Paola Pivi: It's not my job, it's your job
Through August 6
By DAWN-MICHELLE BAUDE, July 2023
Paola Pivi’s recent immersive work, “Free Land Scape” (2023), is as comfortable as your favorite pair of jeans… until it’s not. A site-specific installation designed for the newly renovated Musée d’art contemporain in Marseille, Pivi’s denim “tunnels”—suspended like monumental baby slings—offer an inviting blue zone. Visitors take off their shoes, burst into smiles, and step deeper into the labyrinth, the delight of the jeany soft-step vibing with the nearby Mediterranean surf. Turn left? Right? The “waves” over your head prompt a gentle disorientation. You can leave Pivi’s art there, in the happy hammock zone, or recall the flow of immigrants who risk their lives crossing the sea to Europe for the iffy promises of a modern global economy.
Like other of Pivi’s works showcased in the inaugural “It’s not my job, it’s your job” MAC exhibition, “Free Land Scape” is a motor of social reflection presented in disarming, even recreational form. While Pivi’s humorous Dadaism and/or Surrealism moves—e.g., a blue motor boat transporting paired ostriches—have garnered steady fandom, they also mask an ingenious complexity emerging from a hard-won multicultural, multi-lingual perspective.
Born in Italy and living serially in Europe, South Asia and America, Pivi is currently based in Anchorage, Alaska. Acute global issues, such as the ravages wrought by international trade, are rooted in the artist’s lived experience, but Pivi usually keeps aesthetics accessible, fun and inviting. As with the 30+-meter-long denim tunnels, it’s up to the viewer to decide how deep they want to go.
Curators of Pivi’s MAC exhibition included works from the various sculptural series that earned the artist her enigmatic reputation—chief among them: iconic polar bears with flamboyant “fur” plumage. Capering in a dedicated exhibition space, the bears’ jolly mise-en-scène is both satisfying (plush animals come to life!) and disturbing (species gutted by climate change!). No matter how “fun” the bears’ presentation, their lush appearance nags, as do their individual titles, e.g., “That's a good question” (2020) or “I did it again” (2018). The show also includes several of Pivi’s feathered bicycle wheels—riffing on Marcel Duchamp’s famous readymade—which turn calmly and incessantly like dreamcatchers, hypnotic portals spinning through cycles of time and reality. Their continuous movement is, if not outright optimistic, a hopeful illustration of change.
The “It’s not my job, it’s your job” exhibition also features two of Pivi’s “chair” works incorporating miniature models of Charles and Ray Eames-designed chairs for the Vitra furniture company. “Take me home” and “Finally I got a home” (2006) are part doll house, part environmental-crisis shorthand. Using washed up tree trunks from the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Lake Malawi bordering Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania—and home to rare aquatic species—Pivi has attached tiny furniture, lights, and shells. As the viewer leans over to examine the seemingly amusing sculptures, the scale-change kicks in, and childhood reverie of imagined worlds flips into civilization’s life raft, complete with salvaged designer souvenirs.
Less convincing works include Pivi’s kinetic “E” machine—broken at the time of my visit—and the “Call me anything you want” (2013) series, 18 canvases strung with pearls in a gradated sequence from ivory to black and functioning as a color chart of skin tone. While Pivi has been working with accumulated pearl strands since the 1990s, these iterations lack verve, their cascading luxury-meets-oyster-industry understatement fading in the bright, increasingly woke, Provençal light. That said, Pivi’s “It’s not my job, it’s your job” is a deceptively thought-provoking show, whose pleasures dissemble concern, if not inklings of grief, for a planet teetering on the knife blade of wholesale destruction—that is for viewers game to look past the fun. WM
Author, translator and art critic Dawn-Michelle Baude lives in the Luberon, France.view all articles from this author