Sabrina Muzi, primaveraestateautunnoinvernoprimavera, 2012, site-specific installation, variable dimensions, Premio Terna 04 (online Prize)
Sabrina Muzi was born in San Benedetto del Tronto in 1964. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Macerata she moved to Bologna, where she currently lives and works. Her poetic world is expressed through a variety of media such as photography, video, performance, installation, but also relatively more traditional techniques such as drawing, giving precedence to some over others, depending on which stage of research she is in. «There was a time when I worked exclusively with video and photography – says the artist – while at the beginning, before and after the Academy, I was more interested in installing and also incorporating drawing-related aspects.» Other times, however, it is precisely from the combination of different media that site-specific installations arise, often designed to be consumed as sensory experiences which engage all the perceptive faculties. What recurs often in her work is the use of the body and of organic, natural or edible elements.
She has produced a series of works intended for non-art spaces, participatory performances and urban events. Her work has been exhibited in Italy and in various parts of the world. Recently, her research was the focus of a solo exhibition at the Dislocata gallery (Vignola, Modena, 2014) and at Treasure Hill Artist Village in Taipei (2014). Her works are included in collections and research centers, including Galleria Emilio Mazzoli (Modena), Collezione Sensus (Florence), Careof (Milan) and the Museum of New Art (Pontiac, Michigan), and have been selected for ItalianArea, DOCVA archive in Milan. She has been invited to participate in various residency programs around the world, including the Atlantic Center for the Arts (Florida, 2001), the Changdong Art Studio at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Seoul, 2007), and Kunming (China, 2010). She won the Terna Prize in 2012 and, in 2013, received the International Artist-in-Residence Fellowship in Taipei. The work that she entered in the Terna Prize 04, primaveraestateautunnoinvernoprimavera, is derived from a site-specific installation created as part of a residency project by sewing together leaves of various sizes, colors and textures to form a kind of fabric membrane. The interview took place in June 2014.
What is the artistic situation in Italy today? What is the role of the artist in the current system of art and society?
Over the past few years there has been an increase in the venues dedicated to art, galleries, non-profit spaces, associations, foundations and museums, as well as in the number of artists. This state of affairs might offer hope in the possibility of our country placing a greater focus on contemporary art, and recognizing its social and economic importance. Devoid of any protection, artists in Italy often have to rely on themselves and their ability to hack their way through the jungle that is the art world. I do not believe that the artist’s role has changed much compared to the past. Artists are distributors of beauty and meaning, this is their role, which they play using the technologies of the time, the mood, the demands and rhythms of their time, in service of feeling the historical moment in which they are living. The only things that change are the buyers or the possibility of interactions with other fields, with all the ethical choices that this could involve.
The Terna Prize, in one of its early editions, published a forecast of the state of the art world from 2010 to 2015. The results showed what is now the current scenario. Among these, there was also the fact that the crisis would have caused the dominating rules to be subverted, as well as more social involvement in art. Is this really what is happening?
In times of crisis, efforts are generally more focused on looking for solutions outside the rules of the marketplace. It’s as if there was more looking around and more openness to others, to the problems of the community and the globe as a whole. In those moments, the artist feels called into question, and tries to understand the meaning of his/her work in the current state of the world.
Art has been engaged in various ways, while retaining the relationship with the galleries and the art world. Artists have sought new ways of engaging in social work, carrying out projects in the public sphere, acting through works which show an awareness of environmental issues, as well as immigration and social injustice, while also seeking involvement with people who could become an active part of the work or users of a public space which has been redesigned for their actual needs. However, the focus on the social engagement of art was born long before the recent crisis began, confirming art’s ability to anticipate the times.
Do you remember participating in the Terna Prize? Were you working on a particular project?
I remember my participation in the Terna Prize very well. I was working on the piece which I entered in the Award. It was the result of a wonderful residence I had in the Marche region in a green space, a direct liaison with nature and with the materials that come from it: leaves collected in the place and sewn together to form a sort of fabric, a natural skin that covered a small shell, to blend in with the surrounding nature. At that time I was doing some research, which continues even now, on the relationship between materials and their place of origin.
