Lucia Pescador: collector of memory
interview by Marta Sironi published in Apartamento #27 2021
Before meeting Lucia Pescador I’d seen, and instantly loved, her work. When the moment came to meet her, it was like rediscovering an old friendship, tied together perhaps by similar personalities and our love of art and artefacts form the 20th century. Lucia was born in 1943 in Voghera, Italy – and the 20th century is emphatically her time, the century that nourished her, from which all her work is derived. I suspect that what makes her work feel so familiar to me is the way she ferries fragments of the last ‘material’ century into the immaterial space of the present, an era dominated by technology – something that isn’t so different from my work as an archivist-historian. Underlying both our work is a daily relationship with memory and, in a way, the choice of which fragment of the past to hand over history. Already in the mid ‘70s, Lucia defined her work in these terms: ‘What I do is I tear. I tear shreds of paper and I keep them as relics. Fragments of categories of knowledge, documents of emotion – of memories. I put them all in a container, juxtaposing them or inverting their meaning – in a way that is a playful, private, and historical. Everything has the same weight, with no hierarchy of values’. Series from around this same time – Ipotesi Astronomiche (Astronomical Hypothesis), Ipotesi d’Identità (Identity Hypothesis), Lo Schedario del Colore del Cielo (The File of the Colour of the Sky), and Reliquario Botanico (Botanical Reliquary) – use, for example, a ‘scientific’ method to visualize irrational projections of the future. Later, in the early ‘90s, Lucia started copying everything that fascinated her about 20th-century visual culture, thus initiating a large circle of work, Inventario di Fine Secolo con la Mano Sinistra (Inventory of the End of the Century with the Left Hand) – though she is not left-handed – which holds all of her work to date. Just like in a real archive, her process of inventorying is slow and unrelated to the passage of time; instead, she takes advantage of this condition as something that immediately turns everything into a memory, allowing her to collect these fragments in a bag of wonders that she intends to convey to the present day. It’s an attitude that Walter Benjamin once attributed to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, the angel of history with its face turned to the past and its wings pushed irresistibly into the future.
Q: Your apartment is full of your own work but also the objects you collect, even if this term doesn’t seem appropriate; they’re not design objects to be shown off, but anonymous objects, mostly pottery and old toys. There are so many objects and images in your home that it’s not easy to distinguish your pieces from those you’ve collected. It’s like your gaze, the one that leads you to choose a particular object, is in complete harmony with your artistic works. How would you describe this world of yours? What is it made up of?
A: I would start with an anecdote from my childhood. In the courtyard of the apartment block where I lived, there was a rag seller; he’d go to the landfill on a tricycle to collect various materials for resale, which he piled up in a small warehouse. For me, entering that warehouse was like entering the cave of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; there was even an area for toys. Perhaps my way of seeing treasure in discarded objects comes from this. I belong to the tribe of the gatherers, a job that’s always been the prerogative of women, who sought fruit and seeds while the men went hunting. I’m fascinated by objects and, above all, the stories behind them. Over time, I’ve gone from collecting objects to collecting images, especially of art, decorations, and handicrafts. In general, I’m interested in culture, understood as knowledge and storytelling.
In fact, more than a single item, I look for relationships between objects and between images. For me, one plus one isn’t two but three, because the sum of two objects leads to a chain of relationships and forms the core of a story. Perhaps I’m a little animist; I think objects carry the humanity of those who created them or used them. I collect objects that carry memory. All my work focuses on memory, especially the memory of the 20th century.
Q: You’re a very productive artist; drawing daily is a habitual practice for you, in the same way that a morning coffee is for most people. You draw every day, but there isn’t a free table in the house. How do you do it?
A: It’s like a job; I feel compelled to do it. Or like someone who goes to work every day. Because I have these skills, I feel that I need to use them. Working also gives me joy; there are those who suffer more and those who suffer less. Some people fixate on a sentence for four days, but I would suffer if that were the case, because I’m looking for communication rather than perfection.
I implement the same system in my work as in collecting objects. I’m not interested in the single piece, but the relationship and communication between different pieces. In fact, I work according to themes. My work is a song with harmonies; I love choirs rather than solos.
Of course the space available to you affects the way you work, so all the big pieces I do them on the wall. I used to do bigger jobs when I had more space but also more energy. Now I mostly work on smaller things, carving out a little corner from the mountain of paper on the table. But I still put them up on the wall to study the composition. I understand what I’m doing just by looking at it from distance. I always put the drawings on the wall to see them: it helps me understand how to proceed, the direction to take.
Q: In your apartment, which is also your atelier, there isn’t any space on the table, but there is a large white wall where you set up the work in progress, often mixing your latest work with pieces form the past. Can you tell us about your assembly process? And how much is this a way of working linked to your love for cinema?
