Interview with Montecristo Project

Montecristo Project is an exhibition space, artistic and curatorial office in a deserted island along the Sardinian coasts. Founded in 2016, it is an evolution of Occhio Riflesso, the collaborative research practice of artists Enrico Piras and Alessandro Sau. I interviewed Enrico and Alessandro to find out more about their ideas behind the project.

Can you tell me a bit more about your practices as individual artists and how you came about Montecristo Project?

This is a difficult question to answer! It’s funny how our collaborative practice has shaped our individual artistic researches. Our works are completely different and so are our approaches, both technically and conceptually. By working together we started developing similarities and affinities, until the point that we decided to bring our personal researches together as Montecristo project. So, everything we do, in whichever form, either sculpture, paintingphotograph or plinth, is always the result of four-hands work and an integral part of Montecristo. Weve also decided to never show anything individually anymore, either in exhibitions or outside Sardinia. We like to think of our practice with a Medieval approach – collective vs individual; it’s an anti-Renaissance meaning of the artistic profession, where the overall collaborative experience is more important and powerful than our individual work.
In 2013 we started Occhio Riflessoour first collaborative project and where Montecristo has its origin. As Occhio Riflesso we showed our individual works in very unusual locations such as caves and archaeological sites. The shows didnt involve any public, curators, or critical presentation by external professionals. We were in charge of all these aspects and that allowed us the freedom to really exhibit the work at its best and in specifically chosen or constructed locations. Since then weve felt the urgency to open this experience up to other artistsThats how we came about the idea of the island.

Sebastien Bonin, A l’arriere plan, le nouveau pont, installation view at Montecristo Project – mountain department.

I feel like Montecristo project plays with the tensions between opposites such as isolation and hyper connectivity, presence-absence, subject-object, physical-digital. At the same time the internet and the island are two key spaces for your practice. So how are these dimensions in dialogue with each other?

We love playing with unsolvable dichotomies such as those you have mentioned, keeping in mind that a dialectic approach is a way to reconcile opposite poles and to make them productive and stimulating. For instancewe seek an autonomous existence of the artworks, their independent value from an external gaze – what is commonly defined as the public. We are quite the opposite to what might be called relational art’, having our own way of relating to the audience. Thats where digital connectivity comes in. It allows us to share whatever we do through a filter, and therefore to hold a constant distance from the public. People are not allowed to physically visit our shows but they can only look at the works thought the images that we produce.
We are quite fascinated by ancient cultures like the Egyptian, where art held a magical value and didn’t need to be seen, for example as in the case of funerary sculptureor paintings. The physical aspect, which is only accessible to us and the invited artists, is what embodies this magical and secret dimension; it allows the work to have a conceptual and physical space of its own. The internet on the other hand creates what we call a reflection’: a mirroring of the experience through a constructed narrative. We are sure that we would be doing the same exact things even if we had no means of sharing it digitally, which is what we did at the very beginning of Occhio Riflesso. The possibility of being totally unnoticed or unknown is not frightening.

Where does your practice as artists-curators come from and how has it been developing?

We don’t like to define what we do acuratorial work, it isn’t artistic either, but we still have no better way of naming what we are doing. So, while looking for a way of defining ourselves, we understand our role as something more powerful than that of the curator. We collaborate with the artists by creating displays and manipulating their works both conceptually and physically in dialogue with them. This is something a curator wouldn’t usually do and, when he does, you get weird unconvincing hybrids (like the new display of the Ugo’s collection at the Galleria Comunale in Cagliari).
We believe that an artist as curator can influence, frame, present a work so much better than a regular curator. The artist has a different understanding of the work, and his/her interventions in the presentation of a piece are legitimated by the artistic practice itself. We started Occhio Riflesso as a way to reject those curators whose approach is to participate in the production of the work by manipulating, advising or intervening in it. We believe that is what artists and only artists should do. That why we are very careful to keep this collaborative, genuine and naive spirit with our invited guests. We’ve learned this attitude from the artist Ugo Ugo and we try to apply it in every new research.

Models of display (our most beloved techno-archaic artist), Tonino Casula at Montecristo Project, 2016. Curated and documented by Enrico Piras and Alessandro Sau.

I’m interested in understanding more about your ideas around the relationship between spectator-artist-curator. Montecristo Project questions these conventional roles in the arts. How do they relate to the artists youve been working with? Is it there also an element of setting your own values and taking control of your practice as both artists and curators?

We created Montecristo and Occhio Riflesso with the need of establishing new relations between these subjects. Artists nowadays are part of a mechanism in which they produce and submit works to others, sometimes with the aim to please audiences, gallerists, collectors, etc. We needed to create a space of complete freedom for ourselves, so we took the route of self-determination.
As artists, what we really care for is the artwork, its existence, framing, presentation and documentationand we dont feel the need of curators to tell us what to do, what topics to address or to invite us to thematic collective exhibitions. We try to keep this approach alive in whatever project we dive into. Setting our own values means that we are free to choose where to exhibit according to the artwork and not vice versa. By inverting a typically contemporary hierarchy in which is the space to set the rules for the work of art, we allow this relationship to create powerful premises, both visual and conceptual.
Funnily enough, as it always happens, we are now regarded and considered as curators. We do not like this role of mediators, so each time we struggle to create proper conditions when we present projects to a public outside Sardinia. Perhaps it’s because we perceive the public more as an ‘accident’ than as a fundamental interlocutor.

Occhio Riflesso V, Enrico Piras and Alessandro Sau, 2015, mining village of Monte Narba, San Vito, Sardinia. Curated and documented by Enrico Piras and Alessandro Sau.

Also, how have the format and location of your projects – the island as opposed to the conventional white cube gallery, been a tool to reflect and question these roles?

