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Misunderstanding as a tool. Michele Gabriele in conversation with Zoë de Luca

Zoë de Luca: Michele Gabriele and I have been known each other long enough and had many occasions to collaborate and support each other's work in the last few years. He's one of the few artists I've managed to be regularly in touch with over the past year, sharing thoughts about these difficult times for art practitioners as well as ideas for the future. Our most recent meetings have overlapped with two significant events: his commitment to start weekly virtual appointments [1] open to people who want to "discuss their projects and researches, problems or portfolios, and talk about pizza" and the production of his solo show at Nevven Gallery, which opened last October. Despite not being involved in the curation of the show, I happened to be closely following its production here in Milan, in the last months of 2020. We attended many studio visits and discussions, which originated a conversation that stems from the concepts behind the exhibition and ends up intertwining with the artistic practice more recently developed by the artist. 
Resilience is one of the keywords of this exhibition. What does this concept represent for you?

Resilience is one of those words that fits me perfectly. Perhaps because I’ve always considered my path in contemporary art as something complex, tiring, and full of obstacles. Probably in great part due to the sense of insecurity stemming from my suburban and provincial origin; Milan is not an easy city, especially when you first get here. I always thought that you need to be both brilliant and stubborn to emerge in art.

How did you come up with the idea of making a show about it?

As a matter of fact, I never caressed the idea to make an exhibition with this material - only because my projects never derive from "ideas": what the show is about is simply determined by everything that surrounds and encompasses my work. For me art is a way to reveal reality, to ask questions and to try to provide answers; The exhibitions come out quite naturally from repeated obsessions and reflections that I believe can reveal aspects of my research that may not have received the necessary light yet. During the quarantine period in Milan, I found myself thinking a lot and focusing on all the shitty events that I have faced since the beginning of my career, as in a list in order of importance. Those events and situations that really jeopardized my future as an artist. "If it does not kill you, it will make you stronger / Too old to be read, but too important to be thrown away", was born spontaneously and later  became the beating heart of the exhibition.
"If it does not kill you it makes you stronger / Too old to be readable but too important to have been thrown away" is a wall piece made of three parchments stored in first aid cases, that enshrine just as many anecdotes: an alumni exhibition you haven’t been invited to, a solo show the gallerist cancelled in favour of someone else, a collaborative work stolen by a fellow artist. How did these tragicomic events influence your practice?

For this series, I decided to start with these three significant anecdotes of my life, not so much for the sake of the events themselves, but rather for the influence they had on my life, my personality, and my practice. I wanted to talk about those situations that can trouble you so much that you convince yourself you can change your life and abandon everything; In this sense, they are archetypes of shitty situations. Looking back at my path, I realized that the major impact these events had on my practice was that they granted me an increasingly lateral look on things, allowing me to position myself at the right distance that permits me to see the whole picture. In a nutshell, I think it gave me a sort of independence from the context. Although it starts from something profoundly serious and personal, the exhibition has a little irony: this is why I decided to use the word "tragicomic", thus underlining how the problems of an individual appear rather ridiculous and tiny when told aloud, and when compared to someone else's bigger problems.

The three tales are told following the stereotypically ancient format of the Italian miniature. Why did you choose this type of aesthetic?

I usually choose materials and objects that I believe possess the ability to evoke certain imaginaries that are very distant from them and from each other, while remaining themselves. In this case, it was extremely natural for me to use this aesthetic, because it was what I needed to conjure up several images at once, immediately: something adventurous like a children's adventure film, a threatening pirate message or something like that, and the memories of a prisoner or an elderly hermit. Three exaggerated, grotesque, and recognizable imaginaries which proved useful for me to play down and exorcise these situations, but also to allow a distant and distracted spectator to intuit, perceive and recognize what he is looking at.

