The wall was conceived as a white square space. It was a space that was a backdrop against which things could happen, or not happen. It had been envisaged and structured as a flat surface that could be left empty, act as a backdrop, or be covered with works of art. It was a space of interstices and assemblages within which an aesthetic narrative could develop over time.
When thinking of a wall one tends to imagine it flatly and as part of a construction. The wall for me was not necessarily a construction but a window that would allow the external environment to interact and interfere with the artistic processes of production that were taking place in front of and around the wall.
I had no intention of replicating attempts, more or less successful, of bringing the natural world into the white cube of galleries and museums’ spaces. It was something that it had been done already with the myriad of landscape paintings and with installations more or less opened up to the outside environment. The thought of sequestering nature and placing it within the aseptic aesthetic of a white cube was not what I wanted to achieve. It was a process to anesthetize and estheticize nature, depriving it of it ‘natural’ forces and bending it to curatorial and institutional concerns that would be principally focused on entertaining and awing the masses.
The wall, for me, had to absolve a different function beside that of holding up images and being a backdrop. It was supposed to let the environment dictate how art itself was produced and was supposed to act as a mirror and, therefore, a constant reminder to the artist of the limitation of artistic creative practices compared to the creativity of nature itself. It was also a constant source of inspiration. The wall in fact had a very simple architectural function and it was that of protecting the vegetable garden, developing in front of it, from strong winds, the prying eyes of curious audiences, and the scorching sun during the midday hours of the months of July and August shading vegetables, animals, and humans alike.
The wall had a function which was to protect, defend, and hide the life that was taking place in front of it and inside it in those interstitial spaces in which lizards, ants, wasps, and insects of all varieties would find refuge. These worlds were not antagonistic but simply unseen by the eyes of those who would stop at the notion of a wall as a set of bricks. Birds would fly in and land close to the wall to snatch an insect or to poke at those interstices trying to find one that scared by their presence would take flight. They would usually snatch the poor creature mid air and fly away. From time to time the birds would use the wall as a resting point and some other times as an observatory from which to survey the land of the vegetable patch and lounge themselves on some good morsel.
The lack of audience engagement — a draw back for many artists (particularly the audience made of buyers, critics, and collectors) — was not a concern I had. Not being visible did not mean that the works of art did not exist. On the contrary, they existed but did not have to have the obligation, thrust upon them, of having to engage with an audience; certainly not in traditional terms. The landscape was teaming with life as much as my own head would be teaming with thoughts inspired by life taking its course, even through death.
An interesting episode happened suddenly while we were resting in the shade after lunch during the hottest hours of the day. A raucous made us look up. A jay (Garrulus Glandarius) had snatched a small sparrow and was holding it in its claws. But it had not counted on something that I had never seen before. All the other sparrows teamed up and as a flock attacked the predator, screeching and plunging themselves against the attacker. In the chaos he let go of the little one that he had in his claws. I saw the little bird plunging on the ground. It stayed there for a few seconds motionless and then suddenly moved and took flight again. Those little innocuous sparrows had bandied together and saved one of their own.
It reminded me of the countryside and its wars. These were stories of fights for survival: gender, class, or political wars, they had one only reason in Italy, and that was to survive a harsh social environment. The fights for life and death that were recounted at different times, some were not appropriate for children’s ears, were the stories of survival and shrewdness. These stories reminded me of the peasants’ wars, fought against local landlords in centuries past all the way through to Roman times. It reminded me of the harsh life of being a body rented out to work the fields which appear in the Sicilian and Sardinian literature through the writings of Verga and Grazia Deledda. The sickle and the pitchfork placed against the wall, innocently resting before work or after a long day in the fields under the scorching sun, took at times a more ominous tinge in my eyes. I remember bringing water, wine, and beer to the workers in the fields when the hard work was made by hand and while the kitchen was busy preparing lunch and staring at the glinting metal felling the fields of wheat.
The vengeance of people against abuse took the form of stories of poison feed to a priest by his servant, sexual toy, and victim, or the local politician long awaited at night to be shot from behind a wall as a payout for his misdeeds and thefts. All manner of stories came rushing back from some far away world that nothing had to do with the glitz of the metropolitan cities of London, New York, Berlin, or Venice. The young girls sent as servants at an early age in the houses of the rich only to be harassed and have to fend off all the males in the house. The least fortunate who were unable to defend themselves or who fell for the lies of a better future were destined to become pregnant and go back to their life of poverty and hard work with a bastard son or daughter to raise up, adding another mouth to feed to a table of scarce peasant’s food.
A wall does not have to be just a wall. I doesn’t have to be deprived of context and historical inheritances. The decontextualization trend of the white cube has its limits. It eliminates humanity, history, and everything else to create a sharp focus on something that perhaps because it is nothing as nothing would not stand out in a context. It is the sharp focus in a context of nothingness that makes something of nothing. It brings the awe of art, whatever that might be, through selection, isolation, and display upon a white wall. Nothingness is then filled up with whatever one might bring onto the picture.
But the object with the aesthetic nostalgia for its context doesn’t mean as much if cultural inheritances are wiped out and are unknown. Art and the world for me should be looked at with prying eyes which slowly scan and absorb everything around like blotting paper or the wide opened eyes of children. These are the eyes that look at the interstices, at the cracks within the wall, and are able to see other worlds and other possible lives.
A wall is just a wall if we choose to look at it as if it were nothing. If we can’t bring our own to the wall with which to fill the work on display with stories, emotions, life, and death — a picture becomes a picture and a wall is just a wall. Art will be on display somewhere else.