PRINT May 2004


In the first volume of her Notebooks, Simone Weil argues that there is no such thing as collective thought but rather only that of the individual thinker. Disagreeing with this proposition, I have been happy to see it contested in the initiatives of the young Italian artist Lara Favaretto.

I refer to Favaretto’s projects as initiatives rather than works because her practice is distinguished by its orientation toward collaboration. Since her school days at Milan’s Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in the mid- to late ’90s, Favaretto has been conceiving and executing her ideas in concert with others, documenting her productions—which are almost always improvised—on video or in photographs, then editing the results. In the process, she challenges the solipsism of individual artmaking and, with her playful, paradoxical approach, betrays a fundamental distrust of formal languages. As she explains, “I have always tried to reverse roles. I am interested in the artist not in the position of a Super-something but rather as coauthor, coscriptwriter. The idea becomes the protagonist. The idea is put on trial, and while awaiting suitable partners who will develop it, it becomes the pretext for the encounters . . . a meeting point.”

Take, for example, a 1999 piece for which the artist tested the idea “when donkeys fly” (an expression used by Italians to suggest that an occurrence is absurdly impossible, as in English with pigs). Favaretto, in another kind of reversal, stubbornly insists that donkeys should fly. She brought a group of people to the countryside near Bologna—an area populated by donkeys—and asked them, jokingly, to consider how to make the animals take flight. Deliberations and debates ensued, finally resulting in nonsensical proposals: have them eat live swallows, fill them with helium, lend them Air France boarding passes, stage voodoo rituals. These exchanges are documented in the eighteen-minute video Sollevarlo non vuol dire volarlo (Lifting It Up Doesn’t Mean Flying). A similarly convivial variation on this theme occurred when the artist gathered hunters in central Italy and asked them to interact with donkeys. Among her inspirations: Goya’s Caprichos, in which men carry donkeys on their shoulders. Two large-scale color photographs resulted from the day of play, Long Playing, 2001, and Mondo alla rovescia (The World Back-to-Front), 2001–2002.

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his study of Rabelais, describes how the “carnival celebrated a temporary liberation from the reigning truth and existing order.” Favaretto, in creating nonsense, reengages this overturning of accepted hierarchies. Indeed, in her work, utter, anti-economical pointlessness is sometimes exactly the point. For Doing, 1998, for instance, she asked three masons to chip away at three blocks of marble until the stone was reduced to dust. The workers fulfilled the task, but not without voicing objections about the futility of the activity and the waste of material. Their hammering was recorded and can be heard on a CD.

A more explicit adoption of the carnival theme occurs in Treat or Trick, 2002–2003, a complex passage through various languages and cultures, again all involving participatory actions. The first phase of the work was a film shot in Cuba during carnival. Later Favaretto returned to Italy and made gigantic, colorful papier-mâché heads inspired by the masks worn by characters in her film. Indulging her inclination for the comic-ridiculous and borrowing from the traditions of folk celebrations, Favaretto led volunteers wearing the bizarre heads in improvised processions, first in Bergamo for the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, then in Trento at the Galleria Civica d’Arte Contemporanea, then at a train station in Brussels. Having created a dialogue between the Cuban and European occasions, she ended the processions in the exhibition spaces and there displayed the heads as sculptures.

Others of the artist’s endeavors have also been of this less ephemeral sort. But her sculptures, which she calls “machines of enjoyment,” have meaning only when they are put to use: thus a cannon that shoots confetti (Confetti Canyon, 2001), an air compressor that activates a whistle (Twistle, 2003), and an as-yet-unnamed project—a large tree made of soft felt that droops its branches when someone sits in its shadow—that will be on view this month in a solo show at Galleria Franco Noero in Turin.

Favaretto’s most ambitious project, On the Air, was begun in 2003 and is still in the making. (For now, it exists as a digital animation.) The artist plans to send a hot-air balloon—shaped like a donkey, of course—throughout Europe, with hopes of arousing the sort of enthusiasm once engendered by circus caravans and Renaissance traveling fairs wherever it touches down. The purpose, however, is not simply entertainment. The project’s principal task will be to disseminate the values of the European Constitution, which is being laboriously drafted right now, with particular attention devoted to chapters regarding the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of which is a central concern for the social-minded Favaretto. In addition, she has plans to make the voyage of the hot-air balloon into a twelve-episode television show, with a talk-show format and starring philosophers, politicians, and celebrities who will be asked to hold forth on human rights. Real-time webcasts will also serve as a link to those on the ground. The balloon’s journey will conclude with a large celebration.

If there is a common thread that runs through Favaretto’s art, with its collectivity, its antihierarchical reversals, its simultaneously optimistic and ironic strivings for the ideal, it would have to be her utopian instinct. And is there anything more utopian today, particularly in a country run by a television magnate, than a TV program that is both all-encompassing and free, managed “from below,” technologically advanced, and open to the contributions of all? In subverting the communications power structure to remake television on her own terms, Favaretto suggests that the global media empire might be nothing more than a paper tiger—and reminds us, per Nietzsche, that the world turned upside down is the only real world.

Giorgio Verzotti is chief curator at MART—Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.