You often prioritize the audience’s point of view, like in the series "It's always so hard to admit that things are different than what we had believed at first sight" made of unidimensional velociraptors, or the one started by “Whity-Trashy” made by sculptures that can never be properly seen by the angle. Whenever I come across works that problematize the vision of art, I wonder how long our vision-centred approach will affect how we relate to art.

That’s a question I often put to myself, and when I think about an artwork, I would say that it’s a question rather than an answer; And it’s precisely through these questions that I hope we can get a glimpse of the contemporaneity, or rather the anamnesis of reality. You mentioned two moments in which my work tries to problematize the relationship between the artwork and its viewer. Something that is still part of my research, and that always comes back in different forms. "It's always so hard to admit that things are different than what we had believed at first sight" is a series born almost two years ago, (of which I showed the last example in this exhibition). It considers today's art audience, which is made up only minimally by people who will have the opportunity to see the works live and in greater numbers by people who will see them only through their smartphone or computer.  
...Which not only provides an entirely different experience of the work, but also threatens our engagement with it with passivity. Since the use of devices often happens to be our primary interface with the world, we need to take its phenomenology into account.

Yes. The works in that series underline the distance from the work itself and try to facilitate a misunderstanding, highlighting the superficiality and inattention of a certain type of public. The series wants to be an intimate yet frontal reflection about misunderstandings and complexities, and the difficulty of human beings to accept that things can be different from what they believed. In “Whity-Trashy” instead, the discussion concerned my installation choices: when I set up a show, I always try to accompany the viewer by hand through the exhibition experience, following two criteria; the first for those few who will see it live, and the second for the hindsight documentation for those who are faraway. 

This reasoning around fruition-driven choices brings me back to 2015, probably the first time I saw your work in person: I’m thinking of the set up designed for DENISE, your solo show at Tile Project Space, in Milan.

Well, in this case I wanted my exhibition to suggest a multiplicity of narrations, and wanted it to emphasize the narrative potential inherent in the exhibition space. So I tried not to be distracted by clichés and stereotypes which concern the setting up of an exhibition, and to work listening to the ambitions of the work itself. In my opinion, the landscape that has grown in the space had to be somehow disappointing and repulsive at first glance, confusing the viewers and disorienting them for a moment. I wanted that on entering the door, everything happened potentially at the same time and wanted the works to exist in unison. It was not immediately possible to understand how the exhibition was installed when looking from the door, because the works were disposed in a way that is usually avoided when setting up an exhibition: they were "stuck". This way I allowed - and forced - the spectator not to fall into hasty conclusions. Then, upon entering, the works were arranged without "special effects". You went in and it was all there, so you see everything, but the works overlapped a bit and disturbed each other, thus creating a new, casual, and unimportant form; In my opinion, it suggested a rhythm.
Thus, your works have emancipated by availing themselves of this state of abandon.  Can Object-oriented Ontology be rated as an influence of yours?

In a certain way, yes. When I was a student, I used to work as a guard at the Triennale Museum in Milan, and after a while also as an "unconventional, illegal guide in museums"; for 10 or 15 euros I accompanied people not accustomed to studying art to see great exhibitions... But this is another story. When I was on guard, I was forced to remain silent, standing for hours and hours, not observing the works of art, but the space surrounding them, and the distance that separates them from the spectator. In fact, I’ve always thought that the work exists only in the distance that separates it from the viewer and in all the infinite possibilities that exist in that "space".

A catalyst for potential.

A work is sometimes also an object, but it becomes a work due to its ability to generate the future, to make language evolve, and to actively participate in some kind of great debate that began a long time ago. In this sense it exists in the distance that separates it from the viewer; So more than anything else I would say that a work is not necessarily, but can happen to be, an object - with everything that concerns it. I’ve always believed that works are dedicated to the world and live in this distance, but at the same time, the viewer I’m thinking of is a collective, global, and eternal human being. And if an individual wants to occupy this place, due to presumption or to competence and sensitivity, I hope that this individual fully understands this responsibility.

