Marta Pellerini (Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator), Max Fletcher (Sainsbury Scholar in Painting and Sculpture 20192020) and Mick Finch (Professor of Visual Art Practice, Central Saint Martins) reflect on the March Mostra 2021. The text takes the form of an imagined conversation in the absence of a physical audience due to Covid-19 restrictions.

M. PELLERINI: On March 12, the March Mostra 2021 at the British School at Rome opened, with works by Charlie Fegan and Max Fletcher. Just that morning I had read the news that our region would become a red zone and go into lockdown from Monday 15 March for a minimum of two weeks. And so it was. The exhibition opened to the public for three hours. With almost 27,000 Covid-19 cases and 380 deaths (data as of March 12) the announcement was no surprise.

Charlie Fegan and Max Fletcher, both Sainsbury Award holders, had been the only artists-in-residence at the BSR for three months. Max Fletcher returned to the BSR in September 2020 to complete the remaining six months of his residency which had been cut short by the onset of Covid-19, just as Charlie began his. For the first time ever, the March Mostra took the form of two solo shows / a duo show / a duet. Although distinct, both artists have, in their own way, dealt with what they describe as ‘uncoordinated temporality’ and ‘historical summonings’.

In his project for the March Mostra, Charlie Fegan designs a future memorial that takes the war memorials of architect Edwin Lutyens as a starting point, developing a structure that recalls the linearity of Carlo Scarpa’s architecture and the transparency of Lauretta Vinciarelli’s architectural drawings. The artist’s gaze shifts from the past to the present by emphasizing the relationship between death and ecology. 

One of the most debated topics of the last year has been the link between the pandemic and our planet’s health. What we are facing is a consequence of the Anthropocene and a warning to human beings who consider nature to be a nurturing mother that can be endlessly exploited. This patriarchal model is old and in crisis. Ecologists and ecofeminists are fighting it for the survival of the planet.

Activating a gaze towards the future involves looking critically at the past to negotiate the present.

Equally, Max Fletcher’s works for the March Mostra evoke a temporal path that begins with Antonio Gramsci’s journey to Turi prison in 1926 and ends with a painting of Matteo Salvini eating a hamburger. A canvas which represents the avidity of the political class. Next to it, hangs a triptych inspired by William Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere in which the narrator, a late 19th-century man and clearly the author’s alter-ego, is magically transported into a distant future (1952). England is free from capital, Trafalgar Square is no longer chaotic, but a peaceful area of ​​London, with elegant houses, overflowing gardens and audible bird song. Morris’ themes still resonate in 2021; the desire to create a world where work is creative and joyful, necessary criticism of the excessive power of science and technology, realisation of the importance of the natural environment, the victim, together with human beings, of environmental degradation and capitalist exploitation. One of Morris’s great admirers, Oscar Wilde, recalled a comment made by Morris: “I tried to make every worker an artist, and when I say an artist, I mean a man”

Max Fletcher, Parliament House or Dung Market (with Cole Denyer), oil and acrylic on canvas, 312×152 cm, 2021

M. FLETCHER: A popular far right politician is spotted in a chain restaurant eating a hamburger. While such an event is in no way remarkable, or even really of note, it is a good opportunity for the press photographers. After all, the best photographs are often of commonplace occurrences. A politician scoffing a patty of processed meat serves as a metaphor for greed. A newspaper clipping of the published image, tacked to a public notice board, has been given a caption. Prima Io, Dopo Voi, Forse. First Me, Then You, Maybe. A painting of this text/image combination was shown on the far wall of the gallery, immediately visible to the viewer upon entering the space. 

The politician eating the hamburger is Matteo Salvini. As an image it is a simple one and is rooted very much in the present day. This being so, it provides a counterpoint to the other work that I showed in the mostra, which was based on Antonio Gramsci’s time imprisoned in Turi and William Morris’ novel News From Nowhere, drawing lines between history and the present. The subject of the painting both is and is not Salvini. On one hand it is unmistakably the current leader of Lega Nord, yet the figure eating the hamburger could be any number of far right populist political figures currently enjoying a resurgence. The mostra came a year on from Italy’s first lockdown, and only this week, Boris Johnson declared to backbench conservative MPs that the UK’s relative vaccine success is down due to “greed” and “capitalism”. Prima Io, Dopo Voi, Forse. 

M. FINCH: I met remotely with Charlie and Max during the latter part of their tenure at the British School at Rome. I had chaired the committee of the Sainsbury/Lindbury Trust panel that had selected them for the residency and, as the effect of the pandemic dug deeper, support seemed appropriate. They coped well with the extraordinary conditions of being at the British School and in Rome at this time. This was not the usual experience of an award holder. Access to the cultural resources of the city and to the normally thriving community of the School was limited. The centre of Rome was emptied of its usual traffic of tourists, a strange pause in Rome’s burden of its geological time spans, manifest as endless seams of cultural artefacts.

