10 April 2015, Milan, Miartalks
First edited transcription, Paola Nicolin
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I would like to start right from the beginning. You told me about your uncle, but above all about the importance that Leonardo Da Vinci has always had in your work …
Getulio Alviani: As a child, in my first years of school in Udine, the fair of Santa Caterina was held, where there were stalls with books and other things; here I came across two volumes, which I bought with the few cents I had then: one on Beato Angelico and one on Leonardo Da Vinci. I lived in the countryside back then and therefore I loved nature very much. I loved seeing birds, crickets, moles, foxes, and in this book by Leonardo there was the “bestiary.” For me, it was great, because I thought it was wonderful that a man knew all those things that I experienced daily, but that I knew absolutely nothing about. So, I fell in love with Leonardo Da Vinci, and studied his drawings in small format, because at the time there were no books with colour photographs or with enlargements. I remember a surprising thing that I always have in front of my eyes, which is how he had drawn the wind. For me, thinking that the wind could be drawn was incredible.
From the early years of my life, I lived with two uncles, one of whom was of Austrian origin and the other born on the border with Yugoslavia. They were both over 50 years older than me, so I was always alone and surrounded only by everyday things, plants, and animals. There were those who worked as farmers, doctors, streetcleaners, carpenters … I saw them all and I wondered, for example, “who knows why someone is a carpenter?”. … I got to the point where I asked myself, “Why do I live? What am I capable of doing?” I realized then that I loved doing things with my hands, and I wanted to see. Then I began to get interested in this, and to discover, above all, that all I had in my mind were not images, but “impressions” (for example, I now look at all of you, I see you, but tomorrow I will probably not remember your faces; what I will remember is the feeling I felt, whether there was empathy or not).
With my brain I see things; for this reason, I became interested in the world of seeing and doing, and I started by going to see, for example, how an old sculptor near my house made the plaster casts for the statues destined for the graves in the cemetery. For me, seeing was the fundamental thing: seeing and knowing – for example, that plaster becomes hot with water, that if clay dries up, it breaks – and so I began to understand what the world of doing is. I started living always like this – until I did not want to do anything anymore [he laughs], like today, where everything is distorted, distorted, and exploited, because torturers and cops have taken power.
HUO: This idea of making is very clear and we will return to it later, talking about your inventions with aluminium. But I wanted to start by imagining building your catalogue raisonnée: looking, for example, at the publications of your work, you can see that they often start with the geometric line drawings of the 1950s, and you have mentioned before the constant presence of geometry in your work. Can you tell me about these early works, these drawings that arise from the curiosity of seeing?
GA: Mine was a series of observations, in general, but always a bit shifted. As a boy, I spent a lot of time in the studio of artisans, and then of architects – much older than me – and I went to take measurements with them and did all those things that intrigued a boy. It sometimes happened that some of them went to paint in the countryside, and painted horses, for example – even if they were actually slightly futuristic horses, like those of Marcello d’Olivo; or of Mimmo Biasi, who instead had a strong interest in vegetables, plants, which then underwent a process of abstraction.
I have to admit that I did not know what to do, because I did not want to paint what was already there and looked perfect as it was. I wanted to catch something like the threads of light in the sky; I thought that the energy was passing in there – and I wondered how it was able to pass, because I could not see it. Then, at the time, there were the first telephone lines, so I wondered “maybe that’s how rumour travels, will the message stay the same, or be changed, and in what way?” For me, there was mystery in all this: I liked that even more, the mystery, trying to understand these things. Then I became interested in these free geometries, compositions of threads of light that crossed, intersected, overlapped – there were dozens of images in the skies of the countryside.
However, after doing some curious work on the matter, I quit, because I thought I had exhausted the subject. I have never done things out of duty; I have done them as a game, because I have always had the pleasure of doing, of discovering, of seeing. They were, therefore, limited drawings, since I was about twenty years old at the time and everything I did was for pure pleasure. For example, in that surface [he indicates a painting from the catalogue] there is a black, but when it is hit by the light it becomes white, whiter than any other white, and this was for the light. For me, these were discoveries, thinking that the white which comes out of black is whiter than “true white.” They were conversations with matter, simple non-transcendental questions… and slowly I began to live like this.
