Arcangelo Sassolino makes material speak through existentialist art
Looking forward also means being conscious of our past while not ignoring our present. It is that very awareness of our existence as human beings that allow as to calmly welcome our future because, while we should always do our best, we need to accept it as it comes with no anxiety, no fear of failure. And it is that very failure that makes us human, and that is totally okay. Artist Arcangelo Sassolino knows it very well as he wonders about existence through his inorganic performing sculptures and extreme machines. His existentialist art will never give you answers, but will make you ask questions that shouldn’t be ignored, even if sometimes we like to keep them in the back of our mind. Eventually, it is all very therapeutic, if you know how to get it right.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 15th issue of ODDA Magazine.
From designing children’s toys like your original 3D puzzle to the extreme existential strain in your artworks. How did such a path take shape?
I am an irregular, totally. I come from a family where art has never been much around. Yet, I remember that, since I was five years old, I spent entire afternoons inside our garage just working with my hands: making, and building, and making… I felt this joy in working manually and letting my mind free to wander. It is something I kept inside me until I was nineteen, without actually finding a real outlet. At some point, my parents told me, “Ok, but what do you want to do with your life?” so, either to give them an answer and to stop fumbling and stumbling, I enrolled in mechanical engineering in Padua. A lucky star, though, made sure that I would never attend even one day, as in the meanwhile I patented a toy: a puzzle…
Ah, that puzzle like the Rubik’s one?
Not that sophisticated like Ernő Rubik’s, because his was total genius, but mine was interesting, too. It allowed me to get an internship in New York. I was twenty years old and I passed from the Venetian province to Manhattan, just like that, all of a sudden. I was supposed to stay for three months; I remained for six years. And while I was there, I ended up visiting some Matisse retrospective, and it was a flash of inspiration. A week later, I enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. For five years, I went on working for the company that invented and produced toys. It was part of the CASIO group in Japan. But, in the weekends, I used to attend the atelier at the academy, and little by little I got acquainted with sculpture.
Could you explain the role of the thorough engineering, so evident even in your not-performing works?
Actually, I don’t care for the engineering. I avail myself of engineers as to do what I do, like breaking wood, stone and exploding bottles, I need machines, but there is no personal interest in the mechanism. Conversely, I do want to produce a feeling. I want to create a state of anxiety, suspense. I like to provoke not only an emotional involvement, but almost a physical one, too, on the viewer.
And did this interest for sculpture hail from creating three-dimensional things?
Yes, I am interested in painting, I studied and I like it. I go crazy for Renaissance painting. I love portraiture, and there are contemporary painters I am very fond of, but I am a sculptor. My mind works in 3D.
Who are the artists who formed or inspired you, if there are any?
There are artists that influence and used to influence me a great deal, but then you have to abandon them. Otherwise, you will always stay in the shadow of something already done. I think it is important to have the courage of being your own self, all the way to the bottom. Like walking on a totally new territory.
Without being afraid of the fact that the things you do may not be appreciated?
Absolutely. If you do something that is all the way yours, you will manage to convince someone and they will like it. On the contrary, if you do something just because you heard about it, because it is trendy, then you will falter on it, and it won’t stay. Everybody will call your bluff after a while.
“I WANT TO CREATE A STATE OF ANXIETY, SUSPENSE.”
Besides three dimensions, why are physical forces so central in your sculptural works?
There are a few reasons. First of all, I work within the Italian tradition, you can’t escape from what came before you. You can go forward, but you need to be aware and understand the past. In the Italian case, I am referring to brutal industrialism, tourism, Art Informel and Arte Povera. Especially in Arte Povera, there are already some elements recognizable in my practice.
For example, forces were present and central in Futurism, too…
Of course, speed and movement. They are always represented in a static manner, but the seed of the machine power was already there.
But in Futurism there is an inherent sense of positivity, imbued with progress and technology. However, in your case, you can perceive something like…
Failure, yeah, totally. And even that movement, Futurism, was projected to something that clearly led to a disaster, a failure. And what a failure! I really keep repeating this term, failure, because, if you think about it, everything is a failure, all the time. But even if I am pessimistic, I am a pessimist who believes in strength.
Do you mean that there could be redemption in failure?
There is more of a realization of human condition. Existence is a wonderful gift; life is extremely precious. But once you are aware of that, you also understand how many disasters there are around us, how many people are not as lucky, or how some political mistakes ensure that masses are crushed by wrong choices.
So, is there also a political meaning to your work?
I believe there is always a political side to what we do. You can’t stay out of the world. But there are some artists that base their practice on a political basis, while mine has more to do with the human condition.
Do this pessimism, the intrinsic failure of human condition, lead to a misanthropy and mistrust in humanity?
No, because I have faith in the other. I believe in the individual as a single person, but there is something happening in the masses that is a disaster.
