BY Tom Morton in Features | 01 OCT 09
Featured in
Issue 126

Letting Go

Employing media as diverse as a suspended caravan and a levitating donkey, Lara Favaretto unearths the romance and possibility buried in futility

BY Tom Morton in Features | 01 OCT 09

Suspended from a mechanical spindle set high in the gallery ceiling, a thick brown rope, some four and a half metres long and woven through with human hair, churns giddily through the air. Its movement is not that of the whip or the lasso – it lacks their snapping menace, or arcing grace – but there’s enough power in its drunken flailing to make you want to keep well away. On a stretch of whitewashed gallery wall, its tip has stained the paint with scuffs, welts and incisions. (I’m reminded, oddly, of a story my father once told me about the discovery of the body of a monk who had died trapped in the catacombs of Paris, his fingers worn to stumps from feeling his way hopelessly in the dark.) This is Italian artist Lara Favaretto’s É così se mi interessa (It is so if it Interests Me, 2006), and it is her hair, cut off after years of dreadlocked coagulation, that scratches the paintwork.

Lara Favaretto, I poveri sono matti (The Poor are Mad), 2005-8, mixed media, installation view, Castelo di Rivoli, Turin. Courtesy: Castelo di Rivoli - Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli, Turin, and the artist

A dead growth here attains a second artificial life, wearing itself away in the creation of an image, its atoms smashing against each other in a useless transferal and expenditure of energy. While the title of the work points, with mock-haughtiness, to an act of artistic will, in truth it is an exercise in letting go, in recognizing the contingency of its own existence not only on its maker, but on the systems – both human and blandly material – in which it must operate. Caught up in the rope’s lolloping movement is the idea of it at rest, drooping sadly to the floor after the gallery staff have switched off the motor and dimmed the lights. In these dark hours, I imagine it dreaming dreams of its own destruction, and the bleak stains and skid-marks it might leave as it gradually ceases to be.

As though in recognition of the impossibility of permanent success or survival, Favaretto’s images, objects and events all aspire towards a carefully planned failure or collapse. Her I poveri sono matti (The Poor are Mad, 2005–8) is a case in point. Here, a gypsy caravan – emitting a recording of the popular World War II-era polka, Rosamunde – is suspended some 20 metres off the ground by a crane, the striking fact of its levitation undercut by the stark visibility of the quotidian device that raised it to the heavens. For her earlier, related video work Sollevarlo non vuol dire volarlo (Donkeys Might Fly, 1999), the artist invited a group of friends to the countryside near the northern Italian city of Bologna where she suggested that they find a way to make a donkey levitate, working on the premise that it might be something that these pack animals are capable of. (In Italy, the phrase ‘donkeys might fly’ has the same meaning as the English ‘pigs might fly’, indicating the impossibility of a projected undertaking.) The friends hover around the beast, smoking cigarettes and debating the best course of action, as it munches indifferently at the scrubby brush. They suggest hypnotizing it, paying it compliments, singing it a lullaby, employing blue-screen technology, and, more violently, running it over a cliff, burning it to sky-born ashes, or filling its belly with helium, jet fuel and a flock of sparrows. Now and then, they question the nature of their mission. One of them remarks that ‘if donkeys don’t fly, it’s because they are not supposed to fly […] that is the moral’, while another claims that ‘this is pointless’, only to be reminded that ‘not everything has a point’. Finally, after attempting to entice it up a tree with a box of crackers, and linking arms around it while urging it ‘up! up!’, they resort to hoisting it into the air. The earlier words of one of them, ‘lifting it up doesn’t mean flying’, is the ghost at the feast of their tired, happy smiles.

Lara Favaretto, Sollevarlo non vuol dire volarlo (Donkeys Might Fly), 1999, DVD still. Courtesy: Galleria Franco Noero, Turin, and the artist

What is fascinating about Sollevarlo non vuol dire volarlo is not just the humorous futility of the friends’ appointed task (which at times recalls a team building exercise dreamt up by a crazed management consultant), but the way in which each of them deals with the conceptual paradox Favaretto has put into play. As the varied proffered solutions indicate, different personalities approach it as an empirical problem, or an opportunity to engage in lateral thinking, or as a romantic fiction, to which another romantic fiction is the only response. A rough and ready work of anthropology, the video is a case study in human ingenuity employed not to useful ends, but for the sheer sparkling thrill of cognition.

The notion of aerial beast of burden is also floated in Project for a Utopia 2001 (2001– ongoing), a project that remains unrealized outside of a digital animation. Favaretto’s plan is to fabricate a giant hot air balloon in the shape of a winged donkey, which will fly across European national borders, transmitting a live television show from a basket slung beneath its belly in which philosophers, politicians, celebrities and others will discuss the values connected with the (as yet not wholly ratified) European Constitution, with particular reference to ‘Chapter 1, Article 1: Dignity’, which recognizes dignity as the minimum fundamental denominator of all human rights. As the artist has written: ‘The transmission will be broadcast live so that the invited guests can be precise, while allowing room for the unexpected, and the possibility of error and banality in their reactions to reality. The speakers will alternate during the course of this journey, expounding their views in the arc of time between leaving one place and reaching another, as though symbolically expressing the abandonment of one perspective in favour of the conquest of a different horizon of thought, and a different view of the concept of dignity. It all ends with a big party, the gift of a day, when “human resources” meet.’ One imagines the balloon landing in Lisbon, London or Ljubljana and eliciting much the same mixture of excitement and vague trepidation that travelling carnivals do. Project for a Utopia 2001 is, of course, in many ways an absurd proposal (‘You want to do what? Seriously?’),