HUO: And after this phase come the “structures.” In this, we see a lot of the world of productive work, more than the world of art. Can you tell me about this epiphany that led you to build the structures, and how you discovered aluminium?
GA: I had participated in a competition promoted by an electrical material company in Brescia (AVE – ed.) And I had designed a valve which, compared to the previous ones, was very innovative. The prize, announced by Domus, was awarded to the architecture studio, but they told me that whoever designed the valve could go to work for the company that organized the competition, to follow the production phase. So I went to Vestone (a town in the province of Brescia – ed.), where the factory was based, and there I discovered the world of more “committed” work. Because until then, for me, the world had been one of “craftsmanship”; there instead I learned a world of “doing”, with large machines, industrial materials, and many people involved. And there among the little things, I discovered new worlds, from melamine to silver contacts, from castings to presses – because I took care of both the execution of this first project of mine, and took on the role of graphic designer for the company’s product catalogues. In this context, I found myself for the first time handling aluminium pieces coloured green, red, and yellow – which were basically mirrors. Having seen these perfect mirrors in metal was a surprising innovation. I said to myself, “but how does this mirror work?” Of course, I knew why the mirror reflected, but never had I thought about the fact that a mirror might not be able to break, or even bend.
Then, in one of these small workshops that I attended in the province of Udine, I went to dig with some cutters under this mirror, to see what was there. Initially it was all black, with a strong smell of sulphur, but I persisted again, and then a blinding light came out, stronger than sunlight! And from there, I understood how important light was, and that this material could accelerate light, just as a lens causes the sun’s rays to burn the ground.
HUO: You always have a lens and a measuring tape with you, right?
GA: I have two friends, who are the greatest friends I’ve ever had in life, I always have them with me, and they are the lens and the ruler. They have never betrayed me, they are always calm, safe and make no mistake.
HUO: This is now where we can talk about the “discovery of light”. The interesting thing is that this research does not initially enter the world of art in Italy, but instead makes a first unexpected appearance passing through Ljubljana and Zagreb. I’m interested in this passage, because when I was a student I met Julije Knifer in Sète, France, where the artist had retired in the 90s, and he talked to me a lot about the Gorgona. You, Getulio Alviani, were there, at the moment of the birth of that movement, so I would like to understand how this meeting of extraordinary characters took place.
GA: I was very attracted to Eastern [European] countries, because I have a mania for difficult things, those things that others don’t do. Everyone can do the easy things. Going to Paris, for example, was very simple, but going to Yugoslavia was quite another story. Everything was different there, even the smell of the air.
My motivation was due a little to the fact that these countries were representatives of Central Europe, the land that my uncle, who was born in Austria, came from, and on the other hand I was fascinated by this completely different world, then beyond the “curtain” – for example, to get a visa took months, you had to have valid reasons (which in my case were linked to family reasons, since my mother and my aunt were born in places that became Yugoslavia). The roads were different, the people as well … in short, Yugoslavia at the time was another world. Furthermore, I must admit that unlike all other parts of the world, where there was a certain atmosphere of joy and lightness, Yugoslavia was a more introverted, more reflective, more intimate, and poorer land. I like poverty a lot, because in poverty many things can be solved; while in wealth nothing is ever solved – contrary to what today’s rulers think, who aim at riches, their riches, to pretend to solve problems. Problems are solved when there is simplicity and brains, and things are done for the sake of others; while today there is a lot of imbecility combined with wickedness that only causes abuse.
