Interview with Monica Argentino

Monica Argentino was born and lives in Rome. She is a multifaceted artist who works with different artistic mediums, painting, video art and body art. Her artistic research brings to the surface what is not visible and wants to give the visitor the possibility, in the observation, to offer insights, causing intimate and recognizable feelings.

Monica Argentino ©Monica Argentino

Francesca Della Ventura(FDV): Who is Monica Argentino the artist? What has been your path? How do you approach the different artistic mediums you work with?

Monica Argentino (MA): I was born in Rome in 1970 and my artistic training was mainly self-taught, although after following a scientifically oriented course of study, I decided to take a further diploma in Illustrative Graphics, where I was noted for my special skills as a colourist. In the 1990s I made my debut with my first collective exhibition “Illustrativa 91” (1991) at the Casa della Cittá-Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Rome. Painting and drawing has always been my passion since childhood and also a safe place to take refuge in difficult moments. I have always intimately felt the need to express my emotions through artistic expression and with it find answers to my conflicts. As a child, I didn’t stop at the visible, but searched for the invisible, imagining and seeing a different world in patches of water or trying to see inside a wardrobe a door that would transport me to other worlds, and this perhaps continues to be the object of my desires. With my works, I try to empathise with the viewer and ignite a flame, an emotion, an astonishment. My artistic research is linked to bringing to the surface what is not visible and giving the visitor the possibility of offering food for thought while observing, provoking intimate and recognisable feelings. My art making is instinctive and would like to ignite a strong stimulus in the person I meet. Over the years, having approached different artistic mediums allows me to express and talk about everything in an in-depth and ‘personal’ way, both in terms of aspects linked to my spiritual sphere and those specifically linked to society and its customs. I feed on the many different paths I have taken, and when I paint I enter my inner world and give it back to those who look at me through my performances. Video art was the last experimentation I approached, with curiosity but also with scepticism because I did not know if it would be close to my feelings, since I am for ‘matter’, for getting my hands dirty, and such a modern and cold medium made me doubtful. But, on the other hand, I knew that to describe some of my “visions” it would be necessary to stop them and film them. The result was very satisfying and I changed my mind, in fact several awards arrived for “Involucro” which was my first short film. Ideas always come to me, either in my mind or from what is around me. I usually work them out on different levels to try to make my intuition as explicit as possible by “colouring” it, trying to reproduce the content and not the image as it is. For this reason, even though I started from figurative art, I am an illustrator and I began with comic strips and illustrations for children, through continuous experimentation I have created my own style of emotional painting, declining it also on the body, making its understanding powerful and empathetic. Our imperfect nature and its contradictions. A path where the tragic condition of life is characterised by the dichotomy between Good and Evil, Love and Hate. In one of my latest projects “Alterazioni Opera Vitae”, presented in artist residency from 17 to 26 August 2020 within the Review of artistic events “Sant’Oreste in Rete Percorsi e Tracce per un nuovo stile di vita e cultura” sponsored by the Municipality of Sant’Oreste (Rm) and funded by the Lazio Region, I wanted to capture and dissect the weaknesses, disharmonies and intimate feelings of the human race, digging deep into all the problems of the soul, the dark world of its passions, its instinctive drives, the tension determined by the clash between spirit and matter. Within the overall work, made up of performances, video art and painting, there is also a painting made with human prints on which I subsequently intervened with paint, a tribute to Yves Klein’s Anthropometries, which was exhibited at the Museo Pinacoteca of Palazzo Caccia Canali. The human prints, created as part of a performance, evoke matter in its most concrete aspect and yet with their undefined form, far from any realistic representation, they become the intermediary between the body and the spirit, the material and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible. To describe what lies beyond the real and what lies within the tenacious resistance of the visible. My design is to lay bare the false myths of human omnipotence dictated by modern society, to recognise its crisis and to restore through art the possibility of new values and new desires.

