In 2007, the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi organized “My Religion is Kindness. Thank You, See You in the Future,” an exhibition of work by Paola Pivi in an abandoned warehouse at the Porta Genova train station in Milan. Throughout the long, narrow concrete space roamed pairs of live animals, such as horses, rabbits, llamas, and geese, all of them white. Behind the animals, a military aircraft stood upside down, poised in an unlikely position that negated the warplane’s function and rendered the sinister machine almost comical, typical of her penchant for the unexpected and the incongruous. She lived for a period on the island of Alicudi in Sicily, home to sixty-two people, and she currently resides in Anchorage, Alaska. Poetically working with the beauty of the everyday in a range of media, from performance and installation, to photography, sculpture, and drawing, Pivi uses her subtle wit to question attitudes and cultural mores.
Lindsay Harris: You’ve lived in several different places—from Alicudi, a small Mediterranean island, to your current home in Anchorage, Alaska—that are removed from the major urban centers of the art world. How did you choose to live there, and what impact does the place in which you live have on your creative process?
PAULA PIVI: I choose where I live following my desire to be in a certain place that excites, entertains, and intrigues me and in some way makes my life better. I moved to Alaska to have a wonderful life, and the work just happens wherever I am. Later on, my work naturally is influenced by what I see around me, but I don’t choose places with work in mind—quite the opposite. I was reluctant to move to Alaska at first as I thought, “How am I going to work there?” I've always liked places that inspire me—the nature, the mountains, the indigenous culture. The intense daylight in the summer and darkness in winter affect everything. In the summer, it’s not like a sunny day for twenty-four hours. It’s more like a sunset lasting for six hours and dawn lasting for six hours. The evening light is a spectacle. In the summer, everybody is so full of energy. And in the winter, it’s the opposite.
Harris: Have these qualities of life in Alaska informed the work you’ve produced while living there?
PIVI: Probably, yes, but that wasn’t my intention. Almost by default, the work absorbs something from where I am.
Harris: Your pieces involve everything from live animals to photography, to objects related to physics or chemistry. To what degree do materials inspire your work, or, rather, do your ideas determine your choice of materials?
PIVI: I don’t think that the materials inspire the work. Sometimes I see materials that are extremely interesting, and I wish I could incorporate them into a piece somehow, but it isn’t always possible. The materials are a necessity of the artwork.
Harris: In one of the more infamous exhibitions associated with Arte Povera in the 1960s, Jannis Kounellis presented twelve horses in an art gallery in Rome. You have included live animals in several of your own projects, either physically as part of an installation or performance, or as the subject of a photograph. Can you comment on this aspect of your work?
PIVI: I didn’t previously have any particular affinity for animals, but when I was living on the island of Alicudi in Sicily, a tiny island with sixty-two people and no cars because there is no flat land, there were two ostriches there. They were so incongruous. Yet, the fact that they were there held such significance. I ended up taking a photograph of them in a small boat. That approach began to multiply in my work, and now I’ve done several artworks with animals—alligators, polar bears, musk ox, leopard, just to mention a few. This all happened to my surprise. They’re the best characters—prima donnas without vanity.
Harris: You’ve installed pieces in traditional art spaces, such as museums and galleries, and in public spaces, including an old warehouse in the train station Porta Genova in Milan, which reactivated an unused, urban space, a public square in Salzburg, and in photographic murals on building façades that people could see from the street. How do different spatial contexts affect your artistic production, and, as far as you can tell, shape viewers’ reactions to your work?
PIVI: The piece in which I was very conscious about the viewing space was one in which I installed a helicopter upside down in a public square in Salzburg in 2006. That was exactly what I wanted: a helicopter upside down in a public square, which meant that people driving in the car, riding the bus, or visiting that area of town would bump into a helicopter around the corner. That kind of unexpected encounter was really important to me. The major advantage of a gallery or museum is that the artist is protected by the architectural space and by the other people working there, like the curator or the director. That protection gives the artist a lot of freedom. The exhibition space is like a shield. When you work in a public space, you come face to face with people’s reactions. There is no filter. When I did the upside down helicopter, there was no protection there. It was in a public square, and the city of Salzburg went nuts about it.
