Your work is based in Art History and art historical ideas. Did the overload of the Renaissance of Florence or the new surrounding—the city of Florence—have any impact on your practice? Did it lead to a new or different sensitivity?
I was in the Villa twice, first because my husband, Dani Gal was a fellow in 2008, and second, in 2013 when I had the residency. My first stint in Florence was almost like an orientation where I was very relaxed and spent a lot of time visiting museums, and especially looking at painting. For me it was really amazing to see for example original Giottos, spend time with Masaccios, and do the Piera della Francesca tour—the list goes on and on. Over the years I had become particularly obsessed with the phenomenon of Oriental carpets in paintings and I had already started working with Anatolian weavers in 2007 to revisit these carpets in a new form.
You came here with knowledge of the “Mamluk” carpet at Palazzo Pitti. Considering your other works, especially the interest in Oriental carpets in Western paintings, perhaps the interest you had in working with this special carpet was obvious. Did you already have a concept before coming to Florence? If so, did this concept go through some alteration when you were actually here?
When I went to Florence the first time, I came across a book by Marco Spallanzani. He is an economist who has done extensive work in tracing the origins of carpet importing in Italy. I bought this book because I was already researching Anatolian carpets in paintings, and part of Spallanzani’s research traced carpets depicted in Italian painting with records of their purchases. Just before, in 2007, I had been in a group exhibition in London that was curated by Gregorio Magnani, who was also very interested in carpets. He told me a story about a carpet expert, Alberto Boralevi, rediscovering a Mamluk carpet in the vaults of the Palazzo Pitti (The famous Medici Mamluk carpet) and told me I should take a look at it. However, this didn’t turn out to be so simple. First, I called the Palazzo Pitti to ask if there was any way to access the Medici Mamluk for research. They said, “We do not have it. I do not know what you are talking about. It is in the Bargello Museum.” And then I called the Bargello and they said, “I do not know what you are talking about. It is in a different museum” etc. So I got the runaround. But this carpet was always in my mind—even more so because I could not gain access to it.
I ended up producing Forensics for a Mamluk in 2013, after returning to Florence for my own residency. I was very lucky to get to know Alberto Boralevi personally, and both he and Angelika Stepken helped me gain access to the Medici Mamluk for a day. The video functions like a scan of the carpet (which is giant, at 11m x 4m), and I hired a very precise cameraman, Yari Marcelli, who both filmed the carpet with a crane, hand camera, and documented the carpet in very high resolution. Until then the carpet had not even been properly photo documented.
On the level of content, some of the details that I focused on were based on my discussions with Alberto, who took me step by step through the iconography of the carpet, but the general premise of the work was an examination of the hidden influences of the Renaissance. The Renaissance was highly informed by Eastern iconology, mathematical systems and geometry. You can find all of these things in the Medici Mamluk carpet.
Both your works realized in Florence come across as though you are escaping from the limitations of traditional institutional spaces of production. You choose to work on real places with real people in daily life. “Michelangelo’s Place” and “Forensic Mamluk” are connected to different collaborations: you worked directly with local artisans on the bench, and indirectly with the people “providing” their engravings. And, with regard to the Mamuk you cooperated with Palazzo Pitti.
Other works, like your tapestries “Oued Ochaia” and “Maison Locative Ponsik” (both from 2018), are also a result of collaboration. Could you elaborate on the creation of these works, on the actual physical labor of making the pieces, versus the conceptualization of them?
With all of my works the conceptualization comes through the process of translating discovered content through a material process, I see these material processes—what you call labor—as conceptualization itself. This is also how I came to the series of engraved marble benches Michelangelo’s Place that I produced in Florence. In 2011, before I returned to Florence, I had done a photographic work with graffiti, Defaced Sculpture, where I superimposed medieval graffiti from effigies onto a photograph of a sculpture, so I had already built a small archive of documentation of medieval graffiti. When I returned to Florence I discovered masses of graffiti in the Piazzale Michelangelo on the marble benches that frame the piazza. This lead me to the idea of fabricating a marble bench and replicating the graffiti. I was very lucky to find a stone fabrication company just minutes from Villa Romana, and I was even luckier that they gave me a workspace. A few of the guys who worked there spoke English and basically taught me how to carve. They even taught me the tricks of their trade on staining and using pigments, and they also deciphered some of the graffiti for me. The more recent works you mention Oued Ochaia and Maison Locative Ponsik are Jacquard tapestries I had produced in Belgium that feature pornographic drawings by Le Corbusier superimposed onto his Obus plans for Algiers. Since 2015, I have been working with Jacquard weavers in Belgium to produce tapestries that combine modernist spaces and the body in different ways.
Can you tell more about your working process and if this temporary change of location had any long-term impact on your work?
