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A shot from the ‘Pleasant Places’ video installation

Metamorphoses of Image 0

Q&A with Italian-born artist Davide Quagliola, whose video installation ‘Pleasant Places’ can be seen at the 5th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art, through 10 August

Nadezhda Lyalina

Through 10 August 2016, the ‘Pleasant Places’ video installation by the Italian-born artist Davide Quagliola aka Quayola (1982) is on view as part of the main project of the 5th Moscow International Biennale for Young Art; you will find it without any difficulty on the second floor of the Trekhgornaya Manufaktura. An identically named work is featured separately at the parallel programme of the biennale at the new ZILART exhibition space, a project realized with the support of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. ‘Deep Inside’ – this is the general theme of the biennale as defined by the principal curator Nadim Samman, and the two pieces by Quayola do indeed fit the title harmoniously. It is no secret, however, that the artist was invited by the curator personally and that the two of them have previously worked on a number of projects together.

Left to right: the Biennale Commissioner Yekaterina Kibovskaya, curator of the biennale Nadim Samman and artist Davide Quayola at the unveiling of the ‘Pleasant Places’ at the ZILART exhibition space

Davide Quagliola or Quayola is a name of international renown; his shows have run in Berlin, New York, London, Paris, Barcelona, Seoul and Moscow. His works often invade unusual spaces – theatres, cathedrals, ancient museums, palaces and villas. Davide Quayola creates digital landscapes of reality and reinvents the visual aesthetics of classic works of art. With the help of analytical software code, familiar paintings are transformed into poetic abstractions; they move; they have sound. These are complex and painstakingly directed projects. 

Quayola’s video installations exceed the height of the human viewer; his paintings and sculptures are executed by robots and machines.
We managed to speak with Davide Quayola on the only day he spent in Moscow. We talked about his work methods, levels of meaning and the difference between the two ‘Pleasant Places’ at ZILART and the Trekhgornaya Manufaktura.

The first thing I would like to ask you is, of course – how did you end up making projects like these? Did you perhaps get some sort of special education?

The education I received was actually quite many-sided. The whole thing started when I got hold of my first computer and books on architecture as a teenager – it became my major interest in life. It was my brother’s influence; he is 10 years older than me and was studying architecture at the time. These were all very amateurish experiments at home; I’m actually surprised that I went on to develop this thing any further. Essentially, I do not have a specialised technical education; I learnt these things on my own; I read a lot. Also, growing up in Rome, at some point I inevitably became interested in art. When I was 19, I went to study at the London University of the Arts, where I specialised in multimedia technologies. I did not even particularly like it at the time, actually, and so my own experiments continued somewhat independently from my studies. Eventually I discovered for myself the geometry of form, abstraction… I don’t think that my studies actually informed my methods of work in any way – but they did help me learn English. The language was the most difficult challenge for me – for a whole ten years. (Laughs)

How long did it take you to develop the method of creating your ‘Pleasant Places’?

None of my projects has a distinctly marked beginning or end; I am constantly involved in a process of research. It takes years to develop a specific method – but then again it always results in a number of somewhat different ideas. To make each of the short videos of the ‘Pleasant Places’ series, I had to research it separately – create algorithms, instruments to get an aesthetically exact image. It took me about a year. The actual making of the video works does not take that much time. I am currently already preparing to make a spin-off of the project: literally next month I am starting shooting in Iceland.

‘Pleasant Places’. 4K Video. 1-ch projection | 2-ch sound. Dimension variable. Edition of 6. 2015

From what I have seen on your website, if I understand correctly, the video is first passed through certain filters and then the image is overlaid with samples of brushstrokes?

Yes, that is the general idea. To be technically exact, there are two stages to the programme. On the one hand, the video is subjected to analysis of colour, form, movement, etc. On the other hand, all this information is then activated to control brushstrokes and other effects. Combinations of algorithms and automatized processes with a whole lot of various parameters are created. It is somewhat like a musical synthesizer: there is a system inside but you need to play the instrument in order to create music. And my work is based on the same principle; I am ‘playing’ on the parameters of the software. The machine does not do anything on its own.

‘Pleasant Places’. Process – shot breakdown

It seemed to me that wind is a formative factor in the deformations in ‘Pleasant Places’.  Am I right – is it really important?

Yes, it is very important. After all, to generate new digital pictures, we base them on the original image. The wind provides this kind of natural animation. That is why the abstractions in ‘Pleasant Places’ look so organic: their silhouettes and movements are borrowed from live trees. And because we could only shoot the video when there was a strong wind blowing, we had to hang around waiting for ages in each of the places. (Laughs.)

Your projects are very complex; there is probably a whole team involved in helping you?

My projects depend on working with other people. I frequently need assistants, all sorts of experts. Specifically, in ‘Pleasant Places’ there were three other people involved apart from me: a cameraman, a programmer and a sound designer. Simone Lalli was responsible for the sound; we have been collaborating for many years. By the way, the programmer is a Russian – Nikolai Matveyev, a good friend of mine. He writes all the software. With the cameraman James Medcraft, we spent a lot of time in Provence shooting landscapes amidst which Van Gogh used to live and work. For ‘Pleasant Places’ we shot everything in Ultra HD. So basically, I perform the part of the director in my projects – but I do get deeply involved in the work of each of my assistants. I generally find it interesting to develop ideas, invent new programs, involve all sorts of technologies.
Did you see the main video installation of ‘Pleasant Places’ at the main project of the biennale?

