Davide Sgambaro (Cittadella, 1989) lives and works in Turin. His research moves from a very personal dimension, which is the pretext to reach a collective and universal narrative. All of us in fact, experience that condition of uncertainty, which reflects on our individuality, of nomadism, of the fear of failure, while we are in a continuous tension towards success. All themes that we find in his latest project, White and Black Stripes and a Red Nose, started last May at Almanac Inn in Turin, to be concluded in autumn with a final appointment. Here, on a poker table, Sgambaro has called the emerging scene of the Italian art system to play with an open hand. He is always really attentive in the choice of the medium, which also in this case was irony, an irony that winks at you and meanwhile worries you, leaving you to presume that there is something else below. At times it could almost be mistaken for superficiality, but in the end, it is only lightness, which allows him to reach depth whilst staying afloat and never drowning.
Federica Torgano: Would you talk about your latest project, White and Black Stripes and a Red Nose, at Almanac Inn in Turin?
Davide Sgambaro: When Almanac Inn contacted me they immediately specified that it would be something about the public program. I like it when I have the opportunity to not do canonical exhibitions and instead work on projects that always refer to my research, but allow me to express it by different means. Generally, they are more complex projects for the articulation of the idea and the organization, in fact White and Black Stripes and a Red Nose, is composed of three distinct phases: the first phase is The Game, the second is titled Let’s Talk and the third A Movie. I wanted all this to happen in the long term, to give both the public and myself the chance to grasp and process all the stages, from the first moment to the last.
I took the Almanac Inn proposal as an opportunity to go deeper into my research. The work revolves around the figure of a failure in contemporary society, treated with an irony. I am taking up a series of figures of that playful imaginary that goes from the circus to the history of the gypsies, and that precisely recalls the figure of the failure, with respect to the figure of the contemporary man always busy running after something, tendentially successful, and that always has something to do. So, I started with the clown figure. Often the show includes two clowns: the white one and Augustus, who is the colored one. The white clown is the serious and unpleasant one, who gives orders to Augustus, who obviously always fails, inevitably covering the role of the fool. The show is therefore actually built by the stupid clown, but while following the direction of the white clown. Hence the title White and Black Stripes and a Red Nose. The figures of the mime and the clown also alludes to my own as an artist, on all those occasions when you go on stage, you and that importance of presence, to mimic something that you not always actually are. It is there that Augustus becomes, all engaged in your show, with the awareness of being able to make the figure of the clown in the eyes of those who really know you.
Usually, what needs to be done works in reverse: you remove and wipes the idea until it reaches a sculpture, for example, opportunities like this amplify it instead. In fact, in projects like this one I tend to bring the audience deep into the research. That’s because it is a research that interests us all directly, having used the figure of contemporary man always busy, as opposed to losing time, to talk about the world of us emerging today, both artists and curators.
I decided to start with a moment, so to speak, performative. But it wasn’t a performance, it was a real game instead. At The Game I invited artists who were a bit the stereotype of the young artist today and of what we do, so there was the one who works in the suburbs far from the centers of contemporary art and who gets along as well as he can, the Milanese artist, the Turin artist with the artist-run-space, the one who works abroad and so on. I took all these individualities and put them around a gaming table asking each of them to bet on a work and whoever won the game would win it all. I did this to enter another very important topic for me, which is generosity. I wanted to break up that dynamic of the lack of dialogue and exchange, and therefore of generosity, between artists. This is a small act that I have never fully specified within the project to avoid being redundant. There are things that if explicit, expire in banality, one must always approach them lightly. Also, for this reason I chose to use the playful universe of the game, specifically poker, the gambling par excellence, linked to all that imagery of gambling, but also of a game between friends. In this stratification of meanings, I also exploited the image of the curator giving him the role of croupier. Isn’t the curator someone who offers chances? And whoever plays his strategy better (the artist) manages to win the game and seize this chance. The Game is a narrative summary that has meant that all the complexity of this world is distributed on a two-meter gaming table between six people.
