Natural History of Removal and Isolation
September 15 > November 8, 2016
Forgetting, which purifies.
Memory, which chooses and rediscovers.
The habits which help us feel we are immortal.
The sphere and the hands which measure elusive time.
Jorge Luis Borges, “Obverse”
A rock crystal and a black pearl, a glass bell jar and a mouflon skin, an ancient press, a large rough sea sponge, crafted malachite, elk antlers: these are just a few of the elements we find in the works that Giovanni Kronenberg gathered for this exhibition. They are elements the artist has collected over time, with which he has lived – sometimes for long periods – before turning them into works. His intervention is often minimal, a minor change or, more often, the addition of an object or incongruous material, as if to encourage the emergence of a quality that the collected elements already possess. This light touch compounds the fact that the crystal, the sponges and the press sit freely on the floor or are simply anchored to the wall: no pedestal or any other structure designed to isolate them as artworks is even taken into consideration.
Many of Kronenberg’s works – and not only those present in this exhibition – are linked by this leitmotif, by the fact that they are artefacts or rare and hence precious natural finds that tend to be collected. And, as we know, rarity is tied closely to time, as if it descended from it, because in a certain sense rare things are those that have survived.
For example, crystal and malachite are natural formations that reveal a geological time, a time on which humans can formulate a certain type of speculation – a chronology or sorts – but cannot ultimately understand or embrace, because it is a time that disregards the scale of individual existence. It is a time we imagine according to measurements that seem inordinate to us and that generate structures with which we strive not only for knowledge but also to organize knowledge: for example, the museum of natural history.
Even possession – like the private collecting of certain artefacts – is a form of desire: the desire to grasp taxonomy, to absorb it, by literally taking home a fragment of the time whence we came but that we will never achieve. Therefore, on one hand we have a time that goes beyond humanity, and on the other human instruments that subdivide, isolate, study and conserve fragments of that time. This stardust is the realm of Kronenberg’s work, in which materials and findings are acquired and then worked, in some cases by highly skilled craftspeople (as in the case of malachite), but that in others are subjected to simple, light alterations.
Cinetico anche nella stasi is a work from 2016 composed of a bell jar from the late nineteenth century that holds the pressed skin of an Icelandic mouflon. This animal artefact is too big for the container that should preserve its vision, and thus with respect to the device that should hand down knowledge of this article, conserving it by isolating it from the rest of the world. An object of contemplation that almost becomes impossible due to the hypertrophy of its growth, this coat saturates the bell jar like impenetrable fog and it is presented like an obscure entity.
The achievement of a disturbing effect through the incongruous use of animal skins is rooted in the Surrealist tradition, from Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon (Object, 1936) to the disproportionate plumage of Max Ernst’s Attirement of the Bride (1940). As paradoxical as it may be, Cinetico anche nella stasi is instead a silent object that questions us in its almost humble distance. It is the odd outcome of a simple gesture, like that of forcing an animal skin into an undersized bell jar and, as such, it explores a boundary by forcing against another one. An inert object that was once vital but now embodies an essential condition of human understanding: the need to distance things and place them in an immobile perspective, to isolate them in a space of representation. Establishing perspective can sometimes generate a clarity of vision and emancipation from superstition, but in other cases it can create a loss of definition. Cinetico anche nella stasi falls into the latter group, i.e., the realm of the opaque and formless.
The Escoriazioni antropologiche series, commenced in 2012 and still under way, is emblematic of this necessary relationship between suppression and contemplation, between severing and representing. This series of works – exemplars 6, 7, 8 and 9 are shown here – is composed of large and rough natural sponges, impregnated with a fragrance reminiscent of the sea. One of the most primitive animals on earth, with the least cell specialization, while they inhabit the sea floor sponges host billions of micro-organisms inside their skeleton, which is the porous structure we normally associate with them. Once soft and receptive, now they are as stiff as fossils installed on the wall, impregnated with an industrial scent that evokes the sea that yielded them. In a certain way, this form of cosmetic compensation – like an olfactory reward – magnifies their status as made-up corpses. Chemistry is used to attempt to recover the memory of what is “past” – the existence of the sea – by making it the object of synthetic evocation. An attempt is made to cross a distance through smell, which, like hearing, is a profoundly interior sense. In effect, smell takes in ethereal values, but is also able to rouse our bodies in a tangible way: when we say that an image is nauseating, we don’t say it as vehemently as we do about a smell that disgusts us and makes us ill. The space occupied by Escoriazioni antropologiche is a gaseous space, which we cannot see and that can leave its mark on matter. It is a space filled with memory, as distant as an island.
