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Flavio Favelli’s Alien Objects, Ghostly Lives

By Allison Grimaldi-Donahue.

Via Guerazzi 21 at Bologna ArtCity 2017

The neon light brightens the differences in the white paint, where there was once something hanging—a bookshelf, a television—and where the spaces were left bare. All that remains in the apartment is an occasional chair, the kitchen appliances, the curtains, yet it has the feeling of being unaltered, like someone moved out earlier that day. And the paintings Flavio Favelli has painted right onto the walls. They are an attempt at filling the rooms. I don’t call them empty rooms because I know they are not, they are filled with absence—with loss.

Flavio Favelli is an Italian artist, born in Florence but raised and educated in Bologna. He is a regular at Bologna’s ArtCity event. Most of the exhibitions and performances take place in public spaces, museums, galleries, the art school; Favelli always chooses personal locations, turning the experience into something more intimate. This time he has chosen to invite viewers into his recently deceased mother’s apartment, where he has painted bold, stencilled paintings of commercial objects on the walls.

It is disconcerting to be in a dead person’s house, even one, maybe especially one you never knew: it is inevitably invasive. I was excited and energetic about going to this exhibition, but after spending time in such a private space I felt reflective, solitary, like I needed to go home to be with thoughts of my own mother, her death, and my own childhood home thousands of miles away.

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Looking at Favelli’s work and these images of some foreign and some familiar products painted on the walls, I began to interrogate the relationship between the objects kept and objects discarded not only in his life or his mothers, but my own. It is always strange to acknowledge that memories, particularly of cultural events, are both private and shared. I overhear Favelli talking about his family’s history in colonial Libya as he stands in front of a painting of an airplane ticket. I’ve heard other families talk about this nearly ignored part of Italian history and it is surprising each time to think of thousands of Italians in Libya and how telling it is that no one ever discusses Italy’s colonial past. With this, I acknowledge the presence of Favelli properly—the artist is here in this ethereal space.

Of course the objects we hold onto evoke a memory or moment, or else they’re monetarily valuable. But objects we discard take on the same quality as all of the other missing elements that go when a person dies: smells, sounds, touch, taste. The purple neon lights throughout Favelli’s mother’s house, the house where he grew up, highlight nicks and scratches; like a forensic investigator Favelli is looking for the traces of what was discarded, the reflections or auras of lost pieces to his mother’s collection. The purple lights create a psychedelic crime scene, peering into a private, coded world we each keep for ourselves. The objects are about Favelli’s life as much as his mother’s, they are the things he remembers as significant about her; did these items hold any special meaning for her, or is it him alone making this myth?

Loss is so filling it makes me sick and I wonder if that’s the point. Each time we face a loss we take with us a little something of the person who has died, a few bits of dead material. Something I can’t get rid of and never goes away, loss is so much like an odour. In “When the Sick Rule the World” Dodie Bellamy discusses the sick person’s relationship to perfume, how it invades space, imposes itself and how if the sick were to actually rule the world how things would change:

When the sick rule the world perfume will be outlawed. Dealers will stand in alleyways selling contraband Estee Lauder and Chanel no. 5. They will carry tiny capsules of perfume in their mouths, tucked along their gums, and when they open their mouths they’ll look like vampires with their extra row of liquid gold teeth.

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This painting is on the wall of the building, the second floor balcony. I picture Favelli’s mother sitting there sweating lightly and emanating the scent of this perfume. It is summer, late afternoon, drinks with ice and mint—but the smell isn’t Hermes, not to me, it is my own mother’s Dolce & Gabbana, the kind I keep in my t-shirt drawer in its unopened box. Just giving us the idea of perfume, Favelli sets of something in each viewers memory, something private and elusive. Even though it is winter now, this outdoor space suggests heat. The neighbours, still inhabiting the surrounding apartments, look on; I wonder if they knew this was the old lady’s choice perfume.

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At last year’s ArtCity I saw Favelli’s work at the cemetery in Bologna, Sala d’attesa [Waiting Room]. He created a secular place of worship since in Italy the only place available for non-religious funeral ceremonies tend to be drab and make-shift, very well making the dead want to die again. During that same excursion we took a bus to his studio where he showed us his work Mobilia Essay, a conglomeration of early twentieth century furniture made into a 36 square meter sculpture. It is a shiny wooden monolith and embodies all of the silence and repression that is the bourgeoisie. Both of these works were made before his mother’s death, signalling a long-standing obsession with middle-class death rituals.

