Melbourne

Domenico de Clario

Domenico de Clario’s The Seventh Ãrit (Elemental Landscapes: 1975–1993), 1993, was a reinstallation of an earlier exhibition during which two out of five installations had been dismanteled two days before it opened in 1975. In a storm of controversy, the museum had ordered the pieces destroyed, prompting a sit-in by angry artists and students. The five installations in the earlier show incorporated 19th-century landscape paintings on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, and each represented one of the following elements: fire, water, earth, ether, and air. In its expanded reincarnation, de Clario brought together an eccentric collection of objects from the museum’s vast holdings: European landscape paintings by Claude Lorrain and J.M.W. Turner, an Egyptian mummy, crockery from the cafeteria, sentimental Victorian narrative paintings, ladders from the maintenance department, antique musical instruments, and dozens of clocks, mirrors, vessels, and chairs. These were combined with thrift-store junk—old electric fans, blenders, and school-room globes—and an astonishing variety of electric lights and colored neon tubes. A suspended crystal chandelier dipped into a mound of dust at the installation’s center; the dust had been collected for de Clario by conservators as they vacuumed paintings in the permanent collection. This dust was 90 per cent skin cells and hair fragments shed by visitors and, in some cases, was more than one hundred years old. For de Clario, this material marked the interrelationship between the audience and the artwork—a synthesis of bodily decay and the slow disintegration of a painting.

The dimly lit installation was divided into seven groupings, corresponding to the seven halls of the Egyptian underworld—or Ãrit—in which the soul, covered in the dust of the decayed body, was gradually purified through successive after-death initiations. Art about death always threatens to disappear—into life, into kitsch, into the hospitality of the museum. It invariably assumes the shape of ruins and disjunction, especially that of the disjunction between art and life. Rupture was present in two forms: in de Clario’s recreation of the ill-fated earlier work. and in his attempt to confound the museum’s anodyne spiritual intentions—its reification of artistic immortality. His theosophical subject matter deliberately invited misinterpretation and overdetermination (his own included) and his themes—death, spirituality, and the detritus of culture—were treated, somewhat recklessly, as elements within conflated orders of description. A necromantic redneon- bathed grouping—an old four-poster bed, a painting depicting sleep, chairs incorporating seated sculpted figures, bronze dancing cupids, and three landscapes embodying the sublime—typified the artist’s attempt to elaborate a museological praxis essentially similar in kind to, but different in type from, that of arte povera. De Clario sublimated Conceptualism’s formal lessons, as well as its ambivalence about the museum, into a series of funereal tableaux.

The Seventh Ãrit drew on the iconography of de Clario’s recent interventions in abandoned factories which were structured by an alchemical conception of the human body. They demanded stamina and a car, since they were open only after darkin rundown industrial sites. The Seventh Ãrit represented a desire to deal with the particular disorientation caused by the experience of as a form of cultural capita—as something fluid, abstract, and invisible. Objects from the museum and everyday life were employed not as esthetic forms but as historically loaded signs. The double coding afforded by their original functions allowed them to embody new figures within de Clario’s hyperactive, hyperintangible symbolic formations.

Charles Green