Gilberto Zorio

It is, perhaps, no accident that we are seeing a renewed interest in ideas that preceded the political and scientific revolutions of the 17th century. In fact, we are witnessing increasingly frequent use of esoteric and alchemic ideas, presented not as historical references but as the impetus for expanding one’s own sensibilities, for seeking a way out of the stagnant uncertainties that affect individuals and institutions the world over. It is as if the fall of the grand ideologies of the century has revitalized a dialogue with our distant roots: the need to view our own historic, cultural, and religious precedents in a different light.

This sensibility has reverberated throughout Gilberto Zorio’s career. He has always centered his work on a notion closely tied to the concept of the transmutation of matter. This has been indicated by the presence of fire, out of which he composed his Scrittura bruciata (Burned writing, 1968–69), and by his use of copper, both as a metal and as a mineral (copper sulphate). In this exhibition, the idea of alchemic transmutation took on a particular meaning, tied to the continual exchange that is demanded by cultural encounters. The figure of the canoe dominated the entire exhibition. And this object, so strongly evocative of other panoramas and constantly present through the ages, related the idea of the transmutation of matter to the persistence of archetypal signs of civilization.

In Germano Celant’s essay/interview in the catalogue, Zorio describes his work as “forcing the accumulation of sign upon sign; each substance ’matures’ in the other, to be transformed into vivifying energy.” In the exhibition, one perceived a raised, transparent sea, where one could isolate the energy of internal currents in continual motion. And one’s perceptions were guided by a large number of canoes (dated 1984 to 1991) that floated between one room and another, between light and darkness. They navigated, suspended above the viewers’ heads, and occasionally touched down on the ground. Sometimes the walls of the rooms squeezed together, confusing the architecture’s boundaries and transporting the viewer into the internal path of the work. They were real canoes, but altered by the signs and by the materials to which they were connected. Many were completely covered with pitch; copper and iron arches sprouting from bow and sternheld them in equilibrium. These same signs designated the churning, flowing waters. The waters didn’t support them, but often invaded their interior. And the mixing of water with copper sulphate or with hydrochloric acid created the continual alchemy with which these particular boats are associated. They present the transmutation of the voyage: that is, the continual predisposition to encounter, with a change of landscape and of experience.

In addition to the pitch and the elastic poles with which the canoes clambered up the aerial waves that vibrated in space, there were other signs in this object/symbol of physical and cultural voyage, through which the material “matured” into other perceptible condensations. These were compressors, Pyrex alembics, and PVC cones. The compressors, working at intermittent and unpredictable tempos, provided a sharp hiss that invaded the air, while in the cavities of the canoes, or in the alembics or cones that hung from the tentacles of iron and copper, the phosphate or hydrochloric-acid solution fermented. The sound wave “drew” its path in dialogue with the light, which came from large lamps. These too were suspended from the body of the canoe.

Beneath the “magnetic waves” traced by the canoes, or alongside the “ports” where they landed, were some works from the artist’s past. Thus his biography was placed in dynamic equilibrium and not in linear succession. Along with È utopia la realtà è rivelazione (It is utopia, reality is revelation, 1971) were Stella di giavellotti (Javelins’ star, 1974), Tenda (Tent, 1967), Cerchio di terracotta (Terra-cotta circle, 1969), and Crogiuoli (Crucibles, 1981). Almost concluding the unfolding of his development, the word Odio (Hatred, 1969) was written in lead, hung between two ropes in a corner. A moment of pause and passage opened up between the bright, dazzling light of the first two rooms and the last ones; and there, in the dark, two pieces were placed, one in front of the other: Stella incandescente (Incandescent star, 1973) and Pelli con resistenza (Skins with resistance, 1968–86). The red, scorching light of the overheated chrome-nickel allowed one to perceive the quiet of night and the terribleness of incandescence. Likewise, in the word “odio,” one felt the depth of this sentiment, its atrocious solidification (the lead), but also its continual ability to oscillate, its constant threat. It oscillated between two ropes and stretched the contradictions until it became a suture.

But Zorio’s history is also that of his life, and in closing, suspended from three crossed metal javelins, one found a child’s chair and a compressor. The vibrating, screeching compressor caused the little pitch-covered chair to move. This work, dated 1992, is dedicated to the artist’s sons, Marzio and Mariano. In this way, the perception of the energy of the voyage that Zorio relates to us is firmly tied to his experience of being, to his generative capacity. The transformative alchemy to which Zorio gives form in this work cannot be separated from the mystery of life, from the constant necessity for elaborating its signs to achieve an awareness of living and creating.

Francesca Pasini

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.