So, I landed in Slovenia. I had made two small surfaces of milled aluminium, and placed them on a radiator in a small workshop, where they were noticed by Zoran Krzisnik, who came to this workshop to have furniture made. At the time, he was the director of the GAM in Ljubljana – which was very advanced in the world; it was the first city beyond the Iron Curtain to want to do innovative things, while elsewhere the situation was very stale. So Zoran Krzisnik saw these two little things, two small plates in fact, and asked me what they were. I wasn’t sure what to tell him, so I told him how I had made them. He asked me if it was possible to make some larger ones, about one metre by one metre, and that if I could he would hold a small exhibition for a small gallery he had in Ljubljana. It was called Mala Galerija, which means precisely that: small gallery. He invited me to visit it, and then organized an exhibition. And some time later, in 1961, I made this presentation, and then learned that in the meantime Krzisnik had curated exhibitions by Zoran Mušič, Giuseppe Santomaso, artists from the Ecole de Paris, and many others. Since then, these works of mine have allowed me to live in Eastern Europe For some time.
I have continued to have a great love for crossing the border, going beyond: Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, up to Russia. I learned from Krzisnik that at that time, in Zagreb, there were other young people exhibiting things similar to mine during the same period. So I went to Zagreb and set out to find out what was happening, and if the work was like mine. But at Gradska Galerja I found very different pieces; they had a spirit similar to mine, yet were completely different things, and so I saw the work of Almin Mavignier, Julio Le Parc, François Morellet, Marc Adrian, Ivan Picelj, and Julije Knifer. It was the “New Trends” exhibition, organized for the first time by an artist, Almin Mavignier. There, the whole world opened up for me. Krzisnik was organizing the Biennale of graphics at the time, which was at the forefront of the world of graphics, and therefore many scholars – such as Umbro Apollonio, Giulio Carlo Argan and many others – arrived in Ljubljana. In Udine that would never have occurred; the director of the Tate, or of the Moscow museum, or Umberto Eco arriving. Instead, I met everyone there, in Ljubljana, in a moment, and that world became my second home.
It was in this context that a young person was listened to for what he was capable of doing, which I thought could never have happened in Italy. For example, the Studentski Centar in Zagreb [The Student Center] was a large experimental centre run by artists and critics, directed by Brano Horwett. There, they invited me to create silk screen works, and so I started to print them – not even knowing what they were exactly, but obtaining surprising results of crossed, overturned, superimposed, negativized, positivized lines. Then, when I came to Milan (where the headquarters of the factory I worked for were) I was able to show this kind of research to Lucio Fontana, and then to Paolo Scheggi, and they too began to work with this technique. Then Brano Horwett came to the Galleria del Deposito to develop all these graphic techniques, which in Italy had never even been thought to exist. We were involved in the fact that serigraphy could be done in series, and everyone – Max Bill, Richard Paul Lohse, Konrad Wachsmann, Victor Vasarely – explored this field, which was born from [the East]. And this is interesting.
HUO: One of the important aspects in interviews is that of “protesting the forgetfulness that exists in the world”, and there is a character who is rarely talked about today but who is very important: the person who set up the exhibition. The exhibition itself is often forgotten, there is an amnesia in the art world about it. I would like it if you told us a little about Edo Kovačević and what you learned from him.
GA: I learned everything from him. He was a figurative painter who took care of the installations in the Gradska Galerija in Zagreb; before then I had never thought that my works could be exhibited like this, suspended, supported, and so on. I thought they were simply “squares”. In fact, when I then held an exhibition of mine at Gradska, my works were about twenty “little things”, but he turned them into an eight-room exhibition, making them extraordinary – not through “effects”, as might happen today by focusing lights on them, but simply by placing one work on a background, one on a base, one as a small backdrop: and so with three surfaces, a room was set up.
Kovačević was very simple and creative, I learned a lot from him – and, in fact, I have never had a work hung on my walls at home. I keep them in the garage, because the works have to be exhibited for a short time, otherwise the eye gets used to them and you can’t see them anymore.
I look at the works for a short time and then put them aside, to then retrieve them months later and try to understand if they are still valid or not. My impression is that the works must be done for exhibitions, so that they communicate with each other: one must see number one, number two, and understand what they mean as one line. This is what I still do now. On the other hand, I have set up more exhibitions of my colleagues work than of mine, because in this way I really discover the works, what they are and what they represent.
