Bettina Werner PDF


Miriam Mirolla in conversation with Bettina Werner

I am emerging from the earth (at the City Hall subway stop) while Manhattan offers its better colors (those of the sunset) and the swarm of people on Broadway is tinted by the color of homogeneity and mobility, active but not frenetic.

It is a pleasure to pursue Bettina Werner from loft to loft, this is the third one that I am going to see, although she has had many others. Like every good newyorker, Bettina is always moving her home from place to place (one is not allowed to establish roots, but it is mandatory to enlarge one's kingdom).

And still, the common thread that runs through all her changes of address is that she never relocates far from Manhattan's unique diagonal street, Broadway.

Broadway dramatically cuts through Manhattan, allowing the rapid passage through every social level, continuous monitors of the city and simultaneously an existential challenge, because of cynical velocity of the anonymous crowd (Virilio calls it "dromology") that underlines in an irrefutable way one's own solitude and absolute individuality.

While climbing the stairs of this latest loft, situated between Soho and Wall Street, it is evident that her choice was to live in a place still authentic, with stairs of varnished wood, with dim neon light, in the absolutely anti-glamorous atmosphere of Tribeca.

Before meeting the artist, one is greeted by the furious yet innocuous barking of her dalmation, Tibino.

And finally one enters the kingdom of salt, a kingdom of strong colors, the expression of a harmonic existence.

But how and when did Bettina have the intuition to use salt? When I asked this question I was still unaware that this would became a rather untraditional interview.

BW. Thanks to salt I got the idea for my recognizable style. Today young artists don’t have recognizable identities because they are constantly changing materials. Also I, as a student at the Academy of Brera, was working with diverse materials, thinking of Burri, Tapies, Fautrier.

I began to use granes of rice and wanted to discover an element that functioned as a tool, my own original paint brush.

From rice to salt I made an intuitive leap, because I was searching for a natural material that by itself brought to the canvas its own story, its own richness, and salt is a marvelous crystal, you know, it’s fundamental for our body…

MM. Bettina, at my arrival, is, as if she had saved throughout the years so many things to tell me, a torrent of stories, news, experiences and episodes of quotidian life. Deciding to allow myself to become submerged by her exuberance, by her adamantine laughter, I immediately understand that this will be an interview without questions, a long passionate  monologue like “The Human Voice”  by Cocteau. And what about my thoughts, my reflections? I decide to crystallize them like salt because I know that elsewhere I can spread them in the space of the text.

BW. I discovered that there are many Americans that suffer from mood changes. It’s probably because they lack salt in their brains. Our bodies need salt to stay healthy. If you have too much or too little you will have a considerable physical imbalance that will make you ill. And then the doctor will give you a pill that in reality is only salt. Amazing, isn’t it? Lithium carbonate…As you know in America you must first go to a doctor to get a prescription. You can’t by it directly from a pharmacy.

MM: It occurs to me that, even today, in common language, you can say: “that person has salt in the head”…language never lies, at least in this case, popular knowledge seems to have anticipated medical science.

BW: So, you can’t live without salt in your body. Salt is used to preserve food, think of the Magazzini del Sale in Venice and Via Salaria in Rome; salt was also used as money in the past, you know? It was truly an element of richness, therefore working with salt today you acquire the value of history…I started with this very fine and very large salt, then in the United States I found crystals even bigger, for example rock salt or kosher salt.

Every crystal of salt absorbs light and captures your gaze. I sleep in a bed of salt because it brings me energy. Even witches used salt, imagine that, to bring forth negative energy or vice versa to bring forth beneficial elements, warm and positive energy. And then, it’s the fifth element.

One day while walking through Washington Square with Tibino, I discovered a book vendor who had this book: Salt, the fifth element, a tattered old book from 1948. I bought it immediately and got goose bumps, a force captured me. That book was waiting only for me.

She bought this book and also covered it with salt. I see her emotional involvements and her quasi scientific explanations in terms of Gestalt theory. The discovery of an object does not depend on an external force but from an inner demand. That is way places like Washington Square or Porta Portese in Rome are interesting because they allow us to discover things that we are looking for even though we are not aware of it.

BW: This book contains the entire history of salt in America, it became my bible and I decided to cover with big black salt crystal. As you know black contains all the other colors, it’s the king of colors. In all my one person shows I also display this book on a table, which people can look through.

MM: You found this book by chance, but how did you end up in New York?

BW: Not by chance, it was a deeply premeditated choice. You know Miriam, as an artist in Italy, when you finish your studies, what future do you have? To make a living you must teach or find some other work. Instead New York is filled with endless possibilities for success. In New York, if you have an idea and believe in yourself, eventually you will find this success.

I was lucky because before coming to New York I already had my artistic vision.

You can imagine New York as a creative city, you believe you will be stimulated just by living here. But this happen to people who already has a strong personality. In Manhattan there is so much energy and competition that you can be destroyed by the city itself.

I discovered salt in Italy. I came to New York with salt in my mind. If I were born in America, probably I would have never got the idea of salt. American people are not aware about the history of salt, like Mediterranean does, which is a long and significant story which belong to our old continent. Therefore I am a sort of pioneer for a Mediterranean message in America.

