Squinting at Peonie

25 May 2015


Over the course of four days in January 2015, the exhibition Peonie, curated by Alessandro Cicoria, Giuseppe Garrera, and Claire de Rien, took place in the old stables of Le Scuderie, on the outskirts of Rome. The artworks on display shared in common the aim to explore the threshold of pornography, charting a territory which causes art embarrassment and endangers it, measuring the boundaries of its grace. In remembrance of this ephemeral exhibition, NERO is pleased to share with you a personal documentation written by Chiara Vecchiarelli, accompanied by photographs taken by Alessandro Cicoria and Valeria Giampietro, that guide us back through the intimate corridors and the obscenities of what once was Peonie.

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Peonie (Italian for peonies) is an exhibition that blossomed and soon faded in a complex of garçonnière at the gates of Rome, where at the foot of Ponte Milvio, it stayed for a brief period, much like the horses that from the nineteenth century once paused there in the stables, consigned then, some decades ago, to the private ritual of carnal pleasure. The location, discovered by Alessandro Cicoria, is a private time capsule.

Plastic palmettes and leopard-print bedspreads reminiscent of a Texan-Saharan television series, a passage in time to the 1970s made from carpet, humour, and wainscoting. Horizontal exoticism in chenille and continuous mirror surfaces which multiply the image of pleasure. Camel-coloured carpet, cardinal crimson, and parakeet blue climbing up the walls as to absorb noise. Marble in the bathroom creating a semiotics of splendor, a dragon tree for that one flame of lust.

Peonie begins here, with the public opening of a building enveloped in ivy, fraying itself into a series of phocomelic apartments, a vast room with tiny appendages. When the view is not obstructed by curtains seemingly from a German crime series, the horizontal windows open out onto a landscape that was once depicted by the painters of the 17th Century School of Bamboccianti, who painted outskirts, prostitutes and other liminal subjects.

It is here that twenty among artworks and publications, all drawing on sexual imagery, have been left on nightstands and glass coffee tables, laid on a bed or pushed against the walls. Viral hosts of a complex born to be lived in only temporarily, and in secrecy, they inhabit and infect the space with their own exterior and infinitely appropriable nature. However diverse in medium and affective tonality, they all embrace sexuality as something never to be set apart, and by way of playful inversions they take it to the mediating space of the image that knows no sacred nor improfanable.

Climbing the carpeted wooden stairs, on the left one sees the poster of Water in Milk Exists (2008), the second adult film by Lawrence Weiner after A Bit of Matter and a Little Bit More (1976), in which sex and conversation alternate and overlap naturally, following and superimposing themselves in order to generate a social structure. In the film the actors perform, discussing the minimal structure of the two bricks whose assembling marks the beginning of architecture according to Mies van der Rohe, practicing it through physical encounters. Permeable to life and to discourse, the sex of Water in Milk Exist cannot be summed up in any one sphere. As a manifesto of silent intentions the poster encapsulates the tone of the exhibition, resonating with the large photograph of a French porn star placed upon the bed upstairs, featuring a leopard-skin design similar to her shoes (a coincidence and a chronicle), famed for committing the sexual act with a seemingly detached gaze—always facing the lens seductively yet unconcerned, something like a ‘so what?’ leaking through her sly smile. The intercourse is an element equal to every other in the economy of the image and is above all exempt from the privilege – but also free from the obligation – of the colonization of the face with the affected expressions imposed by the genre.

An entire garçonnière becomes the uroboric kingdom of Luigi Ontani. A distilled gesture, phallic masks, golden seeds, apotropaic paintings and memories of travels surround the large photograph in which the artist kisses his own tail; an elegant and exotic mythology of the self proceeding from a life that is poured into image and in a somersault on the bed is overturned once again for the sleeping tableau vivant gifted to Peonie for the opening.

L’estasi di Santa Teresa (1998) by Giuseppe Pietroniro, leans against a window: a profane stained glass made out of the bases of bottles and a perfect home for the subversion of the sacred function of representations, be they pornographic or otherwise. Originally a diapositive (in its own way a thumbnail of the stained glass), the image chosen by Pietroniro has been retouched with the addition of a halo now sheding light on the head of the porn actress. The “ecstasy” in the title of the work immediately shifts in meaning, and in a rapid double inversion, the pornographic image is released from the genre to which it belongs precisely thanks to the symbolic tools of the sacred. A nimbus, which is neither porn nor sacred. Even L’estasi di Santa Teresa d’Avila by Bernini, for those have seen it, comes to mind in a different light. At the heart of the glory that the halo adds resides an irony capable of saving both images from the separate spheres in which they have been imprisoned, allowing them free passage from one to the other, through the theshold of indistinguishability generated by the work.

