by Angelandreina Rorro
Much does he gain who, when he loses, learns.
You can’t win anything unless you take losing into account as well.
Emilio Isgrò is one of those artists who you can understand right away, but you discover little by little.
He captures your gaze with a simple synthesis after having elaborated complex ideas.
He puts himself at your level, but you have a lot to learn from him.
He’s someone who never stops, because success does not eliminate doubt.
He can speak about anything, because he has a gift for irony. And like all true artists, he writes, paints, and says what you believe too, but wouldn’t know how to say the way he does.
In other words, you feel he is close to you and extremely topical.
When I received the invitation for the opening of the exhibition La Costituzione cancellata (The Constitution Erased) in November 2010 (Boxart, Verona) it was like getting punched where I was already feeling pain.
The subtitle was: Rappresentazione di un crimine (Representation of a crime), and the sentence printed on the back of the card read: "this show is an artist’s cry of pain for an Italy that is falling apart."
I was already familiar with his work, and I wrote to him right away to share his pain.
Perhaps that’s where this exhibition starts from.
To describe the event and everything leading up to it I am strongly tempted to interview Isgrò, because no one better than the artist can speak about and explain his work, which he knows how to do both as a writer and a poet. However, in this case, fully aware of the meaning that together we chose to give Modello Italia (Model Italy), I declare that "I am Angelandreina Rorro," and I take full responsibility in my role as curator.
This event starts from 2008, the year of the retrospective at the Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato, curated by Marco Bazzini and Achille Bonito Oliva, for which the artist made a large canvas entitled Dichiaro di essere Emilio Isgrò (I Declare I Am Emilio Isgrò). A monumental blank page where the only words that are not erased are those with which the mature artist takes responsibility, and after 35 years “settles his debt to the public” to whom he had declared in 1971 that he was not Emilio Isgrò. Since then a series of complex works—although we refer to them as installations for the sake of simplicity, they are actually poetic groups made up of various independent elements—have followed one another in a crescendo that has made them and makes them theatrical mise-en-scènes, but also the artist’s commentary on contemporary reality. My essay will focus on these works.
We can speak of a theatrical installation in the case of the Mantra siciliano per Madonne toscane (Sicilian Mantra for Tuscan Madonnas), the work that was chosen to complete the retrospective in Prato (2008) and made up of the Madonna delle formiche (Madonna of the Ants). Along with the Trittico della Magna Grecia, the Giara (Magna Graecia Triptych, The Jar) and the Ave Maria, “it was meant to provide a sense of seamless movement between the Hellenistic civilization and Christianity, situations that are almost the norm not just in Sicily, but in Southern Italy in general. And this—Isgrò explains—actually creates a true and proper 'infinite present' which poses many questions on the meaning of society as medialized by the Web, where neither the past nor the future exist any longer, in the name of an ‘infinite present’ (just that) which grinds down everything and is the opposite of everything, "destroying everything and deleting everything."
The voice of the artist, who recites a litany in dialect, aims to underscore the state of staticness, invoking both the saints and the ants in a propitiatory rite, and the ants themselves, widely present in this work, are to be interpreted as “moving erasures” that besiege forms or linger there.
Fratelli d’Italia. Fratelli di Sicilia (Brothers of Italy Brothers of Sicily), consisting of five large silk screens on canvas, is the significant evolution of Fratelli d’Italia, a work designed by Isgrò for the exhibition sponsored by Credito Valtellinese at the Palazzo delle Stelline in Milan and then transferred to Acireale in 2009.
What was being erased this time was the Italian national anthem, an action replete with meaning of an ideological and civic nature. Among the few letters or words saved “Italia/Schiava” could still be read: perhaps alluding to a past that will not allow Italy to go back to being a leading player on the international scene as it once was.
Again, in his attempt to intervene in the reality, or at least in our consciences, Isgrò gave the elaboration and de-contextualization of the semantic structure the opposite meaning by altering what was written. This is shown by the fact that the artist handed out large ants to the public which they could place on the canvases (an action that was carried out for the opening of both of the exhibitions), transforming the work into an installation and a performance whose complete title was indeed L’invasione delle formiche ovvero fratelli d’Italia (The Ants Invasion, or Brothers of Italy). The artist expressed the attempt to repossess national identity at a time when said identity seemed to vacillate and in which the theme of Sicily returned significantly as a personal root and a call for the nation’s cultural unity, and not just that.
