Interview by Kristen Lorello
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goldiechiari, controcorrente (against the tide), video , 2005

I spent much of last year in Rome, studying the city’s contemporary art scene and focusing on how the city’s landscape, replete with historic monuments, might provide a meaningful backdrop for critical intervention, particularly on feminist and environmental issues. Both Italian duo goldiechiari (Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari) and the temporarily Rome-based American artist Kate Gilmore create works that challenge the values implicit in a variety of social situations, each using the city’s landscape as a source of both content and materials for their art. During their ten-year collaboration, Rome-based duo goldiechiari have often used Rome’s historic center and outskirts as the setting for photographs treating issues related to sexual politics and the consequences of industrialization and capitalism. Recipient of the 2007-08 Rome Prize, Gilmore creates videos in which she interacts with constructed sculptural sets, often confronting physically challenging situations that must be endured or overcome, including taking an axe to a sculpted wooden heart, throwing domestic furniture from the second to first story of a building, and clawing her way up an incline on roller skates to take a cake. Destroying the intended function of common objects or revealing the ridiculous extents to which women go to achieve role that society prescribes, Gilmore places the values of the roles and objects in flux. Drawn to the common threads in their work, I interviewed these three artists this spring.

goldiechiari, pic nic, 2002, c-print
(courtesy of elaine levy project)

Kristin Lorello: For your most recent work, Dump Queen, you have created a musical in which performer Lotta Melin sings Carmen Miranda’s “Chica, Chica, Boom, Chic” among piles of trash in the Guidonia garbage dump outside of Rome. Why did you choose this performer and this setting?

SARA GOLDSCHMIED: In previous works, we have always appeared as the performers. But in reality, neither of us knows how to dance the samba! This was a fundamental problem. So, we decided to collaborate with the Swedish performer Lotta Melin. She generally doesn’t do this type of work, but she is a friend, understood the project, and took the role on. Working with Lotta was stimulating because she hit on what we had in mind. We researched Miranda’s films, her dances, her expressions, and Lotta was very good at reproducing the character. We have always worked with people to help us produce works, with artisans or professionals from other industries, so cooperation is often part of the work. With regards to the chosen setting, the garbage dump, we’re interested in refuse as the consequence of a certain lifestyle in a particular environment and as a material that has consequences for the future. We’re interested in the notion that refuse is something removed from its original context. Objects of consumption that once had a very strong aura of interest completely lose their captivating aspect and become trash that we don’t want to regard as part of our life. This is interesting to us as a metaphor. The way that we choose to live in the West is hypocritical, and we want to spotlight those places that people do not acknowledge. There is a parallel reality that we do not know about. The garbage dump is fascinating and has its own way of functioning and a totally different economy. In the morning, the sparrows go there to eat, at lunchtime the seagulls, in the evening the crows. And there are people who work among the accumulation of the city.

ELENORA CHIARI: Doing this behind-the-scenes research on the garbage dumps, we realized that they are everywhere around us, but they are never pointed out. They are always in gated and hidden places but just around the corner.

Lorello: Have you been interested in refuse in past works?

CHIARI: You can see this interest in our earlier series, “Bucoliche” (“Bucolics”), in which we upset the bucolic aspect of nature with a view that is totally artificial, making panoramas from what we have in front of our eyes each day in Trastevere, Rome. We made images of nympheas from our plastic bags or those of the garbage dump of Malagrotta near Rome. The idea was to allow the viewer to recognize an iconic image from French Impressionist painting, Claude Monet’s water lilies, in the trash and then to create a paradox from it. The images from Impressionism are recognizable to a large audience, and using this framework, we create a way for the viewer to access the work. Then, within the work, there are many avenues for meaning. We often work with immediately recognizable symbols or images. There’s this emphasis on that which is hidden from view in everyday life. Here, it becomes reevaluated, put in the foreground, and inserted into a language of an institutionalized form of art.

goldiechiari, dump queen, 2008, video still triptych

Lorello: How did the two of you meet, and how did you arrive at making work along these lines?

