Alex Cecchetti (born 1977- 2014) is a Paris- based visual artist, poet, and choreographer. Selected recent solo exhibitions and performances include Love Bar, MAXXI National Museum of Contemporary Art, Roma (2020); Occupie Paradit (with Laure Prouvost) Netwerk, Aalst (2020); Walking Backwards, General Ecology, Serpentine Galleries, London (2019); La Chapelle Aux Cent Mille Yeux, Frac Provence Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA), Marseille (2018); At The Gate Of The Music Palace, Spike Island, Bristol (2018); At The Gate Of The Music Palace, Void, Derry (2018), Tamam Shud, Centre For Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw (2017); and Ceataceans, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2017).
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: I would like to open the conversation with your recent project Sentiero, an environmental and performative installation that was exhibited as a part of the 8th Biennale Gherdëina and awarded a prize by the Italian Council. Could you talk us through the creation of the work and the idea that the work was also highly functional – as a guided tour through the Alps and a space for all living creatures?
ALEX CECCHETTI: I have a deep passion for hiking. And so far, I have walked up the volcanos in Java and La Palma Canaries; as well as in the woodlands of Finland (Lapland), Scotland, India, Thailand, and the jungle of Sumatra. They are all very long walks of 8 hours, sometimes even for 4 days in a row. My fatigue forces me to be in the present moment and to listen to my heartbeat and my breath as well as the surroundings – the sounds of the forest, the jungle, or the mountain. I live without the borders between me and my surroundings until I cannot remember my name, my age, or my job.
Up on a mountain after a long walk, my identity is suddenly dissolved, my interiority is outside myself and I feel completely at peace and also in love. And the love is addressed towards all beings. I fall in love with the clouds, the wind, the trees, and with flowers. My fatigue opens up my heart, and I feel grateful for each breath. This experience of communion beyond identity is what I have been trying to give to the people who walk with us in SENTIERO.
Ecology, to me, simply means to understand others – other people, other beings, other forms of life, and to be aware of the complex relations that makes us all one single complex organism. This understanding does not need to be scientific, conceptual, or analytic. Let me give an example. Between 2020 and 2021, I spent 9 months on a little Greek island in front of Turkey named Kastellorizo. Due to the lockdown and other border restrictions imposed by Covid-19 regulations, the island was inhabited by less than 300 people and some military. We were isolated. Almost every day from dawn to dusk, I was exploring the island – hiking in the dry rocky hills and surrounding mountains. Every walk was in the same rhythm: at the beginning, my head and stomach were full of worries, anxieties, and things hunting me from the faraway Paris. Voices were spinning in my head in the same old symphony of you should do that and you should do this. But once I reached the top of the mountain, tired and silenced by the wind, I experienced only peace. A strong and vital feeling of peace.
The truth is that my net of relations had changed. Instead of relating to my work or the people in Paris or Rome, I was instead interlacing my feelings and my existence with other beings in my vicinity. I felt a connection with the two hawks hunting swallows, the ancient olive trees with their calm shadows and the sun hitting my skin as well as the wind that carried peace. And this is exactly what I would like to offer to anyone who would walk with us – to realize that our identities are created with others, and can be always rearranged depending on where and with who we are. And if this is so, what is our true self?
Our cities are made for humans and inhabited only by humans, and this is true also for our devices, social media, and our jobs – they are all mirror’ images of our idea of being humans. But on top of that mountain, my image was the Myrtle tree and my reflection was the hawk flying. We need other beings, and we need to escape the cities, not just for holidays. To feel once again that inebriating confusion in front of the world. I will be forever grateful to my friend Nicoletta Fiorucci for enabling me to spend one year on that little Greek Island.
I don’t call SENTIERO a performance, but rather an enchantment – meaning to be in the chant. Performance to me is related to sport or technology, it’s related to a calculation of the efficiency of a system. An enchantment is instead only related to poetry. In SENTIERO, twelve guides bring people along the walk one by one. It is not a group of people but just two humans in the woods and they are encircled by what is perceived as nature – trees, birds, roots, flowers, and wind. These other beings completely overcome the two walkers – they overcome them in number and intensity. The walk is a long poem that leaves the traced path to enter the forest. And since it is also a conversation with the visitor and with the other species, the poem is always in the process of being created anew.
