On the occasion of her last installattive project in Rome, titled EMPIRE and installed at the National Roman Museum, until September 1st, Elisabetta Benassi (1966, Rome) intertwines connections and traces among her most recent works, suspended in a closer future.
Your last solo show in Paris is entitled The Sovereign Individual. Which kind of food for thought, which kind of speculative notes, which further imaginaries has offer to anticipate or to get into EMPIRE (2019)?
Elisabetta Benassi: In order to talk about EMPIRE, I should first mention a project in Reggio Emilia, at the Collezione Maramotti, happened before my 2018 exhibition in Paris. For me exhibitions are more important than single works, they allow me to articulate an idea in a more complex way. Whole of the solo show in Reggio Emilia was inspired by a controversy which was born in the 1970s, following a purchase by the Tate Modern related to a fragment of an installation realized by the American artist Carl Andre. The title was Equivalent and it was articulated around the exhibition displacing, the focus was voted to enhance Maramotti Collection, inside the first factory of Max Mara fashion house. Among the works I made for such occasion there was Infinity, in which I first used the ‘Empire’ brick.
In 1986, Carl Andre realized a work called Manifest Destiny where he overlay eight bricks bearing the trademark of an American furnace -actually disappeared-, a furnace called Empire. Bricks were overlapped precariously in balance. In Infinity, the main idea was to extend the column up to the ceiling, where a pair of big yellow work gloves should have been stucked it in such a pose, accentuating, even more, its sense of precariousness. The title was an obvious tribute to Brancusi and once more to Carl Andre who was greatly influenced by Brancusi, at the beginning of his career. The brick, constructive element of Infinity and Zeitnot (in this case devoid of the word Empire), evokes the industrial age and the decline, it recalls the idea of progress, becoming a means to submit other questions. In Zeitnot, the bricks assemble forms that are difficult to describe, as bunkers, for instance, or even fantastic constructions and shelters.
Sovereign Individual draws its title from the book of one of the most tenacious English neoliberals -an ardent Brexit supporter - named Jacob Rees-Mogg, who figures a world out in which every idea of community has disappeared and the "sovereign individual" reigns over a hypercompetitive world. The three large plaster shelters installed in Paris, the habitable shells equipped with doors, are precisely precarious shelters for the last "sovereign individuals", actually dealing with a possible apocalyptic future.
In your recent practice, could you please list three imaginary solutions offering your clearest form of resistance, of balance in front of two chaotic dimensions such as individual salvation and collective catastrophe?
I would say that there are at least two imaginary solutions: one is precisely about the individual shelters. The second one is related to time and in particular with the imaginary possibility of escaping Capitalism time of production, throughout an altered level of consciousness and a time suspension. But those are just solutions only determined by an ironic sense of humour, they are ways to solve the problem. I am not interested in providing solutions, but in glimpsing the emptiness that surrounds us, making people feeling the urgency of finding non illusory answers, non sentimental views.
From ViceVersa (2013), to The Dry Salvages (2013), to Equivalenti (2014), but also through It Starts with the Firing (2017), Shadow Work (2017) and Zeitnot (2017) which kind of interpretation does the brick's symbol assume and what did it turn into? What does it represent in EMPIRE (2019)?
The choice of involving, of simbolically embroiling bricks does not refer to specific style criteria, relating to a simple formal preference. I use brick because it represents a basic constructive unit, essential but also primordial, an element whose function could not be distorted. A bit like the atom's definition, it is elementary but extremely powerful, fragile but also enduring, persisting when it joins other similar elements.
In fact, if some units are removed from the “wrong” places, the whole structures collapse, and chaos and entropy become mandatory conditions which cannot be rejected by history. Bricks could also evoke a metaphor about our society, about the individual within our society, about our individual stories as well as of a human, universal history.
Every time you used the brick, as a minimal structural unit, for building a space up, inside a larger space characterized by time, you also graft the doubt of a fragility about what could be built. Is EMPIRE (2019) strictly related to this concept?
