PAOLO TROILO: The Gift of Existence
This was a unique interview, I had the privilege of meeting not only a talented and courageous artist, but also a highly philosophical individual with a profound sensitivity, qualities which I believe shine out of his canvases into the darkness which can often surround us - he has touched something at the core of human being.
Zoë Atkinson Fiennes, Founder & Art Director, THREE GRACES GALLERIES
Paolo Troilo in his studio in Milan
Zoë: How does the uncertainty around the two questions we all ask ourselves, ‘where do we come from?’ and ‘where are we going?’ manifest as themes in your work?
Paolo: My work is simple in that it is an expression of doubt, that uncertainty surrounding the human condition. We have no concrete answers and this is a beautiful condition to be in, because once we have the answers we become impoverished. The very seeking of answers gives our lives a richness, we are called upon to be active in the world. Calling every question, and answer into doubt at every step is fundamental to our being and becoming complete. So my work is always a question mark, there is no full stop at the end of the phrase and that’s why my art is always open to personal reading. I discovered, thinking about being alive, that the problem we have in contemporary society is the fact that we are overwhelmed with ‘answers’, they spring from all the mouths around us and all the brains, human and artificial, and they deter and veil us from what ought to be our personal search for truth. It is as though we as a society desire to find the ultimate answer, the ultimate solution and we’ll do anything to get it despite the consequences. But we must understand that any solution is never a complete solution. I think that endlessly going back to ourselves and experiencing the doubt of living is the most important and powerful gift that life gave us.
Zoë: This sense of the mystery that surrounds life is beautiful indeed, but uncertainty can also be uncomfortable, it can feel disorientating. Where can meaning be found?
Paolo: Meaning is always to be found suspended in the middle of doubt, which means not being rigidly stuck to something but being in movement, seeking truth. Beauty is important too because beauty is a strong medium through which one can seek truth. Speaking as an Italian artist, beauty is something that you know you cannot avoid. I grew up surrounded by beauty, in the centre of the world’s beauty and this is a double edged sword. Always being surrounded by beauty can mean being bored and being lazy. When you are born rich you run the risk of becoming a disinterested person with no drive to discover. You have to find and rekindle the power of; doubt, wanting to ask and the desire to live a real life. Beauty does not stand alone, beauty also has meaning - meaning and beauty hold each others’ hands, they need each other to move forward.
Zoë: I like that interdependent duality.
Paolo: Yes the duality, like pure black and white.
Zoë: And that links into your use of strictly black and white, I understand that you don’t like using colour in your artworks?
Paolo: I mean I love colours because I love to experience the world and visualise the world in all the colours created by nature and by man: my daughter has her own colour, my son has his own colour, and so on and these are all mixed into nature right in front of me. But at the same time I feel comfortable in this black and white mode, like writing a book, putting black on white or the opposite.
Zoë: One doesn’t get distracted.
Zoë: The viewer can create their own colours.
Paolo: Exactly, you create your own colours because you are yourself full of colour, you have a beautiful suitcase of colours, so use it! I mean I only have to explain my point of view which is orientated towards doubt, the rest is up to you. In the middle between the black and the white, which are the ‘answers’, there is a sea of meaning to be found in oscillating between them. Black and white can be in conflict and eventually in my work they reach the same border, they do meet, but I meet with them not in that conflict but where they melt into greys in the middle. I work and I stay in the grey, in doubt, and I use black and white only to balance the strength of my message. I am also free from the pre-determined associations that the media has assigned to certain colours. I don’t want to relate myself and my expression to anything, I want to use a classic body, a black and white situation, nothing more, so that all the doubts are there and there are no distractions from them. Lisa Simpson’s character on The Simpsons said “I’m too smart to be happy”, experiencing doubt means not ever really being ‘happy’ because doubt is uncomfortable of course. But being uncomfortable is sometimes important and that’s why I try to give a lot of importance to being alone, to trying to you know dig into not only what I receive from the outside, but also the uncomfortable feelings that can arise when one is alone. Dedicating time to being alone and working through this process of allowing important questions and doubts to come into your head, not just answers, gifts me a comfortable sense of richness because at least I asked the question for myself.