I believe that the works must be kept in the head. I have a collection of works myself, but I never see them. I got them all by making exchanges: Fontana to Bill, Lhose, Albers, Mansurof, to Nelson, Kelly or Anuszkiewicz….
The first exchange was in the early sixties, with Fontana: he asked me for something, I brought it to him and he said to me: “What do you want [for it]?” and I replied that I did not want anything, but timidly I proposed that he give me one of his works – and so it happened immediately. From then, I received everything through exchange. This then also enabled me to hold exhibitions of those artists, because I had so many works in hand: everything was possible because I had the works, avoiding transport and all the tasks required to make an exhibition that back then seemed insurmountable.
HUO: All of this leads to your work as a curator. Andrea Bellini, who has been talking to me about your work for many years and is the origin of my research, was insistent that we talk about you as a curator. You are “the” curator of programmed art, and you have also written a lot about your colleagues, so it would be interesting if, after Ljubljana and Zagreb, we now arrive in Italy, with the N Group, and Programmed Art.
GA: Immediately after the exhibition with Zoran Krzisnik in that small gallery, he asked me to curate a selection of works by our group of artists for the Ljubljana Biennale. So I began to collect works by those I esteemed – because otherwise I would not have had any interest: I wondered if the artist should not exist, but only the work; if it had, as it must have, a meaning and a dignity of its own to exist. And so I curated the Ljubljana Biennale. Later, I spent many years in Venezuela, directing the Jesus Soto Museum.
HUO: Soto told me about this abandoned museum in Ciudad Bolivar and I would be interested in understanding how an artist experiences a museum in a curatorial sense. What is your vision of that today?
GA: Exhibitions were held, and in this way I was able to see the cities and meet those who, perhaps because of their age, would not be able to do it in the future. There was always someone who hosted me. Jesús Rafael Soto was a close friend of mine, I often went to stay with him in Paris, or with his fellow Venezuelan, Otero. One day, he told me that he intended to build a large museum, and asked me to collaborate with him by gathering all the artist friends I could. So I did: from Sérgio de Camargo to Toni Costa, to Lucio Fontana, Gianni Colombo and many other good artists.
I could not go to the inauguration, but then, after a few years, Soto called me and told me that his museum was in ruins: “se lo comiendo el diablo” [the devil is eating it], and asked me to go and see the situation, and give him a handrestoring it. So, during a Holy Week in the 1980s, I went there and saw this museum – designed by Raul Villanueva, a good architect and friend of Le Corbusier. The museum consisted of a series of huge pavilions, located in the middle of the savannah. Unfortunately, the situation was terrible; there were bats, snakes inside, the works had been ruined and were mouldy on the walls. There were about forty people who worked there: photographers, guides … and so it was that I lived in Venezuela for four or five years and worked to completely renovate it.
HUO: Regarding Soto, and other Venezuelan artists who work a lot on the kinetic, there is one thing we haven’t talked about yet, and that is your surfaces. At a certain point, the series of “vibrating texture” surfaces begins. In a conversation with Giacinto di Pietrantonio, you said that it would be nicer to think that “neon has chosen Flavin, mirrors Pistoletto, and aluminium has chosen me”. Why did you switch from aluminium to vibrated surfaces?
GA: Actually, after having been the art director of an aluminium factory, I had perfect, wonderful machinery at my disposal. I’ve never had a studio; I worked where they were: if, in a particular place, there was a nice factory that produced a nice material, I went there and did something. And so, being in the aluminium industry, I had these perfect tools at my disposal. That’s how it all started. I must admit that I have always done everything by myself, because at the time everything was possible: I was alone in a factory of thousands of square metres, I was alone and I was happy; I liked doing. Today, all of this would be impossible, but back then it was natural to do whatever your brain told you to do.
