work through her Tweets).
A Prankster’s Last Words: Interview with Italian Artist M.C.
It’s a sunny day in Milan. Cars run past the Piscina Cozzi, the rationalist building considered in 1934 - the year it was completed - the biggest indoor pool in Europe. I’m sitting on the steps, leafing through an old magazine about design that I’ve just picked from a second hand shop around the corner. A gypsy woman stops and asks if I want to have my hand read. There is actually one thing that I wish she would be able to tell me: will my interviewee really show up or will he send a friend, like a member of Italian band Elio e Le Storie Tese or somebody else to impersonate him, as it happened in other cases? My doubts soon dissolve without any supernatural intervention. “Sorry I’m late,” M.C. apologises as he rushes out of the building. I wonder aloud if this person standing in front of me in a sleek black velvet suit, shirt with prints of colourful wagglers, unfastened shoes with no socks and an almost empty plastic bag is truly M.C. “You’re not the first to ask me that question, but I usually do 99% of my interviews myself,” he explains. “I just sent once somebody else to do it in my place because I didn’t have the time and then it became a legend...Have you been shopping?” he enquires, pointing at my own plastic bags filled with random vintage magazines and books, unchains his bicycle, then asks me if I want him to carry the bag on his bike and we’re off.
Go back to the beginning. Find a new beginning.
“I hate swimming, but I must do it,” M.C. states as he eats a small pizza we just got from a nearby bakery. “Hey, what’s that?”
“Bird perches?” I try to guess. We’re standing in front of a pet shop, two giant and wonderfully coloured parrots are playing in the upper part of the window. On the bottom, there is a pile of hollow circular sections of trunks that has caught M.C.’s attention for the precision they’re cut with. “Excuse me, what do you think they are?” he turns to a lady passing by and carrying a bag of groceries. “Maybe they’re for the parrots,” she politely replies and stops with us contemplating the parrots playing in the window and smiling at them. I start wondering if organising a spontaneous living art installation with an anonymous passer-by on a quiet and otherwise boring Milanese morning is C.’s ploy to wind me up, reference his stuffed pigeons installation and finally avoid answering my questions. Eventually we depart, say goodbye to the lady and continue our walk towards the gallery owned by a friend of M.C. We get there the same minute the gallery’s assistants, two young women in an apparently carelessly assembled but actually well studied look, are opening the doors. “Hey, you look very stylish...” M.C. genuinely compliments them in a tone of voice with no malice. They pretend they haven’t heard, but let us in, a gravely serious expression stamped on their faces. “Hmm, lovely girls...” C. mutters, lowering his voice.
Go back to the beginning. Find a new beginning.
“...and that represents a man standing in front of a TV, eating a pizza and drinking a bottle of Coke,” the gallery girl explains as she gives a tour of the exhibition currently on. M.C. and I exchange a puzzled expression. We’re looking at an assemblage of little pieces of wood in different colours and geometric shapes, none of them even remotely looking like a man, a TV, his food or his beverage. “...that’s instead a group of firefighters putting out a fire and that’s an injured man,” the girl continues pointing at another collage of white and red pieces of wood, with one tiny bit of charred wooden chip. “Maybe it’s just me...” M.C. shakes his head, “...but I don’t understand contemporary art.”
Often considered as a Harlequin-like figure interested in provoking, subverting, challenging or simply confusing people, Italian artist M.C. arrived on the art scene when he was his thirties, so quite late for today’s standards.
Born in Padua in 1960, as a young man C. was trapped in a string of different, unsuccessful and menial jobs.
Leaving behind everything, he first moved to Bologna, then to Milan where he first focused on design and then on art. His appearance at various collective exhibitions often resulted in somewhat puzzling installations that at times enraged the critics.
His pranks included renting his space at the Venice Biennale to an advertising agency that put up there a fragrance ad, stealing the content of another artist’s exhibition, nailing to the wall with copious amounts of duct tape art dealer Massimo de Carlo, dressing up in a phallic rabbit costume Parisian art dealer Emmanuel Perrotin and organising the infamous (phantom) “Caribbean Biennial”.
Genius or charlatan, C.’s name toured the world thanks to controversial hyperreal waxworks representing Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite, a young boy with the features of Adolf Hitler praying on his knees, three children hanging by their necks from a tree, himself peering from a hole in the ground or lying on a death bed with his eyes open as if he were staring at the visitors.
For over a year his marble “Dito Medio” (Middle Finger) proudly and disrespectfully standing in front of Milan’s Stock Exchange, loved and hated by the locals, turned into the best comment to the many disasters – political, financial and social – Italy went through in the last few months.
What is it exactly that C. doesn’t understand about contemporary art anymore? “Well, maybe it’s just a period of transition…” he starts.
"The ‘90s were very long years and, once that decade was over, no new canons were clearly established. In a nutshell we are surrounded by a lot of inspirations and stimuli, but nothing too clear. We’re living and moving in a sort of ‘No Man’s Land’ ruled by generalisations…”
And he feels that this generates confusion maybe? “No, this generates greater mobility or what could be called ‘the Internet effect’ – even though this definition doesn’t even sound right – but that’s how I would define it. You Google something and you get 2,129,000 results, yet your power does not stand in the quantity, but in you making the right choice. The problem is that it’s terribly difficult to make the right choice at the moment. I admit I haven’t produced a lot in my career, maybe 20-25 strong pieces, but nowadays there is an overproliferation, and the consequence is that quality hasn't improved.”
