On body measurement, cinema and vampires: a conversation with Alessandro di Pietro

A conversation between editor Giacomo Pigliapoco and artist Alessandro di Pietro, discussing about his past and current works.

Alessandro Di Pietro’s work has been recently on view in the solo show: Lo Spavento Vinse Il Giorno at MEGA, Milan curated by Davide Giannella and MEGA.
He’s work is based on movie grammars and linguistic structures, generating hybrid environments, inhabited by plausible monstrous characters and non-objective technologies.
In 2020 he received a grant from the Pollock – Krasner Foundation in New York and, in 2017-2018, the Cy Twombly Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.

Piazza Vetra 21
20123 Milano

“I would love my works to be able to only live in film settings and no longer in exhibitions.”

Vampirello Liliana, 2020, coloured pencils on paper, 63x81x4cm, MEGA, Milan. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Lorenzo Capelli.

Giacomo Pigliapoco: An interest in measurement can be often found in your practice. I’m thinking of an early work shown at ViaFarini, the scanner you used to measure spatial distances. While describing your movie – NEW VOID (2014) – you said: “by watching it we are projected into the last 3 centimeters of the protagonist’s awareness”. Your background as graphic designer strongly influenced the entire body of work you have produced so far. Measurement is no longer obvious today, but it has not entirely disappeared either. Rather it persists behind the scenes of the designed and exhibited works. In your installations, the process of studying the space and the rigorous balance among the weights of the pieces is remarkable: expedients that endow the solemnity of the proposed narrative and display a certain setting which is typical of the cinematographic tradition.

Alessandro Di Pietro: Measurements, units of measurement, and practical exercises can be read as an initial alphabet for refining my technical, typographical, and graphic awareness of drawing and design. And this happened at the residency in Via Farini as well. Within my research, the measurements were moments where I reduced everything to a minimum, getting rid of what was excessive and unnecessary until just the protagonist – the work itself – was left. Since Documenta Catalog 4/3 (2012/2013), measurement as a theme has disappeared, to make way for different themes, such as anomaly and monstrosity.

NEW VOID, 2019, Still frame. Video FullHD, stereo, length 30’. Courtesy the artist.

GP: I am interested in this thought of yours on anomaly and monstrosity. What do they mean for you? How do they fit your work?

ADP: I started wondering what anomaly means, what monster means, what it means to produce something that is essentially there, although you’re not pronouncing it. For example, monstrosity is something that you cannot pronounce, that is not relatable to a defined linguistic system and, whenever it is specified, it disappears. In this moment of my research, between 2011 and 2013, I was dealing with mental and personal blocks – mostly related to the body – and I was trying to bring autobiographical elements to a more general, universal level. I wanted to measure the ability of an anomalous body in motion, to understand myself proxemically, within a spatial context.
After the measurement, the monstrosity took over: in the beginning measurements were responsible for describing numerically defined objects by default (spaces, surfaces, objects…), whereas later the approach gradually shifted towards a less analytical nature, embracing the issue of language. A personal interest in writing started to appear and I started using tools, including an electronic scanner. I was interested in looking into something beneath me, something more related to engraving and sculpture rather than photography. I produced several works with a scanner, including Documenta Catalog 4/3 (2012/2013), a performative work that was later formalized in a book. The work was born in Kassel during documenta (13) where I exported approximately 40 parts and fragments of exhibited works. Then, once back in Milan, I scanned the fragments and redesigned the whole documenta (13) catalogue in a hyper-realistic operation, adding a fourth volume to the three that were originally made. Documenta Catalog 4/3 (2012/2013) is an extra unit on a denominator, a surplus, an anomaly on the official total.

Documenta Catalog 4/3, 2012-2013. Courtesy the artist.

GP: Your works are identifiable as proto-narrative, speculative, open environments, often linked to a fictitious character. They intersect and work around a single reading direction, where fiction and reality are intertwined. This way you create the psychological profile of a potential entity that moves through space. Can we define this as an intimate, very architectural investigation?

ADP: After embracing my reflection on monstrosity, my work began following a self-repeating module, a structure that is very close to the narrative standards introduced by Greek mythology and later adopted by fairy tales: prequel – main character – narrative ghost – antagonist.
Numerous characters are part of this narration. These relate to the space while defining a setting that, in turn, determines their existence. The planning phase, which is central in my research, is related to spaces and challenges them. In fact I consider myself more of a film director [than an artist] and I treat all environments the same way. I constantly need to question the numerous aspects of the space such as artificial or natural lighting, structural elements, and so on.
The characters I activated are dolls who have something irreparable, terrible, or sweet in their past. Whether this can be expressed through the technologies and furnishings produced by the characters, is an object of interest to me. I try to make the figures as familiar as possible by associating them with reality.

