San Gimignano

Arcangelo Sassolino, Canto V, 2016, wood, steel, hydraulic system, 6' 5 1/2“ × 16' 2 7/8” × 1' 8 7/8". Installation view. Photo: Ela Bialkowska.

Arcangelo Sassolino, Canto V, 2016, wood, steel, hydraulic system, 6' 5 1/2“ × 16' 2 7/8” × 1' 8 7/8". Installation view. Photo: Ela Bialkowska.

Arcangelo Sassolino

Galleria Continua | San Gimignano

Arcangelo Sassolino, Canto V, 2016, wood, steel, hydraulic system, 6' 5 1/2“ × 16' 2 7/8” × 1' 8 7/8". Installation view. Photo: Ela Bialkowska.

The work of Arcangelo Sassolino does not follow the trend toward dematerialization that seems to apply to so much contemporary art. In his hands, material assertively occupies space: The “life of matter” makes itself felt—through noises, metamorphoses, structural tensions, and often-violent movements. Canto V (all works 2016), a sixteen-foot tree trunk, sawed longitudinally into thick beams and suspended in midair, was subjected to extreme pressure from a hydraulic jack that bent it first in one direction and then another. A series of creaking noises, something like the sounds that emerge from the torsion between the rigging and the mast of a ship, personified the piece of wood, imbuing it with what we might call, in human terms, “suffering.” Another work, Piccole guerre (Small Wars), seemed more technologically advanced but was in fact more barbaric. Nitrogen from a tank traveled through a tube and filled a simple, empty mineral-water bottle—sealed in a container but still visible—until the bottle disintegrated in a flash. Finally, we saw a series of colored concrete surfaces, their textures bearing traces of the sheet of plastic that gave them their form. The show itself, and its intention to deny sculpture as static, was dedicated to canto 5 of Dante’s Inferno, in which, in the second circle of hell, reserved for those guilty of lust, a steady windstorm flings the souls of the damned in all directions.

More than eighty years ago, in 1934, Henri Focillon wrote La vie des forms (The Life of Forms in Art), in which he granted the form of works of art an autonomous life that develops in a manner that is intrinsically self-reflexive. For Sassolino, matter itself—even more than form—also possesses an autonomous life, which the artist seeks to cultivate until it becomes discernible to his viewer. It is precisely because of this attention to matter that Sassolino cannot help but be defined as a “sculptor” in the fullest sense of the term. In a traditional idea of sculpture, sculptors know their material, with which they establish a struggle, until the material itself becomes form. Sassolino allows the material, even before the end goal is achieved, to reveal its secret transformations, its intimate movements, its own nature—which is anything but inanimate.

In the 1950s, a general current in modernist sculpture made this excitation of material a theoretical cornerstone; the concept of material was accompanied by ideas about the gesture and the sign. But Sassolino’s actions are devoid of historical self-consciousness—let alone nostalgia for that moment. The sculptor’s relationship with material has always been essential, despite the pedagogy of the day, and his originality lies in knowing how to keep this relationship dynamic and fresh while remaining anchored to the essential and inescapable problem. His work does not stage the final result—as one might witness in a piece of twisted iron—but rather the very process of activation as it unfolds over time. The material comes alive: It is born, grows, and dies. The artist and his instruments of torture immensely accelerate the imperceptible transformations that take place over geological eras, until each is made visible to the human eye.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.