Reading Rämistrasse #25: Mateo Chacon-Pino on Cristian Fogarolli at Object A

Even for regulars at the Löwenbräukunst art hub it is a challenge to find the Object A space. The wide vitrined space with a few pillars is in the hallway joining the two wings of the building, next to the Edition Patrick Frey office. The space has not yet gained the profile of the other galleries and institutions in the hub, though there is great promise in the understated premise of hosting temporary projects. In November it hosted a project by the Italian artist Cristian Fogarolli in collaboration with curator Giulia Busetti that stems from the artist’s investigation of mental health institutions in Europe. The show was selected through an open call from the Italian Council and the first iteration of the project took place in Berlin at STATE Studio. The show, titled «Pneuma», will travel to MAMBO in Bologna next year.

Installation view, with figure on screen wearing PPE in green room handling glass vessel

The version of the project on view in Zurich is a spare display of Fogarolli’s works. In the darkened room the large video projection of «Pneuma» (2020) draws the visitor’s attention. In the video work Fogarolli interacts with lab utensils, glass objects and materials that one might assume are chemical or organic powders. In the video the artist wears full-body PPE and covers his face with the suit’s hood and an extravagant pair of mirrored 90’s glasses. In different takes the artist handles the glass objects and powders in what might be described as a ritualistic interpretation of laboratory proceedings. The care with which he handles the objects and tools is only broken by a short sequence of a tool polishing away the word «mind» from a porcelain human head.

Glass containers like those in the film are found throughout the room, though these are more colourful and each displayed in a different manner. They vary in shape and colour; liquid eerily enters and leaves these bodies through glass tubes. A swan-shaped object occupies a circle of gravel in the centre of the space. On the wall hangs a lung-like object, whilst the one hanging from the ceiling reminds one of icicles or tree branches. In the back lies an enormous thing that is impossible to definitively identify as a heart or a brain. Two symmetrical objects resembling inner organs lie next to each other on the ground. The last exhibit is a colour digital print of a MRI image of the artist’s head and brain function on a coronal plane. It is the most modest work both in scale and in its display behind a pillar.

Brightly coloured glass vessel sculpture on cushion of dirt on the ground

The layout does not lead one through a narrative or assembled knowledge, it is more a crystalline experience. Bright spots of radiant, colourful glass map out a loose constellation in the space. Once you pull yourself away from the video you enter into cave-like darkness with the organic structures. Aside from the erased mind in the video and the artist’s MRI scan there is little visual evidence that this relates to mental health issues; the glass objects deserve a closer look in this regard as they were made by Murano glass masters and from designs from the artist’s experience within various psychiatric institutions; Busetti explained how different clinics offered different forms of access to their patients, some facilitating collaborative workshops, while in others all interaction was forbidden. Multiple colours and patterns interact with the different shapes and structures the glass takes. The designs are like clouds – a shape doesn’t allow for definite identification and invites the viewers to project images onto the objects. As the products of workshops and visits to institutions – each a translation of the word «pneuma» into the language from the country it came from – the objects do not reveal this extensive research and work nor the factors that shaped an institution’s decision how to interact with Fogarolli, whether it stemmed from preoccupations about the patients’ health, practicalities or even political alienation. The cold shimmering glass surfaces reveal no trace of the collaboration or even non-collaboration of Fogarolli with the patients, and the only way to know about this process is through anecdotes shared by the curator herself during a visit of the exhibition. Neither the organic shapes nor the materiality hint at collaborative design processes or to a specific relationship between material and research object.

Grey glass vessels in unusual forms placed on the ground, a small pile of bright pink powder

If we take a look at the exhibition from what it actually mediates through its images and materials, it still offers a rich synthesis or juxtaposition of rituals and scientific methodology, and the power that lies within art to mediate the as yet unmediated, such as new or uncovered knowledge: repeated behaviour and reproduction of gestures are inherent to both rituals and scientific research. In the film Fogarolli carries out these operations with a determination of one with a deeply rooted conviction in their meaning. Whichever the substance of the artist’s doings, however, they remain alien to all who are not initiated and the only parallel that can be drawn is with the laboratory-like situation. At the same time, the glass objects are clearly out of context in a laboratory and introduce an unexpected element into them. This critique of the hierarchy of knowledge systems, this carnival of magic and science, is less of an argument for the case of magic and more one against blind trust in scientific methodology and hermeneutic narratives of truth.

It is painful to see so much agency lost in the objects and obscured behind the artist’s authorship as the exhibition sets itself the goal of destigmatising mental illness, considering art as a means of opening up a conversation about it. Of course, not all psychiatric institutions allow their patients the same voice; Fogarolli can only work with the interaction with patients that the institutions grant him, which politically and health-wise relates to how much the clinics want to expose their patients to outsiders. Does an institution care for the impact of such a workshop on their patients’ health or does it serve as an institution of political segregation? A critical observation of these different decisions, whether to grant agency or not is imperative to destigmatising mental illness:  and so it remains unclear whether Fogarolli is reproducing the patients’ partial or complete loss of voice when gagged by their institutions as a truly critical observation in light of questions around care – or whether he prioritised subjective experience during his research and personal artistic decisions. Did he prioritise the personal anecdote over empowering patients?

Christian Fogarolli: Pneuma, Object A, Löwenbräukunst

11. Oktober–25. November 2020

Images courtesy the artist

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If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent. Feedback or questions? Email 

04.12.2020