Silent change, outside History.

conversation between Consani and Alliata Nobili

Una pura formalità, 2021, gypsum and wool, Ph. Studio Gnesi, Michelangelo Consani studio©

Talking to Michelangelo Consani about his practice during this interview, I thought of an acronym in which I came across many years ago reading a counterculture essay: TAZ, Autonomous Temporary Zone, that described a creative and mobile space of rebellion, a space that does not yield to any kind of revolutionary violence. 

Likewise, Michelangelo’s research and practice is a zone of quiet criticism, autonomous from the effects of art’s commodification. His projects, better described as processes, are anchored in real life. They do not just imagine but act, putting degrowth into practice, to propose alternatives to exploitative global economic models.

Rejecting forms of spectacularization, Michelangelo delves into history to destabilize hegemonic narratives, denouncing the corrupt relationship between truth and power. Over the years, his interventions have touched upon issues relating to energy resources, sustainable agriculture, bartering, technology, economics and the relationship between empirical experience and official science.

Michelangelo Consani has exhibited in galleries and museums in Italy and around the world, including the Quadrennial in Rome, the Pistoletto Foundation in Biella, the Pecci Museum in Prato and Milan, the Kunstraum in Munich, Side 2 Gallery in Tokyo, Glassbox in Paris and Zirkumflex in Berlin. He has taken part to the Aichi Triennial in Japan, the Dakar Biennial and the Watou Kunstenfestival in Belgium. In 2010, he received the award as best artist under 40 from the EX3 Centre of Contemporary Art in Florence.

In your work, degrowth is investigated via alternative readings of official history and of the events that are removed from mainstream narratives. With this in mind, you have often dealt with episodes related to energy sources that fuel growth economy, from oil to nuclear power. Could you give me a few examples?

Michelangelo Consani: My work has been about resources, energy and degrowth for a long time, since when very few were even thinking about it. I was inspired by the theories of the Austrian theologian philosopher Ivan Illich, and later by Serge Latouche who studied Illich in depth. 

To give you an example, in an exhibition in 2015 titled “Things could change” at Prometeo Gallery in Milan, I re-read the events related to nuclear power through the experiments carried out by French and Americans, associating these experiments to the present.

As in all of my exhibitions, many themes were entwined, starting from a video about abandoned pigs in Fukushima, in the area where the 2011 accident occurred, which was put into dialogue with a bust of an historical figure, Sebastien La Prestre da Vauban, military engineer and Marshal of France at the court of Louis XIV.  He became best known as the inventor of a famous type of fortification, the “pré carré” that was used until the Second World War. He was also the author of a treatise, the “Cochonnerie”, which mathematically calculated the total production of a sow over ten years, starting an early form of intensive farming for the purpose of feeding the army. 

The bust of Vauban was encased in an iron structure resting on the floor, whose shape resembled the pré-carré. The work also included the mathematical formula for breeding pigs expressed in the Cochonnerie. Furthermore, in my bust a historical false was amended: in the portraits of the time, Vauban is often represented with a conspicuous mole on his cheek. The mole was in fact a scar, a bullet’s wound. In my sculpture, the wound is correctly represented.

The show included monochrome paintings composed of radioactive algae from Fukushima’s Bay, an unsolved problem to date. Close by I placed a Marshall speaker, whose name recalls the nuclear tests conducted 60 years ago in the eponymous atoll. A robotic voice coming from the speaker, told a story for adults and children with a happy ending. The story was put together using information about nuclear events taken from Wikipedia.

The show commented on the ease with which history has been falsified by ruling powers. But the reflection goes further, considering a widespread and superficial attitude in using information from the web and its unverifiable sources, as Wikipedia for instance, that we, regardless, take for granted.

Back in 2011, your project “Ancora ancora la nave in porto. Amoco Milford Haven files (Still Still the Ship in Port. Amoco Milford Haven Files)”at CAMeC Piano zero in La Spezia, reflected on the economy of oil and its century. Also in this case, the exhibition unfolded through different topics and areas to compose a single discourse.

Michelangelo Consani: I find it very important to talk about the topics that I have always been interested in, conveying them through different situations that make up a single discourse. Otherwise I’d get bored! The exhibition at CAMeC, pianoZero, which gathered works of 20th century artists from the Cozzani collection, revolved around a video that draws from Marco Ferreri’s 1969 film “The seed of man”. I love Italian cinema very much. I got to know and appreciate Ferreri’s films because of my favourite actor Marcello Mastroianni. After all, Ferreri is also a ‘marginal’ character in cinema.

The film was about survival of the human species after a nuclear holocaust. I thought about the museum of memory, that was managed by the protagonist in the film, where every object, from a form of Parmesan to a painting by Rembrandt, has the same value of an archaeological find.

