Museo Novecento, Florence
June 24 2023 – October 8 2023
Review by Giulia Colletti
In 1453, the monk Leonardo da Pistoia brought to light Hermetica, a corpus of Greek writings attributed to the figure of Hermes Trismegistus. Cosimo I de’ Medici had these texts translated into Latin by Marsilio Ficino, serving as a source of inspiration for Hermeticism. Florence then became one of the centers of the Renaissance of the ‘Hermetic art,’ better known as alchemy. Precisely, the work attributed to Trismegistus gained significant credibility among alchemists, who at the time were also called ‘artists’ as they sought to harness the power of nature through scientific intervention, oftentimes implementing it to artistic effect. The anagram of a famous alchemical formula condensed the 15th-century alchemists’ doctrine: V.I.T.R.I.O.L., which stood for Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem. Attributed to Basilius Valentinus – most likely a pseudonym used by one or several 16th century German authors, this maxim fostered the study of the nature of elements surrounding the human being and how they undergo transformation. In an eschatological perspective, the expression functioned as an imperative to delve into the profound depths of their own soul, in pursuit of initiation.
Embracing the principles propounded by Hermetic alchemists, artist Nico Vascellari faces the vertigo of the human process of individuation by ascending into his inner sanctum to reach an imaginative destination. In the framework of his solo exhibition MELMA at Forte Belvedere in Florence, Vascellari stages a katabasis that traverses different states. The ascension from the death realm to a reborn cycle of transformation manifests itself in the galleries of the fortification, which becomes the vessel of an alembic where the artist distills his works.
The basement of the fortification acts as the “cucurbit”of this alchemical still, where a corpus conceived from 2011 to 2014 catalyzes the artist’s inner journey. In the galleries, Vascellari identifies the legendary Alchemical Mountain with the Bus de La Lum (‘the hole of the lights’), the Cansiglio forest’s deepest ponor. Tracing back to this sacred dwelling of witches Anduane and the phenomenon of will-o’-the-wisps, which during the partisan war in WWII became a mass grave, Vascellari presents a series of sculptures and a triptych on the wall that respectively transmute the weight of the human body into a block of clay and the pages of old magazines into sediment of leaves. Accompanying the series, the video work VIT, 2020, expands on the exploration of Cansiglio’s deepest cavities through an aerial journey that Vascellari, hooked to a helicopter through a rope as an animal carcass, undertakes in a state of profound unconsciousness.
On the first floor, by reacting the erotic hypnagogic hallucinations of an owl with a hand-shaped tail (MooN, 2014-2022) and an upper-jaw-less wolf (Maelstrom of Evil) with the obsessive rationality of dissecting the bird nests (Nido, 2021; 2023) and stitching flowers into bubble wrap (Fiorellini, 2023), Vascellari unveils human’s pathetic fallacy and schizophrenia when attempting to deal with the social construction of Nature.
The state of embedded muddiness of the living beings, which subtends the exhibition, explodes in a paroxysm when reaching the second floor and turning the sight and smell to the yard. Rather than championing escape plans from Earth, the works such as Earthrise (2015-2023) root firmly in the complex planet which hosts them, establishing a short-circuit between the communicability of the inwardness and the invisibility of the outwardness. Vascellari has often fostered such a state of unbalance by saturating the slick fractures between art performance and music experimentation while stretching human gesturality and voice out to unleash non-verbal linguistic codes – as it occurs in the performance ALESSIO, conceived as an iteration of the exhibition MELMA.
The Promethean promise of the alchemists to subjugate reality under scientific intervention – which feeds into the modern cybernetic credo of technology as an extension of the body – merges with virulent parasitic zoonotic diseases in the sculptures of wild animals, whose organic guts are pimped with car dismissed engines (Horse Power, 2019-2023). Echoing Ballard’s controversial novel Crash (1973), Vascellari’s then turns the motto Visita Interiora Terrae to an explosive vision of bodies open to technological wounds, in a wild and continuous laboratory experiment carried out via extraction, incisions, excisions, fleshings, and technical scars.
Museo del Novecento, Florence
All images: © the artist