Dreams and Nightmares: In Conversation with Reverie

“I risked falling into ‘too much’ and showing in excess because of my constant production,” she says. Now, she is ready for the grand finale.

Reverie, “Sogno 3. La camera degli specchi.” Triennale Milano Teatro, FOG 2022. Letizia Mugri

Being a woman is still something to deal with today. And it is not commonplace to declare it. Especially these days, after what just happened, for instance, in the US. When I think about the conceptual impact that your solo exhibition in the beautiful venue of San Celso in Milano had, the hanging colored sculptures made in ceramics immediately — “Oggetti da Sogno” — come into my mind. Were those works thought site specifically for the church? Can you please tell me about that new body of work?

I don’t want to think about my work from the point of view of -isms but I recognize a dominant female eye in the moments when I approach the themes of my art in progress. I am pleased that you mention the current American situation and in general the female body.

It is a nightmare of our world that is not civilized at all and in part the “Secondo oggetto da sogno,” which we will talk about later, can make itself a small-big sign and signal.

Often my body has been stained by the will of others and I have always fought in my existence to claim its autonomy.

I work with my body in an urgent daily dialogue, even if now I no longer recognize myself: perhaps because of this constant relationship that many of my dream visions and therefore ceramic works, which arise from these, have to do with the body.

The “Quinto oggetto da sogno,” a site-specific artwork created for the exhibition in four unique pieces of pop colors and one in platinum, derives from a nightmare of illness. I wanted to emphasize the disease of the spine through ceramic works made, vertebra by vertebra by hand, and which could be mobile in the supporting structure thanks to a copper tube that allows the work itself to change shape – any way you want.

During the exhibition I chose to represent a [spine with] scoliosis, lordosis, an excessively straight spine and a naturally correct one, but the movement possibilities for these works are endless.

I wanted them to be characterized by attractive colors so that they could appeal the viewer’s eye despite their original negative meaning.

But everyone can see what she/he wants.

Reverie, “sogno fisico”, unique piece in black and white, modified by hand. Courtesy the artist.

In your exhibition, “Il Corpo dei Sogni” (The body of dreams) — that closed its doors at the end of May, but that will open soon up for new steps in your career and exhibitions — you made a very personal tribute to the city of Milano, by showing an inner side of yourself. Some hidden topics are revealed only through dreams. And dreams are your main source of inspiration here. Dreams were, in fact, unveiled for the first time during a touching performance in 2020, at Palazzina Liberty, where you became “Sogno 2: The sleeping muse,” a spokesperson for other people’s dreams. What are the steps that brought you to the San Celso exhibition?

I usually work using cycles: I choose a topic to investigate for a long period of time which becomes the preferred alphabet for reading the present. The performance you mention was the second one of these journeys. It all started with a bronze work with grafts of nature, which gave the title to the whole project and continued with the texts of the dreams of the public collected also during the months of the lockdown and which I opened for the first time: I sang these a cappella on the stage of the Palazzina Liberty and they will materialize in an artist album that I am recording together with seven different composers with whom I have created the ten musical pieces that summarize the entire project.

Surely every “Sogno” performance was part of this piece by passing through “Sogno 3: La camera degli specchi” for FOG 2021 at the Milan Triennale and to the “Sogno 4: Alba lunare” for the Montelupo Museum which then acquired the synthesis artwork from performance, up to the “Sogno 5: Icarus,” which will take its risky flight in the sky of Naples and will be the final performance of the entire cycle and of which I have told a lot through the artworks on display in Milan, dedicated to the queer protagonist of this project.

Referring to the title of the exhibition, I chose to speak of a single ‘body’ despite the choral nature of dreams, because I wanted to underline the multiple facets and interpretations of a single contemporaneity: a fragile but at the same time strong body, which is aware of the risk of death constantly but who takes charge of his ills as wounds to be healed in the sun.

If this is the mirror of us women and men of today? It is certainly a positivistic view of a collective “evil of living” (“male di vivere”).  

Reverie, “Il corpo dei sogni”, solo show at Basilica di San Celso, Milano, May 2022. Photo Letizia Mugri.

The dialogue within the space is very important. Each work was a trace of a very touching and meditative path. How did you approach a space like this church?