There’s an inherent responsibility in the recipient’s role, as it entails the power to give both meaning and value to what you look at. From this perspective, one work may have as many significances as there are viewers, making the work just as collective and multifaceted as the ‘global viewer’ you were talking about. Do you think about your works this way?

I truly believe there is an intrinsic responsibility in the role of the viewer, and above all, that it requires a greater awareness, but I prefer not to think that an artwork will ever become what we want or our definition of it; I've always preferred to believe that the artworks help viewers to define themselves. In my opinion, when you are in front of a work, you should also be aware of the huge opportunity you have as a viewer. It is an opportunity that demonstrates us who we are. Are we sensitive, attentive, cultured or superficial people?  Do we have a good spirit of observation? It’s precisely through what we’ll say that we’ll understand something more about who we are, who we want to be, or what we aspire to. The work remains there anyway. Itself. The fruit of a whole life, of an artist’s research. A more or less successful attempt. And we won't change that. We could change ourselves though. 

So, one may say that the work doesn’t take on as many meanings as there are viewers, but it rather represents a different potential for change to each of them.

When I talk about a global viewer, I do not mean a multiplicity of spectators even if I said “collective, global and eternal human being”: I mean the human being observed from a greater distance. From far away. I told you that my research is mainly concerned with defining a distance... I mean an abstract and timeless entity. Almost a mythological being. Utopian. An idea. A spectator past, present and future together, who is the final recipient of the works of art. With my work, I hope to underline and remind viewers how particularly important and grossly insignificant they are at the same time.
I recently read an article by Saul Anton [2], where he opens his piece by confessing he wrote an exhibition-focussed essay about a show he never saw in person. He then states: “The critical description of a work of art is first and foremost a complex act of memory [...] Memory is selective and synthetic - and thus critical. In one sense, criticism is nothing but remembering, an account of the spectral, the void, the absence that inhabits and structures a work of art”. What are your thoughts on that?

I could never have said it in such a poetic way, but I very much agree, it's a nice prospect. I also got to read that article and I found it really interesting. The most surprising thing for me wasn’t learning that he had written about an exhibition that he had not seen irl, but learning that to do so he had seen dozens of photos… Then had several lunches with the Artist… And then, always with him, verified every single consideration made in the essay, one work at a time. I shouldn't have been surprised by his skill, meticulousness and professionalism, but I was. Perhaps because I’m used to the carelessness of many of us. It happened very often to me to clash with the arrogance, presumption, and fear of those who must write about my exhibition or my work, who not only have never seen my work live (an element almost negligible at this point), but who did not deem it necessary to contact me or to let me read the text before publishing it. What a pity, how many wasted opportunities. 

And what about being on the other end?

To be honest and tell you how I experience works of art as a spectator, I haven’t been able to see in person many of the works of art that changed my life yet. I recall one of the most relevant exhibitions for me, which not only I’ve never even seen in photos, but it was recounted to me by a friend: Arcimboldo. Personally, I see the exhibitions better in the documentation, but this is my opinion; I’m more comfortable, I’m not distracted by friends and colleagues, by the fact that it is raining or cold outside, by uncomfortable shoes, by shyness and discomfort, by bad smells and so on. Obviously each work has its needs, and in art there are no rules, only habits. But, if it’s possible and unless a work does not require something different, I would prefer to see it in photography. For the way I am, the screen goes between me and the work as a filter helping me to keep the right distance, allowing me to see the work and the surrounding space quicker, and allowing me to welcome and appreciate the silence that it generates.

The screen was a filter that characterized many of the projects you conceived as Something Must Break - a “curatorial and critical intention” started with Monia Ben Hamouda in 2017 - whose shows often defy centralized exhibition coordinates and play with artwork displacement.

