Artist Marco Fusinato’s punk roots support a career of multimedia works that probe boundaries, such as his Venice Biennale installation that asks visitors to transform books into a pile of money. By Miriam Cosic.

Marco Fusinato’s sound and vision

Marco Fusinato, 'Spectral Arrows', Venice, Sept 19, 2015.
Marco Fusinato, 'Spectral Arrows', Venice, Sept 19, 2015.
Credit: Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

Marco Fusinato is lolling on a black leather sofa in the back room of his Sydney gallery, his voice easygoing, chatting as though we’ve known each other all our lives. “If you paint the same cup for 20 years, everyone gets it after two years,” he says. “If you work across so many different areas, the story takes longer to tell.”

Fusinato’s art moves between sound and drawing, photography and installation, text and moving image. “The idea drives the form,” he says. “I don’t want to be locked into a particular theme or way of working.” He returns to a metaphor he often uses. “It’s really like being a crow sitting on a power line. And you’re looking down and making an observation on things that are going on below you. Then you go down and scavenge the bits that you find interesting, and make something from that.”

Some of it assaults the senses, leaving the observer startled, deafened with noise, blinded by light. Some of it is intriguingly detailed, drawing the observer in closer and closer in order to decipher marks on paper: such as the musical scores overlaid with lines radiating in from each note, the reconfigured notes to be played all at once, to be called implosions. Other works are more straightforward, but thought-provokingly political: such as the rhythmic, almost poetic, series of news photographs, blown up like history paintings, of protesters brandishing rocks at decisive points in various riots, called Double Infinitives. Others still are purely contemplative, such as his photographic series of the sun in a blue sky. Whatever the form, the work is provocative and intriguing. It has the sincerity than comes of prolonged thought and disciplined creativity.

“There is a current through it all,” says Alexie Glass-Kantor, the director of Artspace Sydney, “which is looking at self-determination and how do we as individuals and society become accountable for our actions.” Glass-Kantor has worked with Fusinato on a number of projects, including a major exhibition of sound art titled 21:100:100, which showed at Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne in 2008 and the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart in 2009 and 2010. “His work has an energy, an actual force to it, and a persistent curiosity,” she continues. “His work is just getting better and better, I think.”

For the 2015 Venice Biennale, Fusinato made a 496-page “printed document” in an edition of 10,000, consisting of scanned images of the archive – political pamphlets, posters and so on – at the Cox 18 anarchist squat on Via Conchetta in Milan. He stacked the books around the perimeter of a large table. On the cover of each is an explanation of Cox 18, the image of a €10 note, and an invitation to take a book and throw a note into the centre of the table, as payment on an honour system.

“My idea,” he says, “was that as the books go down the money rises. The potential is for €100,000 to be on that table, no security, no guards. And at the end of the exhibition, after seven months, all that money will go to the squat to help them to continue with their struggle. They can do what they want with it.”

Unsurprisingly, the project, named From the Horde to the Bee, ran into trouble. First, the Biennale insisted that it doesn’t allow exhibition art to be sold. Fusinato managed to defuse that one. Then security didn’t want the money lying around because they were sure it would be stolen. Fusinato admits that people did start reaching in for the money, just because they could. Attendants are now pushing it to the centre of the table, with long croupier-like sticks, at the end of every day. “I’ve emailed them multiple times saying, ‘Just leave it’, but they keep pushing it in,” Fusinato says with a frown. “It’s out of my control.”

In Singapore until Tuesday, another Fusinato show, Constellations, has been startling visitors. He bisected a large room at the Institute of Contemporary Art with a 46-metre wall. When you walk in, you see nothing but white. Walk around the gap at either end of the wall, and you find a baseball bat affixed to the wall with a chain. You are invited to hit the bat as hard as you can against the wall. Hidden in the wall are 15 microphones, which amplify the sound to a thunderous 120 decibels. “The sound is so explosive,” Fusinato says, “it reverberates the whole building.” The holes in the wall create a maximalist/minimalist tension that mirrors the tension between noise and silence in the gallery, he says: the kind of tensions he likes to explore.

The work is a physical experience for the audience, and not just in the soundwaves it forces through them. For the piece to exist they must participate in it. It also shatters the contemplative calm of a gallery space. “It’s a social experiment,” Fusinato says. “I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but it’s been intense. People have really gone at that wall.” To put it more bluntly: “The wall’s completely fucked.” Which points to something else that intrigues him: “That reverberative noise is really something I’m interested in.”

Last week, Fusinato returned to Venice to stage an eight-hour durational performance piece, unrelated to the exhibition there, titled Spectral Arrows. He performed it in Singapore in August, too. From 10am to 6pm, he worked solo with a guitar and electronics, back to the audience, creating an “aural sculpture”. That’s a dainty description. In fact, it was a tsunami of noise, “using all possible frequencies, performed at extreme volume, to physically affect the audience. The sensation is like being crushed by the waves of the ocean all day.”

Francesco Stocchi, a curator of contemporary art at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, has been following Fusinato’s work since a trip to Melbourne and Sydney eight years ago. “I found he was one of the few Australian artists who wasn’t preoccupied with markers of identity and the cultural history of the country. I see Marco as an international artist first. He doesn’t start from national preoccupations.”