Alterazioni, Performance, ©Monica Argentino
“Involucro”, cortometraggio ©Monica Argentino

FDV: I was very impressed by your short film “Involucro”, which has already been awarded on several occasions: it received the critics’ prize at the International Biennial of Art of Bari Metropolitan Area – Bibart Biennale 2018-2019; it was the winner for Rome Art Week 2019 week of Contemporary Art in Rome for Miami New Media Festival where it was presented in November 2019 at DORCAM Doral Contemporary Art Museum in Miami – Florida. What are the difficulties one encounters in talking about the world of drag queens in Italy – I am convinced that the topic is still taboo in our country, while in others, for a cultural and historical issue, it is not so and even works that tell the world of disguise are more easily exposed and sold…

MA: “Involucro” is a short film that is very dear to me, born from a nocturnal “vision” and from the desire to scream through images the uniqueness of every Human Being precisely in his diversity. By leaving space for images, through visual language, we want to make familiar and legitimise the connotation of the individual as such, with its own value and recognition without distinction of class, gender, colour or sexual orientation. Involucro describes the conflicts of a Drag Queen, male and heterosexual who, in a society like ours stigmatised according to certain roles and conformed canons, explores the difficult expression of individual freedom of choice and self-determination of one’s own body. Through changes of clothing, make-up, body expressions and moods, the protagonist finally arrives at the serene awareness of being HISSELF. To play the role of Involucro I specifically chose a dear friend of mine, a heterosexual man, a well-known Roman drag queen, Monique de Torbell (stage name) because with the look of her multifaceted soul I was sure she would give the right value to such an important message. I believe that in our country there is still a lot of work to be done to overcome discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and unfortunately, witnessing so many feminicides, I’m afraid that male chauvinist thinking is very rooted in our society, still patriarchal. We have obtained equal rights with men, thanks to feminist political struggles, but women are still subject to abuse and episodes of inequality in the workplace, but also in everyday social and family life. A great deal of my artistic production is dedicated to issues related to gender violence and gender equality. My solo exhibition in 2017 “Chimera: the forms of evil” is dedicated to violence against women and their psychological dependence on the perpetrator. Through art, I wanted to give voice to a loneliness, which is often an accomplice of violence to try to find the root to be healed with the community. I went on with my work developing the Performance “Flowerincage” taken from my Body To Art project, presenting it also on the occasion of the week of art against violence against women at the V Festival delle Arti di Ferrara in 2018. I have recently exhibited two works of stylised female nudes, collected in my WoMen series, in an erotic Boutique “Mondi Possibili”, which is one of the very few (maybe 2 in Rome) present in our territory, created with similar characteristics to those abroad. The shop window is illuminated and set up like any other shop, it is visible from the street and no longer hidden in dark and inaccessible rooms; the goods are displayed and well presented to give the customer the possibility to feel at ease and protected. I particularly wanted my WoMen to be there, they are dedicated to the generative force of Woman, the Great Mother, to her capacity for resilience, depicting her as a sort of Lilith, a symbol of female emancipation that does not submit to the male. For three years I was part of a queer and feminist art collective, full of performances of various specialties, as a painter and body painter, staging a choral work that was born as a project in support of Genderotica Festival. Especially in this historical period with the arrival of the pandemic, we should have analysed life from a different perspective, from a broader point of view, and finally see the interconnection of all existing beings.

Deja Vu, Body to Art, performance, ©Monica Argentino

FDV: You said that you have dedicated yourself to body art. Can you tell us a little about your “Body to Art” project? I was very struck by this sentence of yours commenting on your work: “Contemporary society tends more and more to put in the background the centrality of the human being and his value, trying to homologate him in a thought of globalization, while every subject is Unique and Unrepeatable”.

