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My Mountains

Opening this summer; Gaetano Pesce’s monumental installation for the Aspen art museum re-imagines the building as a celebration of the local landscape. Interview and photography by Jenna Fletcher.



JENNA FLETCHER Gaetano, how do you stay youthful?

GAETANO PESCE Thinking, reflecting, contradicting myself, accepting that sometimes I am right and sometimes I am wrong. My body is tired, but my brain maybe not. JF What brought you to Aspen in 1970, and what do you remember · from that trip?

GP I was invited by IBM to participate in the Aspen conference. It was my first time in America and my first time in Aspen. I stayed in a villa that no longer exists, which belonged to a famous actress from the 1930s, Olivia de Havilland. After the conference, I traveled to the United States and my ongoing love affair with the country began there and then. During that trip, I met a lady who had a house in Aspen, and I became a regular visitor, returning in different seasons and I became very familiar with this town. What I remember from this time is that I liked shopping there as well as certain restaurants and I enjoyed the mountains and the walks. Not only in Aspen but also in the surrounding area. With Ruth [Shuman], I had a fantastic dog, called TK, and with him I also went swimming in waterfalls. In a certain way, Aspen brought me close to something that I hadn’t previously enjoyed in my life: nature. Aspen made me understand this important part of our world.

JF Why do you live in New York?

GP New York is, without question, the capital of the world! This was the case in the second part of the 20th century and I believe continues to be so in the 21st. It is a satisfying city; it is a city that provokes questions. It is very original; there are lots of different minorities, who have retained their identities. From when I was very young, I always considered myself an individual and not a number. New York allowed me to hold on to this belief. The richest characteristics of our time are diversity and freedom.
In 1959, I went to Russia. In Italy, at the time, the communist party was saying that Russia represented paradise in terms of freedom but, when I went there, I discovered the opposite. This so-called paradise was actually hell. I came back with a different mindset.
In 1972, thinking about the diversity of individuals, and the treasure that each of us has within us, made me think that not only humans should enjoy diversity but that the same could be true for industrial products; they could cease to be copies and, through new means of production, they could become series, and objects could share in this diversity. Meaning that objects would be similar to one another but not the same. For me, it was the start of considering design as art. I began to think that, if the object was respectful of its functionality, and materials were used well, it could do more-express religious, political or existential ideas. The object was becoming a new model for art.

But I should add here that art has always been practical. I believe art critics today don’t always remember this. An object that allows us to sit comfortably as well as expressing philosophical beliefs is also art. This more open way of thinking is a new way to approach design and maybe art, and it is worth considering. Otherwise, art is decorative and superficial and design is boring.
So, coming back to New York: more than other cities, it allows us to be present in our moment. Observing the street, the people we meet, we understand where the future is going and what its values might be.
JF What artists or designers are you paying attention to right now?

GP I pay attention to certain artists from the Italian Renaissance because they had something that still feels very relevant: multidisciplinary. I am absolutely convinced that art has no barriers. One idea is best expressed through song, another is better expressed by sculpture, another with architecture, in writing, or as an object, etc.
I never accepted the idea of being confined to one medium because that means renouncing what is so rich about our time. Freedom of expression is exactly this! To embrace multidisciplinarity. Ever since I was young, I thought it was really important to be incoherent because our time is incoherent. If art follows reality, it must express irregularity, a certain disorder, contradictions and fluidity, because our time is fluid. Interests appear, disappear and re-appear again and it makes sense to follow these waves. The static approach of a traditional creative person doesn’t fit this moment in time.

JF What object, out of all the objects you are surrounded by, means the most to you?

GP The objects that interest me are the innovative ones, the ones that talk to our brains and our hands. Our hands are little machines that can reveal aspects of reality that the brain didn’t see. Innovation is what touches me the most in any given field.
The unfinished works of Michelangelo feel very current-once an object expresses what you had in mind, it isn’t necessary to finish it. The political aspects of certain Goya paintings are still very relevant. Once a work is complete and goes out into the world it becomes political, and that appeals to me a lot. Duchamp’s approach to the object was very important for me.
On the other hand, most of the so-called architecture that, in reality, is simply building, does not interest me. Repetition does not interest me. An artwork by someone who repeats him or herself does not interest me. I like surprise; I like originality. I don’t like copies.

JF What does home smell like?

