Joseph La Piana | 'Frequency' Amid Nature and Ruins

In conversation with the installation artist on his newest exhibition at Orto Botanico Corsini and Forte Stella

Written by

Emma Raff

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Installation view of Frequency by Joseph La Piana. Photo by Marco Marroni.

On the edge of Italy’s Tyrrhenian Sea stretches 16 acres of pure green. Orto Botanico Corsini, a botanical garden harboring 150 species of exotic flora in the midst of Monte Argentario has recently been transformed into a contemporary art installation by six site-specific sculptures, taut yellow strands wrought from simple, industrial materials and painstakingly strung around and between towering tree trunks. 

The Corsini and the historic Forte Stella are the latest mediums of Brooklyn-based visual artist, Joseph La Piana. His solo exhibition, Frequency, is on view through August 8, deriving its name from Forte Stella’s role as a communication tower for the botanical garden, expands on his multidisciplinary approach and represents the embodied experiences of the world. The Corsini's diverse vegetation and the Forte’s stunning 16th-century architecture create a parallel between the physical sculptures and contemporary culture, a contrast of ancient environments and modern material. 

La Piana’s installations and a selection of 13 paintings within the star-shaped fortification recontextualize the natural world from its resting state, pulling and warping the trees as if imbuing them with a spirit of their own. As a dual citizen of the US and Italy, the installations also represent La Piana’s heritage, capturing a sense of emotional intimacy and memory.

Below, La Piana speaks with FLAUNT about Frequency as well as his artistic process and message. 

Installation view of Frequency by Joseph La Piana. Photo by Marco Marroni.

What were the early inspirations for Frequency, and how did you approach creating in collaboration with Orto Botanico Corsini and Forte Stella, both of which hold history and  natural beauty? 

I didn't have early inspirations as that's not really a part of my artistic process. Instead, I consider the existing life of my work and how it will evolve and grow in different contexts and environments. During my visit to Porto Ercole in February, I began envisioning the history of the garden and Forte Stella, but it wasn't until I physically experienced it that I understood the tremendous beauty and significance of both sites.

The most important aspect for me was, "How can I be most respectful and conscientious of both sites?" It became clear to me immediately how I wanted to activate and become a participant in the garden in a way that was different from Forte Stella and how my work would become part of the garden rather than take it over. For both, however, I wanted to honor the history and natural beauty that already existed at each site. 

What is the significance of utilizing simple, industrial materials in your works? How does  it contribute to the story or message you are trying to communicate?

The significance of the materials I use is a metaphor for our human conditions—trying to adapt, expand, and evolve around the ever-changing elements that come to fruition. 

What are the logistical obstacles in allowing your work to be completely open to the  elements? How do you consider rain, wind, sun, heat, other animals, etc., when creating  an in-situ work such as this one? 

I refer to my site-specific works and sculptures as "living objects." Therefore, all the elements I've mentioned are just part of this ongoing cohabitation, a coexistence in which my work  incorporates natural elements. I don't necessarily view such things as rain, wind, sun, heat, etc. as obstacles, because I strive for a harmonious relationship, where my works are one with  nature and its effects. 

With material wrapped highly around fairly spaced-out trees and presented on a slope, how did you physically install the tension work for Frequency? How do you feel these sculptures contrast or complement the colors and architecture of Forte Stella?

Good question. The installation was extremely physically demanding, much more so than I had originally anticipated. Installation required cherry pickers and very tall ladders because the heights varied from 30 to 70 feet, and the gaps between the connections and trees were even larger, oftentimes spanning over 100 feet. It's also worth noting the immense physical effort required to pull and stretch this material across long distances, which was immensely challenging and physically overwhelming. 

I felt the color really complimented its environment. Yellow has been a core aesthetic element in my work since the beginning of my artistic practice. The vegetation in the garden was changing from green to yellow during installation, which highlighted the ongoing adaptation and evolution of the exhibition, while the Tuscan sky and vivid blue Tyrrhenian Sea made for dramatic vistas that still felt connected to the natural environment and its beauty.  

How did you select which paintings would be showcased in Forte Stella? Do they take up  a new meaning when they’re hung on the wall of a fort versus when they are not?

I carefully curated and selected the paintings with the help of my dealer, Sebastian Sarmiento, formerly of Marlborough Gallery. We took into account beams of sunlight entering through the original portals used for shooting weapons during wartime, as well as the texture of the distressed walls, to create a stage for my paintings.

The resulting presentation of the paintings was more powerful than if they had been hung in a white box gallery or exhibition space. While the logistical requirements of hanging works within Forte Stella proved a challenge, it worked out perfectly as I felt the juxtaposition of the historical architecture and my paintings created a  contemporary point of view, playing into a renaissance for both. 

How would you describe the intersection and interaction between your art and nature, and your art and the spectator in this newest exhibition? 

The interaction and intersection of my work in collaboration with nature feels seamless and synonymous. As a spectator, I believe it adds a fresh perspective, an experience that necessitates exploration independent of the work itself. The viewer must activate their thoughts, ideas and point of views for themselves upon encountering the exhibition. 

You’re inspired by biology, physics, mathematics, and phenomenology, all subjects not typically associated with art, or “the arts.” Why and how can these sciences inspire an artistic vision? Might art and science inherently depend on one another?

Biology, physics, mathematics, and phenomenology are just premises for a larger conversation within my artistic process. I consider each school of thought, but it’s really about redefining, selecting, and utilizing aspects of each subject to evolve into a personal genealogy unique to my  work. In my case, science is just an outlet for my exploration and information that I ultimately whittle down to employ elements I feel are noteworthy. 

Where do you (or how do you) find beauty in your everyday life? 

I consider myself a purist. I tend to deconstruct everything I come across in my head. It's like a  series of moving images, akin to editing a film, where I ultimately find beauty in almost  everything through a highly selective and personal process.

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Joseph La Piana, Frequency, nature, Forte Stella, Orto Botanico Corsini, exhibition, installation, art, Italy, Emma Raff