Emilia Telese

Emilia Telese
with Jo Thomas, Katy Beinart, Laura Krikke and Frank Cartledge.
Caravan, Brighton Sea Front.

ET: My name is Emilia Telese. I am based in Brighton at the moment and I have been in Sussex for the last 18 years. I graduated from the Fine Arts Academy in Florence in 1996 and I moved to the UK in March 1997 and I moved straight to Brighton. Originally I was trained in a very traditional way; the Italian art school system is based on the idea of the Renaissance artists so there are a lot of techniques and ways of working that are very ancient. I think it was the first fine art academy in the western world and was founded by Lorenzo de Medici in Florence.

FC: We've just come back from Florence!

ET: I can’t remember the exact dates but it’s basically a 16th century academy so there is certain way of working that is taught there for artists that is very different from the UK. Coming to the UK changed my practice a lot. I was already interested in things that challenged the tradition of the Italian Renaissance. So I started making things that interacted with the people who interact with art. So for example I made a line of lingerie that was based on the Venus of Botticelli that was based at the Florence street market and people thought it was a real thing but it wasn’t, it was an art performance. I was really interested in the interaction with the public.
Florence is identified with art. A lot of the things I started doing were interacting with the people who interact with art. I did interventions in the city in Florence.

When I moved to the UK I continued doing that and I realised there was a whole scene of performance and live art that was not very developed in Italy. So I was more and more interested in this. The first thing I did was an exhibition in Fabrica, which had just opened two years earlier in 1998, and I did this live art weekend. Fabrica was one of the first artist led galleries in the South East of England. Basically I did a public performance to do with celebrity. At the time there was this event that was the death of Lady Diana who was very popular in UK and also in Italy. I did a performance about celebrity and how they cultivate the cult of celebrity.

Most of my performances have been out there, rather than in a white walled gallery. I haven’t really done a lot of white cube sort of spaces. Then I started working also in installation. I was really interested in interacting with public and with objects rather that just with my person. So I started doing public installations that were commissioned by several public agencies, one of which was the Coastal Current Festival in Hastings which I participated in the first edition of. It was something to do with a car park in Hastings. One of the longest underground car parks in the UK. It goes all along the seafront in Hasting.

I was really interested in this man that was an engineer that thought about Hastings as a double decker city in which things lived above and below the street surface. He wanted to do this underground promenade that then became an underground car park in the 60’s and 70s. But it was originally meant to be a first attempt to do a double decker of the future. His name was Sidney Little and he died completely forgotten. I was interested in how local history interacts with the people and how people live in this layered reality that is lots of different things and lots of different centuries. I mean, in Italy, for example even through you live in 2014 you live amongst relics of countless civilisations. I remember as a kid playing in my grannies garden and every now and again digging through the dirt with a spoon you would find a Roman coin. Just like that, in the garden. So I have always thought about working in the public realm as an artist because I really think that I reject the idea of artists shutting themselves up in a studio and not interacting with society and not talking about what they do until they come out with the masterpiece that everyone reveres in utter silence.
I completely reject that idea and to me art is something that has to interact with the public because it needs to be relevant to people. So every time I work in the public realm I first of all study very closely the context in which I am working because I want to do things that are relevant to people. For example, in 2006, I was asked to make an artwork in a park in Italy in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, which used to be completely covered in forests. These forests were mostly cut down to create the ships for the Republic of Venice. This forest used to extend as far away as Slovenia. One of the only bits left was this park. I wanted to do something that had to do with the history of the place but also the people who lived there. Rather than do something abstract and thinking very unrealistically and abstractedly about the history of the place I wanted to involve people. So I asked them to bring objects that they identified with and I created an installation around the longest living trees in the forest, the biggest widest centenary trees, and created circles around the trees. Recalling the idea that you tell the history of a tree how many circles you cut.

KB: The rings?

ET: But these were circles from the people around there so in a way when they went to see it and take part in this installation they felt it was theirs. Every time I do something public I try to involve the people that are around in the area and what that place means to them. Because the place where you are is one of your identities, and it is one of your things that defines you. You make a choice.
I really like the word ‘choice’ in Italian, it is shelter, which is to me...

KB: How do you spell that?

ET: s-c-e-l-t-a scelta.

KB: and you say it like Shelter?

ET: It sounds like shelter but it is not.

JT: It slows down ‘choices.’

KB/ET: shelter /scelta - It is ‘choice.’

