A one-way dialogue between artists of different generations, in which the young testifies to the influence of the old

Italo Zuffi on the work of Eva Marisaldi

You walk for hours and your stride has something wonderful about it. After long and painstaking preparations you are in full strength, at the peak of your physical condition. You have reached the harmonious shape that you were looking for, and you climb confidently, flowing through the pathways like a liquid being poured onto and gliding along an incline. Suddenly you have to stop, something holds you back: your sleeve has got caught on a nettled branch and it won’t let go, it’s getting tighter. You try to wrench but you can’t wriggle yourself free. At that moment you experience a mild but stubborn feeling of imprisonment. A little accident like this does not require any kind of rescue. It is not even worth looking round you for help: better to look within instead. Alone and wheezing slightly, with the sweat still oozing over you, covering you, you make use of the introspective tool. Once it has done its job, the time will come to decide what there is of yourself to keep hold of, and what there is to reset.

Eva Marisaldi, <em>Post it</em>, 2010; courtesy the artist – photo by Luigi Acerra

I waited for several weeks to be led to a starting point from which to begin this text. I stumbled upon a question and found in it the impetus I needed: “Would you pay the same as I would for a glass of milk?” Molte domande non hanno una risposta (Many Questions Have No Answer) was the title of one of Eva Marisaldi’s first exhibitions.1 But I want to talk primarily about a particular one of her pieces, Uomini al lavoro (Men at Work), a three-dimensional presence from 1997.2 I remember taking a long time to take that piece in, and most of all I remember absorbing it non-centrally. The things we experience do not always reach us by a straight path. Sometimes they come via the workings of our perception, like a stranger who shows his face but avoids all other forms of interaction. His aim: to settle in and stay as unsolved encumbrance, which, every so often, you will question about your own intentions.

There are only three years separating me from Eva. 69 to 66. But the recognition that her quick progress got her was such that I frequently found her works in the exhibitions I visited during my first years of training, often without knowing how to decipher them. Not that this reading is easier now. But over time it has become clear that indecipherability is it- self a necessary part of any work of art – its oxygen.

Right from the beginning Uomini al lavoro (Men at Work) thus presented itself as a rather impenetrable piece, which I am still now unable to fully decipher. Having decided to submit to a regime of transparency, I wish to admit: I have looked through the publications that I have about Eva Marisaldi’s work for passages that might help me better understand the genesis and contents of this particular piece. But I gave up on this search before getting to any indication (a phrase, a clue) that might influence the impressions I have kept or elaborated upon over the years. My account and my analysis therefore develop only from what is stored in my memory. A work that entered by way of a lateral perspective, together with its mysterious purpose, and its shape that doesn’t tell. They stay inscrutably bound up in each other: Title; Aim; Form. Description of the visible: pairs of metal sheets leaning between the wall and the floor, varnished white, but very dusty. The sheets show a lighter circular area divided in two halves. In the proximity of the center of the circle is a hole (perhaps made to leave space for a finger to pass through), which suggests that they function as doors which can be opened to make accessible both the little space and the shadow behind it. They look like shutters, parts of furnishings that survived the irreparable spoliation of an interior (burglary, moving out, abandonment). They suffered long-term neglect until someone, in an undefined moment of their history, went near them with some cloth and removed the layer of dust, but only to shape it into a disc that more or less straddles the sheets in pairs. Perhaps this was done by a cleaner. Here it is, the tangible evidence of the transit of men at work.

“Would you pay the same as I would for a glass of milk?” is one of the questions from near the end of Thomas Bernhard’s Gelo (Frost), a question which along with many others forms a long soliloquy – per- formed speedily and as if in only one breath – which the elderly painter addresses to his young interlocutor, the young medical student who listens to and chronicles his recurring monologues. “Would you pay the same as I would for a glass of milk?” is a question aimed at finding evidence of inequality within a group of people who should avoid personal privileges or advantages. If favoritism were bestowed upon any one person at the expense of another, measures would have to be taken straight away to restore balance; to reinstate that agreement on the basis of which everyone has to cooperate with equal rights and duties, sharing a same position in order to reach a common goal; to establish and stick to rules that involve and guarantee coexistence and cooperation. Loyalty used as a working tool and as a condition for keeping the field clear. Deception and distortion as causes for suspicion, delay and inefficiency on the assembly line.

Eva Marisaldi, <em>Uomini al lavoro</em>, 1996; courtesy the artist

Who are the men at work, and what is the reason for their restlessness? Marisaldi’s production displays a kind of fascination with the image of men busy on their jobs. The theme of work appears in various pieces of hers, either at one remove (the places, or particular items, of labor), or directly (people in the midst of reorganizing, of getting things done, of getting on with it). Even the actors (in works that include stills taken from films, realized in basrelief, or in embroidery), seem to have been chosen precisely to the extent that they are workers, employees who earn a living, who carry out tasks by referring to an organization that directs them, and to a complex production apparatus in which there are only minimal distinctions separating the ranks of the various staff. (Of which the actors are, together with the director, simply the most visible part). In Marisaldi’s work, instructions are given which are essential to reaching an enhanced mental and physical condition necessary to generate a better output and a higher ability to carry out the tasks assigned: artworks that involve training, exercising, straining of the body. I would also like to mention one of her latest pieces – the enlarged representation of the interiors, channels and empty spaces of an anthill.3 The appearance is that of an enormous yellow fabric root, while it is actually a soft sculpture derived from the idea of filling (and then over-enlarging) the routes of communication and travel and of the chambers (the latter made in the form of little sacks) of the insects busy at their tasks, all subjugated to the queen and her needs. It is thus no accident that the choice of subject is an anthill, commonly understood as an extremely efficient and exemplary model organization of a workforce, with everyone occupied in clear goals and tasks. Without forgetting its symbolic level, which also ought to be discussed.

Any visitor to a Marisaldi exhibition is demanded an engagement by means of which to make the most of their time there. Those who come into the gallery space clock in and submit to the discipline imposed by the works displayed. Even if only temporarily, the exhibition space becomes a work environment, a temping agency, a place that prepares for the body’s movements. On the other hand, the gallery offices are transfigured into places for breaks, rest and recreation. Eva is an uncompromising employer. Eva, against unemployment, proposes permanent employment on every level. She also seems to suggest a potential equivalence between the artist’s craft and that of the worker. Just like the artist, through his/ her own work, cannot but represent truth (that is, s/ he is condemned to express a truth) so the employee takes on the job following the simple impulse to produce – just like worker ants do, carrying on and constructing without showing any sign of alienation or disappointment.

Formally, Uomini al lavoro (Men at Work) is almost a monochrome: it possesses the selfsame precision and off-white loudness, even if, for various reasons, it swerves from the consistency of the mono- chrome’s historic corpus. It is also the container of a rotary movement. It is also a target. It is also a black- board in negative.

An attempt at an answer to the question asked in Gelo (Frost): you take two glasses of milk, you pay the same amount for them, but with money taken
from the pockets of two different individuals.

The men at work on the dusty metal sheets did not use their own initiative when, with fair skill, they let the damp cloth flow to draw the discs. They were directed (in a cinematic sense), otherwise they would certainly have gone outside the lines.

1 Molte domande non hanno una risposta, solo exhibition at the Galleria Neon, Bologna, 1997
2 Uomini al lavoro, 1997. Varnished metal sheet and dust
3 Post it, 2010. Wood, cloth from rubble bags, stuffing

Italo Zuffi (1969) uses sculpture, performance, video and writing to create “not a complete drawing, but rather an indefinite series of rooms.” For some time now, his thought has been drawn to concepts of competition, trembling and rustic faith.