Non ci resta che piangere, 2009. Paper, detail of installation at the Museum of Arts and Design, NY.

Creative and Destructive Force: A Conversation with Andrea Mastrovito

Deep wisdom meets true child-like creativity in Andrea Mastrovito’s work. Eternal human questions-Who are we? From where do we come? Where are we going?-are raised and developed with honest simplicity, the only answer lying in an acceptance of the natural life cycle. Death, creation, and re-creation are always present in Mastrovito’s work. Mastrovito creates a lot using very little. He has a child’s genius, an ability to create something out of nothing. His installations-each one made for the space that inspired it-use all available media and materials, from drawing, animation, video, and music to toys and pieces of furniture. Marie Noelle Farcy, curator of the Mudam Museum in Luxembourg, wrote of Mastrovito: “A troublemaker who pushes things to the limit, he takes boundless pleasure in creation…For [him], what is commonly called inspiration is very close to a breath, a pulsation, or an instinct, or more generally a way of being in the world.”

Laura Tansini: What is your concept of the life cycle?

Andrea Mastrovito: The idea of the life cycle is something I have always dealt with, though perhaps initially unwittingly. In Enciclopedia dei fiori da giardino (2009), first we have a flower, and from the flower, we pass to a tree, from the tree to wood, from wood to paper, from paper to book, and then back to the flower. In my works, the discourse turns continually from creation to re- creation, passing inexorably through destruction. In another work, The Modern Prometheus (2012), I drew a series of images portraying some of the characters from the novel Franken­stein. In the book, they were killed by the monster; in my work, they are shown being shot against a stone wall. Each figure is a pencil sketch. The bullet holes are real holes made by the very pencil that gave life to the characters. The pencil is both a creative and a destructive force. 

LT: What is your personal position about life and death?

Dreamers #4, 2015. Graphite on concrete statues, dimensions variable.

AM: I do not accept the idea of death and defeat; but knowing it, investigating it, and understanding the strong cathartic value of failure and destruction is one way to tackle it, perhaps also a way not to think about it right through.

LT: Drawing seems to be your natural medium.

AM: Yes, because for me, to draw is to know. Drawing creates a symbolic form of reality through the use of an expanded perspective, which in its guidelines includes not only the three dimensions but also the time of creation and of viewing. From video animation to installations, I tend to involve the viewer both physically and emotionally; drawing is the point of contact between reality and artifice.

LT: How do ideas for new works come to you?

AM: First from the site in which I am asked to create. Sometimes I look for a space that inspires me. Ideas come also from talking; through continuous dialogue with my assistants and curators, I understand what I will do. Ideas come also from reading.

LT: So you keep up a continuous exchange of ideas until you reach what you are looking for?

AM: Yes, but the first strong kick comes from the space: gallery, museum, abandoned spaces, or sites with a strong personality, a story going back through centuries. For example, I recently created a series of three different, but connected, site-specific installations for three castles in France—the Château des Adhémar, the Château de Grignan or Rochers-Sévigné, and the Château de Suze-la-Rousse. The installation at the Château de Grignan is permanent.

LT: When you started working on this project (about two months before its opening), did you know what you would do?

Procession, 2015. Pencil on tracing paper, dimensions variable.

AM: I had an idea, but for me, it is very important to be in the place and to discuss. Luckily enough, a curator I had known in New York came to my Brooklyn studio. We talked about my project, and during our discussion, I knew what I would do. I need to know the story of the place, especially old places with a strong history.

The title of the three-part exhibition, “N’importe où hors du monde” (“It doesn’t matter where, out of the world”) is easily understood. The first castle, the Château des Adhémar, was a prison. Anyone confined to a prison would like to be elsewhere.

The Château des Adhémar, with a chapel and three floors, dominates the town. It is the Center for Contemporary Art now. The chapel and first floor are dark and gloomy; the second and third floors have more light. I thought of a work moving from hopeless darkness to light, the life cycle but the other way around—from drama to redemption; from no hope to acceptance, a mental getaway. Walking into the chapel, you find a group of statues, broken and falling into pieces— representing the collapsing of myths. On the statues, I drew part of Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat; and on the wall, I included photos and a collage of the painting: the triumph of betrayal, destruction, and death. Elsewhere in the chapel, I placed three small drawings depicting three martyrs killed by the pencil that drew them. To paraphrase Slayer’s “South of Heaven,” to see the light of redemption, you have to go through death.

L’amore sacro e l’amor profano, 2013. Carved walls, carved blackboard, books, and 10-min. audio loop, view of installation at the Palazzo della Misericordia, Bergamo.