ET: Choice, yes, the idea of choice. It really moves me to think that through out lives we make a choice, every time we live, every time we make anything with our bodies, with our actions. We are choosing the place we live, choosing the people that we associate with, choosing the love of our lives and getting married and making a family, having children. These are all choices we are making in our lives. The place where we live is extremely important because if we are not engaged with it we create a life which is very abstract. In a way like artists that shut themselves in the studio.
So to me being an artist is absolutely doing it in the public because I couldn’t imagine being an artist in a different way. In the Renaissance artists used to have Bottega which were workshops that were in the middle of the high street and people used to go in and talk to them. You weren’t intimidated by this idea you couldn’t speak to an artist. They were people that were much part of the community.

KB/FC: Yes we saw those sort of little workshops.

ET: Yes they still exist.

ET: This all connected with ideas of artists as a tortured soul …that doesn’t want to speak to anyone. In a way it’s the completely the opposite of what I think an artist should be. But that is not to say you shouldn’t be reflective as an artist because many. time you need to be alone. But the work an artist does should be relevant to the people who see it. That means that an artist should always work in the public realm. Even if they make a painting or an object that in the end up ends up in someones home.. it still interacts with...(them). If you do interact with the people around you you will make work that is meaningful. And to me art that is not moving is not worth being called art.

KB: Just a side question then? What do you think then of abstract art, like abstract painting

ET: Absolutely. You can do abstract paintings that are still relevant because they are coming out of dialogue with society.

KB: Okay.

ET: But if we are talking about art movements then yes you don't want to make work that is trite and saying the same thing that has been said many many times before. But at the same time if what you do needs to be abstract paintings, then fine. For example I have just come back from Iceland. And I have been reading a lot about the history of artists from Iceland and one of the things that artists from Iceland used to do was to paint very traditional paintings of the landscape in landscape. They did it as a protest to say to the mainly Danish art scene, because they interacted mainly with Denmark in terms of the art, to say that Iceland existed as a place. Iceland was a place they needed to consider individually. So they painted the landscape to say to people 'hey this is the place that we live and we need to talk about it.' So even though on the surface these are very traditional landscape paintings that if you see them now you think very run of the mill Victorian type paintings but in fact they meant something very different to the people who made them. So art is always about context. So if you are in a context where landscape painting is a process yes okay.

When I worked in the UK I saw something that I hadn’t experienced in Italy, which was working without making an object, and to me the idea of liberating yourself from object making was very interesting as an artist. So most of my work since I moved to the UK has been non object based and when it has been object based I usually dismantled the object afterwards. So for example
One of the major public art commissions which I did was in 2007 with 3 other artists when I made the Royal Pavilion out of 10 tons of rice.

KB: Oh yes I remember that.

ET: The Rice Pavilion. So 10 tons of rice divided into 0.5 kilo bricks of vacuum packed rice so all of them made into the Royal Pavilion.
This project was massive because it involved many people, local people who helped up build the piece and the local library in Brighton which in itself is really interesting because it is one of the first totally energy efficient libraries built in the UK (I think some of it is off grid it) has got its only solar panels and stuff. And the library was also involved because they looked at all the books they had about rice and about climate change. The idea was that the rice was then going to be given to children to eat in Africa. Myself and the other three artists I worked with started The Edible Construction Company and worked with the Feed the Children, a UK charity. They were involved in distributing the rice afterwards. It took a lot of coordination from a lot of different parties. In the end it took 15 days and 15 volunteers to build this massive building of rice. The other artists were Guyan Porter, Chris Biddlecombe and this project was initially done in Italy by another artist in Italy called Edoardo Malagigi

KB: You mean somebody had already done it and you then brought the idea over here?

ET: Yes and he asked me to do it together with him. So we all did it together.

KB: So you all did it as a collaboration?

ET: Yes, We did it as a collaboration and we created a company. The idea was to create a building out of rice. And we thought about the Brighton Pavilion because...

KB: It is so iconic?

ET: Yes but also it is made in an Indian style and...

KB: Yes it is kind of exoticising...

ET: Yes but rice is very important in India and also inside the Royal Pavilion it is also Chinese. So rice is also important in China you know...

KB: What was the most important bit of it for you? Was it the building of it with people, people coming to see it when it was made or the fact it was going to be redistributed to African children. Or was it the aesthetic of the thing you created?

ET: The impetus was that art can be as effective as politics. This is something I am really interested in because I work a lot with this idea and I have worked with Michelangelo Pistoletto who is one of leaders in the Arte Povera who asked me to make a piece last year for his Louvre exhibition. He has always talked about this idea of Gesamtkunstwerk which means ‘total arts’, which means art can be relevant to all parts of life, not just aesthetics, and art can be very effective in terms of politics.