They strangely shared much in this time. They both work into a past whose where and when is at first unclear. This displacement works as temporal mechanisms, possibly to engage an intangible present and an even more slippery future. The references, the working processes and the exhibition dispositifs they both employ are intriguing and complimentary.

Max Fletcher’s references, so well described by himself, are brought to together both in the processes by which his work is made and through their juxtaposition in the gallery, as constellations and collisions, precipitating an opening onto a present. Gramsci’s incarceration in Turi, the ceramic cattle trucks scattered around the gallery, edge the viewer toward associations with the railway cattle wagons of fascist entangled histories. A similar wagon is represented in a painting bearing the letters LNER, London North Eastern Railway and ‘First Me, Then You, Maybe’ finds a chilling place in the present unfolding before us, here and now. His reference to William Morris compounds his working process. Reaching back into historical aporia from which he pulls far flung coordinates that assemble around a vanishing point within the present.

Charlie Fegan’s work is a proposition for a memorial. It unfolds into a perpetual moment rather than that of an historic event.  He does this through a series of works on paper. The source of the thinking of the structure[HO6]  goes back to a Lutyens’ Thiepval Memorial to those lost in the Somme with no grave, that in itself is an extraordinary sculptural form. Charlie situates his memorial upon a sea within an eternal sunset. He counterposes these totalised, object-based views with those from within the memorial, the mortal and the eternal in a mode of point and measure. The works on paper are finally pinned onto massive black boards, gathering them synoptically together within a space that all but engulfs them.

Charlie Fegan, the last memorial, gouache, ink, watercolor, laser print on paper, 2021

Meet the artists: Max Fletcher

An interview with Max Fletcher, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from January–March 2021.

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

One of the paintings that you will show in the March Mostra develops a specific moment of the novel News From Nowhere by William Morris. Can you tell us more about it?

One of the paintings that I’m showing in the March Mostra refers loosely to a moment from News From Nowhere. The painting is part image and part text. The image consists of a pile of manure and a horse with the caption ‘Manure For Sale’. Morris’ novel was published in 1890 and outlines a utopian future in which central London is unrecognisable. Revolution has been deferred by more than sixty years to 1952. Nelson’s Column, being a monument of imperialist conquest has been taken down and, in its place, sits an apricot orchard, taking up the entirety of Trafalgar Square. Morris, a keen anti-parliamentarian envisaged a similar substitution taking place at the site of Parliament, now a dung market.

1952 acts as an interesting pivot between the 19th century and the present. E.P. Thompson details how Morris was greatly influenced by the Paris Commune and initially hoped that radical societal change was imminent. Indeed, the Communards’ dismantling of the Vendome Column, a monument to Napoleonic conquest, was surely the inspiration for Morris’ reconfigured view of London. Yet the postponement of the revolution by over sixty years demonstrates Morris’ shift towards a view where years of struggle would lead to “demi-semi socialism”, improving the material conditions of many but leaving the make-up society essentially unchanged. In many ways, Morris was proved right. Better social housing and the introduction of the NHS improved life for many, but exploitation remained.

Years of slow progress did not lead to revolution in England and if we jump from 1952 to 2021, many of the critiques produced in News From Nowhere remain. Even the motif of parliament as a dung market seems pertinent and seemingly has sway across the political spectrum. Trust in politicians is arguably at an all-time low and many of the public sector goods and services that were in place in 1952 have now been privatised. The painting of the horse is a collaboration with a friend, Cole Denyer. The image of the horse is placed next to a poem by Cole. The poem is titled Parliament House or Dung Market, a nod to News From Nowhere. It uses history as a means of addressing the present, utilising both text and image to structure painting, while considering the continued resonance of Morris’ work today.

Renato Guttuso, Bozzetto per La Vucciria, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna.

Is Gramsci’s prison journey to Turi still present in your works for the March Mostra? If so, how are you expanding your research on it?

Antonio Gramsci’s journey to Turi remains central to the work that I am showing in the March Mostra. At the December Mostra, I showed a series of paintings that were based upon Gramsci’s journey from Rome to Turi. In 1928, upon the Public Prosecutor’s now-famous declaration that “for twenty years we must stop that brain from working”, Gramsci was transported across Italy while chained in such a way to prevent him from either lying down or standing. The journey itself ought to have taken no more than a day but in Gramsci’s case, it lasted over two weeks and took place during the sweltering Italian summer. Having been denied the medical care that he urgently needed before the journey, Gramsci arrived at the prison in Turi in an almost complete state of physical collapse.

