In mid sixteenth-century, Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari wrote a series of artists’ biographies known as the Vite, (Lives), in which he expressed an idea of canonical perfection that exerted its impact well beyond the Renaissance.
“The ultimate Perfection”, a solo exhibition by internationally renowned media artist Davide Quayola at Fondazione Modena Arti Visive (FMAV), took inspiration from Vasari to reflect on past and contemporary canons of beauty in art.
Quayola, who was born in Rome and shares his time between London and the Italian capital, uses complex algorithms to dialogue with the Great Masters of the past, reflecting on how technology changes the way in which we look at the world.
Curated by Daniele De Luigi and produced in collaboration with Marignana Arte Gallery in Venice, the exhibition brings together a video installation, a sequence of sculptures and works on paper.
The show’s title is inspired by Vasri’s idea of ”ultimate perfection”, intended as the achievement of excellence. How does your work relate to this concept? You have often spoken of the “machine error” as an inspiration in your work, and this seems antithetical to the idea of ‘perfection’ in art.
Quayola: The title is somehow ironic. In fact, my work is not in the least a search for absolute perfection, but rather it explores a new language and aesthetic canon, a ‘new perfection’ resulting from the machine’s failure in creating and balancing perfection in a canonical sense.
My whole practice can be considered as the documentation of a process. Typically, I don’t focus on a single finished object, but on a series of objects that trace a transitory state, probing the infinite possibilities that can be explored at a given time. My modus operandi contradicts the canonical idea of the perfect object, which does not even exist over a period of time.
Is this the idea behind the sculptures that are exhibited here in Modena?
Quayola: Yes, these sculptures clearly incorporate temporality and the combination of opposing forces, a fascinating angle that I explore in different facets of my work. The machine tries to reach the perfection of the classical form without ever succeeding, but in so doing it reveals new geometries, different formal languages.
I am looking for a kind of ‘purity’ between the technology I explore, and the final aesthetic outcome. I never aim at beautifying an image, but at the coherent representation of processes, which results from hundreds of thousands of images, that I myself calibrate.
This work’s creative source are the “Prigioni”, the unfinished works by Michelangelo, which, I believe, are the apotheosis of an object revealing the story of its creation, of discovery through a journey. They are a perfect metaphor for my own working process.
In a piece that you mentioned as the conceptual centerpiece of the exhibition, you transform the iconography of the Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli into a long list of codes, a stream of data information. Next to it, you place Vasari’s own description of the painting.
Quayola: Yes, this work sums up the concept of the exhibition. Two intelligences observe an artefact in completely different ways. On the one hand, we see a poetic but somehow imprecise statement, as it lacks the information which is necessary to reproduce the painting itself. On the other hand, the painting can be reproduced almost faithfully through long series of codes and coordinates generated by ‘computer vision’. The latter effectively describes the matrix of colors, their density and a whole series of characteristics of the painting without ever providing any detail on what it represents. I think it’s fascinating that we are right in-between these two opposite poles.
It’s a strong statement on how technology is changing the way we look at the world.
Quayola: As it was predictable since the beginning of the technological era, computers have progressively become tools for everybody, and along this path we have changed too.
Beyond the theme explored in this exhibition, where I observe traditional artistic practices using other “eyes”, all my work reflects that parallel to the evolution of technological means we too are changing the ways in which we think and observe, imagine and rationalise the world.
I am thinking, for example, that Google Maps allows us to move in space with an analytical perspective, enhancing our senses: now we take it for granted, but in fact it’s an unprecedented kind of vision.
The machine becomes a prosthesis of our senses.
Quayola: This is the interesting point. Machines are good at solving some problems and we are good at solving others: the two worlds speak different languages and integrate each other. From this collaboration arises the opportunity for new discoveries and new aesthetics.
Beyond this point, it’s interesting to reflect on the strange dystopian sublime that arises from this aesthetics.
In this regard, you mentioned in a recent talk your interest in the aesthetics arising from machines that with different objectives look at the world for other machines. Basically, the images generated have nothing to do with the human eye. Is this a research field that you are drawn to?
