The dark truth about Paola Pivi’s brightly coloured bears
Our new book explains how Pivi’s exotic sculptures capture our love of, but our alienation from, the natural world
In 1996 Paola Pivi came face-to-face with her first bear. The Italian artist spent the winnings from an art prize to visit Alaska, with the express ambition to track down one of these man-killer mammals. “I went to Alaska to see a bear, I probably risked my life,” she tells the critic, curator and artistic director of Rome's MAXXI museum Hou Hanru in our new monograph. “I just grabbed a man practically off the street, went on his plane, to a really remote place, crossed hills, until we found a bear. I knew the man was terrified and that he would not defend me. It was a horrible experience, just wanting to see this bear.”
Paola Pivi, Beautiful day, 2015. Urethane foam, plastic and feathers, 225 x 350 x 96 cm. Photograph by Guillaulme Ziccarelli. Courtesy Perrotin
It was also a natural, and completely unnatural urge. Unlike Pivi, the locals in Alaska don’t track down bears, and don’t have an overwhelming fear of the animals. “I’m used to a speeding car in Italy, right?” she tells Hanru. “There is a danger in walking to this danger. In the same way, they’re oblivious to the danger of being eaten by a bear, but I am consumed by it. So then I started making bears. I’m still obsessed with bears today.”
Paola Pivi. photograph by Guillaulme Ziccarelli. Courtesy the Artist
This unnatural obsession with the natural world remains a key driver for much of Pivi’s art. As she explains in her book, Pivi made her first bear out of feathers, “because I did not want to kill real bears.” Her debut, large feathered bear was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2007. In 2019, she created an exhibition of feathered bear cubs – a move she says was influenced by her successful adoption of her own child in 2013. In 2021 she relocated her family to Anchorage, and yet her ursine sculptures remain strangely unmoored.
Paola Pivi, It's not fair, 2013 (detail). Urethane foam, plastic and feathers, 114 x 61 x 249cm. photograph by Guillaulme Ziccarelli. Courtesy Perrotin
As Julie Decker, director of the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, points out in our new book, the colourful feathers are drawn from Indian decorative techniques, while “bears, as form and icon, are drawn from Alaska.
Paola Pivi, We are the baby gang; 2019, Perrotin, New York. Photograph by Attilio Maranzano. Courtesy Perrotin
“Polar bears are massive predators but are threatened by the human impact on the environment,” Decker goes on. “The bears were first established as icons of climate change by magazines and news outlets such as National Geographic. Popular culture has embraced anthropomorphized depictions of the bears, ambassadors of a threatened ecosystem, though their story and survival are much more complex. Pivi’s bears are most often seen outside of their natural geography, their iconic stature imported to places further south.”
Both cute and ferocious, endangered and artificially replicated Pivi’s animals remind us of a natural world, and hint at just how divorced we are from nature. “Pivi says she sees her animals as more like characters and beautiful divas,” Decker goes on, “These are not domestic and decorative animals; they are exotic and exotified, predators and at the precipice. They suggest a nature we have endeavoured to tame, divorced from its original context, while human nature has run wild. It is we who seem absurd, rather than the cotton-candy polar bears.”
To see more of these works as well as plenty more besides order a copy of our new Paola Pivi book here.