An interview with American-Italian artist Arthur Duff, whose new exhibition ‘The Hungriest Eye. The Blossoming of Potential’ is on display at the Procuratie Vecchie in St. Mark’s Square. The show is situated in the Art Studio, an art space curated by Luca Massimo Barbero that engages with social issues, within the Home of The Human Safety Net.
The Art Studio features works by artists whose sensitivities and creativity blend with the values of The Human Safety Net and are created specifically for the Studio’s spaces. These works are closely related to the content and visitor experience in the ‘A World of Potential’ exhibition, which includes a large open space dedicated to art which captures social issues. The exhibition offers visitors an immersive experience for understanding and connecting with their potential.
We are meeting in the heart of Venice. It's a place you are not just familiar with, but you’ve actually been living for a long time in Italy, is that correct? Exactly how did you come to live in Italy and in Venice especially?
A.D.: Well, for Venice, it’s easy to answer that because I studied here. I went to the Academia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) here. For Italy that’s a little more difficult to answer: I am the son of a U.S. military service member. I mean, I’m a military brat. We travelled around the world, we have been to Korea, Japan, United States and Germany, where I was born. We also passed through Italy and my parents thought it would be a good idea to buy a little place in Venice and maybe retire here at one point…
So, Italy became sort of home. And even though I was still traveling and working abroad I decided to go to school in Venice. That kind of set down a structure, a base for me to broaden out my artistic career.
Then, for me there was this moment when I had the realization that I didn’t want to leave Italy. And I think it was in front of La Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca. I was like, I really don’t need to go anywhere…
There’s so much culture to be found here – I can travel around and stumble upon so many things, right? Any town, every town has something. Sort of the cultural depth, the possibility to explore layers, historical ones too.
Is it somewhere along these lines: gun violence in the US is probably making people feel insecure for children in schools, which is not so much of a problem in Italy?
A.D.: Absolutely. I think of the sedimentation of culture here, it’s truly sedimented. You dig anywhere and you’re going to find something, right? That is a rediscovery. I enjoy seeing this through my kids’ eyes, them walking through the streets, not even paying attention, not even looking at anything, but still absorbing that stratification, that sedimentation.
How culture deposits itself into you, onto you and through you, too.
You probably would not define yourself as a classic painter, right? Even though you teach painting here you found a different way of expression which might still derive from things you experienced in Italy and abroad…
A.D.: Yes, absolutely. Well, even though there’s very vast community of artists in Italy, the system itself isn’t as strong as in other countries. We’re in the periphery in many ways, right? But at the same time, there are lots and lots of very good artists, and there are very stimulating, great conversations and dialogues that are happening that have always been happening in Italy. So, one of the things that’s also kept me here is the fact that I’ve found a community that is always in transformation, always talking, always producing great work. And so, in particular, in the Northeast, over the past 20 years, there’s been a lot of artists that have done really great work…
I’m talking about artists like Arcangelo Sassolino, you know? Let’s just say that there are a lot of artists that have been heavily involved with what’s happening on a production level, just in terms of the access you have to suppliers, to materials, to ways of working materials.
It has allowed a lot of us to be here, stay here, work here, but work outside of the hot spots of the market. For me it’s been the same – if you want to get anything done here, you can get it done. It’s not that way everywhere…
Let's focus on the materials which are prominent in your work: the use of laser light, volcanic rocks, etc. Is this sort of a reaction or a development within the area?
A.D.: What is particular here is that I am looking for certain processes that you can’t find in other places. For example, there’s a series of pieces that I did and have been doing with volcanic rock where I bake them through a kind of ceramic process of glazing the rock, but using kilns that are from the 15th century. In particular, I’m talking about lustre, the technique of magically and alchemically creating gold out of thin air. And in Quarto d’Altino I found one person who has maintained a 15th century kiln. And, you know, baking these rocks with the process of lustre, it’s fascinating what comes out of experiments like that.
But what is interesting to me is stumbling upon things that happen in these almost forgotten techniques and processes. I mean, look at Murano here with glass, right? And specially in terms of the industrial archaeology, there are a lot of options of working with materials and processes that don’t happen anywhere else. But they have a genesis that stems from, for example, the late 1800s, early 1900s and the industrialization of certain parts of northwestern and northeastern Italy.
