When Hegel introduced the idea of master and slave for the first time, focusing on its political and social importance, he forgot that sometimes it could be applied for the art, too. But this lack is not sur- prising: Hegel is one of the fathers of aesthetics and philosophy of Spirit, we could not blame him because these considerations connected to the art are subsequent in time. Soon afterwards, Karl Marx used He- gel’s dialectic to define the relations between the worker and the owner in the capitalistic society. Instead of Hegel, Marx didn’t focus specifi- cally on art and aesthetics but he was able to focus on the artist’s craft in the capitalistic society.
During the meeting with Silvia Giambrone, in which we talked about the artworks of The slaves’ free empire, I realized that Marx’s con- siderations about art were widely relevant and topical, and that they have been wrongly disregarded in the field of aesthetics. Silvia has real- ized an exhibition which starts with the analysis and the observation of embroidery, an old traditional practice that is still in use that includes several different aims and results. The embroidery includes, in its tradi- tion, a series of ambiguities which are the real core of the exhibition. She made a miscellaneous set of works, and in this way the embroidery becomes the trait d’union between performance and sculptures, drawing and photography, in a sort of expressive flow that tries to enlighten the shadowof the practice of embroidery, through different media and means.
The ones that are not very competent in embroidery – and this is my case – wonder what are the dark sides, the shadows of a practice that, in the collective imagination, is perceived as intimate and domestic. When we think about embroidery, we think about our grandmothers. The whole work starts from a little group of old women from Sicily who spent their lives in small towns, embroidering all the time, until now: this sort of ritual represented a means for escaping the flow of time, or the life itself, maybe.
Silvia Giambrone is from Sicily and her artworks usually concern the female dimension, feminism and femininity. These elements let us understand how big is her interest in embroidery and how hard she worked on this recent exhibition.
Only few people know that embroidery – and beside it, a large amount of traditional practices – has got old coercive origins. The title of the exhibition suggests, firstly, the idea of coercion: The slaves’ free empire. We wonder which is the empire and then we think about concepts such as freedom and slavery, connected in an enigmatic oxymoron. Laces, handkerchiefs, doilies are pieces of manufactures, they are handmade, so that they constitute a considerable property, for economic reasons and for traditional values, too. Without being too prosa- ic, we could say that they are objects which aim at beauty, elegance and delicacy, in contrast with the idea of slavery. The empire is fed by the creation of this beauty: the subject is old, there are a lot of examples, such as the slaves that built the pyramids, or societies based on slavery -the Greek and Roman societies- which originated western arts. But Silvia introduced a change: the empire of embroidery is, in this case, “free”, because of a new dialectic between slave and master. This is a sort of slavery without chains, a real self-imposition of creativity. The mind and the hands are used for the act of embroidering for hours, this is not passivity neither “no- revolt”. Hegel’s classic dialectic, which Karl Marx really appreciated, doesn’t root in a context where the master becomes the laborer himself. But, Karl Marx reformulates this concept of artist and client in the field of art. In his Theorien über den Mehrwert, he sets productive and unproductive work apart:“For example Milton, who wrote “Paradise Lost” for five pounds, was an unproductive laborer. On the other hand, the writer who turns out stuff for his publisher in factory style, is a productive laborer. Milton produced “Paradise Lost” for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature. Later he sold the product for 5 pounds. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig, who fabricates books (for example, Compendia of Economics) under the direction of his publisher, is a productive laborer; for his product is from the outset subsumed under capital, and comes into being only for the purpose of increasing that capital. A singer who sells her song for her own account is an unproductive laborer. But the same singer commissioned by an entrepreneur to sing in order to make money for him is a productive laborer; for she produces capital”1
In this specific case, the distinction is made: an old embroiderer be- longing to the empire mentioned by Silvia Giambrone is, from Mark’s point of view, an unproductive laborer, such as Milton and the silk worm that produced things meant only for their little, personal microcosm. It’s a matter of nature, according to Marx. It’s a matter of tradition, according to our point of view: these are both ideas through which we recognize the embroidery as a traditional act connected with seduction, with the idea of “good wife” and “good mother”. Which is the differ- ence between an old embroiderer and, for instance, Dolce&Gabbana, designers of fashion clothes full of laces which so frequently seem to be inspired by the old Sicilian imaginary world of sin and seduction? Marx’s answer is still relevant: the industry and the capital absorb the culture and the tradition and this is well known and explained in sev- eral works. These works can be divided into two groups: works that celebrate this fusion, such as the endless trend of pop-art and, on the other hand, works made in Italy, such as Silvia’s ones: a series of chalk sculptures representing doilies, made with a surprising attention and with the aim of creating real “fossils”. What remains of the old tradi- tion and the beauty of the empire in which the slaves are masters of themselves? Simulacrum, archeological finds of objects that escaped the greed of markets.