The artist’s native island is again the subject in Sbarco a Marsala (Landing at Marsala), expressed by describing a scene that perfectly envisions the result: “Four marbleized white wooden pianos polished with wax. Behind each piano, invisible to the eye, a white light neon tube: the instrument is as if suspended in the darkness, freed from its state of gravity. A minuscule, pale light illuminates the musical scores, criss-crossed by an army of ants, getting mixed up with the notes and the composer’s indications. The ants swarm out onto the open keyboards, along the sides, over the soundboard, the frame, filling the entire space.
The four scores are the piano adaptations of works by Bellini: Norma, I Puritani, La Sonnambula, Il Pirata. The very same pages that young Sicilian women from good families would play in 1860 to entertain their relatives and friends during social gatherings held in the evenings. However, here, the music rising up from the soundboard is not the clearly recognizable sound of the piano, but a wearying, moving Casta diva, reverberated by a music box in the moonlight. Looming over the scene forcefully, perhaps menacingly, or even in a liberating manner, is a white pedestal with a classical inscription that reads: ‘To Giuseppe Garibaldi the Sicilian people.’” But the Hero of Two Worlds has vanished under a mountain of ants: you can just make out his boot, and the four hooves of his horse... Nothing else. A promise that is still waiting to be kept. And in any case undecipherable, obscure.
Here, too, the artist has used ants, which form the words “Viva Garibaldi” on the walls. Accompanying the installation is Garibaldi’s erased telegram “Disobbedisco” and the “Decreto del baciamano” (both of these objects were outside the exhibition room, serving as a prologue in full light). But there’s more: a performance in authentic theatrical style where Garibaldi-Isgrò holding an old umbrella covered with cockroaches and accompanied by a young female chorus enters the scene to recite his own “Disobbedisco” (I Disobey). This is “one of the many anonymous Garibaldis who travel around Italy freely...who suffers along with all those who suffer...” an anti-hero who claims his regret for not having realized “that he supported the gang of lost souls in this kingdom,” and who raves over his new awareness: "Never again will I say ‘I obey you’ to anyone asking me to get off my white horse. I disobey everything: even the swallows."
Var ve yok is instead a glance at the world, at a different culture, but one that is close to ours, a cycle of works conceived for the exhibition of the same name held in Istanbul (2010). The title, which means “there is there isn’t,” is also suggested by the type of watery erasure, quite different from previous erasures, which veils the text so that it can and cannot be read, thus discovering a felicitous correspondence between technique and poetics.
Isgrò has this to say about the show and the works he made for it: “I could say, paradoxically, that the idea for this retrospective in Istanbul, more than being one of my own, can be attributed to my grandmother Rosina’s father, Rosina being my mother’s mother. My great-grandfather, Francesco De Francesco, had two jobs: in some seasons he bred silkworms—an important industry in the province of Messina in those days—and the rest of the time he was an antique dealer (perhaps more of a junkman more than an actual dealer, seeing that he left his family in poverty), which forced him to travel from Sicily to other countries situated along the Mediterranean Riviera, in search of objects and bric-a-brac that he could then bring back to Italy. Stories were told in the family about how he went back and forth from Malta, a tiny British island-colony just a few miles from the Sicilian coast, and more than once he had travelled as far as the coast of Tunisia, then under Ottoman rule. So that he once came back to Sicily with a print of Istanbul and I, as a child, saw that print for years in my grandparents’ house, practically spoiled by the sun and the flies, until it vanished during one of our moves under the bombs of the Second World War.”
Among the works for Var ve yok, Isgrò seems to dwell upon the special “Storia rossa” Atatürk’s smile—the flag with the crescent moon and star—dedicated to the charismatic founder of the Turkish Republic: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whom the artist heard mention for the first time by his father when he was a boy in Sicily. “But the hardest work—again it is the artist who stresses the fact—is the erasure of the Ottoman texts collected here and there thanks to my friend Özgür and his wife Sabina. A cycle of works where I tried to recount, so to speak, the gradual evolution from Ottoman Turkey to contemporary Turkey, leaving on the page, next to the traditional letters, which I am unable to read like most Turks today, the words in Latin that surface here and there, as if to signify the constant, indelible proximity between Turkey and Europe. Atatürk had understood this perfectly, as he too was a sort of eraser, someone who suppressed the traditional alphabet which was already latent during the period of the Ottomans.