As happens with my artworks that arise from my writing texts in parallel to a strong work of imagination with open eyes during which the work ‘speaks’ to me and shows me how it wishes to be born, also in this case there was a vision immediate, spontaneous. With my eyes open, I visualized everything the first time I set foot in the Basilica di San Celso and how I thought of it so it materialized. Since this is the final and summary exhibition dedicated to the “dream cycle” that I have carried on for many years and which is coming to an end, I risked falling into too much and showing in excess because of my constant production. I so firmly believed in my original vision and that the right number of works could not only live the space while respecting it but tell this path to the fullest. The works dedicated to “Icaro” were unpublished and made in 2021 in progress towards the performance that I will do in Naples in 2022 and which will definitively close this cycle, while the central ceramics I have created specifically for the exhibition. It was a long eight-month work to be able to give life to these mobile spinal columns and try to do it in the best possible way to satisfy the rêverie of the work itself.

As a final touch, you installed a new artwork on the left side of the altar: it is a beautiful sculpture of an Icaro that you described as “the queer protagonist of the dream’s body.” This winged body faced another work, that was hanging on the top of the entrance of the church, and under the altar, it was supported by a series of your “Clessidre senza tempo” (Timeless hourglasses). How did you create this sort of holy triptych?

The first time I entered San Celso I imagined “Icaro contemporaneo” on the altar with its red wings and nails and the back of all of us carrying the weight of our lives, celebrating life through death and rebirth. In Italian, despite the apparently masculine gender of the name and adjective and the history of the myth, I usually use the feminine article: it is in fact a genderless subject that represents us in-depth, a young woman with prostheses instead of arms that chooses to live, this is the wings’ meaning.

I am grateful to Alessandro Albanese, the parish priest, and the LAQ association for giving me the opportunity to make my wish come true. I was then able to exhibit the biography of this queer figure, a work formed by a World War II parachute modified by hand from a central satin insert with an inscription (the incipit of their story), in front of the sculpture, or hanging under the rose window of the Basilica. To frame this dialogue I placed 13 “Timeless Hourglasses,” in the number of the death anathema: unlike the “Icaro” themed works (of which a third was positioned laterally in a structure of mirrors) created site specific for the exhibition, the hourglasses centered on the theme of the memento mori and the positivity of life always through the reflection on death. In their impossible egg shape, designed by me always identical, they each contain, as unique pieces, different elements: the crown of thorns, evaporated water, bone meal, congealed blood, sanitizer, incense, partially consumed Jewish Church candles, ground, reworked dried roses, ash and copper leaf, a moth, pomegranate grains, broken mirrors on which phrases related to the main theme were engraved … the profound meaning of this form is not simply the impossibility of being moved and satisfying their common function but above all the fact that for me Time is a presence of our existences and therefore, given its being body, it can never go back on itself and be turned upside down. I don’t believe in ‘panta rei’.

Reverie, “Il corpo dei sogni”, solo show at Basilica di San Celso, Milano, May 2022. Photo Letizia Mugri.

The exhibition had also a sculpture that the audience have to find in a very specific place. As a final surprise. The meaning of this gesture takes back to the first body of work. Is it still related to dreams, or another message?

As you said at the beginning, being a woman in today’s world (and not just in today’s art world) is a matter to be dealt with every day and paradoxically even more in the present. The “Oggetto da sogno” that you mention, that is the emerald-colored uterus that I decided to place inside the confessional of the consecrated church, was born years ago from a personal nightmare of mine also collected in the “librosogni” (published by Skira) and is part of that intimate vein: a personal story through ceramics. “Fragile as pottery.” I chose this material to give body to the intangible: deciding to shape some dream visions and thus give them life so that they could then be exorcised through the lives and experiences of everyone and not just mine. For me, that artwork intimately tells of an impossibility of having children, of a lack of femininity, of abuses suffered… it is my open wound that the shell and the pearl remember, that the nails imprinted on the wax remember and that my scars will remember always. While for the external eye, it can come to represent the beauty of life and the origin of the world. This is the strength of Arte and I am only a channel. I do not exist.

Rossella Farinotti is an Italian art critic, curator and writer, the co-author of the film encyclopedia Il Farinotti, contributor to Flash Art Italia, Exibart, Mymovies and Zero, and the author of “il Quadro che visse due volte” (Morellini Publishing, 2013).