As we started addressing this topic with Occhio Riflesso back in 2013, we found an answer to this question through the practical meanof photography. We were looking for a dimension based on freedom from curatorial restrictions, critical presentations, openings and all of those social conventions that nowadays you constantly come across to in the arts. We just needed to present the works to ourselves in a new and legitimate space of being, and the Sardinian landscape served this purpose. The island (and our mountain department) has been that space for Montecristo projects. So, if on one hand weve been working in very unusual and remote places such as domus de janas, caves, bunkers, on the other hand weve been presenting these experiences as if they were located in a conventional exhibition space. The photographs that we take to document and present our research are based on the canons of the installation shot – the typical documentation you would get of a gallery show. The use of the space, the framing of images and the accelerate perspectives or flattened textured walls; all these means recreate a link to something you would feel familiar to, with the exception that they are in an open-air, natural, typically Sardinian landscape. We keep on questioning and exploring these roles, so every new exhibition, space and display we create is in its own way a new question to present and discuss them.

Carlos Fernandez-Pello, A futile attempt at creating cult objects, 2018, fabric and foam rubber, 31 x 22 x 40 cm. Courtesy of Garcia Galeria.

What narratives are you looking to communicate? And what is their relationship with Sardinia, both geographically and culturally? For example, Im thinking of your vision behind the group show I S L A N D or UU, which took place both in Sardinia and Brussels.

We have a strong relationship with Sardinia, its territory, history and some of its historical artistic figures. Many of our projects focus on artists such as Salvatore Moro, Tonino Casula and Ugo Ugo, who are fundamental but have always been on the fringes of the art discourse. Our aim is to re-value the work of these artists by presenting them within a new frame, both conceptual and physical. We have been exploring a series of topics, such as the relationship between archaic and contemporary imageries or the role of the artist as director, which we have analysed through both exhibitions and written essays. The approach that we follow is to support any visual production with a theoretical framework; UU is an example of that.
UU (the artist as director) 
is an ongoing project about artists that, like Ugo Ugo with the Galleria Comunale d’Arte in Cagliari, founded or directed an institutional art space. The research on Ugo started as a theoretical workmade of interviews or essaysand then evolved in a series of exhibitions. Our vision for them is to reenact or give shape to some of Ugos ideas that were never realised. For example, we created a wooden space and installed it in the Sardinian mountains, which was based on Ugo’s extension plan for the Galleria Comunale in Cagliari. This work, we believe, has generated a new interest in the figure of Ugo and his work, as both artist and artistic director, on the contemporary art collection in Cagliari. Funnily enough, the latest and current collection display is the result of the work of a curator as (wannabe) artist, which is exactly the opposite to what Ugo was and envisaged for the gallery.
I S L A N D was our first (and last, for now) group show on the island, and the first involving some artists of our generation: Carlos Fernandez-Pello, Karols Gil, Alfredo Rodriguez and Alessandro Vizzini. All the exhibited works were intended as idols, totemic images that occupied each a different part of the island. They were installed on specifically designed plinths that we specifically created to display the works among the rocks, the cacti and the beach of the islet. It was a detour from our projects on forgotten or less know figures, but it was inscribed in the need of opening up the project to a dimension that could connect the work of these artists together in a Mediterranean landscape – a narrative discourse that took the shape of a mirage.

Ugo Ugo, Mask, 1960’s, tempera monotype on paper glued on shaped wood.

Salvatore Moro, Two heads (Pompieri and the artist). Installation view at Montecristo Project, 2016.

Could you explain what your most recent project A guide-tour of Sardinian archaic weird and marvelous stone sculpture (La Costante Resistenziale) is about?

This project is planned to be a triennial investigation on Sardinian art history, which takes as its point of reference the field of spontaneous-naive-outsider sculpture. A guide-tour came up as a reaction to a series of three exhibitions held by the MAN in Nuoro between 2015 and 2017 and called La Costante Resistenziale (The Constance of Resistance). These shows were meant to be a survey on fifty years of Sardinian art, from the 60s to our days. We visited them all, but we found that in each of them there was something missing and misleading. The title The Constance of Resistance refers to a concept by archaeologist Giovanni Lilliu which explains how throughout these decades, Sardinian artists found themselves in a context that had been swinging between ancient and modern times. As a result, they managed to always maintain a resistance– a sort of identity that is immune to any outer influences.
We felt that the original concept of resistance went completely missing in the shows, and that many of the artists in them were anything but coherent to any Sardinian ethosIn fact, the works displayed rather resembled the most trendy and contemporary vogues in the art field. We thought that the Sardinian resistance can only be understood through a genuine anthropological approach that center its investigation on the amateur, outsider, naive artists (mainly sculptors of stone pieces) who still live and work in every Sardinian town, village or neighbourhood.
We compare Sardinian contemporary art to Roman Republican art: a period when the indigenous, simple and archaic sculptural language (the so called medio-italica art) was replaced by the intellectual and sophisticated art coming from Hellenistic artists. This same historical phenomenon has been happening in Sardinia since the 60’s due to the globalisation of artistic languages and the transformation of the artistic world. So, A guide-tour of Sardinian archaic, weird and marvelous stone sculpture (La Costante Resistenziale) is both a journey through the popular and amazingly weird sculptures we find on our photographic trips in the islandand series of critical essays about the history of Sardinian art through the lens of works by artists such as Mauro Manca and Pinuccio Sciola and more, to come soon.

How are you looking to develop Montecristo project?

We have many things in mind, but we value secrecy a lot. One thing that we can say is that we are planning to open some special projects to a very limited audience, but it will take some time to get there!

From A guide-tour of Sardinian archaic, weird and marvelous stone sculpture (La Costante Resistenziale).

By Valentina Orrù

Follow Montecristo Project on Instagram here.


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