elisabetta di maggio
Chiara Bertola

In her most recent works Elisabetta Di Maggio has
removed, eliminated, cleaned, clipped away at and
refined her work as never before.With her scalpel
she has excavated and scored the hard skin of the
plaster walls of galleries, museums and private
homes, and now she has cut up paper into lacy
forms and other shapes in order to follow and
endorse the progress of her existence.
It is an occupation she has been following for some
time. All the time it takes for that accurate, wearying
and precise work that leads to her creation of
forms. And time – always of great importance for
her and for her work - has today become the main
material for cultivating and embodying her fragile
and precious work. It is no longer a question of
time that erodes form, as was the case in Pianto
(Lament), 1999, in which the ice she used needed
time in order to melt and be transformed into
music and other forms; nor as in Stupro (Rape),
2000, in which soap should, in time, have washed
away the violent pain inherent in the words
inscribed on it. In such cases time had been used
almost as an alchemical element necessary for transforming the material and forms into something
else: a destruction that left no signs of anything.
Instead in these most recent works time has become
something different during the act of the work’s
creation: it is now, more simply, that of existence,
similar to that followed by plants with the sewing
and growing of seeds in the earth. Here we see a
work that deals with the kind of beauty that surprises
us when we see it in such natural objects as,
for example, a growing flower.This artist’s work is a
complex inquiry that has matured in the studio
with all the deliberateness and rigour of a practice
based on details, keeping under control each detail
and every move. Only everyday silence and discipline
mark the rhythms behind her creativity where
daily time and the time taken by her work are both
part of the same existential plan.
The artist, following an imprecise plan, cuts her
paper with the intention of giving depth and
weight to this fragile material until we can see
within it the shapes of the cuts and the possibility of
space. The material that we touch consists of empty spaces and light, and by cutting time we create space.
In her earlier work she would use a scalpel to cut
flower-like forms into the walls of the gallery.As she
cut there would emerge the underlying colours of
previous events, and so in this way she would discover
the time that had been passed by the wall as
though it were the earth itself. She shifted the past
in order for it to emerge into the present and vice
versa. Present time and its contrast to that of the past
is fundamental to her work.
Elisabetta works with the essence, the suspension of
things. There is no sign of that accumulation or
confusion that so often serves to mislead us and
make a mystery of things that are not in fact so.
Only this is the ‘artist’s work’: fatigue and time.To
desiccate, to eliminate by paring down, to remain
balanced while working on a piece of paper that
could be torn with the slightest mistake.
The wall is the central theme in her latest installation
here in Verona. As soon as we enter the gallery,
we find that a purpose-built wall divides the space
transversally into two.This wall is then transformed,
along the left axis, into a wall of paper as thin and
fragile as a veil. It is in fact a large-scale sheet of
paper – hung as though it were a real ‘load-bearing’
wall – completely scored by precious stones and
dense drawings.We cannot speak of a drawing so
much as of the union of fragments of cut-out drawings
which sum together to form a great negative
tapestry.These cut-out drawings can only be seen as
a mass that fluctuates and proliferates over the surface.
Or perhaps it would be better to speak of a
shifting terrain, drawing that seems to transmigrate
from one form to another in an unstable way. The
shapes are derived from old lace – from the sixteenth
century until today – which originally
mixed traditional western motifs with those of the
East: the arabesque. The artist knows that by using
these themes she is working with a source that
moves in time. For her the meaning of such persistence
in these inquiries lies it the transmigration of
themes from one culture to another through time
and space with an unexpected vitality.
Out of her drawings of ancient lace Elisabetta Di
Maggio has ‘woven’ another design, that of the time
spent while doing them. It is like a tale that, in the
telling, has ended up creating a space that has been
negotiated with reality, the home-space of the walls:
‘…the material that passes through my hands is time
that, through time, becomes space.This is the work’.
Both on and inside this rectangle of paper
Elisabetta Di Maggio has spent months and months
of her existence: the time necessary for cutting and
removing the paper – the fullness, the ‘positive’ that
filled the design - with a sharpened scalpel. Nor is
it difficult to see the time of her own life woven
into these decorations.
