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Paola Pivi creates surreal sculptures and installations that delight, engage, and confront viewers. She’s known for images of animals in surprising locations (horses on the Eiffel Tower, zebras in mountainous terrain) and, most recently, for her brightly colored and feather-covered bears.
Raised in Milan, Pivi currently lives in Alaska. Last spring, she spoke to us by phone from Alaska and later from Milan, after she completed an installation at La Rinascente, “I am tired of eating fish,” which was open during Milan Design Week in April (curated by Cloe Piccoli). Pivi was also preparing an exhibition at London’s Massimo De Carlo gallery, which was largely inspired by a trying period for the artist when she and her husband endured a four-year custody battle for their adopted son in Indian courts.
Pivi shared with us her realization of the destructive power of lies and how that’s fueling her latest series. This fall her work is on view in “They All Look the Same” at the Piramide Building in Tokyo (through November 11) and in the group show “Art of the North” at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska (through August 31, 2018).
WHITEWALL: Let’s start with “I am tired of eating fish.” Can you tell us about putting that show together at La Rinascente in Milan?
PAOLA PIVI: La Rinascente is the most historic department store in Italy. It’s near Milan’s Duomo and they offered me the possibility of making an exhibition in their windows. They’ve had relationships in the past with artists.
I really like windows. I remember when I was really young, I was in a small town in Italy, and there was a small wool shop that would do very artistic displays in their windows. I would make a point to walk there every week to see the new installation.
At La Rinascente, the windows are huge, four by six meters. And they offered me the windows for pure exhibition space. They didn’t ask me to compromise. I decided to show the bears. And in this situation on the streets I treated half of the windows as art galleries and the other half creating comic strip-like cells. It’s been amazing seeing the crowds looking at the exhibition. I always knew that these bears provoke an extreme attraction. And I was afraid with the glass this might be prevented. But actually, quite the opposite happened. The attraction is still there and the glass doesn’t let you touch them, so people really light up in front of them.
WW: Can you tell us about the Massimo De Carlo show, “You don’t have to believe me”?
PP: I will have three floors of the gallery. The ground floor has kinetic works, first shown in Dallas. It’s a series of bicycle wheels rotating with feathers all around. When I was testing the work, I had seen it on the four walls and I really liked it, creating an enclosure. When you see the work rotating, it’s kind of hypnotic. It’s just a bicycle wheel and some feathers rotating, but it becomes so hypnotic, powerful, and strong. And I like that it’s so simple. There are just a few ingredients that bring together technology and nature in such a simple way.
And another group of work will address the concept of lies.
WW: What made you want to address lies?
PP: I went through a very difficult time in my life for four years with my husband. We were stranded in India to adopt our son. Our son was stateless and we were going through a very horrific ordeal. We went to court hundreds of times. All this was for the adoption of our son. He was stateless, he was stuck in India, and we so were stuck in India.
We started a lawsuit against the Tibetan Children’s Village in India. When they replied to our lawsuit, the way they replied was by throwing lies at us—a huge number of lies. From there I felt the power of lies. They can be used as a weapon, and they can create an atmosphere where nobody understands anything anymore. You can lose track of the truth. And I understood how the truth is very valuable. But the truth is always there. The court cases are all finished and won by us, finally.
What is really striking is that in the last four years, it feels like the whole Western world has changed. And lies are suddenly so common. It’s almost acceptable. Nobody is ashamed of lying. The public situation is as confused as I was in 2013. You don’t know anymore what’s true, what’s a lie, and you feel afraid.
So I made drawings that are very autobiographical. They come from those four years in India. They are about adoption and adoption of our son. The drawings are examples of truths.
WW: Is drawing a part of your practice?
PP: No, it’s very rare because I find it an extremely hard outburst. Sometimes I do my drawings; sometimes I worked in collaboration with other comic strip artists.
WW: You now live in Alaska, with your husband and son. What is it like there? What do you connect with about the place?
PP: Alaska is the best place on earth. I could talk about this for six hours! I came here in 2005 alone for five or six weeks to do a sort of holiday. I pretended to be a journalist, and I followed the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. I completely fell in love with Alaska, and then I thought it would be like moving to the moon. Then I was living in London and I moved to Italy, living in the Alps, trying to duplicate living there. But later I came back to Alaska on a short trip, and of course I ended of up staying here. At the beginning I was terrified that it would make it really hard to continue with showing my work. But it didn’t stop the shows. Actually, living in these remote areas, I become a little bit of a monk. I could work 12 or 16 hours a day, or all night, day after day after day and focus while balancing.
WW: You’ve said that visions are part of your process, and you work from instinct. Have you always felt like you could trust your instincts?
PP: I am a terrified person in life. I am terrified of bears and speed, anything, right? When it comes to my instinct, I am fearless. When you are young and society puts so much pressure on you, it is really difficult to feel what I want. That is the skill—to open up and to see inside yourself. Once you see something, you cannot unsee it. Once you open that and you find a way to find your instincts, then you cannot not listen to it, not go there.
This article appears in Whitewall‘s fall 2017 Couture Issue.