Blenio Valley, the Chocolate Factory. Art and life stories of yesterday and today.
The chocolate factory Cima Norma in Brenio Valley, home to La Fabbrica del Cioccolato foundation, is one of those places that leave visitors breathless, at least for a short while, for its human and entrepreneurial history. The factory was originally built as San Salvatore brewery in 1882. It was then used for different purposes, until it became la Fabrique de Chocolat Cima in 1903 and became part of the history of Brenio Valley, before closing in 1968.
The former chocolate factory is currently a beautiful example of industrial archaeology; it speaks the language of culture and contemporary art, always openly interacting with the valley’s territory and inhabitants.
On 4 August the factory hosted the opening of Confronting Comfort’s Continent, an anthological exhibition dedicated to the films of the Austrian artist Oliver Ressler.
Ressler tells stories of today, about life and lives, which a few people feel like telling because it is difficult, it cannot be summarised by the news, it needs to be studied and it requires commitment and bravery. Ressler’s work is defined as “political art”.
Franco Marinotti, entrepreneur, art collector and expert, is the artistic director of La Fabbrica del Cioccolato foundation. Ressler and Marinotti have known each other for a long time. It came almost naturally to organise this exhibition at the factory.
Franco Marinotti told us how it happened.
La Fabbrica del Cioccolato (The Chocolate Factory). You are extremely familiar with factories. You are an entrepreneur and, above all, you come from a family of historical entrepreneurs, the factory belongs to you, it is in your DNA, like art.
You have supported several projects throughout the years and with La Fabbrica del Cioccolato you have gone back to the factory, in a way. How was this project born?
The story of La Fabbrica del Cioccolato is slightly different. I have not personally invested in the project, but I was offered the opportunity to manage it as artistic director and vice president. The project is funded by two people: Giovanni Casella Piazza and Stefano Dell’Orto.
The idea is that art can be the starting point for the requalification of a historic structure and the economic growth of Blenio Valley, a territory that needs to rethink its role within the socio-economic environment both at cantonal and at federal level.
Do you believe that such a project can become an economic resource for the village and renew it?
Art per se has this function. We do not work as museums, which can host both contemporary and historic artwork; we require artists to refer to the local environment, to understand its history and reality.
How do you involve local people? Of course you know that developing a social project implies dealing with social issues…
In different ways. As long as administrative issues are concerned, we cooperated with a local institution involved in the reintegration of unemployed people to search for human resources. As long as exhibitions are concerned, we cooperate with local workforce and artisans; we produce here everything we can produce here.
We can say that you could not resist when they asked you to become the artistic director of the foundation, for you already knew this extraordinary place, excellent example of industrial archaeology, still marked by the presence of the people who worked here, like all factories. Right?
The new owners knew my interests and my involvement with contemporary art, so they offered me the artistic director’s role.
The factory was per se a very lively place.
The factory’s main building has a 5.700 sq m wide surface, approximately half of which is owned by the foundation; the rest of it belongs to the lofts and who lives in them: inhabitants, artists, artisans. Over time, a real community, not only an artistic one, has established. Half of the factory is an exhibition space and, to answer your question, the story of this place is extraordinary and fascinating. The board thought it was the right place to work on the requalification of Blenio Valley.
Are you once again making yourself available for art, but with a different role, different from the role of the collector, who makes himself or herself for art?
We can say so…
I remember very well that in a previous interview you noted that you are not a collector, but a “collector who makes himself available for art”…
I invested a lot in art throughout the years. But there is a difference between me and a traditional collector. I used to produce a project, when I was interested in it. A collector buys artwork he or she likes. The difference lies in the fact that I spent money “for” art. My commitment aimed at making an artist’s project possible. A collector usually spends money for himself or herself.
So, you do not own anything over time, besides Proustian memories?
I own the pleasure of having produced artwork, which is an intangible pleasure. I’ll tell you something: when I made the decision to buy a work of art, I derived pleasure from buying it, but I did not need to possess it. When I bought works of art gallerists had to call me several times to make me collect them.
When I think about the years when I opened the gallery in Berlin (Play Gallery For Still and Motion Pictures), I remember the pleasure of having organised the exhibitions I wanted to organise, having talked about art in a non-conventional fashion (among the exhibitions produced by Franco Marinotti is the project “Disobedience” and “Do It Right”, dedicated to the work of Guatemalan artist Anibal Lopez). I did not sell many works, but I am not an art dealer.
Rumours say you did not want to sell…
Rumours… but I do not remember rumours. Maybe sometimes they are true… Yes, selling was not a priority, now we can say that.
You inherited your passion for art from your family, didn’t you?
Art has always been a passion for my family. My father Paolo used to be a great collector. But not in the traditional way. The works he used to collect were always produced by artists whom he knew really well. Karel Appel (1921-2006) and Asger Jorn (1914-1973) (Jorn, like Lucio Fontana, lived for several year in Albisola, close to Savona, where he worked with ceramic producers, who used to be at that time among the most important ones in Europe), the German group Gruppe Spur. All these artists spent a lot of time at our place. They spent time with us in Milan, in Venice and on Como Lake.
My father was passionate about collecting works of art; he did not exploit the economic system to make money from art.
Then, the artists he used to know became famous and their work extremely requested.
But it was different at that time and art market was not a stock market. Sometimes I buy catalogues in museums and I find works of art produced at my place. I remember the way they were born, and the conversations that surrounded them.
(After the Second World Was Marinotti family bought Palazzo Grassi in Venice and Paolo Marinotti turned it into an international exhibition centre, “the Centre for Arts and Costume”. Part of the entrepreneur’s work at Palazzo Grassi is described in the book of Stefano Collicelli Cagol “Venezia e la Vitalità del Contemporaneo’. Paolo Marinotti a Palazzo Grassi 1959-67”.
Let us go back to La Fabbrica del Cioccolato: the foundation has organised several exhibitions. What is the impact on the audience?
The feedback we have received have exceed our expectations. We are now going to find out if it there is a real interest or if it is only a matter of curiosity. The valley is reacting. The message I am trying to communicate is that the project belongs to the local inhabitants; it is for the valley.
The new exhibition is dedicated to Oliver Ressler, an artist whose work is always referring to the stories of people and is also strongly connected to politics…
Oliver Ressler has collaborated with several very famous galleries and museums. He is an activist, whose work is extremely socially and politically fine. But it is also a historical narration. Ressler shows untold episodes of contemporary history.
For sure, political art has always had a very important role in history. Even part of Picasso’s work was about politics… do you like Picasso?
Yes and no. I watched a film where Picasso painted a glass with a black paintbrush; it had an incredible expressive strength, he did not say a word. He painted. I have never found that film again.
The last question. The foundation draws attention towards the concept of “foreignness”. So what?
It is an English term that cannot be translated into Italian; the correct term would be “estraneità”, which in our case represents the idea of being out of context, not belonging. Such concept is clearly present in Ressler’s work.
Foreignness, is a sort of fine arts festival, and analyses the interaction between art and territory, meant as evolving cultural, social and political heritage.
Blenio valley has undergone several changes throughout the years, sometimes even from the morphological point of view, connected to the history and closing of the factory, which used to employ many people, some of whom came from other towns and villages to work. The inhabitants of the valley used to be experts in producing chocolate and brought their experience all over the world. Several chocolate factories in the world were founded by entrepreneurs from Blenio valley.
The idea of foreignness here means bringing something belonging to your history out of its context. This is Foreignness, too.