Interview by Anita Sieff
The first time I met Cristiana I immediately thought of a fairy character, a character such as Titania, the king of Elves Oberon’s wife and queen of the fairies according to W. Shakespeare’s comedy "Dream of a Midsummer Night". Elves belong to the universe imagined by Arda, that portion also known as the Middle Land, a land that is imagined in a different way, like one of its possible manifestations, and where anything can happen, following its visionary creator Tolkien, the author of the "Lord of the Rings". According to the legend, the Elves were the first inhabitants of the Middle Land to be able to speak. It is said that the first word they pronounced while looking at the starred sky was "Ele", which indeed means “look”.
Word and look are the essential elements of Cristiana de Marchi’s artistic practice, along with the Middle East, that is the Middle Land, if the analogy may be accepted. The transposition of mythical contents becomes that parallel universe where one can stock up (with indispensable goods) at the origin, at the very source of the creative energy in order to recreate a multi-coloured and variegated world of looks, words and messages that resonate with the profound roots of the human being.
- Do you differentiate between the act of looking and seeing?
Definitely these are two different modalities. A considerable segment of my practice is influenced by this divergence and by the observation of a prevailing level of cultural blindness.
The series of black works, where I am using the braille as a basis and a tool, directly refers to a generalized blindness and to the lack of a profound understanding and of a deep sense of responsibility, or even to a sort of ignorance towards themes of universal relevance, such as the human rights. This series also evokes the definition of the adhesion to systems of values that are only superficially embraced.
Another body of works, the monochrome series, responds to a similar approach although there I create surfaces on which it becomes difficult to perceive the passage from one level to another, the transition, the alteration, the variation, thus forcing or inducing the audience to literally make an effort, in order to observe more attentively and to move from the physical level to the mental one, thus triggering off a process that can ultimately lead to questioning certain situations and presumably acquired positions.
- What do you think when thinking of the concept of belonging?
The concept of belonging is for me tied to an ideological sphere besides of the physical one. Belonging implies a sense of inclusion, and at the same time a sense of exclusion, since it actually is a socio-cultural characterization, often but not necessarily, identifiable with a precise geographic connotation, or at least with a referential one. The physical element still remains a highly characterizing element, both in nostalgic and nationalistic terms, like much of Middle Eastern recent history testifies, and often with terrible drift.
Somehow this is a concept that I would link to the one of “Country”, a referential place par excellence and a synthesis of a sum of "values" that constitute a horizon and frequently a parameter on which evaluate one’s own experience and perception of the surrounding world. Therefore, if I go back to what I have mentioned earlier, I could add that the “Fatherland” is not exclusively a physical place: rather it is a socio-cultural reference, and perhaps primarily.
Personally, I would say that this is a concept that I do not interpret in a "restrictive", defined or radical way. The solidity of belonging, to a place and to a culture, shifts for me into a liquid, permeable way and it represents the starting point that allows the individual to relate to other cultures and to other contexts. Perhaps this is for me “belonging”, thus genuinely identifiable with the country: that sense of opening and of tolerance transmitted, inherited and absorbed through the classical culture.
-Have you expressed your political “activism” also as an Italian citizen?
My journey started when I was still in Italy, in my young age: that essentially coincided with a path of social activism, not explicitly politicized, but still political. On an artistic level I have worked less on relevant themes for the Italian and European culture, although several projects have originated from and openly reference to politically unresolved questions in Italy and in Europe. For instance, in this exhibition there will be a triptych that I have titled La patria (The Country), where the Arabic word for “the country” is repeatedly superimposed upon the Italian tricolour, with an explicit reference to migratory politics and to the difficult path of socio-cultural integration of naturalized immigrants.
Another work on show is a monochrome map of Europe, where the boundaries and the distinctions vanish without being erased, on the contrary still present and perceivable. Through this work I address issues related to the politics of assimilation and integration on the EU Community level.
-What does it mean for you “community”?
Community can be considered as a declination of the same concept of belonging, as it covers a more personal sphere, an emotionally relevant one, where the aspect of a personal commitment becomes a non-accessory variable. Community is the space for sharing experiences and values, on a scale that can significantly vary but that I would roughly identify with a reduced one. Regardless of the importance that I attribute on a personal level to this concept, I don’t believe this is a concept with a relevant incidence on my artistic practice, perhaps because I do perceive it more in individualistic terms whereas artistically, although I often start my projects with a reflection about punctual questions, I tend to abstract from the specific and to create works that can carry a more "universal" message.
-Would you say that you have roots? And, if yes, where?
Undoubtedly, as individuals one cannot leave out of consideration a horizon of cultural references with which we constantly compare and relate the experiences we are constantly exposed to. I would rather opt for a concept of “expanded roots”, able to integrate new cultural approaches and positions. The fact that I have lived for the past 20 years abroad, in a variegated and significantly different cultural region from the western-European one, such as the Middle East, has certainly induced me to consider the reality from often divergent perspectives, and to try to "comprehend" them, to include them and to integrate them in an impartial way.
On a geographic level, my answer would be certainly no: I don’t feel rooted in any specific place, although I do sometimes experience episodes of transient nostalgia...
-Do you consider yourself an immigrant in the Middle East? Or are you considered as such? Which one are the dominating parameters in that culture regarding the relation with the other, with you for instance.
