All relics and dialects, and most puns and jokes, share the curse (or comfort) of staying where they are. They move with exception, reluctantly, and are translated with more noise than signal. What remains – particular, local, grounded – has staying power; yet, as remainder, it’s the first to be vanquished after contexts shift. I can be told, of the title of Aldo Mondino’s blue-and-white mosaic Lave Nere di Milo (2003), that it conjoins ‘La Venere di Milo’ (Venus of Milo), the name of the famous antique sculpture, with ‘lave nero’ (black lava). But unless I speak Italian, I cannot intuit such puns – common in Mondino’s sculptures and paintings – directly, and without such immediacy, the pun perishes. The translator, like the critic or historian, in the case of Mondino, is left to put together an approximation, sewing a song from a few stray notes.
This principle of ghostly re-composition would seem to apply to Mondino in general, both hermeneutically (on the individual level of the work in question) and historically (the work in relation to the artist’s figure and oeuvre). It was clearly the intention of Mondino – an outsize character, by all accounts – to blur historical and hermeneutic understanding, anarchically, vigorously, and sometimes puerilely. Rules for Illusions 1 and 2 are the first exhibitions in Berlin of this Turin-born artist, an artist whose verve of persona floats like a garish halo around his variegated, energetic, allusive, and joke-filled sculptures, mosaics and paintings, which take up everything from Arte Povera to Mediterranean to Byzantine to Indian to Judaic aesthetic references. Yet to dub Mondino a bricoleur, freak, or dandy – as one is tempted, after looking at the multi-referential works, seen in catalogues amid images of his own sartorial brio – is to risk eclipsing the actual works, in spite of their excellence. Reciprocally, to express a historical assertion, such as that Mondino was involved with Arte Povera only peripherally, is both to grant him a canonical context while claiming him as an exception from the same. Either way, we are offered clues to contexts and characterizations to which Mondino immediately proves an exception.
‘Illusion’ here refers not only to the spectral biography underlying such works but, optically, to the hallucinogenic fashion in which each of Mondino’s images spawn new ones. The ‘carpets’ on a wall at Isabella Bortolozzi’s main space (Tappeti stesi, Hanging Carpets, 1990) look convincingly ‘real’ but are actually oil on chipboard. Between the 1960s in Paris until his death in 2005 in Turin, Mondino’s sculptures employed perishable foodstuffs such as seeds, legumes, chocolate, and even a dead fish streamed with blood down a metal slide (L’ultimo gioco, The Last Game, 1968). There is an eerie congruence in the fact that perishable media such as food seem the most scented, the most sensuous, yet are the quickest to expire. The central piece of the show at Eden Eden (Bortolozzi’s second space), amid blushingly metaphorical paintings of flower-like swirling dervish dresses is a large, mosaic-like grid of white and pink marshmallows arranged on the wall and floor, which, with a metal ladder, intimates the pink-and-white tiles of a swimming pool (Untitled (Marshmallow swimming pool), 1982).
Common to Mondino’s sculptures and paintings – and underlying their associative humour – is the strict principle of serial paronomasia, substitution and analogy. The principle of seriality is itself exercised recursively: as in the case of two smooth, monochrome Charles Ray-esque busts of twins presented side-by-side (thus doubling the twins) in Bortolozzi’s main space (Gemelle Siamese, Siamese Twins, 2003, and Dumauntai, 2003). Meanwhile Jugen Stilo (1993) is an Art Nouveau-like ring chandelier formed by hundreds of hanging, disposable Bic pens that look like tinsel; the title is a pun on ‘Jugendstil’, while Stilo means both ‘stylus’ and ‘style’. The pun feels correct – postmodern appropriation of historical styles as disposable – though this linear literality flirts with kitsch. Still, Mondino’s analogies expand rather than constrict understanding. Take, for example, the two paintings Ali-Ali Alighiero (1994, not part of the shows at Bortolozzi), that are homages to his then-recently deceased friend Alighiero Boetti, where the scrawled ‘Ali’’s refer to the throng of birds above the words: ‘Ali’ means ‘wings’ in Italian.
Is that Mondino riding a camel through the streets of Milan? In historical photographs, the flamboyant Mondino – who really did ride a camel through the city – is part Arthur Rimbaud the African arms trader, part Raymond Roussel the self-fictionalizing, caravanning dandy. In the final room of Bortolozzi’s main space, surrounded by elusive drawings made in Jerusalem (including a self-portrait as an Orthodox Jew; Autoritratto, 1998), is a fantastical, dark, bronze palm trunk on the leafless branches of which four black hats such as those worn by Orthodox Jews are placed like on an actual hat tree. The story goes that Mondino (in his failing vision), visiting Jerusalem, imagined the leaves of a palm to be four hats, and so Mondino made this ‘palm’, in half-hat-tip, half-mockery of his own substitutive, roaming imagination (Gerusalemme, Jerusalem, 1988).
Why Mondino now? On what aesthetic grounds is he as interesting as he seems here? The case – amid the continuous ‘revival’ of historically anomalous artists – is tougher for being so idiosyncratic. The first risk in Mondino’s practice would be the charge of exchangeability: that formal determinations are made by automatic recourse to exchangeable puns and a pluralism of replaceable styles. The second, more worrying risk is the entanglement of persona and work towards a transcendent poet-seer (Mondino spoke of a ‘parallelism between prayer and painting’), buttressing the reverence in which we are suggested to hold this figure. Easy to say the works are good – but harder to argue why. Remarkable works imply the charge of uniqueness, which – perhaps – is a metaphysical rather than a physical judgement. Today, during a time of surplus (of artists, works, images, exhibitions, histories), can it be that the ascendant gold standard of judgement is once again the artist’s life-as-work, unique and irreproachable? On the floor of Bortolozzi’s main gallery is a large prayer rug (Raccolto in preghiera, Gathered in Prayer, 1986): up close, we see that, rather than woven, the work is actually a floor mosaic of delicately assembled beans, rocks, and streams of sugar. Yet, like ‘life’, the rug is no less real for being an illusion.