Even a person who is not familiar with the ancient script will be touched to read, in the Ottoman Code of Terror, the name of Marie Antoniette, the Queen of France who was beheaded, just as they will not be unmoved by the names of Goethe and Schiller, two of the greatest German poets ever, in the Ottoman Code of Longevity, or the name of the city of Brussels surfacing in a sea of ancient words in the Ottoman Code of Shadows. So much so that many of these works, which contain many different languages, bear the positive sign of the ant and the very industrious Mediterranean bee, which suck the pollen and honey of various cultures to then bring them back to their own countries, from people to people, cross-fertilizing new worlds and new cultures. [...] in the same way that Italy cannot be understood without Sicily—in Goethe’s words—and Europe cannot be understood without Istanbul and without Turkey.”
It was once again the awareness of his role and his belief in the importance and beauty of the text—“a work of art equal to the Canticle of Saint Francis or the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri”—that encouraged Isgrò to conceive the group of works that make up La costituzione cancellata accompanied by L’Italia che dorme (Sleeping Italy).
Of course, it was also the “melancholy delusion of an Italian who sees his own country crumble” that encouraged him to create the volumes of the constitution erased, with bees landing there to underscore some meaningful phrases formed by the words that are still visible: “Una indivisibile minorata (An indivisible impaired),”Può essere eletto Presidente della Repubblica ogni cittadino che abbia compiuto sette anni (Any citizen who is at least seven years of age can be elected President of the Republic),” “Si può rinunciare al Molise (We can do without Molise),” “non sono proibite le associazioni segrete (secret associations are not forbidden)”; while other bees swarm to form the boot in the Costituzione delle api (Constitution of the Bees).
On other canvases ants are used to create historical and popular slogans such as “Long Live de Gasperi,” “Long Live Stalin,” “Long Live the King,” but also “Long Live the Common Man,” “Long Live the People,” or even “art has the right to strike.” While the words of some of the supersized notebook pages are blacked out or dulled by a veil of white, such as Le Regioni addormentate (The Sleeping Regions) or L’emigrazione è libera (Emigration is Free), the images of the photographs of four Italian cities are veiled and associated with parts of the text from the Constitution that are completely or partially erased (akin to some of the pages of the “past people’s calendar”). Lastly, there is a blank page with a large letter “I” (I as in Italy) crawling with ants.
Among these suggestions, in the midst of these provocations, the sculptural representations of a turreted Italy overwhelmed by a noisy sleepiness and crawling with cockroaches, stigmatizes the stagnation of consciences and of the country’s finest energies. The same country that Isgrò intends to “oblige to reflect on the need to appeal to our finest energies” because “this country has always existed thanks to its own language, art and culture.”
The artist’s Cancellazione del debito pubblico (Erasure of the Public Debt), conceived of and realized for the Università Bocconi in Milan in 2011, is an educational work. The artist explains how he made it: “At first we had considered the idea of erasing a classic of economics written by a Neo-Liberal like Milton Friedman [...], then Marx’s Das Kapital came to mind, but in both cases the political connotation would have been strong. That’s when we decided to wipe out the public debt. It was a sort of enlightenment [...] which now resembles a huge economic newspaper that’s been completely reinvented [...] where you can see traces of titles, histograms, graphs, but mostly numbers. Actually, lots and lots of zeroes” that must be read as the exasperation of a debt that grows day after day, but also as a semantic zero to be associated with erasure, which “is like a zero in math, used to form on its own all numbers, all values.” And so as the zeroes continue to grow, the erasure sows the field where Isgrò has planted the seed of a different future for many young people. “This is the real reason why I feel proud to plant this seed in a university like Bocconi, among young people and for young people” because “the debt I am dealing with in my work is not just the economic debt, but the debt that each one of us has with ourselves and with others.”
In this brief analysis of Isgrò’s recent works we need to at least mention another educational piece, Cancello il Manifesto del Futurismo (I Erase the Futurist Manifesto) created in 2012 for the Mart in Rovereto, where it can still be viewed. The museum is also the place where the artist held his Corso di cancellazione generale per le scuole d’Italia (General Erasure Course for Italian Schools), which is part of the project. Isgrò suggests reappraising Futurism and the historical avant-gardes through the institution of erasure: “Nous voulons effacer. Nous voulons rêver” (We want to erase. We want to dream) are the words that Emilio allows to emerge on the front page of the “Figaro” of 1909. Isgrò believes that Marinetti today would no longer invoke war as the hygiene of the world, or the murder of Moon Light “vanished because of the toxic gases that pollute the atmosphere,” and that it is instead “possible to grow in a more human and peaceful way.”
