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3 September 2014



It was one of those casual visits to Whitechapel art gallery when one wants to experience the multi-faceted world of art just for fun and delight. However, the exhibition of Giulio Paolini’s artwork, named after Hamlet’s famous soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’, had much more to offer than what I had anticipated.

At the very entrance there was a big photograph of the artist himself, wearing dark glasses, arms folded, facing an empty canvas frame, and this was enough to get prepared that something different was on the show.

Let me take you through the virtual tour of this retrospective exhibition where, if you try to look for the artist you will find your own gaze reflected and deflected through a number of artworks.

The first one, Delfo or Delphi (1965), as it is titled, evokes the Delphic maxim ‘Know thyself’ and questions the role of artist as well as that of the spectator. Giulio Paolini thwarts the romantic notion of artist being a genius. Window’s empty frame clearly suggests that the artist has not been able to produce a painting. And as such, he is an unimportant person. 
Paolini seems to ask the artist- Are you really there in the artwork? Does the spectator recognize you? For actually it is the viewer who, essentially, completes a work and brings it to life.

Or, could it be that the artist here is the spectator himself, immersed in thought and contemplation, looking at us in the same way we look at him.

Or, is it that the artist is thoughtfully observing his artwork and the spectator is watching him standing behind his canvas. But the canvas is transparent. Is there no artwork then?

Paolini eludes us with his presence and absence, with his changing roles, at times as an artist, at others as a spectator.

What Roland Barthes said about literature (two years later) in his famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’ is truly applicable to Paolini’s conceptual art:
It is ‘that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.’



Stand-In (A Critique of the Viewpoint) (1981) is a black and white photographic reproduction of Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of a Young Man (1505), in which Paolini replaces the eyes with his own. No sooner than the viewer tends to take the role of the artist himself, assuming that the young man’s eyes are fixed on him, Paolini, immediately and deliberately explodes what we can call the spectator’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ by just playing with the title Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto.

Moreover, as the young man is looking at Lorenzo Lotto with Paolini’s eyes, the distance of time and space is eliminated in the refraction of gazes. Are not the two artists looking at each other across centuries? Are the artists not also viewers? Is the subject – the young man in the portrait, not Paolini himself? Who is the artist, the subject and the viewer? Are they not one and all?

Paolini is questioning the very processes by which art is made and perceived. As he states – ‘Rather than an author or painter, I am a viewer in waiting: by way of photography, I change my identity. From being a person in the guise of a painter, I become an author in the guise of a viewer.’

The show is replete with such thought provoking perceptual games. All throughout, we are referred back to our own assumptions and experiences of what we are looking at.

Academie 3

Academie 3 is a play of two negatives portraying the artist in the role of the painter at work. With brush in hand the artist is leaning forward ready to make a mark, the other imprint on the same canvas shows the artist as a viewer viewing his work from a distance. What we see further is the most unusual, most unexpected brush stroke –   a bright blue pigment over the artwork that nullifies the other two selves of the artist.

1421965 1965

His art captures the moment as perceived and understood by the viewer. The photograph 1421965 (1965) taken with a self-timer is a mise-en-scène. We see Paolini moving a large blank canvas in his studio. Paolini explains, ‘reproducing the painter himself on the surface of the painting as he looks at another painting means bearing witness to the moment in which the painting comes true.

The painting in question, that is, the one before the painter, needs no longer be the vehicle of an image, as it is involved in the contextual vision of the moment preceding its own identity.’

Diaframma 8 [Diaphragm 8] 1965 (The title refers to the lens diaphragm and aperture used to take the picture) which portrays the artist carrying an unpainted canvas along a Turin street, captivates a moment that precedes the becoming of an artwork. The indistinct figure of Paolini refers to the anonymous identity of the artist.

The picture next to it, D867 1967 taken two years later portrays him in the similar background carrying the previous photograph we just looked at. Paolini, thus, creates a mise-en –abyme, duplicating the subject of his work.

Diaframma 8 1965

D867 1967








The distance of time is covered between the two shots. Nothing has changed actually except the photograph on the canvas. The same artist, same setting and the same gesture is repeated in the second photograph which could continue into infinity.

To be or not to be 1994-5

To Be or Not to Be (1994-5), which gives the name to the exhibition, is a moment captured before the gesture, when the artwork is only an idea. Playing with fifty eight square canvases scattered round the photographic image of two men trying to figure out what to create, Paolini transports the viewer into the mental studio of the artist. The artist’s dilemma lies unfolded before our eyes as we see the canvases – some overturned, some piled up neatly, others either blank or marked with drawings that are geometric or perspectival – an unfinished game of checkerboard for the viewer to complete.

Death of the Artist is a white canvas figure with brush in hand – again a play of presence and absence.