The walk ends at the Yurt, which is a refined nomadic architecture. Through its nomadic identity, the Yurt does not at all represent an arrival point and is neither the end of the path. In this sense, there is no beginning and there is no end to a walk, but instead, everything and everyone is welcome.
LŠ: Can you tell us more about the Yurt – its role in SENTIERO?
AC: The Yurt, or Ger as Mongolians call it, has been the distinctive home of the nomadic people of Central Asia since time immemorial. It is a jewel in terms of architecture and efficiency. To install it takes less than two hours, and it will protect you from the summer sun, as well as from the winter cold and wind. It is a home and at the same time, it is the expression of a society and its beliefs. Everything in a traditional Yurt is ritualized because everything inside speaks about the cosmos. From the patterns on its fabrics and felt, to the gestures of the people, the way they sit in it, and the way they live within. The Yurt travels with all its cosmology and as much as the stars and planets travel in space, the yurt travels in the great Steppe – a travelling temple home.
The Eurasian Steppe is a region as vast as the universe. It runs from Eastern Europe, Hungary to Manchuria. Since the Old Stone Age, the Steppe Route has connected Central Europe to East Asia, through Central Asia, on trade routes where people and their cultures have been travelling since forever, connecting and sharing their goods as well as their ideas, inventions, and visions. The Yurt represents to me this freedom from borders, physical and mental, and is a connector of cultures. This embracing home makes you feel as if there is a great porosity between the inside and the outside – you are protected but you hear the wind. It rains and you light up a fire stove and when you open the upper crown (shangyrak) right above your head, it won’t rain inside, because hot air moving upwards will protect you and deviate the rain. In a Yurt, the inside and the outside are always connected.
Nowadays the yurt is produced and used in many different forms and in many different countries, from Canada to the United States, to Europe and other parts of Asia. Since the end of the 70s, it has become very popular, and some are used as recreational shelters, or in private gardens as Gazebo, and some for yoga retreats or in kindergartens. I am, instead, still interested in the original role of the Yurt as a shelter and temple, a home that is also an intimate vision of the large cosmos, that brings a profound awareness to the relation with the outside world it shelters you from.
The Yurt you encounter in SENTIERO is sheltered with cotton, and decorated with naturally-dyed eco-prints that I made with my assistants using local herbs, flowers, roots, and other organic material from the area of the Val Gherdeina and its surroundings. As if the forest and the landscape we walk through have then become the shelter membrane around you in the Yurt. A forest of signs, perfumes, and colours that are real flowers, plants, roots, and barks. In these decorated fabrics there is no representation, the figures of leaves, branches, and seeds are not paintings or representations but they are exactly leaves, branches, and seeds. The colours of these canvases are not colours that stand for a red or a yellow, but are the red of the pine roots or the yellow of the reseda flowers and if you get close to them they still perfume.
The Yurt of SENTIERO has been exposed outside, on top of a mountain, to sun, rain, and wind, for more than four months. It has changed as have its colours, and now it has become part of the nature around it. And this is very beautiful to me, because currently the Yurt is travelling on the other side of the South Tirol border, right to the Nort Tirol in Austria, and I have no idea how it will transform itself again or what message of freedom it will bring with it… Artworks have a life of their own.
The Yurt is not the central part of the work SENTIERO, but it is instead the path in the mountain. A walk long as a poem, a poem as long as a whale’s breath, on mountains that once upon a time were islands in an ocean. And still, everything changes when after the walk you lay down inside the Yurt, smelling the hay, looking at the circled ceiling, and watching the sky through the crown. I will be forever thankful to the people who invented this beautiful home that makes you feel as if the cosmos has arms and embraces you.
LŠ: The project is also on tour – where will it travel next and how do you see its future environments respond to it?