Zoë - In the face of external noise then, how do you keep control of your 'image' and the integrity of your work?
Paolo - In my opinion art is not a democracy, because it’s so strongly related to what you feel. Most probably many others will say the opposite. I’m living my life immersed in this world of others, sharing my emotions and finding points of contact with all the people around me through my actions and everything else that makes up my daily life, but crucially when it comes to my art I am an individual - I trust in myself and my truth, I don’t ask if other people like it or expect them to like it. I have this time to live and I want to tell my personal truth, so this is not a matter of being right or wrong it’s a matter of staying pure in yourself and composing with your own instruments in symphony - your instinct, your mind, your reason… This is the big gift that we have, this kind of unique expression and so to reach this state of being I cannot allow myself to hear other voices, or to let them interrupt while I’m thinking about what I want to express.
That’s why I quit working with art galleries for a while and started to work as an independant artist - just to feel, just to be in the right condition to create and not to have pressure put on me in the shape of production numbers, or being contricted by the same subject. Because usually the question is ‘Paolo you know this man on his knees is so beautiful, we have had such success with that theme, can you do some more work on that?’ - that’s a crack in the system, which becomes a crack in my creative system.
Zoë - I’ve seen a lot of that in my work, both early career and very well known painters at the top of their careers getting asked to do that, to reproduce on demand. It seems somehow inauthentic, it’s as you say, ‘a crack in the system’.
Paolo - Yes, we have this beautiful mix of reason and nature that in every one of us is so unique, that’s why I’m talking about there being no democracy in art because your capacity for expression is so singular that you have to at least keep it pure. Then of course, the market and other people become important, reflections I hear like, ‘I liked it when you were so much more powerful and less introspective…’ are valid, but if someone is telling you this he’s telling his truth and although it’s nice to hear his truth, it is only that, his. I don’t want to cover my ears to these external truths but at the same time I want to follow my own brain, and only my brain when I produce something which is mine and only mine. There is no place for others in this act of creation - no democracy in what I do.
Zoë - And in the moment in which people come to contemplate your art, is it up them then, is it somehow their business, nothing to do with you?
Paolo - If something pure that came from you moves other people, that’s a moment that you as the artist have to respect the significance of. But at the same time you have to pay attention not to follow or seek approval, instead you have to enjoy the fact that your soul is now public, which is nice. Sometimes, when your work and your soul become public, your instinct as a unique man becomes a universal instinct. You are not just a painter anymore, you become an artist because other people feel something very strong towards a work of art that came purely from you, not from a request, a commission or a suggestion from the outside world.
Zoë - You touch other people’s cores, you gift them a kind of freedom through the knowledge that they’re not alone.
Paolo - Exactly, and that’s the reason for my statement about art not being a democracy. Although producing art is not a democracy, sharing art is about seeking a kind of democracy, the democracy of an idea. I believe that at this point in time in this world of conflicting answers, we have to stay true to ourselves and to our uniqueness by trying to find our own authentic path first and foremost. We already hold this right path inside ourselves. It seems as though everybody is trying to find the universal right path, the right direction for everybody, but if we don’t find our own paths for our own authentic expression of our uniqueness in the world, it’s going to be quite impossible for us to move forward as a community.
Zoë - When you say that we have the right path inside us already, do you mean before we were born?
Paolo - Well, yes, I’ve sometimes heard people say it like that, but I, I don’t know. I’m now an adult and I still like to think about it like that of course, because we are full of dreams, these big questions are the roots of our dreams. Everything comes from the desire for something, the request for something, for answers to love or inspiration, these are our dreams. One of those dreams is the fact that we probably know everything at the beginning but another answer could be that we don’t know and our task is to find out: to start by becoming more in tune with the world around us. But this is becoming more and more difficult and will get worse in the future, I think.
Studio Paolo Troilo
Zoë - You say we are here on earth, that we have been given the gift of existence to make and create and study the world around us, that this is our ‘reason for being’ or purpose, and that with the gift of imagination and an unexpected and unknown future we have the power to dream and formulate new ideas then use our human body, hearts and minds to manifest those dreams and ideas from the ‘sky’ into concrete reality of earth. How do you internally experience and philosophically conceptualise your own act of creation on earth?
