Giulio Paolini: To Be Or Not To Be

  • Art
  • Installation
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'Alfa (Un autore senza nome) [Alpha (An Author without Name)] (detail)', 2004

© Giulio Paolini. Collection of the artist / Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

'Delfo', 1965

© the artist

'Contemplator enim (detail)', 1992

© Giulio Paolini. Collection of the artist

'Essere o non essere [To Be or Not to Be]', 1994-95

© Giulio Paolini. Fondazione Giulio e Anna Paolini, Turin

'Big Bang', 1997-98

© Giulio Paolini. Collection of the artist / Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London

'Photofinish', 1993-94

© Giulio Paolini. Fondazione Giulio e Anna Paolini, Turin


Right at the start of this excellent retrospective is a lifesize image of Giulio Paolini, arms folded, wearing some cool shades (pictured). He’s facing you, except he stands partially hidden behind the bars of a wooden stretcher. Dating from the mid-1960s, it’s a typically stylish, typically thought-provoking piece by the seventysomething Italian conceptualist, encapsulating ideas that have occupied him throughout his career: that the artist is largely irrelevant; that the only important thing to consider is the object that you see before you. And here’s where that self-portrait gets enjoyably complicated. Because the image is in fact a photograph, which has been printed on to canvas. But since the stretcher bars are plainly in view, it’s as if the canvas were transparent: there and yet somehow not there, a kind of perceptual game.

Throughout the show, Paolini refers you back to your own experience and expectations of what you’re looking at. In another canvas-photograph, for instance, you can just make out the blurry form of the artist carrying a blank canvas along a Turin street. In the adjacent image, made two years later, the artist in a similar set-up now carries the photograph you just looked at. Elsewhere, huge grids of multiple canvases on the wall or floor feature diagrams of sightlines, along with images of suited designer types planning things on notepads.

The sense you get is of the works somehow describing their own manufacture. Only in recent installations, made from transparent Perspex and incorporating images from art history, does the theme of viewpoints and perspectives start to feel over-emphasised. Generally, though, you’re led off into places that are intriguing, or even disturbing, as in ‘Big Bang’, a set-up of an artist’s workspace that includes a miniaturised version of the same workspace to give a chilling intimation of endless, solipsistic regression. A metaphor for the creative process?

Gabriel Coxhead

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