Paola Pivi’s Truth and Lies

Paola Pivi’s artistic practice explores the playfulness of the mind through mediums that range from photographic works of zebras standing on frozen tundra to life-size sculptures of bears covered in neon feathers. Most recently, she created slowly rotating bicycles wheels adorned with the feathers of various birds. Now on view at the Dallas Contemporary, Pivi’s first U.S. museum retrospective “Ma’am” spans the last 20 years of her career and features works from each of these series, placing some of her most iconic pieces in conversation with one and other. An upside down Fiat G-91 fighter jet, created for the 1997 Venice Biennale (where it received the Golden Lion award), greets viewers, but behind the daunting plane is an alcove filled with nine of her bears, all positioned to appear as though they are interacting. Her giant inflatable ladder, Untitled (Project for Echigo-Tsumari), rests on the ground, marking the first time that the piece has been displayed both inside and horizontally.

Pivi was raised in Milan, but has since resided around the world, from Alaska to India, and each locale has seeped its way into her practice. Living on an island in Sicily resulted in her first use of animals and her time spent in Alaska resulted in the bears. The location, however, does not overtly influence the output. “My thinking does not come from the place or the animal. It comes from this abstract process we all have, this subconscious, the brain,” Pivi says when we meet her in Dallas. “It’s not physical. It’s very abstract and then I make it physical.”

Now 45 years old, Pivi lives with her husband, the freedom activist, writer, and composer Karma Lama, in New Delhi, where they’ve been battling a court case regarding the adoption of their son for the last three years. The hardships faced while removed from the art world are leading Pivi toward a new kind of practice, one that is less playful and more focused on the proliferation of lies. We met the artist just before the opening of “Ma’am” to discuss her work and where it’s heading.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: Untitled (Project for Echigo-Tsumari) has been exhibited outside twice, both times standing vertically. How do you think showing it not only inside, but also horizontally changes the work?

PAOLA PIVI: It changes it completely. When it was in the school in Japan, it was part of the city environment, which was really a small village. When it was in Palazzo Strozzi, a Renaissance building, it was unbelievable, standing up, almost reaching the top. Here, it’s very sculptural, almost like a conceptual work. I proposed showing it inside when I was thinking about what I could include in this show and what would fit. I wanted to have something fun.

MCDERMOTT: Can you tell me about the new works?

PIVI: I’ve been working on them for a few months, since the beginning of the year. I’m not even sure what I’m going to call them. “Dreamcatchers” is what I thought when I first saw them, but maybe they can have a better title—the titles actually come from my husband, so it’s what he proposes and then I choose. The starting point was bicycle of Duchamp, because I was invited to do a show in Canada based on the bicycle of Duchamp and then I had this vision. But that show didn’t happen, or happened without me, so this is the first time they’re being exhibited. You have the wheel, you have time, you have the animal, and when I look at them installed, it’s almost like when you rewind a movie. It has that effect. Also, I feel like they tickle your brain. The simplicity and playfulness are what I love the most.

MCDERMOTT: The first animal you ever used in your work was an ostrich and then you introduced bears when living in Alaska. What role do animals play in your everyday life? What initially inspired you to start working with them?  

PIVI: I was totally surprised when it happened. I was living on a tiny island called Alicudi [in Sicily] and one of the locals had two ostriches because he wanted to start a business with them. I had a vision to put two ostriches on a boat, and that’s how this started. For a few years after that, I had a lot of ideas with animals. For the Untitled (Zebra) works, it was zebras and those photos are not done with Photoshop. They’re completely real. I made three shots, and in two there is not a single change. In the third, I had to remove a fence, but otherwise nothing was changed. They were taken in Italy where there is a huge expanse of land, quite high on a mountain, and not in the touristic area. It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve seen because it’s near Rome and nobody knows there are mountains near Rome. Everybody goes to the Alps, but here, they have a natural area used for cross-country skiing. We just let the zebras roam free for two days and we, the crew, followed them, taking photos.

