Norma Mangione in Uovo, 11 May 2007
ARTIST ON A BET (AND PAINTER IN PASSING). FROM A FILM THAT LASTS A LIFETIME AND SHOULD BE SEEN FROM ALL ANGLES TO PUT THE IMAGES IN ORDER.
When you paint, you use photographs of your childhood or your relatives. What precisely is the relationship between painting and photography?
MB: If there is a figure, a person in the painting, it is usually copied from a photograph because I think it is important for it to be exactly as I see it. The rest is painting. This may make use of fragments, things I see. Like maybe now I see those flowers and then later I put them in a painting in the studio. It’s a chance to organize the imagination.
Memory is above all made up of images. It is mostly a visual memory. Your paintings seem to contain many simultaneous flashbacks to different periods, along with the passing of internal time.
MB: Actually, I have to really experience paintings. They must become me. I usually work on thirty or forty paintings at the same time.
Never one at a time?
MB: No, because I change my mind, cut and paste. This is the great thing about oil. It lets you change everything without leaving a trace, unless you want one. Another “line” you know, like how fashion designers have their “youth line” or their “sports line”– in my work it’s sketching. My studio is divided into corners: the corner for oils free hand drawings, table drawings, and sculptures. Everything is a separate moment. I like making sketches that are almost paintings, but in pencil.
I read you went to law school.
MB: I studied law just to stay out of the draft. Law has never been a part of my life. My passion was for the cinema. I started working on productions in Palermo in the 1980s and was an assistant director for three years. In the meantime, I studied at the Cinecittà Experimental Center but never finished school. I was always traveling. Normally if you don’t go to school, your parents give you a scolding. My mother was the opposite. Every now and then she would come to class and say, “I am Carla Garofalo, Beninati’s mother. I’ve come to get him.” And we would leave. But then again I didn’t go to school much because from about the age of 14 I would stay up all night watching films. Then in 1990, I moved to London. I made a bet, one that is still on, with my cousin, Alexis Sweet. The first one to make a film gets dinner on the other one. One day, he called me and said, he is English but has a Roman accent, “Ah Manfredi, come to dinner at San Lorenzo (a restaurant in London) because I made my first film.” But it turned out it wasn’t a film but R.I.S., a series for Canale 5. So now he is trapped. The second season is going so well they are keeping him under contract for another two. So I have another two years to win the bet.
When will you find time to direct a film with all these exhibits and everything?
MB: It is what I want to do. My real love is the cinema. Everything I am doing now is just in passing.
Let’s get back to London.
MB: I worked a bit in bars. I always traveled a lot. In 1996, after Gilbert & Gorge, we rented a studio in the East End, now a famous neighborhood. At the time there was nothing there, just a few Indians.
How did you decide to turn to art?
MB: I have drawn constantly since I was young. Then I made sculptures. Actually, for me, drawing goes more with sculpture than painting. That year, I sketched and sometimes worked as an assistant for Gilbert & George.
Were they crucial to your choices?
MB: They are real artists and their work will probably remain important, but it doesn’t interest me.
Were they useful for meeting contacts?
MB: Actually, at the dinner after the screening of a film about them at the National Film Theatre, I met everybody, including Lorcan O’Neill.* At the end of 1996–7, I moved back to Italy for a while.
So you missed Italy then?
MB: I love Palermo. In December of ‘99, my brother (Flavio Beninati), my girlfriend at the time (Lourdes Cabrera), and I stayed together with friends for three weeks in New York. We saw a lot of crap. I was not an artist at the time and made a bet with my brother and Lourdes who told me, “So why don’t you do something yourself?” So I said that if I wanted I could be in the Venice Biennale, something that was unimaginable then. They laughed. Then things started happening. My girlfriend and I lived in a very expensive apartment. Since I couldn’t afford it, I moved to a pathetic studio, very cold, and there I really got down to work. I got back in touch with some people, including Lorcan who began following my work. It was his idea to paint, so I painted more than anything else. One day, he took home a small painting of mine, somebody wanted to buy it and so…
He gave you good advice.
