Every epoch has its own way of understanding and looking at things. Take the concept of art for example. If you visit New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, precisely, there you can see all these wonderful objects from Egypt and Rome or paintings from the Romanesque period and admire their artistic and spiritual qualities; but at the time they were made, they were not thought of as art as we understand it today; they really had a function. As Gaetano Pesce says, in times when few people could read, the function of a painting was communication; it was a practical thing.

In the Middle Ages, the arts were considered as crafts, divided into guilds, dependent on a tradition. You were a better or worse craftsman, but the figure of the modern artist, as an independent creator with a personal vision, dates only from the Renaissance – the proto-modern era. It is in this period of creative emancipation in which the idea of the homo universalis appears; what we call today the Renaissance man or woman – someone like Leonardo, who was an architect, a painter, a sculptor, an inventor, an astronomer, etc. The artists became more autonomous, putting their creative powers at the service of their curiosity, and of course, that of their patron. But still then, that personal vision was constrained within some rules inside the tradition and the patron’s will. It’s probably Goya, the first real modern artist, who paints his personal view of the world and humanity in his Black Paintings – away from the palace and for himself, thus having to hide them. Maybe that is the moment when art loses its functional element, since function implies a user or client.

Gaetano Pesce reading DAMNº Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
Mechanisation and the steam engine were the onset of the industrial revolution, capitalist economies and modernity, which for some reason, brought along value on specialisation (again) – Pesce says it’s an American thing and he may be right. Even though the modern movement started in Europe, it is really a product of industrialisation, born in the UK but blossoming rapidly in America (Taylorism, Fordism), far away from the rural European monarchies. That specialisation spread into the arts as well, and even though someone like Le Corbusier wrote, painted, did photography and sculpture, tapestries, furniture, ceramics, and so on, still today, it is only as an architect that he is mostly referred to – the other endeavours looked upon as minor or secondary. But it is that body of work as a whole that makes the very core of who he is, and in turn makes his contribution unique and so valuable.

With that multidisciplinary mind-set, when I finally met Pesce (La Spezia, 1939) the other day at his studio in New York’s Soho, I finally saw his work so clear. It can be elusive. But what I understood is that he is not what you call the typical designer, in my opinion, he is more of an artist – one that has brought back function into contemporary art and in doing so he has pushed forward the design world. For him, comfort can’t be the only function of design, so he borrows from art, from theatre, adding politics, social issues, philosophy, religion, in order to make people think and react. This is why he is considered one of the most relevant designers of the second half of the 20th century and the start of 21Ist – that and a relentless investigation on material innovation.

Gaetano Pesce's Studio, New York Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
DAMN°: So talk to me about the new show!

Gaetano Pesce: It was difficult because the space itself is huge and really powerful. The fresco around the walls dates from the Romanesque period, 1800 years ago. What I did is to have a mix of works – from architecture to objects to drawings – without any corridor specialisation. They are multidisciplinary.

Il Tempo Multidisciplinare. Photo by Matteo Piazza
Il Tempo Multidisciplinare. Photo by Matteo Piazza
The show is realised on two levels, one visible and one invisible. In the visible level everything is exposed on colourful bases that vary in height. Then when people circle them they find a door; and so they open it. Inside it’s dark, but there is a flashlight attached to the door they can use to discover what is inside. And there is an explanation with it. Inside there are small models or tests or experiences with materials. It’s the story of how I work.

DAMN°: And are the objects inside of the bases related to the things that are on top of the bases?

GP: No! Because the show is like a city; the city has no order. You have a big building and then a small one, and then a red one, and a blue one. Not only that. If you don’t know that it is my exhibition and you go there by chance, you see things that you don’t quite understand as a whole – as if a number of different people had done it – because my work is incoherent.

Il Tempo Multidisciplinare. Photo by Matteo Piazza

DAMN°: I would like you to delve a bit more into the concept of multidisciplinarity.

GP: You understood already. The specialisation is a castration. It happens in your life that you have curiosity, and curiosity can go everywhere, and if you are curious about space you do a project of architecture, if you are curious about music you make a piece of music. The idea that you must respect and stay in a certain area is very American. And I wonder if this is a need for security, because you want to keep knowledge only here, and then someone else is there, and there is never a transversal connection, which is very bad.

The most important characteristic of our time is communication. We have so much information that it allows us to move between one media and another. I was always like that – also because I am bored easily, and so when I do something for a week or a month, then I need to change. It’s also a way to stay fresh. Interrupting routine is a way to have new ideas. In my life I’ve been involved with music, with the theatre, I was involved in other things. I believe they give me a capacity to have a work that is not superficial.

DAMN°: How would you trace the arc of your career? What have you learned?

