Cultural plurality in the artistic approach of Elena Ceretti Stein, Milanese multidisciplinary artist living in Tel Aviv.
When you are in one country, you miss the tastes and smells of the other. When you are here you want to be there, and when you are there you want to come back here. No place seems to be complete; the only thing that remains the same is the desire to be elsewhere. It is the desire itself that becomes home.
Milanese but living in Tel Aviv, raised in a multicultural environment, you speak English, Italian, Romanian, French and Hebrew. You say you "have created your own unique language made of different bits which blend together in order to create a new one, belonging to an imaginary country of which I am the only citizen". In the end you chose Tel Aviv and now you live and work there, can you tell us why? What do you see in your artistic future, where do you want to go?
I found myself in Tel Aviv by chance. Something about this city fascinated me powerfully from the start, and since my maternal roots are Jewish it was easy for me to feel almost at home. I say almost because, as anyone who is a son of immigrants or an immigrant himself knows, being an involuntary custodian of a mosaic of different cultures, it is simply not possible to belong to one place only. When you are in one country, you miss the tastes and smells of the other. When you are here you want to be there, and when you are there you want to come back here. No place seems to be complete; the only thing that stays the same is the desire to be elsewhere. The desire itself turns into a home. But it's not just that. Tel Aviv is a seaport, it is a mixture of styles, ethnicities, religions, fears and aspirations. In this it resembles me, and perhaps it somewhat completes me. Tel Aviv is a city wearing no make-up, if I might say. It is shabby, messy, wild, ugly and beautiful, because it is deeply alive and authentic. It's all substance and very little form. The impact on the work is priceless. Tel Aviv tries to teach me how to hit the center, how to eliminate all that is superfluous. It is here that I discovered that the fundamental part of a work is what one chooses to leave out.
Milan knows how to be a triumph of symmetries, beauty and wonderfully balanced vanity: the two realities enrich and intertwine with each other.
Tel Aviv is a city with no make-up on, if I can say that. It is shabby, messy, wild, ugly and beautiful, because it is deeply alive and authentic. It's all substance and very little form.
For this reason I believe that in a way Tel Aviv also completes Milan. I deeply love Milan and I am proudly Milanese, my paternal ancestors made the history of this city, and in some cases they literally built it (for example, the Bovisa-Politecnico district was a project of my great-grandfather Giulio). Milan knows how to be a triumph of symmetries, beauty and wonderfully balanced vanity: the two realities enrich and intertwine with each other. The result is magical.
Like all seaports, Tel Aviv is necessarily a transition point. I will always go where work takes me. I'd like to live between New York, Milan and Tel Aviv one day.
"You just have to keep on doing more and more; you can't invent your own style, it comes by itself. And at that point it becomes a forced, natural, inevitable choice."
You described your artistic work as a mix of different styles moulded within the same work: is it a sort of eclecticism that breaks boundaries of thought and techniques by deliberately seeking inhomogeneity or a forced, natural, inevitable choice?
It's a little bit of both. When I was young I’d get angry with myself for not being able to constantly produce works with the same medium and in the same style. I used to paint, sculpt, photograph and felt so inconsistent in a world that tends to be hyper-specialized.
I also tried to hyper-specialize in the name of coherence, of recognizability. I too wanted to be the kind of artist who paints all in blue, or makes all sculptures pointy. Over time I decided that I wasn't made for hyper-specialisation. In that moment my work, in its three-dimensionality, began to be consistent with itself, homogeneous even in its variations. You just have to keep on producing more and more; you can't invent your own style, it needs to come by itself. And at that point it becomes a forced, natural, inevitable choice.
In this transparent and uncertain society, where subjectivity and feelings will become the only stable truth, or stable post-truth, conspiracies are increasingly taking hold, and this is no accident
Your art is an act of resistance in a transparent society: can you explain its deep meaning and tell us how this practice becomes an act of resilience or devotion to find the secrets of artistic expression as opposed to a total traceability of individuals in an interconnected world?
The society around us is transparent because everything is visible - our social friendships, our purchases, our online activities. Everything is on the surface. We know everything about everyone. Besides being transparent, like the skin of those small fish under which we can see the workings of all the internal organs, this is a society that is progressively losing the truth - the very role of truth, or perhaps even the need for it to exist.
Post-truth means that one can no longer know whether news is real or fake, or if a photo is authentic or manipulated. The best examples are "deep-fakes", digital manipulations that can replace a face with any other, or create an imaginary one, without us noticing the artifact. As for cyber-security, there is already a competition between those who create deep-fakes and those who try to unmask them. The implications are frightening: one day we'll see a president make a statement, but we won't know who to listen to in order to decide whether or not that statement was actually made.
In this transparent and uncertain society, where subjectivity and feelings become the only stable truth, or stable post-truth, conspiracies are increasingly taking hold, and this is no accident. It is not a coincidence, just like the increasing resurgence of anti-rational and anti-scientific movements.
Contemporary humanity seeks the sacred, the hidden, it feels the lack of a cosmic dimension, and I think it tries to recreate it in a way that is often self-destructive.
My art is an act of resistance: I resist transparency while resisting destructive irrationality. In my works one must enter, feel alone, lose oneself, find oneself. In my works nothing lies just on the surface, nothing is readily available. I perceive art as an intuitive space, a key to go beyond the dichotomy of rationality and emotionality without losing either.