Over those knowingly ‘perforated’ walls, time has
woven a material that seems made from nothing,
from empty space, but in fact allows light from
somewhere else to filter through. Behind the wall of
paper and through the holes of the lace, we can see
the other side of the divided space: a space flooded
with light. Over there, along the floor’s perimeter,
there are neon lights that shine a pale-green light
onto the walls. The strong greenish light radiating
from that side conveys a feeling of suspension of its
undefined space. Suspension means holding together
both what it near and what is distant without
arriving at a solution.The artist considers green as a
colour pregnant with something that has yet to be
born and reveal its fruit.
A wall that divides a space at once conjures up other
walls that have fallen or, sadly, that are being erected
today in order to keep differences at a distance.
But this wall is too fragile and precious: it only
needs a gesture in order to break it and pass
through. In fact the fragile membrane separating the
two spaces leads us back to our own interior space
and the difficulties we have in the face of change
and the stages of growth. A kind of spider’s web, a
membrane that pulsates between something that is known and the completely unknown that lies on the other side.
So we do not see, because we do not have a complete
view, but we do have a strong sensation that
there is something new and apart from ourselves on
the other side. It is as if to say that, in order to go
beyond ourselves and our limited vision, we must
pass through what we know by shattering it; as if to
say that the only way to pass to the other side is to
rip through that precious and protective ‘veil’. To
break down clichés and mould, to push ahead, to be
aware of something more. The wall is monumental,
cumbersome, and the symbol of a tradition that has been passed on to you and that is part of you, and it is because of this that it is so highly wrought and precious.You find
it hard to lose it or leave it behind. It is like giving up a
The forms created out of cut paper, amalgamated
and transformed lace, create a garden within a garden,
abstract swags of flowers and vegetation that are
only completed and continue to germinate in our
own imagination.To see beyond these abstract and
flowering forms could be a further experience. It is
a suspended tale, the start of a gaze that can continue
to see something else in that illuminated and suspended space.Beyond that paper wall there is all the space necessary for each of us to read our own history of light.

The quotations in italics are taken from a conversation
between the artist and Chiara Bertola in January 16 y 2004

Francesca Pasini

Elisabetta Di Maggio’s cut-outs are a precipice edging
the vortex of obsessions which imprisons the
work and fate of women.With scalpels of various
sizes she cuts into tissue paper or the plaster of walls
the forms of embroidery or lace. Her sharp blades
hit home without fuss, without aggression, without
heroism, but they give us a shock. A drop of blood,
caused by a needle prick, draws our attention back
to the white canvas and encloses it within a directionless time.What cardinal points could have been attended to when, hour after hour, day after day, you embroidered for yourself or for others? If the result
was to have been a decoration destined only to be
crumpled up or to form the background image for
an embroidered lifestyle, what future could there
have been? This is the story, not only of Penelope,
but also of Sheherazade. Both of them, either with
an interweaving of threads or of words, continued
to narrate and narrate in order to disrupt a period
of expectation, not for a husband or for death but
for immobility: this is what has made women invisible.
Sheherazade and Penelope, by inventing, night
after night, the images that would allow them to live
through the day, overcame immobility: through repetition or, rather, through the foundations of immobility, they created the means for overcoming their
Di Maggio retrieves this theme and puts it down on
paper, on the material that unites art and writing,
but she chooses the weaker, the more easily
crushed, and perishable material. Hers is an absurd
undertaking, and yet she shows how an obsession
can fill the head, the hands, and the heart. In order
to create these cut-outs she hovers on the edge of
repetition with steadfastness, attracted by the pull of
vertigo, but she will not allow herself to be overcome
and she invents new shapes with her scalpel:
a rose here, a petal there, and then some abstract
decoration. From steel boxes she produces long rolls
of light, as cold as a scalpel. In this way she seals up
the emotionalism of the shapes.This is an emotionalism
linked to the slight traces of her history: her
personal papers, the underlinings in a book, faded
photographs, fabric. Forgetfulness, a wily merchant
who has no love for heavy loads, carries her and
protects her from destruction, so much so that these
traces continue to emerge.
