Bring a flower to New York Cit
Bring a flower to New York City, then another hundred and a thousand more
The multinatural forms of making art in the socio-political practice of Sasha Vinci
by Diego Mantoan
- From the unthinkable to the possible between Sicily and Venice
As we stepped together into the big flower shop of Gary Page on the 28th Street, in the heart of Manhattan during a drizzly day in May, the look on Sasha Vinci’s face caught my attention. Those who know the artist from the small town Scicli, a Baroque jewel in inner Sicily, don’t count unconditional ecstasy among his repertoire. Vinci is a tough guy alternating reflexive calm and explosions of passionate arguing, though always keeping an aplomb that lends gravity to the words he speaks, importance to the actions e accomplishes and substance to the forms he creates in art. Inside the humid cave of that New York flower shop his gaze lit up suddenly illuminating the room that laid half in the dark of a few neon lamps. It wasn’t the gaze of a botanist, however, who sees the taxonomy shining through. Nor was it the gaze of the florist who cares for the aesthetic presentation of his goods. A proper term of comparison might rather be the expression of pure joy, which characterizes a child at the sight of its favorite toy. It was the face of someone imagining entire new worlds with the simple matter given to him. I immediately recognized that gaze: it reminded me of one time with Douglas Gordon, when we stumbled upon a bunch of old magazines, pictures and posters at a flee market in Berlin, his peculiar artistic material. This time the sparkle was triggered by roses, buttercups, hortensiae, peonies, gerbere, tulips, carnations, chrysantema. The more we explored Page’s shop, the more Sasha Vinci’s eyes twinkled at every flower che discovered and one could clearly tell he was already creating something in his mind. Hence I asked him what had caught his attention, in particular, and he confirmed my feeling. His deep knowledge on the botanical and material qualities of various flowers convinced me, once again, that his artistic use of natural elements wasn’t at all spurious.
Sasha Vinci doesn’t recur to flowers by chance, as they constitute an empathetic metaphor of beauty and transience, of life’s energy and frailty. Their lifespan is so ephemeral that it allows us to see the entire cycle of universal existence in a blink. Despite its transience, however, flowers are maybe for every human culture the one and true symbol of rebirth.[i] Not by any chance Vinci encountered them precisely in this guise as a child in the Sicilian tradition, when in Springtime entire towns are covered in flowers. In Scicli for the festivity of Saint Joseph, which marks the turn from the past winter and the renewed spring, the horses that carry the statue of the patron saint are clothed in flowers.[ii] The Earth is not dead, whisper the flowers on that occasion. The Earth decided to wake up once more and
bloom over the entire land. In this moment, when the signs of the environmental apocalypse we will be facing turn up everywhere, there is hardly a stronger as well as older metaphor. Vinci adopted flowers in his projects with the artist Maria Grazia Galesi, together they started to cover objects of individual memory and finished up blending Scicli’s tradition of horse garments with proper performance art. Hence they created relevant experiences to stir environmental and sociopolitical consciousness of local communities, starting with their own, and later spread the word with the speed of seeds carried by the wind.The first step of this artistic research was Mutabis (2016) in their hometown, when Vinci and Galesi dressed themselves with a mantelpiece of flowers and wandered like shamans along marvellous landscapes and buildings soon to be doomed by human greed.[iii] This action convinced the local community to stop these destructive urges, at least temporary. Thanks to the encounter with the art gallery Aa29 Project Room the flower parade moved to another troubled strip of land, the province of Caserta near Naples that is tormented by illegal landfills, where Vinci and Galesi transformed the poisoned “land of fires” for one day into a desirable “land of flowers”, the Terra dei Fiori (2017).[iv]
These two milestones were soon joined by a third one, by complete chance, although almost necessarily. What happened was that in 2017 the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in collaboration with ArtVerona created the Sustainable Art Prize, an award founded by Sustainable Ca’ Foscari and devoted to artists at the art fair in the North Italian city of Verona[v]: it is a strange prize, since its aim is the promotion of the sustainable development goals, fostering a stronger consciousness and stimulating engagement o the part of artists by means of artistic techniques as a powerful potential for the spread of debate on global challenges, in line with the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development promoted by the UN.[vi] The prize still exists and entails the construction of an artwork which relates to sustainability, to be hosted at the venetian university on the Grand Canal and collaborating with its students Venice, in order to take on its local community and the fate of a UNESCO world heritage that is put at risk by climate change, thus making it a unique opportunity of dialogue between art and research. Vinci together with Galesi presented the results of their Terra dei Fiori: besides the documentation of their performance, which finished in the magnificent Baroque palace of Caserta, Vinci showed several colored drawings with homemade inks, almost an intermingle between painting and sculpture, that were inspired by the topic of land poisoning and accompanied by a soundtrack capable of conferring some hope to the human and environmental disaster he encountered.[vii] The power of these works convinced the jury, particularly because of the genetic dedication with which Vinci and Galesi dealt with environmental, social and political sustainability. Of extraordinary relevance was the capacity to translate their commitment in an aesthetically complete project that was particularly striking in a communicative perspective. The jury further appreciated their honest community involvement, one of the key features of their projects.