In what direction has your most recent research evolved? Can you tell us about any future projects and plans?
I’m carrying forward the discourse on natural and organic materials, a research project on the magical and metamorphic value of the elements, on ritual as an archaic and cultural heritage, and how this relates to the body, a reference that is always present in my work, but which I now recognize as being separated from the influence of artistic research in the past. I’m interested in the body as a sign or symbol, and anything which from however seemingly far away could refer to the idea of corporeality. Organic materials exert a particular fascination for the very fact that they are alive. We see them change before our eyes, when they are treated to last and when they finish the process of transformation, they still retain the memory of their essence, of what they once were. Another aspect to which I refer is the relationship we have with images of our bodies. The transfer of our image was at first a shadow and a simple reflection glimpsed in the water. This gave rise to the need to set it using prints, drawing, painting or photography. By transferring the image of ourselves we leave a trail that has now become something outside of us, giving our to an infinite number of visions, feelings and interpretations, which are created and differentiated depending on our culture of origin and our personal experience. It is difficult to convey, suggest, evoke or simply bring up without communicating something specific, but that’s what I try to do every time.
How do you deal, in your work, with the theme of conservation?
I can say that this question concerns me quite a bit. When working with media, such as photography, video, drawings, or creating installations with other materials, then the problem of conservation is certainly more manageable. Often, however, I work with perishable materials. In my case I resolve the issue by moving technically in several directions.
I often prepare site-specific projects, meaning after the exhibition there is nothing left, because the work has either been entirely reabsorbed from the place (as is the case for the project entitled primaveraestateautunnoonvernoprimavera prpresented for the Terna Prize, which in that case had a visible photographic work made of it) or I have to dismantle it with the possibility of reassembling it elsewhere, if and when the opportunity should present itself, unless a museum is willing to buy it and keep it as a permanent site-specific work.
It can also happen that the works made with certain materials are not intended to disappear, because despite being natural they do not die, but rather may in time acquire a greater fascination, which is the case with a large necklace that I made with fish bones, cuttlefish bones, shells, and other items from the sea. Some of the materials used have been protected with a thin layer of resin, more to ensure resistance during transport and installation/uninstallation than to protect them from the passage of time. In other cases, some of my works begin a process of change over time and then stop. Blocking this process would make no sense; it would run counter to the original idea of the work, a dry leaf, a dry sandwich, a sculpture made of branches may remain so for years. We have received fossils of all kinds, from the bones of any type of object, even in our civilization, only ruins will remain.
Usually my projects are developed through multiple media. The Rebus work in 2011 began as an installation, destined to ‘die’ within a few days: it was a large still life composed of fruits, flowers, roots, tubers, seeds etc. all hybridised together, a kind of crazy and surreal form of nature. Soon after that I created a photo project, a series of still life shots taken in the studio, another work with the same title, which had been born as a continuation of the same idea. We are living in an era in which our whole life is translated into computer data, and in which photographic works and video are stored in this way. What is true is that we can copy them whenever we like, but they can also be erased in a split second, as a result of a simple short circuit. Drawings and scores have come down to us from centuries ago. I wonder what will be left of our digital works. In any case, I don’t think that artists need to worry about this. When Leonardo painted The Last Supperhe was most certainly not worried about the problem of conservation, his urgency was all about inventing, which also means inventing and experimenting with new techniques.
How is technology changing the perception of the body and its relationship with nature?
With technology the body has become above all the image of the body. As the German art historian Hans Belting says, «The boundary between body and image once seemed to be the difference between life and death», and, making reference to Dante’s journey into the world of the dead who appear only as shadows to the poet, he goes on to say, «this means that they had become images of what had once been alive. Being images, they were rendered visible to him. […]. In the fiction of Dante, shadows represented a medium (a kind of infernal TV) for those who, because they had lost their bodies, existed only as images». Technology has really changed our relationship with our own bodies because it allows our images/shadows to be viewed without the physical presence of our bodies, while we are still alive, in an exponential exposure through different media. The perception of the body has changed because there is no longer a separation between the material and its projection. As a consequence our relationship with others and with nature has changed. We can ‘see’ places and people while remaining stationary; our relations exploit the potential of the abstract and ethereal.