FELIX_Untitled 2, 2018. PLA with brass and metal powder, aluminum cylinder, pigmented plaster, steel, cm. 20x90x20 ciascuno. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

GP: A while ago I read a classic of Italian gothic literature: Il Vampiro by Ornella Volta [1964, Sugar Edizioni, Milano]; I will briefly quote an extract from page 9:
The vampire represents the possible in the impossible, life being possible in death, death coming, as a living presence, into life. It represents a man’s deepest aspiration: to survive his death. It makes his anguish concrete. By following eroticism up to its most monstrous drift, up to its deepest meaning, will we perhaps manage to solve the problem of death? Will we be able to live in death?
This excerpt reveals the author’s investigation into the bloody and irrational side of human mind, an exploration of its abysses – although already widely probed by psychoanalysis and French surrealism – capable of creating a liberating glimpse of subversive madness. Are the characters that inhabit your installations part of the earthly world or are they part of an undefined universe? Are they evoked by your installation chapters? Do they overcome the problem of life and death by living in this dimensional split?

ADP: No, they do not overcome the dualism of life and death. The environments I have imagined are always concerned with monstrous, “vampiric” figures. The main focus in the first chapter DOWNGRADE VAMPIRE (2016), for example, is a bourgeois environment condensed in an ashtray that is lightened up by natural light. The exact opposite of what a vampire is supposed to be in literature and gothic cinematography.
There is no evocation aside from the character’s desire to match the space he designed. And the vampire is the only figure that can match these environments. Within the spaces that my saga (2016 – 2019) is made of, there are no artworks, yet there are functional spaces and technologies: the environment changes, whereas the narrative does not, and neither does the register, nor the stories. Only the entity of the environment changes. The character constructs his anomaly, and inhabits it.

DOWNGRADE VAMPIRE, 2016. Installation view. FuturDome, Milan. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

GP: As Neorealism was already out of the movie scene in the 60s, Italian comedy, peplum and westerns swiftly became a big part of it. This is when horror began gaining ground, and holding an increasingly prominent position. In this context, Italian gothic cinema by Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti found its place, corroborated by rare incursions such as Fellini’s Toby Dammit in Tre passi nel delirio (1968), a series of episodes inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s tales.
One of the best Italian Gothic movies from the 1960s is Danza Macabra (1964) by A. Margheriti where the elegance of the mise-en-scene is made possible by the highly contrasted photography and the abundance of sequence shots of the surrounding settings, where romanticism and macabre intertwine, creating a sinuous and suggestive atmosphere, lacking any happy ending. Your work is an investigation into possible metanarratives and you accomplish this by presenting the viewer a story that is fascinating yet intricate, often confusing as it leaves all boundaries of closure open and unresolved…

ADP: When I generate and conceive my works, there are two aspects I always consider.
The first is the history of site-specific installation, meaning that you have to know how to approach a space. The second is a form of distraction, which helps me not to think about the display, or even the exhibition, as the only way my practice can be perceived. I believe it essential to bypass this issue when making environmental installations.
Regarding the references to history of cinema, the only cinematic atmosphere I am interested in is Luchino Visconti’s. I am thinking of the anecdotes about his perversion of filling up the scene as much as possible for the sake of realism. For example he wanted wardrobes to be filled with clothes and drawers with cutlery. His approach led him to hide ghost information in all his movies’ set design. All this invisible, layered density produces an image that is as realistic as possible, and I firmly believe in that. I believe in the reality of his movies.

FELIX_Reloaded, 2018. Veduta dell’installazione. MAMbo – Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, Bologna. Courtesy the artist. Photo by E&B studio.

GP: The works you exhibited have always been very connected to the hosting spaces. I am thinking of Marsèlleria and Futurdome, above all. Once the works leave the original exhibition context, do they rest, expecting a new awakening? In the future context they may be installed in, do they usually undergo specific modifications or do you consider them autonomous and decontextualized from the space?

ADP: My installations have a different role, whenever they are presented out of their original context. They are objects trouvés, lacking all kinds of energy. As it is difficult to understand the primary function of these objects: they become sculptures, dead design objects, powerless artifacts.
This is basically the essence of the fetishization of art: recreating the whole setting every time in a new context is impossible.
At the same time, objects are loaded with history, and thus are dormant, ready for new, potential adaptations. Whenever the work moves to a different context, its meaning shifts and its adaptability changes. This is very interesting for me and it’s the reason why I would love my works to be able to only live in film settings and no longer in exhibitions. For example FELIX (2018) – presented at Marsèlleria – has caps that were displayed within the exhibition, and that are meant to close the sculpture once it is unloaded or out of context. Basically, this process makes the works a sort of memorabilia: aesthetically unbothered objects that lose their former role each and every time they are exhibited again. If I had to think of an exhibition where all the chapters are to come together, there would have to be a huge reconfiguration, and I would present them perhaps in the form of an archive, with a horizontal display.

