Further Afield: Giulio Paolini – ‘To be or not to be’

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Contemporary / Contemporary Photography / Contemporary Sculpture / Exhibitions / Further Afield / Modern / NicolaCappleman / Portraiture / Sculpture / Solitude

Paolini is ever-present in his latest exhibition, ‘To be or not to be’, currently on display at Whitechapel Gallery, London. This is the first UK-based exhibition of Paolini’s work since the 1980s. Located in East London, the gallery is renowned for delivering thought-provoking contemporary shows. ‘To be or not to be’ is certainly no exception.  

We are immediately faced with Paolini as we enter the exhibition space. There, in front of us, stands the artist. He is both absent and present as he stands partially concealed by a canvas stretcher. There is a playful twist – the same canvas mounts the photograph. The exhibition encourages the viewer to interact with, and examine, the role of the artist in relation to the viewer. In this image our gaze is returned; we look at the artist and he peers back. For him, we become the artwork – the object of his gaze.

1. WG. Giulio Paolini_Delfo_1965

1. Giulio Paolini, ‘Delfo’ [Delphi]. 1965. Photo emulsion on canvas.

Paolini encourages us to ask questions of him, providing that he can, in turn, ask some of us.

Together with him we can explore our role as spectator and the role of the artist. He is present with us in the gallery. Self-portraits appear throughout the exhibition; glimpses of Paolini are scattered across the display – his hands, eyes and face.

Paolini has asked many questions of viewers during his years as a practising artist. His career spans over five decades. This Italian artist’s work has roots in both conceptual art and ‘arte povera’. The term arte povera translates literally as ‘poor art’. It was a modern Italian art movement of the late 60’s to early 70’s that sought to challenge established practices of government, art and culture – this is where the artist came to prominence. Meaning took precedence over aesthetics in the movement; its intentions were not concerning the creation of beautiful art, but rather preoccupied with creating work embedded with deeper meaning.

arte povera-influenced work is dynamic and simple simultaneously, using everyday objects to evocative effect. This is reflected in ‘Big Bang’, in which one of Paolini’s installations – a desk chair in front of a table – is caught up in wire and canvas, while littered around the chair are balls of screwed up paper. On top of the table is a mini table and chairs encased within a glass box. There is a miniature easel in front of it, echoing Paolini’s belief that all art is the product of the art that came before it. Owing its very existence to the traditions prior to it, his work emphasises this continuous cycle. The discarded drafts and papers are all part of a cycle of creating and producing art that draws inspiration from looking at preceding artworks.

10. Whitechapel Gallery. Giulio Paolini. Installation view, gallery 8. a...

2. Installation view at the Whitechapel Gallery. Giulio Paolini: To Be or Not To Be. Photo: Attillio Maranzano.

The work in this exhibition is not to be seen through eyes of disinterested aesthetic viewing. Paolini invites us to interact with his pieces – they spark contemplation and intend to challenge and confront us. This interaction is replicated in other pieces. In a separate section of the gallery there is a chequerboard work entitled ‘To be or not to be‘. It does not seem finished – pieces are missing, while a sketchpad and pencil lay near by. Paolini is here inviting us to become part of this work – to play a game with him.

Giulio Paolini ESSERE O NO ESSERE Macro - Roma a cura di Bartolo

3. Giulio Paolini. ‘Essere o non essere’ [To Be or Not to Be]. 1994-95. Mixed media.

Throughout the exhibition there is a message that artworks do not simply appear and find themselves in existence. Many of the pieces appear as if amidst a moment of creation – they are both literally and figuratively blank canvases and rough scrunched-up sketches.

The artist plays with form, challenging the established view of art as finished product. His works document the process of creation – neglected in more traditional art exhibitions. Visual works can be said to possess three elements – the artist who creates the work, the material objects which constitute it, and the spectator who views it. All three elements are visible in the installations here, which create an overarching interactive continuum.

There is a deeper message in this method of display. According to Paolini, in viewing any art you are viewing the creation of the next art which will follow. As spectator, we become part of this notion – that is, if one considers Paolini’s works as incomplete.

The works presented at Whitechapel are self-motivated, energetic, and challenging. They discerningly communicate complex relations between inspiration, production and reception, exploring issues regarding perception and ingenuity. 

‘To be or not to be’ is open at Whitechapel Gallery, London until 14th September 2014. For further details, see the gallery website.

1. Giulio Paolini. ‘Delfo’ [Delphi]. 1965. Photo emulsion on canvas, 180 x 95 cm. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Copyright © Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, by exchange, 2003. © Giulio Paolini.
2. Installation view at the Whitechapel Gallery. Giulio Paolini: To Be or Not To Be (9 July – 14 September 2014). Photo: Attillio Maranzano.
3. Giulio Paolini. ‘Essere o non essere’ [To Be or Not to Be]. 1994-95. Mixed media, 350 x 350 cm. Fondazione Giulio e Anna Paolini, Turin. © Giulio Paolini.
All images courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery, London, 18.08.2014.

Nicola Cappleman, 14th August 2014.



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