Continuing a recent series of major commissions by leading international artists for Federation Court at NGV International, Paola Pivi’s You started it … I finish it is an installation encompassing eight life-size sculptures of polar bears adorned with neon-coloured feathers. These flamboyant figures playfully occupy the space of Federation Court, greeting visitors, posing and frolicking: one bear leaps from a balcony; others approach one another as if to dance or engage in deep philosophical conversation; while others recline in joyful, carefree abandon.
Sculpted from urethane foam and embellished with psychedelic plumage, Pivi’s carefully modelled figures are each accorded a distinct personality and body language. Together they create an enigmatic scene of Baroque excess and surreal desire recalling fables and fairytales, dreams and allegories in which unexpected forms become strangely familiar and the pleasure principle prevails. You started it … I finish it continues Pivi’s characteristic playfulness, interest in narrative, myth and rumour, and creation of indelible images that echo in the imagination. As with much of her work, the installation also invokes an animistic, spiritual wonder and deep concern about the vulnerability of the natural world.
As an artist who came of age in Milan in the 1990s, one might speculate that Pivi inherited a feeling for the anarchic poetics and materiality – at once primordial and industrial – of the Arte Povera artists active in Turin, Milan and Rome in the late 1960s and 1970s. The enigmatic image of Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled, 1969, installation of horses in Galleria L’Attico in Rome, for example – a work that invoked the noble traditions of equine sculpture, the mysteries of allegory and myth, and the radical, real time of performance art –resounds in Pivi’s enigmatically titled installation Interesting, 2007, in which a plethora of white animals, including horses, rabbits, llamas, doves, cows, geese and peacocks, roamed freely in an abandoned warehouse in Milan. Situated at the intersection of sculpture and performance – art forms marked by singular presence and unruly life respectively – with a beguiling mix of the monochrome and magical realism, Pivi’s installation was both arresting as image and open-ended as choreography, a painterly scenography teeming with life.1 ‘Exhibitions: My Religion Is Kindness. Thank You, See You In The Future’, Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, http://www.fondazionenicolatrussardi.com/exhibitions/my_religion_is_kindness_thank_you_see_you_in_the_future.html?pager_page=2, accessed 26 May 2014.
Pivi’s art is made of simple gestures, displacements and shifts in context and scale. We encounter ordinary things in extraordinary circumstances: zebras in a snow-capped mountain landscape – Untitled (zebras), 2003 – or a donkey adrift in a boat on the sea – Untitled (donkey), 2003. Elsewhere we see the world tipped on its side (Camion, 1997, a red eighteen-wheel semitrailer mysteriously overturned by the side of a road), or the world literally turned on its head (A helicopter upside down in a public space, 2006, which also recalls Piero Manzoni’s Socle du monde, or Base of the world, 1961, which, in a gesture of radical simplicity, put the world itself on a pedestal).
Adorning bears with feathers rather than fur operates in an equally curious, subversive manner. We might remember the uncanny shock of Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist Object (Le Déjeuner en fourrure), 1936, a simple teacup, saucer and spoon that the artist covered with fur from a Chinese gazelle. With a simple change of outfit, Pivi’s bears present themselves in a similarly brazen way; their high-key colours and perverse textures carry the frisson of uncanny sensuality, a riddle offered with playfulness and a smile. Their polychrome opulence makes the viewer receptive, happy and vital. The enchanting play of colour and materiality excites the mind and senses, and, as the artist has suggested, it makes one feel ‘alert’.2 Dion Tan, ‘Video: Paola Pivi flaunts neon bears in Perrotin’, Blouin ArtInfo, 7 Nov. 2013, http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/967886/video-paola-pivi-flaunts-neon-bears-in-perrotin, accessed 26 May 2014.
Yet the bears’ dramatic, diorama-like staging also carries a melancholic dimension. In their presence we are equally alert to the tradition of marvellous, taxidermied animals presented as museological specimens, their entrapment as ‘natural history’ and the un-natural history of animals arranged and displayed as bourgeois entertainment. Pivi is careful to avoid overly prescriptive narrative interpretation, however, as Jens Hoffman has noted:
Feelings of wonder or precariousness could be considered ends in themselves, but they also have a purpose in encouraging meditation, first on how the emotion rests internally, and then on its implications for the self in relation to the world. While Pivi’s works deal with common tropes: purity, disaster, things natural and manmade, they are less about what they communicate than about the introspection they incite. They withhold the kind of information that would enable visitors to apply familiar definitions, and as a result seem surreal, out of the realm of ordinary experience.3 Jens Hoffman, ‘Say it like you mean it’, in Paola Pivi: Ok, You Are Better Than Me, So What?” exhibition press release, Gallerie Perrotin, New York, 2013, n.p.
Born of curiosity about the world and our relationship to it, Pivi’s work is nomadic by nature. The artist has lived in far-flung places: Shanghai, the remote island of Alicudi in southern Italy and, presently, in India. For the past decade she has lived in Anchorage, Alaska, a place known for its extraordinary geography and geology (volcanoes, coast and islands), its ancient and ongoing indigenous histories and cultures, its extreme climatic conditions and great beauty. Alaska is equally known for its wildlife – for marine animals such as walruses and whales, and, of course, for bears – which are increasingly at risk due to melting ice caps, ecological fragility and resource extraction. These ethical and ecological matters are of deep concern to Pivi, whose sculptural practice, through the representation of animals, questions what it means to be human and how we relate to nature.
The representation of, and human interaction with, animals has been an enduring motif in Pivi’s work. ‘At the beginning, I welcomed them more like characters’, the artist explains, as ‘beautiful divas that were coming to me with all this charisma and beauty’.4 Oliver Basciano, ‘Interview with Paola Pivi’, Oct. 2013, Art Review, http://artreview.com/features/october_feature_paola_pivi, accessed 26 May 2014. Over the past decade, no doubt informed in part by her involvement with indigenous artists and friends in Alaska, Pivi has come to understand the totemic significance of animals, as well as our deep connection with them. Embellished to invoke desire, respect and empathy in viewers, the ursine figures in You started it … I finish it act as ciphers for the beauty and precariousness of nature. Their playful poses and inquisitive yet nonchalant demeanour also remind us of human nature, as a means to understand ourselves.
In these bold yet simple gestures we encounter miraculous, anarchic works of charm, abundance and poetic significance. With their prodigious physical presence and charisma, we might see Pivi’s bears as primordial, sublime ancestral figures that inspire wonder, devotion and fear in equal measure.
Max Delany, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art
‘Exhibitions: My Religion Is Kindness. Thank You, See You In The Future’, Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, http://www.fondazionenicolatrussardi.com/exhibitions/my_religion_is_kindness_thank_you_see_you_in_the_future.html?pager_page=2, accessed 26 May 2014.
Dion Tan, ‘Video: Paola Pivi flaunts neon bears in Perrotin’, Blouin ArtInfo, 7 Nov. 2013, http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/967886/video-paola-pivi-flaunts-neon-bears-in-perrotin, accessed 26 May 2014.
Jens Hoffman, ‘Say it like you mean it’, in Paola Pivi, Perrotin/Damiani, Bologna, 2013, n.p.
Oliver Basciano, ‘Interview with Paola Pivi’, Oct. 2013, Art Review, http://artreview.com/features/october_feature_paola_pivi, accessed 26 May 2014.