LO SPAVENTO VINSE IL GIORNO, 2021. Installation view. MEGA, Milan. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Lorenzo Capelli.

GP: In Lo Spavento Vinse Il Giorno (The Scare Won The Day), your last exhibition at MEGA, curated by Davide Giannella and MEGA, there were drawings from the Vampirelli series (2019): representations of facial anatomies eerily irradiated by sunlight. How do light and shadow affect your characters?

ADP: VAMPIRELLI (2019) was born from a very straightforward premise: they are figures, they lack a setting, and they are exposed to sunlight, dazzled and extremely fragile. They show their necks: their most vulnerable side. They are all shown from behind, against traditional portraiture rules, based on the identification of the subject. Ears, noses, teeth, dull eyes, and bruised skin can be surely seen, but they do not allow us to determine their identity. In this occasion, in order to make my characters look familiar, I made portraits of friends as vampires: most of them are artists, filmmakers, curators, collectors, architects and designers.

LO SPAVENTO VINSE IL GIORNO, 2021. Detail of Arthur Arbesser fabric FW2021 and Vampirello Rochelle, 2020. MEGA, Milan. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Lorenzo Capelli.

GP: There is also a textile piece in the exhibition. Are the depicted souls an attempt to manifest an inner dimension by bringing them into a state of complete visibility?

ADP: That fabric piece is not mine, it is a cameo I asked Arthur Arbesser to realize. He is an Austrian designer of Transylvanian descent. I asked him to lend me the textile to design the exhibition space a bit. The show was initially planned to take place in his atelier in Milan, but it was not possible due to lockdown. It was a psycho-magical intervention that changed the original idea of how I had envisioned the space. Beyond the object itself, I like to involve other people in my installations. I chose to include Animelle [little souls] in the exhibition publication as I felt there was a strong connection among the strokes of coloured pencil on cardboard, and the contrasts and lividity of the fabric.

“If I had to think of an exhibition where all the chapters are to come together, there would have to be a huge reconfiguration, and I would present them perhaps in the form of an archive, with a horizontal display.”

FELIX, 2018. Installation view. Marsèlleria Permanent Exhibition, Milan. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

GP: The sound component is an element that often enters your installations, usually from an external source. You often worked along with other artists in choral and musical performances. You have a well-established collaboration with Enrico Boccioletti, who has both musically activated the environments of your works through soundtracks, and fluidly accompanied your first movie NEW VOID (2014), as well as the installation FELIX (2018) at Marsèlleria. This combination produces new narratives in the visible and plausible journeys of mental introspection. An emotional tension is thus created, requiring an attentive ear. An uncertain condition, an acid and rarefied environment, obscure and muffled, halfway between accelerated rhythms and slowed down beats: a trip with multiple layers and overlapping meanings. Trip hop, trance and acid house. Is this the cosmological universe you refer to when you conceive the sound that goes with your installations?

ADP: Not really, although trip hop is a great passion. I see sound as more related to a filmmaking methodology, where you deal with scenarios and emphasize or contrast images with sound. I am particularly interested in sound when I can choose it as a foundational element, something really necessary in that context, otherwise I don’t use it at all. This has been possible with Enrico, as we’ve always had much in common from a methodological point of view. NEW VOID (2014) was our first experiment. With FELIX (2018) it was a completely different work atmosphere: a moment when the curtain fell and the story ended. The sound activation of the environment at Marsèlleria was a moment between the end of the catharsis and the beginning of the fiction, the moment of unveiling and switching to something else.

Many thanks to: Martina Cambiè, Chiara Spagnol and Lucrezia Galeotti.
Alessandro Di Pietro (Messina, 1987) lives and works in Milan. He exhibited at: Villa Medici, Rome (2019); Centrale Fies, Trento (2019); Sonnenstube, Lugano (2019); Marsèlleria, Milan (2018); Fondazione Baruchello, Rome (2018); MAMBO – Museo d’Arte Moderna Bologna, Bologna (2018); OGR – Officine Grandi Riparazioni, Turin (2018); LA PLAGE, Paris (2017); CAB – Centre d’Art Bastille, Grenoble (2015) and PAC – Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan (2014).