GOLDSCHMIED: We met in 1997 at the University of Sociology of Rome in the group Orma Nomade that began as a political group and a study group of Donna Haraway’s essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” After some time, we began to try out a visual arts project together that aspired to the texts that we were reading. The work was tied to an imagination of the corporal, performance, and a series of themes tied to the intimacy of the body.

Lorello: The purpose was to experiment together, not to create a project tied to a contemporary art exhibition. Afterwards we began to produce works, but the experimentation lasted a couple of years as we developed our language.

GOLDSCHMIED: Initially, the influence of feminism was strong, both from the point of view of textsâ€critical theory by authors like Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, and Rosi Braidottiâ€and from the point of view of theoretical experimentation. The texts led us to contemplate notions of subjectivity and boundaries between feminine and masculine, natural and artificial. recycled glass jars . Regarding the concept of institutional critique, we’re interested in underlining paradoxes or creating short circuits through irony so that the spectator has the possibility of putting both that which is taken at face value and the system of art itself into question.

Lorello: How does the choice to live in Rome influence your work?

CHIARI: In Rome, there’s antiquity, this eternity. But antiquity is also one of the reasons that has not allowed the contemporary to develop as it has in other countries, even though there are artists, critics, curators, and museum directors here who work at a very high level. The problem is that so much money from the state goes to the restoration and maintenance of ancient artworks, and we very much live from tourism. There is little sensitivity on the part of the institutions for the contemporary. They don’t realize how we are stuck and how we cannot remain that way.

GOLDSCHMIED: The choice to live in Rome is very important. We have a lot of material that we are working on that is tied to the political contradictions that characterize Italy, the fact that Rome is a center of power because it is the political capital of Italy and at the same time is a historical city also tied to the power of the Vatican.

goldiechiari, pic nic, 2002, ninfee, panoramiche #15, lambda print
(courtesy of elaine levy project)

Lorello: You have shot many works on the outskirts of the city. What interests you in these places?

CHIARI: Rome is quite large, and there are a number of different parts of the city. Walking around, you realize that you can be transported to any other place in the world and you’re no longer in Rome. This recognition, however, is more behind the scenes. It’s fun to discover places, and it’s also a kind of metaphor that there is always a behind the scenes. In some way, we’re searching for this.

GOLDSCHMIED: It’s also the fact that the periphery renders many cities similar to one another. The work can then be applicable to other contexts and not just Rome. This idea can even be seen in works shot in the historic center of Rome. For example, both Controcorrente and Nympheas were shot at the Tiber River, and yet, there is no way of establishing this. We eliminated every reference to history, every architectural reference that could portray Rome in its more classical image. This is because the classical imagery would have distracted attention from other elements. We were more interested in the idea of the Tiber as a polluted river that could be in Rome just as it could be in any other place in the world at this moment.

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kate gilmore, cake walk, 2005, video

Lorello: Can you discuss what you are currently working on in Rome?

KATE GILMORE: I’m working on pile pieces that are based on destruction and construction. I’m looking at the architecture of the city, how it’s built on top of itself, and how contemporary society exists within the realm of this ancient place. I’m working with that history in these piles, thinking about breaking and making. Take the Roman Forum, for example. It was a thriving place, was destroyed, and now exists in a whole other realm and has created something that has a totally new definition. I am working in new materials as well. In New York, I work with a lot of wood because it is a plentiful material, especially near my studio in Long Island City. In Rome, wood is very expensive, so I have had to adjust the way that I make my sets and use materials that are cheap and plentiful in Rome. Here, I have been using plaster construction blocks, so the piles appear to be made from marble or stone. I try to use the place where I’m working as inspiration. It doesn’t make sense for me to replicate my exact New York studio practice in Rome. The challenge is to try to figure out what is here in Rome and do something new and interesting with that information.

kate gilmore, heart breaker, 2004, video still

Lorello: How did you arrive at making videos in which you interact with constructed sets?