In her luggage Elisabetta Di Maggio packs time, a
precious and fragile merchandise, just like the
embroideries that forgetfulness has consigned to her
intact. In the transparency of these, at times quite
lengthy, strips of paper, we can spy an absolutely
unprecedented nomadism. Elisabetta walks for
hours at a time in the blinding desert of tissue
paper, she makes us see dunes, mirages that cannot
be seen from without but only from inside someone
who can decide to coast along with repetition.
This is a precipice that makes us afraid because it
because it forces us to keep ourselves company,
because it imposes lengthy choices, because repeated
things become worn, because the inside and outside
become blurred.Above all because we have the
sensation of time being passed.
Time does not distinguish between the inside and
outside: this is what we can gather from the engravings
that Elisabetta Di Maggio has carved into the
walls of her bedroom where – halfway between
emptiness and embroidery – she uncovers the skin
of preceding layers of plaster.Tiny halos of colour,
almost like mould that reveals to us the life of others.
It is an image that can only be removed at the
pain of loss, perhaps like the irremovable losses that
we all undergo.
By walking through the world without crossing it,
she moves like a nomad with her eye fixed on the
light arriving from her embroideries and from
immeasurable material imagination. Stillness is
interrupted. Like Sheherazade and Penelope,
Elisabetta Di Maggio, incision after incision giving
a form to repetition, breaks through the confines of
In her insistence on remaining faithful to the light
traces of history and to those fragments that are part
of the life of us all, there is a vision of individual
memory, a private one that has often been found in
literature but that is most to be found at the heart
of oral tradition. To embroider is sedentary work,
but not a lonely one. It likes company: that of people,
of the radio, of music. It is natural to think of
Elisabetta Di Maggio’s images as stories, also
because the drawing, as it fills the space of the paper,
evokes both writing and a voice that weaves itself
around the shapes. Oral narrative is linked to repetition
and to the situation of women.To sew and to
cook are actions that are undertaken and repeated
and that underlie personal histories: they are part of
historical events through roundabout ways. One of
these is that of domestic artefacts that we all inherit.
In Di Maggio’s embroideries there are these allusions
to, for example, our grandmothers’ homes, or
to the clothes of some decades back. But the fretwork
of light urges us towards the East where we
also find it applied to architecture and where,
through Sheherazade, the tales told by women are a
symbol of the very origins of narrative. I think that
this paper lace, halfway between fairytale architecture
and personal memories of home, reminds us all
of oral narrative.
I have recently read an extraordinary novel about a
granddaughter and a grandmother: Gente in cammino
by Malika Mokeddem (Giunti, 2000). In its pages
I recognised Elisabetta’s forms. I understood that
her oriental characteristics could not only be related
to architectural perforations, but also to the
sound of the yu-yu, the bell-like cry emitted by
women to mark the joy of childbirth, the end of the
French occupation of Algeria, or for any other private
or public event.They reminded me of the precision
and the emotions of Elisabetta’s embroideries.
The family storyteller, Zohra, says to her granddaughter: ‘I dream a lot. Many of my tales are the
outcome of my dreams.And my dreams are like our
yu-yu, they speak to others.They fly ahead in a flock
in order to embark on a magical migration that,
once completed, comes back to reality’. Elisabetta
Di Maggio’s lace suggest such a flight and lead me
too towards immobility, something also suffered by
Zohra who, in order to become a wife, was obliged
to give up nomadism and the desert.‘Her tales were
her means to for surviving.With her body imprisoned
she walked with words in the attempt to find
what joined her own past to the future of her
Elisabetta Di Maggio, by searching for the traces
that link her to their past through the words and the
hands of grandmothers has undertaken a reverse
journey. Like yu-yu, her embroideries speak of a
new nomadism, they leave their bedroom, their
kitchen, their dressers, and give shape to a history
that has been imprisoned for a long time as well as
to a freedom only recently acquired. Perhaps this
would please Zohra.