I wonder if this quandary between quality and quantity could be the main reason behind his retirement at the apex of his career, now that he seems to have found (more or less) unanimous consensus.
“Unanimous consensus, you wouldn’t say, would you?” he ironically answers, then explains, “when I talk about retiring I don’t mean that I will stop making things, but I want to close a cycle. I’m not looking for a way out, but for a way to regenerate my mind and soul, since what’s valid for fashion is also valid for art - trends pass, but style remains. Nobody is born with one hundred thousand ideas, but each of us has some ideas that we can develop up to a point. I think I have developed mines as much as I could and I have created what I would describe as 'easy to grasp' images. I’ve always liked things that do not need to be explained with any external help, since it's more difficult to come up with things that may look easy than with overcomplicated pieces. But now I truly think it’s time to move on, before somebody hits me on the head!”
Curated by Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Guggenheim Foundation, and featuring 130 works from private and public collections, spanning from the late ‘80s to the present day, “M.C.: All” is on display in the museum rotunda.
"I think there is a moment in the career of an artist in which you take a sort of test, like an exam, and I’m taking it after roughly 20 years,” he explains about the Guggenheim event.
"I’ve always avoided retrospectives and anthological exhibitions that implied putting together more than just one piece of work. Then, two years ago, there was that exhibition in Bregenz and, while that may have ruined my perspective and my feelings towards retrospectives, it also changed a lot of things, opening new horizons, allowing me to be more articulate and less theatrical. When this offer arrived I decided to accept it and to picture it in my mind as a revision, a way to think backwards and try to understand why some themes and motifs - defection, death, insecurity and failure - often recur in my work. Some of these works are only superficially entertaining, in fact if you look at them you realise that there isn’t much space for enjoyment and light entertainment in them. While pondering about them I thought that I would like to rewrite the titles of some or destroy and redo some other works that were the results of weaknesses or confusion.”
The individual works on display at the Guggenheim were suspended in the air all together, as if they were hanging out to dry like laundry or as if they were dead pieces, flying away from our dimension to reach to the heavens.
“I was always told that my works are one liners and that I am a one-liner myself, so the real difficulty stood in proving the opposite and show how these pieces can talk one to the other and turn into one work of art,” he says.
“I was the first one to be surprised when I realised there was a choral quality about them, they almost created a symphony and it was then that I understood that if there is no method in a piece, then that piece comes from a boutade and there is no relation between one piece and the next. Instead, I finally proved these pieces do communicate one with the other. I was never able to say ‘this work has this specific meaning’ because my art is not generated by a statement, but by an image, the more indefinite the image, the better the work.”
Talking about images, C. has recently been developing a new publication: after Permanent Food, he launched with Italian photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari, a new project entitled Toilet Paper.
Ferrari stated in an interview that the magazine readers are the main protagonists of their images because each picture reflects their experience, each photograph can be interpreted in different ways and each engages the viewer in an intimate dialogue.
“I guess that’s a nice definition,” C. agrees. “When it comes to my art, it’s the visitor who completes a piece, turning into the unique protagonist of that specific piece and deciding what it means and if it works.”
Permanent Food and Toilet Paper aren't the only magazines C. contributed to: in March 2011, C. curated an edition of interior design magazine Domus, interviewing the then editor, Alessandro Mendini.
The Italian architect, artist, designer, writer and theoretician often stated in interviews that he likes modern magazines because they are full of information, even though he would like more publications offering in-depth analyses rather than just superficial knowledge.
“I agree with what Mendini says, I definitely think that magazines should carry out in-depth analyses of specific topics,” C. comments. “That’s exactly what they should do to avoid becoming bland and banal and save themselves from that excess of information that is actually generating a complete lack of information and is taking us towards a total confusion that is not allowing us to discern what’s important from what’s not important. On the Internet there are more or less the same things in a more or less chaotic manner and that’s fine, but magazines should represent a moment of calmness and a chance for readers to ponder in tranquillity compared to all that.”
Realising I may have stolen already enough time from M.C.’s busy schedule I assure him the interview is almost over (“So soon? Right when I was starting to get into it…”, he sarcastically remarks, pushing back with a pen my recorder and its blinking red light that, he confesses, upsets him), though I do have one very last question.
“I’m an extremely boring person and I lead a disciplined life of routines,” he reveals.
"This is exactly what allows me to be completely absorbed by my work, but some people tell me that it’s as if I continuously and constantly read the same page of a book, while a book has so many pages. So I guess that, if I could, I would just try and spice up a bit my life, that, as I said, is very linear and with no unexpected things ever happening. There are times when you keep on hoping to make an extraordinary encounter, like going to a gallery and seeing a work of art that could change your life, or being run over by a car in the street and ending up in a hospital where the patient next to your own bed has travelled and may want to tell you his story. Probably, that’s what’s lacking in my life at the moment.”
So the end, or rather, the retirement is definite? “In your life you always have to decide about your priorities and my work has represented my priority so far, a dimension that has allowed me to meet some special people and has made me feel alive, even though not directly that useful to the others. My work has allowed me to be the comic book I never read, but now I hope that the next episode will be different from the previous one to avoid getting bored and boring my readers.”
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