The process of how I worked with those two pieces is basically how I always work. The graduation from the graffiti of Piazzale Michelangelo to the next carved bench project, All Saints Bench (2017-2019) was a natural progression. In 2017 I was invited to realize a project in Frankfurt Cathedral for the anniversary exhibition of the Portikus. The curator thought that one of the benches would be perfect in the setting of the cathedral but all of the benches are in North American collections, making it impossible to get them on loan.
However, after producing Michelangelo’s Place, my obsession with sacred and historical graffiti deepened. In 2014, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old city of Jerusalem. It is filled with graffiti from the Crusades to the 19th century. Over the following years I also hunted for graffiti in other churches, such as St. Martin’s cathedral in Lucca, or in various churches on return visits to Florence. So the impetus of exhibiting in the cathedral resulted in a new marble bench sculpture.
I think the places you went to, like Piazzale Michelangelo, are filled with graffiti from all the tourists and history. So, I think, it triggered your obsession even more.
Sure, it was like a gold mine. Piazzale Michelangelo began with the Grand Tour and was constructed at the end of the 19th Century. The graffiti varies enormously. I found one graffito supporting the POI [Italian Workers’ Party], the first socialist party in Italy that only existed for ten years. Then there is incredibly banal and/or hilarious tourist graffiti from the 1980s, like a little elephant with a bum on his head. I just liked the spectrum of graffiti that was encapsulated there. That was lucky.
There are two versions of the marble benches— “Michelangelo’s Place” and the “All Saints Bench”. While the themes are similar, could you tell me about ways the pieces vary?
They all have different types of marble. For the Michelangelo’s Place, I used Carrara marble, and for the All Saints Bench I used a very plain gray marble that was very subdued. And now actually I have just completed a third bench project, called Fragments of NOF4. For this sculpture, I used a very visually complex emporador marble because the etchings are highly dissociative and layered. For this version I returned content-wise to Italy, to a former psychiatric hospital in Volterra that contained an exterior wall with literally meters of engravings by a patient (and artist) Oreste Fernando Nannetti, who was a patient there and carved on the walls from 1959 to 1973.
Regarding the simplicity of the form of the benches, I also find some kind of connection with the minimalist architecture of Le Corbusier. The simplicity, the use of the plain material, natural stone, in the angles. Is there any connection or is it just a kind of impression or my interpretation?
I think for the design of the bench, I wanted to make it as minimal as possible. I wanted to quote the dimensions of the benches in Piazzale Michelangelo, but I didn’t want to quote the aesthetic. I just wanted to make it like a template. However, there is something in your observation because in a lot of my works I have been very interested in early modernism and especially Adolf Loos. If you take away the element of decoration and you put something into its purely functional language, it does have more of a space to project something onto it. I was definitely thinking of the language of the object, not wanting to remove the object’s language, not wanting to distract from what was happening to it.
In the second bench that I made, the All Saints Bench, I wanted to reference something older but I also did not want to make it too decorative. For that bench, as a reference, I used props from Middle Age festivals. All of the benches that still exist are either too fancy or too rough. And this was kind of an as if design.
The video work “Forensic for a Mamluk” for example, also created during your residency, was realized with local collaboration as well. Afterwards this piece was brought to Canada. Since this piece has so much local context, would you say the piece is stationary — of a place, namely Florence — or is it a nomadic object without place?
It is a good question. I think that it is based on the artistic process and the context is based on how I want to communicate this process or this idea. There are contextual parameters, but these parameters are flexible. The Mamluk carpet isn’t a nomadic carpet, it is a carpet woven explicitly for royalty. It is in almost perfect condition because it was probably only rolled out once or twice a year for the grandest events. I see the conditions of the Mamluk very differently to the carpets in Renaissance paintings that I reference in my hand-woven series Madonna Extraction Carpets (2013 – 2015). The carpets depicted in paintings of the Madonna are mostly tribal carpets from Anatolia, so their production has a different language than the production of Forensics for a Mamluk.
So, in this case, it seems to me that the artwork as an object is not the aim.
I think in the case of Forensics for a Mamluk the issue was really forensic, as the carpet had not been documented properly. And it had basically been forgotten in the vaults of Palazzo Pitti. The museum did not even have it in their cataloging system until Alberto Boralevi rediscovered it. Alberto conducted many fascinating research missions that resulted in rediscoveries of important carpets. He was aware that many Italian art institutions had blind spots in their carpet collections. This to me is the paradox of the Medici Mamluk, which is one of the most spectacular and valuable carpets in the world, no one even knew it was there until Alberto dug it out in 1982 after requesting a visit to the carpet vault where a sealed door was discovered which opened into a chamber where three giant carpets were contained, the most notable being the Medici Mamluk. The context of Forensics for a Mamluk is this idea of the informative language it contains which has been suppressed in our Western narrative of the Renaissance.