With the aid critical of Marco Bazzini and Eugenio Viola
Director, Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum
HERE THE DREAMERS SLEEP, the title of the exhibition of works by Andrea Mastrovito, is taken from the epitaph carved onto the Andersen family tomb in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, the burial place of Andreas Andersen (who died in Boston in 1902), his sister-in-law Olivia Cushing (Rome, 1917), his mother Helene Morsen (Rome, 1927), Hendrik himself (Rome, 1940) and their adopted sister Lucia Lice Andersen (1978), the last custodian of today's museum-home, which was built to the design of the Norwegian-American artist in 1922-24.
The personal lives of all of them are significant for understanding their dedication, and their portrayal as "dreamers", because all the members of the family shared a great project and cultural passion for art and poetry. Their mother Helene arrived destitute in New Port in 1873 and, in a state of great economic and social hardship, worked as a washerwoman to support her family. She dreamt that her sons Andreas and Hendrik, and later Arthur, who was born in New Port in 1879, might find a life free from the misery of their violent, alcoholic father, and thus live with the ideals of painting, sculpture and music. Thanks to assistance from well-off families like the Cushings, even though her children worked from a very young age, they were nevertheless able to go to Europe and study in Paris, Florence and Rome. Here, especially after the death of Andreas, the women in the family came together to support The Creation of a World Center of Communication. This was the name of a project for a universal city, which would be an ideal centre of the arts, music and sciences – a grand utopian project for a peaceful Europe. With the contribution of the French architect Hébrard, the book was published in Paris in 1913 and presented at a conference with Paul Adam at the Sorbonne. What greater dream could emerge during the years of the Great War?
The present tomb reflects the project thought up in 1916 by Hendrik and Olivia, shortly before the premature death of the latter. The interior is decorated with gilded mosaics covering the entire dome and polychrome decorations in gilded bronze. There is also a plaster angel embracing a female figure that represents Olivia.
The plaster model of the tomb, without its polychrome decorations, is now in the Andersen Museum. The tomb at the Pyramid of Cestius was originally planned to house the monumental sculptural group of The Angel of Life (or Eternal Life), which is now in the Museum. Its plaster model was shown in 1911 in the building by Giuseppe Bazzani for the World Expo in Valle Giulia, where it remained in the central hall, with alternating fortunes, until 1914. Following static problems caused by its size, the monument was moved in 1947 from the Non-Catholic Cemetery to the museum-home, where it still remains today.
During the period while the tomb was being designed, Olivia and Hendrik devoted themselves entirely to making known the great Utopian project for The World Center of Communication. At the same time, the World Conscience pacifist association, set up and promoted by Olivia and Hendrik in 1912, was taking them around Europe and America. In New York they made contact with a number of American magnates, including the Vanderbilts in New York, the Ginns in Rome and New York, and the Swiss philanthropist Albert Kahn. These were also the years of intense efforts to create an open-air museum for those sculptures that had already been made, but this was rejected by the city authorities.
The association acquired great prominence among international pacifist movements and indeed Umano, the pseudonym of the pacifist philosopher Gaetano Meale, worked with them to draft the second part of the World Center project with political and institutional aims. During this period Olivia wrote her diaries and The Biblical Plays, religious dramas that Hendrik published after her death.
Hendrik's intense, intellectual and ideally physical relationship with Olivia, his widowed sister-in-law, who gave him intellectual, economic and spiritual support through to the very end, appears in a moving passage in her diaries, dated 22 December 1903:
"It seems as if I must have been dreaming, yet Henry came into my room last night, as often, and somehow I found out that he had always loved me – he too, since we first met; and he does still. It doesn't seem possible – and still it does […] (...) and yet life or death to me matter little, because I have gone beyond both and know them equal. The relation that has grown between us, H. and me, has a deeper meaning even than I thought [...]
He understands that with my whole nature I belong to Andreas, and he, through his love for us both and our love for him, belongs to us – belongs to us deeply, intimately [...]".
The members of the Andersen family, who now rest in the cenotaph of dreamers, were bound together by the same desires, aspiring to a world, an ideal city, that might become a living fountain of art and science. Even though still closed in a museum-home, it is a dream that comes alive and is always given new vitality in the exhibition galleries, with Italian and foreign artists who are able and willing to interpret the profound meaning of its creative concept.
HERE THE DREAMERS SLEEP. A conversation with Andrea Mastrovito
Eugenio Viola: Dear Andrea, I'd like to start by putting Here The Dreamers Sleep – the site-specific project you've created for this exhibition at the Andersen Museum – into the more general context of your work. In particular, it seems to be related to the work you created for the Casa Testori (Milan, 2011): in one setting you carved portraits of all the members of the family on the walls, bringing back the memory of them, as in this case, through drawing, enriched with evocative elements. Due to its two-dimensional nature, drawing often acquired an installational dimension and environmental ambition, as often happens in your work. I'm also thinking of the installation you made for your exhibition at the Łaźnia Centre for Contemporary Art in Gdansk, Poland, where you literally redesigned an apartment (Owsiana 1-3, 2014). Also this latest project in Rome is based around drawing, which you approach as an oxymoronic medium "which passes and destroys" and "draws while erasing", as you recently confided to me.
