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When philosopher Davide Dal Sasso came to visit the Valerio Nicolai solo show Permanent Transformation of a Magician in Ant (Treti Galaxie, Torino, 2016), I got struck by his very first comment: “Ok, I’m here inside this art exhibition, but I’m not looking at the artworks, I’m looking at the birds”. He indeed passed by three small paintings, walked by an 80 square metre painted canvas, almost ignoring a 2 x 2 meters painting and going straight towards the seven birds perching on their painted terracotta shelters.

The Valerio Nicolai show was meant to be experienced just by birds. He painted using a selection of colours that could have been familiar and enjoyable to a bird: Autumn leaf red, a moss dark green, a meadow light green, the several shades of brown of barks. The human viewer was only meant as a movable element, perpendicular to the painted surface, as small strolling dots seen from a branch of a tree during a Spring afternoon in a park.

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Valerio Nicolai, Permanent Transformation Of A Magician In Ant, 2016, set up of the show, courtesy of the artist and Treti Galaxie, photo: Matteo Mottin and Ramona Ponzini

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Valerio Nicolai, Permanent Transformation Of A Magician In Ant, 2016, set up of the show, courtesy of the artist and Treti Galaxie, photo: Matteo Mottin and Ramona Ponzini

Dal Sasso’s reaction also frames another important theme of the show: as we enter an art exhibition during its opening, most of the time we’re more focused on the public than on the artworks, as if we’re actually visiting a scenic design meant to meet people. We prefer to look at the installation views later, and focus on the vernissage moment. As we’re more and more used to experiencing artworks through a screen, does it still make sense to make art exhibitions?

As Stefan Heidenreich states in his lucid essay “Freeportism as Style and Ideology: Post-Internet and Speculative Realism, Part I” on e-flux (http://www.e-flux.com/journal/freeportism-as-style-and-ideology-part-i-post-internet-and-speculative-realism/): “It is safe to say, however, that never before now have so many artworks been produced to remain hidden, all enclosed in disenchanted wooden boxes, suspended in a permanent circuit of exchange, in a place called a “freeport” because it is free of customs duties and taxes of all kinds. Since no one is allowed to see the art, it is also free of audience and spectators, an anti-theatron; it is a place of un-seeing. We must examine the conflict between the forces that create new ways of representing and being seen, and the relations that just as quickly place these out of sight. (…) Being exhibited, being shipped here and there, being viewed by people—all of this is considered risk. It’s costly. It’s useless, and it’s potentially damaging. Those works of art better stay in their wooden coffins in a freeport! (…) Art is more valuable out of sight”.

This led us to another question: to what extent is our estrangement from the physical work of art induced and generated? But this falls outside the intentions of this text.

The best thing that can happen to a work of art in the future on the one hand is to completely disappear, while on the other to constantly be remembered as an image. Permanent Transformation of a Magician in Ant tried to push forward this paradox. What are we going to expect from an exhibition which cannot really be experienced? Valerio Nicolai combined the paradox of being able to paint for a bird with the inability of the group of birds to see themselves as protagonists of a piece of art. He then mirrored the whole concept onto the viewer, who also couldn’t have a total perception of the pictorial composition to which he belonged. The paintings and the sculptures were there, but the real exhibition was in the mind of the birds.

For the show we made a catalogue with Treti Galaxie Publishing. Since it’s going to be printed, hence it will be a physical object, we decided it had to be more focused on the production and installation of the show than on the show itself, also to present something more intimate, closer to what we actually experienced during the set up. We also decided not to publish the official pictures of the show shot by Sebastiano Pellion Di Persano and we printed only the ones we made with our phones. In one you can also see Sebastiano interacting with the birds through his camera.

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Valerio Nicolai, Permanent Transformation Of A Magician In Ant, 2016, set up of the show, courtesy of the artist and Treti Galaxie, photo: Matteo Mottin and Ramona Ponzini

We thought that watching what’s usually left out of an art exhibition may be useful to remind us that art is ultimately not only an image. I question this aspect since two years on the column Artist’s Diary the Italian online magazine ATPdiary. Along with ATPdiary’s director Elena Bordignon, we ask the artists to show us what’s behind their exhibitions by creating a narrative of their artworks through commented images, from their inception to their very final stages, documenting what’s usually left out from the viewer’s sight.

Since Valerio Nicolai’s real target audience was a group of birds, we asked Rocchetto, a parrot, to write for us a critical essay for the show. He wrote it by walking on the laptop’s keyboard, creating short sentences that reflect his position as an art critic, his current mood and his limited attention span. This cryptic and mysterious essay may have something in common with a well-known critical art writing style, very fashionable from the ’60s until the late 80’s. As John Berger states in his essay Why look at animals? from his superb anthology About Looking: “What distinguished man from animals was the human capacity for symbolic thought, the capacity which was inseparable from the development of language in which words were not mere signals, but signifiers of something other than themselves. Yet the first symbols were animals. What distinguished men from animals was born of their relationship with them”.

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Valerio Nicolai, Permanent Transformation Of A Magician In Ant, 2016, installation view, courtesy of the artist and Treti Galaxie, photo: Sebastiano Pellion Di Persano

Charles Darwin in his 1871 The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex writes: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals”. And I think Rocchetto used his senses and intuition, along with love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation and reason to write this text for the show.

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Matteo Mottin


Matteo Mottin is a writer and curator based in Torino. He studied Mechanical Engineering and Materials Engineering at Politecnico di Torino and is running the art project Treti Galaxie along with Ramona Ponzini and Sandro Mori. He has been visitor professor at Scuola Civica D’Arte Contemporanea in Iglesias and currently writes for the contemporary art online magazine atpdiary.com.

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