Paola Pivi’s Wild Ride

Nicholas Baume and Paola Pivi at the preview for How I Roll

Photo: Liz Ligon, Courtesy Public Art Fund




Italian-born, Alaska-based artist Paola Pivi’s large-scale sculptures, complex kinetic miracles of engineering, often have a simple conceit and witty titles, which Pivi farms out to a reliable source.

“My titles don’t originate from me. They come from my husband, Karma Lama, a Tibetan composer and poet,” Pivi told A.i.A. “Sometimes I describe the piece. Sometimes I show him a picture, and he comes up with a title, or a few options.” Pivi premiered her first U.S.  public work, How I Roll, at the Doris C. Freedman Plaza in Central Park on June 20.

The sculpture, sure to be one of summer’s most Instagrammed spectacles, features a twin-engine plane, suspended by the wing tips between a pair of metal posts. The plane is rigged to spin slowly, tail over nose, in spellbinding spirals, recalling the swoops and dives of stunt pilots.

While the title of How I Roll is amusingly off-the-cuff, the construction was daunting. “It took a lot of people to figure it out—three huge engineering companies,” Pivi told A.i.A., visting New York last week from her home in Anchorage. “My only requests were that the supporting pillars be as thin as possible, and that the outside of the plane would remain in its original form. And I chose the biggest plane that would fit in the square. Any bigger, and we would have ended up in the street.”

The plane’s model, a Piper Seneca, was also important. “The wings are at a very steep angle, which makes the rotation more dynamic. The mechanical parts are much more difficult to build,” she said. The result is an object that appears to be almost of its own volition, like a dolphin rolling through air.

Pivi’s first employed large vehicles in her art school days. For Camion (1997), she took a tractor-trailer and put it on its side at the entrance to a student group show. The work recalls a highway accident one might view on the 5 o’clock news. While affecting one as an achievement of supernatural engineering, like Pivi’s plane, it also denotes the artistry of out-of-control mechanics.

The spectacular nature of Pivi’s work is consistent with her larger conceptual program, whereby Pivi creates environments and scenarios that must be seen to be believed. At the Kunsthalle Basel in 2007, the artist staged a performance, One Cup of Cappuccino then I Go, starring a leopard prowling the gallery space amid 3000 cups. The leopard’s “performance” was not viewable to the public and the resulting work exists only in photograph.

With my work, I don’t prepare explanations that give direction or meaning, or a path to follow,” she said. “I prefer the opposite. Everything is already inside the piece, and I like to give complete freedom to the viewer to explore it with their own thoughts.”

A sculptural precursor to How I Roll is Pivi’s Upside Down Helicopter In A Public Place, (2006), a temporary work staged in Salzburg. Pivi placed a Westland Wessex helicopter upside-down, resting on its blades, in the center of Residenzplatz, which abuts the city’s famed Mozartplatz. “Salzburg is the city of Mozart, and I wanted to place the piece in front of the city’s sculpture of Mozart. As a joke, I said it was like me being a cat, and bringing a dead bird to its master. A marvelous present,” said Pivi.

Her humor wasn’t appreciated. “The city hated this joke. The two local newspapers started a warbecause they did not want the sculpture near Mozart,” Pivi said. As with How I Roll, this piece suggests a vessel failing in flight and crashing. For Pivi, however, the success of her works transcends their immediate aesthetic domain, and veers into the realm of aura.

“My work is never purely visual,” she said. “When an artwork is really powerful and beautiful, you don’t even need to look at it. You just glimpse it form the corner of your eye, and there’s something in the space that is beyond the visual. It’s not about observing, it’s about feeling.”