#68: Ivan Lupi’s Musings

22nd Feb 2024

Ivan Lupi is an internationally renowned performance artist who has performed and exhibited across the globe since 2001. Born in Ferrara, Italy, Lupi has been living and working in Aotearoa New Zealand since 2016. City Art Depot is thrilled to present Ivan Lupi’s Musings opening on the 27th of February and running through to the 18th of March 2024. The exhibition will feature A Set of Pleasant Feelings, circular artworks hung on the wall alongside Solitaire, a duration performance of processing family photos by Lupi which will be performed on opening night and throughout the exhibition open hours for the length of the show. Both components of the exhibition contain the artist’s focus on durational meditative practice and exploration of surface and identity. City Art Depot exhibition manager Cameron Ralston joined Ivan Lupi in the artist’s inner-city apartment for lunch and to discuss this intricate body of work.

Ivan Lupi

Cameron Ralston: Did you make these tondo works in your apartment here?

Ivan Lupi: I have a small studio here upstairs which I share with Christopher my partner. There’s not much space. I’ve never really needed more than a desk for my work. Excluding the artworks made before moving abroad I mainly made watercolours and other small stuff here in New Zealand. I never really had or needed a studio outside of my house. I didn’t even have a studio at the university in Birmingham as I was working there part time, yet I didn’t need one because I was mainly into performing.

Does the space that you make work in influence the piece? It must with your performance, is it the same with these studio artworks – also being performative?

They are performative. They are also private and intimate. So, I need a locked door. I lock myself in, I set up on either the floor or desk depending on the size of the piece and the tool I’m using to make the line. It will need to be horizontal if it is a marker that inks because when vertical the ink doesn’t flow through. For these I am mainly working from above the piece so the marker stays vertical in my hands.

What determines the duration of the work? Is it the marker running out?

In this case it is determined by the feeling I have on the moment, by touching the edges and touching with my fingers where I believe the ink has reached. So, it’s all about very very slow movement. Almost like measuring. It’s very controlled, but random at the same time. I touch and then I mark. I only see it inside my head because I wear a blindfold.

Feeling for the ink?

With my finger I feel where the ink has been already, but I must be careful to not touch the areas that have been just made because I would spread the ink while it is wet. I move from one area to another very slowly, then I measure with my fingers. When I feel I have achieved something the first thing I do is reach for my phone and press the stop button on my timer and take my blindfold off. When I lift the marker I stop.

1 hour 19 minutes 16 seconds continuous line with my eyes closed, Ivan Lupi, acrylic and oil marker on wood panel (framed), 620x620mm, 2024

Is the marker constantly in contact with the board?

It never leaves the surface. The line is done in one long take. The final time is the moment the marker leaves the surface. That’s also why I need a surface that is really smooth. The only way to achieve it the way I like is to brush the background.

Is that how you will title the work, by the time?

I think the title could be [The Time] continuous line with my eyes closed  as I did with the very very first one I made. These have all been done with the same technique, the same tool, the same material, the same surface prepared the same way, made blindfolded. The challenge here is the blindfold. Some others I’ve made in the past were made with no blindfold but with breath control instead – holding breath whilst tracing on the surface, then stopping and exhaling. That’s another technique. With a change in material the time changes too. If I use a charcoal stick until it crumbles under my fingers, that determines the duration of the work. In this case it is not. I found this range of markers that are very good because they last, you might notice that there might be some areas that are a bit paler or faded. It is all part of a circumstantial aesthetic but I’m not very interested in the quality of the line, in terms of its solidity. A fading line speaks volumes about the effect of time.

Those line qualities are circumstantial?

Yes. Partially. The control sits in the focus, the slowness, the idea of the circularity, everything else is quite random even if it looks restrained.

You’re not as concerned with the aesthetic quality or beauty of the final object? They do have a pleasing quality to them.

No. You might find that some are not as pleasing as others. I don’t know if that might be due to the circular form or colour. Yet the choice of colours is just by feel. I don’t have anything to tell you about the colour choices and the way I came up with the shades which have been mixed and mixed until I like the shade. I don’t know what the mark will look like until I take the blindfold off. Some called them mind mandalas.

