A day with PetriPaselli (English Interview)
A day with PetriPaselli
Presenting our 2023
With every new edition of our product catalog we feature a guest curator, someone who we have worked with on at least a couple of joined projects, to whom we dedicate an article in the form of an interview or an editorial. The main focus of the curated gallery is allowing the guest curator to share their vision on design, art and on the ways in which they integrate old objects in their work.
For this year’s edition we partnered with Bologna-based artist duo PetriPaseli and now we are finally putting his entire interview online!
PetriPaselli (univerbated) is an Italian artist duo formed by Matteo Petri and Luciano Paselli. The unity of their artistic vision is such that they have chosen for a trademark a photographic depiction of their profiles joined together to form a symbolic two-headed Janus.
Colorized self portrait by PetriPaselli. This black and white shot was taken purposely by the artists to be colorized by hand as part of their latest work in collaboration with All’Origine.
We discovered the work of PetriPaselli in fairly recent times. Precisely on October 28th 2017, when they were first presenting their editorial project 99objects at MAMBO (Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna). This might very well be the best possible starting point to try and explain in which way PetriPaselli interpret their role as artists and why at All’Origine we feel so close to their way of looking at things, to the point that over the past two years we’ve asked them to collaborate on multiple joint projects and become our guest curators.
99objects is a printed magazine, with cutting edge layout design, which in each new issue presents a collection of 99 objects all belonging to a highly specific collecting theme, and usually a rather bizarre one.
The scope was and remains to reach issue n° 99 (with no more than three publications per year) before declaring the whole project over.
Inside each edition of the magazine, pictures of the 99 collected items are intermixed with art objects made by the duo through a physical intervention (usually an irreversible one) on specimens belonging to said collection.
Volumes from the 99objects editorial project (ongoing), published between 2017 and 2021
As of today 7 issues have been printed, featuring collections such as “souvenir ashtrays”, “key chains”, “ceramic plaques with mottos” and “lawn bowling trophies”. The first thing one will notice is of course the interest towards whatever is kitsch. You don’t even need to open one of the magazines as it is already apparent from the cover.
The latest issue, printed in the same days as this catalog, is dedicated to one of our joint projects: All’Origine has supplied PetriPaselli with 99 hand-colorized photographs from the first half of the XX century.
If collecting represents the object, then the code –if we want to look at 99objects through the lens of communication theory – is photography. But what about the message? It is through this interview that we will try to get to the answer!
But to PetriPaselli collecting is more than a code, it is an “artistic medium” as highlighted once in a conference (by Lorenzo Balbi, director of MAMBO if I remember correctly). So perhaps it would be best to reframe it immediately as both object and code of their work, inextricably tied to the other code they use –photography- which they rely so heavily on for 99objects and many other of their works.
Luciano Paselli, it will not come as a surprise, is also a professional photographer. Together with Matteo Petri he is capable of infusing the greatest evocative power into the ugliest and most uninteresting objects. Take the figurines dressed in clam shells on page from the work “Le ragazze con l’orecchino di perla, ovvero la massa ha cattivo gusto”. The person writing this text has no sentimental ties to these objects, as a matter of fact I became aware of their existence inside PetriPaselli’s studio where I looked at them with sincere disgust. Nonetheless their portrait exudes visual pleasure and strongly engages the viewer in total contrast to the dullness of the artifacts themselves!
“Le ragazze con l’orecchino di perla, ovvero la massa ha cattivo gusto” (“The girls with the pearl earing a.k.a. the masses have bad taste”), 2017
Kitsch and collecting are the two pillars of this duo’s work. Both when they express themselves through photography and when they design immersive installations such as “Il giardino delle vergini immacolate”. The specific type of kitsch they rely on is old-fashioned and feels somewhat genuine to anyone who grew up in Italy in the same years as PetriPaselli. It is always something capable of stirring up collective memories, but in the hands of PetriPaselli these humble artifacts – gathered and then exhibited, photographed or modified – become capable of evoking not specific or individual recollections, but rather sensations linked to how one perceived the world as a child, before they were educated, both in a literal and in an aesthetic sense.