The prize was no more than a ticket to Venice, an invitation to join the university community, to reflect with the students on a desirable future. For this third and unexpected milestone the Sicilian artist duo invented La Repubblica delle Meraviglie, created together with the students of the Venetian university like the optimal place of Thomas More[viii]: a utopian island, a surfaced land where to imagine forms of social renewal and sustainable development for a peaceful society, where culture regulates human life. In an alternative dimension to reality and by means of flowers, symbols of rebirth and marvel, Vinci and Galesi organized workshops, labs and panels with the students in order to think of an ideal place, an unexpected and extraordinary place where humans debated on art and life, as well as on the responsibility over all beings.[ix] La Repubblica delle Meraviglie was thus garnished with a musical harmony, a drape, various symbols, a constitution, a territory and a population that marched through the narrow streets of Venice. The performance on the lagoon came as a natural continuation of a dialogue started at the other end of Italy, hence bringing an authentic trilogy to life that marked the constitution of a land of freedom and participation for sustainable development.
- The long run of sustainable art in the veins of Sasha Vinci
The video trilogy La Trilogia del Possibile (2016-2018), which came about from these performative actions and, even more, the narrative structure invented by Sasha Vinci with Maria Grazia Galesi reaches back to grass-root experiences of a fertile period in environmental and participatory art over the last decades. Thanks to Land Art of the 1960s and 70s, art progressively became aware of wider environmentalist topics. Two early Earth Works in particular may be linked to the projects of the Sicilian artists: on the one side the environmental recoveries by Nancy Holt, on the other side the landscape inventions by John Latham. By contrast to the celebrated biotope-inceptions of her husband Robert Smithson, such as the Spiral Jetty in the Salt Lake of Utah, Holt rather intervened on environments for their regeneration, after being used and discarded by humans. For her Dark Star Park (1979-84) in Roslyn, Virginia, the artist rescued a piece of derelict land at a highway crossroads and did so by starting with a new territorial tale. Indeed, seizes growing grass, she decided to put megalithic structures aligned with the stars, thus creating a park for astrological sculptures and instilling this plot with lively lyricism. Later on Holt was invited to regenerate a landfill in New Jersey with the project Sky Mound (1988), which became a hillside park plus observatory.[x] An analogy can be drawn to the earlier experience of John Latham, founder of the Artist Placement Group with his wife Barbara Steveni, with several waste bings in Scotland.[xi] Again the artist was called to address the toxic residue of industrial development that had altered the Scottish landscape indelibly. Since the hills filled with mining dump couldn’t be removed, Latham approached them like in a collective psychoanalysis by confronting society with the scars inflicted upon the landscape. Trying to come to terms with these environmental abortions and to avoid them in the future, the artist analysed the hills, draw their shape, imagined a mythological foundation rather than a human one and, finally, gave them a name. The ills were baptized Niddrie Woman and Five Sisters (1975-76), hence becoming part of collective imagination and an admonishment to the society that caused them.[xii]
As a result of a narrative process, the three performances of Vinci and Galesi perfectly match this historic tradition. However, to the contrary of Holt and Latham, the two artists are not the only source of the new tale. By means of various workshops and seminars, especially at the University of Venice, the venue and community where the actions took place became an open lab for the collective elaboration of a social, political, economic, environmental and scientific utopia, which should reimagine the foundations of a truly sustainable future. Particularly the third action, La Repubblica delle Meraviglie, activated an ample constitutional process that involves all those who aspire creating an optimal place for humankind. Because of this fundamental aspect the project by Vinci and Galesi recalls other renowned examples of environmental and participatory art, first of all the action 7000 Eichen (1982-1987) by Joseph Beuys.