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Issue 173

This Corrosion

Lara Favaretto: exploring the nuances of death and disappearance

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Features | 20 AUG 15

‘Ah, if he could only die temporarily!’
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) 

The Italian word scomparsa has a double meaning: it signifies both disappearance and death. Such terminological elusiveness is invaluable, since it’s easier to evoke a vague descent into nothingness, or a state of hiding, than to name, and face, the stark finality of our demise. With ‘Good Luck’, her current exhibition at Fondazione MAXXI in Rome, the Italian artist Lara Favaretto has, once again, delved into the nuances of this word. The show takes the form of a walk amongst ceno­taphs – monuments erected to the memory of those whose physical remains lie elsewhere – commemorating a group of (in)famous individuals who disappeared from public life, whether by accident or design. Favaretto’s chosen subjects – all of whom are men, with the exception of the American aviator Amelia Earhart include: Jean-Albert Dadas, a French gas fitter and sufferer of dromomania (the compulsion to travel); editor, poet, sometime boxer and dadaist cult hero, Arthur Cravan; chess champion Bobby Fischer; horror writer H.P. Lovecraft; music critic Lester Bangs; and the writers Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger. Fittingly, for a show about missing people, while the booklet that accompanies the exhibition details 20 names and biographies, only 18 sculptures are displayed in the gallery: two works have found undisclosed permanent homes in Milan and Miami, from which they can not be loaned. The works in question – Homage to Federico Caffè and Homage to Thomas Grant Hadwin (both 2011) – pay tribute, respectively, to an Italian economist and disciple of John Maynard Keynes, and to a man who achieved notoriety in 1997 for cutting down a landmark tree, the Golden Spruce, in British Columbia, as a protest against industrial logging companies.

Employing the customary funerary materials of brass, earth and wood, over the past few years Favaretto has created a series of unique yet allied geometric forms. Homage to Albert Dadas (2010), a horizontal expanse of soft earth contained by a low brass border, has been installed at the entrance of the gallery. As visitors walk over it, their shoes become soiled, transferring mud and disorder into the ordinarily unsullied space of the white cube. The polished surfaces of the sculptures mirror both neighbouring works and gallery-goers in a kaleidoscopic game of hide and seek. The palette is sober yet captivating: black, gold, wood. Favaretto has a gift for colours, selecting them with the consummate elegance of a colour field painter. The artist’s series of paintings titled after the codes of the Pantone scale (2010–ongoing) – such as the triptych 032–212 (2015), which was exhibited in ‘REDEFINE’, her recent solo show at Galleria Franco Noero, Turin – involves ‘rescuing’ old paintings from thrift stores and covering them in a thick layer of deep-hued woollen threads, partially obscuring the original images.

Momentary Monument III (The Wall), 2009, sandbags, scaffolding and barriers, 4.5 × 26 × 26 m. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Galleria Civica di Trento

Each cenotaph at MAXXI contains a sealed metal box, filled with a set of unidentified objects that relate in some way to the subject of the work. There are no wall labels: the only way to discover which monument represents which person is to refer to the exhibition booklet. Monolithic andautonomous, silent and puzzling, these structures resist interaction and communication, like the ‘disappeared’ people they are designed to signify. They glow with the seductive coolness of minimalism while testifying to its spent formalism. As is often the case with Favaretto’s work, it’s hard, if not impossible, to draw a line between the tragic and the sardonic.

In uniting the ‘Homages’ at MAXXI, Favaretto brings her ‘Momentary Monument I’ series to a coherent conclusion. Inaugurated at the 53rd Venice Biennale with the enigmatic Momentary Monument (The Swamp) (2009), the project has been described by the artist as: ‘A place that works by subtraction, offering itself as a form immune to any model of compassion.’ This temporary marsh in the Giardini delle Vergini of the Arsenale – created, like all subsequent works in the series, from water, compost, wood and brass – concealed beneath its slimy green surface mysterious tributes to some ‘fugitives’, as Favaretto termed them. Their identities were only fully disclosed in 2010, with the publication of the artist’s book Momentary Monument, which documents the stories of all 20 of the scomparsi and features a selection of black and white images from the artist’s vast archive: flooded landscapes, excavations in the forest, monsters from sci-fi B-movies emerging from the water like ghosts.

 Relics, 2015, nine concrete casts, various dimensions adjusted and recast according to the site, installation view at Galleria Franco Noero, Turin

By installing a cemetery for these ‘disappeared’ people in a national museum of contemporary art like MAXXI – which those who do not sympathize with Zaha Hadid’s design, myself included, might regard as something of a giant concrete coffin in itself – Favaretto plays with the narcissistic drive to create a monument that is, as the Roman poet Horace famously boasted of his own writing, ‘more lasting than bronze’. Despite the opposite forms of temporality they imply, the ‘moment’ and ‘monument’ of the series’s title are just a syllable apart: let us commemorate, Favaretto appears to suggest, but only fleetingly. Indeed, her cenotaphs have been designed so that the humidity of the soil will gradually corrode the metal until, eventually, their hidden secrets are revealed. This inbuilt impermanence can also be read as a subtle manifesto against the institutional obsession with conservation, while the title of the show itself, ‘Good Luck’, perhaps reflects on the element of chance that seems, at times, to determine what museums deem relevant to display.

