“Scholastic years” are perhaps more meaningful for many in framing seasons of life than actual “calendar years”. Summer is the great divider, and for me September has often corresponded in looking for a new house and resuming old and new plans. And yet, the end of the year is a great opportunity to stop and look back at the recent past, review one’s own narrative, look at mind-shifts, shift of priorities, meditate on lesson, remember the great moments and trying to get to know oneself better (hopefully).
For starters – I know I might sound like Pollyanna at times – but I am so grateful for the life I have. There is so much interestingness, richness, beauty, I am overwhelmed. It is about choosing about things different passions, and they are all beautiful. Some days I might be a bit slower, rarely I can became a bit lazy, but I’m so blessed to have the behavioural instruments today to find solutions to the tiny, everyday challenges that life throws at me. This year in particular I made every obstacle a way to grow. I learned patience – never enough, but definitely practicing it.
In terms of my work, namely journalism and writing, this year has been smooth and steady. I know numbers don’t really count, but I enjoy keeping track; so this year have written 38 articles and realized 4 video-reports (In 2016 it was 38 articles and 11 video-reports and in 2014 it was 21 articles.)
In February I have started collaborating for the Hong Kong-based magazine CoBo Social, writing mainly about Indonesian and Singaporean artists. My editor is wonderful, the platform is sleek and full of interesting content. I couldn’t ask for a coolest art magazine to write for. Of course, that spurred me to churn out ideas at a super-fast rate, thanks also to the thriving art scene in Southeast Asia, which never fails to amaze and interest me.
Talking with friends and other people, I never forget how lucky I am to have been able to create this job for myself. I truly love what I am doing as a writer, it is really an expansion of myself and my interest. Every commission I get from editors feels like a gift. It is an opportunity to explore the world, talk with people and challenge my worldview. Some pieces have been tough to write as I got very far from my comfort zone, but these are the ones I learned the most from. My editor at Global Comment for example gave me great feedback and really made me look at my writing from a different angle.
Writing about artists in the Middle East and, more recently, Central Asia, also was a surge of energy for my curiosity. The desire to visit those places in huge! Sadly, some collaborations came to an end as well, or stopped for the time being. The issue is always the same: shortage of funding (from their part), or lack of time (from my part).
Indeed, I have tried to be very deliberate on what I spend my time on, and the direction I want my career to take. I said no to most curatorial and speaking opportunities that came my way, if not aligned with what I was researching. At the end of the day I know what I want to do is writing, although I’m happy to contribute to curatorial projects if the opportunity feels right. For example, this year I wrote a critical essay for the exhibition “Attualità Indonesiane” at the Naples’ art gallery Il Ramo D’Oro, and participated in panel discussion on artist Isabella Tirelli’s work at MACRO, the contemporary art museum of Rome.
Aside for seeing the amazing 2016 Architecture Biennale in Venice, a few trips to Milan for interviews and exhibitions, going back to Naples and Sorrento on a regular basis, some “gite fuoriporta” like i Castelli Romani, Procida, Reggia di Caserta, I have traveled relatively little this year. The reason was the two major commitments I took at the end of 2015 for the following year. The first was that I writing my book on Singapore Contemporary Art, the second is my delving into martial arts.
Let’s start with the Singapore Book. Speaking with Elizabeth Pisani – author of “Indonesia Etc. – she confirmed me that your second book is always so much harder to write than the first. Indeed, the Indonesia book was relatively easy to write for me. Although I was geographically all over the places in the year I wrote it, the process was quite linear, and the book which came out was honest, informative, and entertaining. The second book, based on my year-long research on contemporary art in Melbourne and Gen Y artists, never made it through. I invested so much time in it, but in the end I just couldn’t muster the interest to bring it to completion. I ditched the process at the end of 2014.