I asked friends to respond to this journey in form of short written pieces. The texts that I received formed the basis for a series of collaborative text/image paintings. I would paint the image of a cattle truck and pair it with a short text on Gramsci’s prison journey. The only condition for the texts was that they must not refer to Gramsci by name, while the painted cattle trucks would be based on models that I had bought, generally online. These were not necessarily Italian and indeed were often models of English trains used in the 1920s. As such, the associations that the paintings bring to mind are likely numerous and not necessarily of Gramsci’s journey to Turi.

Over the past month, I have been working with an artist in Rome, Mahsa Razavi, to make some sculptural casts of one of the model cattle trucks. The sculptures are a 3:1 scale enlargement of the original model and are all cast from a mould made by Mahsa. There are five casts in total, each coloured differently and scattered around the gallery space.

Casa del Bimbo, Colonia Marina Umbra Pio XII, Rimini. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Meet the artists: Beth Collar

An interview with Beth Collar, Augusta Scholar, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

The text for your recent show in Munich (Bildhauer*in der Sinne, opened at GiG until 1 January 2021) states: “in Beth Collar’s work, sculpture does not always respond to the image of a closed work, but also of a performative event’s marginalia. For this reason, the artist does not define herself as a sculptor, but as a performer, since sculpture is for her a double-track instrument of investigation”. Can you tell us more about this, particularly in relation to the block of lime wood you are carving in your studio at the BSR?

As a roughly female-identifying person, or, I could say, as someone who has been identified as female, for a long time I’ve struggled with the idea of actually making sculpture. It has always struck me as impossible. Too presumptuous. Absurd. Sticky, in a swamp of pure men, with a peat layer of Man, with a core-sample of Mankind beneath it. I’m being silly, but also, that is to say, it’s just there all your life. Everywhere.

So to make work for me, especially early when I was at art school it always felt like going through the motions – performing some role that wasn’t really for me. Eventually I realised that that was what I was doing when I tried to make something. And that’s where my practice became a performance one. And eventually I found that the only way to have a ‘studio practice’ was to begin to perform the role of the male master craftsman – someone un-identified from a time before the era of the (male) artist genius. I had to become the Master of fill in the blank. That’s where I could find crawl-space.

I’m drawn to objects produced for ritual, from and for devotion. The art from times both in the Christian heritage and the pagan and pre-historic. Because of their pure use; functional art; art that makes a living off the people who need it’s services. I’m drawn to art produced in a time where the art is decoupled from the maker – from long enough ago that it feels decoupled from gender too. It’s a collective endeavour.

This term above – “double-track instrument of investigation” – isn’t mine, but I see what he (the curator Beniamino Foschini) means: making sculpture is both a performance that I make and simultaneously it’s a way to discover and then to scrutinise. 

A tool of intuition – and then later a tool to examine that intuition and work out what the product of that performance says or does. For me, art is a tool to investigate the forces acting upon me that produce the ‘intuition’.

Troccola found by the artist in Rome. Photo by the artist.

Your work seems to engage with religious art. What are the qualities you are drawn to?

I’m currently carving sculptures out of a long, thick slice of a Lime tree – AKA Linden wood. The wood has a significance for me as it’s a material I associate with ecclesiastical sculpture from the northern part of Europe. There is an absence of religious sculpture in the UK. I am from Cambridge and Oliver Cromwell was from Ely which is very close by. East Anglia was a centre of the Protestant iconoclasm during the Reformation. I grew up visiting churches (though I come from a long line of agnostics): as a general rule, in my family, if you go on a walk you pop into the parish church that you walk past to see if there is anything in there of interest.

I remember being particularly bored by this when I was little but eventually it wore me down, and I perpetuate it with evangelical zeal. More than 90% of the sculpture in medieval churches in England was destroyed during the Reformation (and almost all of the painting was whitewashed) so England is sort of filled with a blank. Catholicism just covered in Tipex. A blank over the power of sculpture, the power of art – specifically the graven image of course: it’s a slipped-out admission of its awesomeness. A back-handed compliment.

So, this absence or this yearning-for is something that has motivated my work for a very long time. And it’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Rome. This place is full. This place is over-saturated, overflowing. This place is the opposite, and in a way it can be a mirror.

In my work, that loss and absence resulting from this quite straightforward historic event stands in for other, more human, personal, micro-level absences and losses: about family, about love, about authenticity, alienation and about presence. I’ve been using these absent substances of the burnt and bashed to think these things through.

Finally, to bring the mistletoe in here, as it turned up erroneously in your original question as well as in my drawings while I’ve been here: I guess with the mistletoe I’ve been looking at Natural History in the same way as I do art history, or material culture/archaeology – it’s a thing – a cultural artefact – that means something now, that meant something then. And therefore holds mysteries of human relation and of loss. It wants something of us, much like the art objects I’m interested in from Catholicism and Paganism.

Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

The artist in her studio at the BSR. Photo by the artist.

