Fiamma Montezemolo and José Parral, Project Perucatti (detail), 2018, mixed media, 61 × 52 3⁄8 × 66 7⁄8".

Fiamma Montezemolo and José Parral, Project Perucatti (detail), 2018, mixed media, 61 × 52 3⁄8 × 66 7⁄8".

Fiamma Montezemolo

Fiamma Montezemolo, an Italian-born artist based in San Francisco, has a background in anthropology, and her six years of fieldwork in Tijuana, Mexico, starting in 2001, gave her a clear sense of life along the frontera. In this exhibition, “Entanglements,” curated by Matteo Lucchetti, she explored frontier regions as delicate as human skin or as intangible as the liquid borders in the Mediterranean Sea in order to find images for the marginalization and oppression of otherness as a paradigm that has been repeated at different historical moments. The show’s title not only refers to the phenomenon, observed in quantum physics, in which two particles that were once in contact with each other remain interconnected even if separated by a great distance, but also suggests the fearlessness with which, in jumping from one medium to another—installation, video, neon, even a brief excursion into painting—she creates an art without formal restrictions, interweaving far-flung associations, suggestions, and memories.

Project Perucatti, 2018, was the show’s most complete and successful work on both a formal and a conceptual level. In collaboration with the architect José Parral, Montezemolo constructed a model in wood and iron of the Bourbon prison built in 1795 on the island of Santo Stefano in the Tyrrhenian Sea. A unique structure in Italy, it was inspired by the famous panopticon conceived a few years previously by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham: a circular construction where all the prison cells are visible to a single guard who sits in an observation tower at the center. Only he can see inside each cell, but none of the inmates can see the guard or know if or when they are truly being watched. This penitentiary technique was meant to mold the behavior of prisoners through discipline, creating “docile bodies,” as Michel Foucault puts it in his 1975 study Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, in which he describes the panopticon as the most evolved model of control and a perfect metaphor for invisible power in contemporary society. Bentham’s design remains paradigmatic of the politics of security and surveillance, where knowledge equals power. But Montezemolo reverses its significance and opposes the strict ideology of total control with the power of the imagination. Her model is named after one of the prison’s last directors before it closed, Eugenio Perucatti, who in the 1960s pressed for more humane treatment of prisoners. In place of the watchman in the guard tower, Montezemolo’s panopticon features a video showing images inspired by the diaries of inmates or their letters home: what they are missing and what they desire, such as the sea, flowers, the open sky, children’s games. Against the separation of prisoners from society, the artist offers poetry, allowing us, the observers, two viewpoints: one from above, where we confront the oppressive reality of prison and the suffering it encloses, and one through the open entrance door, where we can see only the video’s tribute to the insuperable urge for freedom.

In other works, the artist gathers suggestions from the past and from recent history, examining how actions, models, and social behavior are incentivized, stigmatized, or criminalized through constructed notions of normalcy and deviance. The animated video The Serpent, 2019, touches on the connection between nineteenth-century criminology and the ideology of colonialism by way of an image of a snake, while in the installation Green White Red (Mediterranean Blue), 2018, the colors of the Italian flag appear slightly off-key to allude to the current wave of migrants and the blurring of borders of national identity. In a concise style, the artist masterfully weaves a fabric of meaning out of the complexity of her political, social, and emotional subject matter.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.