Begun in 2005 as a research project, Favaretto’s ‘Momentary Monument’ series has taken a variety of forms, but most have had a focus on transience. For instance, Momentary Monument I: The Stone (2009), installed in a central square of Bergamo, was a large block of Indian granite that featured an opening into which people could insert money (destined to be donated to a local organization for the homeless). At the end of the exhibition, the stone was reduced to a pile of rubble, which was then preserved in the permanent collection of the city’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAMeC): the only physical remains of Favaretto’s gauge of collective good will. Momentary Monument II (The Wall) – commissioned in 2009 by Trento’s Galleria Civica on the occasion of a survey show to mark the museum’s 20th anniversary – made headlines and stirred up a huge political controversy surrounding the value, costs and failures of contemporary art. While it was still under construction, one side of the 36,000 sand-bag ‘fortification’ that Favaretto was creating around the city’s monument to Dante Alighieri, collapsed under its own weight. The statue already had a conflicted history: unveiled in 1896, when Italian-speaking Trento was still under Habsburg rule, the monument was funded by public subscription, with the aim of celebrating Italian culture, language and identity, in a provocative response to the creation in 1889 of a statue of the medieval poet Walther von der Vogelweide in the main square of the nearby German-speaking town of Bozen/Bolzano. Favaretto’s original intention with Momentary Monument III (The Wall) had been ‘to create a space of perplexity, a temporal puzzle’, but she later declared that it was only through the work collapsing and becoming the subject of public criticism, rather than merely evoking a state of entrenchment, that it found its real urgency and significance.

512 (detail), 2015, found painting, wool, 1.3 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: the artist, Galleria Franco Noero, Turin; photograph: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano  

A bulky, 400-tonne pile of scrap iron and other debris, Momentary Monument IV (Kassel) (2012), created for dOCUMENTA (13), was the most literally monumental and dramatic piece in the series. Designed to replicate the heaps of rubble generated by natural or man-made catastrophes, the work emphasized the tragic nature of such involuntary monuments to human fragility. Part of the project was also an elaborate system for rescuing, from that pile, a series of objects, which the artist measured, indexed and exhibited on plinths like precious cultural artefacts, before reinserting them into the stack, finally to be returned to the wrecking yard at the end of the exhibition’s 100-day duration. ‘REDEFINE’, at Galleria Franco Noero in Turin, included concrete casts of nine of these objects (Relics, 2015): presenting the cold, grey contours of the lost ‘works’. In The Illogic of Kassel (2015), a fictional novel about dOCUMENTA (13), the writer Enrique Vila-Matas includes a passage on Favaretto’s project, in which he reacts to its ‘unbearable hideousness’ with impatience; this prompts him to recall the words muttered by a dying Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899): ‘The horror! The horror!’ Favaretto has always considered repulsion and hostility as mechanisms via which to establish an emotional connection with her audience. In an interview with the curator Andrea Viliani, she described her Kassel project as ‘sustained by a state of frustration’. 

Homage to Howard Phillips Lovecraft Toth, 2015, earth, wood and brass, housing a concealed iron box containing undisclosed objects, 2.7 × 1.8 × 1.4 m. Courtesy: the artist, Fondazione MAXXI, Rome, and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin; photograph: Musacchio Ianniello

Momentary Monument IV (Kassel) had a ‘twin’ work in Kabul, Momentary Monument IV (Kabul) (2012). By distributing questionnaires to residents of the city, Favaretto identified a number of urban sites that the local community saw as significant, both for personal and public reasons; from each of these sites she extracted a columnar soil sample around three metres in length. Placed in wooden boxes, these samples were donated to the city university, to be used for future studies. Adopting the approach of an archaeologist, Favaretto unearthed subterranean treasures by cutting – to quote from Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) – through Kabul’s ‘various sedimentary strata’. (Presciently, the French philosopher also notes in the same publication: ‘In our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments.’)

Given the importance of disappearance to her own work, I asked Favaretto during a recent conversation how she feels about the current flood of images that document the demolition of archaeological landmarks and ancient monuments by terrorist organizations. Highlighting destruction is not her only objective, she explained: the slow, almost imperceptible process of temporal erosion is equally important since, by speeding up the decay of her work, she is able to anticipate, and even control, the future obsolescence of her art. Favaretto considers her early sound piece Doing (1998) to be of particular significance in this regard. Presented at MAXXI during the group show ‘Open Museum Open City’ in 2014, and re-enacted at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds this year, it records a performance originally staged at Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena. Here, the artist had a team of people chip away at three blocks of marble by hand until there was nothing left of them; all that remained was the sound of their actions as an audio work entirely composed of staccato hammering. The artist is currently exploring this theme further in Ageing Process, the working title for a new monograph that is due to be released this autumn, as a corollary publication to her solo show at maxxi. Favaretto asked writers and curators to contribute a series of essays on topics including iconoclasm, humour, the right to oblivion and failure. There was one simple rule, designed to encourage authors to venture out of familiar territory: the texts were at no point to mention Favaretto or any other artist. Favaretto intend to pair each themed essay with a personal selection of her works from the past 20 years. Self-promotion versus self-effacement – just like scomparsa, it’s a double-edged sword.

Lara Favaretto is an artist based in Turin, Italy. Her exhibition 'Good Luck' is at MAXXI, Rome, Italy, until 20 September, while 'We All Fall Down' is on display at Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket, Copenhagen, Denmark, until 4 October. Earlier this year, she had a solo show at Galleria Franco Noero, Turin, and her three-day performance, 'Doing', was at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, UK.

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.