Irene Coppola in conversation with Elisa Capellini
Irene Coppola was born in Palermo in 1991. An artist based in Palermo and Milan, she is part of the Room to Bloom platform. After completing her academic studies at NABA in Milan and the Willem De Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, she participated in national and international exhibitions and projects, including AndAndAnd for Documenta13 in Kassel, the Do Disturb festival at the Palais De Tokyo in Paris, Dolomiti Contemporanee in Pieve di Cadore, Flight Sketches at the Cercle Cité in Luxembourg, Hanging Garden at the Office Project Room in Milan, Badly Buried at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Guarene, and La Natura e la Preda at PAV in Turin. In 2019 he won the sixth edition of the Italian Council for the artistic residency project La Wayaka Current Tropic 08°N based in the indigenous community of Guna Yala (Panama). In 2020, he is among the artists selected for Cantica21. Italian Contemporary Art Everywhere, a public commissioning project promoted by the General Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture. The work produced was hosted at the Italian Institute of Culture in Dakar, where the artist realised a new residency project, part of the collateral events of the Dak’Art 2022 Biennial.
In 2021, the artist was invited to Palermo for the Room To Bloom Pavilion programme, curated by Marcela Caldas, in which 35 female artists from all over the world collaborated to open new spaces for experimentation and discussion around the role of art in society, through a transfeminist and decolonial perspective. Dear Living Bodies… is the workshop that Irene Coppola is holding on this occasion at the Botanical Garden in Palermo, where she relates the theme of monumentality with her archive of plant fragments. Starting from the creation of ephemeral casts of monuments, in 2016 the artist began a still open reflection on the relationship between body and collective memory.
Elisa Capellini: Following the numerous events related to the demolition of statuary in the public space of our cities today, three prevailing attitudes have emerged: there are those who push for the preservation of the heritage as it is, where it is, as a symbol and testimony – both aesthetic and cultural-historical – of history. On the opposite side are those who want to destroy the statues, precisely as a symbol and testimony of that very history, by which they do not feel represented in any way. In the middle are those who see the museification of the commemorative monument as a fair compromise. However, all three positions have their criticisms: in the first case, there is a tendency to flatten all the discourses that have emerged around the claim of public space. In the second case, on the other hand, I wonder whether there is not a risk of merely ‘eliminating from view’ an enemy that would nevertheless continue to exist, in other forms, in our society. In the third case, I ask myself two questions. The first is a practical one: in which space in the museum should the objects in question be placed? The spatial limitations of the museum would lead to a selection of the objects to be exhibited, so what would be the criteria for such a selection? The second doubt, on the other hand, concerns the sometimes problematic role of cultural institutions in a global society and the tools they possess for re-narrating celebratory monuments.
Irene Coppola: First of all, it is important to clarify the type of monuments we are talking about. You used the term patrimony (from the Latin patrimonium, derived from pater, ‘father’, and munus, ‘task’; first with the meaning of ‘father’s task’, then with that of ‘things belonging to the father’) whose etymology is not by chance an obvious reference to the patriarchal society we have inherited, which today more generically indicates all the goods owned by a legal entity or the state. Returning to monuments, even this term remains rather generic, referring today to all constructions of artistic-historical ‘value’ until we associate with it the word celebratory, of which sculptures in the image and likeness of emperors, victorious generals, and rulers are also part.
You see, the point is that these are taken for granted in public spaces as immobile giants on pedestals that amplify the distance and sense of detachment from our human condition. There is no question of who, how and why is represented there, but there is concern for the safety of a narrative cast from above, with a specific symbolism of power, which is meant to be the only irreplaceable one, set apart by history. Celebratory monuments, then, do nothing but anaesthetise characters and historical facts that are laden with violence, legitimising them as ‘natural’ or ‘normal’, and this is worrying.