It would seem rather obvious that people belonging to different generations and places of the world would perceive this duo’s work in a totally different way from one another. We’ll try to find this out too!
Let’s start with some brief biographical notes. Before you became PetriPaselli, who was Luciano Paselli and who was Matteo Petri?
Paselli: Before becoming the other half of PetriPaselli, Matteo Tommaso Petri was my next door neighbor in the small town of Vergato. We became neighbors when we were in nursery school. He’s actually a couple of years older than me even if he looks younger. We always hung out together, thanks also to his sister, painter Emilia Maria Chiara Petri, who was my classmate from preschool all the way up to high school. Matteo would always bug us and prank us, but him and I already had so much in common! Firstly we both come from families of compulsive collectors. During our childhood, in the weekend, we would both get woken up at the crack of dawn to go visit flea markets. We also both lived under strict rules in regards to what we could and could not touch inside our own homes. We were both taught attention to detail, to small things, to materials. We both grew up surrounded by collections: vases, cuckoo clocks, figurines, badges, wooden souvenirs, commemorative tea spoons, Christmas ornaments, advertising plates, candleholders, tin toys, dolls et cetera. Matteo used to collect Coca Cola paraphernalia, Lego sets and Micromachines, which I also collected!
He was into videogames and airplanes, the latter being an interest he was passed from his granddad. He’s always had a strong artistic inclination, towards painting and music (he’s a pianist) and also for ceramics as both his parents are artists and architects. Out of sheer rebellion he chose to graduate in computer engineering. Now he lives with his wife and children in Bologna.
Petri: Luciano Paselli was the kid who dressed up as a butterfly for carnivals. Only much later I would come to understand this was a more or less intentional homage to his entomologist grandfather who regularly speared dead butterflies with long pointy needles. He was the playmate that always waited for me after school by the fence separating our backyards and together with whom I invented countless outdoor games… as both our homes were oversaturated with collections and didn’t leave any room for children to play. Later on he became the boy with the most envied collection of Coca Cola gadgets and a room so full of toys you couldn’t even get around them; mostly squeaky collectibles that would make noise when you stepped on them. His childhood room was, and still today is, a source of inspiration for our work as was his whole home in general. Our family homes were likened by a sense of accumulation, by overflowing collections, by the endless research of wall space and corners where objects could be displayed.
The experience acquired by Luciano during our childhood could well have prepared him to become a psychoanalyst, but he chose the Academy of Arts, Music and Drama instead.
Two pictures of Luciano Paselli as a child in a homemade butterfly costume (circa 1990)
Just to be clear: your parents did not know each other and did not become next door neighbors by choice, correct?
Paselli: It was merely a coincidence.
Petri: I’d actually rather call it a fluke!
Part of Luciano Paselli’s personal collection of 90’s era key chains. All collected during his middle school years, these keychains many years later bacame the subject of issue n°2 of 99objects
You’ve made the connection between your artistic views and your shared childhood in Vergato very explicit. More and more I’m getting the feeling that the choice of representing your selves as a two-headed Janus is very deliberate. According to ancient pagan tradition one of the heads is looking at the past, the other towards the future. At the junction are your two brains fused together, and this “junction” is what we ask all our Guest Curators to give us their take on. Each has their ways, each has different goals and different tools, but you all practice the use of “old stuff” to convey something entirely new. What is the role of nostalgia in your work?
PetriPaselli: Nostalgia to us is but a conduit that enables our works to reach our viewers and elicit a form of empathy. We feed on our own personal memories to bring something to the widest possible audience, sometimes triggering other people’s personal memories in the process. Old objects open hidden drawers in the archive that is our memory. They often represent a common ground, a shared code, that enables us to engage in a dialog with our audience. It’s a dialog based on microscopic impulses, tiny epiphanies caused by small and seemingly meaningless details. Our work does not investigate sadness or yearning but is meant to help recall something in the past that has gone lost and forgotten. Individual memories evoked by the use of a known and “friendly” object end up bouncing back and forth between viewers and works that are totally foreign to them and are usually set up to be somewhat uncanny.