GP Like the river. Strangely, all of my life, I have lived in places by the water. In Brazil, in front of the ocean, in Paris by the river, in Helsinki in front of the sea, in Venice on the canal, in London on the Thames and now in New York. I believe water is a very good element that represents time. Waves appear, go up, disappear and return. They always take on different forms and carry new energy. If we were to look at art in the same way we look at water, it would create a fantastic world. Vitality is the meaning of water, and I envy this element.
JF What’s your biggest failure?

GP Not being able to live until I’m 100. I feel there is still a lot to discover. I am in a bad mood when I feel there is something to discover, which is difficult to explain. But I am also very optimistic. Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine reminds me that there is stupidity, and that could easily turn me into a pessimist. What is happening in that part of the world is a horrible repeat, that I thought was no longer possible. It would be much better if the Russian leader had new goals, like conquering other planets and not someone else’s land.

JF Tell me about your pet peeve in relation to design.

GP I feel a bit let down by my country, the home of design. During the 1960s, Italian design was full of energy and innovation. But I have the impression that today it is very sleepy. I believe the spirit of curiosity in the Italian industry has become dormant, and instead the focus is on revenue. There is less innovation, less surprise, less discovery, fewer scandals and less experimentation. Maybe young creative people will wake it back up.
I want to look for new ways forward for design, which, as I said before, is the merger of art and design, and I believe this is a very real possibility. And the same is true for architecture. Just as superficial decoration no longer has a place in art, architecture—or, rather, construction—should follow suit. And so should design. This quagmire of apathy needs to end. I implore the leaders of this world not to take sleeping pills.

JF I watched you pour one of the shelves featured in this exhibition. The materials you work with are often restricted by varying extremes of sensitivity to time. How does the elasticity of time intersect with your ideas and creations?

GP I think you are talking about materials and I always say that, for a creative mind to be sincere, it must use the materials of its time. After architecture school, where I studied traditional materials, I realized I was totally ignorant about contemporary ones. I visited a chemical company and, to my surprise, I saw that foam, resin and elastomer belonged to a huge family of different innovative materials. Resin is better than glass, foam is better than wood, some elastomers are better than rubber, etc.
I don’t only want to impose my own will on materials—sometimes, I allow the material to develop by itself and sometimes there is a nice surprise. The creator who impedes the material from developing its real nature reminds me of a dictator, an expression of totalitarian will. In general, we don’t impose on nature how to develop, and the same is true for materials-with positive results for creativity.
JF What’s left for you to achieve in your career?

GP There is an architectural project I haven’t been able to realize. Maybe I will do it in the future, or maybe someone else can do it-it is to create a non-homogeneous architecture, a non-totalitarian architecture, a non-sad repetitive art of building. Architecture is the queen of arts but, unfortunately, one characteristic of current architecture is ignorance; architects don’t respect the place and culture where they build. I am surprised to say that the international style is still alive 100 years after it began. Then, it was the right choice; but today, it is tragic. The world is diverse, people are diverse, and so architecture must respect place in the most intimate way. When I build in Bahia, I try to represent the joy of colors, the musical traditions and the positive, happy and curious people whose cultural roots come from Africa. I believe this is the future of the art of building. If you build something in Milan, it has to be different from what you build in Tokyo; if you build something in Moscow, it has to be different from building in Cape Town, and so on. Architecture schools must do much better and teach students the value of our historical moment, not values of the past.

JF How has your time in Aspen working on this project affected you?

GP I believe that museums are special places where art can sleep comfortably. The physical museum must express happiness, a sense of play and discovery—it must be very different to jail and very close to freedom.
When I was invited for the show in Aspen, I was surprised at this very banal shell, with the grid that reminds me of the bars of a cell and, in general, a lack of fantasy. With my façade, I am trying to evoke the happiness of Aspen’s defining characteristics: My Dear Mountains. The joyous diversity, dimensions and aspirations, and the joyous view of the sky.
Jenna Fletcher is the founder of oswalde, a multi-concept design consultancy and studio, based in London, incorporating @oswalde.shop, a retailer of 20th-century design and furniture.

Gaetano Pesce lives and works in New York. His exhibition “My Dear Mountains” is on view at the Aspen Art Museum from May 27, 2022. The project is supported by the Italian Council (9th Edition, 2020), a program to promote Italian contemporary art in the world by the Directorate-General for Contemporary Creativity of the Italian Ministry of Culture. The organization of "My Dear Mountains” is supported by Salon 94 Design.
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