So Singapore (actually Madripoor, that’s the title) will be my official second book. Throughout the year I really delved into the ideas explored in the Singaporean contemporary art system and discussed with the artists, curators and people I have interviewed. The nice part is that, when writing a book you are probably influenced by at least one friend or a person you are discussing your ideas with. For my Indonesia book it was my skater-philosopher partner-in-crime Lucas, whose structured and clear approach to thinking and writing influenced me a great deal when it came to put word on the page (and even organize my ideas through hundreds and hundreds of post-its).
For this book, I bounced ideas back and forth with my friend Roberto D’Onorio, a Roman critic-curator who was also working on his book. His phenomenological approach had a great impact on me, and it reflected in the way I have structured my work. Of course I didn’t gave up post it, as the wall of my old room in Piazza Re di Roma was carpeted with them.
Once I decided on the core themes and book structure, I realized I needed more research. This is something very important which I learned this year. There is no point in rushing to the next thing, the next country, the next research. Going in depth is as valuable and going in breadht – and these two things are in the end interchangeable. Learning the macro from the micro, as the wonderful Josh Waitzkin would put it (I can’t even start to tell you how much I look up to this guy!)
While I always liked to geek out on things, it is also true that it wasn’t really my jam to dwell on specific projects. My approach has always been that of a journalist, rather than a Phd researcher; once you realize these two things are interconnected though, it start make sense dwell on specific fields a bit longer. In the past I would have done a straightforward book on contemporary art in Singapore, but this time I want to give the themes I have been treating another more in-depth look. I know this process is a bit dangerous as well, as the more time you spent on a project, the more it changes. Meaning, not evolving; just changing! I have seen this with my Singapore book, I have seen it with my graphic novel.
Ah, the graphic novel! Let’s go there. Four years ago I decided to put on hold my comics, both as a maker and as a reader, as it is such a primal force for me that it sweeps away everything else. When I do my comics I don’t need to get out of my house, eat, drink, relate with other people, nothing. The only thing that counts is to draw the freaking damn story. While I have been writing for magazine since I was seventeen, it is in the past four-five year that I have really consistently built my career as a journalist and art critic, curator, art villain whatever. It was a thrilling, beautiful and adventurous journey and I loved every bit of it, with all its struggles, discouragement, cabin fever and challenges.
My father always say that is difficult to make the young understand that the amount of effort one put in a short bit of their life will be hugely influential on their future, and I kind of agree with that. In my case, it wasn’t future angst, but rather a sheer love for exploration, art people and ideas. And stories. It has been all about the story all along.
This year as well I knew that with an important book project on the go and my work to keep pursuing, I couldn’t afford distractions. So the stories I would tell will be filtered by my writing, not my drawing. Of course, in these four years I never stopped drawing. I have been working on the main characters Kade and Honey Chicken and the core ideas for the story since I was in Australia in 2013. But back then I was also travelling the world and was in a beautiful, tormented relationship which I spent a lot of energies on, so living more the outer world than the inner world, as Pico Iyer would put it.
So I was supposed to finish my Singapore book in spring, and then work on the comic book that summer, but of course in the summer I was still beginning the third draft of the Singapore book, and realized I had to go back. There was absolutely no time and mental space for the graphic novel. Except that when I got back to Rome, the comics came back as a rush, as X-Men superpowers after they were long-time deprived from them.
Slowly but surely – a bit secretively – I started experimenting a bit with materials and way of drawing. What finally pushed me to buy the freaking watercolour paper was a chat with a boy with very sharp eyes, perfect cheekbones and jaw, and a special intensity to him. He’s not a chatty one, and I don’t really know him very well, but one evening, walking home, we talked about instinct, spirit and following one’s own nature. “Do what your instinct tells you to do and don’t give a fuck about the shoulds.”
Now, I’m definitely well predisposed to ideas delivered with special intensity by gritty, good-looking guys with high cheekbones. What happened though is that he moved something in me that was already there, ready to go. Obviously the very next day I was knocking at the art supply shop door. I ended up swept away in the current of the storytelling and drawing and my conception of time changed radically.