Meet the artists: Paul Eastwood

An interview with Paul Eastwood, Creative Wales-BSR Fellow, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

Dyfodiaith, your 2019 video work, explores wild tongues, severed tongues and the historic and future context of indigenous languages in the UK. In this work you reflect on constructs of language, notions of otherness and the potential of multilingualism. The narrative of the video is sung in a speculative language based on the ancient Brythonic language, as if it has remained alive, evolving throughout the centuries. How have you expanded on the topic of language in Rome?

Potentially, writing and text have a permanence. In ancient Rome it was used for inscriptions in stone; a hard material, that stands the test of time. Even as fragments, these end up giving us a glimpse onto the past, making it more tangible. We don’t get this in most other early European languages, such as indigenous British languages. We might see it on the curse tablets from Bath, where a few words of, supposedly, Brythonic are mixed into the Latin – but they’re as rare as hens’ teeth. I was particularly drawn to Rome because of the commemorative spaces and objects surviving in various guises, sometimes scattered and strewn about; again there’s little of this in what we know of Celtic culture in Britain. In previous works and writings, I’ve thought about imagined spaces, including museums and libraries, but there I used the spoken word and the written text in the form of video narrative and scripts for film and performance. My stay in Rome has given me the opportunity to consider text as inscriptions, and the monuments or memorials that may have been associated with these. My initial plan for my time at the BSR was to write a script and to make drawings. In fact I seem to have combined several of my interests into a project centred around fragmentary inscriptions from a fictive Celtic city and its monuments. The size of the drawings, in this case the rubbings, alludes to the proportions of that imagined architecture.

Work in progress. Photo by the Artist.

How have Roman funeral inscriptions influenced your recent projects?

I’d already started developing some text-based works that were using rubbing and worked on paper. I showed these to Hester, the Balsdon fellow, and we discussed collaborating because she wanted to make a fake Latin inscription related to her work – this was for the weekly mini-expositions that we were doing in the BSR snack bar. I said it would be nice to add a sculptural object, so she designed an ‘Etruscan’ urn with an inscription, and I supported the production. This introduction to classical inscriptions and fragments inspired me to start wandering the city looking for broken inscriptions with Latin text in churches, porticoes and in the street, where I made a suite of research rubbings. These informed my work for the Mostra, which consists of large fake rubbings of the epigraphical remnants, in forms of the Welsh language, of imagined monumental buildings.

Work in Progress. Photo by the artist.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri

Meet the artists: Max Fletcher

An interview with Max Fletcher, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

What led you to the correspondence between Antonio Gramsci and Piero Sraffa? Was your new body of work inspired by those letters?

Piero Sraffa was an Italian economist. He studied in Turin with Antonio Gramsci and when Gramsci was imprisoned, Sraffa opened an unlimited account with a Milanese bookstore in the name of Gramsci. Any bill was to be settled by Sraffa. He also provided Gramsci with the physical materials, the pens and paper, with which he would write the prison notebooks. Not only had Sraffa studied with Gramsci, but also while at the London School of Economics in 1921-22, he twice met John Maynard Keynes in Cambridge. In 1926, Gramsci was arrested by the fascist government. The following year, Keynes, having realised the risk that Sraffa faced in Italy, invited him to Cambridge where he received a lectureship.

Once in Cambridge, Sraffa sought to bring wider attention to Gramsci’s plight, publishing a letter in the Guardian and launching with Gramsci’s sister-in-law, Tatiana Schucht, an international campaign for his release. Throughout the early and mid-twenties, Gramsci and Sraffa were in regular contact, and their relationship intensified with Gramsci in prison. Gramsci’s last direct letter to Sraffa was written in January 1927, after which the correspondence between the two was mediated through Schucht, to whom half of some 500 prison letters, providing cultural and political analysis while also detailing his health conditions and day-to-day prison life, were addressed. Sraffa visited Gramsci eight times in person between January 1935 and March 1937 after Gramsci had been transferred from Turi to Formia and later Rome. He died days after his release from prison in April 1937. Both Sraffa and Schucht were instrumental in the posthumous publication of the Prison Notebooks.

Grave of Antonio Gramsci in the Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome. Photo by the artist.

