David Coggins interviews Davide Cantoni

Your work deals with current events, history, politics, things that happen in the world. How do you choose what you do? Why are you attracted to it? And, can you talk specifically about some of the work in the show.

All of the images come from the New York Times. This way you get a view of what is published by one of the top news gathering institutions in the world, which has to be a close reflection of what is published as news all around the world. But really what interests me more is what we “see” of this amazing amount of information and then instantly forget. Everyday there’s a new paper, with all new images and new stories, and we have no recollection of what was in the paper three days ago. There are photographs that are memorable, but on the whole, news imagery is instantly discarded.
In a sense there’s a subconscious memory of all this material. Millions of people around the world have seen these images, which are then kind of lost. The remaking of these images brings up questions about how we look, what we focus on… which are the things that we notice… do we not remember because of the sheer volume, or do we want to forget? So, by making the drawings, which are first drawn in pencil and then burned with sunlight through a magnifying glass, there is destruction, the image is almost falling apart… it’s there and not there — often it changes quite dramatically — so that it’s difficult to tell what the original was, particularly in the small drawings. Then there are the paintings, that are made with interference paints which reflect light and from one side reveal the image while from the opposite side they show a negative. You have to actively look for the image, or you can miss it completely. In a way both techniques mimic their original source: photography. The drawings are made with paper exposed to light and the paintings appear as both a negative and a positive. Making the images difficult to see makes you have to look harder. But if you look, you will see. Both kinds of works are about trying to sharpen your vision, and when one succeeds something interesting happens.

The images from the newspaper are taken out of their context — we don’t have a headline or description. And yet at the same time we can read them as newspaper images. Certain images manage to have a documentary feel to them.

The photographers who take these shots are obviously very visually aware, they’re not just clicking at the right time in the right place. Sometimes that happens, but mostly professional photojournalists take amazing photos in extreme situations. And then, once in a while you get photos that are totally out of an art history book: there are Depositions, Pietàs… they look like Renaissance photographs, which of course don’t exist. So I don’t know if people read them instantly as news images. Some more than others, I imagine.

When you re-present these images do you think about how we access information, about how history is told to us?

I am not sure that newspapers really tell us history. They report, and then those events become our history later after going through a “filtering.” I mean it is difficult to see anything as history while you are living it. But something that is very interesting at the moment, which is really all about access to information, is all the copyright issues that the internet and contemporary technology are bringing up for debate. There are very gray areas in the law with regards to image appropriation and what comprises “fair use” in the arts. Music and film seem to have been more closely regulated possibly because the industries were much larger and richer, and I think these debates, if they are resolved in any conclusive way, will have historical consequences on what will be made and how in the future. And my work with these images has direct contact with these debates.

What type of images do you find yourself responding to?

I tend to cut through a whole group of newspapers over a period of four or five hours, so I’ll end up with fifty or sixty images which are all lying on the table. At that point, certain things start to appear as more or less interesting. There’s an impact that I want to transfer to the work. Sometimes it may be a striking image but often the story behind it becomes important to me too.

So you might have something sitting around for years before you actually use it?

Absolutely. That happens quite regularly, although I do try to keep as close to the present as I can. There are many extraordinary images but if I have used them already or they were published too long ago I find it difficult to work with them again…

You’ve worked this way for a number of years. Has the Internet changed the way you get your news? Has it changed your relationship with newspapers?

Apparently we are at the end of the empire of newsprint. Of course I also watch the news on television and check online, both of which give immediate access to information, but that is not exactly useful to what I do in my work. I still like to read the paper to hold it… I like the slowness of print, I know it is there in the pile and that I’ll find it again. Often, as I read the newspaper at home, I think “this could be an interesting picture,” but it usually takes several weeks, if not months, before that newspaper ends up on the cutting table in the studio. In a way this is time that I give myself to remember and of course sometimes to forget some of the images, almost a time to digest them before seeing them again in the studio… they go from being news to becoming inspirational material.

