One of the things that makes me happy in life are conversations with people, giving me kernels of wisdom and guidance that I can readily apply to my life and to the projects I’m bringing forward. Some of the people I talk with regularly and exchange opinions and mutual suggestions are my closest friends, Laslo, Roberto, Giovanna. Or family – my dad – though being an apprehensive dad who I know would always advise me for the safest route, or my uncle Uma Gargiulo, who I don’t see nearly as often, but every time we get to talk is a revelation; I end up walking home with a stronger sense of what I’m doing with my work and creative life.
There are all these people, and then there are the teachers. They are a different story from friends and family, because unlike them, they know me much less. Most importantly they don’t really want to enter my world, or are interested to really know my problems in depth. They rather offer their teachings, their world vision, their way of doing things, and give me feedback on how I’m doing on that path. For a chance, I have always considered a very good thing having people who are much less about understanding, thinking, talking, explaining, and much more about acting, doing, executing. You know, what makes for a prolific writer always open to doubt and reconsider the so-called “truth”, sometimes also makes for an indecisive person. To paraphrase writer Ryan Holiday: “If I was good at putting into practice stoic teaching I won’t have the need to study it. People who are already good at it just do it, they don’t need to conceptualise them and write about it.”
In the end, it is all about interpretation efforts. And power relations ultimately manifest in the intepretative effort one must put in, versus the other person. Take women. For centuries, women had to interpret every slight signs of bad mood of their spouses in order to understand what was best to cook for dinner, or how to ask things during a soccer match, whereas men often weren’t obliged to give the same amount of attention back, and everybody considered that to be quite normal. Or take contemporary art; the audience must do a massive effort to interpret artworks, whereas the artists doesn’t really need to give a damn about the public. So contemporary art has more power. That is why most people hate it.
However, it is interesting to see how the person who has to do the biggest interpretative effort is the one that ends up with the biggest gain in the long run. This is very counter-intuitive. The person who constantly expose herself to art which she doesn’t understand, will stretch her mind to the maximum to try to get what the artist “is trying to say”. My watercolour teacher Pasquale told me that when he was in Hong Kong for three months, visiting his girlfriend’ s family and not speaking a word of Chinese, he has to work a lot on empathy and he desperately sought for things in common. That made him incredibly resourceful. Likewise, when we read a book, we definitely don’t expect to have a balanced relationship to the writer: we are required to enter his world – but we do it anyways because we are willing to learn without giving anything in exchange – maybe a handful of money to the publisher and that’s it. Likewise, women or black people learned to be patient, resilient and read unspoken signs from their years of being tied in an uncomfortable place in society. I’m not advocating for people not rebel. As an ex punk, and a long-time lover of revolutions, I know that as resilient as the individual can be, there is a sense of justice for an entire category or group of people that calls for change. When the subaltern condition is not dependent on a choice, frustration, anger and hate are just human response. And who that ignores the human nature will be punished – or something along those lines.
They say we must have three persons in life. One to learn from, a person we have an equal-to-equal relationship to, and a person to teach to. My curator friend Roberto – who lately prefer us to refer to him as “all-rounded-intellectual” – has shifted that paradigm into books. He’s learning from “Introduction to Analytic Philosophy”, he’s in a dialogue with poet Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet” (y’know… that’s how we do it us all-rounded-intellectuals) and he’s putting everything he’s learning into the book he himself is writing as a way to give back (generous fellow!). I might make affectionate fun of him – never as much as he bullies me – but in all honesty, I find this way of approaching one’s own intellectual life and framing his own human experience quite wonderful. This is why Roberto is a precious friend who lifts my spirit even though he’s definitely not a positive person at all. This is why I consider the popular motto of surrounding yourself only with positive people being bullshit. I’d rather say, surround yourself with interesting people. Good energy can be not only in laughter – though it is definitely there – but also in ideas and reflections. We are not going for happiness in the most pristine, idealistic view of the world. We are rather going for meaning, beauty, energy, joy. At least I do.