HUO: In the book New trends: Notes and memories of kinetic art by a witness and protagonist, you write that the artist “is not the cult of personality, protagonism, commercialization, private galleries, elite art, fetishism, the unique work, the social purpose, the interpretation, the metaphor, the mystification, the strategy […]”. In another text I found you say that “to be called an artist is an offense, one could always speak of artifice, of something new, but I think it is more correct to speak of a plastic creator, a designer, a student of perceptual problems, an artist is synonymous of mystifier”. I would like you to tell me about your “expanded notion of the arts”…
GA: Since I’m a physicist, I don’t like telling stories. [I don’t like] the word “creator” … lies are “created”; they are very easy to create. To be able to say things, they ought to be verifiable, tangible. If someone tells me “on your surface the light behaves like this”, you can go and see it, and you have the opportunity to see that it is true that it behaves like this. That’s not like someone who throws a stain on the ground, and then that becomes, say, “the intolerability of social life”. They say imagined things!
Therefore, I love things, and I care that they have the dignity to exist; as for me, I have nothing to do with it; they must have the dignity of existing. Nobody knows who invented reinforced concrete, paper, the first bricks; nobody knows anything, but these objects exist and have been made. Everything has been done, things remain and, fortunately, people leave.
One of my favourite things is to exhibit colleagues who are better than me; partly out of gratitude, because in this way I make them continue to live, and partly because in this way they have no other influences. For example, when I started collaborating with the museum in Bratislava, an exhibition relationship that lasted about ten years, I exhibited only artists who are gone: Sonia Delaunay, Joseph Albers, Lucio Fontana, Bruno Munari, Olle Baertling, Max Bill, all of whom represented something fundamental in the art world through art, and not through words or stories. The stories may be right, but they weaken the function of the eye: we receive 90% of our information through the eye; if I had to speak what I have in front of me in the blink of an eye, I would spend years saying nothing, telling unlikely stories. On the contrary, in a split second, I see everything, and everything is verifiable. One of my passions is synthesis, so it is obvious that I love the eyes. For me the eyes are everything.
HUO: This is beautiful and could already be a conclusion, but I still have some urgent questions. In fact, when you talk about the synthesis of art, you make me think of Max Bill…
GA: Max Bill has been a lot, everything, to me. We often saw each other in Zurich or Zumikon or in other parts of the world. We didn’t talk [much], we communicated with synthetic words. But when we talked, the topics were quite another thing [compared to art]. We telephoned on Sundays. I always knew, ten minutes before our call, that I was dumber than I would be afterwards – with regards to everything we talked about, his turtles, the roads, the travels, everything. Because whatever Bill told me, he opened my brain, like Vix VapoRub. He was my base, his was a total critical force, first of all towards himself: [he believed that] something that was not true had no right to exist.
HUO: And like Max Bill, who was an artist, architect, and educator with the Ulm school, you too have continued to be a designer, architect…
GA: Yes, but never as a profession. I have done sets, some residences, a boat, I have dealt with urban planning; but I am not a craftsman, much less able to reap any benefits that were not mental.
HUO: You have also done graphic design, for example creating [work for] Flash Art.
GA: [Giancarlo] Politi came to me and showed me a copy of Flash Art, which at the time was innovative because at the time there was only Selearte, a magazine that devoted very little space to modern art, just a few quotes. Giancarlo, on the other hand, had made this magazine, which in the first issue had the title in “football pools” [font]; so, from the second issue, I gave him the logo again, all in lowercase Helvetica. Throughout my life, I have made many posters, layouts, catalogues, everything that had to do with graphics.
HUO: You started making more “immersive” installations, such as those with mirrors, and many environments, so … in a certain sense architecture and setting are synthesised in your work.
GA: Yes. For example, in this environment [he points to a photo from the book], you literally enter the middle of the colours, but in reality they are not there, the only colours are the fixed ones of the walls. By touching the metal plates that reflect the colours, yellow becomes black, red becomes yellow and everything is mixed and the resulting images are unrepeatable. There are no engines, because I’ve never loved engines. Instead, I love that the brain sets itself in motion.
HUO: There is also the “tunnel” which is very nice, can you tell me about this job?