My action – fragile, temporary, playful – on celebratory monuments began in 2016 by becoming aware of all this. It is a process that has personally allowed me to approach that space of critical reflection that originates precisely from the legitimate movements of social contestation that are increasingly widespread in the world. Returning to your question then, I do not think it is necessary to define it within a debate about whether or not to erase the presence of celebratory monuments or even to musealise them (yet another fetishistic and sterile operation because it is purely conservative in nature). My research on monuments is situated within a global movement of artistic practices and actions that intend to subvert the presumed and arrogant truth of these bronze men, to make memory a concrete practice of life.
In my artistic practice, more generally, the sculptural attitude allows me to give a new skin to the subjects I observe and to retain a residual form of nature, of a territory, of a body where the display of the work is intended to act as a relational device, it is an invitation to position oneself.
EC: Within the contemporary debate on monumentality, the role of public space assumes an important position. Indeed, the public space that hosts the monument is shaped by its constant presence. In your opinion, actions such as the alteration and physical removal of the object-monument, what kind of processes would they trigger? Would its removal – or alteration – be able to change the connotations of the public space that has hosted it all this time to make it a more horizontal and inclusive space?
IC: This contemporary obsession with preserving without transforming anything is a great limitation. I come from a city where, throughout history, many peoples and many cultures have followed one another, which have not completely overwritten the memory of the territory but have been able to reinvent and enrich local customs, forms and traditions until the 1970s, those of the Mafia building speculation of the Palermo Sack.
There are also many ways of celebrating, or rather, acting out memory, which pass through collective rituals or even immaterial forms. I am thinking of the indigenous Guna community in the San Blas archipelago of Panama, where dance, song and mythology still play a fundamental role in the transmission of knowledge and in orienting social and political relations, maintaining a relationship with the sacred that capitalist society has transformed into a mere commodity.
Perhaps starting to ask why celebratory statues are placed – as well as why they are removed – in public space can help us find the distance we need to disengage ourselves from certain cluttering presences and imagine new forms of ‘memorials’ that are closer to us, more corresponding. Many proposals come from militant art. I mention, among many, that of Ivan Argote (a Colombian artist I recently discovered with whom I feel many affinities on these issues), who has been working on « living monuments » for 15 years, actively participating in the decolonial debate in the territories of Latin America.
EC: The weakness of the celebratory monument lies precisely in its immutability. « Even statues die » because the world changes but they remain there, eternal, static, imposing: paradoxically, it is precisely their claim to eternity that causes their death. In the text Dear Living Bodies…, in which you retrace part of your artistic research linked to the renarration of celebratory statuary, you write that « the lion is wounded ». Your intention is curious: you do not seek its death, you want to wound it. From this point of view, your approach is very distant from those heroic – or rather, anti-heroic – and destructive actions that are the focus of debate today. Yours seems almost like a creative collaboration with the monument. In a context in which monumentality can no longer be thought of as a definitive form and in which we need up-to-date tools that allow the monument to be ‘human’ and ‘nomadic’, not only physically but also conceptually, through the practice of the cast, you offer the work the opportunity to re-brand itself and to be mobile, therefore fragile and therefore human. Again in this text, you write that the dismembered body, ‘transient and twisted, admonishes another story’, which story are you referring to?
IC: As I was saying, the real point of the question is not whether to keep or tear down a monument but what the social movements that cause it to fall into crisis mean. It is precisely these processes that build collective memory, which is much more complex and layered than what is perpetuated by the single celebratory object in itself. In my case, I would not speak of creative collaboration with the monument because it would imply a two-way dialogue or compromise that I do not seek. I see it as a form of desecration of its value system.
Activating forms of counter-narrative of the celebratory monument means rearticulating and understanding the history of those who still today suffer the consequences of dastardly power struggles, immortalised in a patriotic-military key, but it also means laying the foundations for imagining « How do we want to live together? » to build new forms of interspecies cooperation outside the anthropocentric logic. It means, potentially, cultivating a critical gaze on our time to concretely choose which instruments to put in place in the communities in which we live, to assert the desires of a political We that can invent and act a new public space.
