My Obsessions: Giovanni Aloi

A photo of a man in a grey wool coat and a button up with the following text behind him: Gardening; "Italian" food, jazz, neoclassical piano, and Otto Marseus van Schreck

Giovanni Aloi. Photo: Greg Stephen Reigh (BFA 2013)

Giovanni Aloi. Photo: Greg Stephen Reigh (BFA 2013)

by Micco Caporale (MA 2018)

Giovanni Aloi never stops thinking about humans’ relationships to nature.

Growing up in the gray, industrial expanse of Milan during the 1970s, he’d spend summers in Southern Italy where his senses would come alive from the colorful, lush natural environment. Coming home, he’d notice a sense of withdrawal, so he’s made it his life’s work to celebrate nature’s beauty and complexity. As an associate professor, adj. of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), he encourages students to think holistically about humanity’s role in ecosystems through developing a sophisticated understanding of visual language. He’s the editor in chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture and co-editor of the University of Minnesota Press series Art after Nature, and he’s curated exhibitions exploring humans’ influence over plants and animals for numerous institutions including Earthly Observatory [10], which was on display at SAIC Galleries this past fall. Here are a few of his current obsessions.

Otto Marseus van Schrieck

There are so many natural history illustrators that have a special place in my heart, but one of them is certainly Otto Marseus van Schrieck, a 17th-century natural history painter who invented the sottobosco genre. The darkness that dominates his paintings is broken by Caravaggesque shafts of light, illuminating the vicissitudes of insects, reptiles, and amphibians. They foreground the beauty of the natural world but also convey religious meaning. Van Schrieck asks us: Should we be scientifically prone to purge any mythology from nature in order to see it for its mechanical exosystemic complexity, or can we find a balance according to which science and spirituality can coexist?

“Italian American food is a melodramatic indulgence—a melancholic bridge connecting migrants to their identity. It’s never just spaghetti.”

“Italian” Food

I am interested in both Italian American adaptations and the supposedly “real” Italian food you find in the US. There are some interesting questions about authenticity buried in layers of lasagna. Italian American variations have a very bad reputation back home, but I am pretty fond of them. There’s something very touching in the oversized pasta dishes or impossible concoctions like chicken parmigiana which does not exist in Italy—it’s diaspora food. Nostalgia tinges memories of home with a desire to gigantify and enrich, turning food into a gastronomic mythology. Italian American food is a melodramatic indulgence—a melancholic bridge connecting migrants to their identity. It’s never just spaghetti. 

Jazz and Contemporary Neoclassical Piano Music

Some all-time favorites are Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Playing the Piano. More recently I've enjoyed Shida Shahabi’s Shifts and Nils Frahm’s The Bells. I often think about writing as a form of music composition. Taking breaks from writing to create or listen to music often then informs my writing. I play piano, take photographs, draw, paint … I think of all creative activities as a network of different media that helps me process my experiences. My new album of neo-classical piano pieces called Moths is out on Blue Spiral Records—pretty exciting!

Gardening

Gardens are battlefields. We think about gardens as places of peace and meditation, but before that peace and meditation can be enjoyed, there is a lot of pulling, cutting, shoving, ripping—there is a lot of violence in gardening. But there is something about the harmony one creates in a garden that I think is also important. My garden reflects who I am. There, you can find plants that bring me back to my childhood in the south of Italy, like angel trumpets, devil trumpets, and hibiscuses. Then there are plants that I discovered here in the United States, as well as ones I became fond of when I lived in London. They all come together to remind me about my connection with the vegetal world, but also my connection with culture, geographies, and the realities I have lived. I grow plants that can be very useful for pollinators and other creatures that live in the garden. I don’t use pesticides. The garden is for me as much as it is for the non-human critters that come and go as they please.