An obsession with objects doesn’t seem, to me, a signifier of the upper-middle class but the newly arrived middle-class, the person who has to grab on and prove something to visitors. I relate to this. Both of my parents grew up working-class and when my father began to rise up to management at work they started “antiquing”. I use quotes because it sounds like such an absurd thing to say, but on weekends they went shopping for useless, quaint, used, over-priced objects in the hills of eastern Connecticut. My mother had a wall-pocket collection that was worth a few thousand dollars. She bought guide books to estimate their rising (and more often falling) value on the market. As she was dying she grew sick of them. They stared at her from every inch of kitchen and dining room wall-space and she decided to sell them off. As she let go of life she also let go of those middle-class habits she’d acquired. But the memory is still there, the faded outlines of pockets forever lining the walls.

It could be that all of those useless objects were a synecdoche for all of the other objects, useless and useful, she possessed even as she accepted she could no longer possess life. On most days, when I keep thoughts of illness and death at bay, I feel in full possession of my life. And so I hold on to certain objects for her, like my living hands breathe into them in her absence.

At the beginning of convolute H, “The Collector” of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project there is a quote:

I believe… in my soul: the Thing.
—Leon Deubel, Oeuvres (P is, 1929), p. 193

A library card with her name on it.

A library card with my name on it that she’s signed.

She possessed my soul… the Thing.

I go into churches, temples filled with objects, light candles for her, recite prayers from memory. Nothing feels as religious as wearing one of her rings or a pair of her high-waisted jeans from the early 90s.

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Favelli paints his mother’s identity card onto the wall. The ArtCity guide, who is there to answer our questions, tells us it was traced using a projector. She seems uncomfortable talking about the technical aspects of the work with Favelli sitting in the other room, sitting in his dead mother’s house, while she, a stranger, explains away these non-objects on the walls.

Just a few weeks before seeing this exhibit, on a trip to the States, I found a small plastic basket filled with the contents of my mother’s bedroom junk-drawer. Over the years we collect so many objects with our names on them and then the cards or badges expire. I found matches from my parents’ wedding with their names and the date. I didn’t know they’d had matches made especially for the wedding. Now, over forty years later, I find myself with fifty little white books of rotten, fireless matches that I refuse to throw away. I don’t even want to use them; like a child I am hoarding a memory I wasn’t even alive to experience. 

Personal objects, even precious personal objects, those antiques bought and sold throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, quotidian pieces of my mother, creep into my bedroom, into my closet. I shove a few photographs into books I bring back to my own apartment in Italy where I want to have a piece of her on the wall, or a small doll I remember her sewing together. I take objects from my family home, the place we shared together, and I transpose them into a foreign house in a foreign country. Their meaning increases over time because they alone hold her living traces. Again, Benjamin in “The Collector,” sees how the object changes once it enters into our own private space, why, as alluring as museums may be, we continue to frequent the gift shop to acquire our own kitsch version:

The true method of making things present is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space). The collector does just this, and so does the anecdote.) Thus represented, the things allow no mediating construction from out of “large contexts.” The same method applies, in essence, to the consideration of great things from the past—the cathedral of Chartres, the temple of Paestum—when, that is, a favourable prospect presents itself: the method of receiving the things into our space. We don’t displace our being into theirs; they step into our life.

Looking at my mother’s jewellery on my nightstand in Italy, far from it’s New England origins, all of its characteristics are more pronounced. Because I am so far away, the objects connect me to her in ways humans who never knew her cannot, both myself and these objects, have lived with her, known her, touched her.

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The coldness of a house that Favelli’s mother once inhabited is not unlike the coldness I found in most Italian-American households growing up. Because most of our older family and family friends had spent the early part of their lives in Sicily, they weren’t used to carpets. During humid summer months, they used beads to delineate spaces rather than doors. Kitchens were in basements and so were oversized American freezers filled with enough meat and prickly pear candy to get us all through another world war. The indoor space was clean and unfinished; never overly concerned with décor.

This image is from a package of ice cream cones. My grandparents always had something similar for us grandchildren—my grandmother would force them on us on August mornings. We played out in the street, mostly baseball or on bicycles. The air was hot and dirty. She would call us to the stoop and we would eat the sticky, chocolate cones she and my grandfather stocked up on at the discount grocery store they’d discovered, driving to neighbouring towns in their big, silver Chrysler.