The film set was recreated with objects from the ‘museum of humanity’, featuring in Ferreri’s film, and artworks from the Cozzani collection from the seventies, linked to the theme of mass economic production, such as Pop Art. 

I wanted to underline the equivalence between art and object, and the simultaneous desire for economy and possession with which the art object is invested in our system.

In another room, a video featured the underwater exploration of the tanker Amoco Milford Haven, which has now become a tourist attraction. The tanker exploded, sinking with 90,000 litres of crude oil in the Gulf of Genoa on April 12, 1991. Much of the oil is still on the seabed. On the same day, a ferry-boat called Moby Prince ferry collided in the port of Livorno with the oil tanker Agip Abruzzo, killing 190 of the 191 passengers in the fire.

The latter incident was more widely reported in the media because of the great number of victims. However, the Haven’s shipwreck was the largest environmental catastrophe in the Mediterranean. 

In the exhibition, a Hubbert curve, a graph used to represent the likely sudden collapse of oil resources after a period of stability, was drawn on a wall, its steep downward line recalling the inclination of the sinking tanker.

I would particularly like to specify that my budget for the entire exhibition was of 350 euros.  I wanted to be consistent with my central point, the desire for a sustainable economy.

Another project of yours had the same title. But in this case, the exhaustible source around which the exhibition revolved was the Carrara marble. How were the two projects related?

Michelangelo Consani:  the Carrara project, also dating from 2011, was censured, and therefore never completed. This is why the title was repeated for the exhibition at CAMeC. 

I had been commissioned a work on the occasion of the Carrara Sculpture Symposium. The project followed from an exhibition held in 2008 at the Nicola Ricci Gallery, which discussed the destruction of the mountains around Carrara for economic and, I care to underline, private interests, and the failure to redistribute the proceeds of the quarries in the local economy.

 In Carrara, the idea was to bring attention to working conditions in the marble workshops and the industrial use of marble debris, especially powders, which were then widely recycled, for example in the production of toothpaste.

The exhibition would have started as soon as one left the motorway, where people were invited to continue on foot, walking along the workshops’ path. The idea was to make the public aware of the labourers’ very difficult working conditions. Along this journey one could have observed the mountains, gutted from extraction. 

At the exhibition site, I planned to display a piece of sculpture inspired by Renaissance Master Desiderius da Settignano: a white bust, that had been hollowed inside and filled with mint toothpaste. The first sensation when entering the room, would have been be the strong scent of mint. The event was cancelled a few days after the inauguration, and the bust destroyed.

 I must say that I’m not really surprised … 

Michelangelo Consani:  On the contrary, I was surprised. 

I’m certainly not the type of artist who can raise a media fuss. 

DYNAMO PROJECT Bicycles against blackout! that you presented at Centro EX3 in Florence in 2010 was instead a critique of racial prejudice. How was this work received by the public? 

Michelangelo Consani:  non-spectacularization was the central idea of this performance, that has been mistakenly associated with a work by Maurizio Cattelan. But the concept was entirely different. In fact, the performance was dedicated to Walter Marshall Taylor (1878-1932), an African American cyclist who won the world title in 1899, despite being weighted to balance the alleged muscular advantage of African Americans. Track cycling was, back then, banned for African Americans, and it remained so until 1999.

The installation featured a plasterboard wall dividing the space. Behind the wall and invisible to spectators, three African boys from the neighbourhood, paid for this performance, pedalled on bicycles. The boys were chosen because they had been attending the exhibiting space when it used to be a social centre. The energy of the pedalling powered a flickering Fortuny lamp, that illuminated the room intermittently. Viewers could hear the cyclists panting and their amplified heartbeat. The reference to Mariano Fortuny was not accidental, since Fortuny was a trader of textiles that came from plantations where African slaves laboured.

I would also like to underline that to carry out this project, I worked with my friend Paolo Thrull in his workshop in Livorno, where he designs and manufactures swing arms for the MotoGP, so we moved from motorcycles to bicycles.

 Another curiosity that I care to point out, is that for this exhibition we also created in Thrull’s workshop a LED light bulb with industrial threading, which in 2009 did not exist on the market. The lamp was hand crafted with the LEDs extracted from the eyes of some teddy bears that we had bought at the Chinese market.

Often your work is very poetic, especially where your life story comes into play. You rendered the theme of energy it in a symbolic and personal way in a work from 2008, entitled “Down with the big glass”, exhibited at White project, Pescara.

Michelangelo Consani: My work is always generated by situations linked to my personal history. For example, in “Down with The Large Glass“, a piece that is at once a tribute to Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass and its negation. 

The piece is a moving sculpture comprising a perforated tank, a seven and a half meters long aluminium lever, and a counterweight. Initially, the tank, filled with water, (my grandmother’s water bag!) rests on the ground. Over a period of roughly 12 hours, the tank empties. The water flow changes the balance and the tank rises upwards while the weight moves to the ground.

