Davide Dal Sasso and Jorge Macchi

Jorge Macchi (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1963) is one of the most prominent artists in the Latin American contemporary art scene. Winner of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2001, his works have been exhibited in several international institutions. Departing from a reflection on Macchi’s relationship with music, the dialogue explores the themes of image, form, interpretation, the possibilities afforded by the artwork and the relationship with the public.

Davide Dal SassoThere are two aspects of your work – the repetition and the geometric organization of the structures – which reveal a sort of ‘musicality’ that runs through and characterizes your works. What is your relationship with music?

Jorge Macchi: I started studying classical music and learning to play the piano when I was fifteen. It was beautiful. For eight years I practiced intensively, two hours a day. Then I began having problems with reading the scores. So, I tried to memorize all the pieces. But the problem was that I couldn’t practice regularly, and I started to forget everything. On the one hand it was a really significant experience, I had the pleasure of playing classical pieces by authors such as Bach, Mozart, Satie, Debussy. On the other hand, despite the problems with reading and listening, it was a very important time in my life because it allowed me to cultivate my approach to music by learning a lot about the formality of the same.

 DDS: What did you learn from these lessons?

JM: I learned, in particular, that there is something in music that you cannot translate. Although some people try to translate it somehow – for example, some try it with Impressionist music – I don’t think that’s possible. Even if you attempt to translate sounds into words, or to make sense of emotions, you always risk obtaining something of a nonsense. With the visual arts, this problem seems to be easier to solve because if you want to describe something, you can do it more easily than with music.

DDS: In what way? 

JM: If you are self-aware, if you go into details, you can find ways to translate your experience. The relationship between music and visual art is important to me in this sense: music introduces something that is completely formal and that doesn’t allow any type of transcription or translation into words. And this is very important. For me, the experience of what you are seeing, of what you are listening is fundamental. And maybe that’s why I put music in contact with the image. Sometimes the music modifies the image whilst changing the relationship with the audience. Thus, something mysterious is obtained which cannot be manipulated.

DDS: This “resistance to manipulation” is crucial for a work to be organized in a certain way. Do you think music can offer this organizational possibility?

JM: Some structures in the visual arts can be used or perhaps modified in the field of music. Some structures belonging to music can also be used in the visual arts.

DDS: I was thinking about the relationship between music and mathematics… If music is mathematics, your way of organizing, to “compose” your work so to speak, is very close to that of the musician.

JM: Yes, of course, I agree with you. Actually, there are some strategies that I use that are the same as for musicians: repetition, for instance. Transparency can be another strategy, as well as symmetry. We are talking about formal things here. These are the important things in my work. The musicality you speak of is surely linked to these aspects. I would say – although I’m not sure – that I work as a musician but in the visual arts. The musical structure is the frame in which all the details of my works are immersed. And these are directly related to experience.

DDS: You often use material objects in your work. However, images play a key role. Why are they so important?

JM: I always insist on images. This is because the production process of a work is always the same: it begins with an image and develops into something else. But there is one aspect in particular that is really important to me: the image has no materiality, nor shape, nor volume. It is something that sits in the mind. By ‘image’ I mean a connection between something we can experience – for example, a bicycle on the street – and something else in our mind. This image is not tangible, but it is at the origin of something else. When I speak of ‘image’, I am referring to this type of entity.

DDS: What is the relationship between the image and the work you develop?

JM: The image is before the watercolor, before the sculpture, the video, the objects and anything else. Usually this image doesn’t have a precise meaning, it doesn’t have an interpretation. The image comes before matter in space.

DDS: Do you think the image is something like an idea?

JM: It is an issue that is not clear to me. When I talk about an idea, I think of something more complex than an image. I would say that the image comes even before an idea, because the idea is a connection of multiple things. More precisely, I think the image comes into being before its representation.

DDS: What could be the relationship between this type of image and its representation?

JM: Using images doesn’t mean working with them. Many artists use images to illustrate an idea. For me, however, it is essential to work with images, to start with something that comes before things.

DDS: Coming back to the musicality of your work – in particular of the structure in which your work develops and articulates – I was wondering what your idea of ​​form is.

JM: Form is structure but at the same time it is also something tangible. I don’t think it’s just interpretation, something that pertains to the mind, to meaning. There are formal aspects that are certainly related to memory and narration. But, first of all, I believe that the shape is linked to what is there.

DDS: I would like to suggest this: if form is something that we can also experience thanks to objects – that is, because it is transposed into matter – do you think it can be considered as a vehicle?

JM: In a way yes, because I can immediately find the connection with music – that is, with repetition, transparency, symmetry. At the same time, however, I would say that this is a ‘conceptual’ approach that I do not entirely agree with. This is because, when I show something, I expect its formal aspect to be very strong, so as to create access to a second level which is connected to the object; a metaphysical level which, however, I am not immediately interested in. I prefer not to focus too much about this second level.

