During his first showcase in India at the Kochi Biennale, artist Francesco Clemente talks about Pepper Tent, travel and more
he Italian born artist Francesco Clemente is the perfect example of a global citizen: Having lived in Rome in Italy, New York in the US and Chennai in India, his art carries with it all the experiences and imagery drawn from his travels. Wearing his Rajasthani hat at a jaunty angle and dressed in Indian robes stitched with rich zari work Clemente blends in with the crowds at the Kochi Biennale — that is until he speaks and his accent gives him away. Clemente’s work, Pepper Tent that is part of the Kochi Biennale, stands testimony to his eclectic influences from his studio in Rome to the assemblage in Rajasthan. He tells us more about his journeys and art.
What were your expectations, especially since you have visited India many times before?
I lived in Chennai on and off through the 70s before I was ever in New York. I have been spending part of the year in India since I was 19. India is such a vast place culturally that you can connect with a layer and miss many others. I have spent lots of time witnessing rituals and pilgrimages and visiting sacred sites in rural settings and I have missed out on much of the urban life. I have made at least a third of my work on Indian soil, without ever having an exhibition. The Kochi Biennale will be showing my work for the first time in India.
Tell us what you are looking forward to during the Biennale?
I see the Kochi Bienniale as a chance to share this moment of greater visibility of the artists of India. One does not witness these moments often, of enthusiasm and solidarity among artists. I saw a similar optimism in New York in the early 80s.
Tell us about your work, Pepper Tent.
It is part of an ongoing experiment with the form and structure of a tent, which stands for my artistic journey. Furthermore I have covered it in paintings that I created while in my studio in Brooklyn. The images range from stars to pepper corns (indicating travel and trade). There is a painting of a navigator who drops anchor and rests amidst all the retreating sailing ships. The painted tent was then taken to Rajasthan where a group of tent-makers helped me assemble it and finally it travelled to Kochi where it ‘dropped anchor’.
What role does travel play in your work.
I am a stationary traveler. I’d rather know well one street by walking on it for months than see from a car a whole country in a week. Whenever a friend asks where to go in India my reply is: ‘go to less cities, and stay more days’. I enjoy knowing one place well and feed on the spirit of that place. Varanasi, Tamil Nadu between Chennai and Madurai, and Jodhpur have nourished me for 40 years.
What about J Krishnamurti’s philosophy influenced you?
To free the religious experience from the agenda of religious institutions is an extraordinary feat. J Krishnamurti accomplished that.
How do the places you visit get reflected in your work?
It has been said that you can only see the circle if you step out of it. In every culture there is an element of madness which you can only see if you move away into another. When I travel I write. I notice what recurs and resonates. You can say I hear a place even more than see it.
What are you expecting of your ‘Indian audience’?
When I think of an audience, I think of my fellow artists. One of the reasons the Biennale is so special is because it is conceived and curated by artists.
What has been your most inspiring place work-wise and why?
Varanasi, where what is pure meets what is impure. If you have not seen the Ghats you haven’t met the human kind. I wish an object I made could have the texture and narrative power to reduce all issues to the simple sum of two facts: life and death.
At Aspinwall House, Kochi. Details: kochimuzirisbiennale.org
The interviewer is an independent art writer, based in Delhi