View of “William Cobbing,” 2010.

View of “William Cobbing,” 2010.

William Cobbing

View of “William Cobbing,” 2010.

Since Viafarini moved to its new space in 2008, this nonprofit art organization has often presented shows that mine the expressive potential of the building, a former tram depot. The first thing that caught the viewer’s eye in the English artist William Cobbing’s exhibition “Man in the Planet” was an extremely long orange pipe made of PVC; it ran across the space, seemingly passing through both the building’s supporting columns and the head of a life-size cement cast of the artist’s body—an untitled work originally made for a group show in Rome in 2006. As the curator of the Viafarini exhibition, Rita Selvaggio, states in the catalogue text, “The cast of the artist’s body, squeezed into these gaps, seems to emerge from the architecture, as if it had been generated by it, or looks as if it had just been buried in it for disinterment sometime in the next millennium.” The pipe led to the wall between the windows, in which it was reflected at dusk, giving the viewer the feeling that it continued outside the room, into the courtyard behind. The installation seemed quite realistic but then proved to be populated by oneiric presences, such as two plaster legs sticking out of a radiator (Radiator 1, 2008); by the artist’s own admission, it was inspired by Eraserhead, David Lynch’s 1977 film.

This was not the first time that Cobbing had designed an exhibition representing a voyage into an ambiguous and ghostly realm. In 2007–2008, for example, working in the rooms of the Freud Museum in London, he exhibited works related to Gradiva, the young female figure in the celebrated Roman bas-relief in the Vatican Museums, the subject of a novel by German writer Wilhelm Jensen and then an essay by Sigmund Freud, who was the proud owner of a copy of the relief. The subjects Cobbing addressed in that show were similar to those he confronted in Milan: burial, memory, and desire. The sculpture, installations, photographs, and videos that reconfigured the Viafarini space evidenced Cobbing’s awareness of the affinity between psychoanalysis and art—that is, of dreams that “have never been dreamed, those created by authors.”

The videos Moon Walker 1 and Moon Walker 2, both 2009, show the artist walking beneath a pewter-colored sky and white clouds that seem made of plaster. This gloomy and desolate site is the English coast between Berwick and Holy Island, near Newcastle. The footage is in fact of him walking backward but is shown in reverse, so that he seems to be erasing his own footsteps, caught in a dream fraught with obscure, dangerous events. At the opening of the exhibition, Cobbing executed a live version of a performance documented in a 2004 video, Excavation: Compulsively chiseling at a cement head he was wearing, he seemed to be seeking in vain to physically open up a space and to metaphorically cut into layers of himself. In that profound commingling of real and metaphorical actions, Cobbing seemed to be searching for an inner truth or poetic knowledge, but he never succeeded in penetrating the obdurate covering. This was perhaps to remind us that poetic truth is not a “hidden knowledge”—that is, one intentionally veiled by a mysterious, allegorical expression that must be removed to attain conceptual purity—but rather exists in the enigma of the symbol itself.

Marco Tagliafierro

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.