Let’s Talk was intended as an assembly, there were guests (Luca Cerizza, Giulia Mengozzi, Lisa Andreani, Giulia Gelmini), but most of the participation came from the public. In this phase, the concept of the project is fully investigated: people often talk about the disappearance of criticism, of which we have (not) paradoxically spoken little, reaching that speech according to which the disappearance of criticism is actually the lack of the discourse itself. This disappearance is generated precisely by the lack of exchange and generosity between artists interested in the same research, which by making information circulate makes their work grow. Instead, unfortunately, the thing that is felt the most is the rivalry even when it is totally futile and unproductive. Having made this project in Turin, which is such a small center that amplifies the perception of these dynamics, was another decisive aspect.
Finally, the third appointment of the project, A Movie: the projection (in a date yet to be defined, as is the case with self-productions) of a small film summarizing the previous moments, which consists of the video shootings of The Game and the audio of Let’s Talk.
FT: Often the public itself becomes part of your work and it seems to me that in this last project it was particularly influential, in which way?
DS: It was very important to work on the space, which I made totalizing, I actually recreated a white cube. Once inside the perimeter, the public actually entered the gaming area (the table and everything around it), captured by a wide-angle video camera. In the two hours of video we can see with precision all the movements of the public. At the beginning, they enter the room and believe to be attending a performance; at this moment we perceive a strong distance, a detachment, with all these people who lean against the walls, but, as the time passes by, here it is that they become familiar with the situation, starting to approach the table and interacting with the players. I believe that this happened thanks to the fact that I deliberately didn’t give any rules, you could smoke inside, have a beer, the situation was very convivial and relaxed, and this allowed me to enter the playful universe into that of work ethics. Furthermore, one thing I feel very much is the responsibility I have towards the public and therefore to what I do and what I offer them.
Thinking about it, I also believe that this project has had two distinct audiences, which produced two different readings that meet each other. The vision of those who know me (who, I guess, have seen a lot about me in the project, like my attitude to irony) have entered and completed the more political reading given by the rest of the public.
Finally, I also indirectly entrusted the public to help me with part of The Game’s documentation, the photographic one, which consists of screenshots of the participants’ Instagram pages.
FT: The first two phases of the project have taken place, The Game and Let’s Talk: what were the results of these first two moments?
DS: What worked most is the evolution that took place in the public in both phases, not so much as a spectator, but as a participant. As if I had invited them to a party, gradually an intimate, very spontaneous situation arose, as I wanted it to be, where at some point they felt free to grab a beer, to start a dialogue with a player who had just lost everything and sit at the table. Letting the situation fall apart is something that recurs in many of my works, as it was with the Sky Dancer, an inflatable performer of himself called Father, forgive them for they know not what they do (2016). I myself did not know when it would have destroyed itself on the ceiling and what would have caused it: at Bevilacqua La Masa it collapsed on itself, it set off the emergency alarm which in turn called the police. It’s funny, but that’s exactly the point: it’s a situation that is also an object, if you have control over research, even an object can be performative, or perhaps situationist, in short, always unpredictable. It is important to always take the risk, you can decide to do it even in a short span of time, but in that short time you will never have the lucidity to understand all the risks that you take, and in that case you will really bow down to failure, risking to destroy the whole project.
In the whole project it seems you are asking the participants and the public to play (with you?) in the art system, so I was wondering what’s your position about this.
It was not easy to find artists willing to play. The game has forced the role of the artist and the curator to come down from the pedestal, putting them in a situation of informal meeting between friends. The invitation to the artists was a process that took a very long time, as proof of that lack of exchange, and with their selection I tried to evade the Turin province, which despite having a good artistic and cultural production continues to speak only to itself. It was therefore also an attempt to bring the Italian territory closer.