Plaster souvenir of “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” by Benvenuto Cellini, partially covered in orange slime. Part of an unpublished and still untitled series.
Plaster figurine of a Japanese Geisha, partially covered in blue slime. Part of the same unpublished and still untitled series.
Artwork for the fourth issue of 99objects: a souvenir badge from mount Solda becomes entangled with the vision of plastic toy soldiers lying in a pile in a rather explicit reference to historic events from WWI.
Let me ask you specifically about your “second head”, the one looking towards the future. Your works are in museums and curators that select them are often aiming to reach a very ample target. Let’s take your installation for the 40 year anniversary of the Ustica massacre. Your immersive work was chosen as the sole counterpoint to Boltanski’s permanent installation and was meant to speak to an audience comprising everyone, from schoolchildren to working adults to pensioners. For sure your installation was able to “unlock” childhood memories for a part of your audience, but it feels obvious that it was able to speak to all the rest as well. I think your work for the Ustica memorial in Bologna can symbolize just how universal your message can be. It was able to get people of all ages emotionally involved, from the 80 year old to the 12 year old, and I’m sure that should they display it again thirty years down the road it will still be able to speak to the youngest generation. How?
PetriPaselli: through theatrical wizardry we could reply…. But since we are not performing artists we’ll say that in our work we try to speak the universal language of objects. Our lives are inextricably connected to material things. Things are unaware signifiers bringing forth meanings, values and heritages that need no advocates because they can speak to us directly thanks to what some call our “innate knowledge”, made of notions that each of us builds upon with our personal experiences.
We like to observe the world around us and in particular we focus on the connections (or on the short-circuits) that occur in the relations between people and inanimate things.
When we present an immersive environmental installation we know our audience will experience it through the filter of these relations between themselves and inanimate things. These relations are both unique to each individual and universal as a phenomenon. This will keep happening in 30 years regardless of the ever evolving context.
The 1980 Itavia plane wreck from the infamous massacre as it rests today inside the Ustica Memorial in Bologna, surrounded by Boltanski’s permanent installation of pulsating lights and recorded audio bits.
Image courtesy of Museo per la Memoria di Ustica, Bologna.
Telecombat ride temporarily installed by PetriPaselli in front of the Ustica Memorial Museum in Bologna.
In our installation for the Ustica Memorial we forced viewers to confront the relations between themselves and two very large and dissonant objects: an amusement park ride and the wreck of the Itavia DC-9 plane that was shot down by a missile in 1980. Our take on this installation (but our works demand that each one have a personal version of the take-home message) is that violence is innate in humankind to the point that it is nonchalantly proposed as a game, to children and by children themselves. Yet being forced to shift ones attention from a fictional, harmless and playful form of violence to real life violence you are brought to realize how socio-political strategies are just as nonchalant in playing with actual human lives.
Playing is indeed a universal activity, constant through all of mankind’s evolution and practiced by at least 80% of mammals according to scientists. Your installation with the ride had a precise rule of engagement: first one had to visit the memorial with the plane wreck and Boltanski’s permanent installation, then they would go for a ride on theTelecombat.
Your poetics don’t just make use of toys as objects, but also of games as an action. Now, given that artists live above the principle of non-contradiction and that what follows is meant as a praise rather than criticism: games and collections have very precise, almost sacred, rules. Collecting, classifying, cataloging demand extreme allegiance. Yet you manage to take an activity with a theoretically pre-determined outcome and make it a means of expression. I believe we can say you achieve this by breaking the rules, in particular archiving rules, and the way you do this is often disruptive, with interventions that violate and permanently modify the specimens you’ve collected. I’m thinking of what you did with the early century wallpapers that now rap several of your ceramic plaques featured in the fifth issue of 99objects, but also of your latest work, the one you’ve made with the colorized photographs we provided, now pierced with metal staples. How do you look at ruptures and fractures, both literal and figurative?
