‘What needs to be understood is that we are moving from the idea of an art that is useful to society, and provides some of its members with spiritual elevation, to the idea of art as a basic necessity. Art is recovering its position as a fundamental concept and, as always, understanding fundamental concepts is hard work.’ (Luciano Fabro, Lecture to Trinity College, Dublin, 30 August, 1988, quoted in Che fare? Arte Povera- The Historic Years, exh. cat., Vaduz, 2010, p. 122)
Among the most familiar and highly regarded of all the artist’s works, Luciano Fabro’s Italie (Italys) form one of the cornerstones of his long and varied artistic practice. First executed in 1968 in a variety of materials that ranged from brass to animal fur and from lead to glass, the Italie were maps of Italy that served as material evocations of the multivalent and multifaceted idea of the artist’s homeland and of what the concept of Italy and of nationhood meant to people. Reappearing periodically throughout the artist’s career, almost like staging posts or markers within the otherwise perpetually fluid outpouring of his creative evolution, the Italie were to become periodic constants of Fabro’s creative practice to the point where, as the artist was later to claim: ‘Every time I tackle new materials I test them out on an “Italia”’. (Luciano Fabro quoted in Luciano Fabro Works, 1963-86, exh. cat., Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1997, p. 175). ‘I need to know how my hands work on something that remains static.’ Fabro, later elaborated. ‘The shape of Italy is static and fixed. I measure the mobility of my hands by working on a fixed thing. Italy is like a sketchbook, a promemoria. I’ve used it over the years: If I’m studying something new, I test it in an Italy.’ (Luciano Fabro quoted in Bernhard Rüdiger (ed.), Luciano Fabro: Inhabiting Autonomy, Lyon 2010, p. 208)
Italiani (Italia degli Emigranti) (Italians (Italy of the Emigrants) is one of the most flamboyant, evocative and surprising of all of Fabro’s many and varied Italie. Executed in 1981 it is a map of Italy made out of long winding strips of copper and suspended flat on a ceiling overhanging the viewer. Like two other Italie from this period, Italia Elastica (Elastic Italy) of 1980 and Italia Feticcio (Italy of Fetishists) of 1981, Italiani (Italia degli Emigranti) is a material expression of an Italy created from a multitude of spiralling forms. It is also, however, an image of an Italy that unravels or is in the process of unravelling.
Made in the same year as Italiani (Italia degli Emigranti), Italia Feticcio is also an Italia that has been made from a series of wound strips of copper, but in its case, Fabro wound these strips so cohesively around the form of the map of Italy that the iconic boot-shaped image of the country seems to have been enclosed, wound up and somewhat obscured by the material of its own making. Here, a boot-shaped spiral of sumptuous and reflective wound metal strips has become a fascinating singular image of over-obsession, or, as the title of the work suggests, a fetish. Placed in an even loftier, if also slightly ridiculous, almost supernatural, position, affixed flat on the ceiling, Italiani (Italia degli Emigranti) is also a map of Italy made from similarly wound strips of copper. In this case however, the image has been allowed or even encouraged to unravel and to hang down from its seemingly levitating position above the viewer. In this way, the image of Italy is , in some respects, a similarly fetishized image, but one that appears to be in the process of becoming undone. Positioned high on the ceiling, like an unreachable ideal, Italiani (Italia degli Emigranti) is perhaps, the idealized image of their homeland shared by so many emigrants who have left their country behind and whose memory-image of it simultaneously both unravels and becomes more fetishized in their imagination as time passes.
It is, after all, the idea of Italy that Fabro wished to address in his Italie as much as researching and exploring the associative power of material to establish a poetic resonance in the mind and experience of the viewer. As Frances Morris once wrote on these works, ‘collectively the Italia works draw attention to the rootedness of our lives, to the land we inhabit. All our experiences and those of people in history, our culture, our architecture, arise from an encounter between ourselves and the land. The meanings we ascribe to things, from the great physical discoveries over the centuries to the most transient human gesture, return at base to the geological mass we stand on.’ (Frances Morris, ‘Luciano Fabro: In Virtue of References’, Luciano Fabro, exh. cat., Tate, London, 1997, p. 15)
Similarly, as Mark Francis once pointed out, Fabro’s Italie are ‘templates whose recurrent use can express a symbolic nationality and personal identity for Fabro through its outline' resemblance to a dismembered body.‘ (Mark Francis ‘The Knight’s Move: a Chart of Life ‘ quoted in Luciano Fabro exh. cat Museo d’arte contemporanea, Turin, 1989, p. 184). In both Italia Fetticio and here in Italiani (Italia degli Emigranti), this description of Italy as also being in some way a dismembered limb is a particularly acute observation. For, in these two Italie from 1981, the boot-shaped form of Italy can be seen both as a fetish and as a fragment, as a body part that has been dismembered and, in the case of Italiani (Italia degli Emigranti), as an abandoned or lost limb, left behind to fester.
