by VERONICA SIMPSON
Nico Vascellari (b1976) is a multifaceted artist - punk musician, sculptor, painter, film-maker, performer – whose work seeks to provoke a recognition of our more ancient, instinctive, unmediated responses. His latest show, at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, is titled Bus de la Lum. An eerie installation using densely patterned, free-standing screens, projections and a specially commissioned soundtrack, Bus de la Lum is inspired by the legends of supernatural activity attached to a forest near his birthplace in Italy’s Veneto region. In an adjacent gallery, he has been given free rein to select his favourite pieces from the Whitworth’s extensive archives, and place a series of pictures in dialogue with his own sculptures and paintings.
Vascellari’s imagery draws on archaic folkloric traditions and animism. He layers both the chaotic and destructive elements of nature with their lush, more abundant counterparts. His pieces suggest or incorporate pelts, leaves, bones, animal parts, rocks, plants and fruits. Items may be charred or distorted, evoking the burning votive figures of his region’s enduring archaic folk rituals.
The artist’s first taste of fame came through punk music, when he won a significant cult following for his bands With Love and Lago Morto. He continues to perform, and is now touring a new band, Ninos Du Brasil, which blends the feral energy of punk with samba, in order to create a “carioca bacchanal”.
He came to the art world’s attention with a performance piece, A Great Circle (2005), and then with Revenge (2007), which he presented at the Venice Biennale, and for which he won the Prize for Young Italian Art. He has been championed by, and performed with, Marina Abramović, and often brings other artists, of all kinds, into his shows. In 2015, for example, to celebrate 10 years of working with Rome’s Monitor gallery, his Codalunga exhibition - named after the experimental, multidisciplinary studio space he founded in 2005 in Vittorio Veneto - included three weeks of talks with artists, curators and critics, interlaced with concerts from musicians such as Arto Lindsay and Ron Morelli.
The February 2016 opening of his Whitworth Art Gallery show (which runs until 18 September) coincides with an intervention at London’s Estorick Collection, where Vascellari has placed a number of his own works, drawing on arte povera and conceptual art, alongside the Italian futurist and novecento masterpieces within the Estorick’s own collection (until 3 April).
Veronica Simpson: The Bus de la Lum installation is an eerie, disturbing delight. It was inspired by the landscape near your home of Vittorio Veneto, which crops up often in your work [The Bus de la Lum – which means “hole of light” – is a naturally occurring hole in the ground]. Please tell us why you chose to evoke this particular site.
Nico Vascellari: Bus de la Lum is a place I have known since I was a child. It’s in a forest where my parents used to take me. I was fascinated by this place and the origin of the name. It came from legends, more or less, inspired by the little flames (vapours) coming out of this hole. The people living outside [the forest] would see these flames and fantasise that a witch was living inside that hole and burning kids. That intrigued me when I was a child.
When I started to research more about this place, I came across a historical fact that I had not been aware of 15 years ago: during the second world war, the place became a mass graveyard. The fascists were throwing in the partisans, and the partisans were throwing in the fascists - most of the time alive. That place became interesting for me for somehow representing evil, but without taking any side. It was just evil, that’s it. And that’s something that doesn’t happen so often. I started to do more research around it and working on it and visiting it.
While I was doing that, I started to look for other places around the world that could have a similar legend. I found some where fire was coming out of the ground and, among them, there was one in particular that really impressed me: Darvaza, a hole in the middle of the desert in Turkemenistan. Around 40 years ago, they were drilling to look for gases and, all of a sudden, the ground under the drill collapsed, creating a large hole. And the gas that was coming out of the ground was found to be poisonous. They didn’t know what to do about this, so some geologists were contacted who suggested burning those gases. They expected that, if there was a lot of gas, most likely it would have burned out in four or five days. The reality is that the fire is still burning 40 years later. The name Darvaza, in the local language, means gate of hell. I created a connection between these places, (through their) visual relationship, and some sort of mystery and legend.
VS: There is a fascinating combination of textures and shadows throughout the space, enhanced by the materials you have applied to the screens. The screens are covered with a mixture of semi-obscured nature images and also drawings. How did you choose the images for these screens?
