“My whole life is messed up, geographically,” said Paola Pivi recently. The Italian artist's current home is in Delhi, but her “heart is in Alaska," where she lived and worked until four years ago. “It’s a forced exile,” she explained, referring to the complicated court proceedings that have left her and her husband no choice but to remain in India following the adoption of their son in 2012.
Pivi's peculiar geographical past is stamped into her work as if on a passport, notably her iconic feathered polar bear sculptures, which speak to her time in Anchorage. And yet, through her large-scale installations and whimsical, carefully staged photographs, Pivi has created a surreal, playful landscape unlike any place on Earth.
With "Ma’am," the artist’s first solo museum exhibit in North America, which opens this week at the Dallas Contemporary museum, visitors are welcomed into her weird, topsy-turvy world. Inside, a Fiat G-91 fighter jet hangs upside down, while photographs depict zebras hanging out in a frozen tundra. Even the polar bears, which come in crowd-pleasing hues of green, blue, and pink, are, in Pivi’s opinion, “genderless” and prone to dancing.
Unfortunately, putting together a museum show is a matter of practicality rather than whimsy: Some pieces, like her reimagined fountains, which pump out liquids like ink, wine. and coffee, simply wouldn't fit. Ultimately, Pivi chose the work she wished to revisit. Her operating logic was: "What do I want to take a plane for 25 hours to go and see?”
Some of the pieces on view, like Untitled (airplane), the inverted plane that won Pivi the Golden Lion at the 1999 Venice Biennale, have taken on new meaning in the years since their creation. “In 1999, there were no wars, at least none to my knowledge,” she recalled. “Today, [the piece] is political.” Others, like Untitled (donkey), represent a time when her practice was smaller. “I was living on an island with that animal, with those boats. I was a young artist and that was part of my daily life,” she recalled.
Now, with the international powerhouse dealer Emmanuel Perrotin backing her, things are different. “If I wanted to have 7,000 horses, I could!” she said. She offered this up as the reason why she stopped working with live animals after last year’s Yee-Haw series, which depicted horses galloping around the Eiffel Tower.
As for the show's name, "Ma’am," Pivi, 45, turned to her favorite source: her husband, Karma Lama, a Tibetan composer and poet. She has mixed feelings about being dubbed “ma’am,” a common occurrence “especially at my age,” she said. “Sometimes men say ‘madam’ when they’re having a ‘man-to-man’ conversation with a woman. They’re uncomfortable, so they put this ‘madam’ there.”
But more than anything, the show’s title is “just a way to start the show with a smile,” she explained. And it's not likely to disappear.