I think about travellers at the beginning of the last century and even further back who could receive information about a place from maps, postcards or from some object brought back by a friend, and that unique sense of ‘wonder’ they could have felt, theirs and theirs alone, on arriving at their destination. They discovered an area with an open mind, ready and willing to take on whatever they found. Technology makes it all available to us and this excites us, but we are increasingly exposed to the risk of being too full to be able to accommodate the unexpected. Technology is a contradiction because it gives and takes away, like everything that is related to what is new, a prosthesis that redefines our relationships and our relationship with the world, but which does not do much, for better or for worse, to change remote aspects of our humanity, desires, needs and aspirations.
What should Italy have (that it does not already have) to encourage creativity and make our country even more competitive at international level? And which country in the world do you believe to be the best from this point of view?
Italy should promote and support its artists, both nationally and internationally, and should understand that they are an asset. To make our country competitive at international level in the field of contemporary art requires a support network that is built up among institutions, museums, galleries, public and private collections so that artists can enjoy credibility in Italy and around the world.
I honestly do not know which country is the best in this regard at the moment. In terms of the opportunities afforded to artists and professionals within the sector, because of its the art market, I would say perhaps it is the United States, and New York in particular, despite the crisis.
In some countries in Northern Europe, artists have the opportunity to have a studio with free rental or to receive a monthly stipend if they can prove they work professionally. This would be a great help that would allow one to work without getting caught up in other activities to support oneself. Artists who I know tell me that life is much easier in Berlin. Countries such as China and South Korea invest above all in homegrown artists. But here we tend to attach more value to foreign artists. We are a country willing to accept others but we need to appreciate better what we already have.
What does the Terna Prize represent, today and in the past, for an artist in the Italian and international scene?
I think the Terna Prize offers an important opportunity to artists, which is demonstrated by the heavy participation it has had in its various editions. It is also an award that is open to all artists. There are other awards in Italy where the opportunity to participate comes from being singled out by curators. Also, there is no age limit for taking part in the Terna Prize; this is another positive aspect. I agree that there should be competitions reserved for young artists, but there should also be others for the not-so-young, especially in a country where the possibilities offered to artists are already scarce. In fact, I thought it was very clever to divide it into the two categories, above and below 35 years of age. Another positive aspect is that there is no so-called registration fee, as happens in other prizes, which, although it may not be expensive, is not in my opinion a sign of seriousness and professionalism in a prize.
Terna is a company that deals with providing energy to the country. Its commitment to the Terna Prize focuses on transmitting energy to art and culture and creating a network for supporting and developing talent. Do you think that the Terna Prize formula is still relevant for promoting art? Do you have any suggestions for the next edition?
I think the synergy between art and business is a very good path to follow, and that in Italy it should be practised more, since it would act as an engine of growth both for the fields in question and for the country. The call to prepare a project on pylons, in the edition of 2012, sent out to invited artists seemed to me a great idea, because it is important to leave a mark on the ground. The theme of the last edition, linked to social issues and solidarity, is also in tune with the times, while proposing a theme for each year the award serves as an incentive for artists. One suggestion I would make concerns the need to give greater visibility to the work by the award-winning artists. The Temple of Hadrian is a wonderful venue , but probably not suitable if you want to give space to a series of works that use a variety of media, photography, video, installations, etc.
If you are forced to put up panels because obviously it is not possible to perforate the historic walls, the exhibition takes on the appearance of a trade show stand rather than a contemporary art exhibition. I do not know all the venues available in Rome but I think a contemporary art museum or even a refurbished industrial structure would be more appropriate for breathing new life into the work and promoting better use, making the exhibition stage not only the final moment of celebration of the event, but also an important step in the promotion and dissemination of art in the area.
It is a good idea to establish a network of relationships with other institutions abroad through the residency program, and I would maintain and indeed invest even more on this initiative.