Anna Maria Maiolino. Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri

Truth of the Real: A Conversation with Anna Maria Maiolino

A Brazilian artist of Italian descent, Anna Maria Maiolino immigrated to Rio de Janeiro in 1960 and became associated with the New Figuration and New Brazilian Objectivity movements after attending the Escuela Técnica de Artes Visuales Cristóbal Rojas in Caracas and the Escola de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro. While living in New York from 1968 to 1971, raising a young family and studying at Pratt Institute, she began exploring language and poetry. She returned to Brazil in 1971 during the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985 and continued making text-based drawings while experimenting with Super 8 films, photography, and performance. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Maiolino started using materials like clay and plaster to create wall-mounted sculptures, such as Here & There, an installation of hand-rolled clay pasta shapes that covered an entire building at Documenta 13 in 2012. 

Amanda Dalla Villa Adams: You have called yourself a “citizen of the world.” At the age of 12, you immigrated to Venezuela from Italy and then six years later to Brazil. Later, you lived in New York and Argentina, each time for several years. How much of your work is a response to the Italian diaspora specifically, and how much does it respond to displacement and the migrant experience collectively?
Anna Maria Maiolino:
Leaving my homeland at such a young age became an important factor in my development as a person and played a significant role in the line my work would take. Though the memory of my emigration from Italy flourishes in the work, it is re-encountered and identified with collective displacement in view of the wave of migration sweeping the world today. Some of my works, such as the video 08/07/2013 (2013) from the “Presentations” series, are coated with political and social responsibility. Bearing in mind the inhumane policies adopted by governments to tackle immigration, I believe that art may become an active voice of resistance.

São 25 (They are 25), from the “Preposições” (“Prepositions”) series, 2013. Raku ceramics, metal wire, metal table, and electrostatic paint, 127 x 34.9 x 34.9 cm. Photo: © Anna Maria Maiolino, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

ADVA: When you went back to Naples recently, you described “a feeling of abandonment, as if I was rejected by my homeland at an early age.” What do notions like “belonging” and “home” mean to you, and how do they manifest themselves in your work?
AMM: All migration is a traumatic and painful individual process, depending on whether the immigrant is welcomed or not in the host country. I think that all immigrants carry with them, some more than others, the feeling of abandonment, of being stateless, of having no affiliation, which hinders their identification as persons. I carried these feelings for many years during my youth, until I realized that identification itself is always a changing process and that for many it is never completed. Finally, the lack of belonging can become a positive factor in one’s development. For me, art offers the opportunity to develop desires and exorcise frustrations or repressions.

ADVA: During the brutal Brazilian dictatorship, you turned to concrete poems and films like (1974), which depicts your screaming mouth. Here, violence doesn’t happen, but is implied. How do these photographs, which use your physical body, rather than the body as metaphor, relate to your practice? Why was it necessary to picture yourself, and why did you choose these media?
AMM: These works, produced in the 1970s during the military repression, were born out of sadness and sustained by the will to resist. I used my own body as a support, which in that moment of exception and pain did not represent a mere metaphor, but rather a truth of the real. In a time of repression and torture, all bodies become “one” in pain.

ADVA: Speech and language are another component in your work. During the 1960s, when you lived in New York, you began making experimental poems and artist books. Your more recent clay pieces recall building blocks of an alphabet. Your first language was Italian, then you learned Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Communication seems essential, and yet you’ve experienced the inability to communicate.
AMM: We know that when artists refer to language, they do not necessarily refer to spoken language per se. In art, we can have many forms of language. For me, changing the support to create an artwork also affords me language changes in the discourse of the work.

Nove Segmentos (Nine Segments), 1998. Cement pieces on metal table, 74 x 135 x 64 cm. Photo: Everton Ballardin, Courtesy the artist

ADVA: Basic human functions, like making food, eating, and defecating, are privileged in your practice. There is an insistence on the fact that “I exist, I am a human.” Some of the work physically resembles Minimalism in terms of color palette, multiples, and a clean aesthetic, but there is also an emphasis on the body. Can you speak to these choices?
AMM: I am moved by a great curiosity and the desire to experiment as I relate to my surroundings—the everyday, the real, the remembered, the political, the material, nature, and sounds. My body sustains the work; the body is part of the real and of nature, one cannot forget that.

ADVA: Your work plays with boundaries—inside and outside, solid and void, shapes within shapes. I am thinking of early works, starting with the metal engravings like Escape Angle (1971) and the molded plaster works from the late 1990s. They make me think of Jacques Derrida’s concept of différance.
AMM: Différance is one of the important issues addressed in my work. Derrida thinks of différance as a presence, as specific difference between presences. In my work, these presences point to the repetition of the gesture-sign, whether that be in the seriality of the drawings or in the hand gesture packing the segments of a molded sculpture, as the “Terra Modelada” (“Shaped Earth”) series of installations.

ADVA: I am interested in how your work links pasta, cooking, making with your hands, and maternal lineage, as in Por um fio (By a Thread, 1976), your performances of molding clay, and also later works like Here & There at Documenta 13, where the clay was manipulated like handmade pasta. You have said that the shapes are informed by the memory of the gestures.
AMM: Saint Augustine said that memory is the seat of the soul. I fertilize and cultivate my memory because I understand that, in a broad and generic manner, it contributes toward the “pretentious” construction of my becoming an explorer-poet of living.

