The Italian artist Renato Leotta says that it was The Sea Around Us (1951), a book by the marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson, which changed his way of looking at waves. In particular, he was captivated by the candid beauty of a paragraph in ‘I Mother Sea’, the book’s first chapter, in which Carson remarks: ‘To the human senses, the most obvious patterning of the surface waters is indicated by colour. The deep-blue water of the open sea far from land is the colour of emptiness and barrenness; the green water of the coastal areas, with all its varying hues, is the colour of life.’ The supernatural perfection and glassy transparency we associate with ‘ultramarine’, Carson points out, is sterile, while ochre, brown, emerald and reddish tints (Homer called the sea oinops, wine-dark) testify to the miracle of a swarming biodiversity supported by plankton, which at night can become fluorescent. Leotta has repeatedly tried to perform the impossible task of fixing the ever-changing interplay of light, shadow and sea water.
For his series of ‘lunagrams’ – as he calls them – ‘Zeit und Wasser’ (Time and Water, 2016), he worked at night, immersing sheets of photosensitive paper directly in the sea for a few seconds, in order to capture the undulant glowing patterns created by the moonlight. By deciding to use the moon as an enlarger and the dark shore as a camera obscura, Leotta basically replicated on an environmental scale the process of developing and printing black and white photographs. The resulting images are blurred, elegiac and timeless. The textile works from the series ‘Aventure, Aventura, Peripezia (estremo occidente)’ (Adventure, Plight, Western Extreme, 2016) – created for the exhibition ‘Les Limbes’ (Limbo), curated by Caterina Riva at La Galerie, Noisy-le-Sec – are also the result of an immersion. Leotta dipped strips of cerulean-blue fabric into the sea and then let them dry in the sun; as the water evaporated, the salt created jagged lines that recall a wave or the outline of a coastline. In the subsequent series of unfired clay sculptures, ‘Aventura’ (Adventure, 2016), the sea appears as an echo. Shaped like empty containers or crates, each piece bears the name of a Mediterranean port city – from Thessaloniki to Venice. A round hole on one side means that, by placing your ear next to it, like children do with shells, you can hear – and amplify, with your imagination – the sound of waves.
Leotta has spent a lot of time by the sea: as a child, he returned with his parents to their native Sicily from Turin over the summer holidays. They had moved to the northern industrial city during the economic boom of the 1950s and ’60s to work at the Fiat car factory, along with thousands of other Sicilians. As Diego Novelli (Turin’s communist mayor from 1975 to 1985) loved to say, Turin is ‘the third southern city of Italy, after Naples and Palermo’. Born in 1982 in Turin, where in 2008 he co-founded, with Elisa Troiano and Alexandro Tripodi, the non-profit art organization Cripta747, Leotta recently reversed his family’s journey and moved back to Sicily – to Acireale, not far from his father’s hometown. He told me that he wished to heal a gap, ‘to slow down time and re-activate familiar gestures and relations’, to ‘use the island as a studio’, as well as to practise ‘southern thought’ – borrowing from the title of another important book, Il pensiero meridiano (1996), by the Italian sociologist Franco Cassano. Cassano interprets the Mediterranean Sea as the space of cross-fertilization between different southern cultures and as an emblem of global modernity, which is an alternative to frenzied Eurocentrism and its alienated, economy-driven homo currens (running man). Leotta bought a citrus grove and learned how to tend it, how to protect a field with dry-stone walls and how to bake terracotta. He then applied the skills he had acquired, refined by the lifelong experience of local craftsmen, to his deceptively simple works. Notte di San Lorenzo (Night of San Lorenzo, 2018), which he created for Manifesta 12 in Palermo, comprises a floor composed of handmade terracotta tiles that reproduces a section of the artist’s orchard, evoked by the indents left on the ground by fallen fruit. As Leotta told me: ‘I think that, despite the current technological frenzy, we still carry inside us a very ancient world, which resurfaces when we look at the stars in the sky or at the sea, when we eat or contemplate nature. Gravity is a universal phenomenon, like birth or death. Whether organic or inorganic, we are all on the same boat, at least on this planet.’ Leotta employs the metaphor of a ‘mental garden’ to describe his installation Amicizia (Friendship, 2017), a four-metre-long sculpture made of stones in the form of a free-standing wall, realized for his eponymous exhibition at Madragoa in Lisbon. The perilous sea journeys undertaken by migrants and the border walls erected to stop their movements are in the news every day, but Leotta systematically distances his works from history and the here and now: if anything, they could be described as metaphysical, like the meditative still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi.
