Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva
Roberto Cuoghi’s mid-career retrospective ‘Perla Pollina 1996-2016’ is a tour de force in the unconventional processing of media: glass, marble, resin, wood, chewing gum, clay, ashes, foodstuffs, glazed ceramic and bacteria all make an appearance. The title of the exhibition – curated by Andrea Bellini and travelling to MADRE, Naples, and Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne – was supposedly generated by chance ‘due to the erroneous effects of an auto-correct program’. But both Italian words in the title are translatable as ‘pearl’ and ‘organic fertilizer from poultry manure’, evoking tricks of nature and transformation. For the occasion the Milan-based artist, who has a dark sense of humour and a penchant for the grotesque, even sadistically re-titled all his works. Now each piece is identified by a sequence of letters and roman numbers (for example, D+P (VIIIAc)mm/a), and the exhibition checklist reads as a lab inventory.
The first subject that Cuoghi shape-shifts is himself. All of Cuoghi’s works related to portraiture are displayed on a single, dimly lit floor: a smart curatorial move, since that way faces and characters emerge like ghosts from the darkness. The exhibition opens with the series ‘Il Coccodeista’ (1997, an untranslatable wordplay, involving a man’s ability to cackle): in texts and drawings marked on tracing paper, the artist appears like a cyberpunk cartoon, with bulky eyes and a kamikaze red-and-white bandana. He made them while wearing special goggles reversing orientation, allowing him flaunt ‘normal’ perspective. Punk is a key reference for Cuoghi’s DIY ethic. In 1998 he severed ties with his ‘young artist’ public persona by radically altering his body: burying his former skinny self under layers of fat, dyeing his hair grey and wearing his father’s clothes for seven years. It was not only a way to resurrect and ‘kill’ again, in due time, the father, but also a strategy to remove himself from the constraints of the contemporary.
The black and white ‘Asincroni’ (Asynchronies, 2003–4) painted in symbolist style on overlaid sheets of transparent triacetate, on view in Geneva, embody Cuoghi’s out-of-sync condition. His multiple self-portraits on paper (2010) accentuate dissonant features, so that Cuoghi never quite looks like Cuoghi. A 2012 series demystifies and caricatures the ‘Cuoghi legend’: in it, the model for the artist’s physical transformation is the logo of a cigar brand. The second floor is, by contrast, flooded in natural light. A series of sculptural works (from 2012 to 2015) belong to the cycle ‘Pazuzu’ – the Assyrian god of winds, but also the demon of the 1973 horror film The Exorcist, whose original statuette, held by the Louvre and only a few centimetres high, Cuoghi first turned into a giant synthetic replica in 2008. He then kept morphing and fracturing it, in different media and scales, so that it gradually lost resolution and, also, credibility.
Despite the ‘archaic’ appearance of his works, Cuoghi often uses 3D scanning and printing, as in the series ‘Putiferio’ (2016). ‘Putifero’ brings together a group of anthropomorphic kilns – built to make ceramic sculptures of crabs during an eponymous live performance on the island of Hydra – as well as the seductively beautiful, glazed sculptures that resulted. On the last floor, which compresses the artist’s powerful sound pieces, adapted for headphones (Šuillakku, 2017, or Mei Gui, 2017), cinema screens loop a dozen documentary videos about ‘Putiferio’. The artist sent the same digital shots of the day to different editors, so that the action is narrated in different soundtracks and keys – low tech, promotional, cheesy, naïve, touristy, epic. But we repeatedly see the same Cuoghi working in front of the blazing fire, uncovering his face covered in sweat, embracing the collector Dakis Joannou, who smiles like a benign father: another sabotage, it seems, of the artist’s latest incarnation as homo faber.
Main image: Roberto Cuoghi, Untitled (detail), 2015, 187 x 37 x 37 cm. Courtesy: Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva; photograph: Alessandra Sofia