AC: SENTIERO has been traveling a lot already. After Biennale Gherdëina, we walked in Tschlin in Switzerland invited by Somalgors 74 and we also walked in Fontecchio, Abbruzzo, Italy invited by MAXXI L’AQUILA. As I am replying to your questions, we are walking in Innsbruck, Austria, right on the other side of the Italian border of Val Gherdëina, where everything started.
So far, we walked in different ecosystems, seasons and countries, and as you can expect everything changes all the time. The poem changed because the plants were different and because the land was different. I have changed because the visitors were also different, as was the language, the weather, and the animals.
After all these experiences, I can say that it is not only the environments that respond to our actions but we also are transformed by the whole process. And the only thing that never changes is exactly this: the transformation.
Next March, I and SENTIERO will travel to Cove Park in Scotland for a two weeks residency program, my vision tells me that I will probably walk under the rain…
LŠ: SENTIERO is, as are many of your projects, marked by movement, activity, and communication not just among the members of the audience but also surrounding nature. How do you see the role of nature in your work?
AC: We are nature and if we are not nature then nature does not exist. There is no dichotomy between nature and culture. If the ants of my garden cultivate the parasites of my lemon tree to eat their honey poo, and the oceanic mantas have ritualistic appointments with the cleaning fishes at specific seasons, it means that also ants, trees and fish have culture, and probably stones have their own culture too. There is no essential difference between you, a tree, or a rock. We are all made of atoms that are just differently arranged. Basically, you and rock are just two different pieces of the same music.
Between you and a star, there may be the same differences that there can be between a polyphonic symphony and a folk song, nothing more than this. A better metaphor is that of a choir, in which every singer, you, the sun, and a piece of dust, are all essential to the partition, therefore yes, you and the sun have the same value with respect to the music. In this sense, Nature is the music, and I am just one of the instruments. As in music, all Universe is a jam session or a gathering of musicians who play together without any preparation. This is why I love to jam with plants and seasons – together we created and coloured the textiles of the Yurt and the Kimono that the guides wear in SENTIERO. Those textiles are made by mixing different natural dyeing and natural print techniques, in which plants, roots, and flowers are collected to colour and dye the cotton. Of course, colours and contrasts change according to the type of plant, but also according to the season in which this plant is collected. This is why I sometimes say that the yurt and the kimonos’ patterns are the results of an astronomical collaboration. I think fabrics and their motives have consciousness.
LŠ: How did your interest in clothing and textiles start?
AC: I have been always interested in disguise. My grandmother was a tailor and she had many different crazy pieces of fabric. Since I was little, I would jump inside her basket of fabrics and put on whatever textile would seduce me at that moment: to become a woman, a dragon, a monster, or a magician. Clothes have not been invented to cover the sex or to protect you from cold. They have been invented to resemble flowers or the beauty of a flying bird. Clothes and fabrics are vehicles, they bring you somewhere else. Look how your body moves differently when you dress up for a special occasion or when you wear casual clothes for a lazy Sunday.
I am extremely fascinated by Balinese people, especially when they wear traditional clothes for ceremonies. Their elegance is stunning, their back is straight, their heads are lifted proudly and their hands move like waves in the ocean. The sarong makes them walk differently. The same can be said also for the Indian Sari. The first Saris were probably worn already 5 000 years ago, back to the Indus Valley civilisation, where cotton was cultivated and woven for the first time around the 5th millennium BCE. Dyes used during this period are still in use today, and some of them I use for my fabrics too. It is the legacy of human beings and the quest for beauty. Beauty has no ego, like a sunset that contains everyone and is made by everyone, even by those who are seduced by it and watch. They too are silhouettes, they too become sunset. I am not talking about the beauty standard in magazines, I am talking about the fire.
LŠ: You mentioned that scent is an important component of your “wearable art” – could you tell us more about how you select and create scents?
