Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument… The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features.
- Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 1988.
The persistence of memory has long been an underlying theme in the work of Sebastian Di Mauro. Through painting, sculpture and installation Di Mauro has explored the significance of personal memory, and to this end his work often has the quality of autobiography. In the late 1990s Di Mauro has returned to the place of his childhood, both literally and metaphorically to create art that strikes a chord, visually and emotionally. His visual language is at once familiar and strange, and it is on this axis that the work turns.
Amongst other things, Di Mauro cites the Italian Arte Povera movement as having had an influence on his practice, but not solely by virtue of its Italianness. Arte Povera as a movement emerged in the 1960s around a group of Italian artists who regularly showed together. As a collective of sorts, their work reflected an international interest in some of the more prevailing artistic dialogues surrounding late 1960s contemporary art practice: land art, the antiform, postminimalism and conceptual art. Translated, Arte Povera means literally 'poor art' but the term was not meant to describe an interest in poor materials (despite the fact that many of the artists involved did use found or natural materials). Rather, the term was coined by Italian critic Germano Celant in 1967 to describe the humbleness of the work that characterized the movement. It was his championing of the work of associated artists such as Mario Merz, Luciano Fabro, Michelangelo Pistolleto and the Greek born artist, Jannis Kounellis which saw its critical international recognition.
The unifying quality in the work of this band of essentially disparate artists may be found in a shared concern for articulating the point at which nature and culture collide, as though this might be something specifically pinpointed. For the Arte Povera artists, energy, creative energy, was something which corresponded to the basic physical forces of nature, such as electricity and gravity, and on the other hand referred to fundamental elements of human nature, vitality, memory and emotion. The sentiment echoed the rising political emotions in Europe of the 1960s, the perceived need for action both physical and intellectual, and identified a social awareness of the possibilities for the role of art and the artist in contemporary society.
The artists associated with Arte Povera sought to break down existing philosophical oppositions between art and life, culture and nature. Artists such as Mario Merz set up dialogues within their work through the physical juxtaposition of mundane manufactured materials with organic materials, and it was this aesthetic which came to characterise Arte Povera. Installation was the chosen mode of these artists, seen as a way of rejecting traditional techniques and the physicality of the art work was given importance over the purely visual appreciation. This physicality included the tactility of the materials used, the juxtaposition of different textures, as well as the sense of smell.
Sebastian Di Mauro has long favoured installation as his mode of expression, and his most recent body of work has seen him expanding his repertoire of characteristic features to include elements such as sugar, ash, coconut essence, and even more copious quantities of olive oil, in works that challenge the olfactory sense as well as the visual. His art almost always engages personal memory, or more specifically, the persistence of particular memories. He often uses the sense of smell as a memory trigger, and revels in a sensory experience of the world. His work engages the emotional moment, the powerful recollection. His installation/sculptures, which hover in the realm of the uncanny, provoke a sense of familiarity and strangeness. They whisper of something collectively understood, an experience shared, yet when Di Mauro tweaks the strings of nostalgia it is in the absence of mawkish sentimentality. The elements which dominated his early childhood in South Johnstone, and have so dominated his late nineties practice- primarily olive oil and sugar- are less about a longing for halcyon childhood days than a tacit recognition of a kind of shared baseness of experience.
On a certain level Di Mauro's work does speak about longing, about nostalgia for a loss of language: perhaps the loss of, or the searching for, an artistic language, but also more specifically, the loss of one's mother tongue. When Di Mauro first made Pane e Zucchero for the Cairns Regional Gallery, a work later recreated and modified for the Institute of Modem Art, Brisbane, he filled one whole gallery with his sugar mounds nestling on a mountain range of musty carpet underlay. The evocative title, Pane e Zucchero translates literally as bread sugar, and reads as a metaphor for the Di Mauro family history in the North Queensland town of South Johnstone. This history is an experience shared by many migrants who have been responsible for a significant part of the colonisation of large tracts of rural Australia. South Johnstone is a sugar-farming town, and Di Mauro's grandfather worked in the industry as that most Aussie icon, a cane farmer. His son, Sebastian's father, also began his working life in the sugar industry before buying a bakery, hence the significance of bread and sugar. On a base level everyone is familiar with these food staples, yet they have a special resonance for Di Mauro.