My interest in Sraffa comes initially from his friendship with Gramsci, and from his proximity to Keynes. These days, Sraffa is a barely known twentieth century economist from Turin. Yet he was someone that both Keynes and Gramsci trusted and worked with. Even before Sraffa was at Cambridge, Keynes had sought to collaborate. In the thirties, when Keynesian economics were in competition with Friedrick Hayek’s more conservative world-view, Keynes asked Sraffa to write a rebuttal of Hayekian economics. Sraffa obliged. Keynesian thinking would, of course, provide the prevailing economic world-view for much of the Western world during the Great Depression, up until Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan revived Hayek’s ideas, giving new momentum to neo-liberal policy. Interestingly, it was around this time that Sraffa’s thought seems to have had a particular resonance on the left; a 1978 edition of the New Left Review produced a ‘special dossier’ on ‘the unknown Sraffa’. One article, Keynes, Sraffa and Capitalist Crisis, details how both Sraffa and Keynes realised that the capitalist system was on its knees during the 1920s. Equally, it seemed likely that ‘organised’ or ‘regulated’ capitalism had plenty of capacity for survival. Yet, while Keynes would not reject the politics of Liberalism, Sraffa, like Gramsci, believed that social transformation would never be possible under the liberal ruling class which, exerted hegemonic control over the rest of the population. As such, for Sraffa, economic struggle had to be allied with political struggle.

I came across Sraffa through his friendship with Gramsci. In many ways, Sraffa seems to have provided a possibility for the future that was never taken up: new economics in contrast to both those of Keynes and Hayek. On the other hand, Gramsci’s ideas seem to be alive and well in contemporary thought. The inability to speak of hegemony without contemplating Gramsci is the most obvious example, yet it is just one facet of Gramscian thought. My recent work does not directly reference the letters between Gramsci and Sraffa, but it does focus on Gramsci’s prison journey to Turi. In this sense they are hovering in the background of the work. Essentially for me, Sraffa provides a bridge between Keynesian economics which now appear to be something of the past, and Gramsci, whose ideas are still capable of providing an analysis to the problems of the present.

A Pasolini poem behind smashed glass. Lungotevere, Rome. Photo by the artist.

Your work in the last year has been characterized by collaboration with other artists. Why? Can you tell us more about the works you have made at the BSR recently, which include contribution from your friends?

Last year at the BSR I collaborated with the artist Andrea Celeste La Forgia on several pieces. This was in some ways a consequence of being in Rome and started with the desire to translate a nineteenth century Milanese play, Carlo Bertolazzi’s El Nost Milan, from Italian to English. As the play had been written in dialect, this wasn’t a straightforward task and Andrea asked a friend (Andrea Bertuzzi) to translate some passages from Milanese dialect into Italian, thereafter Andrea translated them into English. These translated play scripts formed the basis for a series of paintings, one of which was shown in the March Mostra. I have also worked with Andrea on several other projects over the past year. Collaboration has been a means of problem solving, finding a solution to something that I cannot address on my own.

Some of my recent work has similarly involved collaboration. Being in Rome with Covid restrictions has provided several challenges, not least the closure of museums and archives for the past month. As a result, I have asked friends to provide me with short texts of no more than 250 words referring in some way to Gramsci’s prison journey from Rome to Turi. These texts are then translated into paintings as part of an ongoing series that I am currently working on. They provide a number of iterations, with the writing taking different forms and offering different accounts of the same event.

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Meet the artists: Jeff McMillan

An interview with Jeff McMillan, Abbey Fellow in Painting, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR from September–December 2020.

Old objects found on street corners or in flea markets have often been the starting point for your work. How were you inspired by what you found in Rome? How are those materials different from ones you would usually find in London? 

I knew about the Porta Portese market before I came to Rome, it is famous and historic if you are interested in flea markets – a little like Brick Lane or Portobello in London. I think it’s probably not as interesting as it once was and there is now less secondhand material, but I still visited many times and found things that became part of my finished work here. For example, I bought a beautiful old briefcase made entirely of plywood, and I used it to make a block print, it has a lovely grain along with scars and scrapes from use.

Studio, woodblock printing. Work in progress. Photo by the artist.

At the beginning of my residency I set myself the task of trying to represent the whole of Rome through the wood I might find on its streets, and it was a good excuse for getting out and seeing the city and its many sites. Once I bought a bicycle (another purchase from Porta Portese!) it allowed me to explore pretty much any part of the city, and so I attempted to do that. I would often locate a faraway church or a museum and on my way to visit I would keep my eyes open for any discarded wood, like furniture, pallets, or building materials. I think this way of working allows you to look at the city through a different lens, it makes you notice the textures of buildings and street surfaces, sometimes colours of pigments against one another. If you think about the way you can switch a Google map from simply street layout to a satellite image – it’s the same place but you see it completely differently – it all of a sudden has detail and nuance.  

Studio works in progress. Photo by the artist.

A term that architects sometimes use to describe a city is to refer to its urban grain, and that sort of fits into thinking about its surfaces and textures on an almost granular level. I think that is reflected in the works I am making, block printing with wood is nothing if not an expression of the surface, how it has been treated, or neglected, or weathered starts to tell its own story. In the case of the prints I am making at the BSR I am adding to this my own subjective composition and colours which in fact are based on the colour combinations I have seen in marble in many of the churches.

Studio, woodblock printing. Works in progress. Photo by the artist.

