Mattia Casalegno

Mattia Casalegno at his studio. Photo by George Gillpin

There’s always something about encountering one’s work before meeting them in person, and it gets even more intriguing when the hints of their traits embodied in their creative output are later confirmed. For Mattia Casalegno, my initial impression might be his quick-witted ingenuity and a sense of playfulness at the same time towards the things that he inherited and took as his own.

When I visited Mattia’s studio for the first time, I saw a 3D-printed bird twisted in front of a piece of wooden board and two antennas wrapped with hot pink neon lights. The board and antennas represents a television in such a ridiculous way that it becomes a brilliant mockery at modern technology that is no longer in use. It’s a fascinating analogy of how we treat as well be treated by those mediated experiences from numerous screens in our life. The Internet never seems to be the liberation from the dictatorship of televisions, nor do interactive artworks let the viewers be in control. But the illusions of how technology would rescue postmodern human life from the sufferings of technology per se were addressed so precisely, not only the optimism raised, but also the absurdity that comes along: finally with the help of 3D-printing there’s a physical bird sitting there, but rather the reproduction of a living creature’s digital representation.

I had no idea back then that I’d be curating his show, nor would I know that at the opening an improv performer would unpredictably throw toilet plungers around his classic sculptures 3D-printed with Soylent while yelling “Just because it’s an art gallery, how would I know that there is art.” Ironically looping in the background was Mattia’s video-sound piece Left-Handed, in which a glitched spaceship-like machine invades into the stagnating display of Renaissance statues. The performer became a rebel against the rebel. As Friedrich Engels once said: “Only barbarians are able to rejuvenate a world in the throes of collapsing civilization.” I titled the exhibition Dyspepsia, as to help him accomplish the existential intrusion into the contemporary human body that was inherited from those stagnating ancient forms.

The Aerobanquets RMX (2018), installation view, Chronus Art Center, Shanghai. Image courtesy of the artist.

Aside from the Soylent project, food/dining is in fact a recurring theme in Mattia’s oeuvre (also he is one of the very few people I know who leaves decent comments for restaurants on Yelp). His kinetic sculpture RBSC.01 manufactures sacramental bread while the viewers get to receive Communion made by a machine before their eyes; and his latest solo show in Shanghai, The Aerobanquets RMX literally threw a feast and invited strangers to have dinner with the experience of virtual reality—while making a reference of the 1932’s Futurist Cookbook.

There’s something human about his works that differentiates them from all those odes to technology, in an almost classy, old-fashioned way. In Unstable Empathy, he created an intimate experiment that illustrates two viewers’ mental activities for each other to see, however in the end the twisted digital phantoms would disappear, the shelters for participants to sit in would be lit up for them to see each others’ authentic facial expressions in reality, and to reveal the truth that it’s actually a very short distance between them.

As Ennio Bianco, the curator of Mattia’s show at the Civic Museum of Bassano del Grappa in Italy once claimed, that it was the high aesthetic value in Mattia’s work, which might even be called “beauty”, that made him choose to show them. The truth is, what could be more radical of a statement to value the instinct of appreciating beauty, in a flatulent world of anti-sentimental machines? Modern and contemporary art had become so reluctant to embrace beauty and consider it a superficial, bourgeois value while regarding true art as about ideas, politics, the sublime—from one monocracy to another. Mattia, and his fellow artists of our generation on the other hand are trying to break such long dominating bias by seeking an alternative expression that serves the coexistence of both.

The Aerobanquets RMX (2018), installation view, Chronus Art Center, Shanghai. Image courtesy of the artist.

Tell us about your new exhibition The Aerobanquets RMX in Shanghai.

The Aerobanquets RMX is a series of augmented ‘sensorial experiences’, loosely based on the Futurist Cookbook, an Italian book of fictional dinners and surreal recipes first published in 1932. It’s a project exploring the relationships between immersive technologies and perception.

The Futurists were among the first European avant-gardes to conceive a total work of art encompassing all the senses—vision, hearing, touch, olfaction and taste. So while reading the cookbook, I started thinking about a project using immersive technologies that would touch on all the senses. It’s a collaboration with Flavio Ghignoni Carestia, chef at the Toscanini café in Amsterdam, with whom I created an original menu and a dining experience in virtual and mixed reality.