Harris: Your projects are often large in scale and seem to require a lot of hands, so to speak. Can you say something about the role of collaboration in your work?
PIVI: [I work with others], but at the same time, it is rarely a collaborative process because when I collaborate with the people who make things for me, I am, in a way, the boss of the final work. Yet, it is also very important to have them contribute their input into the work. So, the final product doesn’t come only from me. Right now, I’m involved in two real collaborative projects, and they’re much more complex because I am not the boss. When you really collaborate, when you create together, fifty-fifty, it’s challenging. The first project is Free Tibet Concert: A Big Dream, a free event with talks and musical performances to raise awareness about the lack of freedom in Tibet. I am organizing this together with Karma Lama in Alaska. The second one is “...And back again,” a show I organized with gelitin at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Miami. Rather than just having our solo shows, we invited five other artists, some of whom we had never talked to before, to create seven solo shows at once. Everyone can show what he or she wants, the only theme being that we invited the artists. The gallery gave the space to us, and we invited these artists to participate. But to agree on everything, to really collaborate, is very hard work.
Harris: You initially started out not in the arts, but in engineering. Could you comment on how you came to be an artist, given your background in a scientific field?
PIVI: In one summer, two things happened to me that led me to discover art. One was seeing a comic strip by Andrea Pazienza, who was amazingly good but died very young, so he didn’t produce much. I could see his images in my head, and I started copying his drawings. I began to see that in his drawings, there was something beyond, and I started to see art for the first time. Around then I also saw a show of works by Egon Schiele, the first show I had ever seen in my life, in which I could see beyond the image on the paper. At that same time, I met a boy who was studying at the art academy. I guess he was the first artist I met in my life. A few things like this happened in one summer, and I thought I would go to art school myself, just for fun, like a hobby, as if I were to go to a bowling class or something.
Harris: Both of the artists you mention, Pazienza and Schiele, made drawings. Drawing is also an element of what you do. Is that how ideas come to you, through sketching?
PIVI: No, the ideas come to me in the abstract. To go back to the point about collaboration, the collaboration I have with the photographer is very important. I rarely take my own pictures. Most of the time I collaborate with a photographer, either Hugo Glendinning or Attilio Maranzano. I didn’t know them personally, but I knew that I wanted to work with them after seeing only one of their pictures. I was sure about their aesthetics. And when we’re there, ready to make the work, I completely trust them. We don’t even have to talk to each other. That is the most wonderful form of collaboration that has happened to me. He’s doing his job, I’m doing my job, and we don’t need to talk.
Harris: So you don’t take the pictures yourself, but you come up with what should be represented and then the photographer decides how to show it?
PIVI: It’s more complicated than that. I decide how to show it in reality, in the real world, and in that moment, both the photographer and I are viewers of what is happening. Then the photographer takes the picture. His aesthetics intertwine with mine. The aesthetics of one person are like a fingerprint. But both Hugo and Attilio are extremely mature art lovers who have mastered the art of documenting art without needing to assert their presence in the photographs they take. Each enjoys being a viewer and is confident that his picture bears his own signature through his aesthetic fingerprint, so to speak, even if the image doesn’t say anything about him directly, but instead only conveys my work. So, the picture is a communication device. Taking the picture is very hard work. If I had to take the picture, I would not be able to see my work.
Harris: My final question stems from Francesco Bonami’s current exhibition in Venice at Palazzo Grassi, “Italics: Italian Art Between Tradition and Revolution 1968-2008,” which includes a piece of yours. To what extent do you consider yourself an Italian artist?
PIVI: I am proud of being Italian. When I was younger, I was ashamed of being Italian, and now I’m proud.
Harris: What changed your mind?
PIVI: Getting old.