Photo: Wilhelm Vincent
From Italy to the Southern Lakes, performance artist Ivan Lupi is scratching at the surface of us.
TIME BEHAVES STRANGELY IN STRANGE TIMES. WE KNOW THIS NOW; OUR LIVES HAVE BEEN PAUSED, OUR FUTURES ALTERED, OUR HORIZONS MADE UNCERTAIN. IVAN LUPI’S ‘A BIG HAPPY PLANET’ CAPTURES THIS UTTERLY. AN ONLINE VIDEO PIECE, THE WORK DOCUMENTS IVAN’S JOURNEY FROM ITALY TO NEW ZEALAND THROUGH A WORLD LOCKED DOWN, FROM A STERILE HOTEL ROOM, TO A DESERTED COMMUTER TRAIN, TO THE EMPTY LONG-HAUL FLIGHT HOME. SHOT AND EDITED ENTIRELY ON AN IPHONE, IT’S A SLOW-MOTION MEDITATION ON WHAT WE ARE LIVING THROUGH. “WHEN WE CAN’T CONTROL THINGS, WE NEED TO DEAL WITH OUR OWN SELVES,” IVAN SAYS, SOMETHING MORE OF US ARE LEARNING EVERY DAY.
Now based in Wānaka, Ivan is an internationally- renowned performance artist known for often integrating tattooing into his practice. This might come as a surprise to someone meeting him for the first time. He comes across as a quiet and gentle man, not the first person you’d expect to find wielding a tattoo gun in public and turning it on himself. But there you go. For Ivan, “there is no real separation between art and life. When I perform, whether silently on social media from my studio or in a museum, there is no difference for me. I just am.”
For ‘Bench’, presented as part of the 2017 Visualeyez festival of performance art in Edmonton, Canada, Ivan sat topless on a park bench, tattooing himself, bleeding all the while, with the words ‘WET PAINT’. He invited passers- by to sit with him, asking them questions like, “Would you normally sit on a bench that has a sign which reads ‘WET PAINT’ on it?” The work pops with big ideas, our fear of disease, our discomfort with people who look different or unwell, the way we use distance to feel safe.
During his time on the bench, Ivan engaged with everyone from suits on their way to the office to the homeless, and they engaged with each other. “The most amazing thing was people were meeting, sitting to the side, and getting to know each other while my action receded into the background. At some point, they stopped paying attention to the level of pain I was going through.” They overcame their discomfort with him, his action, and with each other, to settle in for a conversation. “I told them it was OK to sit, despite the uncomfortable situation. All they had to do was talk. A conversation with no touching is safe.”
There is a theory that the great artists are the ones who predict the zeitgeist of a time before it’s a thing. Art as a semaphore from the future. I see this in my interview notes from my conversation with Ivan about ‘Bench’: “Shit,” I wrote in brackets, “this speaks so much to now”.
“WHEN WE CAN’T CONTROL THINGS, WE NEED TO DEAL WITH OUR OWN SELVES.”
Wānaka isn’t a place you’d expect to find an artist like Ivan. He seems a little more Berlin, or at least New York. Yet there he is, ensconced with his partner, Christopher, a local teacher, and a view of Roy’s Peak, the selfie capital of New Zealand, out his lounge window. But the more you learn about him, the more it makes sense.
Ivan is from Ferrara, a small city in Italy’s Emilia- Romagna region. His childhood was tough. He was born in the seventies with what he calls a “hidden disability”, a damaged right leg that required orthotic correction and affected his perception of himself early on. He was bullied in school, and also by adults, including father’s colleagues, for being different. By the age of eight, he had both survived sexual abuse (an incident that happened in a public place, a cinema) and lost his mother. His father and his grandmother both died when Ivan was in his teens.
Ivan calls Ferrara a “comfortable” place, where people enjoy good food and a relaxed way of life; but comfortable doesn’t necessarily mean good. “You could fall into a trap of being happy there and staying there forever, without confronting the rest of the world and the rest of the culture,” he says, adding that his home town is “not progressive”.
Ferrara has more than 60 churches, a moated castle and a medieval network of protective (or oppressive, depending who you are) walls. It’s one of those regions where history looms large, and Ivan talks about history in terms of his uncomfortable relationship with what is deemed “great”: great emperors, great battles, great wars. “That always bothered me, because these are not what I define as great in history. Great history should not come from battles and wars, but from progress that is more much more subtle. Real history is slow, hidden, and is never portrayed as ‘great’.”