Liber veritatis 1979  entices one with its simplicity and its title. The drawings are not limited to the canvases but are coming out on to the wall and mark the viewer’s perception. There are discarded photographs on the floor – artist’s creation and dissatisfaction with what he has created. But nothing is without importance. The rejected ideas like crumpled papers, repeated again in Big Bang in the last gallery, take the shape of tiny globes in the miniature, each representing a world in itself.

On the Threshold (2013) reflects on the infinite possibilities of art. A bronzed bust of Apollo on a plexiglass base is looking at a white canvas on the wall. From his gaze emanate drawings of rectangles on the wall repeating the shape of the canvas. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Shakespeare, Hamlet), and here Apollo, who could be a stand-in for the artist as well as the spectator, is probably penetrating through the canvas into some other world.

Paolini’s work reminds us of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn in as much as the artwork never reaches its completion. Nothing Now (2006) displays a plexiglass structure with a pencil and a blank paper inside. The pencil is far from touching the paper.

Nothing Now

Big Bang 1997-98

Big Bang (1997-98), represents an artist’s studio. The empty chair shows that the artist is not present in the scene, the scrunched up papers, like rejected ideas, are strewn around. Moreover, the studio that includes a miniature version of the same studio, a mise-en-scene, is a reflection on the process of creation.

Contemplator enim 1992

Contemplator enim (1992), is a fascinating translucent plexiglass gallery exploring perception and creativity.The stage is set with life size footmen figures from 18th century theatre, holding square holes as frames. Artist is merely a messenger rather than a creator. He is only making a frame inviting us to fill it up with our own intuitive understanding of life.



Alpha (An Author without Name) 2004

Alpha (An Author without Name) 2004

Alpha (An Author without a Name), 2004 is awesome. It displays the ephemeral nature of the moment in the process of creation, always fleeting and disappearing at the very point of its completion. A plexiglass polyhedron features a photographic reproduction of the painting Soap Bubbles (1733-34) by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. In Paolini’s artwork the boy is blowing not bubbles but geometric shapes that float around him.

The exhibition’s final work, The Author Who Thought He Existed (Curtain: Darkness Falls Over the Auditorium) 2013, echoes the artist’s studio in the Big Bang.

The Author Who Thought He Existed (Curtain: Darkness Falls Over the Auditorium) 2013

The artist’s desk is in a mess, the wall full of empty canvases and blank frames, and the chair knocked over, showing his hurried exit from the studio. “The artist’s run off. He couldn’t take any more.” (Paolini). A film of drawings projected digitally on the wall sets the scene. The projection shows positive and negative images of drawings alternatively, offering perspectival views from the artist’s studio and possibilities for the empty frames and canvases.

Art cannot be bound by themes, styles or judgments. The artist has immense potential and unlimited freedom to explore, create and manipulate his work.

Giulio Paolini is associated with Arte Povera, an Italian radical movement and forms part of a group of Italian artists like Michelangelo Pistoletto, Giuseppe Penone, Jannis Kounellis and Alighiero Boetti, who came into prominence in 1960s.  Arte Povera or Poor Art as it was called made use of everyday material and philosophical enigmas in artwork. (Paolini’s installations with plexiglass, however, are far too sophisticated to be categorized as Poor Art.) Paolini uses citation, duplication and fragmentation as tools for his artistic expressions. He relies on these devices to stage the process of art from its inception to completion.

Paolini’s artworks are his thoughts and reflections in concrete form – moments stolen from the experiences of an artist as well as that of a viewer. The question, however, is whether the same ideas would continue to be repeated or can the spectators hope for something new. But there is no doubt that Paolini’s ingenious mind is able to create an engaging game of reference and evasion, making us feel his accomplices rather than outsiders.

One wonders at his remarkable ‘negative capability’.  By giving a tangible form to the concept he has added a new dimension to the term. His work is an artistic, graphic and digital visualisation of Negative Capability.

He says – I’ve never wanted to express myself in the work. I’ve always left the work to express itself. He is visually present in the artwork yet obscured, never representing himself, almost a non-entity.

In Stand In the former artist, the subject and the viewer are replaced by another. They are there and not there. In Academie 3 the artist in the picture faces a bare canvas, the viewer’s image overlaps that of the painter and over and above their photographs comes the stroke of blue made by the artist or the viewer that negates the other two images. The last gallery demonstrates a delicate blend of awe, subtlety and illusion in the face of history.

Paolini is not merely an artist, he is also a thinker and a philosopher. His work reflects an artist’s eternal search for an identity – the unfinished canvases culminate into a story complete in all respects.

Mesmerized by his invitation of ‘Know thyself’, intrigued by his ever present absence, and wounded by the beauty of this overwhelming experience, I find myself at the end of my journey. Together with Paolini I salute to the gracious Muse, and her unassuming followers, artists and viewers alike, engaged in their unceasing pursuit for ‘things that transcend material reality’, for those unseen horizons that lie beyond canvases and frames.