Artworks for the fifth issue of 99objects: mid century wallpaper samples (most of which were found in Paselli’s grandparents’ attic) are permanently glued to a flat surface where a ceramic plaque has been placed. This operation traps and partially conceals the object while wrinkling the paper and distorting its print.
Petripaselli: the breaking point of anything is an opportunity for us to start building something new. It is by nature a starting point.
The simple act of de-contextualizing something is a fracture and enables an object to purvey new meanings and emanate new messages.
This short-circuit between old and new (or ordinary and extraordinary) is meant to raise questions and never to give answers.
Our works often stem from collections, belonging either to us or to third parties, and challenge the unspoken rules of collecting to define new ones. We strive to establish unexpected dynamics of power between the collector, the collection and ourselves.
What really drives us is the desire to establish a bond with our audience, more or less like the bond between a collector and their collection.
A bond that we systematically stress by breaking the strict rules of cataloging and archiving (which are so dear to collectors) with the manifest purpose of annoying whoever is likeminded to us and can feel the pain of “messing with a collection”.
This aspect is evident in our 99objects project, which is editorial merely in its form, where we declared the publication of 99 issues. People have started collecting them without really knowing what the end product will be. We demanded an act of trust from our collectors as a starting point for an artistic operation we can call a fracture, a deliberate effort to break their trust: we could decide to stop at 98 volumes, leaving everyone with an incomplete collection, or we could decide to change the format for one single issue, bothering everyone who wishes to neatly display the collection on a shelf, or we could create an artificial scarcity of one issue by printing a ridiculously low number of copies. I mean we could be very mean to our collectors and have a lot of fun doing it!
But fractures are part of our works also in a literal sense. Always with the same aim of being somewhat bothersome to the viewer. An example could be our ongoing series of poorly mended ceramics and terracotta artifacts, objects we find with botched reparation work, overflowing glue, scotch tape and metal wire (which we don’t have a title for yet). Another one is the environmental installation “Il compianto” (the mourning) made using dozens of pages we physically ripped out of old Snow White books.
Found figurines that with extremely poor restoration attempts are paired with others purposely fixed in an incorrect way by PetriPaselli as part of an on-going and still unpublished series.
I would like you to address the topic of aesthetics, so I’ll seize the opportunity to highlight what I see as another beautiful contradiction or “short-circuit” as I believe you people from the art world prefer saying. In contrast to the unison we pick up by looking at you work, there is a sharp “aesthetic discrepancy” if we look at how you each present yourselves. By the same token there is a dichotomy between the dusty, old, neglected appearance of the things you work with and your artistic output. Your works, especially the photographic ones, are glossy, candy-coated I would say. How would you define the aesthetic (or the multiple aesthetics) you’ve chosen to adhere to through your works and what do they reflect of you as individuals?
PetriPaselli: aesthetics of our artistic outputs can be determined either by the appearance of an object we’ve chosen to work with or by a concept we are trying to convey. In the second case we “dress” the items we are working on in accordance with the message we wish to deliver thus imposing an aesthetic of choice over a given one that belonged to the objects before our intervention.
While aesthetics are not our starting point we do realize we make highly recognizable artworks. We always draw from our domestic visual repertoire which you now know is strongly tied to our childhood and the indelible imprinting we received in our parents’ homes. Homes that were similar in the sense they were both over saturated with found objects, usually vintage, but were formally very different by means of aesthetic pursuit and for strictness in applying archival rules.