In keeping with his interest in the visceral and the spiritual, Di Mauro created a series of unique 'sculptures' which take the form of sugar 'mountains' containing wells of olive oil. The small sculptures in Pane e Zucchero exist as part of a larger installation, but are small entities within themselves. Installed as a group they relate to each other rhythmically, as a sculptural narrative of the artist's biography or, indeed, a memory. Di Mauro described how these sculptures were inspired by his memories of the sugar silos up north at Mourilyan Harbour: 'At the time it seemed that the cone of sugar was thousands of feet high'.
The olive oil, so fragrant and 'virgin', references Di Mauro's Sicilian heritage and echoes the hopes and aspirations of many migrant families who sought the harsh rural life for the promise of a new start. The oil has a special relevance as a metaphor for healing for the artist, who remembers his mother using it as an ointment for dry skin. The cloying sweetness of the sugar mixed with olive oil worked to subtly manipulate the viewer's experience of the work. On the gallery walls, surrounding this scaled down plantation of sugar hills, Di Mauro inscribed in charcoal an autobiography of sorts in Sicilian. Significantly, he wrote the story and had it translated. The text is rich with personal anecdote: 'During our younger years we spent many hours together, and my grandfather would tell us numerous stories about his childhood and his beloved Sicily. About the wonderful orchards he would tend. The blood red cherries thick in the trees beneath the ever active volcano of Mt Etna and of the time during the war when he was nearly killed. Had it not been for his short stature he would have been shot in the head. This story was told to me to appease my worrying concern of my height. My grandfather planted his own vegetable garden in South Johnstone. In this Garden of Eden he planted what seemed to us necessary vegetables. But to the Australians they were weird, exotic and inedible. Things such as zucchinis, egg plants, squash, snake beans and of course garlic.'
Another aspect of culture that interested many of the Arte Povera artists was the aesthetic and conceptual possibilities of language. Text would appear handwritten, in the form of neon or mud on the walls or as metal letters, so as to heighten the subjective nature and physical and emotional connotations of the content. The text inscribed on the walls in Pane e Zucchero worked as a kind of self-portrait of the artist, in the absence of a brushstroke.
When Di Mauro first created Pane e Zucchero for the Cairns Regional Gallery he showed in an adjacent room a beautiful home movie on a loop featuring the childhood Di Mauro and his family, with his aunts, uncle and father speaking about their memories in mellifluous Sicilian. The inclusion of this very personal film was specific to the locale, to the sense of place Di Mauro felt about the region and its connection to his heritage. (When the work was shown at the Institute of Modern Art, the film did not appear.) Pane e Zucchero is the work of an artist reconciled in many ways with this heritage, reconciled with the colourfulness of his own story. There is a temptation to dwell on the cultural specificity of much of this work, its Italianness, its ethnicity, but what does that really mean? While his work shares several characteristics and similar concerns with that of artists such as Mario Merz and Jannis Kounellis, on many levels it could be argued that Di Mauro's work is quintessentially Queensland. He constructs and manufactures his ideas underneath his home, a 'Queenslander', located in a distinctly tropical garden. His work is somehow immediately local, the product of sultry summers in Brisbane.
In discussion with Di Mauro about the development of his installation Syncretism for the exhibition Wish You Were Here at Smith+Stoneley (1999), we spoke about the locus of memory and the power of the olfactory revelation. Syncretism combined olive oil with coconut essence to create a pervasive, heady aroma, which ultimately echoed Di Mauro's experience during a residency in the Philippines. The work involved an intricate arrangement of a series of funnels and tubing which would blend the fluids and drip their combined creation onto a small mound of rock salt. The olive oil represented, amongst other things, Di Mauro himself, and the sickly sweet coconut essence dealt with the history of Spanish control of that country. Page by page, Di Mauro pulled apart a Spanish bible, which he then erased with a covering of ash, and affixed to a wall as a kind of crucified book.
