A conversation with Elio Schenini,
curator of the Museo Cantonale d’Arte in Lugano (Switzerland).

Elio Schenini

In the past few years, starting with your installation at the Canton Library in Bellinzona in 2008, your works have been characterised by a reflection concerning the infinite semantic possibilities which originate in the process of the decontextualisation and recontextualisation of disparate images. This installation marked the beginning of a new work modality which is also to be found in the work you have presented here. How did this come about and what were the basic motivations behind that project?

Samoa Rémy

The 2008 exhibition entitled Imagines faciunt saltus took its cue from the observation and reflection about the meaning of the Library as a place. From the very beginning I wanted to interact with the space, with the atrium of the Canton Library of Bellinzona, more fully investigating my reflection regarding the book as an object. There’s no doubt that the place and consequently the project I evolved contributed towards developing a new possibility of approaching and taking up an idea. Now for Imagines faciunt saltus the starting point coincided with my realising the (infinite) vastness of the disciplines of knowledge, classified and archived according to a system that is more or less established and which is in continuous evolution. At the same time I was interested in the ‘course’ or ‘path’ the image creates in us where the continuous communication between the image, the eye and thought creates a rhythm similar to the back-and-forth of a ping pong ball.

The ramified form of the installation, also this a starting point of the project, by way of analogy referred to the mnemonic archive which each one of us possesses.

And so I began to page through hundreds of books of the most different kinds in various libraries, searching for illustrations that both visually and conceptually stirred me. I was interested in considering the force of the image, irrespective of its context, and I was contemporaneously fascinated by the fragmentary reading of the captions.

The illustrations exhibited in Imagines faciunt saltus remained in their “habitat”, namely the book, while the presence of the text which was rendered illegible by the opaque plexiglass that framed the images testified to a hidden connection. The choice of an illustration and a specific page separated the image from the whole. My intention was to extrapolate the image and by way of a play on affinities and contrasts to recompose a total vision, one that was complex and rich in references.


With respect to your installation housed in the Canton Library, in the work you’ve presented here you have no longer used a ramified form as the supporting surface for the images but a ‘ring’ form, closed on its own circularity. Why?


The circular form leads the observer to see a chain of images having neither a beginning nor an end. The connections between the images hung on the walls pivot upon the contradictory characteristic of their meeting/not meeting: besides having a connection between themselves, in this way they also create a tension between diverse entities. I wanted an element that accentuated the contrast between the rhythm of the two “courses” or “paths”: the one created by the 15 wall-hung images in contrast with the stable temporal cadence underlined by the circular form. The latter and the 12 images which are placed on it evoke a repetition, a continuity without end, a certain monotony that is partially in opposition to the rhythm created by the alternation of the images.


Therefore on the one hand we have 6 images of light switches and 6 illustrations of the sap or vascular system as found in fruit which alternate on the plane of this circular form, like the hours on a watch face. On the other hand we have the 15 images hung on the surrounding walls in groups of two or one. Tell me about these images and about the relationships which are established between them.


For this installation I began with a nineteenth-century illustration of a landscape in which the foreground is dominated by an elegant horse. However, in my final image the horse is inexistent: only its white and ethereal profile remains to bear witness to its physical presence or disappearance. At the same time I drew two staircases, suspended in midair. One ascends while the other descends with a movement of tension, the one towards the other, although without meeting or joining.

In thinking about the two representations I have described, and by means of analogy, I drew on the characteristics of noble gases: these are elements that have the properties of being invisible and odourless and which neither amalgamate nor react with other elements. This point saw the beginning of the successive chain of images. My way of proceeding, however, is not linear but based on continuous references, both visual and regarding content.

With this project my intention was to create a tension between elements that are not always similar or related but which nevertheless have a common relation. For example, in this sense the illustration of an ophthalmometer which measures the movements of two eyes on a stand is connected to the diagram representing the communication and reflex mechanism of the cells of the nervous system. Every thing also lives thanks to the existence of an opposite force. The scission line is never peremptory. Presence refers to and evokes absence. Also with the choice of the two groups of subjects which alternate on the circular form I was referring to this ambivalence. The sap or vascular systems found in fruit transport their vital essence and are part of a reality that is not visible and not known in everyday life. I was interested in flanking this with an element that accentuated and expressed the passing from a state of light to one of absence. An object that evidenced the possibility of a choice. The light switch is a reference to the gesture of establishing or interrupting a connection.


The images that make up your works are almost always black and white illustrations taken from old books. One rarely finds images that refer to the present day. What does this choice depend on?


I look for a concordant aesthetic characteristic – albeit in its variation – and for this reason I have chosen images in black and white in which the line and not the background or colour has the task of transmitting what is essential.

In the representation it’s important for me that communication is direct and perception immediate – even if in any case the reading gives rise to more than one term of reference.

With the exclusion of some rare exceptions, found in the Imagines faciunt saltus installation, from the very beginning I discarded the idea of using photographic or colour illustrations and I often removed/eliminated elements which I found to be superfluous. The images I use don’t always draw inspiration from the contemporary imaginary although at the same time they create strong and interesting relations with the questions I consider to be both pertinent to the present as well as being universal.

I often adopt schemes or representations of scientific discoveries and the fact that they belong to history evidences an important aspect regarding the development of knowledge: that continuous evolution critically questions the previous discoveries, or else makes them out of date. Reality, when it is presented to us, is continuously made relative. Within this perspective what takes on importance is the symbolic value which a discovery has had in history. Moreover, for me it’s essential that the image does not refer to already available or ‘convenient’ semiotic readings or interpretations. The contemporary imaginary often embodies a symbolic value in a reading that is known a priori. In this case the references are more limited.