It is hard to ignore the irony at play in the audio of the videos of Eleonora Chiari and Sara Goldschmied spreading through the narrow corridors that connect the garçonnières: serving as the backrest of a bed, a projection of oscillating spacial vibrators and other trinkets of galactic pleasure floats softly in the interstellar space of Cosmic Love (2008); in the room in front, the variously phallic objects of Objet du désir (2006) are polyphonically masturbated to add up to the rustling, sizzle, and sobs produced by the rubbing of a catalog on the Cappella Sistina, a little birdcage, a giraffe with a long rubber neck, and an inflatable airplane from the glorious Pan Am Airlines.

A play on meaning along the thread of the relationship between signifier and signified is also at the base of the video Crash (2011) by Giorgio Orbi, which refers explicitly to the film directed in 1996 by David Cronenberg, based on the eponymous novel Crash (1973) by J.G. Ballard. If in Crash by Ballard and Cronenberg car accidents are what produce sexual excitement, it is another type of ‘crash,’ this time financial, that makes itself the object of sexual psychopathology portrayed by Orbi. Characters, shot from behind, get excited and moan no longer in front of clashes, real or simulated, but in front of computer screens reporting the graphs of market fluctuations. Virtual like the currency which is no longer anchored to gold, the software that manages the graphics in Crash carries the simulacrum to its supreme expression: the irony of the simulacral appearance taken literally, in the temples of the financial bubbles there is no longer any tangible reality to submit to the symptoms of its own alteration.

Daniele Puppi examines the double binary of carnality and abstraction, with an installation entitled Blast (2013) that divides in two a whole images archive of genitals, reassembled into and broadcasted on a pair of monitors that seem to be rolled onto the floor, finding themselves side by side, shooting in the dark, reloading, and firing again as to merge birth and death. Abrupt in its impactand yet ironic, the work seems to intercept the common etymology of the two ancient Greek terms orgé, meaning ‘anger,’ and orgasmós, meaning ‘orgasm,’ that it compounds in a sequence of bursting and loud swells. In front, one could play with the board game Così fan tutti, added to the interior as if by a mysterious hand, glimpse at an issue of NERO opened to an interview with Weiner for Water in Milk Exists, and leaf through the (so far) only two issues of the art magazine for adults New Gentemen’s Club – published between 2009 and 2010 by Luca Legnani, Luca Martinazzoli and Pino Pipoli for Les Presses du Réel – along with a very special one off magazine edition entitled Suca, realized in 2011 by Fabio Paleari and Giallo Concialdi.

Tim Ulrichs looks to the history of art, but also to the moralism of what can be and what cannot be written. Capsizing the hierarchies in the relationship between figures and the background, the artist refers the captions of the images reproduced in Kunst & Leben (1993) to details in the background: it is the posters of works of art hanging on the walls that are captioned, rather than the subjects in the foreground intent to have sex in front of reproductions of paintings by Picasso, Mucha, Gauguin, Friederich, Munch, van Gogh, Turner or Kandinsky. Philology of divertissement, the caption reports the original dimensions of the works and their museum location. In the unique territories of the imagination – with a deconsecration of the temple-museum that takes place only in thought – the scene portrayed begins at the Pompidou, the Rijksmuseum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and so on.

Other artists and works on show include Giuseppe Desiato, Aurel Schmidt, Fritz Schwegler, Louisa Van Leer, Werner Büttner and Albert Oehlen, a photo of Flavio Favelli’s grandparents in bathing suit manifesting singular proportions (to say the least), polaroids by Mario Schifano, a copy of Frigidaire and the oil on panel by Max Renkel; a long Parthenonesque manga decoration whose mischievous author hides behind the female pseudonym Julie de la Mettrie; the raw rebus photograph from 1967 of Otto Mühl: a still life with “cock,” the rooster/phallus and his eggs, cultured and desecrating in its relationship to art history and to the literalness of the still life. Refined are the views of female genitals penciled by Tommaso Garner for New Gentlemen’s Club, at the gates of a universe in which the organic blends with the mineral, and the adherence to the contemporary melts in the variety of a landscape that speaks the language of grotesques and nineteenth century views in order to assert the diversity of the bodies most intimate parts.

To conclude as we began, I would like to mention Le Scuderie (2015), the edition of souvenir postcards by Alessandro Cicoria, from a series documenting the origin of all garçonnières: a d.i.y. penthouse arranged at the second floor of the building, featuring a fireplace and its unlikely emblem, four-poster bed and low ceiling, wooden hut walls, Martini Rosso and Punt e Mes next to the representative briar-root ashtray. A very minor Versailles balanced between hunting lodge and palace, serving as the space of mediation between the extremely grandiose and the infinitely modest. Almost a Platonic idea intercepted by Cicoria—of which the other rooms have become, with Peonie, the unfaithful images.

by Chiara Vecchiarelli