EC: In the book Giù i monumenti. Una questione aperta, Lisa Parola writes that the moment before the actual fall, the so-called pre-revolutionary moment in which the statue falters, has a powerful visual and performative bearing. For her, this is the exact moment in which the fragility of the statue emerges and is also the exact point at which the change of perspective takes place. In your case, how is the perspective reversed? Is there a precise moment when you feel this happening?
IC: It is at the moment when other forms of co-existence are imagined that an inversion of perspective begins, capable of dismantling the dominant normative space. Art in its highest form is provocative, subversive, revolutionary, and is a powerful imaginative tool if it remains free.
However, I find that it is not always easy to orient and situate oneself because, in any (social-political-cultural) sphere, we are surrounded not only by violent language but also by respectability, populism and politically correct operations that risk flattening any legitimate dissent or authentic vision to maintain a privileged social status.
As Edouard Louis and Ken Loach state in Dialogue on Art and Politics, there is an establishment even in the world of culture that must always be questioned.
EC: Artists such as Hoheisel – but I am also thinking of the practice of wrapping monuments carried out by Christo and Jeanne-Claude – have created counter-monumentalisation strategies. As an artist, if you were to be commissioned today to create a monument – or a ‘counter-monument’ – what elements would you work on? What principles would you consider essential to include in your work? Also, do you think it is appropriate to decree the end of the monument, or can it become meaningful again in different forms and ways?
IC: Well, how can we fail to recall the extraordinary operation of Hoheisel, who in 1995, on the occasion of a public commission in Germany for a « memorial to the Jews killed in Europe », created a sunken fountain rather than erecting a vertical mausoleum! The poetic power of this work is tangible without imposing itself on any subjectivity, and as the artist himself says: « The sunken fountain is not the memorial at all. It is only history turned into a pedestal, an invitation to passersby who stand upon it to search for the memorial in their heads. For only there is the memorial to be found’ (H. Hoheisel).
So I ask myself, can a monument be alive, mutant, collective? Why not imagine new forms of contemporary narrative that consider current socio-political contexts?
The counter-monument I would realise would be precisely that action I recount in the open letter Dear Living Bodies…that I publicly launched online on roots&routes as a proposal: to make the collective act of limestoneing and wearing the empty skins of giant celebratory bodies an organic, fluid and playful sculptural form of re-appropriation and re-narration of history. I imagine that this first gesture, which I have experimented with ephemeral materials, could become a true performance in which memory is practised, literally worn and interpreted by living bodies and is not relegated to a nostalgic and rhetorical reference to the past that has ended. The empty skins would thus become stage costumes laid or placed on individual pedestals at human height, imperfect, decadent, oversized, sculptural forms that would transform the body into a sort of organic, clumsy, monstrous anti-hero.
EC: Conservation, restoration and valorisation are never neutral actions because one narrative is necessarily emphasised to the detriment of the others. In today’s context, that of art going global, what role should the cultural institution take in this debate? And what is the meaning of cultural heritage for you today?
IC : If we speak of institutions not as an abstract and generic entity (the cultural institution) but as an organic system of people who have not only a representative role, but also a decision-making role with their political orientation concerning sites that host works of art, we understand that there are different ways of acting within institutions and in particular in the cultural sphere at a global level, which can be aimed at openness, welcome, exchange, critical debate or at normalisation, control, repression, identity nationalism.
I dream of representatives capable of questioning the institutions themselves, creating spaces for public debate and urban laboratories, supporting long-term research practices, and supporting the work of artists without any labels of race, gender, identity, religion, or social background. Representatives working for an inclusive and plural cultural heritage rather than an exclusive and elitist one, a common good that is an increasingly accessible place of work and thought.
The open letter referred to in this interview can be viewed at this link: https://www.roots-routes.org/cari-corpi-vivi-di-irene-coppola/.