[xiii] In the attempt of afforesting the city of Kassel in five years, the time-lapse between two documenta exhibitions, the German artist unloaded a mountain of monoliths in front of the Museum Fridericianum; each stone would have been removed and then placed next to a oak newly planted in the city. Beuys started a process he couldn’t see the end of, but which involved hundreds of people, volunteers ands collectors. The actions were even restaged by the DIA Center in New York under the title 7000 Oaks (1988). The oaks grew high and strong, while the monoliths beneath them stayed short, though they silently testify the event of a collectivity deciding to restart from nature, instead of building monuments. It is a choice shared by Sasha Vinci, since he trusts the ephemeral lifespan and delicacy of flowers, like metaphors of natural life and symbols of constant rebirth. Their presence in the historical town of Scicli, then of Caserta and eventually in the urban structure of the Lagoon appears to conquer land and places that emerged in perfect symbiosis with their natural habitat. Taken together with the monumental aspect of these Italian towns, the flowers generate an image of humankind that finds its way back to nature – or at least of a society that doesn’t avoid to take responsibility with regard to its environment.
Precisely this integrated perspective on matters connects these and other projects by Sasha Vinci – such as the environmental and sculptural experiences titled Non si disegna il cielo (2017-2018) – to the most recent experiments of environmental and participatory art, such as the numerous projects of 2007 for the group show Weather Report at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Colorado. Curated by Lucy R. Lippard, one of the most influent female art critics and activist for women rights, the exhibition in Boulder was a perfect overview of artistic projects that – leaving apocalyptic and shocking tones behind – rather tried to involve the viewers at an emotional and intellectual level, in order to subvert their convictions.[xiv] Following this strategy Sherry Wiggin created various Carbon Portraits (2007), that is visual representations of the Carbon Footprint of visitors she had interviewed, hence putting the public in front of their individual responsibility. Chris Jordan, on the other side, confronted the public with its collective responsibility with photo collages titled Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait (2007), for instance representing the number of SUVs bought in the USA or the true quantity of plastic bottles used by Americans every five minutes, which is 2 millions. Back to flowers, according to a study of the University of Vienna, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison created a video titled The Mountain in the Greenhouse (2001) showing a rocky peak which progressively lost its fauna: because of climate change, flowers were climbing up until they disappeared forever. Again addressing climate change, Mary Miss installed the public artwork Connect the Dots: Mapping the High Water, Hazards and History of Boulder Creek (2007), which consisted in pinpointing big blue dots on various buildings and poles around the city, in order to visualize the likely water level of floods caused by new a natural cataclysm.
The works by Sasha Vinci, the like of the projects for Weather Report, belong to a novel and quite effective category of environmental and participatory art: besides having the audience engaged in reflection, they are very beautiful. It is a peculiar trait of great artist to be capable of formalizing utopia, melting in one image both ideas and aesthetic qualities. Furthermore, the Sicilian artist makes us another present, which is allowing us to reimagine this utopia together with him. His performances wouldn’t have been possible without the practical aid and imagination of the students involved in the project. Hence, the artist leaves us with two powerful messages. The first one with regard to our planet: no one can save it all alone; many (or even all) of us are needed to succeed. The second message is to look confidently to possible futures, which, instead of being dystopian or nightmarish, could be as beautiful as a carpet full of flowers.