This is why in my life, of the few teachers I had, I can count also a couple of the so-called “dark teachers”. They were certainly not Darth Vader material, but still quite peculiar figure in their way of going about life. You might argue that I could have search for a better teacher then. I guess that can be true if I’d put my mind to it – but all of my teachers just naturally happened on my path, and in the bad lessons they thought me perhaps just as much as the thing I came to them to learn. Like, they taught me how not to act, what not to do. You must also know that I take my teachers in part for their teachings per se, in part for their story. This prevents me to believe in the narrative of the perfect master. Where there is a shortcoming in character, I made up with their story – which is both cases was quite rocambolesque.
I have been thinking about teachers in these past few days as I have been in Sorrento and met with one of my “white teachers” – as opposed to dark ones. Sorrento has always proved challenging for me, as this was basically the reality that I escaped to run to the eternal city Rome. Sorrento is a place of breathtaking beauty, however I have always struggled to find my people there. I have been resourceful in many ways throughout the years – just like everybody – and I started hanging out with the most unlikely characters, which you won’t normally associate with a young girl. This is what you do in a small town where people of your age don’t share any of your passions. And what happens with trans-generational friendships, is that the young person becomes the student, and the older position themselves as the teacher. Maybe it’s a bit of a family pattern too. When he was a kid my uncle Jo started hanging out with an upbeat figure, a nobleman in disgrace, who taught him how to sail. He was also schooled in the routine of painting by my great grand-father, an antique-seller and ex parachuter during WWII, who apparently was a larger-than-life figure in Sorrento, half-artist, half-businessmen. This ethos continues to these days with my brother Leandro, who is learning to sail on the dinghy with Antonetti, a friendly and loony retired captain who started a small sailing club keeping the tradition of the “Vela a Tarchia” alive – that’s the traditional small wooden sail boats from Sorrento. I feel it is so cool to have these unexpected relations popping out!
For me, it was the painters from Positano. Long story short, for three years, from roughly when I was seventeen, eighteen to when I turned twenty, I started to spend summers on the Amalfi Coast, in that pastel-coloured, beautiful place which is Positano. I have no words to describe how beautiful and surreal the whole place is. And though it is so touristy it is hard to move these days, people there are still devoted to Mediterranean beauty in a way that lift the spirit. As Pasquale put it: “Positano was build by artists, by people who didn’t conform the bourgeois thinking and decided to do things their own way.”
I have mentioned my watercolour teacher Pasquale two times already, because he has been one the my maestri. Indeed, that curious girl doing watercolours on the beach was readily adopted by the artists painting on the square in front of the beach, and for three years, before the group disbanded, I became one of them. Since I was doing watercolours, it just came natural that it was Pasquale to take me under his wing. Beyond art, we had a lot of shared interests, including a fascination for Asia, an attention to small details of beauty, and a love for Nietzsche, that we will discuss sitting on the stone bench in the pink, purple and blue Positano sunset, after the daily painting was done. These were really aesthetic times, filled with joy, which I encapsulated in my comic book Fronn’ ‘e Limon’.
Then other adventures came, I moved to Rome and did the art academy, I feel in love with a guy half-philosopher half-skater, I travelled to Indonesia, I moved to Australia, I went two times to Singapore, I started practicing martial arts. Pasquale was always there every summer I’d go back home. He has always been a person I can do interesting discussion with – though very one-sided from his part – he loves going on a tangent. Luckily these tangent are very interesting for me. As Singapore friend and writer Paul once said of artist Lee Wen, describing his sometimes confusing but insightful way of talking and thinking: “When you talk to him, you see how he’s genial in his own very peculiar way.” To me, some people’s funk is not about clarity, it is about spirit. And as such you ought to take it. Over time, Pasquale sort of understood what I was doing with my life, shifting from art to writing as a job. Still half convinced I was still pursuing a career as a watercolorist for art galleries, he was never short of food for thought, generous with his time and conveying that special appreciation for life only Positano painters – constantly in touch with beauty – possess.
