Cristiana de Marchi
Art Here 2021
Richard Mille Art Prize
18 November 2021 – 27 March 2022
Cristiana de Marchi (b. 1968, Italy) is an Italian-Lebanese visual artist and writer who lives and works in Dubai. In her practice – textiles, embroidery, film and performance – she continuously makes and unmakes the relation between time, space and memory. Exploring how gaps in the sequence of a thought cause memory to dissolve and become dispersed, she reveals how memory can alter our relation to the past: how a circular repetition of continuously revisiting the past can actually change the structure of time, opening up the possibility of a renewed future. This act of breaking down memory into its constitutive parts ultimately allows spaces and narratives to be redefined, reconfigured and reshaped.
In Mapping Gaps. Beirut (Dubai, 2016-2017) she addresses these concerns through embroidered maps. Maps, by their nature, are an approximation. They are precise but questionable, never of the present moment, always undone by the act of placing one’s feet on the ground. Maps confound the distinction between memory and territory, marking a space between the familiar and the foreign which affirms and disrupts one’s sense of belonging. Maps of one’s homeland, in particular, offer a material anchor to a collective memory, a lost but immediate connection between physical ground and distant horizon. This evokes feelings common to the experience of exile, emigration, and expatriation: existing in a present that is constantly punctuated by thoughts of past and future.
Embroidery, in turn, becomes a form of mapping which retraces, restitches and recomposes one’s relation to place. Slow, meditative, meticulous and deliberate, it allows one’s feelings towards a given territory to enter into the creative process. This temporal elasticity allows personal memories to seep into the seemingly unbiased mode of map-making. Consequently, the physical space itself changes: maps become emotionally charged, intimate geographies. Like steps on the ground, each new stitch transforms a memory space (of streets, paths, etc.) into physical, material form – expanded signs and structures which alter the viewer’s own relation to time and space.
“I was trained as an archeologist in Italy, specialized in Hellenistic and Roman town planning, and I was particularly interested in the Roman provinces. My university was invited to participate in archeological excavations in Beirut after the civil war, which is when I moved to Lebanon, where I worked as an archeologist. At the same time, I was also developing my own practice as an artist. In 2006, I arrived in Dubai, and later I got a position in a gallery, at the time when they had just founded The Flying House in Al Quoz. I was curious and met this group of artists, who asked me to work with them. It has been the beginning of a long friendship and the feeling of being part of the community in the UAE. The term community is very prominent in the UAE, it is very specific to this place. I built many valuable relationships here. I started curating my own projects and, especially during the time of the Flying House, I also collaborated with Mohammed Kazem. I have lectured, I have written extensively and, more recently, worked on several projects with the younger generation of Emirati artists. When I first arrived to the UAE, Sharjah was the main reference in cultural institutions: Dubai had three or four galleries, and not all of them specialized in contemporary art. It was a very small community. The recent development of the institutions in the UAE exposes us to both local, regional and international artists: there are regular exhibitions, programming and workshops. The educational system has evolved as well. The younger generation started to get a formal education through university, whilst the generation of Mohammed Kazem, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, Abdullah Al Saadi was almost entirely self-taught. Hassan Sharif was mentoring these artists and they then mentored the next generation.
I started showing my art here, I had never shown it before. I mentioned in some conversations with the artists of the Flying House that I was also making art and they wanted to see what I was doing. When they saw the works, they were astonished and they encouraged me to exhibit them. This support of an artistic community became really important to me and I started conceiving the role of the artist in a more organic and active way.
For many years I thought I just turned the page on archeology. But I see now that there are elements in my work that are in conversation with my previous experience as an archeologist, like my interest in mapping and this idea of translating the two-dimensional perception of space into something else, which comes from my interest in town planning. There is also a certain continuity in the gaze. As an archeologist you must be trained to recognize very subtle differences that tell you what is hidden in the ground, and most of my works - especially the monochrome ones - are difficult to perceive, you really need to pay that extra level of attention. The process is also very meticulous. I use the same process you use on an archeological site, based on a grid. I never draw directly on the canvas. I translate everything by eye and by counting. Somehow, I also work the opposite way as in archeology, where you translate something three-dimensional into a drawing. I first make the drawing and then I translate it into a tactile object. I thought many times about the fact that I am making my life more complicated by not drawing on the textile. It is a hand-made process: I think avoiding the simplification is something that eventually leads me somewhere else. Each step I make is a step towards the idealized or representative space of the map, with its many meanings.
I only made two maps from this Mapping Gaps series, one of my hometown Torino and the second of Beirut, which I have a strong relationship with. These are works based on the notion of memory, but the imperfection of memory, the one that is fading. It is about that moment when you have been away from a place or a person, and you start realizing that things are not so clear anymore, that details are slipping through the holes of your memory. These maps are very personal. I have cropped elements and neighborhoods which I have relations with and I introduced mistakes in the translation from the drawings into the canvas. I navigated around those mistakes. The overall composition is asymmetrical, imbalanced, and precarious, and that also reflects the incompleteness that characterises memory. I also chose colors which identify the cities. The Torino map is made with a very prominent brick color because the city is built with this material, and Beirut was made with these very soft yellow stones. But it is not the color of Beirut anymore: when I arrived there, soon after the civil war, the city was destroyed, and it was starting to be rebuilt, this time in cement. My intentional choice of the colour is then adding another layer: the work is not only about one’s own experienced memory; rather it is a stratified mnemonic approximation, where transmitted memories are also incorporated. Like when we believe we remember episodes of our early childhood, just because we have heard them multiple times, and they become part of our mental sense of belonging.
I learned these textile techniques when I was a child but I did not particularly enjoy them at the time. When I was working on the map of Torino, I was trying to think of a medium associated with my childhood and the idea of going back to embroidery was quite natural. And from one work I moved to the next one and I kept working with textiles, and even used them as a basis for many of my video works. I also combine the textile-based practice and the performative experience. There is a series of work titled Doing & Undoing where I am stitching and then removing the stitches of specific words, such as borders, identity, memory, nationhood, concepts which are heavily invested and unstable and require a negotiation and renegotiation over time. They are performances but they are all conceived for the screen, to be experienced through video.
Most of my works are very intimate. Hand-made textile work is a long process where you spend endless hours sitting by yourself but each step of the process becomes relevant to anticipate and resolve both conceptual and technical issues. This is why it is important for me that I go through the entirety of this process. There is also an element of contradiction between the intimacy and the calmness of the work and the subjects that I choose to explore through textiles, which are mostly related to the sphere of social and political investigation. But, of course, there is a nourished tradition of studies on the agency delicately implied and claimed through feminine techniques, such as embroidery and textiles.”
Interview with Cristiana de Marchi, 10 November 2021, Abu Dhabi