Carpet underlay has been the starting point for much of Di Mauro's practice, and recently it has developed into a defining characteristic, a holistic trademark. Di Mauro explains, ‘I select materials that contain meaning and act as a metaphor for the ideas that I am trying to express in an artwork. If they happen to have an aroma then that is a bonus. I am also interested in environmental issues, consequently I like to work with natural materials which are as close as possible to their original state. There is an honesty in natural materials which is important in conveying the metaphysical. Wherever possible I try not to alter their form, but use them in a poetic way to create resonance.’
The brown, fluffy underlay is an unassuming, almost puritan, tactile material. In its intended state, it literally sneaks up on you and takes something unseen away: it surreptitiously subdues sound, muffles the impolite, too loud, footfall and ultimately removes the trace of the presence of the individual. Carpet underlay has a distinctive wet dog musty smell which is reminiscent for me of various dank hallways and spare rooms of childhood, of grandmother's closets and forgotten clothes in water stained tea chests.
The use of the jute fibre carpet underlay as the centrepiece of much of his practice corresponds with Di Mauro's interest in natural fibres. He enjoys the oppositions inherent in this material, the idea of something being at once both chaste and sensual. For Di Mauro the underlay works as a receptacle for the metaphysical, for energy contained and concentrated, the permanent and the ephemeral. The metaphysical for him is something that exists in the process of changing, of transformation from one thing into another, but it is also something that exists in several different states at once.
In Di Mauro's latest body of work, Floccus, 2000, carpet underlay takes on new properties, as a skin or fur for large scale shapes, drawn from an earlier project, Manifestations, 1997. The 'manifestations' that Di Mauro first created were small, uncanny creatures- a lump resembling an erect tongue, a small sculpture with a phallic presence- that as a silent group demanded a pherromenological interpretation. These small, wire structures, literally coated in underlay, alternately repulsive and attractive, delved into the abject and through their unsettling anthropomorphism articulated, in part, Di Mauro's interest in a Beuysian-like nature/culture dialogue.
Floccus is a bold extension of the original idea, almost as though the small characters of Manifestations suddenly had grown monstrously large, and were threatening to take over- Triffid style. In the large expanse of the Brisbane City Art Gallery, Di Mauro huddled his strange characters in a tight group under low lighting so that their 'larger than life' presence seemed at first menacing. The monumental scale of the works, given playful titles like Lump and Flirt meant that the viewer could actually walk inside the niches and grooves of some of the larger hulking forms, and be enfolded in the shape and breathe in deeply the musty underlay. Again the uncanny quality of these oversized forms is increased by their apparently random physiognomy. They seem to be echoing something found in nature, and yet they evoke the otherworldly, like some magnificent, horrible specimen that has been delicately preserved, like, for instance, a woolly Mammoth. On such a large scale, Di Mauro engages with issues surrounding the traditional genre of sculpture and offers a 'sculpture ' unique in its form, 'sculpture ' that indeed appears to be in the process of constant transformation.
In a work of 1996, Nine Books of Silence, Di Mauro created huge tomes from his favourite underlay. The books were installed on the floor with their covers closed to create intrigue about their contents; printed on a randomly selected page within, in Di Mauro ' s trademark blue, was the Italian word Silenzio. The word reflects the muffling quality of the jute itself but specifically articulates an intense memory for Di Mauro of his childhood experience as an altar boy. Catholicism is a recurring theme in his work, gently implied through the use of metaphor. Indeed, the books in Nine Books of Silence could be understood as an autobiography in nine parts, with pages of the story missing yet to be filled in. His work on one level is a project of retrospection, and a reclaiming of a specific past. Columnist Phillip Adams once noted that human beings hold memories paramount. He asked what one would grab first if one's house was burning down? The photo albums. We define ourselves by our recollections, but we don't seem to trust our memories. But Sebastian Di Mauro does. His work offers, shares his gentle remimscences.
Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn, Arte Povero, Phaidon, 1997, p. 46.
Sebastian Di Mauro lives and works in Brisbane. Alison Kubler is a curator at the Gold Coast Art Gallery.