I was struck by your attraction to the "sacred" and your desire to "make the concerns of contemporary art relevant to the society at large"; you want people to feel they are entering, with your works, a sacred, revelatory space. It seems to me very far from what is expressed in everyday life by the young people of your generation.
I think it connects to what we have already said. My generation is hurt by the loss of the sacred. It is constantly divided between body, heart and intellect. It has not found a way to experience moments of "grace", of secular spirituality. I create experiences that strive to open a vertical dimension in ourselves (in today’s culture we mostly experience this through music), rather than the perfect shot on Instagram, which is a distorted materialistic reality aimed at making us sell ourselves in the best possible way. The idea of making myself a product nauseates me. The idea that you can sell everything is nauseating. Contemporary art - so often misunderstood, mocked, insulted - is a powerful antidote to losing one’s soul: it is visual, liquid philosophy, it is true depth. The most exciting thing of all is that it can only be explained visually, otherwise we would directly write a book rather than create an installation. Whenever a collector or a curious visitor asks me what a work “means”, I like to explain that every work contains a secret. The public can try to find it out only by living it, by letting go. I cannot explain it, it cannot be defined in words. I don't even try to fully understand what I create: if I did, I’d be destined to create only works as large as my head, but instead I try to create works even bigger. If they escape me and they affect me more than I dare to explain, it means I succeeded.
You have a degree in Media and Cultural Studies: were your academic studies helpful to give structure, strength and clarity to your artistic approach? Do Western Art History or the arts of the East have profound influences on your art? Can you name your most inspirational artists, if you have any?
I owe a great deal to the scientific, technical and research approach I learned in university. Anthropology taught me to always ask myself why things happen, and also analyze the world as if I had to describe it to an alien. One of the great challenges I face is trying not to think too much, not to become too conceptual. That would be limiting. You have to escape yourself to be surprised.
In October I will begin my Master's degree at Bezalel Academy here in Israel, I can't wait. I've waited until now because I believe that to get the most out of an MFA it is necessary to have worked in the field for a few years, as to not remain too encapsulated in an academic environment. That would be counterproductive! I have been influenced by many artists, every month I discover a new artist to fall in love with. Maybe among all of them, I feel more akin to artists like Janine Antoni and Marina Abramovic, but I have a soft spot for Weischer, Anish Kapoor, Tomas Saraceno, the duo Sun Yuan - Peng Yun, and Olafur Eliasson.
Are materials, painting, sculpture and so on, the center of your expressive universe? What do you love about making art every day? Do you prefer the theoretical and imaginative part, symbols and meanings, or getting your hands dirty with colour and possible materials to shape into plastic forms? What makes you feel more in your heart and your brain?
I conceive the very core of a piece long before picking the matter that will give life to it. My creative process is divided into periods of mad and desperate thinking during which I don't move a finger for weeks and I'd rather focus on the emotional and conceptual research, alternating with periods during which I find myself sculpting plaster boulders for 21 hours in a row for two months straight without moving a thought, sometimes even sleeping in the studio. It is certainly a chaotic process made of extremes, rather than a continuous and linear flow.
I can't think only with my head, I necessarily have to think with my hands, and the two poles balance each other out. When I work I go into a sort of trance, I'm not just concerned with the result, but rather with how to get there. Although I may be the only one who is aware of this, I like to turn the creative process into a ritual one. The process is crucial.
For example, in these weeks I am painting an oil painting consisting of several levels placed on top of each other. Each layer depicts a movement, and before starting a new one I stop and recite in front of the colours a poem by Rabia of Basra, a great Iraqi mystic of the 9th century, a formidable woman. This is also part of the picture, and not just the image you will see at the end of the action. The picture itself contains every single gesture hidden by the matter, every layer of paint. The painting is also everything behind it.
I would like people to leave the exhibition space with feeling like they have travelled in and out of theirselves, like they have experienced a vertical opening in their own consciousness.
Life and death, darkness and light, joy and fear, these are some of the many categories that force us to fight our daily battle, to constantly make choices on everything, and finally, also the inescapable desire for Beauty as an absolute value, a theme that has always been important to artists of all times. What do you expect people who see your work to feel like? What reactions, sensations, or thoughts do you want your potential audiences to get?
This is a crucial and sensitive matter: beauty. I cannot define beauty, nor consider it an absolute value. I can't even tell for sure whether I'm looking for beauty, because it's not exactly clear to me what it is. Just today I was wondering, watching the various creatures hanging in my tropical garden: does a chameleon think a sunset is beautiful? Why do we? Do we consider what is useful to us to be beautiful? Does art have to be beautiful? We started asking this many years ago, and we are still talking about it. Neither art nor the artist have to be beautiful, as far as I'm concerned. At best, they have to be true.
I'm a bit tired of the anthropocene, I kind of want to see art that tries to look at the world through the eyes of a bee, that shifts the focus. I would like the public to get this feeling of movement, of tension towards nature and towards a broader perspective. I like to overturn expectations and find the knots that bind us. I would like people to leave the exhibition space feeling they have travelled in and out of themselves, as if they have experienced a vertical opening in their own consciousness. Contemporary art can teach us to reverse and rethink everything. As Eliasson said - sometimes the river is the bridge.
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