You know, one can be sitting at a table with, you know, 20 people, and if you ask these people what they do, you’ll find the craziest and most absurd things. But not in terms of large industry, rather in terms of very limited and specific techniques. I give you an example. We were at a dinner, and there was this kind of a grumpy old curmudgeon eating, who only spoke dialect. I said, well, what do you do? And he said, oh, I make doors. I was like, oh, interesting… (I was thinking normal kind of doors). I said, well, what kind of doors? And he said, I make doors for the “shuttle”. I was wondering “the shuttle”- which one? He added, yeah, NASA! – So, this was an old guy – the only one, by the way – who had perfected a technique of welding for certain compositions and alloys. Didn’t even speak proper Italian. But of course, that expertise comes from somewhere – it was passed down in the family, and maybe it’s going to be passed on, and maybe not. So these are some of the things that have kept me here: the relational experience of working with people that have sort of an artisanal expertise in something. I really love that.
For a long time, you had a studio in Marghera in an industrial area, which was a particular place, I guess. How did that place impact your work and your artistic practice?
A.D.: Well, I’ve had several studios over the years. I tend to move studio a lot depending on necessity. I think that sometimes a studio can be in your brain, sometimes the studio needs to be “hands on and get dirty”. So I’ve been quite flexible with my studio. At the moment I have a very large studio, do thousands of different things there and get real dirty or do clean things, it’s comfortable and all that. But there were times when it was also about the surroundings, not just my studio per se. For a period of time I had a studio in Marghera, which is sort of an ex-industrial area with a problematic past: pollution, chemicals, labour protests and stuff, so all in all, a heavy history. But there was a moment when it seemed like it was going to transform and shift. Artists and architects created a moment when, let*s say that we were didn’t know it then, but we were trying to gentrify Marghera,
It didn’t work -…it didn’t work, fortunately. But it was an interesting period and there was a lot going on. There was this feeling that there was going to be a lot happening. But I think because of our existence in this sort of strange periphery of the art world (I say this with a certain amount of pride, it’s not a negative statement) those things didn’t actually gather steam in the way they may have in other places.
For example, how it has been in Milan or in certain parts of Rome, but obviously how it did work out in Brooklyn or Detroit. But the dynamic in Venice is so specific. And I think that the art, contemporary art in Italy, doesn’t work in the same way in terms of mass tendencies. Probably because much of the market isn’t as powerful or strong, the system isn’t as coordinated as in other countries – which is interesting, because it also allows for a certain amount of freedom that others don’t have.
A.D.: Because you really aren’t connected in the same way as, for example, in France or the UK. You don’t “grow” things in the same way. There aren’t the exact same expectations proliferating with a certain market dynamic. Many of the artists that you find here are very free in terms of the risks they’re willing to take to make their art, and that also means that their expectations of what is “successful” are different as well.
Some of my friends who are successful artists in and around New York, if you walk into their studios, you will find 10, 12, 15 studio assistants producing, organising, making – which is fantastic, but also very hard to maintain and an extremely, extremely privileged situation… But they’ve worked extremely hard to create that, and they absolutely deserve it. What follows is that their expectations are very different as opposed to many in the situations here, where there aren’t that many artists working with a high number of studio assistants. So, that allows them to be decoupled from certain expectations of galleries, museums, collectors, etc. The factory system is not taking root here. But there are a lot of amazing artists, and so I find it really compelling here as an artist.
The community, it seems more fragmented. You create some sort of reaction or interaction, but you can’t use the same language of the market that you can in other places.
We are currently in Venice, in St. Mark’s Square. Tell us a little bit more about this new venue, and how it came about that you’ll soon be opening an exhibition here.
A.D.: Sure. Well, this is The Home of The Human Safety Net which has appointed Luca Massimo Barbero as the curator of the Art Studio for the next two years. And it was Luca Massimo that asked me to think of something for the Procurateie Vecchie. We’re right now in the Procuratie, which is one of these spaces that even for someone who has lived in Venice, walked through St. Mark’s a thousand times, has a certain allure. It is one of those mysterious places that you are aware of and register, but haven’t had the privilege to access. The space belongs to the insurance company Generali. They just recently restored it with the help of world-famous architect David Chipperfield and now it is open to the public. But like I say, it’s one of those spaces that, for me at least, you know, when you’re in St. Mark’s Square and you look around, you wonder: wow, who’s inside that building? What’s going on in there? You know the Correr Museum, the Basilica, the Campanile, but this particular section was a section of mystery for me. So, to be invited to think of something for the Procuratie – it’s magical!