- The Big Apple, a flower wall and the reasons advocating multinaturalism
Then came an invitation to New York City, it was utter winter. The echo of the performance at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice reached the board of the international scientific society EDRA, the main organization for scholars in the field of environmental development set to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a large conference at New York University, hosted by Tandon School of Engineering in downtown Brooklyn.[xv] Thus the social and artistic research of Sash Vinci was swiftly maturating into its first stage across the Atlantic for the most important conference in North America devoted to urban sustainability, an action which was again supported by Ca’ Foscari Sostenibile for the Venetian University in collaboration with the Humanities and Social Change Center of Venice, as well as by the gallery aA29 Project Room with the scientific support of the Department of Humanities. After closely watching the metropolitan context, Vinci created the project A Human Flower Wall, a performance reflecting the contrasts between today’s Western society, at a time when it is closing down, and an ideal society projected towards the fulfillment of the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development promoted by the UN, taken as emblem of integration, hospitality and social inclusion. The action started ideally from the work done with the students in Venice, the first utopian community shaped by the Sicilian artist, in order to be extended to an entire population that could pervade New York City, the contemporary Babel and a unique melting pot. On May 26, 2019, a parade of people walked across the streets of the Big Apple as one critical, unique and cohesive grouping, starting from the campus buildings of NYU Tandon, thus metaphorically constituting a biological and moving wall; a wall made of flowers and humans that didn’t imply negation, separation and division, but instead tried to build bridges towards an equal and inclusive society without mental or physical barriers. Like in the previous stages, the true moment of sharing and community building was set in the so called “infiorata”, when NYU students and “edra50 brooklyn” conveners came together to build signs and carpets of flowers for the improvised demonstration for nature by means of nature. The “infiorata” is the magical moment when flowers express their sense of aesthetic beauty and of irresistible cohesive power for every community of women and men. Thousands of colored gerberas were applied on the rally instruments, thus transforming every participant in a constructive part of a set, in a brick of a strong and cohesive social being. One flower after another a wall came into shape, though it was the triumph of natural sounds against today’s totalitarian trumpets. So it happened that in Spring 2019, while in other places walls and seas were planned for division, A Human Flower Wall brought a different idea of urban community into the world, one in which flowers are the social glue between disparities, the bond between differences. This artistic and social action, at the heart of New York, wanted to break free from that sort of consumerist culture, which boosts inequalities and takes away the power of enchantment. At the end of the performance, recalling the action which begun with the Venetian students, the videos of the Trilogia del Possibile were projected at the Pfizer Auditorium accompanied by musician and composer Vincent Migliorisi playing live his Symphony of the Republic of Marvels (2018) together with the lyrical voice of the soprano Giulia Alberti, thus merging notes and flowers into an emotional whole.[xvi]
Sasha Vinci with A Human Flower Wall intended to expose in a metropolitan context the mechanics of predominance that lead us today to believe in the existence of a normality, which implies the utter exclusion of anything deemed alien or different, thus fuelling fear of the others, as if this otherness could contaminate society and drag it down. The Sicilian artist reacted to this deformation of meaning by means of an artwork that praises all human existence and generates a healthy relationship between power and life – life, the bios, intended as the collective life, the life of all individuals in harmony with their environment. In a world that is gradually suffocating politics on supposedly biological claims, A Human Flower Wall wanted to stir human conscience and engage in free thought to advocate interdependency between all individuals, thus fostering inclusiveness and environmental respect. As the artist himself maintained: “The wall symbolizes a torn world, an unnatural divide between people, between city and nature, which even physically separates societies in blocks and counterpoised principles. A HUMAN FLOWER WALL thus isn’t a barrier made of bricks, wood, metal or concrete; on the contrary it is a human wall, made of free individuals that strive for a different world. The performance visually recalls the pervasive, beautiful and powerful wave of youth movements that these days are gaining consciousness about sustainable development issues. Through this action I wish to give shape to a possible new world which favors inclusiveness amongst heritage and knowledge, urbanism and nature.”[xvii]
Again in a most spontaneous and unexpected way, like a new seed spread with the wind at every step of this long journey, Sasha Vinci’s art reaches another venue in the autumn of 2019. In the heart of Manhattan, a few yards away from Columbus Circle, a first ever solo show opens in New York as a platform for the Sicilian artist who made his signature style out of natural elements such as leaves and flowers – both true and represented – through which he wishes to render nature its power to contain the drift towards a hyper-urbanized planet. Particularly in a metropolitan context fully subdued by anthropization, where every space and activity are dominated by humankind, the works by Sasha Vinci become bright “signs” that suggest an alternative, like windows on possible worlds, in order to imagine a new kind of responsible humanity that projects itself towards a most necessary multinaturalism to supersede the devastation of the anthropocene. The magnificence of nature, the marvelous surprise of new colored forms, the wonder of possible intermingles between flora, fauna and humankind thus become icons of beauty, in which a message of hope for the future as well as for revolution in the present is enclosed. The artworks on show on the last floor of The Yard for the program Art in Lobbies, selected by curator Sarah Crown, were created expressly for the Big Apple and position themselves in an intimate environment, which amplifies the reflection on the permeation between humanity and nature the artist wishes to trigger. Charged with symbolism, the creations of Sasha Vinci linger on topics that are not resolved yet, such as to try building a relationship that goes beyond the human dimension, towards a different perspective, towards the cosmos of alterity. The images show oneiric and at times surreal visions of non-humans or post-humans, which look complete in the eye of the spectator and become metaphors of the mirror that confronts human and non-human beings, in order to create new relations between the living. From the bottom of the abyss nature permeates everything with its magnificent breath, thus accomplishing the multinatural aspect of tomorrow.