A bit like for Alessandro Manzoni: ignorance, collective egoisms, passions and irrationalities blind the crowds, who impulsively conform to the power of suggestion…
Look at the Italian political elections. What kind of mass is voting? There is humanity behind the individual, but eventually it is the choice that determines the disaster. The mechanism plays on irrational fears, without acknowledging that Italian beauty and our own identity as Italians are based on historical diversity.
In an interview during your exhibition Canto V in San Gimignano you said that your artworks give a second chance to sculpture. Why does sculpture need a second chance?
These are words I have been repeating like a mantra, meaning that to me taking some new materials and creating a new shape is not enough anymore. For me, that path is dead. For some other artist is probably all right, but for me it is kind of like a corpse. Whereas I think that applying what physics call natural phenomena on materials, such as speed, pressure, gravity, friction, you can actually obtain something new, thus giving a new chance to sculpture. Through violent actions I extract a soul, a sound, a last cry that creates a new shape, something that wasn’t before, and also a new machine.
Kind of like a time catalyst. It made me think of Martin Margiela who, in the summer of 1997, prepared an exhibition where he injected moulds into the fabrics of some clothing from his previous collections. The contrast between the clothes decomposing right before your eyes and the human viewer, who was apparently static in time, made me think of Figurante: those stainless-steel, toothed jaws slowly crushing the bone….
Yes, it is crude, plus there is the sound, the organic matter that gives in, bodily fluids coming out…
Indeed, once the ultimate tensile strength is overcome, the effect becomes splatter. Is this “final destination” so unavoidable?
Ah, you mean like the movie? Some works are more explicit, so let’s call it a “final destination.” Others, though, remain intact. You talked about Canto V earlier: the beam doesn’t crack; it is just a little tortured.
Where does your sadism come from?
Well, there is sadism if you like, but if I take the materials “by their neck” and shake them, it is because I want them to say something. So it isn’t exactly sadism.
Regarding Canto V, Afasia and Purgatorio, they are all titles that recall the Divine Comedy and Vita Nova. Is there a connection between your works and Dante Alighieri?
Yes, in fact, there is. For example, Canto V (in the Divine Comedy – Ed.) deals with adultery, and all those souls are put in the condition of suffering, always and forever. Now, I don’t even want to dare think about Dante Alighieri’s imagery, but I liked the idea of stealing that concept of torturing a material and make it speak about sufferance.
Therefore, transformation always entails destruction?
Well, if you think about it, everything is always transformation and destruction. It is like when you buy a new item: it stays new for how long? All the materials tend to decay, and we have to accept it. Still, it is a perpetual consideration on human condition.
But it isn’t always like that. Diamonds are born after a tremendous compression of graphite throughout geological eras. It is a beautiful transformation…
Yes, of course, that is the issue: my sculptures are beautiful, even if they are a bit wicked. Beauty is everywhere, even in strangulation, absurdly enough.
Certainly, it depends on the point of view; even destructions can be spectacular. Therefore, is performing sculpture the only one to be expressive?
Actually, I make some static objects, too. They are not machines, but I want to produce a hushed conflict even in a still object, like a silent balance, which is the fruit of sufferance. For example, I made this work where some glass sheets are kept together by a clamp, which squeezes them so tight to the point that the sheets stay compacted without falling down, but it is just to the limit before they break down. So, the object can stay there for the next two hundred years but, despite seeming to be static, it is almost on the verge of exploding. If you allow me, Heraclitus, more that two thousand years ago, argued that conflict is the origin of all things. I really like this phrase, because almost always there is conflict — economically, socially, politically, nationally speaking. Even inside families, relationships, couples. There is always conflict and, when there isn’t, then something is foreshadowing and preparing it. So, conflict is a very dear term to me, and that is why it is reproduced in form of physical-clashing powers in my work.
Effectively, conflict and tension are also the engines in stories and novels: from the beginning to the ending. In your case, is the ending more comic o tragic?
I love comedy, there is a lot of it in life. But, while Maurizio Cattelan has more of an ironical streak, mine is definitely more tragic.
The cornerstone is teasing or overcoming the ultimate tensile strength. What is your own ultimate tensile strength? How do you translate it into existence?
For sure it is this mystery, which is death. The awareness that we won’t be here forever makes sure that the time we live becomes very important. But I wouldn’t know how to exactly translate my art into what existence is. I have some intuitions, they come easy to me, and I follow them. More than the idea that art gives answers, I like art to raise questions. It’s when I see a block of marble or a steel slab that something triggers in my head and, in the most unforeseen moment, the idea comes to me.
Right, how do you get the inspiration when you see a block of marble?
I think that is the magic and the privilege of being an artist. It’s not a conscious decision. Maybe I am reading, or driving, or thinking about my own business or not doing anything at all and, all of sudden, as though coming from the darkness of the universe, this meteor enters my consciousness. A moment earlier I had no idea about it, and probably that is when the already made sculpture is born.