How has your art evolved over time, especially after you moved from Texas to Europe? Do you think that everyone owns a sort of mnemonic archive/inventory of shapes that influence his/her imagination?

After working for many years (and I have been working in London for more than 20 years now) you get to a point where you can look back and see how everything connects up.  I think I recognise I have my own ‘default settings’, that is to say I keep returning to the same sort of aesthetic. For me that is probably based in some way on the flat, unending landscape where I come from and perhaps by extension is connected to American Minimalism – so an attention to materiality for it’s own sake, and a reductive approach where I am looking for the simplest way to achieve or depict something. I sometimes think I am trying to make non-fiction works, images that convey a truth or reality, a straight-forwardness about object or form. 

The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser).

Letters Post Covid-19: Sinta Tantra

Our Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator, Marta Pellerini, asked a series of artists to imagine and explore new ways of sharing and thinking about art in the aftermath of Covid-19. The following text is by artist Sinta Tantra (2016–17 Bridget Riley Fellow).


Just as the lockdown began, I was about to open a new solo exhibition, Modern Times, curated by Guillaume Vandame at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery in London. It felt chaotic in the week leading up to the opening in mid-March. However, I believed we had to push on, make the most of things and install the show as originally planned. What made it challenging was the significant amount of site-specific works we had to install — a pink vinyl on the glass roof; a live birdsong projected from a speaker on top of a tree; archival film footage; a painted mural on the staircase; a sculpture garden on the terrace.

As other London galleries were cancelling their private views that week, Kristin, my gallerist, decided that we would have an online opening using Instagram Live. We held an informal dinner with the team, and that evening, I cooked a Balinese dinner for all. The next day the reality of lockdown was finally sinking in, and without an end in sight, I felt the urgent need to document the show with more than just photography. I thought of an online video in the format of a virtual walk-through tour which would give viewers from home a more intimate experience. Once uploaded, the video gradually gained momentum online and was featured in several digital publications including Wallpaper and Elle Decoration. Sadly the exhibition never opened to the public, but it did curiously seemed to have self-generated a virtual life of its own.

Although friends have suggested that I should present virtual tours for future exhibitions, I think we can all agree that there is nothing quite like being face to face with an artwork — for me, it’s all about materiality. In particular, there is a shade of blue that I use in my paintings that just cannot be picked up by the camera. When the focus of the art is colour, perception, and its relationship to space and architecture, it’s essential to see the artwork with your own eyes rather than through a screen.

I am lucky that my studio is at home in my flat in North London. Since lockdown, I’ve been able to work consistently with my core team, producing paintings and developing new ideas for public artworks. I’ve started daily routines such as yoga and running, staying in touch with friends and family, and have even begun a little herb garden on my balcony which has inspired me to try new recipes and become friendlier with neighbours.

sinta tantra

Photograph: courtesy by the artist

Like other artists, many of my upcoming projects have been either postponed or cancelled. In some cases, the impact of COVID has forced me to change the work entirely. One example is with my public art commission in Treviso, Italy, where I was to create an interactive installation in the courtyard of the Gallerie delle Prigioni. Unfortunately today, audience participation is now seen as a contagion rather than an act of communion or togetherness. As an alternative, I designed a Love Seat, so that two participants can sit precisely at one metre apart — the exact measurement of social distancing in Italy. Has COVID somehow transformed this work into something more or less exciting? As artists, do we purposefully include the realities of COVID within our practice or seek to avoid them?

This global pandemic is a reminder to us all of the incredible value art brings into our lives, especially in these trying times. And as the world shifts with the additional impact of Black Lives Matter, I foresee the dramatic and unsettling transformations that lie ahead of us. Undoubtedly the world will never be the same, but we as artists and individuals have the power to be part of a positive change should we wish. I am scared, but at the same time hopeful — in fact, more hopeful than I have ever been.

Sinta Tantra (2016 –17 Bridget Riley Fellow).

The text is part of the project Letters post Covid-19 by BSR Visual Art Residency Residency and Programme Curator Marta Pellerini. Read Marta’s introduction to the project here.

Letters Post Covid-19: Alessandra Ferrini

Our Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator, Marta Pellerini, asked a series of artists to imagine and explore new ways of sharing and thinking about art in the aftermath of Covid-19. The following text is by artist and educator Alessandra Ferrini (2018 UAL Mead Rome Residency).


Reflections around the effects of the ‘Covid-19 emergency’ have a tendency of making generalisations, conceiving the lockdown and isolation measures as a monolithic experience. Yet, differences abound at both macro and micro levels. In the UK and US, for instance, it has been proven how Covid-19 has affected some demographics, specifically Black and South Asian, in a disproportionate way. In addition, the emergency measures have been impacting particularly those who are chronically ill, have a disability or struggle with mental health issues — as well as people whose immigration or housing status confines them at the margins, with no rights nor hope for support. Any reflection on ‘post Covid-19’, I believe, must take into account such varying experiences. To rethink the art world in light of the pandemic, thus, we should aim for a wider, structural transformation that actively fights systemic oppressions.

