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Mortality and Flatulence: a Conversation with Luca Dipierro

I first saw Luca Dipierro’s work in an animation he’d made for a book of short stories by Dawn Raffel.  It was a stop motion video based on a story in which a young woman and her father try to find their car in a parking lot one night in winter.  The wind off the lake is sharp; it burns their ears.  The parking lot is almost empty.  Suddenly the father says, “Now I remember.  We’re not here.”

There is a weirdness in Dipierro’s work that is also in that line of dialogue.  To say, “We’re not here,” is something that can only be true if it means something else.  Because of course they are there.  We can only be where we are.  What the father really means, in that instance, is: “Our car’s not here.”  But if he’d been allowed to say it like that – so matter-of-factly – something incongruous would have been missing.

Luca Dipierro in front of "Foreverland", a storefront he painted in North Carolina

The words were Raffel’s, and they stayed with me, but so did the animation, which was simple and precise, yet full of a strange and frightening wonder.  The characters had heads that looked too real, or not real enough.  An ordinary object, like a woman’s handbag, seemed capable of more than it ought to be capable of.  After I saw that animation, I looked for other work by Dipierro.  I saw that he was working on an art zine called Das Ding, which is German for ‘The Thing’.  So far there have been three issues. Each issue, wrapped in a cellophane envelope, is a beautiful paper object with words and drawings.  They remind me of little dreams; they are always about something, but it is difficult to describe what.  Their characters and creatures often find themselves in trouble, and either they get out of that trouble or they do not.  Or maybe what you think is trouble, for them, turns out to be something else.

You can find Das Ding here.  Below is a conversation I had with Dipierro.

Mullany: Can you talk about the title of the zine, Das Ding?  How did you come up with it?

Dipierro: Das Ding is German for “the thing.” I had the title way before I knew what to do with it. When I started making the zine, I thought that it was a good fit, because the word represents a sort of blank where everything is possible, yet at the same time has a very specific and personal resonance for me. I grew up in the Alps, in Northern Italy, in a region that belonged for centuries to the Austro-Hungarian Empire before becoming part of Italy at the end of World War I. As a kid, I was exposed to a lot of German children’s literature: picture books, fairy tales, novels. It was a particular mixture of humor and darkness, a combination of childhood themes and the macabre. There was nothing “cute” about it: the representation of the body was grotesque, coming from the figurative tradition of the Middle Ages. The images I found in these books had an enormous impact on me. They built an almost mythical space, determining all the images to come. I used to like this series of krimis (German detective novels). One of the volumes was called Das Ding. It was the story of a kid who finds a cylindrical object in the trash. He doesn’t know what it is and he tries to find out. It was very strange stuff. So for me “Das Ding” represents the images I care about, both as a consumer and as a maker. Also, German—which is my second language—is for me a language of identity. Not the identity that I have been given, which I questioned very early on, but the identity that, growing up, I tried to reconstruct.

Der Struwwelpeter ("Shaggy" or "Slovenly" Peter), by Heinrich Hoffmann, ca. 1845

Mullany: Would you say a little more about this “second” identity – the one that, as you said, you “tried to reconstruct”?

Dipierro: The cultural identity that one is given is always a center. And I never felt at the center of anything. I always felt the need to be, culturally, in between places. I am always suspicious of cultures, languages, or images that are too self-sufficient. I am interested in transition. I am interested in art that is impure, in forms that are transitional. For example, I find pre-comics way more interesting than comics, because they are not solidified into a genre. And that is why I love illustration, which has been—and still is—considered a minor art: it has an ambiguous nature. It is compromised by the text it is supposed to illustrate, to serve; and it in fact opens, surreptitiously, another text. Illustration has a strange, undeclared autonomy as an art. With my zine, I am trying to approach different forms and to make them mine, to make them collide with “me”—with my limits, that is. And the way I make things mine is to draw them. Drawing has an almost biological status. It’s, ultimately, your hand, the shape of your fingers, your nerves, etc.

An illustration by Josef Lada (1887-1957)

Mullany: I like how you acknowledge the “biological status” of drawing; that it’s partly a function of the power one has over one’s nerves. Do you ever find that an “accident” of the nerves — a slip of the pen, or a willingness to let the pen wander — determines what any one of your illustrations will depict? Or do you know from the outset what each illustration should look like, drawing in accordance with the image you see in your mind?

