‘In the action I activate an evolving device using sheets of paper and found material. 20.000 sheets of paper are stood on, picked up, left falling on the floor, 7 hours a day for 30 days’.
The action was performed alongside Tobias Allen performance and audio installation: ‘Lament // Complainte’ and Nicolas Woollaston installation: ‘Storming the place’.
With an essay by Andrew Paul wood:
Ivan Lupi stands out as an unusual figure in the Aotearoa art world. Arguably Lupi is one of our most accomplished artists, among our most internationally prolific, but here the artist is little known, probably due to the controversial and confrontational nature of Lupi’s art. Lupi was born in 1972 in Ferrara – a comfortably and complacently bourgeois provincial capital in northern Italy. Its distant artistic heyday was the fifteenth century when the Este ducal court hosted the likes of Mantegna and Perugino. This is not an art history that Lupi particularly identifies with, it being altogether to grandiose and monumental. Lupi is a slow art of the body and performance. Lupi now lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch, likewise with a reputation as a bourgeois and complacent provincial capital.
Although Lupi’s work exists independently of now largely redundant avant-gardes, it nonetheless is nested in a topology of, and shares a genealogy with, twentieth century movements that embraced performance and the body as a rejection of commodifiable object-based practices. Among its forerunners we may include the anarchic performances of Futurism and Dada, Joseph Beuys, and in the 1960s, happenings, the “dematerialisation of the object”, the Fluxus concept of an “event score”, Viennese Actionism and body art in general. In contemporary art we may look to Marina Abramović, Zhang Huan, Abel Azcona, and Janine Antoni. Lupi is conscious of the burden of this history, Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence”, but Lupi’s work is rendered completely contemporary and in the moment by the contexts in which it is performed.
Lupi’s work has been characterised on several occasions by ritualised masochistic suffering, and visceral bodily transgression such as bloodletting. Like fellow Italian displaced in the Anglosphere, Franko B, Lupi’s, performance is often characterised by the ritualised, and occasionally bloody, violation and disintegration of the body (the final dematerialisation of the “body-object” as Franko calls it). Lupi describes this as “re-writing/erasing my body (struggle of identity and reclaiming my skin and denying and rejecting myself at the same time),” though this takes place in conjunction with something more affirming of the physical body: “making my body feel alive and put to good use. (The longer I am doing an action the more I feel my body is useful for a good cause, and I feel present and aware and alive)”.
In some ways Lupi’s work High time appears quite different from the artist’s more transgressive and raw performances, being less confrontational and provocative to public sensibility (no blood or mutilation). It is a long durational installation/performance which took place from 14 July until mid-August 2023, visible for seven uninterrupted hours from 10:00am to 5:00pm every day at 97 Stanmore Road (the Stanmore Block) in Christchurch, visible through the windows from the street (like a Damien Hirst vitrine or Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare), mediating between public and private. The building is located in the inner-city suburb of Linwood in an area with a popular reputation for poverty, panhandling and drug dealing. There is, therefore, a socio-relational evocation of psychogeopraphical suffering and deprivation.
Lupi stands atop stacks of ceiling tiles, repeatedly picking up a sheet of paper or tile in the derelict space, letting it fall at the artist’s own extremely slow, intuitive pace. In the cuboid piles there is a suggestion of the cubes of minimalism, The boundary between life and art is blurred in the ubiquity of the materials and intimation of labour, of paperwork and the cage of mundane convention. For Lupi, art is intimately contiguous with life, Lupi’s art often involving tattooing or bloodletting.
Lupi does not always bleed in performances, but in this case, it is partly a response to the public nature of the place, and change as a principle, a reformatting of an earlier action titled 900 sheets, during the artist’s residency Circadian Rhythm in South Africa in 2016. This involved 900 sheets of paper for the same hour every day for three weeks. “So it might look less visceral,” says Lupi. “But what is visceral in all my work is the need to experience liveness.” Not that Christchurch is any stranger to shocking art. Andrew Drummond crucified himself at the Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA) in 1977 as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival. In High time Lupi greatly expands on 900 sheets, using 20,000 sheets of paper of varying dimensions and found tiles on site.
The aesthetic of High time is, in its way, scientific, a non-religious and ideological sacrifice. “I experience time at its core,” Lupi says of the performance, “because I see the experience as a tool in the understanding of time as a political technology. The audiences I have experienced so far in my career tend to relate more to the content when there are elements of sensuousness. This work has more of a philosophical abstract approach, and I don’t give meanings in my statement. For this reason, it might come across as less approachable and cryptic.” It is a work that creates its own audience, often as an unexpected intervention. “People either come and see it because they read about it, or they stumble across it by chance whilst walking on the street or through their cars or from the buses.” As Marcel Duchamp asserted in The Creative Act (1957): “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
What the denizens of Linwood made of High time is difficult to say, but it covered a broad spectrum. “There were some negative comments on Tik Tok,” says Lupi, “some shouted that I was mentally ill, some cheered, some threw rocks at me, some clapped, some kicked the window and we had to call the police, some mimicked the action, some brought gifts, some complimented me on my way home.” An element of personal risk sometimes comes with this type of event. Sometimes it is even openly courted, as in the work of Burden and Abramović, as a gesture of vulnerability or supplication. Although Lupi isn’t encouraging that in this instance, the artist consciously accepts the risk to a degree. Performance art is about action and reaction, not approval or disapproval, so this therefore this diversity of reactions must be regarded a success.
