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Issue 239

Anri Sala Seeks Counter-Chronologies in Negative Space

The artist's murals at Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris, repurpose elements of cloud vistas and early Renaissance frescoes

BY Andrew Hodgson in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 11 SEP 23

Anri Sala’s latest exhibition explores the architecture of divine time. The show presents a stratigraphic reimagining of the heavens that draws on the myths humans create about themselves. Fragments of both are here repurposed and reassembled into sublime renditions of non-human temporalities. In two cycles of murals, ‘Surface to Air’ and ‘Legenda Aurea Inversa’ (all works 2023), Sala merges slithers of mother of pearl, marble and volcanic rock with intonaco – plaster bound with pigment while still wet.

The first mural cycle is a series of cloud vistas, as seen from above. They depict early mornings or late afternoons, the hues of differing twilights playing amongst the aerial structures far below and into the distance. The second cycle is a quotational redeployment of figurative and architectural details from Piero della Francesca’s frescoes The Legend of the True Cross (c.1452–66) from the Basilica di San Francesco in Arezzo. Sala’s work seeks to make malleable in poured plaster and cut rock the textures of the intangible, of geological processes far beyond our chronotopic grasp, of centuries old ecclesiastical legends of resurrection after death. They seek to give grounding to the untouchable far above our heads and far below our feet.

Anri Sala
Anri Sala, Surface of Air V (Cipollino/Morning), 2023, fresco pinging, intonaco on acrolam, Cipollino marble, 50 × 36 × 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; photograph Jiayun Deng 

Plaster, rock, scarification and remodelling are the mainstays of the video and sound installations for which Sala is well known. Pockmarked plaster and concrete form the backdrop to his filmic exploration of the siege of Sarajevo in 1395 Days Without Red (2011). While his film Dammi i Colori (Give Me the Colours, 2003) sees painter and then-mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, set out to daub in bright celebrational colours the bare plaster of the buildings following the 1997 rebellion that left much of the city in ruins. Here, Sala returns to his training in mural painting, undertaken early in his practice at the Academy of Arts in Tirana, but his eye retains a photographic optic. The dimensions of the cloud murals speak of a portrait-oriented photograph taken with a phone from the window of a plane. The repositioned figurative extractions from Della Francesca’s frescoes appear as zoomed-in, colour-inverted details of interest. Presented in photographic negative, the luminous whites of the faces and pious hands are here a drowned blue.

Anri Sala
Anri Sala, Tracing Vista 5 (Cipollino Venato Rosso/Morning), 2023, ink and intonaco on paper, 39 × 39 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; photograph Jiayun Deng

The works that make up these two cycles are interspersed throughout the space, interrupting the blank walls and engaging one another across the gallery. In this sense, to walk into the exhibition is to enter a fragmentary synecdoche of the Tuscan basilica. Similar to Sala’s aims, Della Francesca’s frescoes form theme-driven counter-linear chronologies, inviting the viewer to read each incident depicted from right to left, from one figure’s gaze to its object on an adjoining wall, within another fresco. Over time, the quattrocento frescoes have blanched, been repainted, deteriorated and were heavily restored between 1991 and 2000. This same blanching, breaking apart, overpainting and re-adhering is present in Sala’s murals. Also on display are broken pieces of coloured intonaco, perhaps remnants from Surface to Air XIII – the bottom section of which is missing its top layers to reveal the underlying, rough-plaster base or arriccio.

Anri Sala
Anri Sala, Legenda Aurea Inversa (VII, fragment 2), 2023, fresco pinging, intonaco on acrolam, Cipollino marble, 63 × 40 × 5 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; photograph Jiayun Deng 

In the back room of the gallery, a series of preparatory works demonstrates the textures observable in ‘Surface to Air’ as orderly black lines on tracing paper. They direct us to make a ‘division of hands’ here in Sala’s favour – unlike the Arezzo frescoes, which have long been the subject of contestation as to what might be attributed to the master and what to his assistants. While the observation of the architectural and its desecration is a fixture of the artist’s oeuvre, this work demonstrates a new direction. Sala again approaches interrupted chronology, gestural communication and spatial silence but, in digging deep, has found here a new artistic language to articulate these themes.

Anri Sala is at Galerie Chantal Crousel until October 07 

Main image: Anri Sala, exhibition view, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; photograph Jiayun Deng

Andrew Hodgson is a writer, researcher and artist based at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris. He published the book object New Forms of Art and Contagious Mental Illness with New Documents in January 2023.