As for the public, however, in The Game, they were in a position of omniscience: they could see the cards, and if they wanted they could interact with the players in their favor or against them. From the beginning I liked this idea that there was an audience that knew more about the participants themselves, despite the unawareness of their role, which was indirect, because they didn’t even know the whole idea of the project in its entirety. An indirect role, but a protagonist because it could determine the fate of the game. In the weeks following, at Almanac Inn, you could visit the installation of what was left of the game: the visitor perceived that he had missed something, a suspended time that could not be regained, even looking at the documentation. I didn’t deliberately take part in the game because I didn’t want to influence it. Clearly the whole project does not want to be read as a form of protest, it is a parody, because I am a player of that table, just like you.
FT: Given your previous studies in Literature, what were the reference texts for this project?
DS: There are a series of texts that I read and that I have been reading for years, but I think that all the research in recent years starts from Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville. It is a novel written in 1853 in which the protagonist starts to work as a scribe for a publishing house, but to each task he is assigned he replies with “I would prefer not to”, ending up actually doing nothing. And here comes the search for a dead time, which we always miss, of apathy and boredom that can solve an external or internal situation, or in my case become the search for suggestions and ideas. It is in the dead times that you start looking at the bullshit, one of my great masters always told me “if you like watching TV series, why don’t your suggestions start from here?” All the shit you do is probably what changes you with respect to normality and therefore perhaps it is also from there that you should fish. These are bar speeches, which you can address using the playful universe and irony. The bar reports to that imaginary of a suspended time, which however flows in a functional way, because they are all suspended temporalities that are inside places that are used to let time pass. This would also be the answer to the question “How do you use your studio?”. There is always a level of self-criticism, because admitting that your thinking works in these times and places means entering the realm of the failed, that is, when you are not working and you are not earning. Take a position with which to approach nothingness, to that nothing which acts as a production of ideas.
FT: So how do you see yourself in relation to Bartleby’s character?
DS: I was talking about it just the other day with a collector friend of mine, who told me that he likes to disconnect from his life, his work, to immerse himself in the art world and talk to artists, with whom you can freely wander from speech to speech, because they have time to waste to develop thoughts. And the sense of Bartleby is just that: if I am overburdened with submissions I cannot have ideas, maybe you have images of works in your head, but you don’t know why you do it, or what need compels you to do it. In this sense, living precariously paradoxically helps me, if I could produce everything I have in mind, without soaking it in and making it evolve, I would probably do shitty works. This causes the level of self-criticism to increase exponentially and it is the same thing that Bartleby does when he says “I would prefer not to”, I could invest in a production, but as long as I don’t feel ready I will answer “I would prefer not to”.
FT: White and Black Stripes and a Red Nose also seems to recall the theme of the current total fusion between the individual and his work, what do you think?
DS: Yes, in my case, silencing some aspects of work is very important, because it allows me to process it internally before throwing it out. This goes at the expense of the dialogue and the exchange as said before, but if there is no total trust in the other, that I think can help me in the gestation of the idea, I tend to recount my projects when they have a form already quite structured. It is a discourse that is particularly linked to the artist’s life, who must give a restitution to the public when the research is completed: you cannot be totally transparent as a person, because being too transparent always creates expectations, and expectations are always subjective imagery, and therefore, expectations are made to be destroyed. Also, for artists the expectation is often linked to the recognizability of the work and in my case, as I choose the materials according to their properties in relation to the project, there can be no such expectation, otherwise I could not make projects like the one for Almanac Inn. Thus, silencing some things, the expectation is silent, and I gain space of freedom.
I read an interview of yours in which you gave an impressive definition of what the creative process is: “it is like whispering, telling through a crack, miming observed from a peephole, so never too clear and never full body”. There seems to be a dichotomy between an inside and an outside, to which also corresponds different times…
Yes, because all of us, both artists and curators, always start from a very personal situation, which, as Garutti used to tell us, is the real reason reason of what you are doing, it is your need. Unfortunately, not everybody reflects on this. I think that more or less consciously you work to try to bring your own interests from an intimate level to a public level, in which, however, you have to create a narrative in which the audience can mirror itself, guided by a narrative that must be whispered. A certain percentage of doubt always needs to be present otherwise you could not identify yourself. A good work will succeed in making you see what you want and what you are looking for.