NV: Those works are called leaf to me. They are part of an installation, but each panel is developed separately as a kind of independent work. In the installation they function as leaves. The projection goes through them, as a ray of light or moon goes through the tree branches. Basically, these leaves are composed of different, as you say, images. There are a lot of images that come from drawings of mine, that have been scanned and sometimes we blow them up so big that they become pixelated. It’s almost like an impressionist way of dealing with an image. Then there are other images that come from record covers that I have in my own collection. What these records have in common is the fact that they deal with nature - the music or lyrics are inspired by nature. And I found it always very interesting that the music I happen to listen to the most deals with nature and the forest. My work deals with things that are personal to me, but I try to do it in a way that can be personal or universal. When you see the final result, I like the idea that you experience it in your own personal way but also it relates to my inspirations.
VS: I was intrigued by the extra dimension that the mirrored elements brought to the otherwise glass screens.
NV: At first, when I tried it in my studio, there was only glass but no reflection. By doing that, I was able to create a visual stratification, but you were able to read where the projection was coming from. When I added the mirrors, the video itself is bounced back by the reflection, which, again, is something that happens in nature, with light. The mirrors scatter the images around the room, in little frames, which lie on top of each other. And this idea of layers is what I was looking for.
VS: It makes the pattern of light and imagery much more unpredictable, mysterious.
NV: My hope somehow is that you walk inside an installation and you don’t recognise much from the projection because it’s layered on top of other images, but still there’s something that reminds you of something you know and you relate it to natural landscapes. There are two projections in the room, each being the same projection as the other, but the visual is the result of two videos layered on top of each other. Even when I projected it straight on to the wall, the projection is not that legible. One video is of Bus de la Lum, the other is the Turkmenistan crater.
VS: There is definitely that sense of something strange, but familiar.
NV: I relate it to this concept of layering. To me, at least inside of me, I know that there are things buried in my memory, and also in my DNA, and there are certain things that, even when I discover them, I feel that they belong to another time - maybe a forgotten one, or maybe one that I never experienced myself, but it comes from memories or things that I read. Or even human history.
VS: Do you mean the idea that we can carry inside us the imprint of past traumas or events that we pick up from our parents or families? There was a fascinating study published last year that claimed to prove a theory of epigenetic inheritance – for example, that holocaust survivors’ stress responses are passed on in their children’s genes, even though the children never experienced these traumas directly themselves.
NV: We are all imprinted with things we don’t know. If we could dig or excavate inside ourselves, we would find common things. In a way we are each fossils.
Alongside the installation [in a separate gallery], there are some paintings and some animals. Those animals are the most recent work. They are not necessarily related to the project, but we thought it was complementary: they embraced an idea of mystery and nature and also because, in the beginning, those flames coming out of the ground were coming from animals decaying and rotting in the ground.
VS: The paintings look as if they are made out of rotting pelts or leaves.
NV: The idea behind the paintings is certainly to remind you of something that’s organic or natural. They may remind you of dry leaves on the bottom of the forest, or eventually caves or tree trunks, so they want to remind you of something, but they are abstract. They are made of paper. The kind of material that I come back to a lot in my works is magazines. For me, they are the visual representation of an idea of layering. I paint every single page of a magazine with oil paint of different colours, in a monochrome way – using black or white or yellow, for example. I wait for the oil paint to dry and become a sort of glue. Once that is done, I peel apart the magazine, and what I get are these chunks of different layers. Some are composed of as many as 20 layers of paper. Then, I lay different parts on the ground and spray-paint them from above. So there’s this black dust falling on top of the magazines - not covering them completely.
It was about trying to use paint in an abstract way, but also to represent nature. I visited the Whitworth several times over the years and each time I would see something interesting in the collection and would ask Maria [Balshaw, director] and Helen [Stalker, fine art curator] about it because the collection was so rich and so varied. Helen suggested I co-curate a selection of works that could dialogue with my works.
VS: And what of the audience: how interested are you in the audience’s response – for example with Bus de la Lum?
NV: I never really try to suggest or generate a particular kind of emotion. For me, as long as it generates an emotion, no matter which one, it’s good. I like my work to be emotional.
