date: January 17, 2016
time: 2:00 pm
place: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
Something captivating happens when science enters the art museum. It has been occurring for centuries as seen in the construction feat of the colossal Ramesses II sculptures at the Temple of Abu Simbel along Egypt’s Nile; the architectural one-point-perspective in Masaccio’s Holy Trinity; and the bacteria/bioart works by Anna Dumitriu. Science and art both seek to more fully understand humanity, simply from different approaches—and magic transpires when these two perspectives collide.
The science of physics and engineering take center stage in the work of artist Arcangelo Sassolino. Raised in industrial northern Italy, he naturally gravitates to manufacturing materials: wood, steel, concrete, glass, etc. His first US solo exhibition Not Human, curated by Jeffrey Uslip, is currently on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Coined “mechanic performances,” the five kinetic sculptures explore the force of machines in differing conditions: at rest, in action, and then in the subsequent state. These various machines emulate different human experiences such as taking a breath, biting down, punching through. Each is timed, the action taking place over different periods of seconds, minutes and hours.
According to the curator, “these anthropomorphic references are complicated by the fact that the objects can be menacing as well as captivating; while some are poetic, others confront viewers with seemingly dangerous and violent acts.”
Upon entering the gallery and turning left, two massive truck tires rests directly on the floor. They are being squeezed towards their hubs by a substantial I-beam, bending and contorting the rubber to almost an impossible point. The viewer is held in suspense, wondering if and when the tires will succumb to the pressure and eventually burst.
Nearby lays Untitled (2008-2016), a thick wedge of wood that is chained and subjected to the strength of a piston. Over the day, the mechanism gradually extends the punching “arm” and splinters the plank with a slow, but stunning force. Following the breakage, sap leaks from the wood and oozes onto the gallery floor, calling to mind the way blood may flow from a body.
If one happens to be at the museum in the late afternoon, the most jarring sculpture will make its presence known. After being steadily filled with nitrogen gas throughout the seemingly inactive morning, the green glass bottle in D.P.D.U.F.A. (2016) explodes within its bulletproof case. The noise is quite deafening, sounding as though a bomb has gone off (the museum staff even hands out earplugs to visitors in the museum at that time). Shattered pieces carpet the vitrine’s floor, remnants of a once-whole object.
The most recognizably bodily action is evident in Macroscopic and domestic (2010). The work consists of an air compression tank that steadily inflates and deflates the connected empty plastic bottle, “essentially functioning like a respirator or lung.” In his gallery talk, Sassolino discusses how it resembles the human condition—with long-term use, the bottle becomes weaker and at some point will break.
Perhaps most alarming is when the viewer is finally confronted with Figurante, 2010, an animal-like head baring gigantic steel teeth. Clenched in its mouth is a cow’s humerus bone, which gets systematically fragmented every day as the jaws are hydraulically cinched together over a period of three hours. The sculpture is both beautiful and terrifying: the polished steel surface shines with light bouncing off the gleaming teeth, yet one is also horrified by the bloody bone tissue protruding from the aperture and dripping messily onto the gallery floor.
Sassolino again discussed the fragility of the human condition, how an event occurs that can change a life forever, similarly to the “happenings” in his sculptures. Yet he seeks to not only activate this philosophical side of his viewers’ brains, but to also stimulate their bodies in a very strong way, exposing them to sight, sound, and even smell. It is nearly impossible to not have a visceral reaction to the works—investigating systems, protectively covering ears or withdrawing from animal remains. Like his audience, the artist pushes his materials to their literal breaking point.
Stated in the museum’s press release, “his work calls into question the qualities one must possess to be human, while raising doubt about agency and empathy in our contemporary consciousness.”