“Calm block fallen down here from an unseen disaster” (1)
by Daria De Beauvais
Starting from the “real”—using elements from everyday life—Giulia Cenci brings her sculptures and installations to the state of “surreal,” that is, beyond reality.
The artist makes us see the invisible, she manufactures it, puts it in front of our eyes as unpleasant as it may be. With an aesthetic of the fragment, she addresses the evolutionary challenges our civilization is encountering and reveals the deep mutations the world is facing.
History and collapsology
From micro to macro, from pre-human to the post-human era, Giulia Cenci’s practice seems at once timeless and to speak about the collapse of the current era—a contemporary Pythia reflecting on the downfall of industrial civilization and what could follow it. Geological time, overlapping with human time, creates the feeling of one discovering an archeological treasure coming from the future. According to Giorgio Agamben “[…] only archaeology allows an access to the present, for it retraces its course and its shadow, which the present casts on the past.”2 This temporal ambiguity goes along with one of the artist’s mottos: “never to be pure.” Indeed, every element she uses—from rubber, foam, metal, clay or branches for the inside to ashes, resin, graphite powder or marble dust for the surface—is transformed in a process of recycling and hybridization, in order to challenge and confront both the shapes and the meanings of the resulting artworks.
Her sculptures are linked by rods, splints or metal tutors creating horizontal and vertical tensions in space, as if they could still develop, as remnants of a catastrophe in transformation, in convalescence. They are about entropy, about escaping any fixed interpretation. One can wonder whether her extra-ordinary proposals—between decay and growth, in a retro-futurist spirit—are an attempt to either beat or resist time. But Giulia Cenci collapses time and space at once, even calling on outer space. This is well illustrated by territory (2019), one of her most recent works. In this complex, saturated and impenetrable environment, the artist summons the ruins of the past in order to let us glimpse at our potential future, on earth or beyond.
The artwork as body snatcher
Evoking rocky concretions, or traces from alien creatures, these works exist in autonomy. They could be body snatchers. Bits and pieces found by the artist are incorporated into elaborate installations, dystopic and sedimented landscapes, a mix of industrial remnants and organic materials. They serve as a matrix, duplicated and worked out by the artist, slowly but significantly.
Their exterior aspect, their membrane, is troubling. As in Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers, it is difficult to state what is real: us or them? Her artworks look like existing forms or materials, but improved, like Donna Haraway’s cyborg, “a disassembled and reassembled post-modern collective and personal self.”3
Here the inanimate becomes animate; the artist in a demiurgic gesture gives life to her sculptures. Her humanity expands them. She replaces industrial molding processes with her DIY own technique, enhancing these forgotten objects in an almost alchemical process. She transforms metal and plastic in simile body parts: muscles, tendons, bones—stretched to the maximum of their capacity, a thin skin covering them. Hybrid gestures forming hybrid sculptures. Like a snake leaving behind its sloughing, it is about metamorphosis and reinvention.
Reliquary of the everyday
In her practice, Giulia Genci uses immemorial gestures as well as the most advanced technologies, but her most important tool is her hands. The simplicity of forms, the absence of ornamentation give strength to her sculptures, and can enable for instance branches to become electric cables. Between crafts and industry, they evoke a perverted cabinet of curiosities. They are threatening and vulnerable at once, dealing with burial and resurrection. The envelopment of everyday objects transforms them into talismans; what’s below the casting and coating is known only by its creator. The covering of these raw materials contains them as much as it hides them, modifying them into relics of our failing world, or into distant cousins of Pompeii’s ancient bodies frozen in lava for eternity. For her coating, the artist works with silicone, dust taken from the walls of exhibition spaces, bone black pigment, ashes, marble dust, clay… This includes “traditional” art materials but she never uses them new and clean, on the contrary she is more interested in the leftovers.