Samuele Mazza compared myself to a female Ulisse. He imagined myself swimming in the ocean from Europe towards America bringing as a gift to the new land, the only thing remaining on my skin, salt. I found this was the nicest thing written on myself, so true, so beautiful.

As you know, I didn’t speak English when I arrived, I didn’t know anybody, it was very hard in the beginning. My only weapon was my esthetical language, which I was always aware of.

Then, during the years, I began to experiment with salt in different directions, ambient, space, art and life…

Thanks to salt, I obtained the card to live in the USA for the artistic research. I am very thankful to USA, the only country who let people come in for the artistic research. Is automatic than to get the green card. Actually I got the 01 card, which also the Nobel prize for research has.

The city of New York invests on young people. In Italy, even if you have your own idea, they don’t let you go on. This happens especially for two reasons: first, there aren’t many economic means to invest on research. Second, there is too much generation competition. If you are very young, they don’t give you any respect. So, in Italy there are a series of problems that you don’t find in America.

MM: Which is the price you had to pay for living in New York?

BW: The human relationship. You get help for your carrier, but you lost the Mediterranean warmth. Americans are always talking about money, there is a very few time for the other person, for feelings, to have a skin contact.

MM: I look around. It is an autarchic kingdom, but comfortable. The giant home theatre screen is tuned on the channel blue Klein. It is always about liquid crystals stuff, I think, a very technological version of salt. And exactly like on the monochromatic blue screen in the Derek Jarman movie, Bettina’s voice is defining the discreet plot of her existence...

BW: Until now, I worked with the Italian gallerist Marisa Del Re, whom contacts were especially Americans. This has been my second lucky, to be followed and protected, in the early ‘90s, by a very influent gallery.

MM: In your work I can recognize the influence of Burri, Fautrier, even Manzoni. When you arrived in America, which artists are grafted on your research?

BW: My work has been defined “hot minimalism”. Effectively, I follow the European materic tradition, Tapes, Burri, Informal, linked to the mental abstract severity of the American Minimalist artists Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt etc…My salt’s surfaces come out from the union of two languages and cultures: the European Informal and the cold American Minimalism.

MM: This is clear even from the titles of your works…

BW: It’s true, because I am a warm Mediterranean woman, and that’s why I choose salt. My artistic research is not in the line of a cold painting at zero degrees. Infact, inside the salt texture, we find a deep warmth: the thin shadow game of signs, a finger-print, the movement of my hand in the salt, therefore a trace, the full-empty shadow game of the material itself. In this less there is the more, less is more, as in the tradition of Bauhaus and of the analytical line professed by Filiberto Menna. I met Menna when I was studying at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. My bible in those years was “The analytical line in modern art”, a very difficult book, that I studied and understood deeply. After I met him personally in Rome, he wrote the presentation for my first show in Milan, at the Milan Gallery.

Only a very analytical mind like him could wrote such a shrewd remarks on my painting, having intuition on my succeeding work. He visit my studio at Navigli before I left for America, in 1988. I was working than with neutral colors, gray, white and black, I still didn’t have developed the newyorker colors, like the red traffic-light, the yellow-cab, all Manhattan colors. Menna had already identified my trespassing in the architecture and space. I didn’t think rationally about it in those years, because I was totally involved in painting. I still did not realized the sculpture side of my work that he had already  seen. Effectively, my paintings have always been sculptures from the beginning, destined to be living sculptures.

MM: In which sense?

BW: Think about the salt bed, an extremely minimal work of art, consisting of a big plexiglas box containing salt. It is my real bed. It has also other functions: a big table for group dinners and to play to backgammon. Can you play to backgammon? This bed is a living sculpture with multiple functions. When I was a baby, I had recurring nightmares, always waking up upside down. Don’t you ever had such a loss of position control? I could wake up totally topsy-turvey, lost in space, that is why I always dreamt to sleep in a very large bed at 360 degrees, in which I could go to sleep from one side, waking up in a different side, and there is no difference at all…I never liked a traditional bedroom, the cube, the normal room. I adore my large sitting room, both living room and bedroom, that allows me to sleep in an open space, close to my paintings.

MM: Literally “in” the painting, I would say…

BW: Yes, I am all the same with my salt, I am by this time an experienced in it…Please come, I would let you see my salt bathroom and my salt kitchen…

MM: Going through the large rooms of her studio, you can realized to be in a proper kingdom of the queen of salt.

Salt kitchen: in Bettina Werner’s painting, food is evoked in an ambivalent way, emerging in them a very strong component of oral gratification, that goes parallel to the visual one (very important, in fact, is the value conferred on chromatism).

While the artist is progressively identifying herself with the material,

an almost molecular melting (the woman is made by salt, the penis is made by salt etc.), the salt painting brings the observer back to a very primitive phase of oral-passive instinctive development.

