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In conversation with MARC VINCIGUERRA

Marc Vinciguerra is a Parisian artist, art educator and philosopher represented by the Georges Bergès gallery in the New York City. His latest monumental sculpture (described as "extraordinary'' by Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine) was on view at the Biennale of Architecture in Venice, Italy, and he was most recently invited to show his work by the European Cultural Center, while his contemporary figurative installations are placed alongside the Grand Canal in a Venetian Palazzo. In 2014, Vinciguerra won the Alpine Fellowship Visual Prize hosted by a philosopher and a BBC host Sir Roger Scruton ("Why Beauty Matters"). Vinciguerra has been invited to give lectures at several universities, including the Foundation Cini in Venice, and his philosophical writings are discussed publicly at the American Academy of Religion. Having written several articles on the future of art, his work solidly breaks the wall that separates traditional and contemporary art. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Arts of Sicily and in private collections in France, Morocco, Italy and the United States.


Q: Marc, you come from a unique background rooted in art and philosophy, how do these intertwine in your own work?

A: Yes, I feel very close to what Nietzsche used to call the artist-philosopher. I see these two

activities as absolutely inseparable. In the aphorism number 795 of the "Will to Power", Nietzsche speaks about the artist-philosopher as a higher concept of art. He praises the hermit-artist who enlarges humanity by separating himself from men to be able to form a big picture of the century he lives in. He calls high art a perfecter of ideas. I identify very much with this definition

of an artist. For me philosophy is looking for truth, and art is the manifestation of that truth. I believe that sculpture is an incarnation of higher truths, if you are a sculptor and you do not incarnate these truths - then the sculpture will not manifest them. Philosophy in a way is internal art, and art is an external philosophy. I have chosen in my life a long time ago to leave the big metropolis of Paris, New York and Los Angeles to realize this dream that I have of the artist-hermit. I live in a small town in the US, where I have enough time to read 2000 pages of theology and philosophy a month, and sculpt my concepts on a very big scale. The irony is that when I started living in a small town, I started to exhibit all over the world. You will see me every year in Miami, New-York, Venice and Florence, but when I create - I go back to my small town. It is not a contradiction though living in a small town allows me to create projects much bigger than if I was living in the middle of Manhattan. My life is not very different from a monk of an Umberto Eco novel, who spends his life in a monastery to rewrite culture for the ages. The only difference is that I transform my philosophy into sculpture. My art is rooted in philosophy in a sense that I write, and from these writings sculptures emerge. Today I have cultivated philosophy and art so much that I am recognized in both fields. It has become very clear in my life that the more I philosophize and theologize - the more I create.


Q: You’ve mentioned to me before that the library in your studio carries a very specific meaning in your creative process - what is it?

A: In my studio library I place each book vertically and the cover facing us instead of stacked behind each other. I own thousands of books and collected them since the age of 9 years old. One day I asked myself what are the 20 authors that are the key to the future of culture? I carefully selected these 20 authors without whom, to my belief, we could not move on as a civilization. The way these books are displayed in my studio vertically and frontally allows me on a daily basis in just one eye glance to see the guardians of the philosophy of the future and to meditate on these books. This is very important in my practice as an artist, because I am known to have built my own theology, and today all of my work as an artist is a direct illustration of my philosophy.

There are a lot of authors who wrote excellent books that did not make the cut because their books were not necessary to the evolution of the history of ideas. My golden list is: Meister

Eckhart, Jean Clair, Ludwig Feuerbach, Heidegger, Cioran, Nietzsche, Wagner, The Apocryphal

Gospel, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, H.P. Blavatsky, Baudrillard, Tao Te King, Manly P. Hall,

Georges Bataille, Saint Gregory Palamas and Holderlin. Why are these necessary to me? Because high culture is dying today and it is our responsibility as intellectuals and artists to keep it alive with the same standards as the past. This is so important in my creative process, because I do not believe that great Artists invent ideas, a great Artist is a product of history and what he does is he unveils the historico-supernatural evolution of ideas. The ideas are already in our history, and the great Artist is the one who articulates these ideas into the present. He unveils and does not invent. He dis-covers, he takes the cover of the history of thoughts so that we can read the present.


Q: What other elements in your creative space are necessary or serve as inspiration for your work?