Some said that VR is blocking one’s access to the real world. How did you manage to connect people to the real world with their sense of taste?

It is true, in VR your visual experience is confined within an headset, but there are already many new technologies related to VR that go in the direction of involving other senses: augmented reality, haptics, hands tracking, etc.

For the Aerobanquets RMX we used a room-sized motion tracking system that allowed the audience to use utensils and objects and interact with them both in the physical and the digital world. I was interested in VR not as much as a storytelling device, but as an interface enabling different ways of perceiving. The perception of taste is created in your brain not only by the tongue buds but also by your vision, olfaction, and touch. How would taste change when your eyes are seeing something else?

Left Handed, HD video, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

This is not your first project with edible outcome involved. From your personal experience, how do you feel about the act of eating/dining as a social activity? Is the idea different across cultures?

I think eating is regarded as a social activity in every culture. Many rituals are centered around the act of eating or sharing a meal. It might have changed a bit nowadays as we live more frenetic and individualistic lives, but eating should be social. Eating alone is sad.

On the other hand, the piece RBSC.01 is not only about eating per se but showing the process of producing a piece of bread in a liturgical context. Can you talk a bit about that piece?

RBSC.01 is a 11 feet tall kinetic sculpture designed to produce and stamp a logo on a thin, round unleavened wafer of edible bread resembling a communion wafer.

The title of the piece is inspired by the RuBisCo, a key enzyme used in the photosynthesis (or “Calvin Cycle”, i.e. the chemical reactions used by plants to obtain their nutrient from water and solar energy).

The inspiration for this piece came from this idea of “consecration”, as used in many religious rituals. We consecrate something when we take a normal object and decide that it’s divine, sacred, which is everything set apart and forbidden. The French sociologist Durkheim says that the sacred, embodied in symbols and totems, represents the interests and unity of the group. The profane, on the other hand, involves individual concerns and personal interests. So I thought about relating these ideas to the relationship we have with our planet. The number one problem I think is that we do not regard our environment, our natural resources and the other living organisms as something that is in the interests of the group, of all of us.

How can we bring the sacred back into nature? How can we bring it back to a level that we can all relate to? In RBSC.01 we have a machine that literally makes a sacred symbol that you can ingest, making it your own.

RBSC.01, Kinetic Sculpture custom electronics, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

In fact I’ve noticed that strong sense of ritualistic undertone in many of your other works, like Unstable Empathy, which digitally maps participants’ mental activities onto each other’s faces like dynamic tribal tattoos. How do you feel about the relevance between inherited rituals and contemporary technology, and in particular how did the audience react to Unstable Empathy?

In a way, we have always made sense of our role in society through technological enhancements. I’m thinking about the intricately decorated masks deployed in many indigenous rites, or how we use our social media handles in the daily micro-rituals of posting and tagging.

Unstable Empathy is an installation designed to enable an intimate experience based on the real-time monitoring of the mind activities of two players, who are constantly forced to negotiate their “emphatic” state.

At each session, EEG headsets are being mounted on two participants which will be positioned in front of each other in complete darkness. Each player hears a rhythmic sound based on his and the other’s brain activity—the sound slows down when you are more calm and present, or ramps up when the opposite is the case. With the only prompt to “sync” the two sounds, the players develop their own methodology of interaction, to finally discover their own physiognomies superimposed onto each other. The piece is an attempt to achieve a sort of ‘empathic’ connection, a deeper understanding of each other without language.

Not only with chefs, there have been a lot of interdisciplinary collaborations between you and specialists in various fields: musicians, biologists, ecologists, neuroscientists, and astrophysicists. How was it like to communicate with people from such disparate cultural contexts?

I think art is not only about mastering a specific craft, but also about crafting new concepts, having an inquisitive look and actually being able to make a real difference in the world. It’s more like an attitude to life and knowledge. This is true for any discipline, really. Whether you are a scientist, a philosopher, an athlete, or anything else.

In that sense, even though a scientist works in a different context and with different tools, we may be seeking similar answers, and we can both learn from each other’s research.

End/User. Exhibition view, YAA Museum, Fort Lauderdale, US, 2016. Image courtesy Shani Pak

Which one do you think was the most difficult collaboration so far?

