10 November 2015

Translation: Alfredo Longo, Citizen Artist

This article by Margo D’Heygere was originally published in Le Vif on November 1, 2015 in French.

In Mons, in the workshop of his fashion designer wife, Alfredo Longo, painter and sculptor, receives us a few hours before the inauguration of his gigantic heart made of 30,000 cans at the turnabout of the Havre woods, one of the most beautiful entrances in the city.

“My father came to Belgium at the behest of the state in order to work in the mines. My mother joined him. I have three brothers and a sister, we were all born here,” says the artist of Italian origins. “I would say that I was perhaps the most DIY among the group.” While he was working in a factory, he enrolled in a night course where he was trained in technical drawing. “This allowed me to leave factory work after three years to work in a design office. Then, since I was drawing all the time, I decided to enroll at the Academy of Fine Arts, again in continuing education,” continues the sculptor. Remy van den Abeele, Belgian surrealist painter and professor at the academy, noticed “a sort of talent” in him and let him skip to the third year. “I left there as the highest-ranking student,” recalls Alfredo Longo. “From that point, I began to exhibit my first paintings and drawings, and I got a few medals.” While he specializes in sculpture today, the first love of the artist was for painting. “Since I was a rather experimental painter, I only worked with a brush. I would lay down several layers that I scratched. There was a certain relief in my work. I thought of continuing with cardboard collage and then I wanted to go on to working with volume.” The fragility of cardboard gave him the idea of working with a more solid material.

Can you explain your concept of Transform’Art Kompress?

It’s the transformation of form through compression and implementation to create art. In the Recup Art movement, which has been around for 20 to 25 years and even more, certain artists took objects and mounted them together. The objects were not transformed. The difference in my work with cans is that I reclaim the cans and transform their form and mold them. Which is where Transform’Art Kompress comes from. There are several intermediary stages in this. I begin by reclaiming the cans, which are generally washed by the public. Then I sort them by color, and then they are compressed lengthwise to one centimeter. At this point they are workable. I started with small pieces and then I refined the strategy for bigger ones. That’s what they are inaugurating today, a large heart, five meters high, for which I had to construct an armature. This one must be the brand for what we want to represent, it should appear perfect in form. Then, I dress this skeleton with all the flattened cans, which will circle the armature and turn it into a single block. 

You say you are self-taught.

In sculpture, you do a lot of internships: you can learn pottery, claywork, ceramics, how to sculpt in bronze, etc. As far as sculpting with cans in concerned, you can look everywhere. There are no books, no Internet articles. There is artisanal work done with cans, toys, etc. but not sculpture. In order to get to a solid structure like a block of metal, but that remains visibly made of cans, I had to refine a certain technique. It was at the end of the second year that I began telling myself that the technique was becoming more habitual. I evolved from the small pieces, and it was only working from there that I began to think that I could go far in the public space.

How did you get the idea to use cans?

Cardboard is ephemeral, it’s not resistant enough. It also took up a lot of space in my painting studio, so I had to get away from it. Then, while driving in my car, I could see spots of color on the road, on window ledges, overflowing from trashcans. It was metallic cans. They are one of the products that we consume and then throw away the most in the world. Belgium has one of the highest rates of can consumption compared to its population size.

I was also intrigued by this idea of wrappers that come from all over the world. I began my first sculpture by mixing wood, bronze, iron debris and cans only to wind up working just with cans. What I like about this material is that I am dealing with a constant challenge. I have to stay vigilant. I injured myself three times and was hospitalized. I also love the can because it changes every year. There are can collections, new brands on the market, new drinks that lead to new graphic designs. There are artists who work hard on them so that the product attracts us. The luminosity of the cans is fabulous. For my material as a sculptor, I wanted something that I did not have to mold completely. If I want, I can leave the can as it is. In my small pieces, the colors are often as is. The logos are barely recognizable, and this makes for an enormous impact as far as brilliance is concerned. Even crushed, the can is beautiful.

Why don’t you work with plastic bottles?

I’ll get there. It’s true that the plastic bottle has been less developed as far as ornament and color are concerned, but there are still possibilities. There is also a lot of plastic pollution. Bottles are not always well-recycled; there are islands of bottles that float on the oceans. In order to be able to complete a work made entirely out of PMC (plastics, metals and cardboard), I will have to study another technique; it will perhaps be necessary to refine other tools, but I am tempted.

Were you able to get the number of cans you needed very quickly?

Yes, they were overflowing! I even had to remove the sign I had put up front on which I was asking people to bring me their cans. I put another one in its place, stating that I needed some time to manage the stock. People listened to me, so it was cool.

Do you think that it’s the environmental angle that made your project successful?