MCDERMOTT: Have you recognized these subconscious impulses throughout your entire life?

PIVI: I think I’ve had them my whole life. I was studying engineering, I was not considering the possibility to be an artist, or that even art existed, until I went to the [Milan] Art Academy to do something fun. I met an amazing teacher, Alberto Garutti, and suddenly I understood that these things coming from me had a place in society called contemporary art. There was a home for me.

I really did not know the concept of art. When you grow up, some areas of the world are out of your knowledge—especially when I grew up, in the ’70s and ’80s. Now, you have access to everything, but back then you did not because of the way the media was, and society imposed more directions, structures, and restrictions. It’s not like art was prohibited, but art was not something that the people around me presented. So I developed it very much on my own growing up. I remember games I did with my little brother, where I would put things on his head and take photos.

MCDERMOTT: What did your family think when you decided to pursue art instead of engineering?

PIVI: I dropped out of chemical nuclear engineering—I was trying to find something that would give me excitement or satisfaction—so they absolutely hated me. For six months we didn’t talk, I had to move out, and there was this big story. But then I think the successes that I had made it easier to go back into family life. It could’ve been harder, had I not had success. I imagine other artists have a harder time.

MCDERMOTT: Going back to the work in the show, how do you feel seeing Untitled (Airplane) now, nearly 20 years after it was created?

PIVI: It’s significance or weight has definitely changed because it’s a military plane and today, what is happening is disgusting. I think we are all responsible. I’m not doing anything [through my work], but this airplane upside down will deliver a commentary. It’s not its main message, but today it has a message. This could be a drone upside down. The next piece [I make] will be about lies and truth. It will be really different from my other work.

MCDERMOTT: What led to truth and lies?

PIVI: I spent the last three years battling in court for the adoption of my son. I have suffered from how people use lies as a tool of aggression. Suddenly all the lies of world came to the surface, like a bowl of soup or swimming pool. I see lies everywhere—switch on the television, it’s lies. Everything is lies. In the art world or science community, we are intellectuals, people who research, who are interested in learning and thinking. I think the level of lies is way lower than when you step into what I call “the outside world.” There, the level of lies is overwhelming. When you say these things, people will say, “No, there are also lies in the art world and scientific world,” but it’s the extent of its use, or the quantity of people that are not interested in lies and strive for the truth in these research fields that makes a difference.

With my court case, I was basically deported from the art world into the non-art world and forced to engage there. When we are artists, researchers, or writers, we choose what we do with our time, who we talk to. Of course we have commitments, but the amount of freedom we have with what to do or what to research is humongous compared to others.

MCDERMOTT: Did you find it harder to make artwork in the last three years because you were not surrounded by the art world?

PIVI: If somebody told me three years ago, “You’re going to go to court 110 times,” I would’ve been terrified of not being able to do my art. But actually—I don’t know how to say this without sounding very cheesy—the art is a very strong power and came out no matter what. Unless you are in a survival situation, if you allow yourself to be creative, to be thinking, to be developing, there will be outbursts. You can say, almost beauteously, when you have less time for art, you have to select your best practice.

But I really felt abused and brainwashed. I learned how the brain is the softest organ we have—how soft the brain literally is and also how easily it can be manipulated. I think I will survive the whole thing, but there are lots of coincidences. For example, somehow I might have been trained to sustain stress through my life and through my art, together with my husband, who is a freedom activist. He has that very rare brainpower to not be brainwashed. When these people who abuse you, repeat bad things about yourself to you 70,000 times…

MCDERMOTT: You start to believe it.

PIVI: And that’s exactly what they want. But my husband had clear vision and that helped me. Also, when people abuse you with lies, with words, curtailing your freedom, you start to feel dirty. Even though I did not suffer physical abuse or rape, I can understand how when people abuse you, you feel that dirt. When somehow throws a pile of shit on you and you go to complain, you’re the stinky one and the person who threw the pile of shit is saying, “No I didn’t. She threw it on herself.”