I’ve always had meaningful and productive collaborations. Some projects are more complex and time demanding than others, but that depends on the nature and the aims of each specific piece.

Your work never relies solely on a digital platform. The relationship between the viewers and their environment always plays an essential part. Even in the less site-specific works like Left Handed, there still is a strong sense of space within the digital form. What sparked your interest in immersion and space?

Theater is a big influence in my work. Many artists I was inspired by, and whose work I admire and study, come from performance and theater. I always approach my work in terms of space and image, even if it is as immaterial as a digital video, or an experience.

In my installations I often put the audience in a state of imbalance, discomfort, or even of perceived danger. When you’re slightly uncomfortable, not situated, your senses are enhanced, more open, and receptive.

What happens to one’s body after their senses become more open? Will the discomfort turn into something else in the end?

When you’re not situated, not at rest, you are more aware of your surroundings in an instinctive way, and perceive things more directly.

The Open for example, a project I started in 2011 in collaboration with the design studio Metonym, consists of a mask that wraps around your head and literally constrains your entire visual experience. The mask is lined with Green-leaf volatiles (the chemical released by grass just after it has been cut) and incorporates headphones that replays the sound of your own breathing back with a slight delay. It creates an intense physical sensation that oscillates between a womb-like enclosed space of primal safety, and one that evokes the restrictive, embodied darkness of being buried.

Knowledge of the Body (2018). Dyspepsia, Areté Venue & Gallery

When you work with wearable and interactive devices, do you focus on the experience of the participants, or do you consider the participants’ theatrical function as related to other viewers as well? How do you balance the two, and which one is more important if you were to choose?

I think about it both ways. I think in terms of activating a space. An ‘activated space’ can be a few square inches or several square feet, but what I focus on is the relational potential of the audience who’re experiencing the work. I’m also interested in what the work becomes after that first stage, the entire life of the work in a way.

Performances and installations are temporary by definition, and a lot has been discussed about the role of documentation. But if you think in terms of theater, staging, and image-making, you realize that the documentation is actually part of the work itself.

Most people will experience a temporary work through its visual traces—official photos, Instagram, Facebook posts— and these images ARE the work in the minds of these people. So the question is, how do you create temporary work that’s meaningful in terms of the experience, but also in terms of the images that will represent it through history?

Your new 3D printed sculptures made with perishable materials such as silicone and Soylent are remarkable. You previously focused on the process rather than the result, either in your performances, kinetic installations or participatory art, but these pieces however are a sort of concise symbol of the idea. What made you decide to create these relatively “quiet” pieces, and how do you like the outcome?

The sculptures are part of a project commissioned by the City Museum of Bassano del Grappa, a small town near Venice, Italy. The museum hosts one of the biggest collections of the sculptor Antonio Canova, one of the greatest Italian Neoclassical artists of the eighteenth-century. His marble sculptures notoriously depict bodies that are flawless, spotless, and god-like, and his work for me is about the human body in a very contemporary way. It reminds me of how advertising sells us an image of the body that is hyper-performative, upgradable, and unreachable, striving for an ideal perfection, which is very much fictitious. So I started to work with materials that are metaphors for the way we relate to our bodies: silicone, which is used in implants and body augmentation, and Soylent, a powdered food marketed as the ultimate “food for the space age”.

What the Body Knows. Detail, Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa, Italy, 2017. Image courtesy Shani Pak

It was sort of a bold statement nowadays to even use the words aesthetics and beauty in a context of contemporary art. How do you feel about this comment in relation to what you value in your own art?

I think beauty is necessary as an entry point to an artwork. I think in art you still strive for beauty, but the canon of what beauty is changing. We see beauty in many different things now. We also unfortunately live our lives more and more detached from the natural world, and we are still very much grasping a new idea of beauty.

But isn’t art exactly this quest? A search for new propositions of what beauty might be?

What are your next steps? Are you working on new projects or ideas?

I just recently came back from a two-months residency in China, so I’ll be spending the next weeks or so to pick up the threads of my ongoing studio projects. I won’t share too many details now but, I have several exciting projects coming up. Stay tuned!

*Originally published on Adjacent.

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