Ludovica Carbotta, Severe UD 01, 2019, wood, iron, paint, plastic. Installation view.

Ludovica Carbotta, Severe UD 01, 2019, wood, iron, paint, plastic. Installation view.

Ludovica Carbotta

Fortresses are generally designed to protect against external threats. A less common (though perhaps more poetic) reason to build a fort is to confine something dangerous within it, protecting those outside. This was the purpose of the gunpowder storehouse at Forte Marghera, a nineteenth-century fortification on the Venice Lagoon that is now an art space. Known as the Austrian Polveriera, this building last year, in the context of the 2019 Venice Biennale, housed the works from Ludovica Carbotta’s ongoing series “Monowe,” 2016–, that were reconfigured (along with drawings for other sculptures not on view) for her recent exhibition, “Objects of defence,” in Madrid.

The artist—Italian born and now based in Barcelona—reimagines the powder keg as a mental chamber where the brain encapsulates problems from which it wants to protect the rest of the body. Rendered sculptural, these defensive devices were distributed throughout the gallery space like goods in a warehouse, placed on and partly contained within metal structures with wooden shelves. The pieces are very dissimilar. Their titles evoke psychiatric terminology. Preceded by attributes such as “severe” or “moderate,” acronyms such as “DD,” “RD,” “AD,” and “UD,” for example, made me think of possible diagnoses such as “displacement defense,” “regression defense,” and so on. Severe UD 01 (all works 2019) is a swollen mass of bright-blue plastic that floats between the metal rods of its support; some sections were on the floor and appeared to have broken free entirely. Moderate AD 01 is a concrete hulk seemingly packed with many different kinds of objects—as if an accumulation of tiny and absurd elements had resulted in a heavy and grotesque mass. Severe DD 01 is reminiscent of the story of the princess and the pea: It consists of sheets of colored foam layered on top of (and distorted by) a still-visible rock. All of this formal and material variety (wood, foam, stone, concrete, metal, paint) could have resulted in an incoherent exhibition but was aesthetically unified by Carbotta’s intelligent use of the containing structures.

Given the many studies showing the poor mental health of our generation, it should come as no surprise that a millennial artist chooses to engage with psychiatric issues. Nor is this interest entirely new to contemporary art. It is less the problems themselves than Carbotta’s spatial elaboration of them that deserves our attention. The works’ very ambiguity (in both their titles and their material form) is both fascinating and unsettling. Given their oppositions of light and heavy, soft and hard, aesthetic and coarse, as well as their rough edges and strange forms, they seem truly uncomfortable in their containers, alarming the spectator in a hard-to-describe way. Ultimately, these are objects that must be confined and that we want to shield ourselves from. The indeterminate sensation of discomfort is consistent with the exhibition’s theoretical assumptions: Just as the body sometimes triggers defense mechanisms for unknown reasons, the works bother the viewer without her knowing exactly how or why they do so.

Translated from Spanish by Michele Faguet.