With Bus de la Lum, I tried to go inside the room. I managed to go inside on my own for three minutes. As soon as somebody else came in, I had to leave. I couldn’t really enjoy or find it pleasant to be in the room with someone else. I don’t know why, because I never have much problem (normally). Sometimes it’s strange to find yourself in front of your own work when people are there.
VS: The installation is a very internal experience - very intimate, personal.
NV: It’s a very personal work. The reason I chose this place is very personal, and I’m sure it talks about me more than the place itself. Maybe that’s the reason: it’s so intimate. I want to share it, but I don’t want to be physically present.
VS: It’s personal to you, but it taps into universal fears we all have as children, of the dark forest, of what might be stirring in these forests at night.
NV: I think so, but again the main motivation to go and investigate Bus de la Lum was because it embraces this idea of evilness without having any moral aspect to it. Which is something that I truly despise in art –art should never be moralistic. And I see that happening a lot in what we call political art. It’s the complete opposite of what I’m looking for. I really like it when art manages to be political without taking that moral side. I don’t mean art shouldn’t be opinionated, but we should be able to judge it because of its power not because of the values it portrays.
VS: If we can take a moment to talk about your work in general, I am really interested in the way you pursue your artistic practice alongside your work as a musician. Tell me how these two disciplines inform or inspire each other?’
NV: Basically, I never consider myself a musician. The reason I started getting into music was through skateboarding, and the music that appealed to me was punk rock. But I was always very fond of this notion that hardcore music is something more than music. I consider those years as years of activism, a kind of political or social activism. I was not only playing music, I was making fanzines and distributing them, printing records, distributing records, touring, organising concerts for other bands, making sure there was a flyer for those events. It’s a kind of activism.
When I was touring with my bands, I started to go to museums during the day, when I had time off. I always went to museums because it was something my parents did with me from when I was a very young kid, and I always liked art. Especially when I was touring with a band, these two experiences were mixing together in my head. When I was in museums, there was something fascinating me there, but I felt the lack of what was happening during concerts at night, and when I was in the concerts I was very happy with what was happening on stage but I felt the lack of what I would see in the museum. In the museum, you always have the impression that you can control everything – the light, the way people enter the space, the way they perceive the space. But there is a lack of physicality, of fear, of violence.
VS: Galleries appear to be about control, restraint.
NV: Yes. And then I started making performance. I didn’t study art at school because I was studying cinema, but I felt like I could do performance because I had been on stage for so many years, since I was a teenager.
VS: So performance seemed like a natural evolution.
NV: Yeah. And then from performance suddenly I felt the need to have an object, which became a sculpture, and the sculpture was finalised with some sound and the objects and other materials started to come up in a natural way from performance. If I have to give a name to what I am, I am an artist. I have a band right now that I am touring with, and it’s going quite well, but I would not call myself a musician because my approach to the band is definitely not that of a musician. I’m not particularly good with any instruments. I’m better at performing on stage and coming up with ideas that generate something. But I have too much respect for anyone who is a true musician to call myself one.
VS: I am interested in the way your feeling for the underground music scene links to a strong theme in your visual art for that which is unseen, suppressed and – quite literally – below ground.
NV: My very first work - the first work that I felt was very well structured - was a work inspired by moles. The reason I became fascinated by them was the fact that they were creatures who, because of their nature, were creating a link between their underground reality and our superficial one, going through earth to achieve that. I didn’t realise this immediately. It was quite funny. I felt like this was a self-portrait in a way: quite literally, I come from the underground and I am going out in a different way, reaching a bigger audience, let’s say. It’s more on the surface, more under the light, more exposed.
I did three performances. One was the underground, one was the surface, one was the ground itself as a wall in between the two realities. From the very beginning, the three performances were designed to become part of a video. I made a video and the soundtrack was provided by the band I was part of, and each time the video was projected there was a different performance going on which was underlining the link between the sound and the people.
VS:Your work definitely taps into this growing desire people seem to feel for immersive environments - spaces that connect with people through their physical materiality, through many senses, and through their emotions. I have seen clips of your bands’ live gigs and the way you perform on stage, and the way the audience reacts, creates an extraordinary energy.