Salt drags along a double quality of euphoric-disphoric ingredient (pleasant-unpleasant, eatable-uneatable)

Salt is a hard material implying activity, producing a rough sound of rubbing and. At the same time, in an imaginary semantic spectrum on salt, it comes out the idea of aridity (I think about Cartagine covered by salt as an act of definitive distruction), crumbling down and petrification, acidity and preservation (I think about the first refrigerator of the history, invented by Duke Federico da Montefeltro using layers of salt alternatively to layers of straw, in the subterranean cellar of Palazzo Ducale di Urbino). I think about the small sack salt used behind ancient painting against humidity. With a rapid conceptual switch in a very Giulio Paolini’s mood, Bettina has turned a very rough material in a noble one. Last, I got the image of the city of Venice, eaten away from salt at its base, ruined, exfoliating and transuding salt from its imbued with sea walls. If a whole city is based in salt, is it possible to think about a whole house of salt?

BW: Yes, I have projects in mind about it, particularly a huge salt room with modular panels on walls and ceiling, with salt spread out all over the ground: the room of knowledge, of my own conscience. I had this idea in 1991, but the gallery always preferred to expose paintings, even because the space of the gallery was not appropriate for the installation.

After that I began to think about the egg and the prospective room. I drown a renaissance room with different salt consistence. The flight point was an egg, referring to Piero della Francesca. The egg as a container, origin of thought and a birth’s symbol. Looking at the painting at a certain distance, it looked like to go into the real prospective field of the room.

After that, I begun realizing my living table-sculptures named “WerisBetty?”, a linguistic game on my initials. For whom will by the work, is like to invite me for dinner, but I will never arrive…

MM: As you are, in fact, an unseizable woman, then you made a woman by salt. How did you get the idea?

BW: At the end of the millennium, I wanted to make a gift to all women. In 2000, woman will not be anymore object of desire, but subject of knowledge. She will be a woman with “salt in her head”, that is an Italian way to say meaning very intelligent, a woman not only beautiful, attractive in her esthetical shapes, but even with a strong personality…

MM: But she is rather petrificated, as in the Bible happens to be to Lot’s wife…”Now, the wife of Lot turned behind to look and begun a statue of salt. (Genesis, 19, 26)

BW: A very intelligent woman, normally, is punished, and destined to be only watched, admired, desidered…The woman, today, is idealized from man, which is afraid and fugitive.

MM: I see a radical difference in respect to your old work…

BW: This is demonstrating the never ending evolution of my working with salt.

This work represents a strong statement, is not a figurative sculpture, but a conceptual one, and philosophic. I will realize more salt women, with a similar physic, but different face. The sculpture I have shown in Monte Carlo had a Greece style, being the first one, it could have been a salt woman with no time. The one you are seeing now which I will show in Villa Rufolo, in Ravello, could belong to a black woman, but definitely remains of a 2000 woman, with no race, no color, a free winning woman.

MM: Touching the statue, it reminds me of the first male body representation in Greek art, the Kouros. The statue seems a female equivalent of the Kouros. They have in common the same rigid pose, moving a leg little by little. The relation between stillness and movement has a centrality in the Western Art, and now also the woman is beginning to walk.

BW: It is true. In the whole art history, the woman has been seen as Venus, Mother or Madonna, but never as a woman. Is my salt woman, perhaps, the first one?


MM quotations

Previous Succ.
"Ogni artista della seconda metà del secolo nasce all'insegna dell'esperienza diretta o indiretta della guerra, e dal modo in cui risponde simbolicamente alla morte, alla perdita e al lutto attraverso la propria creatività" (Miriam Mirolla, 2001)
"Any individual, before he can be considered an artist, is an explosive mixture of collective biography and individual pathology" (Miriam Mirolla, 1999)
"Gli Stimoli Psycho-Pop sono degli autoritratti spietati, antigraziosi, ready-made psichici che conducono la nostra percezione verso il limite del guardabile" (Miriam Mirolla, 2011)
“Nelle diverse poetiche delle giovani artiste del nostro tempo riconosciamo un comune denominatore, ovvero la ricerca di una nuova fisionomia femminile capace di tenere uniti desiderio e creatività, corpo e mente, come mai la cultura patriarcale era riuscita a proporre finora”. (Miriam Mirolla, 2010)
“Grande è la fiducia che riponiamo nel giovane artista. Cosa ci aspettiamo? Semplicemente che cambi la storia introducendo suo malgrado un nuovo sistema di valori.” (Miriam  Mirolla, 2010)
“Mi chiedo quali siano le sensazioni e i pensieri di un giovane artista oggi, quali siano i suoi convincimenti e dove affondi il proprio ideale dell’io. Come siano articolati i suoi dubbi e i momenti di incertezza. I sintomi del malessere e le forme del benessere. Da dove tragga forza per difendere i propri contenuti emotivi e intellettivi. E quale possa essere il motore mobile della sua ricerca estetica.” (Miriam Mirolla, 2010)
“L’arte ha lo scopo di allungare il nostro sguardo sulle relazioni d’amore” (Miriam Mirolla, 2010)
“Il rapporto del soggetto con la presenza fantasmatica è il nuovo asse conoscitivo del XXI secolo” (Miriam Mirolla, 2010)
“La realtà più la sua interpretazione è oggi la linea maestra dell’arte, scopo e prospettiva, futuro dell’immagine e immagine del futuro” (Miriam Mirolla, 2010)


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