Palermo, Italy

Marzia Migliora, Pane di bocca (detail), 2018, dental forceps, wedding ring, 6 7⁄8 × 4 3⁄4 × 4 3⁄4". Photo: Sandro Scalia.

Marzia Migliora, Pane di bocca (detail), 2018, dental forceps, wedding ring, 6 7⁄8 × 4 3⁄4 × 4 3⁄4". Photo: Sandro Scalia.

Marzia Migliora

Palazzo Branciforte

Marzia Migliora, Pane di bocca (detail), 2018, dental forceps, wedding ring, 6 7⁄8 × 4 3⁄4 × 4 3⁄4". Photo: Sandro Scalia.

Marzia Migliora has more than once engaged in dialogue with buildings that have a rich historical, cultural, and social resonance: Palazzo del Lavoro in Turin in 2016, Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice in 2017. Absorbing the significance of such structures, she responds with works of great emotional density and rigorous attention to detail. In this exhibition, titled “Voce del verbo avere” (Voice of the Verb to Have), she rose to the challenge presented by Palermo’s Palazzo Branciforte, a sixteenth-century edifice that, in the nineteenth century, housed the Monte dei Pegni di Santa Rosalia—a pawnshop. Its narrow and extremely high-ceilinged rooms contain, amid a vertiginous sequence of wooden stairways and ancient walkways, the numbered shelves that once held objects people had consigned in exchange for cash. Even if the shelves are now empty, we can easily imagine the quantity of goods that were amassed there, from floor to ceiling, and we can’t avoid the sorrowful murmur of infinite individual stories. These bare shelves reverberate with the suffering, misery, poverty, and hunger that pushed the indigent to pawn their family possessions in order to satisfy their most basic needs. In this building, Migliora installed works that questioned the concepts of exchange and transaction, reflecting irreconcilable opposites: abundance and scarcity, nourishment and hunger, security and precarity.

In one room, blocks of raw rock salt—each weighing about 282 pounds—their surfaces traversed by veinings and crystalline glimmers, rested under fluorescent lights on five goldsmith’s benches. Titled La fabbrica illuminata (The Illuminated Factory), 2017, the piece alludes to the exploitation of human labor in salt mines as well as to salt’s historical function as a currency of exchange and its importance as an essential nutrient. Called “white gold,” the mineral was for centuries fundamental to commerce in the Mediterranean and was used to pay wages in ancient Rome, which is why the root of salary is the Latin word sal (salt). In Voce del verbo avere, 2018, meanwhile, the Greek drachma inserted at the center of a shark’s jaw recalled events closer to our own time: the economic crisis in Greece and the insatiable voracity of the capitalist system. In L’arte della fame (The Art of Hunger), 2018, three taxidermied larks flew on a rotating carousel, chasing after a gold nugget the size of a bread crumb without ever reaching it, their futile pursuit a reminder that the need for food and for the money to buy it turns us into prisoners of a pitiless system.

With Pane di bocca, 2018—the Italian phrase, literally “the bread from [one’s] mouth,” is an idiom meaning something like “the shirt off one’s back”—Migliora employed extremely reduced means to achieve a powerful synthesis between sign and signified. Seven pairs of steel pliers of the type used for extracting teeth, sparkling like threatening instruments of torture awaiting a victim, held an equal number of tin and iron rings engraved with the words oro alla patria (gold for the fatherland) and the date November 18, 1935. A month after this date, which was when the League of Nations’ trade sanctions against Mussolini’s Italy came into effect, the Fascist regime asked Italian women to donate their gold wedding bands to finance the war in Ethiopia; in return they received cheap metal rings bearing this engraving. In this unjust transaction, the state demanded an intimate possession as proof of fidelity to power. Here, the seven small sculptures were arranged in random fashion at different heights. One had to find them among the wooden shelves, each discovery inflicting a blow to the heart, since that extraction of precious personal memories from women’s pasts still resonates today. Migliora is unafraid to face human suffering, and with her direct, concise works, she was once again an empathic, lucid, and poetic guide through uncomfortable territories.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.