Yes, I appreciate bricks also for such a reason, in order I just could use it dry, without applying mortar, in balance against gravity itself and therefore together with the possibility of dismantle a built structure to the single unit.
Representing a basic unit of each wall in the world, brick is intrinsically linked to the size of human hands, the basic size of the bricklayer, of the building worker. Himan hands are a measure unit for both the building and the human work, and it’s also the essential component to reconsider it as a “tool”, fundamental for its creation from clay: all the bricks I use are hand-made according to traditional artisan techniques.
Where does the idea of this new installation come from and which kind of dialogue does it maintain, develop, enhance with National Roman Museum?
Any possible connection, relationship with the National Roman Museum and ancient art allows me to challenge myself concerning a larger, stratified and deeper time. Giving also shape to a more ambitious project, avoiding to relate myself directly to a monumental attitude or intervening in a merely aesthetical way. Each work belongs to its own time, a non-linear time. Quoting Gabriele Guercio: “artworks are caesuras breaking and bending the arrow of time”.
Moreover I was deeply keen on the context: the city of Rome. It represents an opportunity, for me, of being able to measure myself. I'm facing what my city symbolises, for better or for worse. Today the bricks are even more politically connoted: the empire we are facing is no longer just the traditional one, but an even wider, immaterial, pervasive form of dominion, ruling our world. The destruction of welfare, the growth of poverty and inequality, unemployment, wars, create millions of victims and billions of exploited people. EMPIRE’s black bricks establish simple, temporary, aggressive shapes; they create a sort of a skirmish with the white sculptures of the Museum and with the spectator. They seem to be basements voted to support weird giants: they are solid but they also could still fall.
The term Empire - a clear reference to Andre – which kind of historical and political landscapes does it evoke?
The term includes several historical, political, economic, military, social resonances; they are not limited to antiquity, and on whose nature, starting from the colonialist, fascist, or even more ruthless repetitions of contemporary imperialism while it concerns artistic reflections of great relevance.
I think that past and present should be glimped not in a linear but in a dialectical way; so I tried to imagine how, in a thousand years, a work made of black bricks, inside a Roman brick building, would be acknowledged. No one, maybe, would ever think about reading a trademark realized by an American furnace, a Carl Andre’s oeuvre or even by me. Will it be considered a testimony of our age? Will it be esteemed or will it be considered irrelevant? Which kind of further empires will get in dialogue with EMPIRE?
How did it join the international program and the call for proposals of the Italian Council (2018), a competition conceived by the Directorate General for Contemporary Art and Architecture and Urban Suburbs (DGAAP) of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities?
EMPIRE is a way to rethink the relationship between antiquity and the contemporary era, within a problematic way. I tried to obstruct the Classic that we always think to know by heart. I was aiming to turn it into a node to rethink it as a form of friction and resistance, against the presumed automatisms of our present.
Why 6000 bricks represent the exact number of elements composing EMPIRE (2019)?
The weight of six thousand bricks is related to the maximum capacity of a lorry, about twenty-five tons. Moreover six thousand was the number of soldiers constituting a Roman legion.
In your view, EMPIRE (2019) could contain in itself a sort of hypostatization, a solidification of a performative gesture that you, ideally, deepened in M’Fumu (2015), you perpetrated in Corsaro (2014) and you entrusted in Nevermore (2008)?
Actually we could consider it an action, a performance, like the construction of a barricade, or a shelter. A feature offered also by its temporary and site specific nature. It is not clear, within the four different configurations of the work, which one is to be built or dismantled. Such element peculiarly contributes to its performative aspect.
Could you express a message, a though associated with EMPIRE (2019)?
More than a thought, I’d rather express a wish for those who see it: please ponder it considering all of its aspects, even though they could not seem predictable.
- Exhibition Title:
- Elisabetta Benassi. EMPIRE
- Opening dates:
- From June 21 to September, 2019
- With the support of:
- Italian Council Directorate-General for Contemporary Art and Architecture and Urban Suburbs (DGAAP) of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, led by Federica Galloni.
- Museo Nazionale Romano. Palazzo Altemps
- via S. Apollinare, 8 00186, Rome