Folks walking the High Line this week are pulling out their iPhones to photograph a funny new sculpture, “You Know Who I Am,” at the end of a spur spur in a valley of buildings on West 16th Street. Measured to the torch, the 5-meter-tall bronze copy of the Statue of Liberty – her classic face and straight Greek nose topped with an emoji-esque mask of an Asian boy – stands like a question mark asking visitors to make two incongruous points with each other. Connect: The draped, classic figure everyone knows, and a cartoon face with a button nose and startled eyes.
Italian-born artist Paola Pivi took one of America’s most famous symbols and made it new and strange. First she meticulously copied the figure down to her fingernails from a plaster cast of an original bronze by the French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi. With the mask she gave the statue – on behalf of the High Line – a different age, race and gender, while linking her bronze figure to a poignant story from India. Rather than a general tale of the tired and poor ‘huddled masses’, the mask tells the story of a single, vulnerable orphan.
Pivi, 51, specializes in creating works of art that are actually question marks in physical form. The selection is up to you. The rare Italian artist who picked up a book about Dada for a book about the Renaissance has dropped puzzles in public spaces around the world. Bypassing Italy’s long tradition of pictorial realism, she didn’t have to unlearn anything but invent everything. Her birth as a conceptual artist was flawless.
“Marcel Duchamp led me to discover art without form — the experience is not before your eyes, but in the brain, cerebral and not retina,” she said last week in her East Village gallery, Perrotin, which has a site- specific exhibition will show. installation at the end of June.
Fresh off a plane from Anchorage, Alaska, where she now lives, Pivi discussed her work, career, and dada. In an optically complex, visually contradictory dress with a two-tone long-sleeved blouse atop a pleated silk skirt, she wears Dada on her sleeve.
“Dada was exciting and liberating,” she says. “Dada taught me that art communicates, just like books. As an artist you have to go into a deeper state of consciousness and being, where you are not in complete, conscious control.”
Her first sculpture on display was a breathtaking 18-wheeler truck that had inexplicably flipped over on its side during a prestigious international show in Pescara in 1997. To be fair, she greased the underside. “How I Roll” (2012), was a twin-engine Piper Seneca spinning horizontally on its wing as if performing aerial acrobatics in New York’s Central Park under the haughty gaze of the nearby Plaza Hotel.
Dada taught Pivi, who had studied nuclear chemical engineering in college, to embrace irrationality. In a show that opens April 22 at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, “Paola Pivi: I Want it All,” she portrays feathers. Gambling in its clinical white galleries, life-size polar bears, smothered in Day-Glo plumage, play tag, dance, hang from trapezes, scratch and generally bring raw joy to the hushed district. Perhaps Pivi is drawing attention to the humanity of polar bears as they face environmental extinction?
Polar bears, she says, live “on her doorstep” in Alaska, which she was introduced to when she witnessed a Piper Cub, the Iditarod, Alaska’s famous 1000-mile dog sled race. “I went to the finish in Nome and fell in love with Alaska,” she said. “The wildlife there is breathtaking, and the native cultures of Alaska are extraordinary.” She shares her admiration for Alaska with her husband, a Tibetan composer, poet, songwriter, documentary filmmaker and freedom activist whose stage name is Karma Culture Brothers. She met him there in 2006. He mentions all her pieces.
The lazy interpretation of “You know who I am” could be that Pivi moved a known object to an unknown context, as Duchamp did when he “found” his urinal “Fountain” by signing it ready-made and in to be used for exhibition. Pivi “found” the Statue of Liberty by moving her objet trouvé from New York Harbor to the High Line (itself a found object) and effectively signing it with the mask. The cartoonish face on a classified image jumpstarts the image with an incongruity that attracts passers-by. Pivi decontextualizes and resculpts a symbol rather than a rotating object.
“Immigration is a subject that touches many lives, and ‘You know who I am’ addresses that experience in an accessible and even playful way,” said Cecilia Alemani, director and chief curator of High Line Art. Pointing out that the Statue of Liberty is visible in the distance of the park, she calls Pivi’s work “an invitation to reflect on the individual people whose collective experiences — both hopeful and challenging — shape the reality of immigration into the United States.”
In contrast to the Sphinx-like character of Pivi’s other work, ‘You know who I am’ has a backstory, which can be accessed on the spot via mobile phone.
We learn that the mask, full of innocence and boyish charm, is an abstraction of her son Norbu’s face. Pivi and her husband met and adopted him in 2012 when the 5-year-old was living in the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamshala, the headquarters of the large Tibetan community in exile in India. Pivi likes to say that their son has been adopted them as, in a moment of spontaneous recognition, he burst across a room toward them with a smile full of gas: “He jumped into my arms,” she said. “I started to cry.” Karma photographed the event.
The emotional connection was immediate and easy. The adoption, not so much.
The president of the Tibetan Children’s Village initiated and approved the adoption, and Norbu moved in with the couple and then resided in India. But after five months, the village demanded the boy back to send him to France in another arrangement.
In 135 hearings that lasted all the way to the Supreme Court of India and the Supreme Court of New Delhi, the couple argued for the legitimacy of the adoption against the word of prominent Tibetan figures. Despite what she called their “reputation as the most compassionate people in the world – holy, spiritual, pure – they brutally lied, relentlessly and said in court that we wanted to trade in the child, that we were Chinese spies, that we had kidnapped him. “
Pivi paid all court and attorney fees from earnings from her art, which she continued to produce while using India as a home base. Karma’s photos and iPhone recordings added evidence to signed papers. (They just published a book, “Circle,” recounting the saga in print, with an accompanying CD.)
The family’s ordeal also brought with it “Lies,” a 2018 installation first shown at the Bass Museum in Miami Beach, in which she mounted 92 small TV screens in grids of information with changing images. The filmed facts—birds flying, a man smoking a long cigar—were visual truths, while audio clips of the lies from today’s post-truth reality of misinformation and misinformation played like a soundtrack.
“During the years of the hearings and beyond, I had come to understand, despite my shock, that lies had become ubiquitous,” she says. “It used to be embarrassing to lie, but then it was accepted.”
During the hearings, Norbu had become very interested in the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of human rights and freedom – and his own. “He was fascinated by the image and wanted to see it,” she said. “His fixation inspired the artwork.”
Finally, after four years of hearings, the adoption was legitimized by Indian courts. “A petition is without merit. Fired,” read the 2016 ruling. The couple won the right to leave India with Norbu. The United States had an official document that allowed Norbu, now legally approved but otherwise stateless and thus paperless, to enter the country and obtain citizenship upon entry. “U.S. law had a mechanism that was a medium of liberty that, in our case, upheld the promise of the Statue of Liberty,” Pivi said.
“‘You know who I am’ was a milestone that opened up my work,” she continues. “The Statue of Liberty was born politically. It represents the relationship between people and the status of freedom they get – or not – from society.” Her bronze, she added, “talks to me about something intimate about one person’s identity—Norbu in our case—and his relationship with society.”
If Lady Liberty is now Norbu, she will become five different people over the next year, when Pivi places personalized emoji-like masks on the statue every two months. Pivi translates an ideal to real people, and each mask represents a case study in an individual’s biography of freedom. Next up is that of Marco Saavedra, a Bronx restaurateur who was brought to the United States from Mexico as an undocumented child. As a ‘dreamer’ he very recently won asylum.
“Some stories will be happy, some won’t,” concludes Pivi. “Freedom is controlled by others.”