Paolo - I love philosophy, I think it’s the highest peak that humans have been able to reach because it’s the evolution of mathematics, it’s the beautiful side of mathematics. It’s the quantuum physics and all the new sciences which are coming out, which are in a strange way in the middle between religion and science because here you have to trust in and have faith in what you are seeking, in what you are researching. I think that the answer is found in making, through doing, as a contemporary artist, I have no answers about how the mechanism that moves my production works exactly. This is good because not knowing the exact mechanism means not being industrial in production, serial, and this is the gift. The fact is that being contemporary means that once you are playing, you are playing, once your are painting you are painting. In the moment you are painting, something is happening now because the present is the only thing happening in the moment, even as present becomes present I cannot reach it, ever, because by the time I reach for it, it’s gone, this is beautiful because it’s the real part of life. The past is a reminder, it is memory, the future is a fantasy and the present is a miracle in that it’s happening second after second. And in art, in terms of my production, it’s the enjoying of the present contemporary moment that gives me the power, the engine to create and to start the process, which is not really starting because it’s ongoing! And then truth, I mean I want to tell only the truth in what I paint.
Zoë - Are you ever afraid to be vulnerable? When you paint, do you ever have the sensation that you should hold something back?
Paolo - Most of the drive behind my wish to express emotion in this way came as a result of the death of my father, which happened very suddenly, in a very fast way and which in someway left me without the presence of my mirror. This is so important because even though we are unique, we are also part of a family tree and it’s beautiful to realise watching certain videos that I walk as my father used to walk, in the same position with the same swinging way of walking. And the same thing has happened with my kids, this is insane! Being vulnerable is when I’m in front of a painting after experiencing it as a relief of a strong emotion - I have no limitations in feeling in front of my paintings, so I don’t keep anything inside when I create. A conventional way of living dictates that I have to keep my instinct inside and my emotions pure when I am in the middle of a crowd, when I am in the middle of society, but when I paint I have no walls in front of me so even if I feel vulnerable I am enjoying that feeling.
Zoë- Because most of the time you have to keep up some kind of social mask or facade?
Paolo - Social screen is more contemporary when speaking about screens because a smart screen is a beautiful, poetic way to express this social concept. But the screen can be a grave problem, the screen is now the dimension of our thoughts, of our imagination in this moment in history. If David Hockney is now able to and is enjoying painting on his iPad, it is because he has already painted walls of trees and beautiful portraits by directly experiencing life - because of this he is now enjoying these screened devices beautifully. But when this screening of life happens from the very beginning when you are young and you only see that square border, this is something very, very dangerous. Extremism is not my position, I don’t want to negate contemporary living. I’m extreme regarding my way of expressing in art, but in living I also have to balance the fact that we are experiencing a historical moment and the present that we are enjoying all day long is full of new things that I cannot hide from my kids for instance. I don’t want to hide to these new techonologies, I want to give them to my kids but crucially in a more complete way. We have the wide ‘screen’ which is life, it’s not a screen of course, it’s everything, and we also have the possibility to let’s say, gently ‘close in a cage’ some visions, which is this having of a screen in front of you. I love cinema, I love good TV, I love the internet, I enjoy these and my kids have to be able to enjoy these too but whilst always keeping in mind that the real dimension of life is seen with the eyes, without a screen, without a filter. Eyes are the window onto the real dimension. These other visions of the world are ‘holidays’ in another world, but just a holiday and then you have to return to your real life.
Zoë - What do you wish to leave of value in the world? Do you have a sense of what you think is important that we shouldn’t lose as we go forward, that you feel that you’re participating in protecting? Like, for example the place of the screen-less life, of the visual arts founded on the principle of looking at the world with our eyes?