NV: I still remember very clearly the first time I went to a concert, a punk show, and there were people pushing me around, and jumping on my face. I was like: “Wow. There’s something going on.” It was an energy, but at the same time it was primordial, and it was very liberating and very inspiring.
VS: There is something quite beautiful, but also menacing, discomforting about the installation. Is discomfort important to you?
NV: It’s nice that you use this word, because, if there is one important thing for my work, it’s this idea of discomfort. This discomfort has first to be mine, and then, if you can generate this discomfort in other people, that is great.
At first when I was performing, I would try to gather the audience that came for my band together with the one for art. The events were always advertised simultaneously in two realities: I would put flyers in the streets, saying this band is performing at that museum, and then there was the (gallery guest) list and all the printed invitations from the museum and these two audiences would come together and they both mostly left unsatisfied because the people from the art scene were coming to see a performance and they would see a concert. The people who were coming from the music scene were wanting to see a concert and they would see a performance. So each group was seeing a language that was not theirs. But both were there, meaning that there was a third language there. That discomfort (for me) that was caused by being someone who was not satisfying everyone was terrible, but also it was what motivated me to go on.
VS: The soundtrack intensifies that emotional duality really well. (the Bus de la Lum soundtrack was commissioned from Turkish-born musicianGhédalia Tazartès). At times, it sounds like ancient Georgian chants, or Gregorian plainsong and, at others, like lost souls wailing at the mouth of hell.
NV: That’s me and Ghédalia singing together. It’s an improvisation. We are just singing together and trying to (express) the ideas that came from the videos and projections. The videos are shot from two cavities: one near my place in Vittorio Veneto and one from the desert in Turkmenistan. And voice to me is something that comes out of a human cavity, but it’s also a mystery.
VS: A lot of your work involves collaboration, it seems – working with other parties to make manifest your ideas in a variety of media.
NV: I feel as if collaboration is not something I am good at. I am better at directing other people.
VS: So you are more of an orchestrator, bringing components together - an alchemist?
NV: Yes, even with Ghédalia, I invited him because I felt he was the right person to do this. I gave him some sort of instruction. Basically, I decided the tracks we were trying to record had a beginning and an end so we should try to keep them short because, with improvisation, you can go on and on. With this, it was: hey, the peak has to come within five minutes.
VS: But did you tell him what atmosphere, what emotional quality you were looking for in the music?
NV: I didn’t tell him that because I knew he was absolutely perfect. The music he makes inspired me. So I don’t feel like I am necessarily collaborating. I am of, course, but it’s in my work. It’s operating within certain rules, which are most of the time very open, but even open rules are still rules. It’s still a limitation.
VS: But isn’t the culture of the underground movement all about breaking the rules?
NV: I don’t like breaking rules, I just prefer not to know the rules. This is a notion that comes from the very beginning for me. I haven’t studied art. I didn’t know anything about the art system for example, and the way I managed to find shows at the beginning was just because I was unaware of how you were supposed to look for them.
VS: So how did your first opportunities to show your work come about?
NV: I met a curator and asked him to come to see my studio. He offered us a group show but I didn’t like the idea because I was terrified of having to think about a theme, which we would all have to work on. I didn’t feel able to do that, so I suggested a solo show. He thought that would be a little awkward, so I said I would send him a proposal. If he liked it, good; if not, we wouldn’t do it. When I sent it, he agreed to do a solo show.
Even before that, my very first show started as the result of an accident when I broke the work of another artist [in his studio in Rotterdam] and he asked if I would pay him back. When I told him I didn’t have any money, he asked me what I did. I said I was also an artist. I suggested he came to my studio, picked the works he wanted, and just destroyed them for the same amount of money or as much as felt right to him. He liked the idea, and laughed. I told him I was serious. So he came to the studio, he liked the work and said: I tell you what, I was supposed to do a show in a couple of months. What about you do the show. I did, and so it started.
I’m not interested in the rules or breaking them, I am just interested in creating my own work. It’s much better when you don’t know the rules.
VS: You like to follow your instincts?
NV: Ignorance …
VS: … is bliss? It’s a kind of power?