Gian Maria Tosatti: "with my work I try to understand why democracy dies in our hands"


Interview with Gian Maria Tosatti about his latest project, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm, on the crisis of democracy and the demise of Western civilization.

Until July 25, 2021, Gian Maria Tosatti (Rome, 1980), one of the most interesting artists of his generation, is present in Istanbul with his project Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm - ???????????????????????????????-?????????????????, or “My Heart is Empty as a Mirror - Istanbul Episode.” The project, presented by The Blank Contemporary Art in Bergamo and Depo in Istanbul, in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, is realized with the support of Italian Council. At the center of Tosatti’s reflection is the crisis of democracy and the consequent disappearance of Western civilization, born in the Athens of Pericles. In 2018, the artist began a pilgrimage around the world that took him to different cities and countries with the goal of portraying the complexity of their current state. Each work created through this process represents an episode within an ideal visual novel, where visions, prophecies and reality are indistinguishable. The resulting work is a body of work that was created after many years of research. We caught up with the artist to elaborate on the contents of the project. The interview is by Ilaria Baratta.

Gian Maria Tosatti
Gian Maria Tosatti

IB. Since 2018 she has been engaged in a complex project that has taken her around the world: a large fresco composed of different cities through which she intends to narrate the crisis of democracy and the disappearance of Western civilization. To the complex project that is still ongoing, she has given it a title that I would call hermetic: what does My Heart is Empty as a Mirror mean? The title translated from the original into Yiddish: why this choice?

GT. Actually the phrase from which the title is taken has its original in Swedish and is spoken in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. These words are spoken by the knight Antonius Blok, a man who will be my age and who returns home after fulfilling what for the culture and morality of his time was his duty, which was a Crusade. And when death catches up with him, he asks for a few more days to understand what it is about this life that is slipping from his hands and that he feels he has not lived at all. Sometimes, in fact, as St. Teresa dvila said, we live outside of ourselves, outside of our soul and our heart remains empty, unused. If we look inside, its emptiness reflects who we are. And this applies not only to individuals, but it applies to peoples. I am forty-one years old, I belong to the generation that united Europe and today governs it, to the generation that today has the power to determine the future. But where do we stand? Let’s look into the heart of our creatures, let’s look into the heart of Europe, which does not even have a constitution and, instead, has pseudo-dictatorial states and even real decades-long wars within it. We look at the way we are still avoiding settling our colonial scores, making pacts with non-European dictatorships that torture and often kill men and women who try to reach countries that years ago imposed on them the language in which they express themselves and the god they believe in. I don’t want to talk about the past though. Let’s talk about us. Who are we today? What is in the heart of our generation. When I think about it honestly, Antonius Blok’s phrase comes to mind, and so, it ended up being the title of this great field survey of my Europe today, our Europe, our cultural community. Yiddish, which is the language in which I translated the phrase for the title and statement of this project is a language in which, as Isaac B. Singer said, a military order has never been pronounced. If it is true that language is theinfrastructure of thought, I think we should also start choosing the languages we speak to really say what we want.

Your projects, which often span several years, focus primarily on the concept of identity, both politically and spiritually. What gave rise to the idea for this long project you have been working on since 2018? Was it inspired by anything in particular? This is then divided into various chapters and sections; with the latest episode, the Istanbul episode, you have completed the Diptych of Trauma: what do you mean by this other significant title?

In 2018 I thought that I didn’t feel like wasting the little time I have chasing other people’s proposals and commissions. I decided to focus all my research on a project that really invested my interest. And so I started this pilgrimage to make a portrait of our cultural community. Making portraits is the first task of an artist. The portrait is the mirror that reveals the soul of the subject. And mine tries to be a great collective self-portrait, a generational self-portrait. And if it is true that the history of art is the true history of humanity, the history of its thoughts, its values, its dreams, the history of its spirit, then I think my first duty is to fill in this page of our history. And I do it at a very delicate moment. It is the moment when we realize how the chimera of democracy that we have pursued since the beginning of our civilization (in the Athens of Pericles) once achieved, is dying in our hands. Why? This is what I have been asking for years to each of the men and women I meet in former colonial Africa, in the countries of the Union or on the borders of the West, as I have been doing in Istanbul these past months.

Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş - İstanbul Bölümü (“Il mio cuore  vuoto come uno specchio  Episodio di Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) e Depo (Istanbul), in collaborazione con l'Istituto Italiano di Cultura a Istanbul, un progetto realizzato grazie al sostegno dell'Italian Council (7a Edizione, 2019), programma di promozione internazionale dell'arte contemporanea italiana della Direzione Generale Creativit Contemporanea del Ministero della Cultura
Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm (“My Heart is Empty as a Mirror Episode of Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) and Depo (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, a project realized thanks to the support of the Italian Council (7th Edition, 2019), a program for the international promotion of Italian contemporary art of the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture


Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş - İstanbul Bölümü (“Il mio cuore  vuoto come uno specchio  Episodio di Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) e Depo (Istanbul), in collaborazione con l'Istituto Italiano di Cultura a Istanbul, un progetto realizzato grazie al sostegno dell'Italian Council (7a Edizione, 2019), programma di promozione internazionale dell'arte contemporanea italiana della Direzione Generale Creativit Contemporanea del Ministero della Cultura
Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm (“My Heart is Empty as a Mirror Episode of Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) and Depo (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, a project realized thanks to the support of the Italian Council (7th Edition, 2019), a program of international promotion of Italian contemporary art of the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture


Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş - İstanbul Bölümü (“Il mio cuore  vuoto come uno specchio  Episodio di Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) e Depo (Istanbul), in collaborazione con l'Istituto Italiano di Cultura a Istanbul, un progetto realizzato grazie al sostegno dell'Italian Council (7a Edizione, 2019), programma di promozione internazionale dell'arte contemporanea italiana della Direzione Generale Creativit Contemporanea del Ministero della Cultura
Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm (“My Heart is Empty as a Mirror Episode of Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) and Depo (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, a project realized thanks to the support of the Italian Council (7th Edition, 2019), a program of international promotion of Italian contemporary art of the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture


Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş - İstanbul Bölümü (“Il mio cuore  vuoto come uno specchio  Episodio di Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) e Depo (Istanbul), in collaborazione con l'Istituto Italiano di Cultura a Istanbul, un progetto realizzato grazie al sostegno dell'Italian Council (7a Edizione, 2019), programma di promozione internazionale dell'arte contemporanea italiana della Direzione Generale Creativit Contemporanea del Ministero della Cultura
Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm (“My Heart is Empty as a Mirror Episode of Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) and Depo (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, a project realized thanks to the support of the Italian Council (7th Edition, 2019), a program of international promotion of Italian contemporary art of the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture


Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş - İstanbul Bölümü (“Il mio cuore  vuoto come uno specchio  Episodio di Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) e Depo (Istanbul), in collaborazione con l'Istituto Italiano di Cultura a Istanbul, un progetto realizzato grazie al sostegno dell'Italian Council (7a Edizione, 2019), programma di promozione internazionale dell'arte contemporanea italiana della Direzione Generale Creativit Contemporanea del Ministero della Cultura
Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm (“My Heart is Empty as a Mirror Episode of Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) and Depo (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, a project realized thanks to the support of the Italian Council (7th Edition, 2019), a program of international promotion of Italian contemporary art of the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture


Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş - İstanbul Bölümü (“Il mio cuore  vuoto come uno specchio  Episodio di Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) e Depo (Istanbul), in collaborazione con l'Istituto Italiano di Cultura a Istanbul, un progetto realizzato grazie al sostegno dell'Italian Council (7a Edizione, 2019), programma di promozione internazionale dell'arte contemporanea italiana della Direzione Generale Creativit Contemporanea del Ministero della Cultura
Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm (“My Heart is Empty as a Mirror Episode of Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) and Depo (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, a project realized thanks to the support of the Italian Council (7th Edition, 2019), a program of international promotion of Italian contemporary art of the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture


Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş - İstanbul Bölümü (“Il mio cuore  vuoto come uno specchio  Episodio di Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) e Depo (Istanbul), in collaborazione con l'Istituto Italiano di Cultura a Istanbul, un progetto realizzato grazie al sostegno dell'Italian Council (7a Edizione, 2019), programma di promozione internazionale dell'arte contemporanea italiana della Direzione Generale Creativit Contemporanea del Ministero della Cultura
Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm (“My Heart is Empty as a Mirror Episode of Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) and Depo (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, a project realized thanks to the support of the Italian Council (7th Edition, 2019), a program of international promotion of Italian contemporary art of the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture


Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş - İstanbul Bölümü (“Il mio cuore  vuoto come uno specchio  Episodio di Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) e Depo (Istanbul), in collaborazione con l'Istituto Italiano di Cultura a Istanbul, un progetto realizzato grazie al sostegno dell'Italian Council (7a Edizione, 2019), programma di promozione internazionale dell'arte contemporanea italiana della Direzione Generale Creativit Contemporanea del Ministero della Cultura
Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm (“My Heart is Empty as a Mirror Episode of Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) and Depo (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, a project realized thanks to the support of the Italian Council (7th Edition, 2019), a program of international promotion of Italian contemporary art of the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture


Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş - İstanbul Bölümü (“Il mio cuore  vuoto come uno specchio  Episodio di Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) e Depo (Istanbul), in collaborazione con l'Istituto Italiano di Cultura a Istanbul, un progetto realizzato grazie al sostegno dell'Italian Council (7a Edizione, 2019), programma di promozione internazionale dell'arte contemporanea italiana della Direzione Generale Creativit Contemporanea del Ministero della Cultura
Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Bo? - ?stanbul Blm (“My Heart is Empty as a Mirror Episode of Istanbul”), The Blank Contemporary Art (Bergamo) and Depo (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute in Istanbul, a project realized thanks to the support of the Italian Council (7th Edition, 2019), a program of international promotion of Italian contemporary art of the General Directorate of Contemporary Creativity of the Ministry of Culture

And it tried to respond with this project as well. After Catania, Riga, Cape Town and Odessa, each episode with its own theme, he chose to focus on the situation in Istanbul, dedicated to the destruction of ancient buildings to build newer and more modern ones, with all its consequences. Can you tell us about the themes of each city featured in the episodes made so far, dwelling in particular on the last one, the one in Istanbul, made in the old Kurdish quarter? According to what criteria do you choose the cities to which you dedicate an episode of the project? Do you already have any ideas about the next ones?

Catania was thepisode of the Mediterranean. Sicily is part of Italy, it’s true, but because of its history and location it is, first of all, a large island in the middle of the sea that connected the oldest civilizations of the West and that today has become a mass grave, a place of unprecedented and constant violence that we tolerate and allow. This makes us allies of death. If we remove the thousand political justifications from the mirror this is what we see, men working in the service of death. Camus would say that this makes us dead men in the first place. That is what the Cataniapisode was talking about. Riga, on the other hand, was talking about the disappearance of our body politic that is the foundation of the democratic state. In many countries, the public space is disappearing, and this is a foreshadowing of the disappearance of those places where we exercise our rights and duties as a community. That is where the state exists, in the squares where we discuss, in the places where we gather. In the solitude of homes, in front of our televisions, instead, there is only the desert as Pasolini said. And our computers only give us the impression that we are interacting more. In reality we become more and more passive. It is from a computer screen that the sinking of a dinghy seems tolerable to us. In Cape Town, I tried to focus on this indifference, this becoming strangers to everything and everyone, until we also find ourselves strangers to ourselves. The history of that country allowed me to go very deep in this sense. Lopera reopened a wound that had never really closed. And then, in Odessa, I ended up on the shore of a lake that has no horizon. And there the only thing I could talk about was the end of our species. In Ukraine we had a dress rehearsal with Chernobyl. They were not enough for us. We continue even stronger than before. We often read in the newspapers that we would be destroying the planet. Actually the planet will do just fine. We are only destroying our own species. And the world after us will still be there, more beautiful and more flourishing, as Giorgio Caproni wrote. The last episode I made in Istanbul. Six years of work. It is in the Kurdish neighborhood of Tarlabasi. A vital place that is being razed for many reasons. I tried to put myself in the perspective of those who see their homes, their history, disappearing for a supposed progress that, once again, does not see human life as the main value. After Istanbul, with my studio, we have episodes scheduled until 2025 and then we will move on. The next ones will be in Russia and Jerusalem, two other highly conflicting places. I should be in Russia now, in fact, but I was arrested by theFSB (former KGB) during one of the study phases of the opera a few days ago and sent back home. We are making arrangements to leave again. And finally, we are working on building the double stage in Turin and Paris. There is a long way ahead of us.

Basic principle on which the whole project is based, from what you have stated, is that Europe is anything but a confederation of states living in peace and prosperity, but the truth, you say, “is quite different...”

It seems to me that between what we say we are and what we are there is a great distance. The task of the artist is to always step back from every belief, every position, every personal perspective and make the cruelest and truest portrait of what he sees. Even if this is hateful to him. The Greek tragedians did not speak of what they thought was right, but of what was. That is why we still read them today. THE Europe I am portraying is not the one of the handshakes between Von der Leyen and Draghi or between Merkel and Macron. I go for my portraits where there are no stage sets, blue cardboard walls, flags and pennants. I go, like the directors of Italian neorealism, where blood flows and where unfortunately it is often spilled. I observe all this with a feeling of defeat that is not final, however. The concept of crisis, in fact, has to do with an uncertain fate, with the possibility of succumbing, yes, but also of reacting, rising up, changing. After Germany Year Zero, the story of that people is not over. I strongly believe in the power that art has to make us perceive reality down to the deepest layers of being, to make us feel its intolerability down to our nerves, to push us to change, to improve, to put an end to the image of ourselves that we no longer tolerate.