When emergency measures began, I remember hoping that mobility restrictions might lead to a sustained turn towards research, radical care and ‘deep listening’ in the arts, away from the focus on hyper production and visibility. Such aspects can be particularly detrimental for research-based practices that are not usually concerned with the art market and require long-term commitment with the object of study. As I was enjoying the slowing down of the art world (despite the risk of impending bankruptcy) museums and galleries were experiencing a crisis of identity fuelled by the fear of becoming irrelevant in a world dominated by virtual interaction. As it has happened, many have resorted to pre-crisis thinking through the hyper production and circulation of online content — often demanding artists to contribute without financial retribution. On the other hand, open calls and funding opportunities for hastily produced artworks in response to the Covid-19 emergency have mushroomed, asking artists to provide answers on such a heterogeneous and confusing new reality, without the appropriate space or tools to metabolize it. Then again, production has trumped research and the possibility of offering more thorough or mindful reflections.

All the while, the Black Lives Matter movement and the ecological crisis are demanding us to bring about a deep systemic change. As the art world slowly resumes to ‘business as usual’, can we develop a practice of radical care that won’t be cannibalised by turbocapitalist notions of progress and adaptation? Can we embrace research and deep listening to reshape the art system so that its political potential can be truly fulfilled? And in this equation what should the role of museums and galleries be? To radically rethink the system and valuing the ‘lessons’ of the Covid-19 emergency as well as the interconnected causes of the BLM and environmental rights movements, we need to renegotiate power dynamics and essentially commit to long-term investment in change rather than quick fixes.

Alessandra Ferrini is an artist, educator and PhD candidate at the University of the Arts London. Her work is lens-based and focuses on Italian foreign and racial politics, questioning the legacies of colonialism and Fascism.

The text is part of the project Letters post Covid-19 by BSR Visual Art Residency Residency and Programme Curator Marta Pellerini. Read Marta’s introduction to the project here

Letters Post Covid-19: Adam Chodzko

Our Visual Art Residency and Programme Curator, Marta Pellerini, asked a series of artists to imagine and explore new ways of sharing and thinking about art in the aftermath of Covid-19. The following text is by artist Adam Chodzko, Rome Scholar in Fine Arts (1998–9).


Where did this all begin?

I was really trying to wonder exactly that when January began, well before I’d heard of Coronavirus.  I’d retreated into my own self-imposed lockdown; a gift through a break from teaching or any other deadlines. Nobody out there was interested so, with nowhere to be, I could, I hoped, start identifying exactly what I most wanted to look at in the present. And, in this dithering mode, work on some drawings, which I need to do in these occasional chinks of air and light that temporarily leak into ruptures in the ‘bustle’.  I bought, for a sculpture, a part of a dismantled Tornado jet’s wing – a part that looked like a leaf from a Pixar animation; cute, yet bringing death from above.  I was given by a local scientist some microscopy images he’d made of the process of Ash die back disease spreading at cellular level. In addition I’d become pretty sure that the affect of growth hormones involved in the act of pruning were mirroring domestic human events…

Surrounded by all these loose ends I somehow ended up thinking about a particular moment, the act of eating, putting something (something ‘wrong’) inside the body, that’s described in the Genesis creation myth with the rapid succession of new feelings and actions that immediately followed this first instance of self-consciousness.  This sequence of events produces an incredibly rich, intoxicating and extraordinarily complex knot bound around some apparently simple everyday actions.   I read The Social Psychology of Adam and Eve, a paper by Professor of Sociology, Jack Katz and anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas’s amazing Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.  Both these texts seem to be about desire, limits, rules, beliefs, consciousness and the social.  At least, I began reading them but sensed that they were so significant that I had to take them very slowly as a drip feed.  Their message needed special time; for me to develop a higher intelligence in order to be able to properly understand them. Now it’s June; they still sit there waiting on the kitchen table, half read because they still seem too important.

In late February my elder son was in Vietnam on his gap year travels and sending out Instagram pics of himself doing cheeky poses on the border with China.  I became vigilant about monitoring the initial spread of the virus because he seemed so close to it.

With this series of prior encounters when the pandemic actually became our reality and not just other people’s and we (finally) went into lockdown I felt I’d already been dreaming it all as premonition. I was already in a massively slowed down state. I felt that I already knew how this enormous collective shift in reality felt and yet, despite this preparation, this ‘tip off’, still felt totally useless at recognising what it might really mean for us.