It's hard to shake the idea of say, Jacques Rancière, Nicolas Sarkozy and Vanessa Paradis in a vast rubber donkey discussing dignity.

but it is one that highlights the fact that while an attempt to define and enshrine dignity is being made at a legislative level, the discussions that surround this process have made few incursions into popular discourse, media reporting on the Constitution having focused largely on a narrow set of nationalist anxieties. Favaretto’s choice of an inflatable donkey as a vehicle for debate is ambiguous: the creature embodies not only folk associations of stupidity, stubbornness and empty words, but also religiosity – it carried Jesus Christ – and is associated with the wild, wine-soaked god Dionysus. The donkey of course also directs us, as in Sollevarlo non vuol dire volarlo, towards the idea of an impossible enterprise, and while Favaretto continues to attempt to get her balloon off the ground, the financial and organizational challenges this would involve, from fabrication to clearance with air-traffic control to the guest list for the closing party, are by any reckoning difficult to surmount. Perhaps, as in her (declined) invitation to the British Queen to visit Frieze Art Fair, Project for Some Hallucinations (2007), the point is the expenditure of energy in the pursuit of the improbable. Of that work, Favaretto has said: ‘It is not important to know whether the Queen will come to the fair or not because, once the news of my inviting her spreads, the image of her visit will already be implanted in people’s minds. It is like when one listens to the relating of an idea that is so powerful it ultimately does not matter if it is ever realized, since there is already enough substance by which to visualize it’.1 Similarly, it’s hard to get the idea out of one’s head of, say, Jacques Rancière, Nicolas Sarkozy and Vanessa Paradis discussing dignity as they float over Paris in a vast rubber donkey.

Lara Favaretto, Project for a Utopia 2001, 2001 - ongoing, digital projection. Courtesy: Galleria Franco Noero, Turin, and the artist

Time and again, Favaretto returns to the notion of the ‘Bachelor Machine’ (the term is taken from the uselessly whirring, almost masturbatory automata in the lower portion of Marcel Duchamp’s 1915–23 work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass). It is present in the flailing rope of hair in È così se mi interessa, in the collection of cylinders of compressed air that make up Plotone (Platoon, 2005–8), which now and then emit a mournful parp on a party whistle, and which the artist has referred to as ‘an army betrayed or defeated’, and in Simple Couples (2009), in which a collection of colourful motorized brushes of the kind usually found in a car wash wear away against thick iron plates, scorching their filaments into nothingness. As Duchamp knew, all bachelors – and we are all bachelors from time to time, hopeless in the face of something we think we need, or want – require a bride to enamour them with ‘love gasoline’, prompting their foolish, hopeless motions, and for Favaretto that bride would seem to be every empty distraction, and every promise of perfectability, permanence and total control that the human imagination affords. In The Large Glass, the automata are separated from the object of their desire by a prophylactic bar, doomed to eternal fruitlessness and frustration. If this glazed lead cage, though, is our species’ tragi-comic lot, perhaps there is a place of temporary respite. In a recent work, Favaretto offers up just such a location – the moist inbetweenness of the swamp.

Lara Favaretto, Momentary Monument (Swamp), 2009, black peat, vegetable earth, volcanic sand, water, cellulose, objects, iron, wood, installation view, 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009.  Courtesy: Galleria Franco Noero, Turin, and the artist; photograph: Ela Bialkowska

Commissioned by Daniel Birnbaum for the exhibition ‘Fare Mondi Making Worlds’ at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Momentary Monument (Swamp) is a marshland created by introducing peat, volcanic sand, decomposing vegetable matter, iron, wood and water into the manicured environs of the Giardino della Vergini, sited at the fag end of the Arsenale. Inspired by the disappearances of the artist Bas Jan Ader and the chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer, this formless, fertile swatch of land (so damp against the dry grass of the Giardino) is for Favaretto: ‘A cemetery. A landscape that is a treasure trove of empty tombs, where the buried and the deceased remain without name, surviving in a symbiosis of mystery and desire, of salvation and perdition, of refuge and resignation. They are burials that raise doubts and make one wonder if some of them have suffered a non-death, continuing to live in peace. The swamp might be a cemetery in which the deceased grow old with their own inventions, protecting their dreams. It is a storeroom of desires’. The artist claims to have submerged a number of objects within the swamp, to wrangle out their deals with time, change and inevitable rot beneath its sodden surface, away from curious eyes – no need, there, to resolve one’s contradictions, or kid yourself or others you’ll live forever, or to scar the turning world before it scars you. Favaretto has not named the swallowed objects, but I can’t help fantasizing that they are the material leavings of her entire oeuvre. And fantasies, as she has said, are sometimes so vivid that they feel almost real.

All quotes from the artist’s unpublished notes.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.