BY Vincenzo Latronico in Features | 01 OCT 11
Featured in
Issue 142

Focus: Francesco Arena

Politics and anthropometry: measuring history through yourself

BY Vincenzo Latronico in Features | 01 OCT 11

On 12 December 1969, a bomb destroyed a bank in central Milan, killing 17 people and wounding almost a hundred. An anarchist railway worker, Giuseppe Pinelli, was accused; after two days of questioning, he fell from the police station’s fourth-floor window and died. He was later proven innocent. On 2 August 1980, a bomb partially destroyed a train station in Bologna, killing 85 people and wounding hundreds. Neo-fascists, Italian and American secret services, and masons have all been implicated, to varying degrees, in both bombings, yet no-one has been convicted.

Such is the stuff of Italian political history: a mixture of plots, cover-ups and bombs, where responsibility can never be fully determined and truth lingers in the grey area between historical fact, gaping civic wounds and conspiracies. This is Italian artist Francesco Arena’s area of exploration.

Superficially, Arena’s shabby, post-Minimalist sculptures and installations seem far removed from any political landscape. The main work in his recent solo show at Peep-Hole, in Milan, was an almost nine-metre-long, square-section bronze rod – Barra dal civico 8 al civico 9 (A Rod from House No. 8 to House No. 9, 2011). Another room-sized installation – 18.900 metri su ardesia (la strada di Pinelli) (18.900 Metres on Slate [Pinelli’s Route], 2009) – involved hundreds of pin-striped slate tiles, which covered the gallery floor in regular stacks. Initially, these works seemed concerned with little more than mute geometry; there was no trace of overt politics or unsolved mysteries. Their austerity and formal rigour, however, belie the core of Arena’s research. Each of these sculptures – like much of the artist’s oeuvre – takes as its starting point a set of precise measurements of a specific aspect of an event from Italy’s shady political past (and, occasionally, present). The length of the rod, for example, is the distance between the sites of two crucial events in the political life of Milan, which took place in 1978: the shooting, by right-wing extremists, of two activists; and the discovery of a Red Brigade hide-out. Similarly, the pin-stripes on the slate tiles collectively sum up the distance walked by Pinelli (the anarchist accused of the Milan bombing), on the day before he was arrested. 

18.900 metri su ardesia (la strada di Pinelli), 18.900 metres on slate (Pinelli's route), 2009, 322 pieces of slate, Each: 60x60x1cm. All images courtesy: Monitor Gallery, Rome and the Artist.

Displaying this data using minimal forms is a way of representing the raw facts, stripped of the layers of interpretations that decades of investigations and cover-ups have submerged them in. Arena’s choice of materials highlights his aim of providing experimental evidence: both through their rawness and simplicity (slate, bronze, unprocessed wood) and their spatial arrangement. In 92 centimetri su oggetti (La ringhiera di Pinelli) (92 Centimetres on Objects [Pinelli’s Balustrade], 2009), for instance, Arena sliced a set of furniture at the height of the balustrade guarding the window Pinelli fell from: a blunt, effective way of depicting how a minimal shove from a police officer would have been enough to cause the man’s fall, beyond all the trials and reconstruction of motives, orders and responsibilities. However, more than merely referencing Italy’s political past (an interest Arena shares with other younger Italian artists such as Rossella Biscotti), at the heart of Arena’s practice lies his search for precision: distances, heights and weights often appear in his titles as a form of pre-emptive definition, a way of rescuing facts from the quagmire of theories and speculation. In a country where people in positions of power have encouraged a lack of clarity, here clarity itself becomes a political act.

Arena’s measurements, however, are not simply objective, scientific attempts at data mining. Most of them involve his body as a crucial measure of determining the final object. The width of the bronze rod was derived from its weight, which was determined by Arena’s own weight; the distance Pinelli walked was walked by Arena himself; a profile of the island of Caprera, where general Giuseppe Garibaldi retired in 1880 after the unification of Italy, is rendered in a sculpture made of the artist’s shaven beard (Caprera, 2007); the weight of a boat shuttling illegal migrants to southern Italy (Il peso del mio corpo da un blocco di pietra del peso di una barca, My Body’s Weight from a Block of Stone the Weight of a Boat, 2010) is represented in the size of a sculpture which was hollowed out to match Arena’s own weight. In other words, these works embody how our view of history is influenced by our own position in it. Our act of measuring it, of looking at it, inevitably shapes our perception of supposedly raw facts. If the relation between the two sides of Arena’s practice (objective/subjective, historic/personal) were reversed, rather than personal depictions of crucial historic moments, the artist’s work could be seen as a self-portrait of the artist as a product of history. Which, of course, he is.

Francesco Arena lives and works in Cassano dell Murge, Italy. He had a solo exhibition at Peep-Hole, Milan, earlier this year. His upcoming shows include a site-specific project for Museion in Bolzano, which opens in Spring 2012. 

Vincenzo Latronico is a writer and translator based in Milan, Italy. His latest novel La cospirazione delle colombe (The Conspiracy of Doves) was published in Italy by Bompiani in 2011. He is currently working on a new Italian translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934).