The durational artist strives to create long takes of presence and duration, while building within those passages a rhythm of presence, absence, and engagement with space. In that sense it is poetic, attempting to measure out time – not with the regular metric of the clock, but the arbitrary experiential, internal time of the artist. Such a performance makes the viewer all the more conscious of their own experience of the passage of time, and its relative nature. It’s repetitive nature and affective engagement with environment and observer suggests some kind of ritualised context in a slow microcosm of reality. High time lacks the direct interaction with audience’s discomfort, such as Bench, presented as part of the 2017 Visualeyez festival of performance art in Edmonton, Canada, where Lupi sat shirtless on a park bench, tattooing themselves with the words “WET PAINT” (a reference to the blood), while inviting passers-by to sit down and engage in conversation. The inside/outside barrier between artist and audience in High time precludes that. The wounds are social constructs.
At its conceptual heart, High time is, as the title alludes to, about time. “So yes, deep time,” asks Lupi, “but is it a ritual? Or does it only have some solemnity of some rituals? It is a reflection on how we make use of our time, wasting it, rushing it, exploiting it, be afraid of etc, instead of thinking about simply experiencing it. Fully understanding the essence of this label we put on change and motion and entropy could be used as a very powerful political technology. So yes, there is a sense of ritualistic repetition, but I make many variations in speed and gestures, to the point that I repeat the picking of paper and found materials, but the aesthetic of the action never looks repeated identically.” Some may find in that a sense of déjà vu and the claustrophobic and repetitive nature of life during Covid lockdown.
Lupi is painting with time and activity. The performance is self-consciously “painterly”. Viennese Actionist Otto Mühl, wrote in his Material Action Manifesto (1964): “…material action is painting that has spread beyond the picture surface. The human body, a laid table or a room becomes the picture surface. Time is added to the dimension of the body and space.” Lupi says of High time: “each long take it equals to one brushstroke and the whole cycle of present and absent moments constitute the final piece. The absence also being perceived as part of the final work. Like in painting when you look at a pointillist work or a Van Gogh let’s say, where you can perceive the rhythm of the composition by reading how many times the brush went onto the canvas and lifted from it.” In High time, the canvas has transitioned from Lupi’s skin to the surface of the carnal world itself, though of course these are all holistically part of the same thing.
Like Sisyphus forever rolling his boulder up and down the mountain, High time is a zero-sum act. The paper and tiles are neither subtracted nor added to. Any order imposed upon the chaos is arbitrary and just as likely to be deconstructed. Nothing changes within the site, it is merely redistributed. Gravity and entropy can be resisted, postponed, but never conquered. There is an elusive and defiant refusal to be defined, controlled or fixed in place, which could stand in good stead as a metaphor for art in general. It would almost seem mechanical were it not so conscious and unpredictable. High time, like much of Lupi’s work, is anti-intentionalist, inviting the audience to project their own interpretations upon it, which in turn, usually reflect social concerns of the day. The audience is forced to take responsibility for their own voyeurism.
“The more I perform [High time],” says Lupi, “the more I can see how the action could be interpreted as pro-environment. The aggression of humankind toward climate change for example. Stacks of paper as if they were ice melting down with us barely balancing on it. And when we learn how to achieve balance, we have no more ground under our feet.” Compare this with Eddie Clemens’ Pink and White Terraces (2000) in which Clemens mocks up, in an arguably Romantic gesture, the legendary Pink and White Terraces of Lake Rotomahana, destroyed in 1886 Tarawera eruption, using only office memo cubes containing pink, white, and blue paper. The jouissance is in the counterpoint of the familiar with the Sublime.
Lupi doesn’t deliberately encode such readings into the work, but the audience’s imagination is part of the whole, and inevitable. As Wittgenstein had it in proposition 7 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.” Reading, or indeed any interpretation, is fundamentally contingent and the experience of being, of existing, cannot be conveyed accurately between people. The language does not exist, and one is reminded of the way in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), Marco Polo attempts to describe a panoply of exotic cities to Kublai Kahn (although really he is only describing his home Venice over and over again: “Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks ,,, Returning from the missions on which Kublai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret…”
There is a kind of dislocated dialogue between Lupi and the audience – a level of connection, even communication, existing simultaneously with the barrier of the glass and a conceptual or comprehension barrier between artist and audience. There is also a temporal disjunction. The artist is there in the action for multiple hours over multiple days. The audience is situational, and only participating (willingly or unwillingly) for as long as they choose to, or have to be present for tangential reasons. There is, perhaps, a vague kinship with Abramović’s The Artist is Present (2010) in which Abramović sat silent and unmoving at a table, during which audience members could take turns sitting opposite her.
The inwardness and concentrated focus of the task is suggestive of a meditative practice, but one of self-punishment. This is a familiar aspect of Lupi’s work. The artist enters a fugue-like state, and the audience is on the other side of the window, at a remove or even ignoring the performance. Like the films and novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, the viewer must piece together meaning for themselves from sparse and fragmentary cues and methodical repetition substitutes for interiority, psychology or biography. Thus, Lupi’s performance is phenomenological in the Heideggerian sense – a profound realism of surface. If Lupi can be said to have themes in performance, they relate to being objectified or othered, from childhood abuse, from the artist’s foreignness as an Italian, or from disability (Lupi was born with a leg asymmetry, which gives added levels to the way the artist balances on various piles in High time.
Lupi puts a complex identity on display to be stared at, working therapeutically through the otherness to recover both from the burden of trauma but also history. How else, were it not for sensation, duration, and the observation of others, would we know we exist? The result is an intimate and powerful action like this one.
About the author (2023)
For nearly two decades cultural mercenary Andrew Paul Wood has been one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s leading writers on matters art-historical and aesthetic. His work has appeared in publications in New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Europe and the US. His range runs the gamut from critically acclaimed translations of the poetry of German-Jewish author Karl Wolfskehl with Friedrich Voit to teasing out the history of the pavlova to international media interest with Annabelle Utrecht. He is art editor fo takahe magazine.