AC: When textiles are impregnated and steamed with natural colours that come from flowers, roots, and seeds, of course, they will have a scent – a little bit like herbal tea does. The surprise of opening the fabrics, after the steaming process, and discovering what colours the plants and the seasons have decided to paint, is always accompanied by the surprise of the incredible scents that emanates during the unfolding. Despite plants and flowers being dead through cooking and processing, something is still alive and it becomes colours and perfumes. Similarly, as when a branch of a tree is cut and shaped into a little sculpture. Wood is no longer tree but retains the smell of a tree. Death is just one of the perfumes of life.
For fabrics, first comes the composition. I try to put together plants and leaves that make sense to me. I like the combination of Artemisia and Juniper as it reminds me of absinth and gin for example. The perfumes follow this logic. The composition of perfumes or motives is vehicles. Like in a church or a mosque, in a Balinese temple, or on the surface of a seashell, the motives are not there to make it look nice but are instead the manifestation of the logic of nature – they are meant to drive you somewhere.
LŠ: How do you see the sensuality and desire in your work?
AC: I go to the school of flowers, which is the most intelligent expression of seduction. They have the power to attract an incredibly wide range of creatures, from insects to humans to the wind itself. I was shocked to learn that the Magnolia is the first flower of the world and that it appeared much before its pollinators. Is a little bit as if the Magnolia just created a new desire for a whole bunch of new species. Seduction and desire are full of creativity. In many cultures, the flower, specifically that of the Lotus, is chosen to represent the universe, because there is nothing more seducing than the universe.
Human knowledge itself is the result of the seducing power of the universe. If the universe were not so seducing, we would have never had mathematics, astronomy, or physics. These incredible efforts that humans perform toward the universe are like the mating dance of certain birds. Being willing to know someone so much, happens only when you fall in love. And I am in love. Once you are in love there is nothing you would not do for your lover. So, sensuality and desire are really at the base of life. We would not be alive if there was no desire.
My artworks often result in being seducing. Coloured silks, perfumed woods, colourful watercolours, and intoxicating essences are in the exhibition space. But this seduction is not meant just to capture your interest – not at all. It is meant to make you come inside a space and be embraced, to come and let yourself go. Come inside a Jelly Fish hammock or lay down on the hay inside the Yurt, and feel your body being tired after the walk. Let your lungs get intoxicated by the perfume of hay and plants, let yourself go without sleeping, let your ego go, and renounce your identity. There are no names here, no years we can apply to life, and there are no memories inside this flower, only the honey of existence. Drink!
LŠ: A lot of your practice is marked by rituals – intentional or spontaneous. How do you understand the role of rituals in your work?
AC: You cannot have a ritual without a community. Of course, you can still play by yourself, but the game must be so entertaining that other people would love to join you. There is a lot of talking about rituals in contemporary art, but the majority of the time they are just protocols imposed on an audience, and an audience that has no clue about the final intent or doesn’t even share the same vision or ideology as the artist. Sometimes not even the artist believes in the ritual, and for the majority of the time, those rituals are superficially borrowed from other cultures. I have witnessed many of these attempts, and the majority were catastrophic, if not worse insulting.
Of course, I understand the power of being seduced by another culture, and how this makes you willing to wear a sarong, meditate under a tree or sing the name of Krishna. Those are very natural and important things that have to do with the power of seduction. I think cultures should mix up, even more, this is how we created mathematics, thanks to India, thanks to the Arabs. The dialogues of cultures cannot be interrupted, if you suspend your judgment, you will see that cultures tend to love themselves, seduce each other, and mix. Things get horrible when judgment takes over, when power wants to control and when people are oppressed. I am always seduced and I constantly live under the spell. But before I present a new work or a new incantation, I make sure that I have internalized the seduction – that the experience had transformed me, and that the ritual and the song are now in my heart. I have just noticed I did not reply to your question, or did I?
LŠ: You have! You are also an avid gardener – could you tell us about your first garden designs?
AC: The first garden rule is: don’t do anything. Don’t do anything to this garden, except make sure that the fruit trees can reach with their branches outside of the fence, so that every passer – by can grab a bunch of berries in the summer, or a pomegranate in autumn.