Typologically similar objects were gathered just for the pleasure of owning all possible variants (regardless of style, era and material) in Luciano’s home. These objects were used pictorially to achieve colorful installations on walls and shelves. Shelves full of small plastic cats, ceramics, fabrics, elephants of carved ivory, wooden and metal objects of sorts.
In contrast, in Matteo’s home whenever his parents would find an object that was linked to their childhood this would spark a new collecting theme. Porcelain dolls, tin toys, advertising plates… Everything would be mixed together and form multi layer stories or rather side scenes.
This aesthetic incongruence you see is in fact something that has defined us ever since we were born and it does seep through in everything we do together, yet our artworks are the outcome of a long dialectic and creative process, so what you get is a synthesis. One tends to accumulate (Luciano) the other tends to subtract (Matteo), the first steers towards kitsch, the latter towards pop. It’s as if each one was trying to tidy up the other’s home, and this process always goes on until we are both satisfied with the outcome.
The glossy finish mostly pertains to our photographic works, while in environmental installations the documental and archival aspects usually take over making the experience more real and less “candy coated” as you say, but in both cases we pursue a sense of equilibrium.
The site specific installation “Il giardino delle vergini immacolate” was produced during an artistic residency and reflects upon the Italian tradition of decorating suburban private gardens with a naïf mix of valueless statues. Quite often garden gnomes and Snow White figurines are paired with holy images of saints and of the Virgin Mary with the effect of an unintentional blasphemy.
With this intervention PetriPaselli render the two groups of statues hard to disambiguate by partially dipping them in a thick layer of paint blurring the boundary between what is sacred and what is profane. Image Courtesy of Regione Emilia Romagna
I had promised the next question would be more frivolous, but I had not foreseen wanting to turn it into a Cioè style quiz to find out if one is more of a Luciano or a Matteo. Lucky for you our international audience probably has no idea what Cioè magazine is and how popular it was in Italy when we were pre-teens. Nonetheless here comes the question for each of you: is there some sort of separation between objects that are interesting to you for a collection and objects you would gather for artistic purposes? Are there typologies of objects you would never see yourself collecting? And finally: what are your main active collections right now?
Paselli: there is no set boundary. More than once our private collections became the subject – or were in other ways involved – in one of our artistic projects: the 90’s era key chains featured in the second issue of 99objects are mine for instance. Then there are collections Matteo and I carry on together with the explicit intent of using them for one of our future projects, like our growing selection of bottled holy water.
Personally I think I will never become a collector of military objects or torture devices.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint which of my collections I consider active and which not. For sure I’m very active in the research of canned air, souvenir visors, Exogini static figures, Snow White figurines and toys, Lego sets, glass milk bottles, mountain souvenirs et cetera.
Petri: I try to be very selective with my collections because any interesting object I find could ignite the desire of “completing the series” if I acquire it. That is how all my collections begin. To me there is a more defined threshold between what can be gathered for use in a project and what I wish to collect for myself inside my own home. Firstly there is an instant bond that I feel whenever I come across certain objects which tells me if I want to begin a collection around them or add them to an existing one, but this is always mitigated by a rationale in regards to how much space I have at my disposal to archive or display.
I would most definitely not collect all the objects that appear in our woks nor do I see myself finding interest in Luciano’s plush toy wedding favors, or his collection of empty pages from his grandfathers many stamp collecting albums. I would never want taxidermy animals in my home, human prosthetics, wigs, underclothes, key chains, lighters. Nonetheless I feel a form of attachment towards all the objects that enter our lives for artistic purposes. After the collection phase, when it’s finally time to put them to use I do struggle a bit in separating from them.
My evergreen collections include 80’s era videogames, space themed toys and memorabilia, designer furniture and accessories of all sorts, illustrated books (Snow White being only one of many themes). In reality a collection of collections is the true aspiration for both me and Luciano, or maybe even a collection of collectors…. but I wouldn’t be able to maintain it.
Two compositions made pairing objects found at All’Origine and objects from their personal collections. In this case each artist worked on a single composition to highlight the differences in each one’s visual vocabulary and aesthetic taste. The first composition is by Luciano Paselli, the second by Matteo Petri.