MB: I don’t know. It’s all grist for the mill. Basically, this is my fourth year of activity since then. My first show was at Lorcan in 2003. I don’t think anybody in Italy has the circuit Lorcan has. He was director of D’Offay for around ten years, one of the most important galleries in the world. He was the alter ego of Anthony D’Offay, who stopped managing the gallery in his later years, so he has developed relationships with important people, museums and so on. A lot came about from the Lorcan show, shows in cool places like the Royal Academy in London, or James Cohan in New York. Cohan is someone I continue to work with, he has a beautiful gallery.
Tell me about your solo show at James Cohan.
MB: You’re talking about my exhibit in February. This is my second solo show. I did an installation in a large room, Fruits from an Ocean Nearby. It is framed in glass like a three-dimensional painting. Practically speaking, you are looking at a painting that is the window of a door.
What do you see beyond the glass?
MB: One of those studio-rooms in apartments from the 1940s and ‘50s, a bit squalid, very simple, with ‘50s-style furniture, wallpaper and that sort of distressing lighting that brings on anxiety attacks. The person using that room has gone insane and has started building a sandcastle on the desk. Hee has thrown everything onto the floor and even added an extension, like a wardrobe door, between the desk and the chair. That’s how much he was caught up in that enormous castle. The oils are in the second room, My Last Summer. The third room, 23 Days of Bad Sound and Grey Sky, has the sketches. But I would have liked to do an installation that would have expressed somehow the smell of my studio.
What is your studio like?
MB: A madhouse. I smoke a lot and you can tell where I stand the most because I throw my butts on the floor.
I read that the work you showed at the Venice Biennale [“Taking notes for a dream that begins in the afternoon and continues through the night (and is not canceled out on awakening)” or “Waking up on a beach in the scorching sun” 2005] was inspired by your grandmother’s house.
MB: My great-grandmother lived alone in a house from the 1950s, with big rooms and marble floors. She was around ninety then, and over a hundred when she died. We only visited a very small part of the house. As children we thought the house ended there. Then when we were a little older, we started to explore. There was a room we never could enter, but we could see part of it from this small study. By opening a heavy curtain, you could peek through a glass door into a large room with a one of those mirrors made of squares – really amazing.
Was it all covered in dust?
MB: No, it was very clean. Another inspiration was an Eastern European cartoon of Pinocchio I saw when I was little. In it, when he becomes a boy, the house, which before was a sort of barn, becomes fantastical.
It must have been complicated to make that installation.
MB: It was the simplest work in my life. The idea was to make an abandoned room. I asked a friend I had worked with before about a good set designer and he sent me Francesco Frigeri who is excellent. I made detailed drawings of the environment that he then used to make the technical drawings. They built it at Cinecittà, and then brought it to Venice where all we had to do was age everything. Ed and I did that, and it was lots of fun.
MB: We put everything on it: plaster, glue, gray pigment, dust, earth…
Was the room space already there?
MB: No, the people from Cinecittà set everything up.
You could see another window on the inside, but not from the outside.
MB: That was the closet. I put up another installation in Argentina* in three days. I had fun, but it was a real mess. You could only see it from the window of the gallery. It was like an aquarium, a room/non-room. There really was no reference to daily life. On the other hand, a few months ago, Ed and I set up an installation for Arcos in Benevento.* I wanted to make a rainbow. With a photography director, we found a simple way of doing it. It would be a normal living room, very 1980s middle-class, with carpet and couches, a bit shabby, but with some furnishings (a bookshelf, and the leftovers of a finished meal on the floor, something from a Sunday newspaper), and somewhere this small rainbow. But it couldn’t be done. So since this Arcos place is a kind of a toilet, I made a toilet. The exhibition is called C’era una volta un re (Once there was a King) and I made a king’s toilet. It is a large room that looks like anything but a bathroom; yet there is a washbasin, toilet bowl, and shower, and it is full of mirrors… And this king is obsessed with playing darts, so there are darts, and a lot of birdcages and plants. Shelves with potted plants on them block the entrance, and a private beach lies alongside the bathroom. We put in a mountain of sand, a red and yellow painted sky, palm trees, and toy shovels – all really fake stuff. One great thing about this work is that, if you know how to make it, you can have a lot of fun.
