Riccardo Beretta, Donnerwetter, 2011–12, natural dyed veneers, wood, brass, 93 1/4 x 63 x 16 1/8". Performance view.

Riccardo Beretta, Donnerwetter, 2011–12, natural dyed veneers, wood, brass, 93 1/4 x 63 x 16 1/8". Performance view.

Riccardo Beretta

Riccardo Beretta, Donnerwetter, 2011–12, natural dyed veneers, wood, brass, 93 1/4 x 63 x 16 1/8". Performance view.

“To re-enter Bude, one has to cross a space cluttered up with piles of cross-beams and metal frames. The steel cable of a crane cuts across the road, and Alex catches hold of it to climb over: Donnerwetter, he looks at his hand black with thick grease. In the meanwhile I have joined him. Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of the hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute Alex, if someone told him that today, on the basis of this action, I judge him and Pannwitz and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere.”

“Donnerwetter,” which means “dammit” in German, was the title of Riccardo Beretta’s recent solo show, and it is an expletive that any viewer, even a chance visitor, might not have been able to keep from echoing at the sight of the words quoted above, which the artist presented in German, positioned right at the entrance to the exhibition. It is a piercing passage taken directly from the chapter titled “Chemical Examination” in If This Is a Man (1947) by Primo Levi, the Italian chemist who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he remained until the camp’s liberation in 1945, enduring atrocious suffering; it was his need to tell of his experiences in the camp that turned this man of science into a great writer. The words are embroidered in rayon thread on a purple velvet tapestry Donnerwetter (all works 2011–12). Around the letters some lighter drops also appear, made by discoloring the velvet by bleaching it and sprinkling it with small flecks of water mixed with chalk, almost like tears. This treatment gives the entire velvet surface an organic appearance, like a purple, swollen, bruised epidermis onto which Levi’s lapidary words are impressed. Beretta uses a font of his own invention, and the long, slender letters seem like skeletal bodies. Upon closer examination, they prove to be double; that is, each letter consists of itself and its shadow.

Not far from the tapestry was a strange musical instrument, a clavicytherium—a sort of vertical harpsichord. In the next room was a second clavicytherium, this one darker in color than the first; while both instruments are also called Donnerwetter and rest on seven slender pairs of legs, the bronze-coated brass legs of the first are replaced in the second by undulating, zinc-coated brass legs with a rainbow effect. Observing them, one felt that these strange keyboards were there to play Levi’s words and thus to spread them through the entire exhibition space, to project them throughout the entire city and even the world. It seemed as if the sound that had to be unleashed could not help but be tremendous, terrifying, a transformative phenomenon. But what had been transformed, in fact, seemed to be the instruments themselves, realized by the artist in collaboration with specialized craftspeople, and characterized by bizarre textures created by digging into the various layers of differently colored wood, including, to name a few, Japanese ash, black limba, and spruce.

The exhibition concluded in a small, narrow side room, with three strips of wood intarsia, inlaid in three different ways, each titled Il Mare III. In one case, the colors of the different woods are employed to accentuate their veining; in another, the colors manifest themselves as shadows of the wood veining; and in the third, they are used to reveal the background of the veining, now in contrast, which thus looks incredibly transformed from its natural organization.

Marco Tagliafierro

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.