Christian de Vietri

interviewed by Dina Ibrahim

Dina Ibrahim: Your work seems to be a perfect synthesis of conceptualism with a lot of attention to detail and materials. Is your work occupied with one more than the other, or do you work with both equally in mind?

Christian de Vietri: I consider making art and putting art into the world as an ontological project, so the existence of a work within the realm of human interaction is considered, inside and out, as idea, as object, as context, as space, as image, as surface, as memory. I do have an interest in craft and in formal games, and that becomes clear on the surface of the work. But I don’t allow craft to limit the work nor to define it because none of my works are displays of technical skill for their own sake. It is the ideas that the work suggests that are most important, and for ideas to be expressed, the physical form has to be appropriate. The work needs to exist with conviction in the arena of display, so a certain confidence in the work becomes a shared and inclusive moment.

Materials are always considered as active and meaningful elements in my work. This is because I don’t take any material for granted, and because I think that materials can be projections of larger ideas; they possess their own character and history and associations, and making a sculpture can be a way of playing with these ideas in a physical form.

For example, I cast the sculpture LightYears (2009) solid, in a highly phosphorescent light-absorbing and light-emitting plastic that I devel­oped in my studio over several months. The idea for the sculpture began to evolve when I bought a small glowing toy while in L.A. My instinct with this material was to shift the location of the spectacle from one of light emission to one of light absorp­tion. When the work is exhibited I intend that the gallery only provides time for viewing one half of the sculpture’s full cycle. The object basically charges by day and activates by night when the gal­lery is closed. Knowledge of the object’s active state is intended to create the anticipation of an imagined reality, and to place the sculpture in the gallery at the interstices between two worlds.

Through my work there is certainly a striving to regain a relationship with the material world that has been lost post-enlightenment. This mani­fests itself as a desire to align an idea with a mate­rial in such a way that the two are active parts of a dynamic relationship. I’ve been separating, exchanging, and interplaying form and content as sculpture.

Dina Ibrahim: Works such as Tim (2006) and Simon (2005) blur the line between reality and representation. Can you expand more on how this elusive relationship is explored in these works?

Christian de Vietri: The sculpture titled Tim was the final work in the trilogy Being and Becoming completed in 2006Each sculpture of the trilogy was an archetypal street performer pretending to be a sculpture, each meticulously crafted in the material being imitated—marble, gold leaf, aluminium.

The low level craft of the costumes had to be rendered with a high level of precision to make the works resonate, to give them their 3D trompe-l’oeil quality—that confusion between reality and representa­tion you speak of. I am very interested in processes of transformation—material, alchemical, sculptural, cultural—and this project was really about how icons change, evolve, mutate. The work was part homage to the street performer phenomenon, and it was about giving form to processes of simulation by catching such a process in mid-transition and realising it as a new iconographic starting point. The wider that gap between amateurism and professionalism, between high and low craft, between reality and representa­tion, the more they affirm and validate each other, allowing for a successful re-integration of the image into a history of art and ideas. I was attracted to the idea that in the wider view of the history of sculpture there is a short circuit where these works come in.

In this work, as with all of my work, it’s not really about resolution, I’m not trying to solve the prob­lems of representation, rather I am trying to create them! You know it’s more about potential—potential for new meaning, new awareness, social exchange, shifts of consciousness. Resolution implies movement towards a state of simplicity or finality, and sure, the physical presence of the work can have this quality, but an engagement with the work is always about complexity, continuity, exponential possibility.

Dina Ibrahim: So at what point do sculptures like LightYears cross the line of realism to hyper-realism? And why that further push?

Christian de Vietri: Well I like the work to contain a characteristic of uncertainty. I’m not interested in whether or not art approximates reality; I’m just using realism as a tool, something that allows for a universal connection and something that allows the work to co-exist convincingly, with us, on our plane of existence. And I also want to give the materials of the sculpture a chance to speak their lan­guage too, to share in the identity of the object. There is always honesty and dishonesty in my work, a space for deceit and a space for truthfulness, elements of clarity and elements of illusion, and some­times they become so close to each other that it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other.

Dina Ibrahim: Can you see aspects of futurism in works you’ve produced, as in Six Degrees of Separa­tion (2004), for example?

Christian de Vietri: The futurist project was modernist, patriotic, and pessimistic and it happened one hundred years ago, so in that sense I don’t really fit the bill. A lot has changed since then. Sculpture has come off the pedestal for one thing. But the futurists were interested in creating images and forms that gave a sense of what it means to live in a society of unparalleled speed, movement, new technology; they were interested in how that affects perception and I think this is still a contemporary concern.

I am actually more interested in the potential of sculpture to deal with what it means to live in an era of increasing virtuality, increasing digitality, because up until now I don’t think sculpture has been able to successfully integrate its shadow, its ontological opposite.

Dina Ibrahim: The definition of sculpture has definitely expanded greatly over time but having sculp­ture as a medium dealing with virtuality and digitality is a bit of a paradox in itself. Unless you manage to have a 3D computer model of a sculpture functioning as a sculpture in its own right!

Christian de Vietri: That’s a challenge. How can one world speak to another without being simply a translation? My interest in this started from working on Ascalon, a public art collaboration with Marcus Canning that is installed on the grounds of St George’s Cathedral in the city centre of Perth. This project opened up a whole new way of thinking for me.

Dina Ibrahim: Yes, we talked about Ascalon in New York when it was in its early stages, and I was very impressed with its design and concept. I am curious as to how the design came about, and how did the project open up a new way of thinking?