You entitled a sculpture Baby Bookmaker.
MB: For me, Medardo Rosso is the greatest sculptor of all time.
Really? More than Michelangelo?
MB: Much more. Fidia, Medardo Rosso, and Benvenuto Cellini. I am making a catalogue with two pages of acknowledgments without specifying anything, just names and surnames like: Medardo Rosso, Ermanno Olmi, Marco Ferreri – people who have taught me something through their work, even just one work.
Almost a work of art!
MB: Sure, somebody ought to be able to sell it.
Do you usually remember your dreams?
MB: Not much anymore, because my brother is dead. They threw him out a window. I mean – that’s pretty dramatic. Since then everything has been a bit topsy-turvy. But usually yes.
Do they ever inspire your paintings?
MB: Not directly in a visual sense, but in the sensations, the atmosphere, yes. I’m unable to copy something. I can express the colours, the atmosphere. A photograph always gets an angle, a point of view on something, and that is exactly the opposite of what I am interested in.
You like to rotate around the thing.
MB: I don’t like Wim Wenders, but I did very much like something he said. He is obsessed with making a film that would last a lifetime. Because where there is a cut, he has a moment of loss before coming back into a new shot-sequence. He tries to imagine what has been lost, what has happened between the two scenes. I would also like to see what the director does while I am watching the film.
You said you want to make a film. Would you write it?
MB: Yes, at first I wrote, but I only did it off and on for a couple of years. When I stopped working as an assistant director, my close friend Matteo De Laurentis, who was very young then, was trying to make a name for himself by experimenting with TV serials, so I wrote a lot of the teleplays.
This explains the narrative that is always present in your works, although in a fragmentary, visionary form.
MB: That is fundamental for me.
In your paintings, we perceive a contrast between opposing feelings. On the one hand, serenity, peace, and feelings connected to the world of childhood; on the other hand, there is an anxiety, sometimes made technical through dripping paint. So it is a restless serenity.
MB: This probably has to do with my way of being. I hate good people. In my life, the closest thing to my heart is being as objective as possible. This always leads me to analyzing everything and so, without even realizing it, the brightest, as well as the darkest, things come out.
You have traveled a lot. Do you think an artist in Italy is at a disadvantage?
MB: I think knowledge is the key, in general. So the more things you see and the more angles you see them from, the more you can make an exact analysis of things. Apart from this, no, I don’t feel an Italian artist is disadvantaged.
What do you feel the critic’s role should be?
MB: One of reminding. For example, it is crazy that someone like Rodin, perhaps the worst sculptor in history, is so famous. If you visit American museums, like the Metropolitan, you see they are chock-full of Rodin’s crap. But a great, talented artist like Medardo Rosso is almost unknown. France has a system that works. They are very nationalistic. In Italy, it is the opposite. So the role of the critic should be to remind, to build a heritage, to examine the work of an artist through emphasizing the tradition to which they belong.
MB: If one does not know his mother tongue well, he will never learn another language.
Are you superstitious, religious?
MB: No, atheist, or rather – I believe in love. Today its name is Milena Muzquiz.
Are you agnostic?
MB: No, because I think.
An agnostic can think but claims he cannot know whether or not something exists.
MB: But I am sure there is something. Even if you accept the theory of evolution, the idea of the Big Bang and so forth, before the Big Bang there had to be something. So it is logical that something exists that is more important than our social system. What I am against is the idea of religions. I hate religions. Maybe I’m pantheistic. God is in everything. And I would kick the Vatican out of Italy immediately.