So when I did the rice pavilion together with these other three artists there was this idea we could create a message on lots of different levels, so first if all there was the idea that food shouldn’t be wasted. In the UK we waste about 1/3 of the food we buy. And now there are a lot of people who talk about this. In 2007 it wasn’t really talked about much so we talked about it. One of the criticisms of the project was, why don’t you take the rice to people in Africa without doing this art project. But the point of it was you create an iconic image that people can associate with an idea and you see 10 tons of rice can build a building. It was 6m x 8m.

JT: Can I ask, is this is a cyclical thing, where did the rice come from?

ET: The rice came from risotto rice factories in Italy. They gave it to us virtually for free. That’s the other point. If there hadn’t been the highlight of this artwork they probably would not have given it for free.

LK: When you create a massive structure like that you create a conversation that’s more important than just charity that is not so noticeable. Fantastic.

KB: In terms of the public aspect of it, it seems multilayered: so there were the people engaged in making it, the people coming to see it and talking about and then it was going to another kind of project. It’s been consumed in many different ways.

ET: Yes it has been consumed: eaten. Yes there are two interesting things. The Mayor of Brighton made a speech at the opening and afterwards he says why can’t we keep it; let’s keep it. And then we said the point of is that it is going away. So if you think of a monument, a monument is something that stays in a place and defines that place. But if you think of the idea of a movable monument that is there for a only short period of time and you think about it and then you reminisce about it. And it did create waves afterwards. The library decided to work with artists after this and we were the first artists they worked with.
The process of us building it was very visible because it was just in the window and anyone could see it, anyone could see the process of making art. So it is also about the idea of democratising the process of making art rather than this idea that we talked about earlier of the artist shutting themselves in studio making something in silence and privacy…it is something I have explored most of my practice.
The latest commission that I did was last year (2013) in Brighton for the Digital Festival, I made a huge 6m tall sculpture out of reeds of a pregnant woman.

KB: Reeds, as in willow?

ET: It was a commission from a 3D printer organisation that makes 3D printers. They wanted to make a public sculpture with a human size 3D printer inside. Initially they didn’t know what they wanted. That is interesting thing - they hadn’t even thought about the implication of what you do when you create a life size 3D printer. So the idea is you go inside this 3D printer and you print a mini version of you in plastic.

All: The idea is that you go inside it?

ET: You go inside it. They had this idea, they didn’t know what shape it would be. They just had this idea of an artwork. So many people have a stereotypical idea of an artwork that is something that is not really understood, inaccessible. The thing that I thought to do was a pregnant woman, because the idea of going inside something and coming out with...

KB: A clone?

ET: ...so I made a giant pregnant woman with a 3D printer inside. And you go inside.
This was a project commissioned by an organisation called Break the Mould. The interesting thing about this and this is one of the things I wanted to talk about as an artist working in the public realm there is a lot of the times as an artist you get plonked in a place out of nowhere and you are expected to do so many things. You have to interact with the public so you are an educator.
You may be asked to do some workshops so in a way you are a social worker
You get asked to do so many ways of interacting with the public. So it is only natural you should interact with the context you are working. Every time I did something in the public realm I always wanted to do something that was relevant also to the ideas that were going around and I had been doing a lot of work on the strength of women throughout the year. So I did a lot of stuff on motherhood and this project with Michelangelo Pistoletto about pregnant women in Cornwall that went on to the Louvre. And there was a lot of debate at that time about violence on women and how we have at least 2 murders of women every week in the U,K and it’s a similar figure in Italy. So these stereotypes of the role of women in society were really important to me to talk about.
So as soon as I had an opportunity to make something that talks about the strength of women, the power of motherhood the ultimate creation, the creation of a human life, that we have here today in front of…to me it was such a beautiful thing. I needed to make it massive and talk about it.
That’s the other thing, as an artist I don't want to have a monologue. I want to have a dialogue. This idea of a conversation that we talked about earlier.

LK: How do you get most of your commissions?

ET: Some of them are self-initiated, for example The Rice Pavilion. I talked to Edouardo who did a similar project in Italy and I said to him there should be something in UK done like that. And then we talked about it and I got together with two more artists and we formed this company and as the company we applied for funding and we initiated a dialogue with the venue that we thought would be interesting. The Brighton Library. It wasn’t an opportunity we saw anywhere it was something we created.

KB: Do you think that being located here for a long time has enabled you to do that? Do you think that if you did just land somewhere new would it be possible in the same way? Is it partly because you have established yourself here?