I’ve looked at photos recently where I am the only person in the photo who is still alive. Being in Favelli’s childhood home, his mother’s home, reminded me of these photos where I am surrounded by ghosts. He was sitting in the kitchen on an old chair as strangers passed in and out of the rooms—some serious and observant, others laughing, texting, talking loudly into their phones.

Houses are strange objects to possess and to lose. When my grandparents moved out of their house, sold the whole three-family building, they also sold off my mother’s childhood home. Sometimes I still drive by the house, I see it fall into disrepair, I look at the strange cars in the driveway and scowl, shake my head. I look at Favelli sitting there watching us gawk at his paintings. He invited us in, but I wonder what must it feel like now to have all of these strangers in what is a private, even sacred space. Perhaps it is part of his grieving process, letting us in. I worry I will never be able to do the same.

Donna Haraway, in Staying With the Trouble, writes:

Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here. In this context, genuine mourning should open us into an awareness of our dependence on and relationships with those countless others being driven over the edge of extinction… The reality, however, is that there is no avoiding the necessity of the difficult cultural work of reflection and mourning. This work is not opposed to practical action, rather it is the foundation of any sustainable and informed response.

Grief is a path to understanding entangled shared living and dying; human beings must grieve with, because we are in and of this fabric of undoing. Without sustained remembrance, we cannot learn to live with ghosts and so cannot think. Like the crows and with the crows, living and dead “we are at stake in each other’s company”.

I try to let go but find myself moving backwards. Recently, I’ve had to clean out old spaces at that childhood home where my father lives. It may be that he wants to move someplace smaller or that he needs to make emotional progress or that he is just sick of the clutter, but every time I return to that  house he presents me with a box to sort through, to decide upon. It feels impossible and often I leave without ever having examined the forgotten contents. I learn there is no such thing as a clean break and the entanglement of living and dying that Haraway speaks of is so messy and I feel so weak. I tell myself to focus less on the dualistic ideas I’ve been fed all of my life, but the indoctrination runs deep and my fear of engaging with my dead mother, her spirit, in the present terrifies me.

Favelli understands this. He seems to also know more about ghosts than I do and he seems to be saying that ghosts are like aliens, with these purple lights washing over this empty space. Communicating with the dead is certainly like trying to communicate with unknown forms of life, dialogues in foreign tongues with no cognates, forever uncertain if the message is getting through.

In Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World the essay “Phone Home” focuses on the film E.T. and the author’s own dying mother:

On the phone Halloween morning the pulmonologist said, ‘I don’t know how long anybody could go on like this.’ Anybody. Any body. And so I flew home. My own breaths become deep and irregular, as if my automatic system were in upheaval, trying to realign itself with my mother’s. Where did I see this before. It must have been in a movie, but what movie. I observe her for maybe an hour when I realize it’s E.T., the part where E.T. turns white and is dying—and all the kids are sobbing—E.T.’s round lipless mouth gasping for air—this is what my mother looks like, E.T. dying.

I wondered the same thing as I held my mother’s hands on her death bed, the skin softened—as a sign of weakness, as preparation? Something else possessed her: it was death and well, of course, that is alien to the living.

My mother was a nurse, she also had a lot of anxiety, as do I. I walked into Favelli’s mothers’s bedroom to find this on the wall:

Favelli 6

Of course I knew what it was. After she died I found bottles and bottles of anti-anxiety medication in different purses and drawers and even rows and rows of samples in plastic bubble packaging in closets and desks. It was all long expired, turned into capsules of sugar. I would take them, hoping to find some effect, hoping to make myself feel alien enough in this world. It didn’t work and I’d have to return, yet again, to whisky and loud music. Surrounded by the dead one’s objects, my own life seems and feels less believable, not more so. How can I be when they are not? These objects she’s left me tell her stories but never clearly enough. So many things will now be forever missing, lessons never learned.

Favelli’s purple lights make my own skin foreign and pale. These lights are the kind college students use for their Grateful Dead tribute art; is this how I looked in all those dorm rooms—despondent? I walk into the abandoned bathroom in his mother’s empty house, look in the mirror, a relic from the sixties, and see all of my shadows, all of their depths. In the empty space among the images of a stranger’s life I look alien, I look like maybe I have a chance of making contact.


Allison Grimaldi-Donahue

Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Words Without Borders, Electric Literature, The Fanzine, Funhouse Magazine and other journals. She is fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse and associate translation editor at Drunken Boat. Her chapbook Body to Mineral was published in 2016 with Publication Studio Vancouver. She teaches at John Cabot University, Rome.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 28th, 2017.