Paolo - Sometimes I think about what will be and what I will leave behind me, firstly I will leave the weakness of my truth: it’s so important that my kids will one day say, 'my father lived telling his own truth and shared it with people without interruptions or intermissions'. That at the same time as I lived my daily life among all the other people around me from my love life, my family life and my work life; family, friends, kids, collectors, curators and so on that with kindness I was simply trying to give them the possibility to understand a formula of life applied to the contemporary world: a formula centred around being unique in your own moment. The desire to express yourself and to spend time alone with yourself connecting with the unique expression of you is so important, as is being a step ahead of society as it is shifting, which means being aware and having a meaningful vision of what could happen so that you can understand how you can relate yourself to society as it shifts. So I want to ‘create’ a free person, help forge the conscience of a free person - this is a stange thing to say because, ‘I want to create a free person’ means that the person is not free because I created him or her, so there is someone that created him or her, but biologically speaking there is something that created us and I don’t want to fight nature, I just want to remind people of their possiblity to connect with their uniqueness but at the same time be as if made of rubber and be elastic, resilient to and prepared to reject and respond to changes in society. Anthropologically speaking society is constantly changing, right now we have the challenge of the omnipresent media which in this moment is bringing people into thinking about life in a certain way. You have to be prepared for the future in that most people will have been taught to think in a way that is assimilated to the media: it’s easier to teach people one simple thing, without giving them a lot of information to elaborate on their own. My kids and my family have to be prepared to elaborate on their own but at the same time be prepared to face the people that unfortunately have not had that possibility, that comes from having a parent figure who gives you this advice.
Studio Paolo Troilo
Zoë - So we’re living in a world where we are supposed to be a certain way and subscribe to this one way of looking at the world and at the same time everything is changing so fast, it’s like you’re saying slow down and don’t get so caught up. Can you share your understanding of why slowness is so important in terms of creating meaning and substance in your artwork and in wider life?
Paolo - I think that time is what controls our life with all its ways of being and all its shapes. The way that I relate to time when I have to elaborate on an idea, on something that comes from outside, is defined by the fact that I give a lot of time for the preparation of a general point of view, before getting into specifics. This is so important. I was reading a book by a writer called Jon Niven, entitled The Second Coming - A Volte Ritorna and it is about Jesus Christ coming back to Earth. It begins in heaven where God is looking upon the Earth during the period of the Renaissance and decides that it’s time to go on holiday for a week leaving all the responsiblity to Jesus. God returns after his fishing holiday to find that there is not only one religion but there are a lot of religions, small and widespread religions and everybody is hating and killing and he asks what happened and what are these ten commandments, I mean, my commandment was ‘be good’? So I think there is one big good idea or way of living, but actually finding this formula is a long ongoing path that I am experiencing. Your own resilience in the face of change, new happenings, bad things in the world, political positions and news is strengthened if you have this big part ready already. You can welcome the news inside and quickly grasp things, you can be efficient in reading and analysing the world because you dedicated a great deal of time in the past, in a very slow way, to understanding at least this general formula, this way of living.
I have a lot of things to say about time, I think that naturally from the moment we are born and whilst we are young we go faster than time itself - we try to outrun time trying to discover and find answers to everything as soon as possible and be the best. We feel immortal sometimes in our teenage years. Then at a mature age we are lucky to travel at the same speed as life itself but in our future, in our later years, we will begin to move slower than life. So we start faster, then we reach a state of equilibrium of being in tune with the speed of life, and being in a position to better read and analyse everything that life presents us with, easily and efficiently elaborating on information received and formulating our responses accordingly. Actually I’m enjoying the beginning of this phase, I find myself feeling comfortable now in receiving all sorts of new things from the outside world and I have not necessarily an answer but an idea of an answer in the never ending doubt that I am living and experiencing, a response which is at least respectful of what I am - but it’s a long process. Sharing ideas and ways of living and trying to find commonalities is something that everyone should do, everyone should have the possibility to meet and talk, this is so important.
Zoë - You say that ideals ruin beautiful ideas, that as they are brought into life that ideals rip at the carcass of those beautiful ideas.
Paolo - I think ideas contain the power of pureness which is also related to the concept of uniqueness. Actually ideas are miracles, they are our own miracles which happen to us, and the same time once they happen it is so important not to be dominated by ideals. Let’s say that ideas are the horses and ideals are the the reins, but who is the one who holds them together? Me. I am the one who is on the horse and at the same time I hold the reins: and I must heed the importance of not using the ideals, the reins, to hit the horse which is natural and wild, and something beautiful in and of itself. This balance is something which is up to me to keep and most of the time, ideals run the risk of becoming these big limitations.