Quayola: Absolutely. There is an area, the so-called “New Aesthetics”, which deals with such images and their completely new language . I’m interested in what these images can suggest to artists today.
Some technologies I use to observe certain subjects have been developed to extract data and information from dynamics that have nothing to do with art: surveillance, autonomous driving or structural deformations in engineering.
In a series of works on landscape, I stepped into the shoes of the impressionist painter, wondering what would happen if such technologies were used to represent landscape.
Speaking of which, the interpretation of nature through high-tech devices (your laser scans, for example) highlight its complexities. Is this perhaps part of a recent change in the cultural paradigm that recognizes forms of intelligence, different from ours, in the natural world?
Quayola: As I mentioned before, any device that increases our perception gives us a different answer about the surrounding world. My goal is not to create dynamics to bring man and nature closer, even though I recognise that today this is a necessity.
Rather, the relationship of my work to nature has an historical connotation, it is part of the tradition of landscape representation, which becomes, like classic iconography, a subject of comparison and a pretext to explore new aesthetics.
This type of operation, on the one hand familiar, on the other completely new, can make us reflect on where we are going, on our relationship with technology.
The artist Trevor Paglen has suggested the definition “seeing machines” more inclusive than ‘video’ and ‘photography’, to describe the now pervasive images of the many “seeing devices” we mentioned earlier, together with the digital meta-data they produce. I would like your opinion on the definition proposed by Paglen.
Quayola: I use an even more general but more fitting terminology for my work, which is that of “data-catching”. When I capture images, make a video or a 3D scan, I store, observe and manipulate data through specially developed systems. Then, a selection of the most interesting results follows. In my case therefore, it is in fact limiting to speak of ‘photography’ which is a starting point and not an end point.
The definitions you mentioned, including ’New Aesthetics’, are not ‘movements’ with a critical background, but simply define the aesthetic character of a new generation of images beyond the artistic realm, a context we live in rather than a creative framework.
Do you think that at present the critical apparatus for the analysis of these new scenarios is adequate or it is still to be built?
Quayola: The critical apparatus is being built and we see a greater maturity on behalf of the institutions, audiences and artists, who are beginning to master new dynamics and new aesthetics.
You developed a new software during the quarantine, related to sound and image. Could you give me an anticipation of it?
Quayola: It’s actually a collection of software I worked on during the quarantine, as part of a research that began a couple of years ago. In particular, I worked on systems to control sound and image simultaneously, which then resulted a Piano sonata.
Sound is an important component in your work.
Quayola: Yes, it always has been. For several years I have been working on the relationship between sound and image. But in this work sound becomes the work itself. Generally, sound and image are generated through separate systems, as in cinema for example, and one has priority over the other.
To generate sound and image at the same time, I have developed over the years a control system with three separate software: a graphic engine that controls the paintings, part of my research on tradition, calibrated with thousands of parameters, then Arpeggiators built to control keyboards, and a system for managing these data, which calibrates and modulates the numbers and distributes these parameters to the various systems.
I will play in concert on October 4th 2020 at the Theatre Argentina in Rome as part of the Romaeuropa Festival, and I’m also working on a film to document this line of work.
How difficult is it to find adequate funds and structures to carry out projects if you work with heavy-tech equipment?
Quayola: in my case, “heavy” in a literal sense! Clearly, it’s very difficult. As much as it is difficult being an artist. Being a doctor is also difficult, but perhaps in the latter case you are better prepared to be in dire straits for at least a decade.
It’s both understandable and legitimate that there cannot be funds to finance all the complex and expensive projects that artists propose all the time. In Italy, perhaps, it’s even more difficult.
That said, you must kick and fight your way through in a hyper-connected world. In my case it was crucial to relate to the art system on a global level. If I had restrained my action to Italy and London, much of what I’ve achieved would not have been even possible.
Sources and Insights: Davide Quayola official website Quayola Last Perfection - by Daniele De Luigi headquarters: FMAV - Palazzo Santa Margherita, Sale Superiori. Corso Canalgrande 103, Modena. dates: 18 September 2020 - 10 January 2021 hours: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: 11-13 / 16-19; Saturday, Sunday and holidays: 11-19 25 December 2020 and 1 January 2021: 16-19