Rome

View of “Lara Favaretto: Good Luck,” 2015. From left: Homage to Ambrose Bierce, 2015; Homage to Thomas Pynchon, 2015; Homage to Amelia Earhart, 2015; Homage to Nikola Tesla, 2015.

View of “Lara Favaretto: Good Luck,” 2015. From left: Homage to Ambrose Bierce, 2015; Homage to Thomas Pynchon, 2015; Homage to Amelia Earhart, 2015; Homage to Nikola Tesla, 2015.

Lara Favaretto

MAXXI - Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo

View of “Lara Favaretto: Good Luck,” 2015. From left: Homage to Ambrose Bierce, 2015; Homage to Thomas Pynchon, 2015; Homage to Amelia Earhart, 2015; Homage to Nikola Tesla, 2015.

IF, AS THEODOR ADORNO once famously asserted, “museums are the family sepulchres of art,” last spring’s presentation of Lara Favaretto’s 2010–15 series “Good Luck” transformed Rome’s MAXXI into a full-blown cemetery—albeit a quasi-Minimalist cemetery seemingly designed by Donald Judd with input from Walter De Maria and the stalwarts of Arte Povera. Each of the series’s twenty sculptures (there are eighteen on view in this exhibition) commemorates a different historical individual. But you wouldn’t know it at first glance: The monuments—composed of various arrangements of wood, polished brass, soil, and iron boxes—are obdurately nonreferential, stripped of any information hinting at the figures they memorialize (or, for that matter, that they are memorials in the first place). No wall texts, no names, and certainly no epitaphs—only a map is available to help visitors navigate them. Yet the coyness of the works, their solemn blankness, is precisely the point: The figures Favaretto chose to honor—from aviator Amelia Earhart and chess champion Bobby Fischer to writer J. D. Salinger and scientist Ettore Majorana—either died under mysterious circumstances or voluntarily withdrew from public life. The silence of the cenotaphs, then, respects their subjects’ choice to live anonymously while reproducing the auras of mystery that envelops their personae in the public imagination.

This cast of individuals has fascinated the artist for some time. “Good Luck”—this presentation was organized by Anna Mattirolo—is only the most recent entry in a much larger project, “Momentary Monuments,” that the Italian artist has pursued since 2005, collecting photos, letters, newspaper articles, and other materials related to the lives of these figures. For her well-known Momentary Monument, the Swamp, shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Favaretto constructed a sprawling bog in the Giardini, then buried the documents in a wet, loamy soil. In “Good Luck,” we find the photographs and letters again, but, as in The Swamp, they have been hidden from view: She has secreted them away in iron boxes, positioned beside, on top of, or embedded within each sculpture.

What is perhaps most striking about the series is the dazzling formal and material diversity Favaretto is able to coax from a relatively limited set of sculptural ingredients, as well as the precision of the works’ facture and the artist’s deep attention to details. Homage to Bruno Manser, 2015, for example, features a cool brass slab sitting atop a messy spill of soil (the iron box with the documents, we assume, is hidden somewhere inside). In Homage to Thomas Pynchon, 2015, by contrast, there is no brass, and the iron box is front and center, sitting on top of a mass of dirt, which has been shaped into a rectangular volume. If allusions to Minimalism abound in these works, Homage to Thomas Corbett, 2015, may contain the cleverest art-historical reference of all: A sheet of brass rests on the ground like a Carl Andre floor piece. Homage to Amelia Earhart, 2015, on the other hand—a simple wooden box—looks a lot like a plywood Judd.

As with other works in Favaretto’s oeuvre, the sculptures in “Good Luck” change over time, succumbing to growth and rot, entropy and decay. Some of these transformations happen in the short term: When I visited the show, small mushrooms had begun to sprout on the soil’s surface. Others take much longer. Eventually, the iron boxes will oxidize, corroding away until they reveal their locked-up contents to the world. Like her Arte Povera forebears (Giuseppe Penone, in particular, comes to mind), Favaretto generates her work via techniques of noncomposition. Less an author than a producer or even a conductor, she directs a flow of processes that give shape to something whose ultimate form is unknowable.

“Good Luck” is a study in contrasts: The shininess of the inorganic brass counters the soil’s dark, fertile materiality, while the reflective metal surfaces project the viewer’s living image into this memorial of the absent dead. In the end, Favaretto’s foregrounding of this absence—the way in which she withholds information—feels particularly pointed today. As we know, our moment is characterized by its gluts of data, as vast as they are unfathomable. Our networked selves leave long trails—and have strange afterlives. We might think, for example, of the still-active Facebook pages of the recently dead, remaining online as eerie, discomfiting shrines. When our digital identities outlast even death, can we ever hope to go private? Do we ever have the freedom to disappear? Favaretto offers a radical alternative to our regimes of global surveillance: Sometimes, she seems to propose, there’s nothing more liberating than an unmarked grave.

Ida Panicelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.