It was August 2017, on one of those hot, sweltering days that stack up against one another in the Hong Kong summer, dragging it on endlessly. Italian artist Vanni Cuoghi had just toured China and Hong Kong was to be his last stop on his grand tour of East Asia. But Typhoon Hato would have none of it. Aside from the first day, when he took a wander in Central, Cuoghi’s experience of Hong Kong was confined to two spots, his hotel room at the JW Marriott hotel and the hotel lobby, each buffeted by the raging winds outside.
“On our last day, we didn’t know whether it was safe to leave or not, so the hotel put us in the lobby,” says the Genoa-born, Milan-based artist via a translator.
This experience is now distilled in The Eye of the Storm, his latest exhibition at Rossi & Rossi. As we walk into the first room, a blue flashing light blinds us momentarily. A heap of branches, dried leaves and flowers is stashed in one corner. There is a faint woody scent in the air. A sense of urgency, of danger—of us being exposed to the elements—begins to build. And then we come face to face with the devastation itself: a slew of paintings depicting wrecked shop shutters in Macau. Walk a few steps further in, and the devastation is replaced by gallery-goers, people in corporate officers and travellers in Hong Kong.
Some of these people have their faces turned towards the viewer, mirroring perhaps the way that the artist was experiencing Hong Kong, with his face pressed against the hotel windows. “The only way I could see Hong Kong was through the windows [in his hotel room and hotel lobby],” he says. “Despite not seeing much of the city, I was caught by its energy. The city was talking to me without me knowing it.”
The two rooms are in chronological order. When the artist landed in Hong Kong, he’d first observed the devastation that Hato wreaked upon Macau through the television screen, before witnessing first-hand the impact of Hato’s looming threat on Hongkongers.
Everyone depicted in the paintings has their eyes closed. “The eye reveals too much [emotion],” Cuoghi says, evoking the age-old saying “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” He says he wants viewers to interpret his works in their own way. And indeed, during the course of the interview, the artist shies away from talking about the inspiration behind each work, preferring to let us connect the dots between the different elements in a painting, or between the different paintings themselves. One of such dot that viewers would need to connect is one painting that depicts a few tigers roaming a Western-style diner. Created in 2016, the painting wasn’t inspired by Hato, but the artist and gallery felt that the contrast between nature and the man-made jells well with the rest of the exhibition.
But the exact message is ambiguous. Does the painting depict nature is fighting back against human encroachment on their natural habitats, or is it saying that nature and human beings could peacefully co-exist? Does Cuoghi see man and nature as mortal enemies? “There is the assumption that man and animal live in separate spaces,” he says. “I’m not okay with this idea. It is a very old idea, stretching back to Aristotle, who saw nature as something to be conquered by man, but it has been critiqued in recent years in the face of environmental destruction and the climate crisis.”
How should we fix this? Cuoghi gives an enigmatic answer. “Man and animals have different conceptions of time and space,” he says. “In fact, everyone has different conceptions of time and space. I think we should just let everything take its course.”
Cuoghi’s penchant for scene-setting harks back to his student days – he studied scenography rather than the more obvious fine art at Milan’s Brera Art Academy. And yet his degree would have a huge impact on his thought process. He says he treats each painting like a dollhouse. “I’ll put characters inside, play with them and see if they fit [with each other] If they don’t, I’ll take them out,” he says. “The creative process isn’t programmed. Art, and especially painting, is like playing chess. It’s not horizontal or vertical, but rather, a quick move to the side.”
While most of his characters are fictional, the artist finds that they usually end up being a mishmash of his friends, family and those he’d met on his travels. His wife is depicted in one of the paintings as a gallery-goer. What does she think of his depiction? “She tries not to show anything but I think she’s very happy,” he says. He also puts himself in — but very rarely. “I occupy too much space!” He jokes, slapping his plump belly.
Cuoghi’s scenographic background also manifests itself in the ways that the characters are placed – always to the side, never at the centre. “If you place the character in the centre, then he would become the centrepiece,” he says. “But I want to give the idea that there are many more stories being told in that scene, for example, the opened luggage on the bed.”
While the paintings come with their own frames, they’re placed within another frame, a technique that reminds viewers that what you see in a frame is only part of a greater story. “I wanted to show as there could be many other rooms around it [the painted room],” says Cuoghi. “The empty spaces are also ‘space for the imagination.’”
He calls these his monolocale paintings, using the Italian word for a studio apartment to refer to his tiny workspace in Milan. “It is very small but it is magical,” he says. “I let my imagination run loose in this small studio.”
He lived in an ever smaller monolocale in his student days. “What I realised, living in the small space, is you become hyper aware of what happens outside,” he says. “My upstairs neighbour was always making this sound, and one day, I started to imagine that he had these small glass spheres that he’d tip over [the edge of a table].”
Did he ever find out what the source of the sound was? “No. In cities, people don’t talk to each other. I wasn’t interested in reality. Imagination was more important. Some mysteries must be respected.”
Cuoghi wasn’t always been interested in scenography. As a kid, his favourite subject was Tarzan – but for his supposed muscular build rather than heroism. “I loved drawing the human body,” he says. “When I was seven, I visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome for the first time. When I looked up, I thought, ‘Wow, Tarzan!’”
Tarzan was in fact Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. From that point, Michelangelo became the young Vanni’s favourite artist.
It wasn’t until coming across famed Italian historian Giorgio Vasari’s The Life of Raphael at the age of 20 that he switched role models. Raphael was one of the so-called “Holy Trinity of the High Renaissance” alongside Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, but it wasn’t just the artist’s artistic prowess that made an impression on Cuoghi, but the breadth of his talent and ambitions. “He had a short life”—the artist died at the age of 37—“but he also had many different careers – like me,” he says with a grin. “He had a strong working ethic. He was a painter, an architect, he helped the Pope register the monuments in Rome, he organised ceremonies for the Pope.”
Perhaps subconsciously emulating Raphael—though no doubt in a much more modest manner—Cuoghi worked several jobs, as a magazine illustrator, a TV set designer, a decorator – before settling on painting.
But change doesn’t only come in the form of career switches. It’s also about having the grit to go beyond a tried and tested formula. “I have completed 96 monolocale drawings,” says Cuoghi. “I’ll stop when I reach 100.”
According to Varsai, Raphael has a team of assistants, amongst which a painter, an architect and decorator. Does Cuoghi have three assistants like his hero? One’d expect the artist to brush off that question with a smile, but he nods his head earnestly, “Sì, sì!” he exclaims. “I really learnt many things from him.”
Still, there is one way in which Cuoghi’s life has already departed from Raphael’s. The artist, who turns 53 this year, will most definitely live a longer life – and he will no doubt weather many more storms to come.
The Eye of the Storm will show at Rossi & Rossi until 7 September 2019. Click here for more information.