ET: It is possible but in this case it wasn’t essential because the library is not a visual art venue it is a literature venue so they didn’t know me.

KB: So it wasn’t actually because you had your existing context…

ET: But at the same time, after they accepted (the project) I had a huge amount of support because I have a huge network here in Brighton. For example I knew someone in the Dome and they lent us some equipment that we could use during the set up of the exhibition. Obviously I knew Fabrica and they lent us some their volunteers and they trust me because I worked with them for the past 15 years. So being trusted and involved in the community of artists in the place where you live is important when you create something that is relevant to that place. There is a thing which we say in Italy which is ‘nemo profeta in patrium est’ which means no one is a prophet in their own country. Which means that sometimes people like things that are foreign, stranger or exotic. We call that in Italian ‘esterophelia’ which mean the love of things stranger, exotic. I don’t know if there is a term such as that in English.

KB: Er No, the appeal or allure of the exotic. Can you think of a word for that?

LK: No

FC: Apart from exoticism? It’ll come to me...

ET: I think, in a way if you are in a community and you are in that community for a long time you are sometimes under appreciated.

KB: Yes I think that is true.

ET: It depends how long you have been there. There is this golden period in which you are a novelty in that place and you are the new and exciting thing. And then you are have been there for 20 years and people consider you as part of the landscape. At the same time if you keep engaging with the community in a meaningful way you keep being remembered. For example there is this company here called Same Sky . Every year they do this event called Burning the Clocks in which they build massive floats out of paper and willow. One of the people who did that helped me doing the pregnant women.

The fact that I had a massive support network here really absolutely helped me...

[KB: Oh hello

SN: I’m due here at 5. I’m Sue.

KB: Oh you’re Sue. Sorry we are still talking. Do you want to come in and make yourself comfortable?

SN: No it’s all right I’ll look at the sea…

ET: Sorry I do talk a lot.]

JT: What are difficulties in terms of your practice and career? Is that why you are choosing to do a PhD now?

ET: I am doing a PhD because I love researching but that is something other than what we are talking about now.

JT: Is it full time?

ET: Yes.

So the difficulties of working with the public sometimes you get criticised because obviously if you don’t work in a safe art scene environment where all of the people who look at your work are already art lovers which I don't find particularly interesting. If you work in the public realm you get all sorts of audiences. People who think you are a waste of public money for example. They come and they criticise. This is why I was saying the criticism we had in the rice pavilion. And so you have to explain that this is going on but you can turn that to your advantage but then it turns into an education to the public about the meaning of art and the relevance of art. I think art is absolutely necessary to the lives of people. This springs to mind - I translated an article that was an interview with the Director of the Afghanistan Museum. He was asked why did you make a contemporary art museum in Kabul with the war and everything. And he said after the war we needed to feel we were alive. The first thing we thought about after survival and shelter was beauty. So it is absolutely relevant to human beings. I think it is really important to even have criticism because then not only as an artist you grow because you make art that will be more relevant in the future. You have the opportunity to create a dialogue that can turn the negative difficult part. I am not interested in preaching to the converted. I am not interested in doing art in a safe environment where everyone will pat your back. It depends what you consider difficult as an artist because some people thrive on what other people consider difficult.

One of the things I have noticed it takes a long time to fund raise for public art projects. So this can unnerve a lot of people especially if they need to make a piece of work now. But one of the things they don’t understand is it public money it takes a long time to gather because it is money that needs to be decided by administration rather than private people. So it is not like making an artwork where you pay for the materials yourself and you can make whatever you want.

JT: In principle do you think it is important to try and raise the funds for things, or are you ever hit with a passion or urgency?

ET: There are some projects that would never have happen with no money at all. The rice pavilion would have never happened if I hadn’t raised the money from the Arts Council and Brighton and Hove Council. In fact I would like to thank them. So I actually like the idea of a long build up to a big piece that happens in the end.
That’s another thing a lot of public artists think, do I have to interact with the public, do I have to do workshops. Yes, I absolutely love doing that because I think it is important to do that…
If anything, it sometimes goes wrong because there are so many people involved in the decision making process that sometimes you won't be able to do what you thought you were going to do.
An example of this is the car park project in Hastings. The Hastings Council didn’t want to close down the car park for two hours. And so it became a huge issue. In the end we had to modify the project so the car park didn’t get closed. Once you are working in the public realm there are so many people in charge of different things. You cannot keep everyone happy as an artist, you shouldn’t be a Marks and Spencers, you should be Harrods or maybe not, actually Selfridges.
Okay thanks.

JT: We could carry on talking...

ET: well I love talking I could carry on talking...


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