Andrea Mastrovito: That's right. Drawing, signs and, more in general, lines have been at the heart of my work for a long time. You mentioned Family Matters, the work carved into the walls of the Casa Testori. In that case, drawing and intaglio told of the archaeology of the family, through the stratification of colour on the walls of the rooms in the sleeping area of the house. In the various bedrooms, references to the lives of the Testoris alternated with autobiographical references, to my own life and my family. It was possible to imagine the exhibition as a curve, a sinusoid that touched on the line of my own life and on that of the Testori family. Here too, in the Andersen Museum, I have come into contact with the family that, in its small way, has left a precious mark on the city. And here the sinusoid opens up, breaking through the lines of private lives and alternating its peaks with the lives of the four inhabitants of the house and, on a more universal level, with the condition of all people, everywhere in the world, in every age, trapped as they are between dreams, desires, revolt and reality. Also the comparison with the most recent installation in Gdansk is very fitting: there I embellished an old abandoned apartment with hundreds of drawings I'd made, thus giving a unique touch to the worn-out wallpaper. For the exhibition at the Anderson Museum, I took some rather kitsch, mundane garden statues and embellished them with the graphic marks of a pencil. Here the line is not just history and narrative, but also value. Added value.
Eugenio Viola: I'd like to come back to the pre-eminence of drawing, a medium that you've reminded me is always present in your work. A medium ruthlessly subjected to the most diverse uses and shown in its installational form, as in the examples I've mentioned, or in the form of video animation. I have the impression that you use drawing in the same way as the old Renaissance masters: as a means for learning, poised between the search for a "graphic" representation of the world and the dsire to show it as a "scientific" investigation, in an organised form.
Andrea Mastrovito:To draw is to know, and the word "design" comes, after all, from the Latin designare, which also gives us "designate", by which we state that we know things, and indeed we determine them and give them existence. In my case, as was also true for Renaissance artists, designing and drawing creates a symbolic form of reality through the use of an expanded perspective which, in its guidelines, includes not only the three dimensions but also the time of creation and of viewing. From video animations to installations, I tend to envelop, or rather involve the viewer both physically and emotionally. Real life is incorporated into the guidelines of the work, and drawing is the unit of measure for interpreting it – the point of contact between reality and artifice. At the same time, I attempt to take up the lesson of the sixties and seventies, years when the blank sheet of paper was unseated by spaces that were more open. They were decidedly open to physical experience, with drawing in the form of incisions, excavations and impressions. I want to bring drawing back to an experience of re-imagination and a re-representation of reality through the very action of drawing. Kickstarting!, the performance of May 2014, in which I made a 300 square-metre frieze by kicking balls with about a hundred children, goes precisely in this direction.
Eugenio Viola: Basically, this exhibition takes us on a journey into a utopia, that of Hendrik Christian Andersen, the eccentric dreamer and Danish sculptor who became a naturalised U.S. citizen and who chose Rome as his adopted home. It is no coincidence that all the works that can be admired in his unusual museum-home are part of a utopian project to create a great "world city", which was to be the international headquarters of a perpetual, multidisciplinary workshop of ideas. This hypothetical city was later organised in a volume (A World Center of Communication, 1913), written together with the French architect Ernest Hébrard, which reformulated classic utopian treatises from a futuristic angle. Andersen was inspired by the positivist conviction that only art can bring peace and harmony to the world...
Andrea Mastrovito:Andersen was a dreamer: I don't think art can bring peace and harmony to the world. On the contrary, I'm convinced that art is there to divide, to create thoughts – different thoughts – and thus clashes. Not in a physical sense, of course. I'm talking about inevitable conflicts between opposites: "energy derives from both the plus and negative" sang James Hetfield in Eye of the Beholder (1988), and indeed it is only through alternating cycles of creation and destruction that we can think of progress. Utopia is by its very nature unattainable – it's something that touches on the sphere of hope, not of belief. Those who live hoping come to a sorry end, as we know. After all, utopia is the bourgeoisification of revolution. Yes, possibly this is what I feel most at heart, what this exhibition is all about: the idea of a revolution, a revolt against the absurd, in a profound, human sense, not political. Something impossible in which we can believe, not hope.
Eugenio Viola: The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century put paid to any drive towards a utopia. In any case, it's now up to artists to recapture its creative dimension through their own existential experience. The drive towards a utopian ideal is now no more than a way of working, the only one with creative legitimacy in Western civilisation, which is increasingly characterised by its partiality for a merely mechanical functioning of existence.