Kind of like Michelangelo’s “furor”…
I am sure that the artist is this being with an imaginary filter through which everything they experience passes. Their time, society, fantasies, the environment they live in, their subconscious. Instead of going to a shrink, they do art.
Hence, a therapeutic activity?
Certainly, that is why people say artists are crazy. It is true, but it is an under control craziness, exposed to everybody’s eyes.
That is one of the reasons why I love retrospective exhibitions, because in the span of twenty or forty years you can really undertake a tremendous path inside an artist’s psyche.
Society, as well as human souls, is strained by powers that tend to break and transform it. If you had to turn it into a material, would it be more like wood, rubber, or clay?
I would say glass. Glass is considered a slow fluid. It is incredible for its resistance, but also for its fragility, for how dangerous it can be, for how beautiful. It can be different in density, opacity and transparency. Depending on its filters, it prevents you from seeing clearly, or it allows you to see very sharply, because it can become a lens. Therefore glass, for sure. Certainly not wood, because it is too romantic, warm, protective. And society is not like that, because sometimes it resists, but then it is shattered in a thousand pieces and it is fused together again…
Can this experimentation around the ultimate tensile strength be translated into free will or predestination?
Well, I am not sure, but I just believe that we need to be fearless; hence, within the respect of the others, we need to push over the limits. It is when you think that everything has been already done that you realize there is something to yet overcome. It is by living your dream that you discover extraordinary things.
Why is the entirety of your work turned to express the fragility and transience of human life? Does the awareness of life finitude upset you?
It really scares me and gives me an endless sense of mystery. I think about it quite often and I find that we live in a world that ignores it: the concept of death is stored away in a deliberate lack of awareness, even though it is part of everyone’s life path. Therefore, being cognizant and thinking about it more often helps us living better, paradoxically.
Is spirituality present in such material and physical artworks? In existential terms, can consciousness survive corporeal transformations?
I would love to believe it, but I don’t. It wouldn’t make sense to me… I have a huge respect for those who believe, I know many people who pray and somehow I feel jealous. However, because of my mental upbringing, I am afraid that once you pass away, it is over. Without any romanticism.
Only art survives then. Are you interested in the fact that your art could remain as part of you in a future memory, and being remembered for what you did?
It is something I hope, but is not guaranteed. I don’t rely on it. There are historical recurring cycles, social amnesias. This opens a really complicated topic. Some great artists like Mario Sironi, Alberto Burri, or Lucio Fontana still struggle to pierce through the international imagery, yet there are twenty-five year old artists that are already global. It is all very unruly in a world where everything is interconnected and everyone is alone. So, I really don’t know what will be of my art, but I love the idea of passing the torch to the future. I just know that, from when I look at a Masaccio’s painting, to when I enjoy a sculpture by Brâncuși, or a Gerhard Richter’s, I feel there is someone who is extending a hand to me, and I am happy to take it. Because it is a bond that defeats single deaths.
“I BELIEVE THAT WE NEED TO BE FEARLESS. WE NEED TO PUSH OVER THE LIMITS. IT IS WHEN YOU THINK THAT EVERYTHING HAS BEEN ALREADY DONE THAT YOU REALIZE THERE IS SOMETHING TO YET OVERCOME”
It sounds a lot like Ugo Foscolo’s Dei Sepolcri. Do you share his mind?
That’s right! The power of literature, of music, of poetry, is something I always believe in. Still, it is not that easy to invent something new that is going to survive, something that isn’t born dead already. Thus, it is good to be aware of what happened, of what is happening and, maybe, of what will happen. Anyway, if you love what you do, what comes next is not a big problem.
The art world and artists are part of an elitist, yet global, industry and market. Do you feel the pressure of being productive in order to remain part of it?
No, but I am conscious of it. For example, I would love to just design extreme machines, but I can’t because no one buys them, besides some particular collectors, hence I need to finance other works. It is not a compromise, but you need to deal with the market and the galleries. Nonetheless, my spirit is not undermined by the system. I adapt.
What about the artists around you? Are they affected?
We are talking about a system that has to produce “cannon fodder,” thus tons of young artists risk being crushed in this mincer, which is CVs, exposure and exhibitions in cool places. Nothing wrong with it, but if that system gnaws at you, then yeah, there is a problem. By now I have gathered some experience, and if you are faithful, you will stay intact.
Clientele has always been important to incentivize art. Does it influence the final outcome of your artworks?
I am always free, but clientele is fundamental, and it has always been. Only a few centuries ago they were kings or cardinals, or enlightened lords, now there are thousands of billionaires all over the world. So, as there is more money in the market, automatically the offer, the artists, the galleries have multiplied. It is an utter jungle. Just don’t be too naif, I don’t believe in the romantic artist as a hermit, alone in a hut in the woods, as well as I don’t believe in the misunderstood genius. These are the rules of the game; it is up to you to place the winning bets.
