Memories Arrested in Space draws the viewer up the stairs of the Italian Cultural Institute (on 39 Belgrave Square, London) and into its first floor salon, bathed in golden autumnal light. Slick Submissions – a carpet-tapestry by Bea Bonafini is there, greeting the visitor and invitingly asking to be ‘activated’ by the audience, by removing their shoes and stepping on it. Playfully subverting one of the most deep-rooted rules of gallery-going (art is made for looking, not touching) Bonafini’s artwork succeeds in tickling the public’s attention and, finally, putting them at ease.

After the opening of the show, I caught up with Bea Bonafini to explore some of the most fascinating aspects of her practice. Remember you can still visit Memories Arrested in Space featuring Bea Bonafini, Serena Vestrucci, Rebecca Salter, and Paul Kneale.

Alisei Apollonio: In your works, the balance between figuration and abstraction is very fragile: at any point, the composition might tip over one side or the other, revealing figures or unraveling abstract shapes. What first inspired you to work with this ‘vocabulary’?

Bea Bonafini: I am often drawn to archeological sites and ancient art of great fragility, that have suffered the impact of time. I recognise how they can still be active and present by lingering between form and formlessness. We can attempt to reconstruct and make sense of these fragments of the past, in order to understand the complexities of who we are today, but our best bets are our assumptions, the stories we tell ourselves and what we want to believe. I realised that what excited me most was the washing away of clarity and information to create a new truth or myth, something that bears the scars or changes of time. I think this way of working keeps my own works active, bringing them closer to the sort of way I see life – where there is more complexity and poetry in the unsaid, in the inexplicaple, in what is lost and in the resurrection and rethinking of thought or image.

Previous work you exhibited at the Zabludowicz Collection Invites was inspired by the marble floor of the Siena Duomo, while Slick Submissions, currently featured in Memories Arrested in Space at the Italian Cultural Institute, is inspired by Etruscan tomb paintings. What makes you choose a visual source or narrative over another?

I often take into account site-specificity for a new work – the former was originally a former side chapel of a Methodist church. The show rethought the mechanics of a chapel, which referenced horizontal narratives of conflict found in the Siena Duomo. The latter was based on the tucked-away underground room of Renata Fabbri gallery in Milan, with intimate proportions and low ceilings, much like the Etruscan tombs I visited in Tarquinia. I often reference image material that I have seen in the flesh, and keep photographs I have taken of details lying around my studio. Through drawing I can process the images both visually and mentally; the ones I keep returning to start appearing in new work. I often end up choosing to work with images which have some sort of idiosyncratic intensity, building up to a climax or post-climax, whether it be movement, conflict, euphoria, connection, metamorphosis, chaos or the visceral.

Textile art has often been associated with feminism (think of the iconic Judy Chicago tapestries in the 1970s-80s). Indeed, it’s a medium that immediately brings to mind strong ‘identity politics’ connotations. Being a woman artist, did you consciously choose textiles for this link with Second Wave feminism, or were you guided by other considerations when you first started producing these works?

In my early 20s I consciously made performances and costumes that were in dialogue with Second-wave feminist art practices in order to situate myself in the context of a lineage that felt personal and still urgent. It lay the foundations of my awareness as a female artist. The drive towards textiles came from a love and hate relationship to painting – having to keep up a dialogue with the history of painting felt like a burden, I needed to loosen these ties and step into a domain with fresher connotations. By replacing paint with textiles it felt as though I was carving out my own space. It opened up a fascinating dialogue between painting and everything that textiles represents – clothing, fashion, craft, home-based practices like the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers or the traditional handsewn domestic wall-hangings I discovered in Nepal. I could escape the rigidity of the square stretcher, and enter a more fluid realm. Textiles desire to be touched, worn, sat on; they can be draped, hung, laid flat; and most importantly, there is no separation between colour and material – colour is material.

In the past you mentioned that one of the elements that fascinated you about the Etruscan tombs was that, upon burial, they were meant to be sealed forever and never seen again by the living. By contrast, your works really encourage the public to engage – by taking off their shoes, literally stepping inside the work and spending time in close touch with it. How did you negotiate this fundamental difference in aesthetic, but also conceptual terms?

If the tombs had not been found in modern times, we wouldn’t be having this conversation; we wouldn’t have that shock-impact of suddenly experiencing a chamber painted thousands of years ago for the dead, with so much vitality that it could have been painted yesterday were it not for its crumbling aesthetic. Today they are accessible and are still very intimate, you are still looking at something that is usually kept hidden. My work is seldomly on permanent public display, so when it is reopened for a show, it almost recalls that novelty of experiencing something that is usually inaccessible. Even for myself, there’s a rediscovery when the work is reopened. When you do have access to it, I want it to retain that same sense of enveloping vitality.

The dichotomy between public space vs domestic space is something the viewer becomes acutely aware of when interacting with your work (with reactions such as hesitating to take off one’s shoes and/or wondering if one is really allowed to step on the artwork). What prompted you to explore and play with these boundaries?

I think of my work as being active. I think of it as having its own rules. I see how people approach the work with caution – initially assessing what the work is demanding from them and how they should behave around it, before relaxing into its softness and subject matter. When entering someone’s home for the first time, our movements are more delicate and our body moves with a different consciousness, before understanding the new rules and system of logic, and relaxing into it. Not unlike stepping into a new home, I want my work to construct a space in which you are more aware of your surroundings, which has a sort of specific spirituality, which is composed of layers, details and a safe comfort. The most urgent prompt was to explore ways in which my artworks can themselves desire intimacy, as opposed to merely depicting it.

Artworks in this exhibition