For example, in the installation I used a nineteenth-century diagram illustrating the interference of two wave bands. Of course, I could have chosen to use a computer simulation but the result would have been very different and wouldn’t have had the same forcefulness, the same impact. I’m also interested in the inexactness found in disciplines that are so precise and I also find it both relevant and important that these illustrations were produced without the instruments of the knowledge of present-day reality: in a certain sense, therefore, they are interpretations of the intangible.


From among the images that compose this work, as was also true for the Bellinzona installation, there are not only book illustrations but also drawings you have created (although it’s true that your development as an artist began in the fields of drawing and printmaking). For you, today, is the drawing merely one of the many elements you use for the composition of your installations or is it an autonomous sphere of research?


Drawing constitutes an essential part of my creative process. By way of it – and almost ‘gropingly’ – I begin to transcribe the ideas that lie at the bases of a project and thanks to drawing I give it a conclusive unity. As the project gradually advances I create and combine my own images – drawings or prints – with the illustrations which I find and modify.

To draw allows me to “bide time” in order to better view the work. It’s the instrument with which I define and “balance” the overall character of the installation and by means of which I in part precisely define the rhythm that characterises it. The drawing is the driving force that sets my thoughts in motion and which at the same time acts as the ‘go-between’ that renders them visible. By means of the search for images in books, together with the choice of them, I stimulate the ‘surfacing’ of ideas for the creation of new drawings. Furthermore, when I visualise and carry out a drawing I solicit new links with one or more representations to find, or else with already defined illustrations. In this way the initial idea is developed and delineated. And while the invisible ‘imprint’ of the captions always remains bound to the illustrations they accompanied, almost in a relation of twinship, the drawings I create have no tie with a written text. In this sense the drawing always remains free from a precise context, even if it is interwoven within the project.


Your works seem to perfectly form part of that artistic practice which has characterised the work of many artists during roughly the past two decades or so and which in a book of a few years ago Nicolas Bourriaud described by using the term “post-production”. According to Bourriaud an ever greater number of artists work in a way like deejays by reusing, remixing and recontextualising cultural objects that already exist in order to construct new narrative structures. At the basis of this approach there is in some way the awareness that everything has already been done and that it is no longer possible to produce anything new if not by way of the recombining of the immense archive of material that history has produced. What are your thoughts on this?


The line that distinguishes creating from composing is a very slender one. My artistic process includes different elements and the decontextualisation of images taken from books is one of these.

In going through the entire history of art there is not a single work that doesn’t make reference to a vocabulary that already existed. And the use of an “archive” from which to draw in order to compose is a common form employed in other arts such as music and writing.

The motivation that leads me to flank images that already exist with my own drawings has its roots in the search for a totality which is not univocal, which therefore includes components of an opposite or contrasting nature.

However, in my research the use of a representation often foresees a re-elaboration of the image in order to arrive at a greater expressive precision. To flank my drawings with representations that already exist, taken from books of different periods, allows me to render the whole work more objective, to give it a complementary character and, in a certain sense, to extend the references on the timeline. When I choose to use an object already created by someone else (an illustration in this case), freeing it from the context in which it was found and combining it with other elements, what interests me is that the image transmits a precise interpretative plurality. In this case the image ‘lives’ due to the historical reference that distinguishes it and, at the same time, due to its estrangement with respect to contemporary reality. As I have already said, I’m not only interested in creating links on the visual and conceptual planes but also in extending the temporal view.


After having studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence you continued your art studies in Norway, in Oslo. How have these two so different cultural contexts effected the elaboration of your work and who are the artists who have most influenced you during your formation?


I think that in Oslo I have learnt to carefully sift through all of the cues and ideas collected during my years spent in Florence. The years passed in Italy were extremely rich for me although my reflections were still fragmentary and I hadn’t yet found the correspondence between the idea (concept) and its practical application. From among the artists who most influenced me and whose works still fascinate me I can mention Piero della Francesca, Giotto and Beato Angelico while from among the modern artists I can cite Giorgio Morandi. I can say that during those years I wasn’t directly influenced at all by contemporary artists – or at least, one didn’t find any explicit sign in my art, even if I did consider artists like Kounellis, Beuys and Duchamp very interesting. It seems to me that in Florence I accumulated whereas in Oslo I’ve been able to enjoy and profit from all of the silence and tranquillity necessary in order to reflect and once again elaborate my thoughts. Norway has given me the possibility of orientating myself. The Italian and Norwegian cultural realities are very, very different, even if both are subject to continuous change. For me the most obvious difference lies in the way in which one establishes a relationship with time and consequently with the idea of rhythm. In Oslo silence forms part of the ‘ticking away’ that beats out the everyday rhythm. In the art scene I think that there’s the same variety to be found everywhere, even if it is true that geographically, politically, historically and culturally speaking Norway is to a degree different from the rest of Europe. Sensitivity is different. Also the light is different.

Two exhibitions in recent years have been of the utmost importance for me: the one dedicated to the art by Tacita Dean held at the National Gallery in Oslo and the video entitled Rehearsal by the Belgian artist, Francis Alÿs, which I was able to see at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. And for their art and the thought behind it I also admire Ann Hamilton and Doris Salcedo, Rachel Whiteread for her works and interventions, also true for Gordon Matta Clark, the art by Michal Rovner and the reflection concerning time by Tatsuo Miyajima.

And finally music is another art form that sustains me in continuation.

Translated by Howard Rodger MacLean