Your work is political, but it has a veneer of neutrality. 111 Years is interesting because it’s graphic and neutral in one sense, but then it also tells a story. How much do you want people to read into it?

I would like people to take their time looking at the work in order to let it grow on them. It is a slow, accumulative work. It was interesting because when I finished making it and then put up the first twenty drawings, I looked at it and I thought that it looked really lightweight, and that I had made a big mistake.

At first it looked too static?

I wasn’t sure that is was going to work. But then, as the drawings piled up it made a big difference… a slow amassing of facts. I don’t know exactly how many million people died in wars in the last hundred years, but we’re talking hundreds of millions. So suddenly I realized that these pieces of paper on the wall, this thin burnt paper, has a huge implication, and the whole piece became quite heavy. It went from looking very thin, wispy, and light, to conveying a lot of information, with a lot of “gravitas.”

Does 111 Years leave us thinking that war is more universal than we’d like to admit?

Well, we are told that we live in a very peaceful time, that we are in the most peaceful decades of the last hundred years. Then you start looking at this work. There have been incredible wars that involved practically the whole world, but when you discount those, there has still been continuous fighting in some countries for more than forty years. Look at Afghanistan, Israel or Colombia, which is effectively in a kind permanent state of civil war, Somalia or the Congo, and the list just goes on and on. According to my drawings it seems to be getting worse, because there are more and more people involved. Maybe the casualties are fewer but there seems to be more fighting going on.

The Flag video uses a powerful symbol that people read different things into. Can you talk about your video, and also your relation to symbols of power, of nationhood… ?

One thing about Flag is that the American flag is the world flag. It’s the one that everyone recognizes everywhere. The majority of the world wants to burn it. Then there’s the two hundred and fifty million Americans who love it to death in a way that I don’t really think happens anywhere else. It says a lot about the American spirit, and the way this country comes together, in a way that’s really unusual. The fact that Americans can rally together is striking, whether it’s fighting in Iraq or against the Taliban, or going to help Haiti. This is something that I think the rest of the world doesn’t understand, this kind of unity that seems to happen here. I am not saying that there is no dissent in the United States but, especially on a governmental level, once a decision has been made, however painfully, then everyone gets behind it. Europeans are more cynical. Here people get pulled into this way of thinking and being. You meet a guy from Bangladesh driving a cab saying “America is the greatest, I love living here!” So, in a sense, Flag is about many different aspects of American culture. The American flag is reviled in many countries, but here if you hold it upside down while walking down the street, people will say, “Hey! don’t be disrespectful.” And, of course, Americans pledge allegiance to the flag, they do it every morning at my children’s school. Then there’s the whole idea of burning the flag, which was, and still is, I think, illegal. But my flag isn’t exactly burning. It burns and then it re pieces itself together, so there’s also something strange going on, which reflects my… I wouldn’t call it ambivalence, but it’s kind of a dual way of looking at the United States… construction… destruction… the way it rebuilds itself when others try to dismantle it. The flag is also standing on its own, there’s no pole, so there’s a fake, artificial element to the whole piece. Maybe the idols are false? And then, is it dawn or is it dusk? There’s a lot of ambiguity about the whole thing, which can be interpreted in many ways. It’s also made in the same aspect ratio as movies, so it refers to cultural imperialism too, and in particular to the world domination of American movies.

And it’s on a loop.

And it’s on a loop. It goes on and on and on. And when the wind dies, it calms down, and then it goes back up, and it’s like, never going to stop.

One thing I like about that is that you can’t tell if it’s the end of an empire, so to speak. That relates to the map project and wars, because one thing that is said about war, is that when the most powerful country resorts to war it represents the beginning of their downfall.