DDS: In your exhibition recently showcased at the Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, along with the aspects that we have considered so far, your watercolor works also stands out.

JM: Absolutely. I work with watercolors as opposed to rationalism. It’s an activity that I carry out daily. It is a kind of image factory. In a way, it also reveals a vaguely surrealist approach: I don’t ask myself why images appear or disappear, they just appear. Sometimes I show them to a public, sometimes they are just the beginning of a new project. But I do show them when I feel that there is something specific in the watercolors. For example, something linked to the relationship with the paper… Again, it is a matter or form. Sometimes these watercolors push me in some direction precisely because I start from these formal aspects. At the beginning, I work on the image. I try to identify the best way to develop it; sometimes, instead of watercolor, painting, sculpture or installation can be more suitable.

DDS: At the Galleria Continua there is also your installation, Buried and Alive, on which I would like to pause for a moment. It is an incomplete brick wall, so to speak.

JM: It is a work that derives from an image linked to something I read when I was very young. Perhaps, you too remember these images in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories – I think, for example, of The Black Cat – of people who were buried alive behind a wall. I started playing with this image and also with the words around it. The image of a see-through wall led me to develop a semi-transparent wall. Perhaps, it could be considered a conceptual work, but even if it were born from the text, I don’t think it is.

DDS: Why not?

JM: Because it is first of all a question of form. I believe we keep using the word ‘conceptual’ in the belief that it can help us understand more about the works, but in doing so, we end up giving more importance to cognitive and metaphysical aspects. These are certainly important issues, but for me the first reference is the experience of things.

DDS: Another of your works, Portal, a long zipper positioned at the center of a small room, shows how important the experience in your work is. How do you classify this work?

JM: Like a sculpture, because it takes up space in the room. At the same time, it also makes you imagine another space that is not there, a potential space. I like to envisage that if you open the zipper, you can enter another dimension. It is a sculpture that occupies a real space but that also offers an imaginary one. It is not there, but at the same time, it is.

DDS: What is the role of interpretation in your work?

JM: When people ask me something about interpretation, they talk about metaphysics, what’s beyond the work. However, I am still interested in considering first of all what is out there, what we can see. If a visitor formulates his interpretation of a work, it is certainly a success. But first of all, there is experience, without which we cannot even start talking.

DDS: Can your own interpretation be at the origin of a work?

JM: When I work, I try not to formulate interpretations, because I believe that in doing so you run the risk to make bad decisions. As an artist I would like to let go of the work and make it as open as possible. If I understand too clearly what I am doing, then the risk is to create a work that loses its openness.

DDS: Along with the openness there is another aspect that emerges in your work: the reduction of structures. An aspect that I believe we can grasp in particular in Present 01.

JM: It is a work that is based primarily on subtraction. There was a sheet of paper that took a certain shape, was folded in a certain way and then disappeared. It is the lines of the folds reproduced through a metal structure that have become important instead. The reduction you are talking about allowed me to get to an imaginary skeleton. If I minimize an object, it is still recognizable. In fact, in this work, the set of lines allow to recognize the paper, its shape, its position in space. But the reduction in this work also allows to obtain an unexpected result, a transformation – from paper to metal.

DDS: Placing special importance onto the structure is something that is also evident in your installation at the Quartz Studio in Turin. In this work, the reduction is linked to the repetition and organization of a geometric model.

JM: There is indeed a geometric model at the roots of this work. When I saw the photos of the space I was struck by the tiles, the floor and the pattern on its surface. So, I decided to create a heap of everyday objects that could be repeated according to the logic of space. The objects that repeat themselves and make up the work are chosen specifically for that space and context. Here too there is a reduction, though there is no transformation of the materials.

DDS: The openness of the work is connected to the organization of its structure and to the possibilities it could offer to those who will experience it.

JM: My intention is to build a bridge with visitors. There are several ways to achieve this through the use of materials. I don’t agree with those artists who say they don’t need the public. As an artist you do need audiences and visitors. So, for example, in my installation at Quartz Studio in Turin, I used the Italian newspaper La Stampa which is well known and recognizable. This is a useful material to build a bridge, to create a connection. My work with objects is based on this opportunity to create connections and share things with visitors.

DDS: Given the possible interpretations of visitors and the bridge you want to build for them, what is in your opinion the relationship that the artist has with the public?

JM: I’ll answer to your question with a tale. You as an artist are located outside a forest. Then you walk into the forest, taking the visitors with you, holding their hand. When you get to the heart of the forest, you disappear. You know how to get out of the forest because you know it. But visitors are not familiar with the forest and must find their own way out. I would dare to say that the artist is not innocent, he cannot be innocent. The artist acts with a plan: he wants to take the visitors to a very specific point; however, he cannot express it in words. But the artist knows how the visitors can get out of the forest, so he offers them some trails.