MA: “Body To Art” Project Performance Human Body art/video installation/music are performances of Human painting, as I defined them, putting the Human and not the body in interaction with video projections and sound. A project of contamination between various artistic languages to trigger in the spectator a reflection made of forms, images, bodies and sounds. Within Body to Art I have developed many performances, all dedicated to social themes or linked to an inner quest. Communicating through the body and colour, empathising with the subject I am painting, creates a tangible energy that is a powerful driver of my intention. After all, body painting is an ancient artistic expression and was born as an external reflection of an internal need. One of my first works was on myself, with a self-painting that I called “Beyond the Body”, in a sort of catharsis between me and my painting, the body becomes expressive material and a territory of identity research. Body To Art wants to represent the body freed from stereotypes of beauty, symbolising through transformation, both physical and emotional change, returning to the research of making visible beyond the resistant persistence of material reality. In the artistic project, models are painted, but also and above all the bodies of “normal” people with common aesthetic canons, claiming the body and its great strength as a vehicle for social messages and performances as a moment of profound investigation of the self. It is a unique project of its kind, as the painting of the body is carried out entirely live in a limited time frame, where I can produce satisfying images aimed at raising the viewer’s awareness. It stems from the desire to convey social messages through the overbearing strength of a body, so by choice I want to celebrate different forms and physiques, to facilitate the process of identification of the viewer. Among the most emotionally charged performances is “Dejà vu”, presented together with the short film of the same title, premiered at RAW- Roma Art Week 2019 RAW, a work on memory and memories inspired by Alzheimer’s disease. As a ferryman there is the identification of the painted body as a doll, closed in a world of abandoned rooms, crumbling houses, shattered glasses of giant windows, where only perfume bottles can be seen intact, visible in the short film that acts as a setting for the performance. The dolls embody the link between a forgotten life and the last shattered attachment to reality, as demonstrated by the effects of Britt Marie Egedius Jakobsson’s Doll-therapy. While the perfumes in the video that acts as a backdrop to the performance represent childhood smells that live in our minds forever, taking on the appearance of a half-open door, the powerful link to an emotional past that we resort to in order to bring back those happy moments. A dreamlike work that tries to capture and stop the sensations of past and future nostalgia. Déjà vu – video art is present at “Restart Project” -Bibart International Art Biennial and Eye’s Walk digital Festival- Italy Greece 2020 Ultimately, with the creative experience I would like to return to the human being its centrality, its value, against a contemporary society that lives for consumption, where everything is transformed into goods, where everything is consumed quickly, in a homogenizing mechanism that encloses man in a cage of indistinct beings. An age where it is no longer important to distinguish oneself from the group, but to conform to it, if only for fear of being excluded, while not being like others is synonymous with diversity, and different is never negative. Every man, although situated in a historicity, representative of a culture, of traditions and conditioning, with his personal component and qualities and specificity is different from all the others, from every other, because of an unrepeatable freedom. It is impossible to reduce man to a scheme. Every human being is unique and unrepeatable.

Human archetype, performance, ©Monica Argentino

FDV: In the beautiful critical text you sent me, I was struck by two things: one is a sort of “manifesto” of yours on what art is needed today, a very interesting perspective; the other is on the importance of bringing very young children closer to art…

MA: Art is a ‘form of cure’, a true health care, indispensable for cultural and individual growth. A preferential, direct, archaic and modern channel to quickly transform a crisis into an opportunity and create awareness. In this society where the preference is for spoken and written communication, it would be important to recover a language made up of shapes and colours. In fact, while words imply a verbalisation of discomfort, they can lie, forget, mislead the concept, images are immediate, authentic, starting from the depths and do not create barriers of defence. Bringing children closer to art in all its forms (visual arts, dance, theatre) is therefore not only recommended but recommended. Encouraging creativity and expression, helps develop communication skills, has a positive impact on their cognitive and emotional development. Developing emotional intelligence can help us overcome situations of marginalisation and transform destructive behaviour into creative processes. Art and culture in general can do a lot to facilitate the dissemination and understanding of positive messages, enter into relationships and have an impact at a social level to restore dignity.

Ultimately, only culture and art can generate a freer and more aware humanity.

FDV: What is it like living in Rome as an artist and what has changed in recent years?

MA: I am very attached to Rome, but despite my love for it, I find that living there is becoming more difficult every day, especially as an artist. We don’t have common spaces where we can share, we are very far from the ferment of the 60s and 70s, for example. Art must speak to society, it should be in the midst of people, it should belong to everyone and for everyone. Instead, society no longer seems to know it after artists leave the Academies or the school system, and seems to be pulling out of it, and in fact we are considered “invisible” by the State. The state does not support those who want to pursue a career in art, unlike other countries (France, Belgium, Holland to name but a few), where there is a well-organised system that allows artists to have studios at low rents, as well as various types of support and subsidy. It is also partly the responsibility of the artists themselves, who are no longer able to create factories, or at least to get together; they seem to be single, separate entities. Italy is the European country with the highest number of magazines and the lowest number of art centres. Another important thing is that the figure of the gallerist as mediator has disappeared; many are now “wall renters” unable to follow an artist or advise a collector. Artists are now also curators, gallery owners, administrators and promoters of themselves, taking precious time away from creativity. We should have those professionals, but unfortunately we cannot afford it, because it is difficult to live on art alone and in fact very few people do not do another job to pay the bills. As far as I am concerned, I see digital as something parallel, but necessary. It seems clear to me that virtual galleries are the current reality, although I hope that they do not take over in an absolutist manner.

I would like to thank Francesca Della Ventura, for giving me the opportunity to tell my story in this interesting interview.

Francesca Della Ventura
Francesca Della Ventura

Francesca Della Ventura is a journalist, curator and contemporary art critic, as well as founder and director of inWomen.Gallery.