MAURIZIO PELLEGRIN: self and the selfie

Image above: Maurizio Pellegrin by Andrea Blanch

ANDREA BLANCH: What comes to mind when I say, “Vanity”?

MAURIZIO PELLEGRIN: It depends. You mean as a human being or historically?

AB: Both, I like when you get historical.

MP: Personally, when you mention the word vanity, the first thing I think is self reflection. Vanity is something that is inside each human being. To represent this concept of vanity, history shows us many different models. Sometimes this vanity comes out, other times it doesn’t come out and stays inside of us, touching realms of psychology, or psychoanalytic debate.

AB: Your present exhibition is “Portraits of Artists in Their Absence.” How much do you think vanity or narcissism plays into your exhibitions?

MP: To judge the rate or intensity or grade of vanity depends on the artist. I believe that everybody has a little bit of this component, whether or not they know that they have it, or if they care to show it or not. The intention of the artist is just related to the artist. The viewer has another perception of what the artist intended to communicate. The public comes to the exhibition to judge, and find what- ever they want. In some art they will find vanity, in some not at all. This is a question that has to be answered by the viewer.

AB: What is the motivation behind the self portraits?

MP: The first person that we encounter is ourselves. If you think about the first drawing in history, the first presence of man and woman carved into a cave, you see a certain discovery of the human being, of the presence of the self. The first perception that you have, actually, is of your own body when you are born. There is always a moment when you have to deal with the self. Sometimes the self is misin- terpreted as an image of the self.

AB: Would you say it has something to do with mortality or immortality?

MP: I think that it could be. Obviously this is very subjective because we are different in many ways. History proves that the idea of man is to be perpetual in a certain way. To assure the existence of faith, we make children, we make art, we stay in history. Art is a good vehicle to assure a certain kind of longevity, but it’s related to the artist. For sure, we have a fear of death. You can find comfort in many things, but death is something that is always there. Everybody invents something to keep themselves in the transitional part between life and death.

AB: Do you have a favorite piece in the exhibition?

MP: There is no question of favorite piece, because I like everything more or less. I very much relate to certain periods in history. I am a fan, for example, of the late ‘70s, because that was the momentin my youth that I discovered contemporary art. The Bruce Nauman is a piece that I am quite fond of, and I’m also very intrigued by the theme in the Hannah Wilke video, of the relationship with the body. I understand it is still, after many years, posing questions to viewers. In general, I appreciate going into this exhibition everyday, because in a way it is about us. Sometimes in society we run very fast every day, and we don’t have the time to ask ourselves questions or con- sider the life of others. Besides the self, maybe this exhibition is also about a moment of encounter with others who express themselves in different ways.

(right) Barkley Hendricks, Self Portrait with Red Sweater, 1980-2013, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery; (left) Allen Ginsberg, Self-portrait in Mirror, 1987, courtesy of Allen Ginsberg.

AB: You’re someone who knows art history very well, and you were brought up around it. What are the features or conventions in self portrait that are unique to different periods of time or what are they?

MP: We have to go back. Our oldest piece in the collection starts from 1811. We start from there, but the journey starts much before. The evolving economic, anthropological, sociological debates change the spirituality and the psychology of the subject depicted. For example, the spirit of a person changes in paintings depending on the changing dress and clothes in fashion. Before the Victorian age you can see more neck, many more parts of the body in self portraits. After the Victorian age, you see the desire of the artist to be less conventional, and it be- comes more restrictive, more severe. After the discovery of photography, with the invention of Daguerre- otype, tintype, channel pipe and so on, the portrait tool obviously started to become less popular. People didn’t want portraits any- more. They wanted photographs. It didn’t exist as self portraits be- fore then, because the technique was too difficult, but after they dis- covered how to coat and maintain the silver on the plate, slowly we move into contemporary art, where we have the manipulation of the portrait. You have Cubing, you have the structure of the proportion, etc. In earlier postwar times, we had the perception that the portrait is not only the face, but involves the entire body: pulling the body, squeezing the body, cutting the body and so on. You were involving a larger debate in which sometimes the self-portrait is just a starting point. Other times, the self-portrait is only a tool to say something else. Lastly, with visual performances, like video, you see that por- trait in movements that open up other scenarios.

Daniela Comani, A Happy Marriage #50, 2009, courtesy of Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles


AB: Would you consider selfies a variation of self portraits? Would you consider the selfie performance art?

MP: Sure, a selfie can be a performance. Sure, a performance could involve a selfie. It is not that you can say what is selfie and what is self portrait. It is a moment of an encounter. The medium is a message, as we know it depends on what the final communication is. We are going into a debate here to open up 2000 years of history. What is art and what is not art? What is a self and what is a selfie? I believe that the only thing that we did not want to do with this exhibition is make an exhibition of the selfie, because the selfie, generally talking, is a fast and epic way for people to represent themselves. Most people take these images and send it to friends on social media, and the inner philosophy of that gesture is often distant from the propositioned communication of somebody that uses self portraits with deeper consideration and analysis. This is not an exhibition about selfies. Many pieces show an inner presence of the artist, or a particular idea of absence of the artist. The art is absent but it is not completely absent. There is a piece in movement.

