Ceci n’est pas une usine – Valerio Dehò

Is this a factory?!

The “discovery of the factory” has been a fundamental experience in the formation of the generation that is now turning fifty. I mean those more or less politically minded students who had the opportunity and the time to think about the significance of manual labour, those who could watch the film “The Working Class Goes to Heaven” in a group and discuss it straight after the viewing (not those who have seen it since in a videocassette or dvd), or those like me who while still in their spotty teens were writing in magazines called with now unthinkable names, like “School, Factory, District”. Those who used to stand distributing leaflets at the factory entrance know that it is one thing to read about factory workers in books, but it is quite another to watch men with bowed heads pouring into the reeking Moloch to re-emerge only after the obligatory 8 hours, or even longer.

And yet there is no need to invoke a tradition of unionism that today goes under the single acronym FIOM, to understand that the modest artisans of the sphere of symbols when they are faced by paintings like Claudio Spoletini’s cannot but recall a memory that has not faltered even under the attack of present fixed-term contracts. The factory represents a territory of myths, death, great social and civil conquests, and it is today matter for a referendum, so even artists can assess its significance from a less involved, but equally valid, viewpoint.

Claudio Spoletini does not set out to be reassuring, his intention as a kind of “cantor temporis acti” is that the idea contained in his paintings should survive through a transfiguration. I feel the innocence in these paintings is only superficial, it serves to put viewers at their ease, it is a kind of viaticum to other worlds: maybe also to the one we live in. In fact he warns us right from the title: “this is not a factory”. And it is not, because it doesn’t smoke or make a noise, it is not a place for work or stress, it produces nothing.

They say art is useless. What we see does not help us to understand the life we live. A painting is a painting, a foundry is something different. Paintings do not cause pollution and do not create many jobs. Spoletini works on the myth, he enacts a metalinguistic transformation, he does not attempt to show reality but its mythology. Something that has been, for good or for evil, part of the intellectual experience of three generations of Italians, but which has in any case represented a portion of Italy and of her hope of becoming a wealthy and contented European nation. It is impossible not to be reminded of the stories about the Olivetti model factory, the hopes of immigrants, the utopias of contented labour, the “model factory”, and all that extraordinary intellectual theorising in its attempt to create a coherent vision of factory work blended with a regeneration by which a well conducted and contented workforce could become the precursor of a perfect social order. And if to our western and Italian ears all this sounds, depending on one’s point of view, like a defeat or at best a hollow promise, it is true that at this very moment in some parts of the world factories are once more seen as the symbol of hope for a better future, the way to escape from the present poor living conditions to those longed for and dreamt of.

Claudio Spoletini is not naïve, if his paintings look like the opening of a children’s game it is because the artist is acting his imaginary world. He remembers something he certainly could share with his generation, but childishness becomes both world and prison. We realize this from the tin cars and toy aeroplanes crossing his landscapes. Everything is very neat and pretty, but it is as if we were left to play at Thomas the Tank Engine all our lives. All very well when you are a child, but for an adult there’s something wrong. And yet contemporary art gives us this wonderful possibility, this second chance, something life scarcely ever affords. Spoletini, a child of the economic boom, has not forgotten, and wants to involve us all in this great collective fascination. And he chooses to do so through a language reminiscent of the tones of that great artist who dedicated his whole life to the working classes, Léger, but he does it by filtering that awareness in a collective, pictorial key. The artist does not intend his work to be realistic (and who would in these times?), instead he looks at the factory from the perspective of a picture in Grand Hôtel or the famous front pages of the Domenica del Corriere illustrated by Walter Molino, a resemblance justly pointed out by Luca Beatrice.

Does this mean that these pastel industrial plants are mere pretty and didactic evocations of the foul smelling mass-concentrating factory blocks we all know? No, we must probably use a lens to help us filter reality. Claudio Spoletini uses his cultural background to percolate his experience, conscious of the fact he is painting pictures, not denouncing social abuses. The playful aspect, so obviously unreal, emphasizes the fact that through the years the factory has developed an imaginary picture of itself that is nobody’s, because it is everybody’s. There are no privileged points of view because the national-popular illustrative vision, that of a jeu d‘enfant, in the end vindicates memory, its tendency to level all things, justifying and homologating everything to that strange land celebrated by Proust.

These, we should remember, are not factories, their representation is not reality, even if it serves to transcend it. Spoletini’s industrial blocks sway like Paolo Conte’s orchestras, they are framework stories mixing an imaginary dimension with the typical mythopoetics of the childish world. Reality can wait. The mis-proportions, the fascinating colours, the smooth shapes, the complementary fluttering toys, everything tends to prettiness because it wants to keep its distance from reality. And just because of this it recalls reality, by contrast, not attempting to imitate it, but departing from it. Somewhere between glossy magazines and metaphysics, Spoletini fits his piece in the puzzle of Italian art, in its history and its irony. He makes his contribution with the self assurance of one who is well aware of the state of the art, and the discretion of someone not wanting to appear other than he is. Because of this, his factories are pictures ready to be cut out and pasted in memory’s scrapbook, they are created just to give memory that correct dimension that does not absolve reality of its sins, but presents it in a wrapping as sweet as (revisited) childhood. We are left to draw our own conclusions, the artist does not intend to convince anyone, he produces his human landscapes in which human beings are only presumed, never seen or perceived. Things are remembered more easily than people, so are urban landscapes, they are the connective element of our reality, even and beyond all the reality we meet in queues at traffic lights or at motor-road toll booths. Sunsets have been supplanted by industrial skylines, we even miss these when we are on holiday. Carl Marx, who knew a thing or two about workers, said that art is comforting and super-structural, and one should frequent it often and get lost in its mazes.

Valerio Dehò

traduzione a cura di