This is a very delicate question that truly concerns the core of being in a place, which one has consciously decided to make his/her new environment and context. And this is a question that I often ask myself with regards to my artistic practice, which undoubtedly responds to certain solicitations and presents markedly "non-western" aspects (with regards to the themes, the selection of the materials and of the scenarios, the reflection about questions such as the role of the woman and of politics as collective experiences...).
I don’t consider myself as an immigrant: I feel quite integrated in the local culture, although I can’t consider myself or be considered as an indigenous (and this regardless of the fact that I have been a Lebanese citizen for more than a decade!). My work is appreciated and has been collected on local scale, although the critical response is still feeble, but here we enter a totally different territory, concerning the role and the stature of the art critic in the Middle East... a territory still under construction...
On the community level the answer to the presence of the Other significantly varies according to the nationality of provenance of the immigrants: it is a parameter that heavily depends on a classist evaluation, on a global level... perhaps not so different from our way of categorizing the Other.
-Your street works make me think of an attempt to go beyond the artist-opera dimension and to enter a dialogue with the public dimension in order to built a new mark and to encourage a community often alienated from the political pressure, to fully take consciousness. I often think of the term "extra communitarian", a term generally used in Italy to define the foreigner who asks for reception... Do you think this is an appropriate term?
I guess you do refer to the series of embroidered photographs based on and portraying street art works. This is a project that I have started years ago: so far I have worked in a structured way on three middle Eastern cities, namely Beirut, Dubai and Kuwait City. The exploration and the collection of the messages superimposed on the skin of the city has revealed and sometimes confirmed enormous differences among these cities, which are intrinsically really different from one another. Politics alternates with the communitarian sphere, the affront and the frustration for the impossibility to profoundly act on a political level alternate with an impudent use of irony...
My idea was to interact with the city, with its socially alienated components, with a context, which remains outside of any possibility of direct interaction. By doing this and showing in a gallery these elaborations, I intend to become the "speak person" of a denied perspective. In the Middle East, certain levels of communication are still completely unobserved, the official journalism simply ignores them, thus blocking, by not allowing it, a mature political debate about issues of public. Obviously my work does not have the ambition to fill this gap, but it poses a question and creates a connection, regardless of how minimal this intervention might be on a global level.
I believe the term "extra-communitarian" can be sadly applied also to individuals legally belonging to a community. There are multiple modalities to determine the inclusion or the exclusion of an individual or of a group of individuals from the dominant social body, and they can extremely subtle, and terribly efficient.
- What is your opinion about the process of integration between Europe and Middle East? Do you believe in a future of cultural hybridization? How do you envision it?
The term hybridization is really interesting and I was exactly thinking of this process with regards to the steps of my dislocation.
In socio-political terms, I am not really optimistic about the possibility that such a phenomenon might take form on a "national" level or anyway on an expanded social level. The Middle East is by itself a constellation of universes and the process of integration between different groups, especially if marked by a different confessional characterization, is frankly complex and unrealized, just like the news testify to with disarming regularity. The idea to amplify this phenomenon over a political horizon and with political consequences, by applying it to an expanded social body, seems improbable. I personally have better hopes about a process of hybridization on an individual level or on the level of micro-communities, which could lead, on a long term, to a significant and influential variation of the socio-political dynamics.
-What are the expectations of the local artistic community to which you do relate? Have you ever worked on collective projects?
The artistic community in the United Arab Emirates is radically different from the one operating in Beirut. Beirut presents a cultural opening of western ascend mainly addressed to experimentation and very active on a level of private, non-profit initiatives... The support to cultural initiatives in general, and artistic in particular, is minimal and mostly they are developed thanks to the efforts of small communities or collectives.
On the other side, the UAE have at their disposal enormous resources and have consistently started to develop a program focusing on the promotion on an international level of the local artistic scene. Just to mention one example, besides the acquisition of a permanent pavilion in Venice (technically for a period of 20 years but de facto permanent), we can refer to the institutional program (knowing how here the public and the private sphere practically coincide) that consists in supporting and sponsoring Emirates artists to complete and perfect their education abroad or even in the opportunity to be granted an artist residency entirely “state”-subsidized.
Personally I have never worked on collective projects: I have worked with few other artists, on two men projects, always quite "intimate", and not characterized by a social relevance.
-What are your projects for the coming few years?
As an artist, I am going to start a new series about violence, a series that can be thematically connected to my previous works but that will result in a consistent body of works, referring to the incoherence of violence, of abuse, and of the consequent sufferance that, independently from its incidence on a socio-political level, always remains also and foremost a private experience.
During the fall I will be in Amsterdam for another residency and I am preparing a two men show for next March 2015 in Dubai. I am also working on a series of performances that I hope to complete by next year and that are strictly connected to the project about violence and sufferance I mentioned earlier.
Next November my first poetry book will also be published. it is a project that conjugates visual arts and literature and in the coming year I am aiming at publishing another literary project, a poetical correspondence with another artist, a sort of syncopated conversation about arts and life.
Finally, as a curator, I am working on two projects –which might take more than just a couple years! As a curator I am extremely cautious and I tend to let the ideas become mature before verbalizing and structuring them in a project and then starting the fundraising, which remains an essential step. One of the projects will focus on the theme of identity while the second will consider the relation between books and visual arts.