Christian de Vietri: The concept and initial design of the sculpture came about as a response to an open call from a private donor for a public sculpture that interpreted the myth of St. George and the Dragon. In our research we initially looked to representations of the story in art history, paintings by Rubens, and Raphael for example. Certain reoccurring elements stood out; the billowing baroque cloth of St. George; the angle of the sword or lance always cutting diago­nally across the picture plane; the dynamic play between forces above and below. The sculpture was inspired by these basic elements. We wanted to create a work that would distil the essence of the myth in a very abstract way, without featuring a man on a horse or a dragon. Allowing the viewer a degree of freedom in their engagement and interpretation of the work was important to us, as was allowing ourselves the freedom to create a work that was very personal.

We used digital 3D design to create the form. This was new to me, and very inspiring. To create the white baroque cloth, we made a virtual 3D sim­ulation, a short film, and then worked closely, digi­tally sculpting one frame of the film which became the form, the digital blueprint. The workflow synthesised the role of artist, designer, and architect in a way that I had never experienced before, it was like playing and thinking in the blueprint, in real time. We worked with a fabrication facility to translate this 3D model into the eighteen metre high sculpture. Hopefully the sculpture’s virtual DNA is somehow present in its final realisation, as something impos­sibly real.

Dina Ibrahim: Moving on from that project to your show at Nordin Gallery, Stockholm: tell me about the works, their arrangement in the space, and the choice of title ‘XYZ’?

Christian de Vietri: In the main space, I showed two sculptures: Zero (2009), a powdered marble sculpture, and (2010), a burnt cast bronze sculpture. In the other dark spaces a series of new neon works lay, kind of casually on a table, glowing red. My neon pieces are illusions, but that layer of illusion takes over the whole object; it is so finely crafted that it becomes con­fused with the natural properties of the material support. The show is an extension of works I conceived in the last six months of my MFA at Columbia and later showed at Deitch Projects in New York, but for this show the pieces were displayed in a manner that heightens the formal antagonism between them. The title, ‘XYZ’ is code for each of the works in the original suite: XZero, and LightYears. It is also a reference to Euclidean space, Cartesian coordinates, three-dimensional space, the enlightenment. In mathematics the letters X and Y are used as unknowns in equations, and in a similar way the sculptures exist as polyvalent signifiers in cultural/physical space, so it seemed fitting. The letter X in particular has come to represent a generic placeholder variable whose value is unknown or secret. It can also be a kiss, or a mark of hatred, or the place where treasure is buried. I like that ambiguity.

Dina Ibrahim: You address a lot of pertinent con­temporary issues from consumerism, with the IKEA works, to digital culture, to questions of representa­tion, and so on. Do you have any dominant influ­ences in particular?

Christian de Vietri: As an undergraduate I would expose myself to as much information as possible, as many art books and magazines as I could, for the sheer pleasure of consuming new information and ideas. I would max out my library book limit pretty much every night, taking ten books home at a time. Two items probably stand out most viv­idly—the Charles Ray MOCA monograph and a video recording of a Jeff Koons interview. Being exposed to both of these artists’ work early on had a profound influence on the direction of my work. Having moved to New York I am closer to those people I used to read about in books so the influences have come in more direct, more personal ways.

Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanja, whom I got to know while doing my MFA at Columbia University, opened my mind to the possibility of an artistic practice that deliberately shapes the living condi­tions of the artist (as opposed to an artistic prac­tice that is shaped by conditions imposed externally upon the artist). Their insistence on the idea that the exhibition can be potential rather than a conclu­sion had a very liberating effect on me I think.

Dina Ibrahim: Yes, I see a lot of Jeff Koons influ­ence in your sculptures, especially your street per­formers. Tim reminds me a lot of works like Koons’s Aqualung (1985) and Kiepenkerl (1987).

On that topic, your work would easily fall into the category of pop art as well, what do you say to critics who would think your work compromises inherent critical thought for the sake of aesthetics?

Christian de Vietri: I’ve never thought of it as a compromise, I’ve always thought that aesthetics and ideas need to work together symbiotically. I’m actually more interested in the social potential of art than the valorisation of one kind of expression over another. Beauty can be recognised across cultures and across history, so I understand it as an incredible medium that allows the social potential of a work to transcend space and time, but it is not something I work towards, it is something that simply emerges if it needs to from the laws governing the work.

My work does draw from popular culture in the sense that I reference recognisable icons, shared mythologies, and common imagery. This is an invitation to a shared space in the collective imaginary. It is not just a celebration of pop culture—this common ground has been created so together we have a place to meet. And at this place there is also uncertainty. While the references are immediately acces­sible I activate them in such a way that they become multiple and ambiguous. The resultant objects are laced with doubt. The experience of this perceptual disjunction between the recognisable and the unfamiliar, between attraction and confusion, is intended to create a kind of cognitive dissonance that compels one to keep coming back to the work and to discover it in new ways each time, generating new thoughts, new possibilities, new realities, new ways of being. 

Christian de Vietri was born in Kalgoorlie, Australia, in 1981. He graduated from the Columbia University MFA program New York in 2009 and now lives in New York City, working also in Australia. De Vietri has participated in several Australian museum shows, in solo projects in the United States and Europe, and has been commissioned for three major public artworks in the United States and Australia. Christian de Vietri is represented by Nordin Gallery, Stockholm. 

Dina Ibrahim is an art writer and curator based in Dubai, where she is exhibitions manager for The Third Line Gallery.