LT: This installation represents the mood and the spirit of your work, but particularly death and destruction.

AM: Yes, drama and destruction. In the central nave of the chapel, I represented a story of horror: destruction with no redemption. It is my homage to Johnny Got his Gun, a book and movie by Dulton Trumbo.

At the end of the nave—which becomes a sort of theater—I positioned a large paper grid, squared off like a huge prison grate, where I projected my video. Each square became a screen for different images that kept changing—all except the central one, the remains of Johnny’s body, which from time to time became a huge central image of a crucifix, with Christ’s body replaced by what was left living of Johnny. For this installation, I combined cutouts, photography, animation, video, and music. The soundtrack was “One” by Metallica, an obsessive song that filled up the space.

LT: How did visitors react?

AM: Each work was introduced by a note. Johnny was a very hard vision to cope with, but nobody left untouched. 

LT: What happened on the second floor?

AM: On the second floor, you could start breathing. I called that installation Bar C33, in homage to Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” the poem that he wrote after he was freed from Reading Prison. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is a deep reflection on the concepts of guilt and forgiveness. Wilde had to pass through tragic experiences and injustices, but he never lost his faith in life.

I emptied the space except for 10 round bar tables. On each table, I drew an imaginary illustrated edition of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” each one open at a diffe­- rent point. On each drawn book, I put objects connected to that moment of the poem and then drew on them, too, completing the illustrated book as if drawing does not care about different surfaces; it goes on and, creating, erases what’s below. The third floor is a large space full of light, and there, I wanted to create a feeling of hope. When I first walked into the room, I saw (or my imagination saw) people walking as if in a procession, or prisoners walking during their free hour. They walk in a circle, but they cannot go anywhere; they are captives. Not being allowed to draw the “procession” on the walls, I drew my walking prisoners on transparent sheets of paper and hung them from the wall. I used hundreds of sheets, and on each one, I drew a life-size figure walking slowly. You see and don’t see them; they are ghosts, as I saw them in my imagination. It is an imaginary pro­cession walking nowhere.

LT: To me, the effect resembled an animation.

AM: Correct, when you walk into the room sometimes you notice them and sometimes you don’t—it depends on the light. Finally, we enter the last room: a room full of light streaming in through three large windows. The inspiration for this room came to me from Wilde’s message, which I represented in Bar C33: the need to believe in redemption, in life, whatever the circumstances.

On a table, I put a beautiful, colored, transparent, graduated ruler. It gave me the idea of what to do. I wanted to remind viewers that this was a prison but also to keep alive the hope of liberty, when liberty is an idea. I bought many of these rulers, drew on them, and placed them as bars at each window: 15 in the first window, 25 in the second, more than 100 in the third, completely covering the glass. As the rulers multiplied, an open countryside gradually appeared—a dreaming land, a Garden of Eden for those who are constricted. The outside always looks like the Garden of Eden, and the slowly walking man drawn on the transparent sheets of paper may escape through his prison’s bars; his fantasy will make him free.

LT: You say that liberty is an idea; it is our power to create an alternative world.

AM: I love the work I did in the last room. You may read it on different levels: the countryside is not visible where there are no bars; it becomes real and visible through bars and gives a chance of escape, even if only in spirit.

LT: As you said, your work represents an elevation from horror and drama to mental freedom. It doesn’t matter what material you use to express your idea, you are always talking about the cycle of life, the fragility of the body and the power of the spirit. You are a storyteller, a griot in French. How does the story continue at the other castles?

AM: The Château Grignan, or Château Rochers-Sévigné, is rather famous in France because, in the 17th century, it was the residence of Madame de Sévigné and her daughter, Françoise. Their correspondence is considered a milestone of women’s literature, even though only the mother’s letters have survived; Françoise’s were destroyed at the time for reasons of privacy.

Kickstarting!, 2014. Participatory project with tempera powder on wall at Saint Joseph Parish in Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY

Some of the rooms in the castle are open to the public for guided tours: I was given an empty room and was allowed to draw on and curve the wall. We know that the relation between the two women was very strong and sort of morbid; at the time, the mother was considered the most intelligent woman in France, and the daughter was the most beautiful. Studying their story, I felt a sort of constriction, the constriction of a family prison. To represent the strong ties binding these two women, I carved a portrait of Françoise as a child on the wall; she is seated on a throne and holding four threads in her hands, each thread ending with one of the four moon phases, thus declaring her independence from her mother. I intended the moon to be the female essence. On the opposite wall, I put the fragments of the carved wall in an urn and carved the title, The Unnamed Feeling, in the wall.

