It’s something familiar to most people: a small bar in a remote area modelled after nightclubs in the big city. The ‘Manatthan Club’ (its incorrect spelling amplifying the discord between longed-for exoticism and reality) was spotted by Flavio Favelli last spring, on the motorway between the small Italian towns of Licata and Gella. His photograph of the bar provided the promotional image and title of his solo show held on Cardi Black Box’s two floors, and curated by Art at Work, a curatorial group based across Italy. For Favelli, the bar is a symbol of escapism that reflects the way in which Italy looks beyond its borders for its cultural models. In an interview with Ilaria Bonacossa of Art at Work, the artist describes the image of the bar as ‘like a flash-back, which retrospectively lights a period of time from the ’70s to the ’80s, from Sandokan to Maradona’. A period in which, the artist recalls, he sought the exoticism associated with these figures as an escape route from his family life. This does much to explain Favelli’s work, which often includes images and objects from the artist’s childhood – which was, by his own account, a harrowing one.
Two images from this period are particularly significant to Flavelli. One is that of the Royal Rouge B-Movie Cinema in the centre of Bologna, which his mother routinely frog-marched him past, slowing down only once they had passed its garish pornographic advertisements. The other is the image of Sandokan, the ‘Tiger of Malaysia’, star of the eponymous six-part mini-series that was first screened on Italian television in 1976. Based on the 19th-century novels of Emilio Salgari, each episode would pitch good against evil, as this unlikely hero of the Italian masses swashbuckled his way to some or other victory. Notwithstanding the popularity of the original novel, the series was an extraordinary phenomenon in a country that had, at the time, barely witnessed any Asian immigration. These days, in the sanitized world of Silvio Berlusconi’s media machine, the Italian public look to American icons.
Favelli pinpoints his first memory of Sandokan to 6 January 1976, which fell on the date of an Italian public holiday and religious festival. It is this sense of looking beyond the home and family which informed the artist’s neon installations here, incorporating logos for popular products from his youth, items of furniture and other objects Favelli has obsessively collected over the decades, such as drink bottles upturned and incorporated within chandeliers. A collage of the logo from Sandokan, made of chocolate wrappers, was hung in its upstairs gallery (Sandokan 2, all works 2011), featuring images from the TV series alongside appropriated pornographic film posters (including Incandescente Moana, named after Moana Pozzi, one of Italy’s most prolific porn stars of the 1970s). After dark, the gallery was lit by Favelli’s neon sculptures, creating the atmosphere of a nightclub offering an escape from daily life via drink, exoticism and the often empty promise of sex, as the word ‘Sandokan’ appeared painted in the serial’s original typeface alongside advertisements for porn.
The prevalence of escapism across periods and countries – in Manhattan, for example, there are scores of Italian restaurants that aim to emulate the atmosphere of Sicily, to varying degrees of success – signals an entirely natural state that helps individuals to survive their families and themselves. As the artist works to accommodate painful and unspecified memories, what he demonstrates is a powerful mechanism for coping that finds one outlet in art.