31 minutes 2 seconds continuous line with my eyes closed, Ivan Lupi, acrylic and oil marker on wood panel, 200x200mm, 2024

You don’t do tests or practice runs?

Not at all. No practice runs in this.

Is that the same for the performance piece?

There are no rehearsals. The only thing I do is preparing the marker the way you would to make sure the ink is flowing. But it is done about 15 minutes before. And yes, none of my performance pieces get rehearsed beforehand either.

[Ivan serves lunch] This is pappardelle with funghi. Please help yourself.

What do people need to know about my artwork?

I think for people who visit our gallery there may be less familiarity with performance art. If they’re seeing you perform in the space they might be looking for the connection to your pieces on the wall. Of course, there is the connection through your practice and their relationship to durational performace.

This is the thing, if you know it then you can explain it to others. You are starting to see what I do and how it works with duration and time for me.

There is always the element though of the viewer making up their own mind on what the work is about.

Definitely. That’s why I tend to say what I’m doing rather than the meanings and why I’m doing it. Or let’s say I give very little indications to the public. I might say this is what I’m doing, they are continuous lines done in one blindfolded take and that is it. They can think about the why. In this case the performance won’t be as participatory for the visitors. So, almost like my performance High Time on Stanmore Road where I was in the window with the difference that here they can enter the store and they can look at it from up close. I will wear headphones to give a signal that I’m not engaging with the audience. One of the gallery staff will be able to explain briefly what is going on, that I am doing a performance. If they wonder if they can ask me questions you can tell them to go close and look, you can let them know it’s all a part of the same performative practice but in the performance the artist doesn’t engage or explain.

As Andrew Paul Wood wrote in his article in Art Beat, it seems like two different bodies of work, which they are. But performance is behind them all, time is behind them all. The wider thread is duration and performativity. And the more you narrow down the action the more you see: the way I deal with my family pictures, the way I investigate my position in the space, location, time, living away from my country of birth, now in Aotearoa, being the last person of my own closest family tree. The way I pierce, fold, and scratch the pictures. Whoever takes their time to look at my past works in which I used needles to scratch, ink and scar my skin for example could see the connections. One of my obsessions is the surface. In my practice I glide on it in long takes, or I pierce through it to explore it as a threshold.

Ivan Lupi performing High time Stanmore Block. (Christchurch, 2023). Photo credit: Heather Milne.

What’s the relationship between time and the piercing action?

The piercing that I’m doing on the picture comes from my need of reaching to the past beyond the surface. In this case the surface is a picture of an unknown relative. The inspiration came from the notion of the fabric of space-time. By bending the fabric of space-time and piercing through you can create wormholes that go to the past (I’m not stating that this is possible, it is simply Einstein’s theory). It is my utopian way to play God and reach back into the past to another ‘somewhere’. So, I bend and pierce through as a process of letting go of these images that have been rescued in my Italian home after the passing of my aunt Tina. They talk about family; they talk about a generation but I’m not able to do anything but find out who they are or interrogate who I am.

It’s not a way of destroying the photo, it’s a way of connecting with the content?

Definitely. It’s also a way to letting it go. Like a physical process of letting go of the item that I do not need to keep. This is also a sort of process which I have experienced in the past when I first moved from Italy to the United Kingdom. The more houses you move, the more you question your possessions and your identity through those possessions. In moving I have had to go through processes of letting go and by doing that leaving something behind or processing it in order to bring it with me.

A letting go of the physical object but retaining the emotional information?

The emotional information. This is it. That is what I retain. Not the item. The pictures can go after I mourned, grieved, remembered, cried, smiled, sighed. Some people told me I should keep them. They see them as my personal belonging. This is why the creative process is so crucial here. It allows me to transform each item and give them the life they deserve.

Untitled First Holy Communion Ivan Lupi, pigment liner, watercolour and thread on antique pierced family photograph (framed), 146x100mm, 2024

What’s the significance of the solitaire card game aspect of the performance?