A: Yes, when I compose the wall it’s like making a film montage. I add, subtract – I’ve often said that ‘when I grow up’ I’ll be a director. The titles also become part of the work, written into each drawing, as footnotes that accompany our reading of it. For me, the work is the whole composition, but it’s not easy to sell an entire wall. It’s usually the ‘solo voices’, the ones that stand out the most, that are sold immediately. I console myself by thinking of all the Greek and Egyptian mythological stories in which the deities are torn apart and thrown around. It’s the same thing with my walls, which are continually being dismembered. Once I’ve made a wall, I photograph it and begin to dismantle it. I proceed gradually, starting from a corner. There’s a kind of flow in this change; it’s life that flows. I’ve often introduced my catalogues with a phrase that suggests my way of working, my world: ‘As we walk we will rave about life and death’.
Q: The work wall is located in the largest room of your apartment, which could be described as your atelier, but it’s also the living room. I image you alternating between work and rest in this large space. For you, the latter implies watching a movie, but above all reading. Although there are bookshelves in every room, even the kitchen, they’re practically invisible because they’re full of objects. Next to the sofa, however, there’s always a huge selection of books that you’re reading. Can you tell us about your living room?
A: On the walls there are two of my greatest works–in particular the one dedicated to George Braque, a fireplace, part of my Inventario del Novecento series– but mostly there’s work by friends. There are lots of small pieces, that’s why there are so many.
I consider it a sentimental art gallery: when I’m sitting here, I see my friends’ work and it’s like they’re all here. I read a lot, after lunch and in the evening, and sometimes during the day. There weren’t any books in my house growing up; it was immediately after the war and there weren’t many books circulating in the working-class neighbourhoods. A street vendor used to pass by, a Turkish Jew that people called ‘the professor’ because he came from a wealthy family, but when he returned from the extermination camps he went around with a suitcase selling haberdashery and used books. So I’d always buy some books from him for a little money. He mostly had and an English crime novel author, Edgar Wallace; I’ve read them all! I think my passion from the genre comes from there.
Q: The entire constellation of your home-studio is never stationary. You often use objects in your set-ups or toys for small mise èn scene that you photograph. Last March, during the first lockdown, there were lots of toys keeping you company, if I remember correctly?
A: Yes, I built one scene a day with the toys and photographed it. I have lots of phots, and maybe I’ll do something with them one day. The series is called ‘Yes, Yes, We’re All at Home’, and the toys got up to all sorts of mischief. Maybe it was the animals who were saying, ‘Yes, yes we’re all at home’ and there were also corpses thrown under the table. My crime novel streak is back.
Q: Many aspects of your work bring you back to the world of theatre: the masks, clothes, and hats you paint on, the suitcases full of objects and accessories. From what you tell me, this seems to come in part from your childhood experience in the housing courtyards of the immediate post-war period, where even the street vendors were sort of magicians, with suitcases full of surprising things, especially for you children.
A: There wasn’t much else, so while the women bought underwear and elastic, all the children hunkered down around the suitcases. The suitcases, especially the old cardboard ones, continue to fascinate me and I’ve made several with animal masks inside. It’s like a fairy tale; it amazes you, it’s a little pleasing, a little scary.
Q: In this process of permeation between art and life, which room is the least involved? Maybe the kitchen, even though you’ve often set your table and photographed it? Or the bedroom? Even without a large table, your guests are used to seeing the bed transform into a display surface. The bed has a particular shape and recalls your works from the ‘80s. Who design it?
A: For a long time, I took pictures of the breakfast table because I was thinking about a piece of work – ‘breakfast in the morning’ – but I haven’t done anything with it yet. The bed was designed by a friend and collector of mine, Giorgio Magnoni, who’s also a great collector of Osvaldo Licini. He was inspired by my series I Giardini d’Inverno (Winter Garden) from the ‘80s. Some of the pieces had a curtain partly covering the composition, once again the theatrical effect returns. He also imagined it as it were flying, on wheels like a chariot. I like living in a shop; the bookcase in my bedroom is like a cabinet with a showcase, where books are mixed with objects. When I visited the Guimet Asian National Museum of Asian Arts in Paris, before it was renovated, there were precious objects but also lots of furniture and utensils; that’s where I was that in the Chinese tradition they wrote and painted on the wardrobes. I also intervene on my furnishing, and in this case I coped a sentence but the 17th-century Chinese painter Shitao, which I find exceptional and very contemporary:’ I speak with my hand, you listen with your eyes’.
