A conversation between Roberto Cuoghi and Timo Kappeller

Roberto Cuoghi, Scale Model of SS(XCVP)c, 2019 © Roberto Cuoghi. Photo: Alessandra Sofia

  • Jan 13, 2019

Timo Kappeller is a Director who, although based in New York, looks after a number of the gallery’s Italian artists and estates. He has been engrossed in Roberto Cuoghi’s work since Roberto joined the program earlier this year.

Timo Kappeller: What I find interesting about your work is that it’s hard to find direct references to art history or the world outside your studio. It seems that the reference system for your work is produced entirely by yourself. Is this something you think about, or does it just happen? Roberto Cuoghi: Yes, it’s something I think about, or that I take pills not to think about. I tried to feign an interest in contemporary art for a couple of years and I even read something about it, but I’m not familiar with the work of other artists except when I’ve come across it by accident. Everyone can decide what they prefer to know. An art historian can do excellent work while believing that hippopotamuses are female rhinoceroses. I’m already familiar with the world ‘outside’ my studio and I know what to encourage. I am committed to persevering with unreasonable ideas that are threatened by common sense. Interferences dissipate that persistence and I am not obliged to act in conformity with a specialized sector. TK: Your work appears universal to me in the sense that it is not specific to a place or culture. I mean in the way that a Jasper Johns flag painting or Paul McCarthy’s ketchup bottle would place the work in a specific country. Does it matter that you are an Italian artist working in Italy? RC: Perhaps American artists are more motivated  to represent their traditions. In Italy, you stumble over traditions. Being in a specific country and having a specific culture that stems from specific traditions is defined by subtraction with respect to the cultural pâté on which we are all floating. Years ago, I performed a Chinese song, as if I were a young female court singer from before the time of the People’s Republic. But the original song is a swing number arranged for the marines who landed in Shanghai. Only someone from China would realize that my song is a fake. The starting point is not the tradition to which I feel I belong or to which I decide to conform. The starting point is always the pâté.

‘We are learning to live in ‘overdose,’ that is the topic: the noise drowns out the signal. The fact that the public for art looks for references is a hangover from that linear way of understanding things.’

TK: We did a solo presentation of your work earlier this year at an art fair in New York. Visitors commented that your work reminded them of other artists, ranging from Joseph Cornell to Paul Thek and Jason Rhoades. None of these artists were Italian or even European. Is there an Italian artist you feel close to? RC: Futurism and Art Informel, or the artists of the postwar economic boom, deciphered signals that are now history, in the sense of a story as linear narration. I grew up in front of a TV with a remote in my hand. The banks of this story have burst. It is a Malthusian principle that regards a supply of information that is no longer proportionate to our cognitive capacities, which are still the same. We are learning to live in ‘overdose,’ that is the topic: the noise drowns out the signal. The fact that the public for art looks for references is a hangover from that linear way of understanding things. If I were to consciously fit in with historiographical conventions to ensure that my work made sense, I would feel like a bureaucrat, not an artist. History belongs to us in any case. Not everyone can explain the difference between special relativity and general relativity, but we can all use GPS on our smartphones. We live with the consequences of history. Needing to produce consequences in keeping with agreed schemes of interpretation is a reasonable swindle.

Roberto Cuoghi, SS(XCVP)c (detail), 2019 © Roberto Cuoghi. Photo: Alessandra Sofia

Installation view, ‘Roberto Cuoghi. Belinda’, The Encyclopedic Palace, 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy, 2013 © Roberto Cuoghi. Photo: Francesco Galli

TK: You studied at the Accademia di Brera in Milan under Alberto Garutti, who was influential for a generation of Italian artists emerging in the 1990s. Even though it seems difficult to connect your work to other Italian artists, how was this time at Brera significant to you? RC: The word ‘study’ is not appropriate; there’s never been much to study at the Accademia di Brera. Or perhaps, coming as I did from a provincial town, the only thing I was interested in was to urbanize myself, to hit rock bottom and start digging. Garutti made some of my modes of conduct legitimate, in part without realizing it. In that sense, he was fundamental because he kept me engaged. He had triggered a self-sustaining hierarchical mechanism: those who showed themselves to be more advanced had an advantage over the others, and so you had to defend yourself. After a couple of years, however, the emotional wear took its toll among the students and the envious ones started to oppress the others, and so I got out of there fast. I hung out with a small group of neurotic people like me, who are all dead today; we dismissed the other students as the ones who had ‘adapted.’ Garutti kept us informed about the right galleries, the right museums, the right magazines, and it became natural to look at the works from a conceptual perspective. Soon though, an ethical scale of ‘evaluation’ emerged that ended up oversimplifying things. When you want to stress an aesthetic that has a content of a moral character, when the work has, of necessity, to be dialogical, because the beautiful is beautiful when it is good, you may end  up making a park bench. TK: At Hauser & Wirth I also work closely with the Fabio Mauri Estate. Even though your work is very different from his, I see similarities in the area of total commitment to an artistic practice. You and Mauri both went through an extreme transformative experience before starting to work as artists. You decided to turn your life into that of an old man when you were 25. You remained in this state for seven years and it wasn’t meant to be an artwork or a performance. Did this influence your practice in the years that followed and how?

Roberto Cuoghi. Photo: Alessandra Sofia

RC: Honestly, I don’t think I know. It happened, but I don’t know what would have happened if it hadn’t. Tragically, what seems to attract me is the loss of control. Serious obesity is a simple key to understanding what I mean. I restrict my desires and discard all the rest, then fall into it. Perhaps I have simply grown used to being wrong; before I was only old, now I have grown up. TK: Later in your practice you immersed yourself in long periods of study, as you did for Šuillakku. You recreated ancient musical instruments, which no one had seen before and you had to learn to play from scratch. In recent years, you have been working with various sculptural processes. For example, you have mastered traditional methods of firing ceramics but have also invented completely new techniques of working with clay. What specifically are you working on now? RC: It is difficult to explain what I am doing today in concrete terms, because for the moment it is just collecting data. But if we stay with the excess  of information, I can try to explain the reason for this collection of data. The increase in the content available to us is not in question. In general, however, it is brainless. It grows  and that’s all. The supply grows because demand grows and demand grows because it knows that the supply  will find a way to meet the growth in demand. The  most basic rule is that the more there is of something, the less it costs, and these contents can accumulate. We have more and more systems for accumulating them, and in the process, they become models. Models of behavior, rules of presentation, styles of life... styles. I’m no longer able to see things any other way: stylization is the main ingredient of that ‘pâté’ I was talking about. Our idea of democracy seems to have become stylized, but even the revolutions look to me more like a stylization of revolution. In Belgrade, there is a school where they teach techniques of insurrection to young militants from all over the world. Why not? It’s a specialized branch in the sector of innovation. I don’t believe anyone is prepared to consider the consequences of stylization becoming the only way of internalizing reality. Past a certain threshold, the capacities for analysis no longer find the criteria to separate what  is authentic from what is not. That’s not a catastrophe, it just quietly happens. I’m working on it though! TK: Could you talk about how the recent transformation of your studio into the studio of a ‘sculptor’ relates to previous projects and how they differ, or are similar? RC: It’s always been just a matter of possibility.  I started by working in a small apartment that I contaminated with all sorts of powders and resins. Now I have two studios, a clean one and a dirty one. Now everything is permitted; I can risk a fire breaking out and offer you a gin and tonic. – Roberto Cuoghi’s unique sculptures are part of Hauser & Wirth’s presentation at Art Basel, from 13 – 16 June 2019.