Ivan started art school early, at the age of 15, but dropped out three years later, after his father died, to take up a “very grey” office job. He didn’t do art again until he was 25, something he associates with ending a long-term straight relationship to explore his feelings for another man. “It was when I decided to embrace new experiences that the art came back,” he says.
Despite the hiatus, there is a continuity in Ivan’s work dating to his youth. He still has one artwork he made as a child at school, a piece created by blowing ink onto paper with a straw. Another early image involved scratching black pastel away with a nail to reveal the colours and images underneath: a child, the sun, a house, flowers and grass. Both were the result of the kind of junior classroom art we’ve all done, but Ivan credits them with embedding performative aspects into his practice, his first art through action.
In 2001, Ivan became a co-founder of the art collective Amae, which went on to collaborations and exhibitions in China, Italy and the United Kingdom. The collective’s first work was a four- day durational performance for which Ivan hid in a Lycra box, like one of those fabric-curtained hospital cubicles, with a tattooist and a camera. Each evening, Ivan’s leg was tattooed with part of a long-form poem; the audience watched the needle at work in extreme close-up on a screen outside the box. Like a tattooed Schrodinger’s cat, the audience couldn’t be sure Ivan was real until the final reveal, when a third person read the full poem off his leg as it was slowly unwrapped. He hasn’t stopped performing since.
“IVAN SAT TOPLESS ON A PARK BENCH, TATTOOING HIMSELF, BLEEDING ALL THE WHILE.”
Ivan eventually went back to school, gaining a Masters in Queer Studies in Arts and Culture from the Birmingham University, then settled in London. For his graduation project ‘What Made You Queer’, Ivan had Skype conversations with people about community, queerness and belonging while doodling on his arm with a tattoo gun (a more permanent version of the absent-minded scribblings we used to make while on the phone, back when phones sat on tables). Though his degree is in Queer Studies, Ivan says his art is not necessarily about sexuality. The thread that runs through it is more one of not fitting, which includes sexuality, but also the othering that can stem from abuse, foreignness, or from physicality, like the leg asymmetry he was born with.
According to Ivan, the Masters “gave me insight on the best way to question every single step of my practice.” In many ways, living in Wānaka lets him do this too. When he moved to the area in 2016 with Christopher (the two met in London), “people said, ‘why are you going there, it’s so far away, and so small. You’ll never make any art there.’” On the contrary, Ivan has created more while based in the Southern Lakes than he ever has before.
“Here, I have had the opportunity to focus only on what I do, versus noisy London. There you can lock yourself in a room, but you don’t get that feeling of being in contact with yourself. You have the silence here you cannot have in London.” He spends the mornings walking, or going to the gym, and when he comes back, he focuses on his art.
Since relocating to Aotearoa, Ivan’s works have included ‘X’, for which he stands behind a custom- made polling booth and invites “voters” to mark one of his hands, they choose, with an ‘X’ using a tattoo machine. It was held at Matakana’s The Vivian gallery in 2018 to mark the 125th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. For an ‘An Open Wound’, the audience collected blood and ink from a wound on Ivan’s torso and used it to leave a fingerprint on a suitcase. And ‘Immigrants Welcome’ was a 12-hour durational collaboration with tattooist Mana Timu and the mixed-media artist Khristopher Khrist.
He has also completed a large body of non- performance work, including line drawings, watercolour sketches and stitchings, some of which he diarises on Instagram (@ivanlupidiary). The threadwork pieces are based on hundreds of historic family photos he shipped back from Italy. He has been experimenting with tracing the images and, using Andy Warhol’s “blotted line technique”, transferring them onto gauze squares.
He then adds to each one with needle and thread, and, in doing so, maybe learns something about them. He doesn’t know who most of the people are, and there is no one to tell him. Ivan is the last person left from his immediate family.
In this, maybe, there is an answer to the question Ivan gets asked most (along with, what on earth are you doing in Wānaka?): why tattooing? “There’s a need to pierce, to scratch the surface. I’m stitching my questions for the subjects of the picture. I’m asking them who they are. In the gauze, there is a way to embed them in myself, even though I have no connection.” Similarly, he points out, the surface image of a tattoo is captured deeper; if you looked beneath the skin, the picture would still be there.
Time does strange things. Bodies are not permanent. We only have each other. Art, like life, is inevitable. “In my body, all these issues are compressed into one. I don’t need to write down my performances, they are inside me like biological urges. I already know the pieces I need to make. I know them.”