Something Must Break was born from a communion of intentions between me and Monia. Basically, it uses the narrative possibilities of places and feelings as a basic element of its research and wishes to extend the boundaries of the contemporary exhibition landscape. SMB often uses documentation as a tool to add different narratives and to emphasize the more emotional aspects of the exhibitions we curate. For me is a bit like being able to decide what day the typical viewers of our projects will have; I imagine SMB following the viewers from the morning, deciding how they will wake up, what day they will have, what climate they will find outside their homes, being able to decide and manipulate their mood until they finally arrive at the exhibition. A kind of extreme way to accompany the viewers right into the exhibition, trying to put them in the right condition to read the works and grasp the concepts at their best. We often use some insights related to the world of cinema as starting points for our projects, because cinema does something quite similar, as it controls every element of the narratives it tells to emphasize the emotional responses it expects from the viewers.

Besides contemplation, memory is another recurring element in your work. “Untitled (tmnt)”, for instance, is a 2016’s work in which you meticulously replicated a Ninja Turtle action figure, shifting its dimension to a slightly bigger scale to keep the proportion the original one had in your child’s hands when you used to play with it…

Memory is an element that often comes back in my work. I think it's a tool for me. It interests me because it reveals the misery of the human condition; It makes me laugh, because it is grotesque, it is fallible, it is random, it is perishable. I have a shitty relationship with my memory, the most insignificant things that shouldn't interest me remain trapped in my mind at the expense of much more important ones I can't remember. I’ve always thought of culture as the collection of all events that have survived history, the noteworthy ones. But perhaps some of these surviving events have done so by mistake, have been misunderstood and a certain future has been generated on that misunderstanding. Sometimes I use memory as an excuse to talk about something else, and to seek a collective and shared consciousness. Sometimes to talk about history, sometimes to talk about suggestions or feelings. 
This is also a central topic in your show at Nevven.

Indeed. I was recently asked to describe my work process and I said that for me it is like “Looking at the world with a telescope that constantly turns over in my hands”. I thought a lot about my career as an artist, initially mulling over a lot of things. Then, just to look at things from too close and then from too far away, I stopped to reflect on the very idea of ​​memory. I recently read several theories about what are called “false memories”. The very idea that these false memories are superimposed on real ones, calls into question any notion of history, justice, and truth. The exhibition is a celebration of all the traumatic, tragicomic, and disappointing events that jeopardize an artist's career and resilience. The frontal and oblique attacks that by injuring us make us different, freer, independent of the context and stronger. The perception we wish to give of ourselves often does not coincide with who we are, therefore our fear sometimes leads us to show only a single side of ourselves, depriving others of the richness and complexity hidden in the most fragile and contradictory parts of our personal history. Fearing the simplism of some analysis or the misunderstanding of the interlocutor, we censor important parts of our life and research, not recognizing the uniqueness that belongs precisely to those most uncomfortable and difficult aspects that characterize our history. In this I see a need for catharsis, a need to exorcise certain events in order to be able to really grasp the best of situations. Identities and relationships are influenced by the memory of events of various kinds; memories, however, are not immobile points in a world where everything else moves. They move too, and change over time. 

I guess that’s the case with the memories gathered for Nevven’s exhibition, too.

The protagonist of the memory is its narrator - which is also supposed to be the most reliable witness of that event. The obvious conflict of interest, the need to give more colour to the story, the desire for victimhood, are all the elements that slowly and inexorably alter the memory of that story. When we remember, we are "victims of perennial circumstances", and our "executioners" resemble each other as if they were a single being with many bodies. They all behave the same because they are just the projection of our worst sides. There are shitty people, cruel ones, and scammers. However, we must try to be aware and admit that the majority of the people who have hurt us with a behaviour or a word, may have done so unknowingly.


1. https://www.instagram.com/p/CHaCMFDFzYE/

2. https://www.art-agenda.com/features/362084/seeing-is-remembering-the-expanded-field-of-art-writing

Michele Gabrielle

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Group Exhibition #2 at Fall River Museum of Contemporary Art, Fall River

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