Fusinato’s preoccupations come out of an early fascination with punk and with politics. “Those interests I had as a teenager are still the interests I have now,” he says. “The radical politics, the noise as music, found ideas as conceptual art, and so on – that’s still what drives me now.”

Fusinato was born in Melbourne in 1964. His parents and older brother had come there from Arsiè, a village just north-west of Venice, at the foot of the Dolomites. They kept the family home, in the eponymous Via Fusinato, intending to stay maybe a couple of years in Australia, make some money, and go home. The years stretched into decades, however, and they got into the habit of flitting between their homes in Noble Park and Arsiè.

His parents were contadini, Fusinato says – peasants – albeit relatively well-off by virtue of the fact they owned land. They didn’t speak English and nor did Fusinato until he started at the local state school. Italian mannerisms still inflect his voice sometimes, a nice counterpoint to his Australian accent.

At school, he quickly became interested in art and music. His brother, 12 years ahead of him and already in art school, went to London and brought back punk recordings. They galvanised him and his trajectory was set. His interest was as much cerebral as material. “I liked the music, but what I liked most was the interviews they gave,” he says. “They didn’t speak about fast cars, girls and equipment. It was about politics and social change, and that made me search out things and then that opened up other influences.” Melbourne was – and still is – the heart of punk and post-punk in Australia, but Fusinato sidesteps a comment about following bands in particular venues around at that time. “Yeah... but I was also an avid reader, and a collector of records and magazines. I’m still a big collector.”

Through reading, he discovered the intersecting lineages of radical thought and 20th-century performance art, going back to Duchamp. “It opened up my interest in the radical left of politics,” he says, “and I became obsessed with anarcho-punk.” The direct-action politics of groups such as Crass in Britain were formative. His interest in Cox 18 and the Moroni archive it houses are of a piece with those early concerns. Squats in Italy, he points out, are not the housing arrangements that Anglo-Saxons formed. Rather, they are meeting places for discussing politics, for art and music, for gardening and cooking for each other: an even more radical idea, in a way, than shared housing for dropouts.

He went to art school briefly, but it wasn’t for him and he quit. He continued to live at home with his parents through his 20s and, like them, worked in factories, while he read and thought hard about art, and saved to go to Europe. A mama’s boy despite his radical views, I say, and he grins: “Italiani, no?” They exerted no pressure on him to get a conventional life. “They gave me total freedom and respect – it’s unbelievable, in retrospect.”

Once he got to Europe, he based himself in the family home and travelled around, soaking up centuries of art. He names artists such as Giotto, Vermeer and Courbet alongside influences such as Alighiero Boetti and the Arte Povera movement, the Situationists, Fluxus and the Futurists, especially Luigi Russolo’s L’Arte dei rumori, which translates as “the art of noises”.

Again, he slides off laterally, away from discussing the material production of art and into ideas. “I think what’s interesting about those people is that they’re all industries.” He means that not in the sense of the artists’ guilds of old, but in the sense they make their products to be widely disseminated. “How does history remember them and why do we know them? How did I get to know them? I’m fascinated by the package, how it’s sold to us.” He has no answers to the questions. “I could guess,” he says tentatively, trailing off, pausing for a few seconds. “I got asked a question by a magazine: What is art for? And the answer I wrote was, ‘To ask questions and not get answers.’ ”

Even his reading has an autodidact’s open-endedness. He is drawn to big ideas, such as concepts of self-determination, but in an artist’s big-picture way, not a philosopher’s forensic examination. “A lot of my understanding is by not understanding,” he says. “I’ll dip into a lot of these texts and grapple with them, and then come back to them later and get something else out of them. It’s a lifelong pursuit, isn’t it?”

Fusinato didn’t start showing work until the early 1990s, when he made contact with Store 5, an alternative venue off Chapel Street in Melbourne’s Prahran. He agrees it was an unusually long gestation period. “Yes, but in retrospect that was good. You have to find your voice, your language.” The people he got to know there – Callum Morton, now his brother-in-law, with whom he shares a studio; Kathy Temin; Rose Nolan; Stephen Bram; John Nixon – have a generational, if not an aesthetic, outlook in common. And all are now represented by the gallerist who went on to represent Fusinato, Anna Schwartz, whose husband publishes this newspaper. “She’s progressive and takes big risks,” Fusinato says. “She backs the artists to fulfil their own vision, even if there is no commercial imperative.”

Stocchi says he sees Fusinato as a sociologist as much as an artist. “He’s very much preoccupied with how systems work and how humans behave in groups,” he says. “Every art is political, and then some art is about politics. Marco’s art is not a chronicle of today. He’s not there to denounce a current state of affairs. He’s not using art as a political tool. His art is political, but it’s more subtle than that.”

His art is indeed subtle, even though his politics are anarchic, his ideas grand and his methods of delivery often overwhelming. It cuts clean through the chatter. It asks us to think.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 26, 2015 as "Sound and vision".

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Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.

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