Q: The bathroom is more sober, but the walls are still covered in 20th century images, in particular striped pages from the Corriere dei Piccoli, an old weekly magazine for children. And there’s another showcase with the vases you paint.
A: The Corrierino was my reading book; there were no books in the house, but my grandmother bought me the Corriere dei Piccoli. Imagine: even the habit of drawing with my left hand started for fun, because I wanted to copy characters from the magazine but with the right hand they looked too similar. I started using my left instead, which at first was totally out of practice, so I got results that looked as if they were drawn by a child. Then it became my way of working, especially from the early ‘90s when I started copying works from the 20th century; the left hand enhances the expressive and interpretative aspect and it’s well suited to evoking the deconstruction of academic representation that took place during the 20th century.
Vases are a recurring subject in my work, and the best known. My vase paintings are often very large, far removed from the actual size of the object. In some cases I’ve reproduced pieces from my collection – the collection of spray-painted cups and ceramics id the only coherent body of objects that could be called a ‘collection’. In other cases, I’ve replicated the canonical form of amphorae and vases for their formal beauty. The vases I keep in the bathroom are ceramics that I buy and draw quotes on from the 20th century art, with pastel and pencil, the same as I reproduce on paper and blackboards, but also dressed and hats.
Q: To conclude, I wanted to return to the role of memory in you work precisely to highlight the impact of your work in the present – even though your pieces seem to come from afar, especially given the media you use, mostly paper that’s already been written on: scores, pages of books, accounting records, school notebooks. You’ve worked on several series during the pandemic that take up recurring themes in your research – the geometries and the cultural heritage of the 20th century, nature and landscapes. In a certain sense, you’ve revised these themes in light of what’s happening at the moment, linking them with the title In Tempo di Virus (in Time of Virus). On the one hand, there might be a temporary reason for your decision to work on the pages of books during this period: by staying at home more you’ve had time to clean up old books. On the other hand, the consistency of you operation suggests another programmatic reason. The almost exclusive choice to work on book pages has allowed you to intervene with a constant stream of writing about the lasts chapter of history we’re living through. It’s a sentimental record, but one that’s inserted within a broader future that’s outlined once again by nature and culture. You’ve worked so hard that it’s impossible to present all of the new series here, so I’ll ask you something the work you’re doing now and that we see on the wall of your studio.
A: In this period of constraints imposed by the pandemic, I got into the habit of taking a stroll among the trees every morning. Once I started observing them more carefully I thought I’d draw them, because they’re the ones who will save us – trees as a sign of nature in general.
Then I started drawing them with only two colours, black and red – red being the colour I’ve used most in this Covid period – and using different languages: a little lyrical, a little more a comic, or with syntheses that recall East Asian art. My work often references East Asia; I don’t necessarily notice it, it’s simply because our figurative culture lacks a realistic yet essential description.
I’ve also added some other works around these drawings, as usual. First of all, there’s a deer, an animal that I find very mysterious, almost totemic; it has a strong presence, which is almost a little scary because it’s so big – I don’t like Bambi, I like deer! The horns similar to trees somehow and then they hide and blend into nature. The drawing of the deer is from 2001 and come from the enigmistica voice of my Inventario del Novecento, which referencing puzzles and hidden meanings. In fact, the horns are copied from a brain-theory; they’re intertwined as a sign of infinity.
There are also reliefs made of rice paper depicting a small deer sculpture; I thought about turning it into a decoration by alternating the relief of the deer with a small photograph of nature. I love architectural decoration; I consider it a form of art. Think of Romanesque cathedrals, like those in Tuscany with black-and-white-striped façades; without the decorative element they’d be something else together. When the decoration is good, for me it’s art – provided we see architecture ad art.
When I started a wall, the images and objects call to each other. I added some branches that feel like the bones of the tree, like the structural part of nature. I’ve always collected branches because I find them beautiful. I’ve also collected pieces of plane tree bark, which I use to make abstract things. Maybe I’ll add them in. I then added a labyrinth to the composition – but maybe it won’t stay there – as well as some crosses with icona written on them which come from the Inventario. They’re inspired by the work of Kazimir Malevich, but here they symbolize the sacred value we ascribe to nature. I like to paint both abstract and realistic motifs; what interests me is that they’re understood. In the 20th century we kind of devalued realistic representation, using the fact that photography existed ad an excuse. But photography is something else. Realistic representation has to be devaluated, but now it’s a bit too much. To me, it seems like a debate from the early 20th century that we shouldn’t even need to ask ourselves anymore. I always ask myself, ‘Are the symbols realistic or abstract?’ I like to see something trivial, like the trunk or branches of a tree, and realise that it has a charm and that it, too, becomes a symbol.