Andrea Mastrovito:In terms of creativity, drawing is clearly at the heart of everything that comes from man – from art to cooking, through to engineering and medicine. That's why I believe we need to start out again from the original basis of the drawn idea, in order to rebuild from the rubble. This is precisely what The Age of Extremes is about: the rubble and landslides that characterise the eighties and nineties, from Chernobyl to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. After all, those were the years when we grew up, and when the ideologies crumbled. It's true, though, that my point of view is somewhere between dream and reality but, as I was saying earlier, I don't feel I'm either a dreamer or a utopian. More someone with a pencil in his hand and a world to recreate, not to reinvent.
Eugenio Viola: This is why I find it interesting to see how you add the dystopian contrast of the present to the utopian momentum of the original model, with all its classic grandiloquence. By doing so on the first floor of the museum, you replicate the classic statuary in the gallery below. You offer it, as you were saying, in its downgraded, cheap garden-sculpture version, on which you draw a family portrait of the Andersens, creating a sort of alienating memento mori.
Andrea Mastrovito:Precisely! It may be my rather fatalist, Vico-style nature that makes me think that what goes around comes around, but I could not fail to see in Andersen's statues, which were destined for the ideal World Center of Communication, the grandiloquent rhetoric that characterised all the regimes of the twentieth century. After all, even the concept of an "ideal city" is more one of totalitarianism than of individual freedom. I could only create a form of circular interaction between high and low – which is a characteristic of my work – and rotate the point of observation through a hundred and eighty degrees. From Utopia to Dystopia, as in Huxley's Brave New World, in which, on the last page, the Savage swings, hung from the neck like present-day statues of twentieth-century dictators, even though he represents the exact opposite. Here too, the extremes coincide.
Eugenio Viola: Is this possibly why some of these statues have been smashed to pieces? From this point of view, they might be interpreted as a bitter allegory of broken dreams, to which the title of the exhibition refers. By no coincidence, it's borrowed from the phrase carved onto the Andersen family tomb in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome near the Pyramid of Cestius: Here The Dreamers Sleep.
Andrea Mastrovito:The statues collapse one after the other, as in a sequence longshot in a film, before rising up to a bird's-eye view in order to show what remains of the dream – a vision of the ideal city in shatters – in the main hall. The end credits scroll by and there could only be that phrase: "Here the dreamers sleep". Who knows if there'll be a sequel and if they'll really wake up one day. At that point we'll have a zombie movie.
Eugenio Viola: An excerpt from Marguerite Yourcenar's That Mighty Sculptor, Time comes to mind: "Everything flows. The soul that watches, motionless, as the joys and sadness and deaths of which life is made pass by, receiving the 'great lesson of things that pass'", says the writer. It is in a sense a metaphor for life and its solutions that I believe you are showing through the metaphor of the shattered statues.
Andrea Mastrovito:Yes, that's absolutely right, Eugenio. I remember reading a couple of books by Yourcenar when I was young. Alexis and Le coup de grâce. I remember some moments of the latter very well: one was about the lead shot from a rifle which, during an execution, made holes the size of fists, while another was about destiny and how it is a "master, especially in breaking the threads". Yes, what struck me most about this family was how they tried to resist their destiny and the impossibility of making dreams come true – or even lives (Andreas died a few days after marrying Olivia, Hendrik never openly accepted his homosexuality), and they never swayed, even when faced with hard facts. And those who don't bend end up breaking: this is undoubtedly the most fascinating aspect of all the Andersen family's history. It was this that gave me the idea of making the statues fall, one by one, in a constant interaction between a private, family utopia, and the great utopias and revolutions of history.
Eugenio Viola: The interweaving of the micro-stories of the lives of Christian, Andreas, Helene and Olivia Andersen and the historical times they lived through: their relationship with Fascism, for example…
Andrea Mastrovito:I could answer that with another quotation from Le coup de grâce: "We have the habit of talking as though tragedies took place in a void, but what influences them is the background." The Andersen's ties with Fascism are certainly less dramatic than one might think. Quite simply, Mussolini was the Duce at the time and you had to get his authorisation for everything: a concentration of power that, unfortunately, still remains to some extent in Italy – and we can see the consequences. The World Center of Communication project was submitted to the Duce, who initially appeared to grant the Fiumicino area. But then we all know how it ended. Their relationship with Fascism, and the collapse of their ideal city, accompanied the collapse of Fascist ideals. This was undoubtedly the first input for creating this exhibition, in order to initiate a discourse that would start from the individual and end up in the universal, and that could also be both contemporary and relevant. It would range from the sling held by Michelangelo's David to that of the Palestinian fighter, from Jacques-Louis David's tribute to Marat to the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statues in Iraq or to the more recent pulling down of those of Lenin in Ukraine, or of Franco in Spain, via the heads of Thomas More and Tommaso Campanella. All of this while attempting to maintain a surreal, almost metaphysical equilibrium in the images – especially in the collages I made for this exhibition – to show how the field of investigation is always that of people, not politics.