The rock crystal of Senza titolo (2016) is underpinned by the signs of its removal, and it sits on the ground like a demolished geological obelisk, like one of those monuments that, stolen, displaced or uprooted, marks a military conquest or the upheaval of a regime. Its exceptional size has ensured its spot among desirable artefacts, and a black baroque pearl embellishes its base. This pearl is from Tahiti and it is distinguished by the fact that it is nature’s only black pearl, due to the mollusc that hosts it and that thrives only in the waters of Polynesia. Like the sponges, it too is the crystalized ornament of something that once was but is no more.
The elk antlers in L’antinomia di Capitan Blicero (2016) were also cut from the body to which they belonged and a silver tip embellishes one of the ends, making it look like an oversized claw – now that it is overturned and sits on the floor – or a bony appendix that is elegant rather than threatening.
The antlers, the pearl and the crystal are all figures of a growth that goes forward by sedimentation, and they are figures of a time that is so slow it seems motionless. Furthermore, they are figures that require a form of removal so they can be exhibited and owned. Being trophies, they are remains, fragments that tell the story of some form of intromission and interruption of the vital growth process. They are countered by two drawings – graphite on paper – that punctuate the exhibition path, and here we can glimpse forms that are the result of germinative structures. These abstract drawings evoke natural conformations that ramify progressively, that extend into space and congregate like tumours.
Regarding the formal operations that govern the execution of these works, Kronenberg talks about minimal interventions that approach a form of dyslexia, intromissions that interrupt the original unity of the object in question, that somehow corrupt its integrity. As we know, dyslexia is a disorder that affects visual-verbal processing skills: writing, reading, verbal memory and phonology are affected by it to varying degrees, so that two letters in a word get switched, or one understands individual words but has a hard time establishing how they relate to each other in a sentence. If we want to extend the dyslexia metaphor to the language of modern sculpture, we could say that dyslexia isolates elements, damages their unity of meaning, and then attempts unprecedented combinations and assemblages of materials and figures. The construction of combinatory grammar underpins Kronenberg’s work, a grammar that acts on the slow sedimentation of the evocative quality inherent in objects and on the subsequent alteration of those qualities through forms of intrusion.
Parlando sottovoce si attivano stati di coscienza che pensavamo non avere is the title of a work from 2016 composed of the gear of an eighteenth-century oil-mill press and a portable recorder. The press is the only manmade instrument in the entire exhibition, and in the crack that time has carved into its body like a wound, the artist has inserted a small tape recorder that loops the communications between NASA and the astronauts during the lunar landing of 1969. The words are virtually incomprehensible and sound becomes almost an abstract element that no longer tells a story but acts as the interior voice of an obsolete agricultural tool. Like the indecipherable echo coming from a tiny rural cavern that once worked.
This fragment of a press from an old oil mill in Chiavari, in the region of Liguria, was once the gear driving an economy: there must have been a time when it satisfied certain technological and productive criteria. For a while, this instrument must have been considered excellent. Now it no longer is, because it has been corroded not only by termites but also by progress, which has made it outdated. Today we can invest this historical object with nostalgic fantasies, just as we can project falsely melancholy sentiments onto the technology that allowed us to land on the Moon a little less than fifty years ago. Sooner or later, everything – or almost everything – tends to slip away into the bogs of fictitious memories and vague regrets that we call nostalgia. The extent to which this corresponds to the reality of how things went is another story.
And nostalgia – like history, artefacts, things that have survived and been preserved, museography and chronology, daily notes, and the classification of epochs and species – is one of the structures we cling to in order to withstand a magma we cannot fully understand, that we can feel but do not possess: the tsunami of simultaneity that is ultra-human time.
Kronenberg’s works recount the partiality of this attempt, just as the objects and materials the artist places in mutual contact are partial, as if to elicit their chemical and poetic reaction, to activate their metamorphic processes. And it is not only states of transition – human, mineral, floral and faunal – so present in the Surrealist tropes and painting that bubble up to the surface in this context. It is above all the poetic and literary origin of Surrealism that is called into question, the pre-eminence of linguistic intuition that only later generates the image, because before being a visual vanguard that explored unprecedented relationships between images, Surrealism was a literary avant-garde that used uncommon juxtapositions between the figures of language.
The objects and materials that Kronenberg combines are imbued with the past, yet they do not generate narrations; they contain multiple dimensions of time but do not tell stories. They can be defined as “poetic” in the extent to which poetry can be defined as a slow form of chiselling words, starting with the raw material that is interior intuition.
Translated from Italian by Catherine Bolton