Antonio Riello

Galleria d’Arte Contemporanea

In 1997, Antonio Riello anonymously posted on the Web a video game entitled Italiani brava gente, 1995, named after a Neorealist war movie known as Attack and Retreat in English but literally translated “The Italians, Good People.” The player had to shoot down all the dinghies of illegal Albanian immigrants who were attempting to disembark on the Italian coast, so they would not rape the Italian women and rob the stores. The game (still available on the Web) enraged many, especially those who never noticed the initial screen showing the geographic positions of Italy and Albania, with their respective per capita incomes (in 1997, $15,300 for Italy and only $350 for Albania); a search for this “neo-Nazi hacker” was unleashed.

Riello then created “Ladies Weapons,” 1998–2003, a series of what appear to be light arms, automatic rifles, pistols, and hand grenades—in loud colors, sheathed in fur or covered in diamonds, almost as if they were accessories for a formal dinner, just a bit vulgar. He has also constructed “Unconventional Weapons,” 2001–2005, out of ceramics and decorated them in the traditional style of Renaissance earthenware. All Riello’s work thrives on fierce irony toward a system of objects and fetishes that cloud awareness. Despite his apparently detached stance, the artist acts in maieutic fashion, “drawing out” rebellion against the system through play; just as in Metaphysical Painting or Surrealism, when the object becomes paradoxical, one finally sees it for what it is.

This time, Riello showed a series of model weapons—a German V2 rocket, a U-boat, a McDonnell Phantom warplane from the Vietnam era—but painted here with Tiepolo-like clouds, seascapes à la Salvator Rosa, or folk images of Padre Pio, one of the most venerated contemporary saints. In particular, the rocket with the image of Padre Pio has a truly extraordinary disorienting effect, so obvious and so strident that it becomes a perfect metaphysical object. Certainly the idea could be the forced “conversion”—to the sound of bombs—of those who don’t think as we do, just as indigenous peoples in the Americas five hundred years ago literally did not understand what missionaries were saying and were therefore exterminated. But Riello’s gesture is not simply political or contingent. Riello, like any severe ironist, is a rigorous moralist; but he manages to view himself ironically as well—something that very few achieve. His art manifests a sort of “postmodern Enlightenment” attitude that bypasses the unutterable taboo of frankly saying what is actually happening—in the spirit of those eighteenth-century pamphleteers who described the world of the Moon to obliquely depict our problems on Earth, or of Jonathan Swift, who famously explained the best way to eat Irish babies, in any case too numerous to thrive. Today, in contrast, people all too often say what is happening, but when speaking of the evils of the world strictly adhere to the culture of grief and its expressive modes; and it is only in flouting obligatory lamentations that one can succeed in focusing on the problem and seeing it clearly—without the imposed veil of tears.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.