Covid has given us a model of contamination. It has shown how quickly something can become global just by going from one mouth to another. That’s an incredible demonstration of network theory. … It shows that we must not think of the personal and the collective as two distinct levels. The big climate questions can make individuals feel small and impotent. But the virus gives us a lesson. If you spread from one mouth to another, you can viralise the world very fast. That knowledge can re-empower us. —Bruno Latour

I like this idea of a rapid empowering viralising of the world through knowledge (and as importantly, the transmission of honest communication in the present to acknowledge what we don’t know) also managing to leap across time and between languages.  I’m increasingly reminded of Into Eternity, (2010), the brilliant documentary by Michael Madsen, about the construction of the Onkalo waste repository at the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant on the island of Olkiluoto, Finland.  It shows scientists speculating how to deal with our future us over the duration of 100,000 years when the nuclear waste finally becomes safe. Do they put a sign over the burial site warning future generations?  Or will a sign be misinterpreted as an indication that there’s treasure stashed below ground — an encouragement to explore?  What for me becomes the real subject of this film is the gentle, tentative, almost childlike way in which these scientists transmit their wonder, trying to extend their attention and care into such a distant future.  Nearly all of them seem to intuit that our future us will be a much more primitive species, comparatively (more) stupid, requiring a deeper level of consideration, responsibility and kindness; thinking ahead.

Adam Chodzko is an artist working across media, exploring our conscious and unconscious behaviour, social relations and collective imaginations through artworks that are propositions for alternative forms of ‘social media.’ Exhibiting work nationally and internationally since 1991, his work speculates how, through the visual, we might best connect with others. He was a Rome Scholar in Fine Arts (1998–9).

The text is part of the project Letters post Covid-19 by BSR Visual Art Residency Residency and Programme Curator Marta Pellerini. Read Marta’s introduction to the project here.

Letters from Lockdown: Pippo Ciorra

During lockdown, our Architecture Consultant, Marina Engel, asked a series of architects, to consider, or dream about, the role of the architect and urban design post Covid-19. The following text is by Pippo Ciorra, Professor of Design and Theory at University of Camerino and Senior Curator of Architecture at the MAXXI in Rome.


My premise is that I hope that things will slowly go back to normal. It will take time and there will be social and economic casualties, but — needless to quote Hobsbawm — human progress is also based on the ability to forget and leave behind mistakes and wounds. The alternative would be paralysis and regression. However, this is a big trauma, just like a world war, and recovery from global trauma always implies that human kind learns something from the experience and turns it into some kind of positive innovation. If this interview aims at identifying in which areas such innovations (or relevant changes) should/would happen, I can here propose three fields of action, all related to the space of living/working.

The first and most obvious directly concerns the space of the house. There are already thousands of Covid and post-Covid projects posted, in these days on the web, showing how to expand your home into a mini-office, mini-gym, mini-restaurant, mini-garden etc. It is certainly interesting and useful, because it will probably give a new impulse to research on residential space. Still, we should acknowledge the incredible resilience of the typology of the house, which has been basically the same for four millenniums, and which has easily absorbed any similar changes in the past.

What will probably achieve more radical change in both the living and working space (and beyond) is instead the infrastructure. Going back to war-fueled innovations, they mostly happened in the field of infrastructure and tools. It seems clear that this will also happen this time. In the short run, cities will have to manage the conflict between the persistence of fear and the need to bring back the previous degree of activity in physical infrastructure. In the longer run, every home will need to be provided with a much broader band and instant connectivity. It is not simply us teaching students online or companies run from home. Why couldn’t the robot building a car be managed from the worker’s home instead of at Wolfsburg? We will also need to investigate how to combine these anti-virus tools together with climate consciousness, being aware it could be a very productive alliance.

Coming to the third point, I would like to speculate on the idea of dystopia and “smartness”. What we have learnt in these days is that the two concepts seem to love each other more that we had already expected. We’re seeing a new kind of dystopian space: not the late XX Century chaos, pictured by Blade Runner or JG Ballard, but images of clean, empty and unpolluted cities with everybody at home and nobody disturbing the beauty of monuments and landscapes. Control in this kind of dystopia is transferred to the invisible activity of a trillion networks and devices, monitoring and influencing our lives. We already knew that smart had a lot to do with control and we have already lost most of the battles in this war, but clearly the virus condition pushes this to the limit. This is where we will have to watch carefully and build some conceptual resistance. It will be important both to go back to the streets, the original space for democracy, and to build consciousness and counter-actions in the digital world.

Pippo Ciorra is Professor of Design and Theory at the SAAD School of Architecture and Design, University of Camerino. He is Senior Curator of Architecture at the MAXXI, Rome and Director of the International PhD Program Villard d’Honnecourt, IUAV Venezia.

The text is part of the project Letters From Lockdown by BSR Architecture Consultant Marina Engel. Read Marina’s introduction to the project here.