This work was carried out shortly before my father died, and focused on the transition from a state to another, on life loss and resources. The object remained in balance for quite a long time, and then fell rather quickly, recalling the Hubbert curve. The counterweight, in Kawasaki green (a colour that often appears in my work), was a tribute to a motorcycle with which my uncle took my mother in labour to hospital, on the day that I was born.

I’m also curious about another piece which is also linked to your personal experience. It was exhibited at PAV (Parco d’Arte Vivente) in Turin, during RESISTANCE / RESILIENCE, an exhibition curated by Gaia Bindi and Piero Gilardi in 2019. It’s a bronze sculpture of fallow deer with a potato on top of its head, titled “Sopra i figli dei figli il sole!” (“The sun above the children’s children!”). Could you tell me about it?

Michelangelo Consani: To illustrate the theme of the exhibition, titled after a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, many artists, as the exhibiting space is a park, had presented vegetable gardens. But I am very critical when it comes to vegetable gardens, which I believe must necessarily be authentic and fruitful. That is why I presented a bronze sculpture, precisely a fallow deer, with a potato, my stylistic mark, on its head.

When I was born, a sculptor, another relatively ‘marginal’ and peculiar figure, gave me as a present: a plaster cast of a fallow deer. This artist was peculiar because he had been working both for the fascist regime, that commissioned him a mask of Galeazzo Ciano.  Later he also worked for the communists, for whom he made a monument to the Partisan. This seemed interesting to me: I dislike the idea of ​​politicized art.

The deer sculpture followed me during all my moving; when I was a child my friends used it as a rocking horse, and over time it lost pieces, both ears, a leg… Recently it fell on its side, practically falling apart. I cast it in bronze, in an attempt to freeze a moment and halt the passing of time, which really frightens me! At the same time, the potato sprouting on the deer’s head contradicts the possibility of stopping time. The bronze fusion is also meant as a tribute to the late artist, who having died in poverty was never able to make one.

Made of an enduring material such as bronze, the sculpture nevertheless shows all its fragility.

On a formal level, your approach to sculpture is deliberately “anti-monumental”.  Often your sculptures rest on the ground, or are mounted on ephemeral or precarious structures. I am thinking, for example, of a work you presented in Tokyo, at SIDE 2 Gallery in 2014: two black marble heads resting on pallets, with your iconic potato in the middle.

Michelangelo Consani:  I try to be the least spectacular I can. All my sculptures tend to be silent. I want them to be open works. Perhaps some of the statues I dedicated to Fukuoka could be defined as ‘celebratory’, also in the light of Fukuoka’s recent revaluation by those interested in degrowth and agriculture.

In 2010, I was invited by Akira Tatehata, Masahiko Haito, Hinako Kasagi, Pier Luigi Tazzi and Jochen Volz to the first edition of the AichiTriennale, Japan.  I was presenting a large installation, including a loop video of the opening scene of Giuseppe De Santis’ film Riso Amaro (Bitter Laugh), and a sky constellation, made with photographs of rural scenes.

In a darkened part of the exhibiting hall, I had placed a bust of Fukuoka, in the very city where the agronomist had been booed by his fellow citizens during the Universal Expo. The bust incorporated seeds that slowly germinated and crumbled the statue: a non-monumental monument therefore. 

The two heads you mentioned were, in the context of an exhibition at the SIDE2 Gallery in Tokyo entitled “Nine white elephants and a potato”, a metaphor for East and West. The heads were originally plaster works made in my third year at Art School, scanned and reproduced in black Belgian marble. The Belgian marble, now very rare as it is almost exhausted, pointed to the exploitation of resources. 

A potato marked a precise geographic position, the Caspian Depression, which is a point of demarcation between East and West. Mapping the gallery from this hypothetical centre, I placed other coloured potatoes, sprouting during the exhibition. Each potato represented a marginalized figure in history and was positioned where the character really lived. The ‘white elephants’ in the title referred to the rarity of such figures.

The potatoes’ colours were repeated in sequence in a wall-drawing, dedicated to Pier Luigi Ighina, an assistant to Guglielmo Marconi, whose merits were never recognized by the official scientific community.

A curious thing is that the wall-drawing, made in 2014, was formally and conceptually very similar to artist  Emilio Prini’s last work, two years later. I had been an assistant to Prini, a pioneer of Arte Povera, whom I respect a lot. It is very unlikely that he was aware of my wall drawing, but I like to think that even if only on an energy level, our work has somehow intersected.

Pier Luigi Ighina is one of your favourite marginalized characters, and has inspired your work on other occasions, could you give me another example?

Michelangelo Consani: A project yet to be realized. It should have been installed in a park in Japan, but it didn’t happen for bureaucratic, technical and economic reasons. The installation consisted in a version of the Ighina anti-seismic valve, which he designed to prevent the earthquakes that are triggered by electromagnetic fields. 