All of her projects are context-based: at once the dialogue or confrontation between the works and the architecture, but also the dialogue between the sculptures themselves. Cenci works from everyday objects, from her surroundings but also from the street, for instance discarded parts of machinery found in dumps. By reworking them and remodeling their original shapes, she makes them look even more precarious, accelerating their already present wear. Cast several times, covered with resin or other synthetic material, they become sculptural and timeless concretions. Quite conscious of belonging to the Anthropocene era, Cenci tries to overcome human control over the world and consider human beings as just another component of this world, in order to develop the cohabitation of all its inhabitants, and to disrupt the distinction between living and non-living. Machine, wire, animal, vegetal, human—we are all co-inhabitants in her world.
On the edge of domesticity and savagery, working with body and animal parts is a recent development in Giulia Cenci’s works. In her previous creations they were nonetheless present in their absence itself. For instance her series Aprile (2016), made of metal bar, rubber pipe fragments, car fragments, branch fragments, epoxy resin, marble dust and fresh clay, was inspired by handrails. The missing hands were like ghosts; for whom an absence is a presence, a disappearance is an incarnation. For her project marine snow (2019), Giulia Cenci decided to form a landscape “made out of hybridization of extinguished species like dinosaurs and still existing animal shapes.” This way she created chimeras both in a historical sense (as the represented species didn’t exist in the same period) but also in a zoological sense (mixing several species in the same sculptures).
Another project, her last to date, is quite densely populated, and is for the first time produced on site. A few elements come from her Amsterdam studio, such as casts of human legs or animal parts (from original casts of wolf paws, the artist creates other animals shapes, such as dogs or horses) made in urethane foam evoking implosions. Once covered with resin, they seem bruised or decaying in their grayness. But most are found material from an auto breakage, a metal recycling company or remnants from previous exhibitions: metal and rubber pipes, wire mesh, nets and rope, etc. The installation is entitled mud (2019), a term which evokes for the artist melting and a physical involvement. Mud is a dense and liquid material, in which you can get stuck. It’s alive, and you don’t really know (or want to know) what’s inside… The installation, spread from floor to mid-height, is traversable by visitors, thus bears an immersive aspect. To circulate in it, one needs to take detours, in a very choreographic way. Metallic bars cross the room, creating a labyrinthine effect with ebb and flow. Movement is important in the artist’s sculptures: she is inspired by battle scenes in classic painting, which she sees as “chaotic landscapes of body and animal parts,” an entanglement of men and horses legs. Maybe a nightmarish vision of The Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in the line of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut and Honoré Fragonard’s flayed figure?
Modification, fragmentation, aggregation, hybridization… are all means for the artist to work on the materials. She intrudes repeatedly into the world of beings and things. Through her manual intervention, she alters the seriality of manufactured objects resulting from mass production or of common species. She stops their functionality and raison d’être for the benefit of a vision that alternates between post-apocalypse and pure onirism. Her work is an elusive chimera that could be called the present. Today is the son of yesterday and tomorrow, and has been adopted by Giulia Cenci.
1. Stéphane Mallarmé, The Tomb of Edgar Poe, 1914. From Stéphane Mallarmé, The Poems in Verse, translated by Peter Manson (Miami: Miami University Press, 2013).
2. Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things: On Method (New York: Zone Books, 2009).
3. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women (New York: Routledge, 1991).
GIULIA CENCI (b. 1988, Cortona, Italy) lives and works between Amsterdam and Tuscany. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts (Bologna), St. Joost Academy (Den Bosch-Breda) and De Ateliers (Amsterdam). In 2019 she had a solo show at Kunst Meran Merano Arte, won the Baloise Art Prize for her project with SpazioA at Art Basel Statements and participated in Young International Creation at the IAC (Villeurbanne), a parallel event of the 15th Lyon Biennale.
DARIA DE BEAUVAIS is Senior Curator at Palais de Tokyo, Paris. In the fall of 2019, she is co-curator of the 15th Lyon Biennale (Where Water Comes Together With Other Water) and co-curator of a group exhibition about the French art scene at Palais de Tokyo (Future, Former, Fugitive). She also works as a freelance curator, regularly sits on various committees and juries, writes for a number of magazines and publications and teaches at the University.
All images Courtesy: SpazioA, Pistoia