GILMORE: When I was in school, I had professors come by my studio to look at my sculptures, but they were more interested in my personality, the way that I worked, my process, and the things that were left over from the sculptures than the actual objects. I started thinking about why the sculptures weren’t working and how I could combine all of these elements to make something more successful, and I started to put myself into the actual objects and then photograph them. I made pieces that focused on the idea of displacement. Used Cars Denver . I would build installations in which a female character would interact with an environment that was completely foreign to the environment that one would expect her to be in. For example, I would build a mud hut and dress up as Hillary Clinton or play a prom queen building Ted Kaczynski’s shack. I then started thinking about the process of moving through time as opposed to the end result being an object. This eventually led me to video.

kate gilmore, higher horse, 2008, video still

Lorello: In your performances, you often reshape constructed environments, renegotiating your own relationship to the sets, dismantling the original values implicit in them. As a female artist, do you feel a responsibility to do so?

GILMORE: Inevitably my work is about being a woman because I am in my work, and I am often doing these physical tasks. My outfits are usually quite female, with heels or dresses, so inevitably that’s part of it. As for whether female artists have a responsibility to address these issues, I don’t think it’s necessarily an obligation, but I’m interested in it. I looked at people like Marina Abramović, Valie Export, Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneemann, Louise Bourgeois, and Kiki Smith when I was growing up. Those are the people who probably made me an artist. I’m interested in taking those ideas and making them applicable to what’s going on right now. There are many artists now who unfortunately don’t want to have anything to do with feminist art. For me, that’s almost offensive since so many women artists and women in general did these things so that we don’t have to worry as muchâ€even though we do have to worry in a different way.

Lorello: Is the work Star Bright, Star Might an example of this interest?

GILMORE: Star Bright, Star Might was very much about the art world. It was made specifically for the Armory Show, and that piece is about the idea that artists are supposed to fit into a specific star mold. This can also be interpreted more generally as well. How do you negotiate an environment or situation that is basically rejecting you? There are several solutions. You can back off, you can mold yourself so you can fit, or there’s the solution that I usually take, which is to say: “No, I’m not going to do that, I’m going to break it.”

kate gilmore, star bright, star might, 2007, video still

Lorello: In many of your works, there is a physical obstacle that you set to overcome. Do you feel a sense of relief when you achieve a goal?

GILMORE: In Cake Walk, yes. That was physically the hardest piece I have ever done, and it was the only piece that I almost gave up on because it was so difficult. Ductless Air Conditioner . I knew that I could get out of Main Squeeze because I built it around my body, and it was a question of putting my body in the exact position. After I do a video, there is always a sense of relief. At the same time, the situation never turns out the way that I expect. I’m constantly spontaneously reacting to an environment. I’m not an actor. I’m just dealing with this life situation on camera. There are also several instances in which I don’t achieve, and the performance goes on. For instance, in Cake Walk, I finally get the cake and I throw it away, so the cake is a form of motivation, but it doesn’t matter if I get it or not. Cake Walk still could have ended even if I didn’t get it. It’s nice to have that moment, but the piece still would have worked if I hadn’t gotten it. You wouldn’t have gotten that same sense of relief as a viewer, so I’m actually being nicer to the viewer by achieving. That’s why I think a lot of people react strongly to My Love is an Anchor, in which I’m stuck in a bucket and will be for the rest of the life of the video. Now I’m working a little more with loop-based videos, thinking about the idea of continual struggle.

Lorello: Why do you subject yourself to discomfort in your work?

GILMORE: I think that the misconception about my videos is that they’re masochistic, and they’re not. They’re about pushing my body to a limit and trying to achieve something, using the physical to express an inner conflict. My physical relationship to objects is the most important thing to me, and making it through these challenges is what makes the “discomfort” worth it.

Lorello: Have you ever imagined working with other performers in your works?

GILMORE: I’ve been thinking about it more and more now, even though it’s never worked before. I’m working on a couple of pieces that actually have men in them, and the works deal with the idea of hyper-masculinity. I’ve been thinking more about machismo in Rome. You can’t turn your head without seeing a large male sculpture that’s dominating something. You go to the Capitoline Museum, and it’s all about male power in there. It’s also interesting to notice how these male figures even define being a woman.

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