Like so many Italian artists before him, especially Giorgio de Chirico, much of Fabro’s art can be seen as an art of the fragment – an art that uses a dismembered part to invoke a wider, more poetic and more holistic understanding of the greater whole. With regards to the human body for example, Fabro often used lips, eyes or feet, for example as signifiers of humanity in general. Similarly, his use of the fragmentary map of Italy, is evocative not so much of nationhood as of the entire idea of landscape, homeland and of a place that signifies humanity’s connection to its roots, culture and evolution. As Fabro was often at pains to point out, the Italie, appeared and reappeared throughout his career in this role, evoking and re-asserting the intrinsic relationship between form, idea and material that lay at the centre of all of Fabro’s work from its beginnings in 1963 to his death in 2007. It was essentially this core feature of his constantly evolving, expanding and often exploratory work, that had originally placed the Milan-based Fabro within the context of the arte povera tendency in Italy in the late 1960s. Art was for Fabro always a means of enriching the mundane and the everyday rather than of embracing it. As his series of Piedi (Feet) illustrated, he did not, like other ‘arte povera’ practitioners embrace ‘poor materials’ but rather the richness - in the form of poetry and wonder - to be found within all kinds of material and the articulation of the mysterious relationship between form, concept, material and ideas that this combination promoted in the viewer.
In Italiani (Italia degli Emigranti) for example, a bizarre combination of the idea of country, of landscape and of place is combined by the placing of the Italia on the ceiling. And, in this way, the architecture of the building and the objecthood of the sculpture are thrown into a direct but fascinating contrast with the idea of ‘Italy as suggested by the mapped form of the sculpture and by the images and ideas such a map can prompt in the viewer. In this regard, and in the context of his Italie particularly, Fabro pointed out that form is essentially ‘contemporaneous, it is of the same time as its creator. Iconography comes from behind, it is the impulse which drives its creator and is the impulse which the creator hurls back. However much it may appear to the contrary, my Italies are linked by a very slender thread to Iconography, which is the case because the image of Italy is inferred, it is a graphic image. This is the reason for choosing a refraction of the form which might tend towards the infinite. Italy is an image for whoever feels in some way bound to it, whose shape is seen as a graphic of ideas. But for me form remains the transmigration of the material. Form is like a pause inside the transformation. To be more precise I have always accompanied this ideological and symbolic negation with titles more cheerful than conceptual.’ (Luciano Fabro ‘Italia’ in Luciano Fabro: Vademecum, Museum Folkwang, Essen: Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1981).
Italiani (Italia degli Emigranti) is a work that locates a lost idea of Italy. The idea of Italy held by the emigrant, and, by placing it in an elevated but also absurd position in an architectural interior, throws open to question the validity of this idea with the, enclosed and perhaps domestic situation of the viewer’s present situation. In this way, an intriguing and exploratory sense of continuity as well as contrast is established between the idea of land, locale, history and culture - as conveyed by the Italie - and the specifics of the here and now of the present moment - as indicated by the work’s extraordinary and overt physical and material presence and the embedding or containment of this poetic materiality within the architecture of the building into which it is set. In this way, this fluid and unravelling image of Italy poetically expresses a powerful sense of the continuing and enduring presence of an idea moving through space and time. ‘Just as a bent piece of iron expresses the force that was exerted on it’ Fabro said, ‘just like a thrown stone gives a centre to the borders of a puddle, a finger indicates the direction of a gaze; in the same manner, we move in space by means of solicitations of impressions.’ (Luciano Fabro quoted in Luciano Fabro, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1997, p. 12).