GA: Do you know, I saw this work for the first time a couple of years ago, even though it was made about twenty years ago. I went to the place with Mario Pieroni and Giacinto Di Pietrantonio and they told me that they had a series of abandoned spaces. They asked me what I would do with them, and I replied that I would make lines. I made a drawing. They then had a guy make it, who was pretty good at it.
HUO: You told me before the conference that it’s also important to have fun, and today many artists work on games. You invented a game, in 1964, using aluminium plates, didn’t you?
GA: It’s a very simple thing. There are two aluminium plates that rest on a surface and then there are two discs which, by reflecting, multiply. Unpredictable images can be generated, but only with the hands. And we are always surprised by what we ourselves do.
HUO: In my interviews, I often ask what the unrealized project is. There are many categories of unrealized projects, those that are too big, utopian, censored, too expensive… which one is yours?
GA: I must admit that my restlessness is always animated by what surrounds me. I have never had a studio, much less an assistant, as Karl Gerstner or Enzo Mari or Victor Vasarely or Julio Le Parc or François Morrellet may have … although very good, they all have had and have real businesses, but I did everything by myself – and above all, I did it … for years, and [I don’t do it] anymore because I no longer find pleasure in doing it.
In 1970, I composed the Manifesto on the “Pneumatic” Space. You will understand that it is absurd that a bus always measures from 100 to 200 cubic metres, both when it is full of people and when it is empty, or that a car occupies 5 square metres both when it is stopped and when it is in movement. Absurd! It is a hallucinatory thing. Although I love the cars on the highways, seeing the city submerged by what I call obscene, ugly, frightening “bagnarole [bathtubs] di tin and stucco” is terrible. Cars must be in motion, because otherwise they wouldn’t be called cars, they’d be called something else. My concern, therefore, lies in trying to minimize the obstruction and presence of the cars when they are not working: this is the Tire Space. I dream that the spaces could be pneumatic, transformable, transportable from one place to another. It was the first impression I had from Konrad Wachsmann, who I attended in Genoa when he had to design the port (a project that was then given to another person in his stead). Wachsmann had an idea to make the port of Genoa expandable and shrinkable: are the boats coming? It expands. It’s empty? It shrinks. Is there no longer any need for the port? I undo it and take it elsewhere. The pneumatic world, for Wachsmann, is still to come, and I took this position a little from him. I haven’t invented anything; I use things that were already there, and I always give credit to people before me. Bill, Albers, Wachsmann, Gropius; everyone who came before me. … In this way, it is a continuation, because no [new] thing is born without another [that goes before].
So my future is Pneumatic Space, but to achieve it you need a common will; that is, that everyone is interested. I can make drawings, I have reduced very small spaces to a minimum; you can live in 9 square metres – I have designed a living room for two people which contains everything you need and which is transformable. I like this. In the 60s, I made tables that transform, today we have to remove gravity, so we won’t even need the table anymore. Back then, the table was the solution, today we know we can remove gravity, so the table is no longer needed.
HUO: Last question. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that beautiful text in which he gave advice to a young poet. Today there are many young artists here with us. I am very curious to know what your advice is to a young artist in 2015.
GA: Knowing everything that has been done. Develop intelligence, and try to do something that has the dignity of existing, or that is itself useful.
She [the work] is the centre, you have to think about what she does: and she has her dignity only if she is not a copy, only if you have made sure that she is absolutely new. Not just for a small circle of people who may not know what is around and are amazed. Today there is a great, terrible crisis: ignorance. And here we are in the homeland of this ignorance … we buy obscene, false, ugly, stupid things. Però in fondo, anche se questa cosa qualche anno fa mi disturbava, adesso mi lascia sereno, perché vuol dire che l’ignoranza di quella gente riceve quello che si merita e qui penso proprio “all’arte”, quella che non avrei mai voluto sapere esistere.
(But in the end, even if this thing bothered me a few years ago, now it leaves me calm, because it means that the ignorance of those people receives what they deserve, and here I think about “art”, the one I never wanted to know exists.)1