Por um Fio (By a Thread), from the “Fotopoemação” (“Photopoemaction”) series, 1976. Analog print, 33.5 x 26 cm. Photo: Regina Vater, Courtesy the artist

ADVA: You have said that women artists have an “affection for what lives ‘between’ things. And since, for women, small can be large, their choices are not hierarchical, they’re simply related. Besides, we have a disposition to sacrifice, which has been socially imposed on women because traditionally they take care of others.” This summarizes the struggles that women—artists or not—must face to make work. Were you aware of the difficulties when you decided to become an artist?
AMM: Being an artist was a very conscious choice, and I knew what it would mean and which social and professional difficulties I would have to deal with, without wanting to exclude any of my desires. I decided to live what was most important, prioritizing the moment, living all aspects of my condition as a woman, mother, and artist.

ADVA: You recently had a large survey exhibition at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Could you explain the new commission that you did there?
AMM: Um & Muitos (One & Many, 2020) was part of the “Terra Modelada” series, which was first presented in 1994. This series derives from the “Escultura Moldada” series (1993), which is executed with a traditional mold. Working with clay in the first stage of the process with the molded sculpture became essential. I was seduced by the materiality of the clay, its plasticity and sensuality, which led to me to discard the mold and begin making installations with natural clay, without using a kiln, on site. I use basic shapes: little balls and rolls are produced by my impulses; the earth informs with the first actions of hand gestures. These installations are works-in-process that can remain open-ended. They bear no a priori form, but are built and ever changing as the segments accumulate. The work may be resumed at any time, depending on the space where it is executed and presented, and on how much clay is available. At SCAD, we used shapes formed by the action of the thumb. Manipulating clay in small pieces with the fingers is one of the first actions that potters use to mold an object. I incorporate the shapes of fingers and thumbs into the vocabulary of my clay sculptures and installations, as well as other basic forms produced through traditional pottery processes.

Ritual aspects of individual and collective artisanal work can be found in the “Terra Modelada” installations. The accumulation of identical and different segments reveals the energy and entropy spent to create it. One can draw analogies to the preparation of food, bread, and pasta. Also, depending on where the segment-shapes are placed, they may resemble waste or feces, though that is not the intention. These installations deal with the dignity of human work, which, since the dawn of time, has been about building cultures. As time goes by, the clay will fulfill its natural cycle—it dehydrates, is petrified, and can return to being dust.

Installation view of “Making Love Revolutionary,” Whitechapel Gallery, London, U.K., 2019–20. Photo: Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery

ADVA: Your work is both strikingly beautiful and threatening, as with the implied violence in the Super 8 films. The dichotomy makes you want to see more of it while also being repelled by it—the clay pieces, for instance, can appear like ringworm.
AMM: Over the course of 60 long years, I have used diverse media such as poetry, woodblock engraving, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, installations, and sound. The act of changing the support in itself creates changes. My work is not linear, it has not been fed by one single interest, and therefore it has no single “aesthetic.” I prefer the classic sense of the term because I think it has more breadth and depth: “he who notices, perceives.” I strive to make my work a result of my living—of my interests, perceptions, emotions, and affections.

ADVA: You have said that you are a Brazilian artist. What does that mean to you, and how has it shaped your identity as an artist?
AMM: Although I have lived in other countries and had contact with other cultures, Brazil has been my home since 1960, and it’s where I have developed my work. I owe a lot to Brazilian art and artists.

ADVA: How did the ending of the military dictatorship in Brazil in 1985 impact your work?
AMM: The dictatorship lasted 20 years, from 1964 to 1985. It was a long and dark period of repression and censorship. Despite being afraid, we in the artist class carried on working; we had to resist. Driven by that need, I did the installations Arroz & Feijão (Rice & Beans, 1979) and Entrevidas (Between Lives, 1981).

Arroz & Feijão (Rice & Beans), 1979/2007. Mixed media, installation view. Photo: Romulo Fialdini

ADVA: When did you begin to receive international recognition? Why do you think it happened then?
AMM: When it is genuine, recognition comes from the merit of the work, its singularity and maturity. However, I owe a lot to meeting the critic Catherine de Zegher, who made my work known outside Brazil. I was already 58 years old and had been an artist for 40 years. She was the first to invite me to a major international traveling exhibition, “Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art in, of, & From the Feminine,” which opened in 1996 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston; then, in January 2001, she organized an exhibition of my drawings and works produced with paper at The Drawing Center in New York.

ADVA: What thinkers and artists have most informed your work?
AMM: The thinkers would include Gaston Bachelard, Baruch Spinoza, and Gilles Deleuze. My work is layered and built on multiple influences, in the sense that I feel like an heir of past art at the same time as being inspired by the present. It’s hard to pinpoint which artists have directly influenced me—often reading a book can cause a creative commotion in me, as was the case with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time (1984).

Aqui Estão (Here They Are), 1999. Diverse wood rolls set on tree trunk, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist

ADVA: Your work includes phallic symbols as well as references to women’s work and the domestic. How do you think about this in relation to current notions of gender blurring?
AMM: I don’t believe that we can just understand an artwork through the concept of gender. In fact, I see my work as hybrid: both feminine and masculine. On the other hand, I believe that art is linked to the intimate emotion of each person who has contact with it and thereby bears multiple readings. Consequently, the artist cannot count on a single, univocal perception among viewers that coincides with the artist’s premise for the creation.