It came to me when I was going through all the pictures. I had a moment in which I was surrounded by pictures on the desk. I was exploring the back of some of them which have writing and I was trying to decode and investigate if they were known or unknown subjects. By repeatedly turning all these images and grouping them I was reminded of my childhood playing the solitaire game; I’m talking about the late 70s, early 80s, by the Italian Alps or by the sea when I was away on holiday with my grandparents. Cards were our way of socialising, and I played a lot. I made that connection and I’m thinking that action is also meditative. So, I won’t play solitaire in the very way it should be played, because these pictures have no suits or numbers. But from that image I will start diving into that thinking and processing. I will start doing what I do with all the pictures and develop the artworks. And I am on my own into this. I am the last member of my side of the family. I am sitting at the desk alone, solving the solitaire puzzle.

Will you be sticking with the same set of pictures for the whole show?

I have so many. I don’t know in the three weeks what I will do. I will probably start with 52 pictures like a deck of cards that you would use to play the classic game. The piercing depending on the size of the picture or subject can become quite challenging, because I do it with a very small needle it can be extremely painful. I’ve never done it for 7 or 8 hours straight.

You’ll be piercing the photos as part of the performance?

Yes, I’m starting with the solitaire set up in order to get into the mood. I will use the covering and uncovering to take a deeper look at each of those images. I can stare at the pictures for hours if I really want. I thought why not take that time at a desk in a laboratory like yours, which is a store but also a gallery, to frame these images. To frame my life. To me it fits with the work. The performance becomes my practice as I’m developing some pieces. And vice versa. I might decide that at some point I want to work on a particular image, and I might do something to the picture which will be, according to what I feel at that time, some folding, some drawing, some piercing, whatever else I need to do. But I couldn’t tell you ahead of it. It will be very calm to watch. You might see me doing something repetitive, rhythmic and pattern-like. I’ll be present every day for the duration of the gallery opening hours.

I think it will be something that us in the gallery will quickly get used to.

I think the best thing is for you to continue to do your work as if I were not there. Just keep in mind that if you see me falling call an ambulance but nothing is going to happen. I might take a break in terms of stretching my back, I usually don’t even need the toilet and I’m planning not to.

The fact that I’ll be sitting under the circular window makes so much sense to me. I also noticed that as I work here in my studio, which is less bright than your gallery, I can see the shadow of the image through the back of the picture and I can sketch the image. So, I’m going to use the window as a light source to look at the pictures through the back.

How do you plan to start the work each day?

I’m thinking that this specific performance piece starts here at home. I will walk one and a half hours before coming to the space. I want to go through daily life, like a natural circadian rhythm in which I walk to the space, I sit and do the work, then I walk an hour home. Usually it’s 30 minutes to here so I will take a bit longer.

Will you have a set path you’ll stick to?

I will calculate it, because I want to be there on time with you guys going in at 8.30am when you open.

2 hours 35 minutes 41 seconds continuous line with my eyes closed, Ivan Lupi, acrylic and oil marker on wood panel, 900x900mm, 2024

Have people viewed your tondo paintings before?

Never did tondo works before apart from one and I was quite entertained by it. All previous pieces were on rectangular surfaces. People have commented that the longer they look at it the more they find. Or they say they have a warming, hugging feel. But the way I see them is different from a stranger. I’m not even thinking about making an artwork that pulls you in. There’s no part of the work that is made or beautified with the intention of making them more saleable. Which is maybe why sometimes it is hard to relate to some of the stuff I do.

Is there a tension in that, by having a show of works in a dealer gallery space?

Not for me. If they find a home in which they can be loved every day I would be super happy. Otherwise, they will come back home with me. I do have some drawings, none left from Italy and London though. I moved here in 2016, from 2017 I started making watercolours but I don’t have much left from then, nothing from 20 years ago. It’s good to produce new work, for me it’s playful and experimental, it’s a new surface.

I am doing what I can to make people aware about collecting performance art. The problem is that often these items are not immediately pretty, like ashes because an artist burned a pile of driftwood. Not something you could hang on a wall.

The challenge seems to be in comprehending what is ‘made’ by the performance, or what is the product?

What we make is the action. We work on the structure of the action. It’s architecture. We want people to come and see the action. But because of the ephemeral nature of performance art, all the items, props, notes, documentation, sketches, everything that goes into the creation of an action has value, tells the story of the action, it becomes part of its liveness. It is possibly the kinkiest and most fetishist form of collection.