The Art Studio is a particular part of the overall concept of the programme of the Procuratie Vecchie. You got invited to create a work here. Can you give us just the outline of it?
A.D.: Well, I think the interesting aspect of this collaboration and commission is – at least from my point of view as an artist – being asked to present an idea that inserts itself into a permanent situation. The Home of The Human Safety Net is home to A World Of Potential, which is a permanent interactive collection of installative and I would say didactic pieces – and they’re anonymous. They aren’t signed by the artist who has conceived and designed them, and they have a certain mission and a purpose. So, as an artist, you’re coming into a situation which can be kind of challenging…
Because you’re being asked to both present something which has an idea that is unique, autonomous, but at the same time interacts with the context. So that, to me, was the most interesting and the most challenging aspect. Because there is inevitably a give and take. At least I didn’t want to make another interactive installation that had a purpose. With the project’s result, a laser projection I called “The Hungriest Eye. The Blossoming of Potential” I think we managed to avoid that. It will open on 14th April, very soon – so come see for yourself!
Light and space, maybe also surfaces, seem to be important aspects in your work. Could you give us more of an insight into how you choose your materials, tools or techniques to play with?
A.D.: I feel like whatever I choose, I choose for the wrong reason, which is the right way to work, I think if I’m riding a bike, I say I’ve got to avoid the tree. You’ve got to avoid the tree, but you look and go straight into the tree, you run into the tree, and you discover things, right? Your experience changes, you break your leg – you walk differently. So anything I’ve chosen, I’ve chosen to work with, sort of with that frame of mind. The way of going at things has always been through doing the things that I may be most afraid of, have most resistance to, and I guess that feels that it makes it more compelling. So the use of text, for example, because I’m not a writer, I’m not a poet, I don’t think of myself as a conceptual artist. But at the same time, I’ve always felt the need to use text within my work. And it’s a way of challenging yourself to do things you feel uncomfortable with and also talking about things in a way you feel uncomfortable with…
So, for example, the notion of using lasers was born out of an idea of sculpture. So how can I make something that refers to being an object but is not having physicality? Objecthood becomes sort of a question there, right? And it is inevitably linked to context, space, architecture, and to absence. So the absence of light, the absence of form, the absence of material and matter, inevitably connects the phenomenological realm of relation and perspective and perception.
You also teach at Academy of Fine Arts in Venice. What does teaching add to your artistic practice?
A.D.: Oh, it’s fundamental. I teach for the Academic di Belle Arti, I teach painting and I teach for BU, the Boston University programme abroad – they have a visual arts campus here in Venice. My main focus is at the Academia and in fact, a couple of days ago, a teacher, a professor from the Academia came up to me and said: ”Duff, don’t you have trouble with your artistic career and your teaching career? Doesn’t that come into conflict?” And does it? Of course it does, inevitably, but at the same time also they feed off of each other. I think as a human, having to back up your statements with other humans, where you have a responsibility, is highly beneficial.
You know, it creates an ethical responsibility to back up your statements – which is really, really important because it keeps you grounded in many ways. I’ve worked as an artist without teaching, and that’s all fantastic. It’s great, and I love it, but there have been times when I can get lost in the studio. This grounding through teaching which for me personally is very important,. And there’s a certain realm of possibility and realm of joy that teaching sustains, and that manages to help me, as I can help students.
It’s like an oxygen machine, really important. It keeps me going. But of course, I’ve had to work hard to incorporate that. Since I started teaching it has become a necessity because it forces me to work hard. The main point is to work hard, to be able to sustain and back up what I’m saying. Is there one way to read it or not? Is it backed up by something, do I need to know about it or not? And all these kinds of things coming into play. And I think it’s very important that I realise to consider artistic practice as creating statements, which then the world needs to consider…