Dipierro: I generally start with what I want to draw, which is less an idea in my mind than something outside of me, in the world. If I just move the pen on the page, nothing happens, or at least nothing that interests me. All art that really excites me is figurative. My drawings are essentially realistic—even when I’m making a dog with hands or a man with paws—because it’s always about a dynamic between me and the object. The object passes through me and becomes lines. I like to think about the art of drawing as an inventory of the visible world. That’s why I never get tired of drawing. It’s like walking down the street and looking at things and enumerating them in your mind. I can get pretty obsessive about lines. There is a neurosis of the right line (Flaubert’s “mot juste”). The lines can become right also because of “a slip of the pen,” of course. There is a dumbness sometimes in the hand that only the pen can overcome. I am happy with a drawing when it stops being still and something happens in it, moves.

From a work in progress called "The Pencils," by Dipierro

Mullany: I am vaguely afraid of even the most pedestrian objects in your work — the pile of shoes in the above illustration, for instance. How would you describe the role your own unconscious plays in the creation of your art?

Dipierro: The unconscious plays a huge part, without any attempt on my side to make it speak. No matter what you do, obsessions pour out. What I can do is work the surface of my images, almost like weaving, and when I obtain a certain texture, that’s when the obsessions start to circulate and organize themselves into a coherent alphabet. But when I look at my illustrations, I don’t see only “me.” There are a lot of different elements. I don’t want to make perfectly smooth things. It’s more like a drain where all these different elements get caught: unconscious, technique, mistakes, ideology, clichés. For example, I am aware that a lot of my images come from a book that I worship, Gargantua and Pantagruel, by Rabelais. I feel so close to the vision, the cartography of Gargantua, disproportioned, stretchable, that I consult it all the time.

Illustration (ca. 1854) by Gustave Doré for Gargantua and Pantagruel, by Rabelais

Mullany: There’s a satirical element  in the German and French illustrative tradition that has influenced you.  And yet you don’t strike me as a satirist.  The most recent issue of Das Ding, for instance, depicts consumption and flatulence, but in a way that is divorced from any social reality that would be easily recognizable.  Is it fair to say that your primary concern is with mortality?

Dipierro: Mortality is definitely one of the primary concerns. And flatulence too. In fact all the miseries and joys of the body. But before anything else, what I am interested in is the comic—the comic representation of the world. Raymond Queneau said that whenever the narrator starts to laugh about death, we have a comic narration. As an artist, I am concerned with death because I am concerned with laughter. All my life I have found myself battling against the idea that truth is serious, that truth doesn’t have anything to do with jokes. Personally, I don’t believe in or care about any truth that doesn’t come from laughter. When you say something through laughter, you also say, Do not believe this. The laughter I mean is not just “funny” and often is not “funny” at all. It’s a way to take the objects of the world out of their inexplicability, and turn them upside down, play with them. My only way to think about a coffin, to show a coffin, and ultimately to understand and accept the idea of a coffin, is (for example) to show an acrobat jumping out of it.

From Issue 3 of Das Ding, by Dipierro

Mullany: Does this mean then that death, to you, is not merely death?  An acrobat jumping out of a coffin, for instance, is an image that invites interpretation.

Dipierro: For me, death is the ultimate blank. It negates language and at the same time multiplies the possibilities of language. I love acrobats because of what they do against gravity. Gravity, in a certain way—being a law of physics—is on the side of death. When I was a kid, I saw this circus acrobat who walked on a thread and brushed his teeth, shaved, smoked a cigarette, read the newspaper. I love the fact that he acted normally, doing very common things, as if he were on the ground. It wasn’t important what he was doing, but where he was doing it. In the same way, I don’t put meanings or symbols in my images. I just make them and combine them and move them. After they are released, they become part of a symbolic discourse of course, but I am only a spectator of that. It’s what I do in my animated films, which is the medium I feel closest to. I take relatively simple objects (coffin, shoe, tree, horse) and place them out of context, reverse them, change their attributes, in order to de-familiarize them.

Still frame from the animated film "Us," by Dipierro

5 thoughts on “Mortality and Flatulence: a Conversation with Luca Dipierro

  1. I just had a very weird experience. I only visit two sites regularly: Tricycle (a Western Buddhist site) and Big Other. When I clicked on this post, I thought I was going to the Tricycle site and I read the whole interview thinking “Buddhism.” And it made perfect sense! “We’re not here”! The meditation on death and play. Laughter. When I got to the part about Rabelais I thought, “Finally, the Buddhists are hipping themselves to the Western art traditions of transcendence through play.” Only at the end did I see it was good old Big Other. And yet my error is true anyway.

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