We’ve repeatedly spoken about archival and cataloging efforts and of course we’ve refrained from trying to catalog your artistic practice (“the impossible to catalog catalogers” could be yet another contradiction/short-circuit, or maybe not). But there is at least one more piece of the puzzle I’d love you to provide for us to better capture the essence of PetriPaselli: a list of names. Who are the artists you feel more connected to, who you consider as masters, who have inspired your way of working? It will be nice for who reads this interview to be able to follow the links below and discover artists whose work they might not know yet!
PetriPaselli: Our list is made of both very famous and lesser-known names. In general our inspiration comes not only from artists, but also from illustrators, film directors, stylists, set designers et cetera. We could dedicate a whole pamphlet to answering this question. But we’ve brought it down to twelve names and limited ourselves to visual artists and photographers (they come in an absolutely random order).
Martin Parr, because he gave dignity to trash and kitsch aesthetics through street photography and for documenting the fun side of mass tourism and being a huge collector himself.
Erik Kessels, because errors and found photography are the core of his poetics, and because he has published some truly brilliant books.
Luigi Ontani for being able to merge together the most contrasting and delicate subjects and for doing so with marvelous lightness and irony. He is also from our same small town, Vergato!
Elmgreen and Dragset because they’ve made artworks we wish were ours (i.e. Powerless Structures, Fig. 101).
Katharina Fritsch, a Neo Pop German artist who focuses on the bold use of icons, many of which are near and dear to us as well.
Bosch, because let’s face it: he is a one of a kind alien on earth in the whole of humanity’s art history. His ability to invent imagery remains unmatched to this day.
Mark Dion, creator of true contemporary cabinets of curiosities. Whatever he lays his hands on becomes poetic.
Joseph Cornell. Whenever we work with objects and dioramas we take his work into account, even if our languages and pursuits are so far apart.
There is only one more thing we wish to ask you: what did you do with the colorized photos you selected from our archive?
PetriPaselli: walking into your showroom for the first time we were immediately struck by the piles of paper and canvasses that had been separated from their frames and were waiting to be cataloged and stored. We felt drawn to the piles of photographs in particular, where a division by historic period had already begun. We’ve always been fascinated by early century photographs with heavy pictorial interventions. These images maintain mere traces of their photographic origin as the colorizing process has scarred them and heavily modified them. Our idea was to add a third layer to some of these pictures, bringing the portrayed individuals back to the third dimension.
In order to bring these faded and sometimes vaguely unsettling portraits to the third dimension we decided to superimpose a series of plastic play sets packaged in clear thermoformed plastic. They were commonly sold in newsstands back when we were kids and of course we researched only vintage examples for this project, from the 80’s and even older.
The result is a layered work: early century photographic inks, then a coeval layer of colored pigments, one of 1980’s toys and their clear blister incasing everything. As usual we tried to establish a connection between the objects we forced together, achieving a distortion in the perception of the work as a whole.
PetriPaselli during their first visit at All’Origine in 2021, beginning the selection process of colorized photos and other imagery which they are currently using for other ongoing and unpublished joint projects.
Early to mid XX century colorized photographs, selected by PetriPaselli at All’Origine, are laid out inside their studio to shortlist the specimens the artist are about to intervene on.
Cover of Issue #7/99 of 99objects by PetriPaselli: “Colorized Portraits” Antique photos researched and collected by All’Origine in Central and Eastern Europe. Selection and three-dimensional artworks by PetriPaselli
“This is one of those works we like to leave up to the viewer’s interpretation. Our friends who have seen it in the making have given us very diversified opinions. Some see the plastic play sets as a representations of the unfulfilled dreams of the subjects. Others see our superimposed layer of toys more as a prison, trapping the subjects in a job or a role they didn’t want. At least for now we will refrain from giving our own take on this project”.