For instance, most ideals have a shape, in a certain period let’s say freedom and revolution had the shape of Che Guevara. We have to be aware that ideals can become so powerful with an icon and I have to know exactly what that icon is made up of and how it became an icon. Because if I just take the ideal and the icon which is the translation and make it my idea, there is no man inside - this is a fight between an idea and ideals and I play no part, I am just the translator. I know that I cannot be a pop artist all my life, painting as most young painters have during the last ten years using Che Guevara or Hitler, or Maria Magdalena, the Madonna or some other icon to express their ideas. Most of the time ideals are brought to us ready-made, that’s why when they became so strong, so iconic, the ready-made icons like the face of Che Guevara became an easy way for young graphic designers or painters to express revolution- no, you have your own revolution to express! Let’s try to find new ideas, with a splash of ideals which we work on to evolve. Ideals are big question marks, they should be open. So ideals present a double problem, firstly the fact that they have to be well managed so they don’t ruin an idea and secondly the fact that they have now also become a massification of icons which can limit our capacity for fantasy. Ideals are weapons in our hands for good or bad.
Zoë - And that goes right back to what you were saying that you want to lead an authentic life, and do what you can to help other people realise that same truth. Not using an ideal or icon you find ready made in the outside world to express what you could express yourself.
Paolo - It’s also linked to the fact that I am free and I have this life in which to act and then it’s over. I don’t have answer about the afterlife, so it’s over, I mean I’m assuming that there is nothing.
Zoë - That scares me.
Paolo - Yes it scares me too, but fear is so important. The problem of not having a religion today, not anymore because religions are dying slowly, is that we are losing the feeling of having a responsibility towards something unknown and bigger. It’s not about trusting Mohammed or Buddha or Jesus or La Dea Kali or the chief of Scientology, but revering the fact that we are in relation to something bigger, which is the meaning of our life, we have no answer about the afterlife but we have to at least be respectful of the nature of life, by living our life in a right way of course, it’s banal, the old and simple things are banal, but true.
There is an Italian psycologist Massimo Ricalcati, who at the beginning of one of his books, which is dedicated to the Father, if I remember well writes, I am not a religious man, neither is my wife, we are scientists but at the same time every night we ask to our kids to pray before going to sleep. Pray, not to God or any particular deity but to something bigger than them so that they have access to the dimension of living in which they are part of something bigger. I also have responsibility towards other people, that’s why I try to wash out the plastic containers and separate them from the other rubbish for recycling for example. We have many things that drive us that could be our ‘god’, and we too have poetic gods as well as invented gods that each region gave to their people in the right way. Maybe at the end I will find Mohammed in front of me or God as Jesus, I don’t know, but I do know that losing this hope in something bigger risks people becoming dry and withered and this is so dangerous because if you no longer believe in something bigger than you, you also lose your belief in who stands beside you.
Zoë - Yes, in connections, you don’t feel connected.
Paolo - This is something but I am seeking the answer to, like everybody is.
Zoë - It’s good to know that there are people like you that think this way and want to communicate this in the work that you put out into the world, because the image is one of the most powerful things that we have.
Paolo - Yes exactly, you know when I was refering to my past with galleries, I have no problem with galleries, I have a problem with numbers - the production of it. I said no to pre-determined numbers surrounding time and quantity and so on. First and foremost I wanted to use what I am making in a pure way and pureness is the thing in art that must prevail over everything. My success comes from the fact that I simply found my jewel, as they say in Greece. If you find your jewel and you make yourself shine in a good way, everybody is attracted by what you are saying and doing. If you are covered by the darkness of pre-customised ideals, everybody else’s answers, the absence of a religion or an understanding that there is something bigger, if you live in that darkness it’s natural that you will not live in the right way. Light is life, it’s mathematical, it’s the way we wake up and the way things grow. Protecting the pureness of your ideas in art and the individual way that you express yourself in the world is fundamental.
Copyright © 2019 Zoë Atkinson Fiennes and Paolo Troilo
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
The following video features Paolo Troilo speaking in Italian at TEDxTaranto, an independently organised TED event. From 13.09 minutes onwards you can journey through his moving exhibition at the Consulate General of Italy in New York I 2017.