A fallen tree occupies the Minini gallery. The front doors of the space are kept open, so that visitors can see its hollow trunk while they’re walking down the long courtyard that separates the gallery from the street. To reach the inner rooms, they have to crawl beneath a tangle of dark branches. At this point, they discover that it’s not, in fact, a tree, but a bronze replica (Untitled, 2019) that has been cast with painstaking precision. In Italy, where Arte Povera built its fortunes on the poetic tension between nature and artifice, the association with Giuseppe Penone’s bronze trees (often erected in parks and gardens, so that living trees and manufactured reproductions stand deceptively side by side), is unavoidable. But, besides deploying the same mimetic lures, Ariel Schlesinger’s sculpture includes a small coup de théâtre that is hardly noticeable at first: the tip of one branch is on fire, hence the exhibition’s title ‘we started with a flame’.
Such a narrative title allows for many possible readings. One, for instance, is allegorical: like the burning bush that appears to Moses, Schlesinger’s tree cannot be consumed by fire; significantly, the artist developed the installation alongside his project for the new Jewish Museum in Frankfurt (a monumental aluminium cast of two intertwining trees), that will be unveiled later this year. The title also provides a self-referential clue: ‘we started with a flame and added as little as possible’ is a phrase included in the collage AD (2012, not on show here) – it was the slogan of a 1970s advertisement for Braun lighters.
For the work, Schlesinger performed an ironic miracle: he made the flame emerge directly from the lighter’s tank, instead of the spark wheel – something that in reality would cause an explosion. Schlesinger has often played with fire: in earlier installations such as A Car Full of Gas (2009) – potentially a ticking bomb – the artist boasted of his ability to both ignite and contain disaster. The exhibition’s title hence suggests a retrospective gaze on the artist’s practice, one that has moved a step further from its most distinctively destructive and caustic aspects.
With the series ‘Nice to Meet You’ (2019) – which comprises sculptures displayed on a set of high pedestals in the second room – Schlesinger’s appetite for destruction takes a gentler turn, one in which technical virtuosity and trompe l’oeil hold court. Each sculpture is made of two intersecting sheets of shattered glass and mirrors, which have been collaged together in alternating patterns to reconstruct the outline of a broken window or possibly a damaged screen. Again, things are not what they seem. Mirrors are glass sheets coated with metal and paint: after much scraping and polishing, the artist removed the coating from some parts, so that they appear again fully transparent. Visitors are simultaneously reflected and fractured by these fragile puzzles.
In the third and last room, Schlesinger embraces simplicity with a short, silent 16 mm colour film (Untitled, 2019), which is projected onto a large screen. Shot at night, it shows a burning candle floating in a tub of water. When the camera slowly zooms out, it becomes clear that the tub is surrounded by fire, but the water insulates and somehow protects the flickering flame. The interplay of light and darkness marks the start of most human religions, mythologies and imageries. If the present moment is being mooted as the ‘New Dark Age’ (the title of artist and writer James Bridle’s 2018 book on the dystopian impact of AI and new technologies), then Schlesinger is trying his best to provide us with a comforting spark of Enlightenment.
Ariel Schlesinger, 'we started with a flame' runs at Galleria Massimo Minini, Brescia, until 30 March 2019.
Main image: Ariel Schlesinger, Untitled (detail), 2019, bronze, lamp oil, flame, 7,50 × 4,50 × 4,15 m. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Massimo Minini, Brescia; photograph: Andrea Gilberti and Alberto Petrò