In all cases, citizen participation comes from two things. First, from the desire to get rid of one’s waste and to reduce the volume of one’s trash bags. When I asked people to give me their cans, many were interested, and some even called me to go pick them up at their houses. I did that many times, but then I quietly stopped because the network grew as a result of my exhibits and my messages in the media. I reclaimed 400 cans per week more or less, and I stored them at home. They were then reduced to the volume. The citizen takes pride in participating in something noble. Other than nature, art is what can remain that is beautiful on the planet. It’s important to have this culture of the environment and this artistic culture at the same time. This project connects environmentalism, participation and the beautiful. People are proud, they say “we are happy, there are two cans from us in there.” An artist can become popular very late. In this case, I think it happened very quickly. My language is universal. Despite the difficulties, there is a positive outcome after all these years. I told myself “You did this all by yourself, you were not discouraged, no one understood you, but now everyone understands you immediately.”

Is that what you call “citizen” art?

Yes, exactly. We often hear that the artist remains holed up in his studio, and art vendors deal with selling his work. I am a little against this. If I can make a living out of it, it’s awesome, but I have done it out of passion. I’ve had a lot of nourishing subject matters, which have allowed me a certain freedom in my creations. It would be utopian to say that an artist can make a living out of his art at 20 years old. This means he will be locked into galleries, contracts and must do precisely as he is told. I am of a certain mature age. I can do a little bit of what I want. Some say “if you don’t own a Cartier at 50, you have missed out.” I do not agree.

You have worked with several themes, such as hearts, human heads or superhero faces. Is there an underlying meaning behind these pieces?

The heart is a huge, universal symbol. I asked myself quite a few questions looking at the work of other sculptors: on abstraction, on aggressive or warrior-like depiction, etc. I decided that the simplest forms are sometimes the best, and that’s why I created a heart. I started with small pieces in the shape of a heart, which attracted the public. At the same time, I wanted to graft a project onto all of this. Not just love, friendship, but a project with an environmental sense, the planet. This heart is the heart of the planet. A gesture for the planet, a heart made entirely out of tin cans. Without this planet, we are nothing. It gives us everything, and we don’t pay much attention to it. The project spanned years, and I think that now it is getting to its bloom. Married couples have already photographed themselves next to the heart; a group of elderly people posed in front of it to signal their friendship. This heart is no longer mine. There are plenty of themes within it. This heart represents a lot more than a work of art.

The superheros — that’s collective memory. They are transpositions of what I see as the future of man. Super guardians. The heads are African faces. I would love to develop them into human bodies in order to conceive of a certain humanity on the edge of our waste. We have to deal with our waste. The symbol is the future of man.

Did you even second-guess yourself in this project?

Marc Darville, deputy mayor for heritage and public works in Mons, always believed in me and this project. He would come to see exhibits in my gallery, and one day, I proposed to him a larger piece for the turnabout of the Havre woods. He was confident in me and defended this project; he submitted it to the city and to the association. There were a prioris, doubts, obstacles, but he was always with me. For a moment, we thought of changing its location because it could have been risky as far as accidents were concerned. Thanks to the heart, the turnabout was lit up.  

Elio di Rupo, the magistrate, was minister during this entire period, but he oversaw the project and always knew to write at the right place at right time in order to overcome certain situations. It’s the first city to welcome a work of art made out of cans. It’s a world first. Each city should have a public testimony, citizens who have participated in a project saying “that over there is us.” It could snowball.

How long did it take you to complete this heart?

Not working everyday, it took me four years to complete two hearts. The other has been installed at Lac de l’Eau d’Heure, and the second at this turnabout of the city of Mons, on the outskirts of the Havre woods. There is nothing like showing the heart of the planet in such a pretty setting.

The French media have also written about you. Do you think you will take your projects abroad?

The difference between France and Belgium is that our country is walled off by this linguistic barrier. I cannot express myself in Dutch at all. In France, I have a lot of artistic works in galleries or artistic salons. There, I have received many compliments from other sculptors and galleries that take their works around the world. Thanks to this, I have been able to make myself known little by little outside of Belgium. Belgium is a difficult country: you must go there with great things. Belgium is a great artistic country, but it is not astonished right away by its artists. Therefore, it was necessary to go there with something strong. There, I think I scored some points. 

What is your next project?

I am perhaps speaking early. A large exhibit will be put on in the coming months in order to retrace the entire story of the large heart because I have many archival photos of the beginning, the construction of the armature, of the installation of the first cans. There is a can collector who just gave me his collection, and I would love to add this to the exhibit in order to show to the public the beauty of cans. This will be an exhibit on the history of the can and at the same time a transition toward art with my personal work.

At the moment, I am also in an exhibit dedicated to Andy Warhol in Cracovie, Poland. I sent them four pieces. Being beside Andy Warhol is not so bad. Over there, they consider me a contemporary pop art artist.

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