PRINT January 1999


Visitors to the 1995 group show “Domestic Violence” were in for a surprise when they first set foot on what looked like the solid floor of the exhibition space. For the show, installed in the Milan home of gallerist Giò Marconi, Massimo Bartolini had covered the entire walking space of the living room with mattresses, over which he laid a second surface of tiles. On top of this false floor, he then replaced the room’s furniture, which wobbled and swayed as viewers stepped across the new, cushy ground.

Bartolini’s installations tend to more or less subtly alter our experience of the environments in which they are encountered. Frequently, the work’s “foundation,” which appears as solid and certain as the ground beneath one’s feet, is ingeniously destabilized. The space the artist offers to our experience is riddled with deceptions, a minefield for the senses.

Consider the Italian artist’s 1996 show at the Galleria Giò Marconi. In the gallery’s office, a chair, table, lamp, and bookcase were embedded so as to appear as though they had sunk several feet into the floor, while the window appeared to have slid down the wall. The environment was all the more surreal as the rest of the gallery was left unaltered.

More recently, Bartolini’s signature interventions in the physical environment have been augmented not only with effects of light and more complex technological interventions but with subtle cultural allusions. At Atra in Milan in 1996, the small gray stone sculpture he exhibited, a mountain in miniature brought to mind the hilly landscapes of Fra Angelico and other Tuscan painters of the early Renaissance. For the opening of the show, the artist had attached a device controlling the gallery’s lighting system to the heel of a shoe worn by a visitor. When the person was stationary, the room went dark. (During the show’s run, the mechanism was linked to the movements of the gallery owner, ironically impeding her from working in a normal fashion.) The allusive nature of the small sculpture, its connection to cultural memory and oblivion, was underlined through the alternating light and darkness in the exhibition space.

Bartolini has used lighting in recent shows to give rise to abstract, ascetic environments that seem to propose an embodiment of pure, immaterial energy. In the series of installations he refers to as Testa (Head), the corners of rooms have been rounded off in such a manner that light is uniformly diffused throughout, without any resulting shadows. In one case, the installation that he displayed in 1997 at the Massimo de Carlo Gallery in Milan, the artist complicated things through yet another level of intervention, a blinding projection of luminous arrows. Flashed on the walls, the arrows moved in sync to a rapid drumbeat loudly transmitted at regular intervals.

In his newest work Bartolini seems to focus increasingly on the contrast between new technologies and more traditional modes of knowledge and its transmission. At the British Academy in Rome, in a joint exhibition with the English artist Martin Creed, he focused on the very emblem of classical knowledge, the library. After passing down a corridor that had been raised to the level of lamps placed along the walls, visitors came upon the library, where they were greeted by a sound identical to that of a computer booting up. The book-filled room was illuminated by a flash of light, thanks to a lamp whose wattage reached maximum output whenever anyone entered—a conceit appropriate for the “hallowed” space of intellection. Meanwhile, in a small garden outside, a set of solar panels installed atop a wooden table powered a radio located in a room overlooking the plot. Depending on atmospheric conditions, the radio transmitted with varying degrees of intensity. The installation made immanent the notion of a precarious, humanized technology linked to the unpredictability of phenomena, in harmony with nature and its rhythms.

Bartolini’s installation for the Casa Masaccio in San Giovanni Valdarno in Tuscany represented the most complex synthesis of the artist’s various themes. Here his piece involved the entire building, beginning with the entrance hall, where visitors encountered his small mountains of gray stone. At the end of the passage, an illuminated, seemingly glowing door led to the stairway. One of the steps was clad in pink Portuguese marble, on which the artist had scrawled the word kwatz—the cry used by Zen masters during meditation to refocus the attention of an initiate whose mind is beginning to wander. An allusion to time suspended, somehow detached from the flow of events, the word framed the exhibition space as inhabiting “another” dimension.

The second floor contained a pair of darkened rooms. In the first, an earthy aroma filled the air and the sound of water running from a sink faucet was audible. The sink itself was just visible in the dim light admitted through a window or whenever the door was opened. If this domestic mise-en-scène poetically “contained” a reference to a limitless, mysterious sense of space, in the second room it was the cosmos itself that was evoked, through simple means including a wall projection of a computer screen saver (which resembled nothing so much as a starry sky crossed by a flying body). The view, both banal and fascinating, was contemplated from above, from a portion of the room’s floor that had been elevated as if to bring to mind an outer-space landing strip; thanks to speakers located underneath the walkway, the raised platform rumbled continuously. These dark environments presented a contrast to a final, brightly lit space on the top floor. There, the artist’s version of an Italianate garden managed to negate the process of elevation and dematerialization the entire show had mobilized thus far. Under a suspended yellow dome, Bartolini had filled wooden planters with massive amounts of earth and a great number of carefully chosen ornamental plants.

The Zen master ushers in a time that is “other”—temporality that is rooted in, yet somehow rises above, the everyday, just as the concept is organically tied to, yet transcends, the phenomenon. Bartolini’s paradox lies in his evocation of this simple truth. He brings earth to sky, reverses high and low, and creates work that, with lyricism but also a decisive irony, stimulates the contemplation of the infinite in the fragment, the discovery of the sublime in the ordinary, the finding of the absolute in the absolutely relative.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

Giorgio Verzotti is a curator at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin.