Espositore Universale (detail), 2021. Wire mesh and pumpkins, installation view. Photo: Giorgio Perottino, Courtesy the artist and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

The Artist as Caretaker: A Conversation with Leone Contini

In Leone Contini’s performative sculptures and installations, the artist also acts as farmer and caregiver, tending living works that require skill and attention to survive. Proceeding from a deep connection with nature and the environment, these temporary public works—many created with different varieties of summer squash/gourds and involving members of the local communities where they are sited—touch on a variety of themes, from the cultural significance of food and the dynamics of human relations to ideologies of display and taxonomy. 

Last year, Contini, who was born and raised in Tuscany, and now works in a remote, rural area near Prato, was commissioned to make a work for “Memory Matters,” a project sponsored by the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in collaboration with Turin-based Biennale Democrazia and Black History Month Florence and installed in Turin’s Parco del Valentino—the former site of international and national exhibitions promoting a national narrative tied to colonialism. Here, Contini employed his signature gourds as part of an ephemeral anti-monument. Like earlier living sculptures created for Manifesta 12 in Palermo (2018) and TRACES, an experimental, art-based research project funded by the European Union (2016), this recent installation embraced transformation as inspiration, means of creation, and metaphor for social change.

Monte Purgatorio (in progress), 2021. Photo: Cinzia Delnevo, Courtesy Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci

Romina Provenzi: Do you work in a studio?
Leone Contini:
My studio is a chaotic mixture of working spaces inside a crumbling farmhouse without central heating, where I also live, as well as outside in the garden. There’s also a third element to my studio space, because I have built some non-permanent, fragile structures in the garden for breeding seeds and growing gourds to use in future projects. It’s definitely challenging for me to draw a line between my studio and my home.

RP: How did you get into art?
I graduated in Italian and philosophy with a minor in anthropology from the Universitá di Siena, but I never had a desire to pursue an academic career. I have always seen myself as an artist. Although I didn’t attend art school, I worked hard to find my way into art through studying, learning, and attending workshops and classes outside a formal curriculum. That allowed me to move freely among projects, mediums, and themes, like an amphibian. My lack of identity has unexpectedly become the strength of my practice, and I feel comfortable working on the margins of the art scene in a no-man’s land.

RP: How do you make a living as an artist?
Traveling and working long hours have always been essential for me because the nature of my work doesn’t attract gallery representation or teaching positions in art schools. Basically, I live on artists’ fees, which I earn attending conferences, taking part in projects, and giving workshops, lessons, talks, and lectures. At times, I admit to feeling like a terra-cotta pot among iron vases because the art world is very competitive and unequal in terms of access to resources. For example, an artist like me has access to a basic production budget made available by the organizers of a biennial or a commissioned project, without additional support from other sources. Therefore it is important to closely monitor costs while finding a way to create a purposeful work in relation to projects produced with more significant budgets. This is one of the reasons why I make sculptural work using gourds, which are low in production costs but powerful in their fragility.

Leone Contini inside Living Shelter, 2016. Wood and cucurbits, dimensions variable. Photo: Pierluigi Di Pietro, Courtesy Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto

RP: You create interventions in public spaces. Do you consider them to be sculptures? 
LC: I consider my works in public spaces as performative sculptures, but anti-sculptures, too, because of their fragility. The work is performative in itself because I use gourds as a material. These vegetables are short-lived, in constant transformation, and temporary like my sculptures, which require constant care of their living structures in the face of climate change, parasites, and dehydration of the soil, among other factors. There is also the performative act of releasing the material that I used while creating my work. 

RP: Could you talk a bit about your work for Manifesta 2018 in Palermo? In this collaborative work, you built a hybrid bower in the former colonial section of the Botanical Garden, where they used to conduct acclimation studies. In addition to cucuzza, a staple in Sicilian home cooking, you also grew Bengali, Sri Lankan, Philippine, Turkish, and Chinese varieties of gourds. 
LC: Foreign Farmers was a truly performative sculpture, because at the very end of the event I threw the plants into the sea as a gesture of liberation for the sculpture and myself. Once the art crowd departed from Palermo after the opening week, it was fantastic to see how local residents engaged with Foreign Farmers, visiting it regularly at the Orto Botanico. They appreciated the fact that the installation was not a simulation but a real process that I took care of, and I got to know many of them during the months I was looking after my work. It was lovely to see the same people, like a Palermo-based man originally from Bangladesh, who initially helped me with some seeds and who came back to see the work with his daughter.

Foreign Farmers, 2018. Installation and intervention in public space. Photo: Can Aksan

RP: You have been an artist-in-residence in several places, including the Delfina Foundation in London. How has your work benefited from artist residencies?
LC: I have always worked within the bubble of the Italian contemporary art scene, essentially focusing on projects involving local communities, co-production of works, and social interactions in Tuscany. I didn’t have a studio for quite some time. La Casa dei Germogli (2012), for instance, was commissioned by the Buddhist temple in Prato for the Centro Pecci. The work, which aimed at representing Prato’s Chinese community, brought Italians and Chinese inhabitants together in its making. It was only in 2014, at the Delfina Foundation in London, that a new dimension of the art world unfolded for me. At Delfina, I participated in the first exhibition of “The Politics of Food” program, which took my work to a different level because of the dialogue with artists from different European backgrounds. I had the opportunity to see the world through their eyes and experiences; their ways and points of views were not familiar to me at the time, but I was open and ready for them.

RP: The Scattered Colonial Body (2016) is a response to a problematic place. Can you explain the title and the work?
LC: In 2016, I was invited by curator Arndt Schneider to produce a work for the European Union-funded project TRACES, which aimed at responding to European museums collections with critical work. The Scattered Colonial Body was my response to the collection of the former Museo Coloniale in Rome, which was set up for colonial, then fascist, propaganda in 1923. The museum closed in 1971, and it took years to dismantle the collection and distribute pieces to other museums in the city, including the Museo della Fanteria, the Museo di Arte Moderna, and the Museo Pigorini. It seemed like the story of a quickly and badly buried human body, which I why I chose the title The Scattered Colonial Body. The installation expresses my thoughts on that past without judging it, because as a white man that is not my call. Artists of African descent are the ones who deserve to have the space to judge and take action to free themselves from that violent past.

Espositore Universale, 2021. Wire mesh and pumpkins, installation view. Photo: Giorgio Perottino, Courtesy the artist and Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo

RP: Espositore Universale (2021), a complex performative sculpture recently installed in Turin, was part of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s “Memory Matters” project in collaboration with Democrazia Biennale and Black History Month Florence, designed to raise awareness of colonialism’s problematic legacy, as well as current conditions of inequality and systemic injustice. Could you talk about your work and its context?
LC: The title of the work is ironic, because the structure of Espositore Universale exposes how each and every object on show in a museum undergoes an act of violence by being forced into a cage-like display. Espositore Universale deliberately takes the shape of a cage, which I made with welded nets like those used by builders as a support for pouring concrete to make a wall. It is an unfinished monument, as well as the opposite of a public monument, because concrete will never be poured on the welded nets—it fails to become a monument. 

As a white man, it is hard to respond to the history of the Parco Valentino with my work. It was challenging just to position my work within the park itself, a place populated by the ghosts of the International Exhibitions Fair, where discoveries from exploration and the colonization of faraway countries were shown as something positive rather than as tainted spoils underlined with arrogance and violence. I chose the more peripheral area of the Orto Botanico as a response to the Museo della Frutta, which displays a pomological collection with thousands of well-organized artificial plastic fruits. The Museo della Frutta is in the same building as the Museo Cesare Lombroso, a museum of criminal anthropology that displays a collection of human remains and objects of asylum and prison inmates—it’s an extremely violent place, too. My work for “Memory Matters” aimed to show how there is violence behind an obsession with taxonomic classification systems designed to represent nature in an exhaustive way, which is visible at the Museo della Frutta in the universal denominations system created by Western thinkers to classify the natural world. I also played with the paradox that a visitor should feel a sense of relief seeing a pile of artificial fruit on display at the Museo della Frutta after having felt uncomfortable at seeing a pile of human remains on display at the Museo Cesare Lombroso. 

Espositore Universale offered a critique of the idea that museum displays are a neutral and objective way to show a collection. In truth, an act of violence against materials and knowledge lies beneath their supposed neutrality. My sculpture also challenged the ideological structure underlying the action of taking possession of what had been extracted from the colonies and from the natural world. I intentionally chose to build the cage with a 10-centimeter-square gap in the net so that squirrels could easily enter and eat the seeds and the gourds. A very important aspect of this work for me was that nothing would remain inside the cage at the end of the project.

Launching Spot, 2016. Seeds, sling, vegetable element, and textual material, dimensions variable. Photo: Pierluigi Di Pietro, Courtesy Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto

RP: Your work has transformed over the years. Initially food and cooking were central, then your projects became more sculptural, using gourds as a material and source of seeds. How do you view the evolution of your practice, and where it is now?
LC: In the past, I was involved in many projects focused on cooking multicultural recipes with people from different cultures as a social moment. Then I started using vegetables like the cucuzza gourd and the Asian bottle gourd to make sculptures. The seeds came from my grandmother’s plants in Sicily and from my Chinese neighbor’s plants grown in Tuscany. Once the pandemic hit, my projects based on social interaction suffered enormously. During the first lockdown, I felt the need to do something more physical than usual because of the lack of social interaction. It was a difficult moment for me because I felt like I had disappeared, given that my art practice is mostly based on being relational and social. The situation was extremely difficult and had practical consequences for artists like me whose work doesn’t belong to the white cube galleries of the art world.

 So, I spent more time breeding seeds in isolation and developed an interest in germination as well. While I continue creating living sculptures with gourd plants, my new body of work, which was recently awarded the Premio Cantica 2021, is more sculptural and has greater materiality because it is made with accumulations of debris and soil where germinating plants are visible, too. These new works look different but remain the same in terms of being performative and temporary sculptures. The work keeps changing and transforming, which is important to me.