Silvia’s works are full of a certain sense for enigmatography, equi- vokes, calembour. The Lace for example, is the title of a series of photographs, from her parents’ wedding, on which Silvia stitched some blue lace. In this case, the word lace has another meaning, connected with the money extorted by the mafia. Here is the reference to embroiderers’ condition which explains the price they play for their work, a total enslavement to the old logic of seduction, to the role of good- wife and good-mother. It’s impossible not to notice that the lace has been stitched only on the women’s faces. I immediately thought about those Islamic women with the veil on their faces, the burqa. In this case, too, there is the attempt of hitting the “delinquent” use of the seduction and the female representation in the modern market, in particular through the advertising. So, she created this idea from the concept of the wedding, rhetoric apotheosis of female fulfillment, and from the price that the media dictate to the women, today, to satisfy their duties as seductresses.
Another pun is assigned to Dote and Eroina. The first one is a series of three handkerchiefs and a little tablecloth, all made of iron and laces. There is a double meaning of dowry as quality and property brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage, but there is also an important connection between violence and delicacy, created by the use of iron and lace together. Eroina, instead, appears as weird and enigmatic knit- ting: it represents the structure of the heroin molecule, which reminds us that the embroidery is a sort of drug in those little towns in which old women have never done nothing else apart embroidering.
The issue of Dote is relevant for Collars, too: it is a series of zinc sheets on which the image of collars is made through a process of corrosion. This series is connected with Silvia’s performance at Macro Testaccio in Rome, on 12th July 2012: the title is Teatro Anatomico, and in this performance Silvia had a collar stitched on her neck. The collar represents a set of traditional and social values which perfectly suit the ambivalence of the whole exhibition: schoolgirls’ beauty, grace and rig- or. Silvia is a silent actress in a whirl of meanings contained in a single exhibition: the public disclosure of constraint and pain is symbolized by the title itself, which evokes the theatricalism of dissection. On the zinc of Collars happens the same thing that happened on Silvia’s skin.
Impero is a magnetic bar for knives, on which are accumulated 5000 sewing needles. The magnet makes the needles straight and upright, challenging the force of gravity and appearing just like a weapon. Every needle reminds the hand that used it and all the hands accumulated here are those of the free empire’s inhabitants.
There are a lot of other works Silvia realized for this exhibition in- vestigating the ambivalence that the embroidered objects keep, because of their tradition and their nature. It is an ambivalence connected with the themes of work and a new dialectic of artistic surplus value. This is only the tip of the iceberg of a larger set of questions which focuses on the search for the value of artistic works, a value that distinguishes an artwork from a manufacture which serves the market rules. And the answer is not so easy, because we know that the art and the market are closely connected. But, it is important to remind that neither Milton nor the old Sicilian embroiderers cared about the possibility of being “productive laborers”. So, there is a surplus value for which the artist must be accountable only to himself, because of his position of client and artist, too.
This condition doesn’t represent a relief, in any case, neither a slaves’ freeing from his free empire. We have been accustomed for a long time with a long series of superstars disguised as artists, reckless and constantly followed by the media and, in the end, we forget that the history of art has been full of sacrifices and troubled lives. This is only of the several warnings of the exhibition, maybe the most important one.