A: Another important aspect of my studio beside the library is the immense black velvet curtain that traverses my Atelier, in front of which I create my monumental multi-figure sculptures. There are two purposes of this huge veil. Firstly, a practical purpose, having a black background and ivory colored clay it provides a nice contrast in which I can control the clarity of the lines. Secondly, a theological purpose, the curtain is the symbol of the absence of God, this black curtain is the physicalization of the Mystery. Whether you believe in God or not - we do not directly see him. So the curtain is an important theological symbol of what is revealed if in front of the curtain or what is hidden if it is behind the curtain. To pierce that curtain is the work of what Jean Clair calls the Artist Messiah. If there are some holes in that veil then the Artist has done his work. May the philosophical light burn the veil of the absence of God. One day if the veil opens I will frame it and put it in a show by itself! It would be a mystification of the work of Lucio Fontana. In my process, there is no difference between art and revelation - so this black velvet curtain in my studio represents the veil between us and a religious experience. I create only when a new religious experience happens. Cioran said "you recognize a great artist by what he refuses to do". The great art is not to produce something - it is to know when you should not create, and when you should. Very few of us have the nerves to do this.


Q: There is an interesting project you’ve been working on recently which is a prototype of the door to your studio with sculptural portraits of Nietzsche. Why did you select this particular subject for this work, and which other philosophical ideas and subject-matters find their way into your creations?

A: I am going to enlarge it and make the door wider - ultimately, with twelve heads of Nietzsche. I created this door for my studio because I wanted to "go through" the ghost of Nietszche every morning when I enter my studio. I believe that Nietzsche is the door to the civilization of the future. I am not a Nietzschean; Nietzsche was a philosopher of the diagnosis of his time, so if he was alive today he will very certainly give an entire new diagnosis of our times. He is often vulgarized as anti-religious - but I see in Nietzsche the frustrated prophet of a new religion that he did not have time to systematize. Nietzsche left humanity unreconciled. That is why I transformed him into a door, he is the door that pivots between faith and nihilism. Before you walk across him you are in faith and once you ago across you have to face nihilism. He was the door of civilization in 1900 that will separate for ever 6000 years of past history with 6000 years of future history. For the other ideas that find their way in my work, they start here historically with the death of God of Nietzsche. Nietzsche defined nihilism as absence of meaning, if there is no God - our existence simply goes towards annihilation, and we do not have any higher purpose. What Nietzsche said about nihilism became a negative definition of nihilism. And strangely enough we have never questioned this negative and narrow definition of nihilism. That is where I enter the picture. Yes we go towards annihilation, but annihilation itself is a religious experience. So nihilism, contrary to what is said for more than a century, brings us closer to God.

So if doubt and skepticism is religious then nihilism is sacred because nihilism immerses us into nothingness. I believe that nihilism is a new religious experience and we should listen to the great philosopher Simone Weil who wrote in Gravity and Grace we should love our nothingness. My work is constantly redefining God, and when professional theologians speak about my work they talk about my nihilist theology. Dr Tracy Tiemeier, a great American theologian who wrote two incredible texts about my work, defines my theology as a nihilist contemplation which she sees as a new form of spirituality that our desacralized societies should think about. Many more ideas will be available in a book that I am finishing now, a 400 pages long philosophical poem.


Q: You’ve openly questioned before if it’s not the destiny of philosophy to end in art or religion. Is this how you feel about the philosophy-art relation in general? What is the link between art and religion in that sense?

A: Yes, there is a huge relation between art and religion, you can see it historically; the relation between art and religion started disappearing in 1917 with Duchamp which coincided with the post-Nietzschean prediction that nihilism is at the door of Europe. The death of God has quickly transformed into the death of Art. That is how close those are. Richard Wagner understood that very well, and I am Wagnerian in that regard, when he wrote in Religion and Art that the future of Art will have to go through the regeneration of religion though the Artist-Priest. Wagner was not a priest, but he meant that only the advent of new religious experiences strong enough to reform the entire idea of religion, only this way we will reconnect to high art. I immensely agree with him, this text is still relevant and visionary today. But let this be very clear - he speaks about a regeneration of religion, not a rehabilitation of the old model of religion. I believe that today it is the religious understanding of nihilism that will regenerate religion. He ends the text by positing that the mission of the artist of the future is to invent new religious prototypes. I couldn't agree more… If religions are all historical, none are eternal; then the role of the artist is to elevate his art by deciphering the religion of his times.


Q: Now let’s discuss your creative process, how does it unravel?