In concrete terms, all this affects decisions regarding both materials and displays. It is a balance between presence and absence that continues also in the sculptures of Spinola Banna, conceived as a place to waste time: made of a perfectly carved wood, which is in contrast with the inserts of colored cushions that break the solemnity and that invite you to lean against them wasting your time. In their concavities there is the shape of my body, but it is absent. It is an absence present in all my works because it is precisely that part of the narration that I delegate to the public, that is not mine anymore, you free yourself from them, like pebbles you take out of your shoes. In White and Black Stripes and a Red Nose the narration was made by others, I have prepared a project that presupposes many possible narratives. Absence and randomness. It is a somewhat romantic idea, perhaps, but in my opinion, this is how the circle of the work should be closed. It is the peephole through which to look, because as an observer you are conscious of looking through the life of the artist, and it is the reason why you push yourself to look up there, until you see yourself, and then you have an epiphany, and who knows where else your mind will roam from there.
FT: Are you working on something new?
DS: Yes, I’m working on a new series closely linked to the Almanac Inn project and to that of Spinola Banna. In fact, it starts from an action that I was used to doing in 2015 trying to waste time, or to concentrate. With the passing of time – and when this happens to an artist in my opinionit is wonderful because it means that you are going in the right direction – you are reminded of the images you created years ago, but that make sense to exist only now. In 2015 I was attending a residency program in France, it was very lonely to me, so I spent a lot of time sitting on my bed, throwing M&M’s into a glass on the sheets in the attempt to get some good ideas for a work. Those that fell out marked the sheets with the dye, an involuntary pictorial act made by the sweets that did not enter the glass, which failed, but which instead built something. I came to this only in 2019, perhaps because even though the themes of my work were already these, the research was much more autobiographical and therefore I could not grasp some aspects that I see today. And with the figure of the white clown of White and Black Stripes and a Red Nose the circle ended: in this case it is the white sheet to lay down the law – as it was the white clown there – soiled by the color, which at the end is what makes up the show. I recognize, however, that the link between the two works was in doubt until I found the title for the latter. At that time, I was looking for the soundtrack of the clown’s entrance, but I didn’t remember who the composer was and so I typed “papaparaparapapapara” on Youtube (the real title is The entry of the gladiator, very ironic). And here it is how with a title the two projects have come together in my head, with the parallelism between the role of white and color, the circus imagery and that of failure… The title of each sheet will be Papaparaparapapapara, accompanied by a subtitle which is the serial number of the M&M’s package I have used. Their dimensions will instead reflect the different sizes of the beds, single and queen-size, and that of the pillowcase.
FT: Is there a word that you would like to eliminate or give new meaning in the common imaginary?
DS: Omission. Today omission is an act of protest, when instead it should be a natural right. I think there is a relationship between omission and irony. It is what comedy also plays on, which is nothing but the individual who omits, denies, the true self. In itself, then, omission is one of the great senses of guilt conferred by our Catholic education, according to which we must never have secrets and always be faultless. Everyone knows everything about everyone, because we express everything, both in work and in intimacy. I hate not being able to take the freedom of omitting, and that this is immediately read with a negative value. The omission instead gives you the possibility of not being totally yourself, but in a positive sense, in thought, therefore an omission understood as a creative act. The power to take the freedom of not even telling yourself what you’re anchored to, or rather, the possibility of not anchoring yourself to anything, because you can’t do it if you want to create narratives. I don’t even know if omission is the right term at this point, but I think it is much more fun and useful being able to have the freedom for experimenting while maintaining a defined artistic identity, because identity comes from yourself, that self that is contaminated as soon as you completely explicit yourself.