And now we come to Model Italy (2012), a large canvas featuring a colour representation of the boot that has been totally erased, produced for the CSAC in Parma. In order to complete it and make the idea of total erasure even more explicit for the purposes of the show, Isgrò realized a series of works with erased Italian newspapers, each of which alludes, already in the title, to a more or less plausible model, a more or less allusive one: Modello del tasso di sconto, Modello evasivo, Modello delle ali tagliate, Modello del dubbio, Modello francescano, and so on. Here again the artist chose different news items (the economic crisis, the Pope’s election) and then erased everything, making certain words and figures hard to read, “certainly not in order to destroy them, but in order to use a symbolic gesture to erase the difficult situation we find ourselves in, and to begin to rebuild our future using art and culture to do so as well.” Isgro’s Modello Italia “is above all a metaphor for a globalized society that is perfectly reflected in Italy’s disorder. World disorder and Italian disorder, in other words, are perfectly equivalent. In this sense (and only in this sense, which we must consider to be highly positive), Italy can become an artistic and cultural workshop for new, pioneering civic and political experiences.”
To my mind, this message, which is sung in the artist’s works of the past five years and in this most recent one especially to all those who have known how to and wanted to listen, in different forms and ways, has always been intrinsic to Emilio Isgrò’s work. Indeed, what is the Seme d’arancia (Orange Seed, 1999) created for the square in Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto if not “a sign of what’s possible and necessary,” as the artist himself puts it? When his city chose to “entrust itself to art and culture in its attempt at a change in direction and freedom from urban decay” it turned to the artist, who created the orange pip, or seed. A tiny detail that all of us have held in our hands without thinking about its intrinsic strength. A detail that, when enlarged to the Nth degree breathes life into a non-monument, a symbol of Sicilian and Mediterranean economy and of the possibility of a people’s renaissance.
What does a work such as L’ora Italiana (The Italian Hour), made in 1985 to commemorate a Neo-Fascist act of terrorism at the Bologna train station, decry? “At the time, at the site of the explosion, the only thing left standing was the clock, which had stopped at the time of the tragedy. I show twenty clocks,” he explains, “set on evanescent images erased with a layer of white paint. Their ticking increases with the light, until a short circuit makes the space collapse into darkness.”A darkness of feeling that touched many of the viewers and still does so today. What does the erasure of the Enciclopedia Treccani (Treccani Encyclopedia erased, 1970) allude to, a true and proper monument to Italian culture made completely illegible by the India ink, which caused such a stir among conformists at the time? Perhaps the need to rethink the word itself as the basis for a codified notion; perhaps the twofold meaning that the volumes assume when they are no longer legible and become sculptural blocks.
What is Isgrò thinking about in his Trittico del Vecchio Continente (Old Continent Triptych, 1968) if not the drift that risks affecting the whole of civilization? The graphic images and the marks present on the three canvases lead us to imagine the old master sitting under a tree as he thinks about the world and his own transience. When we consider the fact that in 1968 the artist was still young this work becomes a metaphoric foreshadowing of future developments.
Lastly, what does the article, “Ideologia della sopravvivenza,” which Isgrò wrote for “Il Gazzettino di Venezia” when he was the cultural editor there in 1965, speak of if not a path to be embarked upon? All you can do is look inside yourself—wrote Isgrò—until you discover a sign, a leaf, a path...And follow that sign... even when... it would seem to be time lost.
Already in those days Emilio Isgrò, taking advantage of a text offered to him, wrote a “text that prevails over the original one, that actually erases it, forgetting it along the way. So that the further erasure in black of the same review consisted of the erasure of an erasure,” as he himself puts it. Yet that article which was at first written and then became a visual work, one of the first erasures, bore the seeds of what would become his path, his track. And he indeed ventured down that path, he followed that track. He listened and he expressed what he had inside, always and simply.
He made us think, become angry, he surprised us and he even made us laugh about our weaknesses. But by erasing something superfluous in order to regain the essential time after time, he taught us not to be afraid to choose. The seed of the erasure is doubt. It means calling into question one’s own uncertainties.
Isgrò’s idea that art can be “an instrument for discussion and growth” allowed us to work together on the construction of a rich exhibition route concerning the work of the past five years, and one that is extremely selective for the previous decades, without worrying about not being sufficiently represented.