A: When I start a sculpture, I always hide a secret geometry under the flesh of the statue. In the Essence of Religion (also called the Essence of Christianity), I bent the metal of the arms like a vault using old blueprints of temples and monasteries. It was not difficult to conceive as my studio in Florence (a book has been published in Germany about my studio which features me as a theologian-artist) was a monastery built by a Saint, where Richard Wagner and Henri James once lived. The way my creative process unravels is through writing. I write almost every day, and when I invent a philosophical concept - I start sketching bodies in very small frenetic 1-inch doodles, a lot of them. In my very last statue finished 2 days ago and called Facing the Void, I introduce a neon-portal; I made 350 sketches, to keep only 2 of them. Once I have the right sketch - the creative process is over, because even if I still have to use a ton of clay (sometimes literally), I have in my possession the most important element in sculpture - the position. The position is the key. That is where the meaning is, almost like if you were creating a symbol. It has to have that kind of suggestive power. Once I have this body/idea, then I build an armature in iron. I call a model appropriate for the project and he poses for 3 months, and after 200 hours of observation of all the tendon, muscles, planes, cranium, shadows I finish the creation. When the creation is finished, I pour silicone on it and make a huge mold. My best friend Ken Hall is known as the greatest mold maker in America, so we usually do that phase together, brushing silicone and making a huge sarcophagus in plaster to contain the form. After that, depending on the nature of the project, we pour fiberglass, resin, bronze or aluminum. The extra difficulty is that most of my work is floating between heaven and earth - so we have developed great technical ability in the art of suspension! The last project we installed, the life size body is ascending 15 feet above the ground! So this is how it unravels from a thought to a doodle, to a ton of clay and to aerial suspension. We can now install a sculpture garden anywhere in the world in just a week.


Q: You work with different media: metal, marble, resin, fiberglass and so on. Which do you enjoy the most? What is the media of your choice, and what qualities contribute to it being such?

A: I must say I enjoy each of them equally, but for different reasons. I love metal because it reflects

the light of the sun, I love marble because calcium carbonate takes millions of years to turn into marble, I love burying metal under the ground to find it 6 months later like an old green oxidized Egyptian statue, I love plaster because the statues look ghostly, I love venous marble because it looks like arteries, I love working with neon, too, because it has this magnetic and transcendental aura; but the material I like the most is fiberglass for the simple reason that it is so light that there is no limit to what you can do.

I recently started experimenting combining very old material with super modern material, in my next project I am going to combine marble and neon. Like Francis Bacon said in his interviews that are all fascinating, as an Artist you must give new experiences to the nervous system. The way I do that is by creating figurative art that I transform into installation Art; you don't have to mechanically destroy the old to be new, you can just rearrange the old in a new way to be new. Also the fiberglass is amazing, if I put a patina on them, when it is freshly poured you can see blue veins under the resin. If you look at the remarkable work of Berlinde de Bruyckere, you will see this skin-like quality of the material.


Q: That is very interesting. Do you work from a live model or from preliminary drawings? What is the importance of these?

A: I work from live models only. I often hear people say that my work looks alive. The reason for that is because I work with a live model for hundreds of hours. I study every angle, the model poses from front, back and the two profiles and he turns for months until I can’t do more.

Also, there is a phenomenon that is hard to explain - a mysterious transfer of life from the model to the statue. The model gives a little bit of its life to the clay, this must happen because there is a big difference between sculpture done by photos and sculpture done from life. I almost work only from life unless I have a very interesting model that is not in my town and then I ask for pictures. Recently, I worked with a magnificent dancer from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and he sent me pictures of his face. I like to think that when I sculpt, I also sculpt the astral body which would explain the sentiment of life in my sculptures. As far as drawings, I move directly from the small 1-inch invention drawing to the sculpting phase. But I do give a great importance to these small undeveloped drawings, it is in them that the creation happens. I value these tiny drawings because when a great idea comes, you have to be fast to sketch what is happening within your brain, if not - you loose the chance to invent.


Q: You had interesting models before and you carefully selected each one. Which qualities are you searching for?

A: To answer I will directly quote one of my favorite model who posed for the Transfiguration. He

said to me: "I am unconventionally beautiful". Beauty as we see it in magazines or movies does

not interest me. I am looking for extreme inner beauty that has become physical. For me beauty in a model is personality, but not only that; I am looking for a supernatural grace. If I see someone that has this supernatural quality - I will ask them to pose. I cannot sculpt average people, I need people who remind me of heroes, saints and apostles.


