Big Ideas & Vague Sentiments
Dimly lit and filled with pathos, Giovanni Ozzola’s Scars is the work of a professional. The show utilises the large space it occupies without ever feeling dwarfed or clustered. The individual works are given space to breathe, but are curated in close enough proximity to still allow for a sense of thematic cohesion.
It has all the parts one has come to expect from big budget contemporary shows, edited down like a slick portfolio piece: a sculpture at the entrance, an installation suspended from the ceiling, a neon work reflecting off the polished floor, a triptych of large format photographic prints bordering on the painterly, a large embossed line drawing of a map, a photographic series, a work that resembles said series but is made distinct by being really big, and one last outlier photographic print to subvert the logic of the show.
It’s this outlier photograph, White Image (2004/2016), which deserves pause. With an androgynous figure in a dress (the only figure presented in the show), ethereal and ghostly, bleached into light streaming through a window and merged into the whiteness of the print’s surface, it makes a stab at contextualising Ozzola’s big ideas, framing the magnitude of the universe and the concept of infinity against the scale of a single figure.
Also, the works look nice.
But while Ozzola is, without question, a confident and capable artist, and undeniably hits the beats of a show with such precision and immaculacy, it’s the broad concepts he tries to pin on these works, and the even broader contexts they’re exhibited in, that ultimately muddies the water.
In their defence, the works seem forced to hold up more profundity and meaning than any single work should conceivably have to, so much so that any function they could’ve served inevitably gets flattened out into empty symbolism. All of them are dealing with dichotomies, binaries, the eternal struggle between opposing entities (mostly light and dark), and the harmony and equilibrium formed from this struggle: big ideas pondered in a vacuum.
And to be clear, it’s these big decontextualised ideas that allow a contemporary show to so easily and seamlessly exist in the greater decontextualised global white cube. But there are certain traces, scars even, left behind when a work uproots itself from the contexts of one space and installs itself in another. While the historical figure of the explorer might still hold some credence in the artist’s native Italy, in South Africa we’ve grown a little more wary of the idea over the last 529 years.
Suspicions aside, Scars frames itself as a conceptual show about dichotomies and should be engaged with as such – but there is a deeper dichotomy on display here:
It begins with a sculpture in the entrance, Chiocciole – Another Little Piece of You (2016), consisting of snails clinging to a large steel construction beam, their trails reminiscent of the paths of explorers. It’s as if the snails are slowly ushering in the dilapidation of the industrial, the slow sturdy vanguards of nature’s “eternal struggle” with the urban. But the sentiment is undercut by the fact that all the snails also happen to be cast in bronze, and as a sculpture (and not an idea) the snails are, collectively, commodifying a rusted found object.
Concepts move in one direction, and trade another.
And perhaps this is a testament to the larger issue enveloping this show: the difference between what the works, and the concepts attached to them, are saying. Works unnecessarily blown up to be so big and universal and empty – with no attention to the contexts of creation nor the socio-political realities of their production – so that there is only atmosphere without weight.
There are also the problematic terms “collective memory” and “universality” floating around this show and Ozzola’s oeuvre in general – stated almost enough times to make them fact. But they’re not, they’re large vague reductive terms that Scars relies on all too heavily, and without interrogation.
The large map, Scars II Cammino (2016), depicts the travel routes taken by explorers (let’s just call them colonisers), presenting these lines as the historical scars of global exploration. It’s a history alluded to, with little else. The continents are all missing their topography (Africa for example seems to be missing all its scars from the Berlin Conference of 1884 – scars it still very much has today).
Instead, the continents are all dark masses, their outlines illuminated solely by the marks of trade routes, punctuated by well-used ports. Profound on first impression, it becomes problematic on second. Because whose scars are we talking about here?
Coupled with Dust on Memories (2016), decommissioned brass bells from ships with the words “fear” “life” and ”breathing” (sterner versions of “live” “laugh” “love”) carved into them by Ozzola, the work pointing towards those “big ideas” that spring forth from such humble ubiquitous words. But, whose fear, whose life, whose breathing? Whose memories are gathering dust here? Surely these bells, hanging in such close proximity to the map, cannot be divorced from a very specific history – a history of colonisation, a myth of seafaring explorers discovering places that already existed.
In this misplaced notion of universality sits the blind spot of the exhibition; as if we all share a “collective memory” – and all of this occurring in a show that apparently takes dichotomies as a thematic interest – Ozzola fails to register the historical “other”. In fact, he fails to even draw the distinction.
How can a contemporary show in South Africa, that (whether deliberately or not) focuses on the narrative of explorers (and not the numerous people they’ve oppressed) as if they’re illuminating figures plunging into hearts of darkness, not warrant questions about the mechanics of their representation?
Giovanni Ozzola’s Scars is the type of contemporary show we’re wearily seeing more of, the type that’s all too atmospheric, succinct and lathered in gravitas. A show polished enough to slip on, and shallow enough to dive into and sustain a serious injury.
While those brass bells might once have rung from a ship to signal its position on a foggy night; to tell you something was there, here, silent and spotlit in SMAC, I can’t tell if there is.