‘I could summarize my work as something unfolding along a coastline. On one side, there’s the open sea with all its adventures (travels, exchanges, myths and fictions) and, on the other, the landscape as a symbol of human presence and activity. That’s why the shore is a recursive point of arrival or departure, for me,’ Leotta says. ‘Eine Sandsammlung’ (A Sand Collection), his 2018 solo exhibition at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, which was curated by Giovanni Carmine, focused on a series of fragile sand casts, displayed in neat lines on large, low pedestals painted light blue, like objects in a science museum. Each piece was made on a different beach in Sicily, during low tide, by pouring liquid plaster directly on the sand, which was naturally ‘sculpted’ by the shifting water. All the tides on Earth are regulated by the same cosmic force – the moon – and, yet, each one has very site-specific characteristics, with broad differences occurring within a narrow geographic distance. Each cast is hence an incredibly detailed impression of a specific territory, as well as a perfectly paradoxical one, given the permanent mutations of its surface. ‘I’ve looked at those small portions of beaches as if they were plates to be interpreted and decoded, in order to understand the broader movements of nature,’ Leotta explains.
The artist’s sand casts pay homage to the modern Sardinian sculptor Costantino Nivola, who died in 1988 aged 76. Due to the racial laws introduced by fascism in the 1930s, Nivola and his wife – fellow art student Ruth Guggenheim, who was Jewish – moved to Paris and then to New York. In New York, he became a close friend of Le Corbusier, collaborating with him on several projects. Nivola discovered the technique of sand casting in 1948, while playing on Amagansett beach in Long Island with his children; he perfected it in his monumental plaster panels (such as the one he designed for the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue in 1953) and concrete facades for public buildings. Leotta has been frequently drawn to the works of modern artists from southern Italy, from Carla Accardi and Pietro Consagra to Francesco Messina, whose bronzes he included in an exhibition curated for Cripta747 in 2014. Inspired by the cavalleresco (chivalric) genre of epic poetry, the nuances of the show’s tongue-in-cheek title, ‘MUSEO (cavalli e cavalle, cavalli cavalli)’ (MUSEUM, Horses and Horses, Horses Horses) get lost in translation.
Leotta shoots his films on a heavy, spring-wound, antique camera: the maximum duration of each shot is three minutes. Most of these diaristic fragments, or ‘observations’ as the artist prefers to call them – of which there are hundreds – never leave his studio, where they operate as a personal archive and reservoir of images. Only occasionally does he digitally transfer some sequences and exhibit them on monitors, as he did on the occasion of the 16th Quadriennale in Rome, with the three-channel Egadi (registrazioni) (Egadi, Recordings, 2016): glimpses of the aquatic and rural landscapes of the Egadi archipelago, accompanied by ambient sounds. Leotta’s film Luce (Light, 2018), which was also shown at Manifesta 12, in Palermo’s Palazzo Butera, captures the effects of bright sunlight on the surface of oranges and lemons on a branch; shot in a tight frame, the blurred fruits look like vague floating globes or planets, suspended in the void – again, a reflection on the expanded time of nature. Considered in the context of climate change, Leotta’s recursive contemplation of natural forces feels like an elegy to a world on the verge of disappearance. After all, as Carson so prophetically observed: ‘We live in an age of rising seas.’
This article first appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘The Age of Rising Seas’
Main image: Renato Leotta, Luce (Light), 2018, installation view
First published in Issue 203