Very often, asking the message the artist wants to convey is considered being naif because art is not instrumentum regni as it was for Ancient Romans, or didactic, as it was for Christianity, anymore. What do you think about it?
In my mind, it is part of the deal, actually. I should find another job, or maybe write, if I didn’t want to be asked. Visual language doesn’t have words, so an interview is a compromise to explain my practice and reach more people, but I am not even that sure I am the right or the only interpreter.
The relationship between art and fashion. Are the collaborations between the two a sign of their similarity?
There are a lot of parallels. It is not by chance that there is a situation like Prada, which is the best one in Italy as far as privately financed art is concerned. Tomorrow, I will meet Maramotti, from MaxMara, who has an extraordinary art collection with loads of female artists.
You see, both in art and in fashion, you deal with people who often, not always, are visionary. Therefore, it is natural, that there is osmosis between the two.
For example, fashion is an eternal return. Is there a similar mechanism in art?
Even in the art world there are recurring cycles. During some moments painting is, “Oh my God, painting, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” Now, if you haven’t paid some million dollars for an Adrian Ghenie painting to put in your loft in New York, you are nobody.
Fifteen years ago, you had to make a perfectly cold, conceptual, objectless work to be in. So, these are the trends in art. But, whereas in fashion the time periods are divided into seasons, for art the wave is a bit longer. In fact, fashion has to do with wide mass communication; art has to do with poetical and philosophical issues, which sometimes are obscure even inside the system itself.
So, it is elitist for the philosophical and poetical language, but is then understood by those who buy it?
There are extremely refined collectors who study, see and compare. Then there are people for whom it is just a status symbol, like a Gucci handbag, a Hermès scarf or an iPhone could be. I have seen wonderful houses in Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Zurich and Hong Kong, and that is the irony of existence. The idea that, by paying a lot, you buy culture, while it is not so mechanical.
McQueen, Margiela, and all those creative minds that had an artistic and original approach to their practice are usually tormented souls. Are you more serene or more tormented?
There is a torment, for sure. Now, it will look like I am at a psychoanalytical appointment, but I feel like a rational person. I am a good father, I keep everything under control, I care that all my employees are satisfied.
Yet, it is like a car I am driving at full speed with no headlights. I feel an incessant vibe that doesn’t leave me alone: once I have completed a work and it looks like I managed to express myself, that work dies, and I feel that void again and that persistent need to fill it up with something else. There are very different types of artists, and we all have diverse personalities, but this delicate torment is shareable.
What about the fulfillment after completing an artwork?
Personally, often I am not satisfied because I think it could have been better. Absolutely, it is like that. But that is the beauty, having that open wound because, if you start gloating, it’s over. On the other hand, woe betide you if it becomes self-bashing, otherwise you choke. You need to understand who you are, that is important. And it is also a question of experience: the more the experience, the more the confidence in your personality and in your practice.
Don’t waste time searching around too much, you will find your way while working, and in art you can’t shortcut your way in. If you try it, it won’t work. Maybe the outside world seem to run faster than you, but work is a solid basis that leads you forward and enables you to truly express your opinion.
So, never stop?
Never! It doesn’t mean doing stuff without any sense or logic, but trial and error, without fear, and knowing that failure is part of the process. Again, it is one of the rules of the game.
And why did you come back to Trissino, in the Venetian province?
That is interesting because I believe that you need both roots and wings, and I hope I will be able to give them to my daughters. So, I feel that from filtering all this absurd imagery of this deathly Veneto made of holes, warehouses and houses without any architectural zoning, but also made of this incredible industrial creativity and excellence, I obtain a unique background. Only when I export all this abroad, I manage to touch the viewers. My roots and this place are my strength in order to reach the world.
What about homesickness?
That played a part, too, but it is more related to different life periods: you are so young that if you had to move to LA or Singapore, you would live it differently from me. Anyway, it is important to filter your message through your roots, and the place where you very soul belongs to.
Is craftsmanship important in your roots as well?
It is fundamental. I find a tremendous disconnection between artists, critics and academic education, whilst they should be overlapping and related. Thus, eventually, making and working is vital.
On an endnote, earlier you said that art is cathartic for the artist. Is it so for the viewer?
I am one hundred percent sure. I am a viewer too and when I see an honest, strong, heartfelt work it is a marvelous experience. On the contrary, when I detect falseness and artificiality it is depressing. Then, even viewers must be in contact with themselves in order to grasp what they are seeing. And, as for art, as well as for music, you can refine your ear, but a lot of people live their life without being touched by any of these disciplines, in my own family, too. It is not easy to understand, but it is definitely cathartic if you live it in the right way.
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