Paint as you fight
Yesterday I trotted down the overcrowded bus, down the stairs bringing me to the beach, and found Pasquale in front of his aisle as always, sweaty and tanned as expected. He was folding the painting he just finished of the mountain of house which people identify Positano with. Over coffee and the bar on the beach, he told me that: “You must paint the same way you do your martial arts, with the whole of your body”. He told me that in some unspecified place he visited in China martial artists had also to master ink painting. That doesn’t surprises me, in the light of what I read in the book “There Are No Secrets” – also given to me by one of my mentors, or future mentor, who knows! In the book Professor Cheng Man Ch’ing, subject of the book, was mastering the four of Chinese arts: Tai Chi, Medicine, Chinese painting and Chinese calligraphy. Every progress in one of these fields would also benefit the others. If you think of Ancient Greece, or the Renaissance, this idea of completeness of the human being is recurring. It is from Cartesio on that we started separating mind and body, and there is where our mental categories and behaviours started going in a different direction. According to Pasquale, it was from the beginning that east and west started following opposite directions, the west trying to imitate the world, and the east knowing it was impossible right from the start and focusing on energy instead. Of course, both operated from feeling, but coming at it from opposite viewpoints.
At a given point east and west started converging, in artists like Mondrian, Paul Klee or Emilio Vedova in the West, or Wu Guanzhong in the East. I remember Pasquale always mentioning this name, but I didn’t really looked into it until I saw his show “Beauty Beyond Form” at the National Gallery of Singapore in 2015. “He is not interested in describing nature, just in giving a feel for it, a couple of brushstrokes, and it is done: you have your tree. A couple of squares, here we go: you have your buildings. He knows we are not reproducing reality, but we are playing around human’s capacity of interpreting reality from lines and shapes on a two dimensional space. Guanzhong is not about the tree, he’s about the concept of the three, and you don’t need much to recall it to memory.” I deeply liked this idea of Guanzhong evoking reality with quick and resolute brushstrokes. I asked Pasquale if this is a simplicity that needs to go through a more traditional kind of mastery, or you can start off with this sensitivity straight away. “It’s not about the craft per se, it is about intuition. These shapes, also a child could paint them, but I’d take a very skillful and intelligent child to do that.”
This is something I’m experimenting with in my comic book, which right now has three different styles combined together, almost as a comeback to my most pure art. This encapsulates everything I have learned so far. There is the most traditional way I’ve been doing it, the layout, the pencils, the watercolour and the ink – very time consuming. Right now it also feel a bit rigid to me, but the descriptive character of the style helps me when I need to put on paper a face that really really wants to convey what I have in my mind. Here, I can erase and work it out again, allowing myself more complex pages. Then there is the cut-and-paste technique I’m also employing. I’m drawings straight with pen, realizing much more lively and spontaneous figures, but of course it makes it harder to build a page in a structured way. A lot is given to chance. Finally, there is the all-watercolours pages, which for me right now are the most fulfilling part. This is truly a direct extension of the soul, like Guanzhong – but of course not being nearly there – it doesn’t describe but it evokes. It means working with positive and negatives, and really feel that if I keep on exploring this medium in comics, it can really become a complement to my martial arts and my poetics in general. I already have a tons of ideas for my comics just with this technique! Talking with Pasquale, I had the validation that is not a bad things to not painstakingly focusing on details if this is not your thing. You can also go for the feeling and the need to tell a story with fresh brushstrokes, as long as the energy is flowing. In short, I was granted permission to embrace my funk. Than, of course this funk translates in the so called “arrunzoneria” in other fields, and there it must be tamed. In my journalism for example, I’m editing, editing, editing all the time, and this gives me a sort of pleasure in the absorption and the “well done”. Like grooming your eyebrows. The forbidden pleasures of nitpicking.
Pasquale is gaining weight since he stopped going for his morning run for a few months because of a knee injury. In his down time, he looked up on the internet the meaning of the word diet in different languages. In English and Italian “dieta” comes from latin diaeta, which derives again from greek δίαιτα, dìaita, “way of life”.
He paired this information with a documentary on the longest-living people in the world he saw recently. “Long life is not just about food. Is about lifestyle, which is something a lot more wholesome.” This idea was backed up by the fact that, according to this documentary, the oldest people in the world are found in Okinawa, Japan, Cilento, Italy, and Sardinia, Italy. He noted how the Sardinian in particular have what can be considered a very bad diet, with a lot of meat and cheese. Ask any dietist and he’d tell you to keep these two item at bay, or eat them very moderately. “And yet, many of these Sardinians live over 100 years. This is because the lifestyle, which not only is active but also comprises a strong social structure, so everyone has their place in the family and the community.” It might sound like a quantum leap, but to this meant that if you try to make the best decisions possible and according to your spirit, the rest will fall into place. This is perhaps because I deem my passions and interests are leading me to what I think it is a continuously improving lifestyle. I can change what I can control, and trust the rest will catch up on virtuous cycle. Not everything will be easy, some things will need hard work and struggle, but ultimately we know what it is right for us, or we can learn it. All the good decision will be accompanied by an intuitive sense of ease. This I know, it’s a sort of faith. But for now it seem working well for me.
