Francesco Arena, Orizzonte (Horizon), 2012, iron, Lampedusa soil, 7 7/8“ x 23' 10 1/4” x 3 3/4".

Francesco Arena, Orizzonte (Horizon), 2012, iron, Lampedusa soil, 7 7/8“ x 23' 10 1/4” x 3 3/4".

Francesco Arena

Monitor | Rome

Francesco Arena, Orizzonte (Horizon), 2012, iron, Lampedusa soil, 7 7/8“ x 23' 10 1/4” x 3 3/4".

Francesco Arena’s recent solo show featured two pieces, both from 2012. Orizzonte (Horizon) consists of a nearly twenty-four-foot-long metal beam mounted between the walls of the room at a height of approximately five feet—that is, at the artist’s eye level. The top of the beam is covered with earth, about three-quarters of an inch deep, taken from the primary shelter site where immigrants arrive on the island of Lampedusa, near Sicily; much closer to Tunisia than to mainland Italy, the island is a primary location for illegal entry to Europe. Riduzione di mare (Sea Reduction) is a block of salt weighing roughly seventy-five pounds—the quantity derived from the evaporation of one cubic meter of Mediterranean sea water—displayed on a tripod. Over the two-month duration of the exhibition, six performers licked the block of salt for one hour a day, transcribing, through shorter and longer strokes of the tongue, the Morse code version of a document compiled by the Dutch organization united for Intercultural Action, which is, per its website, a “European network against nationalism, racism, fascism and in support of migrants and refugees.” The text, presented in book form on a tripod identical to the one supporting the block of salt, lists the names of the 16,136 people who have died attempting to reach Europe, focusing exclusively on those documented by the mass media between January 1, 1993, and January 29, 2012.

Arena, who has long been interested in social and political issues, thus returns to a theme that is extremely important to him: the phenomenon of illegal immigration, previously alluded to in works such as Il peso del mio corpo da un blocco di pietra del peso di una barca (My Body’s Weight from a Stone Block the Weight of a Boat), 2010, exhibited that year at Art Statements in Basel. The significance of Arena’s work may be attributed to his ability to take on complex social issues through strikingly reductive means, and, concomitantly, to the ease with which he maintains his dialogue with the art of the past, particularly the so-called neo-avant-garde works of the 1960s and ’70s. The rich iconographic and iconological background of this work is unusual for an artist of Arena’s generation (he was born in 1978). He pays homage to various artists, including Jannis Kounellis, whose sculpture is echoed by the metal beam; Pino Pascali, in the idea of a portion of the sea synthesized into a geometric volume and a portion of earth translated into a stereometric, linear body; Gordon Matta-Clark, in the reversed synthesis of the landscape; and others. This is consistent with Arena’s past works, in which he has evoked Alighiero Boetti in chromatic fields of pen strokes or Gino De Dominicis in imaginative interpretations of human presence and absence. These connections are not arbitrary. Arena is working within a lineage of artists who, toward the end of the last millennium, reacted to the most extreme outcomes of the post-human condition by placing themselves in the wake of the modern tradition and drawing from its precious legacy. This allowed them to fill, at least to some extent, the historical and cultural gaps imposed on them by history, which otherwise offered an increasingly impoverished intellectualism. From the beginning, Arena has been a worthy successor to such artists, reinterpreting their strategies and materials with the same sensitivity he shows to history itself.

Pier Paolo Pancotto

Translated from Italian by Marguerite