I had a problem at the Château de Suze-la-Rousse, which hosts an exhibition representing food through the centuries. Now, my body is fond of food, but not my head. I couldn’t find an idea of interest to me. Eventually, I found the solution. I made an installation to point out how we are getting used to, more addicted to, tragedies and disasters happening in the world—we read about them in the paper, listen to stories about them on the radio, and watch them on TV while we are eating.

In the room I was given, I set three tables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I selected staggering news stories, and I drew three front pages on the three tables, as well as on the plates, napkins, and cutlery—it was rather long and difficult work. One newspaper announces the invasion of Poland by Germany: “Poland is us.” Another records the talk by president Kennedy in Berlin: “I am a Berliner.” The last headline is a French one, published the day after the Twin Towers attack: “We are all Americans.” In the end, I just wanted to say that we are what we eat (with mouth and brain).

LT: I am rather curious about Non ci resta che piangere (2009), an installation you made for “Slash,” at the Museum of Arts and Design.

AM: When I was asked to create a work there, I had no idea what I would do. The idea came to me when I was back in Italy, but I did the installation at the museum, which is on Columbus Circle. Together with my assistants, I covered the atrium ceiling with thousands of cut and folded pieces of white paper to represent a sea. 

In that paper sea, I represented the wreck of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria, a three-dimensional paper vessel, capsizing and sinking in a stormy sea of white paper—white paper because such an event would have cancelled the written history of the discovery of America. During my first stay in New York, I realized an important difference between Latin Americans and North Americans. For Europeans and North Americans, Columbus is a sort of a hero; for Latin Americans, he is an enemy, a brutal conqueror who devastated and robbed their ancestors, and destroyed their civilization. With the wreck of Columbus’s caravel, I represented an event that would have changed history. The installation opened on Columbus Day.

The Island of Dr. Mastrovito II, 2012. Cut out books, view of installation at MUDAC, Lausanne.

LT: Kickstarting!, has become a permanent installation in Bushwick (Brooklyn).

AM: I knew the owner of an abandoned courtyard in a district where many children—especially Latin American children—do not attend school and waste their time in the street. Pretending I was an art teacher, I talked with them about art and asked them to draw and write about what images they liked most; they mentioned butterflies, dolphins, trees, flowers, buildings, birds, rock stars, cartoon heroes, and rugby players. Meanwhile, I drew lots of portraits of them. Eventually, I told them that I would draw their images following my fantasy. I used large vinyl sheets, made stencils out of them, and stuck them to the walls of the courtyard. Then we bought 100 football balloons and a lot of nontoxic tempera powder and asked the children to drop the balls into the tempera powder and kick them against the stencils. For two days, the children went on kicking balls against the stencils. Then we took the stencils off. The result is amazing and extraordinarily strong.

LT: Could you talk about A Sud del Cielo (South of Heaven, 2011), which you did for the Oratory of San Lupo in Bergamo?

AM: The oratory was built in the 18th century and consecrated to the martyrdom of Saint Alexander (patron of Bergamo). On its ceiling is a fresco with the story of Alexander’s martyrdom. It is now deconsecrated and hosts art events. Because the building is so vertical, it is very difficult to create something in it. The only place you can use is the floor. When I saw the oratory and was told about the miracle of the flowers (when Alexander was beheaded, the blood from his head spilled onto the ground and suddenly sprouted beautiful roses and lilies), I knew what I would do, and it was the right inspiration. I would re-create the miracle with 400 books of cut-out flowers. I used the floor and hid/emphasized part of the building with white light. The light of the miracle illuminates the fresco and the flowers, then it goes off and a red light comes on—the light of the blood spurting from the neck of Alexander.

I drew an “animation” of the executioner beheading Alexander, using more than 500 drawings, which is projected on the fresco. As in Johnny, music is a further ingredient, a song by Slayer, “South of Heaven”—a meaningful song because it is about things that happen in San Lupo. The projection starts when the white light goes off, the fresco disappears under the projection, and the red light comes on, the light of the blood flowing down the column. We are brought back to the human dimension of suffering and passion through which miracles are generated. Death and rebirth: you cannot part one from the other. 

Laura Tansini is a writer based in Italy. 

Watch these videos on Andrea Mastrovito and his work

Kickstarting by Andrea Mastrovito on Youtube.
The Modern Prometheus by Andrea Mastrovito on Youtube.
A Sub Del Cielo by Andrea Mastrovito on Youtube.

For more information on Andrea Mastrovito, click here