This idea has proved trough after I’m going back on a good route, after days of bad and unfocused mood. Indeed, in the days leading from the Biennale and after, I felt I was often out of alignment, going back to my old behavioural mechanisms of defence. And that was not good neither for myself nor for the people around me. I was tired, I lost my joy superpower and most of all, I couldn’t feel that deep appreciation and gratitude for all the beautiful things in my life I used to me so attuned to. I consciously knew that these were there, I was aware that I was having a bad attitude and I had to change my thought pattern if I wanted to tap back into harmony and happiness, but just couldn’t do it right off the bat. So these past few days I have decided to go back to all those habits and routines that put me into alignment. Sounds so new agey, but it’s true. I know how it feels like when I’m in a good place. This place does exist, I have been there. I know I need to the way back, not going on pilgrimage, not hoping things around me will change, but just recaliber.
This is why I started to wake up at 6am every morning again, and it feel so good. I usually start working at 8, so I have plenty of time to do half an hour yoga or simply stretching, and ten minutes of meditation. This is very important as it allows me to cultivate empty space to enhance concentration in other areas of my life. And it has worked miracles these past few days!
Before going to sleep, I started reading half-an-hour, or an hour a book. This is an habit I used to have as a child and gave me a lot of joy, and is also good for concentration. I’m actually trying to re-build that feeling of complete wonder I used to experience as a little girl really delving into books. In the past few years I have had multiple books on the run – some for fun, some for work – and little time to dedicate to them. Of course I’d never commit to any of them. The book I have on my bedside directly relates to the some themes that are emerging with increasing clarity in my life. Simplicity is definitely one. In the martial arts it translates into “cleaning up my movements”. The concept of getting rid of useless movements or bad habits that modern living had us used to, to get back to a more natural way of moving, primal and buried in all human beings.
With good habits and clarity of mind, I was able to give the right importance to not neglect some of the most fulfilling an important areas of my life. It all started from a jive of excitement I felt on the spine with the publication on a new book about Australian contemporary art Australiana to Zeitgeist, by Melissa Loughnan. Or perhaps it was because I started transcribing the interview with the inspiring Singaporean artist Adeline Kueh. Whatever it was, I suddently remembered how much I love journalism and book writing. I remembered the sheer pride I used to feel al the time for having been able to build a job from scratches. I recall the wonder to have been guided by what I have wanted to do since I was a kid, making my own magazine in primary school, and working with chance and love for adventure to make it happen in a way which is more interesting that I could have ever dreamt of. It took a lot of work, a lot of book, websites, readings, listening on the educating side, leaning to speak and write English from a fragile language background, building up the confidence of going around in Europe and Asia to do interviews, making plans, pitching, writing a book, curate shows, organize, contact, sort my life to accommodate that career that I created for myself. I was so proud to make my living with my words and I’d love every part of the process, from pitch to publication. And today I’m treating it as a normal job that I just applied for. No way! If I respect myself, I must be constantly aware that the fact I’m doing this every morning is because of my efforts and love, and this is a direct expression of myself. If I remember that, if I retrace the constant presence of writing in my life since I was a kid, honouring the craft will come natural.
This is why I’m all fired up to continue the Singapore book. I was about to make a step back after the Venice Biennale, but then, helped also by the wise suggestion of Singapore collector Brian who was visiting Rome who basically told me in a very gentle and reasonable way to not be a whiny girl who couldn’t finish the job (as The Punisher said to Devil: “I think you’re an half measure, you’re a man who can’t finish the job”). From that conversation on, I started putting myself together and remember what is true to me.