AB: Social media has reinvented and revolutionized self portraits. Do you look at it as a positive or negative or neutral?

MP: I am a person that believes that every kind of expression is positive because it creates a positive energetic debate or interrogation, or poses a question. The fact that we are discussing this is already interesting because of the questions that the selfie are posing to us. We don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that because you used your cell phone and you make a picture of yourself, that is a selfie. Selfie is much larger: it’s your fingerprint, the way you touch, the noise that you produce into a room, the sound when you walk in the streets of a historical, intimate environment in the city, the color of your eyes, the movement your eyelids. You believe that you take a selfie, but thank God you are much more than this. We believe as human beings that we are much richer than just a normal image of our self.

AB: That is very positive, but I am not too sure about that.

MP: I like to see things in this way. Obviously, if we want to make criticism, we can say that when you put many hours into this path, the selfie, social media, this and that, you are taking time from other things, and you not taking advantage of other resources. It can become an obsession. The quantity, the proliferation, the exceeding the bombardment is not positive, in my opinion. That’s the abuse of the tool. All the proliferation of images sometimes prevents you from living an event live. You see a photograph or an exhibition online, and you have the impression that you already saw that exhibition, but you didn’t see the exhibition, because an exhibition has to be seen in person. You have to smell that exhibition. You have to live that exhibition. You have to experience it. Now people see a photograph and believe it’s the same thing. It’s not the same thing.

 Saul Fletcher, Untitled # 01. Courtesy of National Academy Museum. 

AB: Have you heard about Richard Prince’s project, where he takes other people’s selfies from the In- ternet, prints them, and writes things on them to make them his own art? What do you think of that?

MP: I am not familiar, but we call this phenomenon appropriation. This is a new phenomenon. I un- derstand that for this person, it is necessary to do this. In a way he is reflecting on the life of the artist, it’s another way to live. It is fantastic.

AB: He says that anybody who is not involved with this type of media today might as well be driving covered wagons, that basically that it’s part of the culture today.

MP: You know, Andrea, the story of living today, in my opinion, has nothing to do with exhibition. What does it mean: today? If you think that today is something closed, like a room you enter into the room, this room is today, and in this room, there are two chairs, one telephone, one television, a piece of cake then in order to live today, you have to sit in that chair, to pick up that phone, and to eat that piece of cake. But today is large. Today is already moving. When you and I are talking, today is already beyond us. Is it today in America or today in Italy? Today in Kenya or today in another country? The date today is a fake world, and maybe our life is a small fragment in the gigantic universe in which maybe what me and you say doesn’t make any sense or is not a current practice.

AB: That is a terrific observation, but I think you have to agree that today’s world is about technology and the internet.

MP: It’s about technology. Countries that still don’t have technology will develop it soon, and technol- ogy is a great thing. It’s not the thing, it’s how you use that thing. It is the abuse of the technology. I recognize that technology is the greatest revolution that we have after the industrial revolution. We are living with it, we grew up with it, we are happy about it, but there are limits to everything. We like good food, but we cannot go out every night and eat a thousand pounds of food, because we will get sick.

AB: That is absolutely right. I think that he was just saying that it’s part of the culture and that he feels like most people should embrace it.

MP: I understand, but let me give you this example: today, I look at my kids. I have two boys, 14 and 15. They spend 50,000 hours in front of the computer, which I don’t like, but what’s interesting is not the technology, it’s that they have developed different codes. They don’t talk any more the way that we talk. They use codes and symbols. I am not able to say if it’s good or bad, just that I am fascinated by it. I am less fascinated by all the time they spend on the computer, but I recognize that it is completely different from my generation. My father is 90 years old, but he is similar to me in a way. My child and I, we are completely different. It’s another planet. It’s another language. I don’t say it’s a better language, but it’s a different language. When I was in school we were studying Latin. Now maybe nobody stud- ies Latin anymore. So what? Maybe it is important they invent another language.

AB: Yes but the unfortunate thing is that they don’t talk anymore.

MP: Don’t tell me about that. Age is unbelievable.

AB: You are incorporating war photography in this exhibition. Why did you decide to do this? Are you opening up the museum to new mediums? Will you continue to do this?

MP: Absolutely, it’s my intention is to continue this. We opened up this new media because today you cannot talk about a debate in the art if you don’t consider all the possible media. This is the reality. I believe that we have to offer to the public obviously a 360 degree vision, always keeping in mind the mission of the academy. What you see in the museum physically, pragmatically, pedagogically, exists in the school as well. We have courses in photography, video, painting, painting foundation, drawing, everything. Our curriculum goes from basic drawing to video animation, photography, whatever you want. We also have special two to threeyear programs of intensive artists coming from all over the world. This is generating great energy in the school, which is reflected in the museum.

AB: What is the biggest challenge for you with this museum?

MP: I am only responsible for the intellectual point of view in the museum and school, so that is my largest challenge. In New York, we have great competition between museums, but we each have our independent niche of operation. Also, when you come to New York, there is a lot of solicitation. People now have opportunities from many museums, galleries and theaters. It’s not easy to maintain an activ- ity when you know the offer is so large.