The Sculptures of Franco Mazzuchelli

In the time of COVID-19, the artist's pulmonary pangs at ChertLüdde, Berlin, feel uncomfortably prescient

In the late 1960s, Franco Mazzucchelli found something that eludes many artists: the confluence of novelty and timeliness. Presented at ChertLüdde, five large, inflatable, orange and white PVC shapes (all Untitled, 1969) hang from the gallery ceiling like alien organs. Each piece comprises four hanging protuberances, which repeatedly inflate and go limp. Up above, pneumatics feed this cycle: transparent tubes lead back to an orange pipe spanning the gallery’s ceiling, disappearing into white walls. Mazzucchelli's cartoonish, geometric forms are charming albeit unsettling analogues for cycles of life, routines and mortality.

You could think of these sculptures as abstracted lungs, connected to the gallery’s cardiovascular system. It’s tiresome, in times of crisis, to find art made into a metaphor for plight. But certain resonances are inescapable. During the current pandemic, as we gasp for air (some more than others), Mazzucchelli’s cartoonish cycles of inflation and collapse feel uncomfortably prescient. The work now seems a dream image of our underlying fears, which encompass not only the threat to human life in the current moment but the attendant loss of work and opportunity.

Franco Mazzucchelli, Untitled, 1969, PVC, air, timer, air pump, 1.4 × 2.0 × 2.0 m. Courtesy: the artist and ChertLüdde, Berlin; photograph: Trevor Lloyd

The show at ChertLüdde is historical; it reprises a 1969 exhibition wherein the artist filled Galleria Canale in Venice with these same sculptures and installed similar inflatable shapes on the neighbouring canal. Nonetheless, what stands out today is the work’s seamlessness with the present. Consider the kinship between his inflating quasi-organs and Olga Balema’s water- and metal-filled PVC bags, such as Threat to Civilization (2015), which are like artificial, cyberpunk spleens and bladders. If you told me that the latter were siblings of Mazzuchelli’s inflatables, produced in the same year rather than decades apart, I’d believe you.

Franco Mazzucchelli, Untitled, 2014, PVC, air, 80 cm ø 350 cm. Courtesy: the artist and ChertLüdde, Berlin; photograph: Trevor Llyod

Does this kinship testify more to the timelessness of the Italian’s work or to the disorienting stylistic and temporal heterogeneity of recent art? It’s hard to say. To look back in history is to realize that Mazzucchelli’s sculpture is also unmistakably of its time. By 1969, pop art, which similarly foregrounded the power of taught and bright surfaces, had been firmly on the map for well over a decade. This was also the year that Hans Haacke created his canonical Circulation, wherein water and air are pumped through banal plastic tubes, tossed across gallery floors. Haacke’s minimal approach toggles between alienating pretension, in the way it seems to present viewers with a near absence of aesthetic effort, and a less immediately apparent kind of generosity, in the way it makes room for viewers’ own projections. By contrast, Mazzuchelli’s work comes across like a class clown rupturing torpor with wit. 

Franco Mazzucchelli, Abbandono (Como Lake), 1970, felt-tip pen on photographic paper, 40 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist and ChertLüdde, Berlin; photograph: Trevor Llyod

In a room adjacent to the sculptures, several annotated photographs and videos document the artist’s ‘Abbandono’ series from the 1970s. In each of the photos, a similar, large inflatable work deserted in some European landscape, with scrawled writing describing the gesture's location and date, sometimes accompanied by quasi-evidentiary cuttings from the PVC sculpture. These efforts tapped into other contemporaneous veins: land art, in its grand sublimity, and radical acts of performance art, such as Bas Jan Ader's 1975 disappearance work, In Search of the Miraculous. Mazzucchelli’s sculptures blow life into these traditions, even as they deflate them.

Franco Mazzucchelli, ‘plongée en apnée’ runs at ChertLüdde, Berlin, until 30 May 2020.

Main image: Franco Mazzucchelli, Untitled, 1969, PVC, air, timer, air pump; four sculptures, each 1.4 × 2.0 × 2.0 m. Courtesy: the artist and ChertLüdde, Berlin; photograph: Trevor Lloyd

Mitch Speed is a writer based in Berlin, Germany.

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