The debate about the boundaries between different arts is rife. Current trends at art exhibitions and biennale events prove there is indeed a strong will to break such boundaries and limits, freely contaminating one form of art with the other.
Yet despite such good intents and efforts, blurring the lines between arts has so far often meant presenting collaborative projects between professionals from different disciplines, like an artist or an architect with a fashion designer. While artists who move comfortably between different disciplines may not be so rare, they are still in small numbers. Belgian Renato Nicolodi is one of them.
A graduate in AudioVisual and Fine Arts from Brussels' Sint-lukas, Nicolodi could be described as an intermedia artist. This term, coined by Fluxus member Dick Higgings refers to an art form embraced by all those artists who feel there are no boundaries between art and life and is usually employed to describe works that draw on several media, generating new hybrids.
Nicolodi is in his early thirties, but he seems to be able to pass from one media to the next with relative ease. Starting as a painter he then decided to move onto drawings and sculpture. His works are not figurative, though, as Nicolodi's monumental sculptures - exhibited so far at solo and group events in galleries and museums in Belgium, France, Italy and the United States - are infused with architecture and with the memories of his grandfather who, captured by the Germans during World War II, was held in bunkers.
Fascinated by these strategic and tactical infrastructures, Nicolodi recreates sculptures and buildings characterised by the rigid and severe lines of bunkers, that somehow manage to instill in the viewer a sense of humility, awe and déjà vu.
While Nicolodi's life size buildings could be considered as spectacular interferences in a landscape, smaller yet solid structures such as Pulpitum, Monuments Aux Morts or Deambulatorium I are charged with archetypal and visionary meanings that hit the memory wall: they may be temples from the classical times, they may be places where someone was held prisoner or memorials that evoke visions of Carlo Scarpa's Brion-Vega cemetery.
New monumental pieces such as “Amnis I” with its ziggurat-like motifs could be projections of small graded concrete fortifications from the war times or a modernist shelter where people could take refuge from pains and sorrows and meditate in silence.
Prompted by his passion to experiment further, Nicolodi also created architecturally minimalist sets and settings for the recent Madame Grès exhibition at Antwerp's MoMu Fashion Museum.
Collaborating with Bob Verhelst, Nicolodi sparked a distinctive dialogue between fashion, sculpture and architecture, designing new elements and installations for the exhibition spaces and also exhibiting his own work. The smooth surfaces and clean lines of his monolithic pieces and elements that seemed borrowed from his Porticus series were re-employed to create backgrounds for Madame Grès' sober, timeless and sculptural designs.
Were you aware of Madame Grès' work before being asked to create the sets and settings for this exhibition?
Renato Nicolodi: I had seen pictures of her creations before I started working upon the event, but I didn't know her life or her work in detail. I knew she was a well known fashion designer, but I definitely learnt more as I started focusing on the settings for the exhibition. I'm an artist and I have my own practice and work, so this event was rather unusual in a way, it was indeed the first time I worked on something like this.
Did you find any analogies between Madame Grès and your work?
Renato Nicolodi: When I'm asked to work upon something I always consider if it fits with my interests and my art and in this case I realised that it was a nice opportunity but that there were also some strong analogies. Madame Grès borrowed from the Greek and the Romans – from the classic times in a nutshell – and she displayed the skills of a sculptor in her designs. Yet, while she applied these inspirations to clothes, I apply the same language to art and sculptures. Besides, the more I looked at her clothes, the more they reminded me of the archetypical forms that I also use in my sculptures. That's why I thought my pieces could work with her designs and why working on this exhibition was more like a collaboration.
The pieces in the exhibition seem to highlight Madame Grès' designs in a plesant way: did her clothes inpire you?
Renato Nicolodi: While I was looking at her clothes I saw a lot of verticality, so I started to think along the same lines to create structures or pieces of structures that seemed borrowed from a bigger environment. I felt that achieving a sort of verticality - even in those spaces that you can't grasp in their integrity when you look at them but that you discover little by little, step by step as you enter them - was really important for me.
Do you consider yourself more an artist, a sculptor or maybe an architect?
Renato Nicolodi: First of all, I'm an artist. I started as a painter and I think I'm more of a sculptor than a painter. My sculptures are not maquettes or scale models, but proper sculptures. I like to be honest with the material I'm using, so I use concrete to create solid pieces and I don't usually make my pieces in other materials such as wood and then cover them with a layer of concrete as this wouldn't be the same in terms of heaviness and consistency.
How does architecture enter into your works?
Renato Nicolodi: I came to architecture through what I would describe as an unusual path. My work is indeed based on my grandfather's memories. He was Italian and lived in the North of Italy. He was a soldier, but then he was captured by the Germans and held in bunkers during World War II. He went through different camps as a prisoner of war before eventually arriving in Belgium and getting finally free. When I was a young child I was interested in his stories and I was always asking him to tell me about them. His stories were based on architecture and, as a young child, I could conjure up in my mind imaginary spaces, vaults and locations where his stories took place. A few years later I went on holiday to Brittany, France, and I saw a lot of bunkers and, while that was the first time I ever saw one of these structures in my life, I felt I knew them from my grandfather's stories. When I finally saw them for the first time I felt there was something interesting about them architecturally speaking because they were pieces of modernist architecture. I first started my practice as a painter, but I felt it wasn't a good medium for me, but then I read Paul Virilio's classic book of wartime architectural history Bunker Archeology and I found it very interesting because he sees the bunker in the context of history but also in the context of today since they are positioned in the environment as monoliths and when you look at them you can conceive them as sculpture or as a contemporary work or art.
Would you like to work on the sets for other exhibitions?
Renato Nicolodi: As I said, working on the Madame Grès exhibition was a nice experience and also a way to spot similarities between two different mediums and two different artists, but the context in which to show my pieces is very important. For the time being, I'll be working on my own exhibitions and installations in open spaces. I don't want to make direct links with specific fields or subjects: I use bunkers referring for example to different cultures and collective memory, and some people may see in them links with religion, or ideology or futurist themes, even though for me the bunkers do not refer to these themes, but are reflective spaces for the people who look at them.
Do you have any exhbitions coming?
Renato Nicolodi: I have a small exhibition of drawings in a New York gallery. I'm currently showing my work at the Art Rotterdam fair with gallery Ron Mandos and I have several exhibitions in Belgium. I also work with Highlight Gallery in San Francisco, California.
Image 1 and 2:
590 x 410 x 590 cm
cement board and wood
Madame Grès - Sculptural Fashion, Momu, Antwerp, 12th September 2012 - 10th February 2013; Images 3-7 and 10 by Boy Kortekaas
Monuments aux Morts
70 x 70 x 175 cm
47 x 47 x 137 cm
47 x 47 x 137 cm
Monument aux morts
70 x 70 x 175 cm
concrete and wood
57 x 45 x 175 cm
660 x 700 x 900 cm
74 x 74 cm
acrylic on paper
All images courtesy of Renato Nicolodi
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