After a bit of frustration for realizing I was picking up almost where I left four years ago, and after a bit of re-adjusting my life, I felt whole. I’d work at my articles and writing in the morning in a co-working space near home, surrounded by Roman start-uppers, or in a café in the hipster area of Pigneto, with a cappuccino keeping me company. Then I’d go home and draw, and in the evening perhaps see some friends. I’d go to very few selected vernissages with my friend Roberto, waiting for this “comics-thing” to end so I could go back to serious stuff or watch movies with my friend Laslo and discussing comics with him. Working on the graphic novel feels like being in love.
Another major shift this year, has been drastically reduce planning. Around the summer I ditched my rigid planning structure, which implied a number of agendas, a productivity planner, deadlines and so on, and I relied much more, again, on my instinct, intuition and inner knowing. For the book, that was a necessary mind shift. Writing is like sailing: you have a direction, but you can’t predict the waves and the wind, you must adjust all the time. Same with the comics. And as for the work, once I gave up most of the commitments that weren’t writing, I would know every morning what I had to do. And I wanted to work on ideas as soon as they get commissioned, before the excitement for that idea dimished.
I also gave up counting my time and breaks. While relying on the habit of working every morning, I checked with my intuition if it was the case of working in the afternoon as well, or if it was enough for the day. I guess, when you love your job, you are naturally drawn to it. And if you are not, forcing your way into it isn’t always right. I gave this approach a shot, and it served me well. I worked with more flow than ever, and the count of my bad or slow days at work got dramatically down.
Of course, it was about balancing out spirit and market, bureaucracy and imagination, rule and freedom (just to go back to the themes of the Singapore book). In my case, I needed to give up a bit the bureaucratisation of the self, and learn a discipline more akin to an ethic embedded in the spirit and always available, rather that only at set times, potentially all the time, if it feels right. Of course it’s a privileged way of conceiving work, being a creative professional who has control over her schedule. However it is an approach I’d recommend to all freelancers who feel they are not working well in too of a rigid framework.
And then there is my third love, martial arts. It is now one year I have been practicing ninjutsu, and loving it more than ever. It gave me a whole new perception of my body, an additional way to interact with the world, a new perception of my day and priorities. I’m learning with the best people, not only on a technical level, but also on a human level. That dojo really feels like home (perhaps it is because I’m there every other day, doing 5 lesson a week). It gave me inspiration for the comic book, for my work and fills me with so much good energy.
I’m not sure at this stage I’ll able to defend myself in the street, but that is not the point. I’m learning so much more than that. It was what I was missing from my life. It is something I have always wanted to do, and when I finally did it, it became integral part of who I am.
Although I’m not naturally talented at learning body movements, I find myself absorbed in figuring out the movements of the jo, repeating the kata, practicing at home what I learned the day before at lesson. I’m forever grateful to my sensei who have created such an awesome community of little gritty ninjas. Exercising with them, getting to know the story of everyone and drawing their portrait gave me so much joy. I’m all in.
Walking around Sorrento with my mother yesterday, I was reflecting on the fact that it takes so little to make people happy. If you are not greedy, you need just a few elements to fill the right needs, and so little to take away their wellbeing and harmony, if these elements are missing. So I’m savouring every moment, and just for the fact I have lived them, I know it is possible to have a beautiful life full of joy, spirit and passion, like the one I am living today. Hopefully that light and those memories will guide me and give me hope in all the seasons of my life.
Next year will start with an adventure right off the bat. And then I’ll work towards seeing my Singapore book and my graphic novel into the world. Perhaps the new year will bring more aesthetic adventures, whether big or small, to share with my wonderful friends, and continue on the path of martial arts. All I wan is to keep growing, expanding, learning – and the best part these things are always available to us, wherever we are. Isn’t there any other way more beautiful than that?