Adrian Tranquilli

For some time, Adrian Tranquilli has been portraying superheroes as poignantly human. In this show, “The Age of Chance,” a pure white Superman—the original superhero—burst robustly out of the wall with stigmata of gold bleeding from between his ribs (This Is Not a Love Song 1; all works 2006), a phantom of spiritual purity. Spiderman’s form half emerged out of another wall (This Is Not a Love Song 2), regarding the upturned palm of his hand, from which a stream of white gold spilled into drops on the floor. And isn’t Christ himself a sort of superhero? In an earlier work, Tranquilli confounded the Savior’s identity with that of Batman: His sculpture Batman: The Dark Knight, Vatican City, 1998, depicts a crucified Jesus with the Batman symbol emblazoned across his chest. Here in another room, small silver figures of Batman, Superman, and Spiderman lay in individual vitrines in postures of agony or death, suggesting ex-votos.

This religious analogy is simplistic yet fundamental, carrying with it implications of our need to reflect our own identity in our icons as well as to seek guidance from a savior. Hero myths date back to the beginning of civilization, but the superhero genre emerged in tandem with American modernism, springing from our collective need to create order out of the chaos of world wars and revolutionary social changes. Superheroes highlight the difference between good and evil, comforting us through identification with their extraordinary powers and ability to overcome their nemeses. Sacrificing their personal lives to save the world, they must keep their identities secret. In the increasingly complicated modern age, we sometimes feel as if we are trying to be superheroes—but if in fact we were really to resemble such characters, we would be considered in serious need of psychotherapy.

As a manifestation of a collective psyche—an artifice on to which we project our needs and desires—the super-hero has evolved to reflect changing social needs and growing self-awareness. Spawned during the Depression, Superman fights in defense of the common man. Spiderman is portrayed as a troubled, psychologically complex young man who makes mistakes and struggles to integrate his personal life with his secret compulsion to save others. In recent years there has emerged the flawed, often sociopathic “antihero”—an outsider fighting against crime out of deep psychological impulse rather than a selfless quest for good. Just an ordinary rich guy with a mask, even Batman has increasingly developed a darker side over the years. In the video Know Yourself, 2002, Tranquilli carried his identification with Batman to its logical conclusion, donning the superhero’s mask and wandering listlessly—unshaven and seemingly homeless—around Rome, sleeping on the sidewalk and sitting on the bank of the Tiber brooding, presumably feeling the isolation of the superhero who must lead a double life. Or maybe he is simply recognizing his own limitations—a midlife crisis?

What would happen if everybody were a superhero? As the identities of our icons become closer to our own, we might have to become our own saviors. But as the supervillain Syndrome of The Incredibles says, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.” Indeed, by literally merging the identities of pop and religious icons—and bringing them down to earth—Tranquilli’s precious sculptural objects seem to be drained of their power, passion, and significance. Like the child who refuses to take off his superhero costume long after Halloween, Tranquilli may have finally taken the concept to the point of banality.

Cathryn Drake