Q: You have written several articles on the future of art, could you talk a little bit about your writings.

A: Yes, I wrote an article for the Florentine, the American magazine in Florence, Italy, and I was also

invited to do lectures at the Fondazione Cini in Venice through the Alpine Fellowship that

reunites artists with philosophers from Oxford. In these articles and lectures, I try to destroy the

wall raised between traditional art and modern art. I think that the opposition has impoverished both. I try to explain that these oppositions are not relevant anymore. I believe in the reunion of polar opposites in art and in religion. The opposition between atheism and religion does not interest me either, I believe that our desacralized societies will be reconciled with the divine when they will see religion in atheism. I believe in what the mystics of the middle age called in latin the "coincidentia oppositorum", which means the reunion of the opposites.

In art for example, you have this immediate hatred of the art world for figurative art. This hatred is mechanistic. Today in the art world everybody feels the necessity to deconstruct the human figure to be modern. So you see an enormous amount of work that destroys the image of a man. But what if on the contrary we were in a phase of civilization where the image of a man was ascending towards a new meaning? If that is the case then we could be entitled again to represent instead of systematically disfiguring. It is not figurative art that is academic, you become academic when you create mechanically without organically discovering what must be done in your own times. In that regards, a lot of so-called avant-garde art is very academic. Again, art is very close to philosophy here, Nietzsche used to define great philosophy as a diagnosis of the real, you can say the same thing about art. If this diagnosis is wrong - the art falls flat. But that is the beauty and the danger of art: it is impossible to lie! That is why there are a lot of artists today -but very few real. All my lectures and articles are an attempt to redefine art and religion.


Q: What role does art carry in a modern day culture of mass consumerism, product placement

and propaganda?

A: Well modern day culture of mass consumerism, product placement and propaganda kill Art.

Not all but most of what we see today in the cinema, photography or pop-music is to culture

what McDonald's is to food. This mass culture participates massively in what I call the "walmartization" of culture. This low culture becomes dangerous when it proclaims to be art. What happens is that we stop making a difference between low art and high art. It is our work and responsibility as curators, artists, intellectuals, writers and museum directors to keep on making a difference between low art and high art. There is only one culture and it is high culture, the rest is show business, variété or postmodern academism. The question of what art really is has never been as important as today. I hope in the future to write a chart of what art is before civilization becomes totally unable to recognize it.

There is so much confusion today between politics and art, between entertainment and art and between the past and the present. We must fight for high culture because at the end that is what will save us like Dostoyevsky said. So the role that art carries in the middle of this mass culture is to keep its place as high art. And what is this place? The place of art is the manifestation of truth through beauty. What is truth? A life reconciled.


Q: Working between the two countries and representing both, what was your experience of the

process of cultural integration?

A: I arrived in America 20 years ago carrying with me all the culture of the Old World. First it was difficult, because I did not know how to integrate the Old World into the New World. But slowly, the

integration became a phenomenon of universalization, I started making work that was beyond cultures and beyond civilizations. I could do an installation in the middle of Venice that was acclaimed in Europe, and in the same time someone would write about it in an art magazine in America. So it felt that even if I am of three cultures (French, Italian, American), I manage with a lot of hard work to create universal art that exists beyond the limitations of countries. It feels good to see that the image of man I create is understood beyond "nationalisms".


Q: Moving to questions of artistic exile, displacement and cultural interaction and globalization - what impact on the art practice do these have?

A: In my experience displacement confirmed my own identity. I have always felt displaced, in my

hometown, in my Parisian circle, I always felt exiled from what I was seeing. So being physically exiled feels natural. I can spend 3 month in Venice, 2 month in Paris, 1 month in New York and 3 month in Miami in the same year, so people often ask me: "Where is home?" And the answer is - nowhere. But I love this "nowhere", exile has become my home. This exile impacts my art a lot in a religious sense, because I am trying to find meaning in the absence of land. I am not Jewish, but I adore Jewish spirituality, and for a lot of it it is in exile that you find a connection to the divine. One of my favorite Jewish mystic is Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and he explains that God has put the Jewish people in exile in order to make them closer to God. I believe this is true, my absence of home has become my home and I will quote my favorite poet Friedrich Hölderlin to close this interview "The one who has a home nowhere he walks towards the Immortals".