Cesare Pietroiusti interviews Miltos Manetas | Part II


Let's begin with the facts. The opening was scheduled for May 11. By that date, because of the inevitable delays in postal shipping in these times of global crisis, your forty portraits had not yet arrived. After consulting with you, we decided to open the show anyway and mount prints of the works that we received by e-mail. Once the opening has happened (and has been communicated), the exhibition officially “exists”.

So, to recap, “The Assange Condition” is an exhibition that was conceived to not be visited; however, as you said in our previous interview, “it is NOT closed”. Moreover, it’s an exhibition that exists even without the works it was supposed to host – it exists and, for example, it is talked about. Here, and elsewhere.

Don't you think that these facts sketch out a process in which the work is the result of a collaboration between different people and circumstances, and of which you, the artist and the paintings – the actual works on display – are only a part?

I understand that every set-up of an exhibition requires a certain choice of colours, lights, backgrounds, etc. But it seems to me that there's something more going on here. I think I can identify, in this space, the presence of a sense of expectation, which is perhaps different from the plain and simple preparation of an exhibition venue. Besides, as we said, the exhibition exists, and this colouring, for which you provided the instructions – this new state of the location – is part of the exhibition. Don’t you think?

The work I do on Assange, I call it #AssangePower. Even more than “power”, the right word would be “strength”. I feel that making these paintings gives me strength, giving them away to other people gives me strength, and now sharing them through “The Assange Condition” exhibition gives me even more! “Exhibition” for me means presence and, in this case, the presence of visual energy, generated by these paintings in a particular space – the Sala Fontana of Palazzo delle Esposizioni – and at a particular time in history in which we find ourselves in a condition similar to the one Julian Assange found himself in for years before his arrest, on April 11, 2019: self-isolation.

This presence, as I understand it, begins with the aura of expectation: the feeling we have when waiting for something that is about to happen. The process of setting up an exhibition is not normally shown to the public: the doors open and the visitor comes into contact with the energy of the work; this can be a shock, but the feeling of expectation is no longer there. But, in our case, we were lucky! The paintings’ postal journey was hindered – just as the arrival in Rome of Julian Assange would have been hindered, or my own arrival from Bogota.

This gave us time to rethink the environment of “The Assange Condition”. The Sala Fontana is a hexagonal room with a fountain in the centre, from which water no longer flows. Intuitively, to me, the room already seemed almost ready to “receive” Assange.

In recent months, I visited two online exhibitions in the Sala Fontana. One was “Nature in Every Sense”, an attempt to create “a large collective garden” with colourful walls, as bright as you’d imagine nature shines outside the Palazzo, or even outside Rome. The other was an exhibition-workshop from 2016 called “One-Way Systems”, with Braille panels on the walls that children (both visually impaired and not) had to touch in order to “see”. These were representations of the world outside of a room, at the centre of which – like an evocation – stands an inactive fountain. We find ourselves, today, in a situation in which our children communicate with their friends and their teachers exclusively through the unsettling touch of cursors and screens; for me, these two exhibition-workshops become particularly meaningful because they touch on the physicality and the real emergency that is hidden under the Covid-19 crisis: the climate emergency, which is the elephant in the room of all our discourses. The message of those two exhibitions – just like the

colours of these walls – recall “Greta [Thunberg]'s complaints”. Julian Assange's story also says something about the way we are forbidden not so much to talk about the emergency, but to uncover abuses large and small, the manipulations and mystifications that lurk behind the dominant discourse, including “green” conversations about supposedly “ecological” changes in production. Those who attempt to do so will be silenced. Not by some sort of “bad guy” – I don't believe in conspiracy theories. Instead, I see a kind of “obfuscation” of the Law and democracy, a fatal coming together of bureaucracy and the media, which creates the conditions to silence each one of us, in the widespread apathy of everyone else.

That’s why I decided to apply a coat of plaster over the colours that remained from the “Nature in Every Sense” exhibition. Painting plaster is practically dust. Last week, when we applied the first coat of plaster (I was supervising remotely, on my smart phone), it produced a kind of “Giotto effect”, which I didn't have it in me to remove. I knew it wasn't right for the space, but I was too happy with it to change it. A bit like the privileges we enjoy.

On the day of the opening – which we did on Instagram (chosen out of all the social media precisely because it was ill-suited to this kind of event) – I realised clearly that, if I did not “spoil” this beauty, the encounter between the Sala Fontana and my paintings would not take place. Now the space is just sombre enough, and unpredictable things can happen...


So I’d like to ask you this question once again: what is the status of these portraits? Paintings that are made by an artist in Colombia and distributed free of charge, that may or may not be on display, and that are now, too, in a state of suspension between border crossings, post offices and whatever else. It seems to me that, even beyond their content and their reference to Assange, these objects are taking on very interesting and perhaps disquieting traits.

I am someone who is typically sceptical about the spiritual dimension: I’m persuaded only by the data and what I can see on the surface. But I also try to pay a lot of attention to intentions, consequences and connections. From my travels in the Amazon, and my encounters with communities – those we stupidly call “Indians” – I have found that there exists the possibility of an entirely materialistic shamanism. That even we, confused and lost people – “little brothers”, as they call us, with tenderness and tolerance – can invent with our computers and our networks.

Painting, especially when it is done with oil on canvas, remains for me the most powerful computer that Western civilisation has produced. This is because – in contrast to the other arts – with painting everything is revealed immediately, at the very first instant. One glance at a canvas by Raphael is all it takes, and your life is no longer the same. But what painting cannot do is bring people together. In fact, it easily becomes a screen: it separates and hides those who look at it. It’s perhaps also for this reason that wretched people often become great lovers of paintings... Nowadays, however, the existence of the “network” has transformed everything. Paintings, with their materiality and through their reflection in the network, can become tools for a new materialistic shamanism.

It comes to mind that these paintings are a kind of physical prosthesis of yours (because you can't travel and come here), or the expansion of one of your thoughts which, however, in this multiplication of states and suspended places, becomes more scattered and difficult to define. Can I say this? It seems to follow the model of contagion...

It’s exactly like a form of contagion. This is also why I refuse to be thanked by the collectors of my portraits of Assange for the “gift” I give them. It is not a gift: the fact that they receive these works puts in motion a (contagious) ritual that would otherwise be impossible.

I hope that, in the long term, my project will contribute to the configuration of a world where it is no longer possible to imprison someone like Assange.


I agree. When the work becomes a part of a collection, separated from the artist and the world, it is put in a sort of prison. With the spotlights on it, in dust-free rooms, but without the freedom to say what it hasn't said so far, and without the possibility of becoming something else.
Translated by Sean Mark