An Uncanny World of Manipulated Animals and Machines

Installation view of ‘Paola Pivi: Ma’am’ at Dallas Contemporary (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DALLAS, Tex. — In 2007, Italian artist Paola Pivi brazenly preempted her audience’s response to a work by titling it, “If you like it, thank you. If you don’t like it, I am sorry. Enjoy anyway.” The name suggests that viewers are able to enjoy the piece regardless of how they judge it. Indeed, Pivi’s often spectacular work is easy to appreciate on a superficial level. Multicolored polar bears, an upside down plane, a giant inflatable ladder, and a film of live goldfish on an airplane — all provide simple, accessible delights.

The title of Pivi’s work also points to a false dichotomy, presenting only two options for how to judge a piece of art: to like or not to like. Again, there’s a sly implication that her work is straightforward. She almost dares her viewers to search for meaning, challenging them to make sense of what she herself has not decoded — notably, she has often resisted interpreting her own work. In his essay, “Say it Like You Mean It,” writer and curator Jens Hoffmann writes that Pivi’s works are characterized by “unapologetic simplicity …. with an agile shift in context, scale, or positioning, ordinary things become newly strange.” There’s an uncanny element to Pivi’s art — her objects, based on familiar forms such as a stuffed animal or a pinwheel, adopt new and unsettling meanings as viewers look closer and become aware of how they diverge from reality.

Installation view of ‘Paola Pivi: Ma’am’ at Dallas Contemporary

The works in Pivi’s current show at the Dallas Contemporary present new ways of looking at both the natural and man-made. Her first US solo museum exhibition, Ma’am showcases the duality in Pivi’s work: part joyful celebration, part disconcerting funhouse mirror. Upon entering the museum, the viewer first encounters her award-winning “Untitled (airplane),” an inverted Fiat G-91 airplane that she presented at Harald Szeemann’s Venice Biennale in 1999. Upside down, the work hints at accident and danger. As a military relic it suggests violence; as art it transforms what might have been used to aid in human conflict into an absurd spectacle devoid of utility. The incapacitated plane adopts a vulnerable look, like a fallen animal that can’t right itself. The work sets the tone for the rest of the show: beasts and machines with which we are familiar, presented in striking, new ways.

The next gallery presents Pivi’s iconic multicolored bears, which graced the cover of Art Review in 2013 and have since shuffled across continents to gallery spaces worldwide. Now in her mid-forties, Pivi has been working with animals since 2003, according to an interview in Art Review, when she created “Untitled (Ostriches).” Pivi describes animals as “more like characters … beautiful divas,” a descriptor that certainly applies to the flamboyant bears. She also mentions how she identifies with the words of a friend, who told her “every human being has a memory of a past when we were very closely connected with animals.”

Installation view of ‘Paola Pivi: Ma’am’ at Dallas Contemporary

With help from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Soluna festival, the Dallas Contemporary commissioned four new bears: “Why I am so worried” (orange, reclining on the floor with a hand covering its eyes in presumed distress), “Look at me!” (fuchsia, hanging from the ceiling as if on a trapeze), “Freaking yoga” (fuchsia, hands up with a lifted leg), and “I love my life” (white, lying prone with hands outspread). At first glance, they’re fun, playful, anthropomorphized creations. Yet, there’s also something morbid and eerily artificial about them. At full size, they’re too large to be playthings. More like taxidermy animals, they recall the human desire to domesticate or kill wildlife for decorative purposes. Real polar bears are vicious, virile creatures: they’re able to eat human beings. These bears lack agency, frozen in time in a white cube. Pivi’s glaringly fabricated alternatives present viewers with a conception of animals that’s divorced from the realities of nature. Throughout other rooms, Pivi’s works on view include rotating wheels of feathers, a giant blow-up ladder, and surreal photographs of animals that appear Photoshopped — but, save one exception, are not.

Installation view of ‘Paola Pivi: Ma’am’ at Dallas Contemporary

Pivi literally harnessed nature for “I Wish I Am A Fish,” a performance that she turned into a film, which is on view in the back gallery. For the piece, she organized a flight for dozens of live goldfish in fishbowls, strapped into their own airplane seats. This final work recalls the plane at the exhibition’s beginning, and after wandering through rooms of animals and feathers, viewers return to a scene of man’s dominance over nature. Our desire to manipulate the natural world for our own aesthetic pleasure becomes ever more apparent. Not so simple, after all.

Installation view of ‘Paola Pivi: Ma’am’ at Dallas Contemporary

Paola Pivi: Ma’am continues at Dallas Contemporary (161 Glass Street, Dallas, Texas) through August 21.

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