Pursuing the Kalos Kagathos’ ain’t easy. For example, I was aware that part of this pride for my own resilient and passionate spirit went into ninjutsu. I am still very proud of the fact that I’m here day in day out, showing up no matter how I felt, trusting that ninjutsu will fix everything, even physical or mental tiredness (and it always works!) I was proud of my withstanding of pain and the overcoming of my limits; this paired with the friendliness of the environment made this discipline so special and central in my life. The other day, before running to catch the train to Sorrento after lesson, trainer Fabio made my day telling me that my obsession with ninjutsu reminded him a bit of when he first started out; he wanted to learn it all, no matter if he looked too insistent (he knows that now that I have added an extra lesson to my training I tend to apologized all the time half-jokingly; like I’d walk in the dojo the next day after the evening lesson saying: “Hey Fabio, long time no see!”) But what I’m learning is that if you commit to something and you really believe in what you are doing, then there is no need to apologize. Otherwise there is always the option of stay home.
Together with other friends, the other day I also went up a few grades, and now I have a neat nice diploma with intelligible Japanese writing. In one of his extra-short speeches, sensei noted something that is good to recall to mind: each one is in one’s own personal journey, which is very different from anyone else. Grade is just a number, each one of us knows their strengths – which we must keep building on – and our weaknesses – which we must correct. In my case, I know my path consists in keeping close to my dedication and devotion to the discipline, while also getting better at focus and concentration. Right now my training looks like six regular lessons of one hour and a half four times a week. When I’m in Sorrento, I’d do the solitary training, working on myself, trying to understand my body mechanics in a calm space, observing my posture and taking my time to fix what I think are errors. I’m not increasing this solo time yet as I think there are still many things I’m not able to seize by myself, and I need guidance to not train at errors. Also, whenever I got the chance, usually on Wednesday between one lesson and another, I will do some free sparring with friends, testing our ninjutsu skills in impromptu fights.
So, in order to pursue this damned Kalos Kagathos, I have founded created new metaphysical categories for my own thinking to look at all my different efforts and understand them is terms of quality and purpose. I related them to the five elements.
Journalism is earth, because work are really my foundations, what anchors me to reality, to other people, to the need of making a living. Furthermore, work is not only necessity to make money, but also to stay sane. It’s a training ground for pragmatism, as philosophy can be dangerous.
Comics are water, because they flow with everything I do, through all the little cracks of my activity, willing or not, they always find a way, the go around things. The need to make and draw stories can be powerful as a wave and drag me into a current.
Ninjutsu is fire, because it’s a powerful, energetic sometimes incontrollable force, which is resilient and the more I give to it, the more it grows higher.
The book is air, because it allows me to elevate my thinking, to understand the world from a higher perspective than the practical one (which as I said is just as important). It also allows me to bring my work to the next level and open up new opportunities, let me fly around the world.
Meditation is empty space. I’m still super new to this one, but determined to embark on this practice because I can see how it can benefits all these other areas, make a quiet space to cultivate the creative process.
The same I’m living now
A beautiful thought to end with. Pasquale asked me what kind of life would I lead, if I had a lot of money. We replied almost simultaneously: “Pretty much the same I’m living now!” There is so much beauty in living a simple life. For Pasquale, that means running every morning, then going to work all day in front of the beach in one of the most beautiful places in the world – which also happens to be an incredibly interesting observatory for the fluxes of people and humanity in general. From Indian Tycoons, to suburban Americans to deeply-accented Sicilians, to local pretty boys and girls; in one afternoon I have seen such an incredible variety of people. Of course, having worked in that stretch of beach for years, Pasquale has learned to read their behaviour. “And I even get paid to do that!”
He said that the only two things he would change are getting a bigger house to invite his friends over, and perhaps do workshops around the world, like the one he did in South Africa: “You know, every morning they brought us on safari to see the animals, and after looking at some of them, you unconsciously start imitating them. You look at a leopard, and you start moving like it.” “Well, that’s where the martial arts started!” I said. He nodded: “The directed observation of nature. Nature influences you, even if you don’t want to.” He unfolded a big thick rough paper and showed me a wonderful watercolour of a olive tree he painted adventuring in the countryside around Positano. “If you live here it’s inevitable you get influenced by nature.” This is so true. The nature of the Amalfi Coast, that beautiful sea and that rocky coast, the olive trees, the pastel-colour architecture of Positano, the golden sandals and the symbol of the Pistrice everywhere remind me of the non-conformist spirit that always looks for its own special balance. Its own special harmony.