In his fresh Newyorker artworks Sasha Vinci creates sense and signifiers that together define a powerful sign bursting into the natural element and freeing its primordial scream. Ideas and concepts are thus engraved by hand on paper building an open space between order and chaos, where the artist imagines a new existential condition for the beings living on this planet. The iconography is suspended and open to several interpretations, which find harmony and become the glare of the era we are undergoing. The different pictorial techniques – oil, pigments, inks, acrylic, polish, pastel and graphite – are also drawn from natural and synthetic materials that are concentrated or diluted along the shape of the images, hence delineating with strong colors and a decided stroke the smoothness of a different and likely vision. having reached the outer limits of multiculturalism, which lies exhausted by the constant attacks of populism everywhere, it does not suffice anymore to build sustainable communities; the Sicilian artist sustains the reason of multinaturalism as the key to open our gaze and door to a possible tomorrow made of forms and substances we cannot think of yet. Who is afraid then of this form of multinaturalism, which is absolutely due like the air we need to breath until it stays clean? Many and many more, or at least all those who are not ready to suffer the consequences of the moral slap that humanity needs to wake up from the nightmare it created on its own. Maybe its best to experience the works of Sasha Vinci like an unexpected smack, the one a dear friend could give us, in order to constitute a society eventually superseding multiculturalism and directing itself towards the multinatural form of tomorrow.
[i] To understand the relationship of Western and Eastern cultures with flowers the volume by an eminent British anthropologist is fundamental: Jack Goody, The Culture of Flowers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
[ii] Memorable is the following artistic romance devoted to Sicily commencing with flowers: Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Un sogno di fiori e bagliori: giorni in Sicilia, Messina: Mesogea, 2013.
[iii] Catalog: Mutabis, Milan-Caserta: aA29 Edizioni, 2016.
[iv] Catalog: La Terra dei Fiori, texts by Daniele Capra and Gabi Scardi, Milan-Caserta: aA29 Edizioni, 2017.
[vii] Catalog: Viaggio in Italia: #BACKTOITALY, Verona: ArtVerona, 2017, pp.160-161.
[viii] Catalog: La Repubblica delle Meraviglie, edited by Diego Mantoan and Paola Tognon, Venice: Ca’ Foscari Sostenibile 2018.
[ix][ix] Diego Mantoan, “Alle radici dell’arte ambientale e partecipativa”, in La Repubblica delle Meraviglie, edited by Diego Mantoan and Paola Tognon, Venice: Ca’ Foscari Sostenibile 2018, pp.7-9.
[x] Suzaan Boettger, “Environmentalist desire”, in Oxford Art Journal, vol. 35, n. 1, 2012, p.108.
[xi] David Elliot, John Latham: Art After Physics (Oxford, The Museum of Modern Art, 13 Oct. 1991 – 5 Jan. 1992), Stuttgart-London: Ed. Hansjörg Mayer, 1991, p.45.
[xii] Craig Richardson, Waste to Monument: John Latham’s Niddrie Woman, in Tate Papers, n. 17, Spring 2012: https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/17/waste-to-monument-john-lathams-niddrie-woman
[xiii] Heiner Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys. Una vita di controimmagini, trad. it. di R. Gado, Monza: Johan & Levi Editore, 2012, p.133.
[xiv] Suzaan Boettger, “Global warnings”, in Art in America, June-July 2008: http://www.pikalarm.net/pdf/Art%20in%20America_%20Global%20warn…pdf
[xvii] Statement by the artist in the official press release for the performance in April 2019.