GP: What I have learned is what we are discussing. We do everything because we are in life. Life is the master of the theatre and time is the guy who changes our mind, totally and constantly. And so I follow that. When I was 18 I made an exhibition of drawings and that was the first time I said: ‘I have the right to be incoherent’ because time impeached me to be coherent. And to be coherent – if you don’t have a static mind then you just observe reality, observe what is happening around you and your mind changes; almost everyday. I like people who are not static. Now we are going to talk about something else. Today I believe men are so static; women are not because of their job, their way of being asks them to change during the day. And that is very close to the nature of our time, which is liquid and women represent that very well. So I believe for that reason – and maybe I am wrong – but I believe the future is feminine, meaning not only women, but people who have an elastic mind.

DAMN°: Absolutely. Also men who are connected more to their feminine side.

GP: There are men who have that capacity.

DAMN°: Of course!

Anna (Pesce’s studio manager): So much more interesting…

DAMN°: You were raised by women and in your work that feminine universe is so pervasive; tell me a bit about your childhood.

GP: Me, I love women. You want to talk personally? Ok, look, first of all, I don’t know if it was a present I had, but in my life I didn’t have a father because he died when I was very young. So I grew up with women, mother, sister, relatives…and then something very important happened. One day, I had a problem with a teacher in school. A man who wanted to give me a slap, but I was faster than him and I gave it to him and they threw me out of public school. The only school that accepted me was a school for women. So I was the only man in the school (laughs).

DAMN°: And how do you think it translates into your work?

GP: For example, I am not happy with the situation of women who are imprisoned, enslaved like in Islam. To cover a woman with a black cloth is horrible. The chador is a stupid identity; it’s only imposed because men are in power and so that person is a slave. So, at a certain moment in my life, I was interested in making work to provoke and question that.

D: As in your iconic La Mamma chair?

GP: Yes, next year it will be its 50th anniversary and it is talking about the woman as a prisoner as well.

D: Because of the ball and chain, no?

GP: Yeah. In Padua there is this huge woman – three times this one, so it’s very big – and there are three columns around her, and at the top of each column there is a lion, a wolf and a crocodile, all attacking her; and they represent the men. And why do men impeach freedom to women? Because they are scared to lose their power, the control. So to treat this issue with design is very important, because design is an expression of art and art is a commentary on what happens in the real world.

Up5&6 chair or La Mamma chair,  1969

DAMN°: I read a quote of yours that said: ‘democracy is not only the assurance of equality but the protection of differences.’

GP: Yes, democracy has nothing to do with equality, because equality doesn’t exist, simply. A lot of political movements were talking about equality, but they did that because they know it’s not possible to realise equality for everybody, because we are different by definition. And so democracy is a warranty of difference. If I am different from you I have the same rights as you; and this is democracy. Me, I have arrived at a conclusion and it’s that the left and right don’t exist anymore. What exists is someone who is good and someone that is not good for people. You see in the picture a piece that is a mattress? (Pesce points to images of the exhibition in my hand)

DAMN°: Yes.

GP: That is a portrait of a sleeping man, because I think that a lot of men are sleeping. Men are tired. When I say ‘the mattress’ is representing the men that are tired, it is because they did a lot in the past and they think that today doing something is repeating what they already did. But I believe that is not true, we can always do something better. But that something better is being done by someone closer to the meaning of our time, which is a kind of liquidity. We are not rigid; we are not always the same. Today I think something and tomorrow I’ll think different. And this is the human being. Otherwise we are animals. I don’t think the dog tomorrow is going to think in a different way. So we are different from the dog – but there’s a lot of stupid people around very comfortable in their stupidity.

DAMN°: But as a whole, I think we are continuously evolving the world’s consciousness.

GP: Absolutely. We must! It’s our duty to pursue an idea of freedom and we will never be free. But this is what we have to do (laughs). I don’t know a person that is free.

DAMN°: How about the role of emotions in your work?

GP: It’s the minimum you can do! Look, emotion is something very important. When I arrive at a place if nothing gives me emotion that place doesn’t stay in my mind. But if you go to a place or are with people and feel some emotion, the emotion touches you through the stomach, and then slowly it goes up to the brain and that stays. So emotion is the minimum we can do to provoke people to think. The diversity I am talking about, the non-coherence in the show in Padua, is because people have to provoke themselves to think. Why is that? If they think about it then they may go again and they’ll understand why.

DAMN°: And tell me about the scandal in Padua, with your bleeding Italy on the cross.

GP: There was a huge discussion. And I told them: ‘Look, the story is that what we have to understand that Jesus Christ was crucified, not because of his faults but because he was a victim. So the Italy on the cross, if you think a moment, is the victim of whom? Politicians and unions – all those people who are very conservative.

L'Italia in croce, model

DAMN°: They wanted to take it down?

GP: Yes, but afterwards they apologised to me because they had misunderstood… (laughs).

DAMN°: I love it! Isn’t it wonderful that you can still steer so much controversy when you are so established?

GP: There was a huge polemic.

Anna: That’s what you wanted, that’s why you put it in front of City Hall!

GP: Yes, I was worried that they would burn it during the night… (laughs).

Il Tempo Multidisciplinare, Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, Italy, until 23 September, padovacultura.it

This article appeared in DAM69. Order your personal copy.
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