Yes, on the opening day at the Trekhgornaya Manufaktura.

It is the same piece at the ZILART, only a bit different. You won’t see any figurative landscapes there, only abstractions generated on their basis.

The ‘Pleasant Places’ video installation at the ZILART exhibition space

Why did you decide to do that?

Because I like the idea of creating something completely abstract. It is like a landscape-in-itself, a landscape of colours. There is always something that we are not completely aware of in a figural picture. And I thought that it would be cool to create an effect of complete immersion in this sort of ‘unconscious space’.

What is the deal with the full version of ‘Pleasant Places’ then?

There is this tension between the image and the abstraction. We observe the whole transformation from the very beginning, and that is why we are constantly aware of the thought that behind each spot of paint there is a concrete real image.

Apart from ‘Pleasant Places’ (2015), you have other ‘nature projects’ – ‘Natures’ (2009) and ‘Bitscapes’ (2006). Is that a single series centred around the same idea?

It is a single subject that I have been exploring from various angles. Incidentally, the ‘Bitscapes’ project is already more than ten years old... I am interested in how our perception of nature has changed in the age of digital technologies – that is, in the relationship between the human and the ‘technical’ perception, between the living and the artificial. Some sort of distortion will always be involved here. We are increasingly often looking at nature through the ‘eyes’ of various machines, and they reveal different versions of reality to us – even showing things that are not normally perceived by the human eye. I think that this is currently a very popular subject.

There is currently this trend of ecophilosophical thought, according to which it is no longer possible to distinguish between culture and nature: man is a hybrid natural-cultural being and his natural habitat is the urban and digital space. For instance, the ‘Hyperconnected’ strategic project of the biennale is dedicated to this school of thought. Do you relate to this kind of ideas?

Yes, in a sense my projects are reflections of these ideas. Technologies have become an integral part of our selves today, and they have significantly changed the way in which we look at the world. That concerns not only landscapes but also classic works of art. What it means for me is a fantastic opportunity to work on a new aesthetics, to discover new visual solutions.

‘Strata #4’ HD Video. 1-ch projection | 2-ch sound. Dimension variable. Edition of 6. 2011. After Peter Paul Rubens’ ‘The Passion of Christ’, 1616–1617

You have big series dedicated to masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque painting – ‘Strata’ (2008–2011) and ‘Iconographies’ (2012–2016).

My birthplace is probably to blame for that. (Laughs.) You cannot take Italy out of me, you see. As you probably already understood, I have a lot of ongoing projects and kinds of research. Nature on the one hand and art – on the other. Classic masterpieces are changing because our perception is changing. Perhaps we are not very good at reading symbols and mythological and symbolic storylines any more – but this is an opportunity to look at these works from a different vantage point. I am interested to see points of intersection between the old and the new, observing this play of contrasts. With the help of digital technologies, I am attempting to find a harmonious balance between different ages and creating something like a cross between a picture and a low-quality pixelated video from YouTube. It often looks like an error, a failure of the system – and I like it.

‘Iconographies #81. Adoration after Botticelli’. Series of ditone prints. Aluminium Mount, Oak Frame. 177 x 100 cm (each). 3 Unique Pieces. 2015

Prototype of the work – ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by Sandro Botticelli, 1475–1476

I also make sculptures; you may have seen some on my website.

Oh yes, of course! From the recent ones – Laocoön.

Laocoön – that’s my new series. Right now I am working on an exhibition in Berlin; the preparation process is very complicated and I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep for weeks. That is why I couldn’t be present at the opening of the Moscow Biennale.
It was actually the unfinished pieces from Michelangelo’s ‘Captives’ series that inspired me to do these sculptures – the contrast between the polished surface and the natural texture. I would love to think that he left them like that intentionally, to record the actual process of the metamorphosis of matter. My sculptures are executed by programmed industrial robots. First comes the 3D scanning of the work, then modelling, fine-tuning of the algorithms of the equipment – then the sculpting of the shapes. (Shows the video.) With the help of the mathematic method of triangulation, the classic sculpture acquires features of a geometric abstraction.

Davide Quayola and his work from the Laocoön series, 2016. Prototype – the ‘Laocoön and His Sons’ sculptural group by the Greek sculptors Agesander, Polydorus and Athenodoros, 1st century BC.

Do your share your experience – perhaps teach some master classes?

Yes, I am often invited by universities; sometimes I read lectures at various events. What I do there is basically present my own works and explain what and how I am doing. This year I taught an experimental class at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. With the students we chose paintings, then I gave them some parts of my software and they had to use it to study the works and present new ways of looking at them. Those were eight very strange weeks; the whole thing ended very recently – in May.

Work on the Captives #04 project

Which Russian artists do you like? If your sound-form-colour experiments, like the recent ‘Ravel Landscapes’ (2013–2014), are anything to judge by, Kandinsky should be close to your heart?

KANDINSKY! Yesss! He is a great inspiration for me. But do you know why I love Kandinsky? I love him for his ideas. Firstly – painting music. Depicting the invisible, giving visual form to what is formless. Secondly, his methodology of creating pictures, which is in some ways akin to mine. A system of transforming the invisible into something that is visible is in itself a programming solution – a software! The bottom line is – Kandinsky’s methodology inspires me more than his pictures. (Laughs)

A 3-minute fragment of the 60-minute ‘Ravel Landscapes’, a joint project with the French pianist Vanessa Wagner