It’s a large, coloured object composed of two truncated cones joined at the base, like a large spinning top. Part of the valve must be buried seven meters under the ground. I proposed it when I was invited to the PAV by Piero Gilardi, but even on this occasion I had to give up on the project for technical complications. But I really care about this project, and I hope to have a chance of realizing it in the near future.

In a previous interview, you stated that your interest in History’s marginal figures is anchored in the belief that precisely these characters can inspire a change of direction. Can you motivate this statement?

Michelangelo Consani: Because they lived outside the dominant system, and their ambition was not power, but to act for the good of the community, without imposing themselves. We often hear about the ‘practice of art’: in my opinion, these characters practiced life.

I consider them as “revolutionary straws” that, all by themselves, contribute silently to a new world, they are discreet and in order to hear them you have to keep silent, bring your ear closer: they speak with a murmur.

In the words of Giannozzo Pucci, Masanobu Fukuoka’s publisher in Italy “… The straw is outside of history, it is against history, it is before and after history. The straw’s revolution is possible for each of us, by choice. ”

In your case art and life definitely overlap.

Michelangelo Consani: That’s right, but I wouldn’t want this personal attitude to sound excessively ‘romantic’! What I don’t like at all is the construction of an object around a preordained theme rather than a discourse. A discourse is the result of research, a story to share with others, not to enjoy in solitude.

This makes me think of the many projects you have carried out for the community, from bartering to solar ovens.

Michelangelo Consani: These two projects you mention were somehow linked. The solar ovens were born of an initial Barter Project in Holland, then presented in various places. Barter was an investigation into the real possibility of bartering. It included its drawbacks, to avoid the pitfalls of the ‘green’ cliché. As for “Barter: the solar coockit project” of 1998, I documented myself searching on the web and looking at several projects, which, like Ighina’s, are available for free on the web.  Then, I got several designers in touch with each other, whose projects were presented in the “Seek-refuge” exhibition, showcased inside the 11th International Architecture Biennale in Venice. I exhibited a solar kitchen inside an umbrella, an existing invention that I had improved. In the following years, I developed a more powerful one, again from a pre-existing project, then presented at Made in Filandia in Pieve a Presciano and at Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

At home, I still have a prototype that reaches very high temperatures. I had built it on the occasion of a Dakar Biennale, where I had intended to mass-produce the object in order to donate it, but unfortunately it proved impossible for budget reasons.

In your projects, single artefacts are always part of a complex constellation of references and cross-references. This is the case, for example, of your iconic polka dot ceramic pistol. It’s a copy of Dillinger’s pistol, the romantic gangster of Marco Ferreri’s film “Dillinger is dead”. This work has an interesting history …

Michelangelo Consani: What scares me most is a superficial reading of my work: ours is an age of superficiality. Beyond what is evident, in my work there are situations that need to be discovered, researched and analysed. The gun tells a hidden story. 

In Bologna in 2011 at the Galleria Sponda Fabio Tiboni, I presented for the first time the plaster mould that would later be used to cast the ceramic pistol.  The exhibition was called “The party is over“.

The exhibition was a kind of party where I metaphorically invited a series of characters, represented in the gallery by sculptures and videos. Everything was powered by a petrol generator, and video projections and lighting ended when the fuel ran out. Among the various characters I had invited were Dillinger the American gangster, Michel Piccoli’ and Marco Ferreri.

The theme was precisely degrowth.  For this reason, I quoted “Dillinger is dead”, a film that contains an extreme criticism of consumer society and production. In Ferreri’s film, a bored husband, Michel Piccoli, finds a gun in the cupboard and paints it while watching holiday movies. At precisely that moment he has an epiphany, he sees his life empty and useless, and decides to fling after shooting his wife.

I was intrigued by a detail: the pistol appears, already painted red with polka dots, in a previous film by Marco Ferreri: a curious time lag. Furthermore, I have always thought that this object was a work by artist Mario Schifano, for two reasons: firstly, that Dillinger, like other films by Ferreri, was filmed at Schifano’s house. The artist in fact was a friend of Michel Piccoli.  Secondly, the ‘Pop’ aesthetic of the object. I will probably never know: I tried to meet Dillinger’s screenwriter but it never happened.

Since your artistic practice has always revolved around the possibilities of a different and more sustainable future, I would like to conclude by asking you if you think that the pandemic could lead to a shift in this direction …

Michelangelo Consani: I’m not an optimist, I don’t think people have changed. I have not seen a measured attitude on this topic, but on the contrary indeed, a great outbreak of controversies on social and non-social networks. The virus was supposed to teach us to level out this aggression, but it didn’t. nature has given us great signs of recovery during this period, and in response we throw gloves and masks everywhere …