In a way the most powerful country is always and constantly at war whether overtly or covertly. Empires have to do so to maintain the status quo, but it is true that when there is a war that stretches resources beyond capacity 11 we are faced with the end of that empire. We could be living in just such a period and it is certainly true that the wars that America is involved in at the moment are bleeding it dry, but again I am not so sure that it is the end of the empire… we just have to wait and see. This is where the work begins to seep over into politics. The policies of the empire have repercussions that last for decades if not centuries.
All the work obviously has a political side, and I want it to have that. I think for any work to be interesting it has to have some political aspect. I do want people to ask themselves: What am I looking at? What is going on and why? At the same time I don’t want it to be overwhelming, I’m not making politics, I’m making paintings. The works relate to politics, but they have other things to say about painting, about drawing, about photography, about video making.

Striking the right balance in political works is one of the hardest things for an artist to do. Goya did it, of course. What other artists do you think do that well?
Of more contemporary artists Gerhard Richter does that very well. He is always on the fine line of making a comment and at the same time not making a comment, but ultimately his paintings are just as interesting as paintings. Luc Tuymans is also very interesting, he’s a little bit on the subtler side, I think. His paintings seduce with their beauty but leave a slightly bitter taste in the end. I like both these artists’ work very much.

Political work is seen differently depending on where it’s exhibited. If you see the Baader- Meinhof paintings in Germany it’s one thing, in Los Angeles it’s another thing. The piece with the American flag looks one way in Naples and another in New York. How do you feel about that shifting context? And how do you negotiate that?
Well there are certainly different implications, but I think we live in a world which is saturated with information and it’s becoming smaller and smaller. So, it is different showing it in Naples and showing it in New York or Buenos Aires for that matter, but I think, not as alien as it would have been twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. In the end, whoever comes to see it brings something, and you never know what that’s going to be.

Can you describe the galaxy project?
I’ve done a few drawings of suns, moons and galaxies. I was imagining what I would do if I had a huge space to create something—it would have to be something impressive. So, I thought I would build a galaxy. I have been doing some research into materials so that I could actually build a galaxy. As we are talking about this I am thinking that it would be interesting to have 111 Years in one room, and next to it in a pitch black room, there’s the galaxy, just sitting there, blinking. There’s a contrast between the politics and the wars of our planet and the the rest of the universe! But this project is in its very early infancy! Actually we are still pre Big Bang!!

Can you talk about how you burn your drawings? That’s an important part of what you do. How did you begin using that technique, and what does it means to you?
It was in 1997, I had just moved to New York and I was looking at images from the newspaper and I started making small drawings— the same scale as they were published in the newspaper. I was making these drawings on tracing paper and then putting them aside. I bought a magnifying lens because I was making a painting of a marble, a kid’s marble, so I wanted to look at it properly. And then I had the lens, and it was a sunny day, and I had just finished one of these drawings, I thought, well, the sun should burn where the pencil is, but not where the white, or the paper is. Obviously it works, the black absorbs the heat and catches fire, whereas the white reflects, it’s amazing that you can focus the light on the white paper and nothing happens.
I’ll show you the first drawing, it was just a squiggle. I thought “this is interesting.” Then after I’d done a few I thought, “this actually makes complete sense,” it’s light on paper, which is the same stuff as photography, and here we have these photographs disappearing every day and now that they are burnt, almost destroyed, they are also saved from oblivion.

In the paintings there’s a sense of discovery of an image. I read in the Times that we see faces out of very little information. We’ll find a face in a cloud of smoke, for instance. They suggest that it goes back thousands of years—that it was important to read a face on another creature because it could be attacking you.
We’re so highly skilled at looking at other people, and reading expressions… I like the idea that while you are struggling to see one of my paintings you may be tapping into something primordial in your subconscious.

Going back to the nature of newspaper images. They serve a purpose and then they kind of evaporate. When we see an image today it describes the world as we know it and then over time it loses its relevance. The half-life of one of these images can be very short.
Right. After a while, when they’re taken out of context you have no idea what they were about. One of the things I think about is that the people in these photographs exist. In many cases the plight of these people is completely forgotten—they were front page news and now they’re still somewhere… existing. Looking at a picture of someone who was in the newspaper maybe six months ago, I wonder what their life is like now, and whether they’re even still alive.