Scratching the Surface, the title of Fernando Casasempere’s new installation (through July 22, 2022), functions on two levels. There is the literal sense of stripping away layers to reveal what’s underneath, word play well-suited to a venue situated above the remains of a subterranean Roman temple and equally relevant to the Chilean artist’s core interest in the archaeology of memory and time. Then there is the metaphorical sense, which suggests the impossibility of fully mastering a complex subject. The implied humility chimes with Casasempere’s approach to our fragile environment—we might all do our part, but those efforts are only scratching the surface of the problem if politicians and scientists fail to join forces in action.
Casasempere’s work invariably touches on environmental themes while exploring the interconnectedness of past and present. In 2005, he created a 21-foot-long installation, Back to the Earth, for the New Art Centre in England, which consisted of ceramic components protruding from the ground like giant ribs or a mass of bones; in 2014, he filled the courtyard of London’s Somerset House with a carpet of 10,000 handmade ceramic flowers for Out of Sync, which now permanently resides in the Atacama Desert.
Chile has exerted a profound influence on his practice. The wealth of pre-Columbian artifacts, as well as the spectacular beauty of Northern Chile, a volcanic landscape in continual flux, inspired his deep fascination with clay and geology. When he moved to London in 1997, he brought along 12 tons of Chilean clay, including mixtures that he created by experimenting with industrial mining waste.
Scratching the Surface presents a range of ceramic objects that suggest mineral or natural matter from ages past. The space is dominated by two conveyor belts that bear hefty ceramic chunks resembling petrified wood or rock coerced into geometric blocks. Seen up close, their sides reveal dark, charred-looking recesses and curving patterns or strata, as if compression or some other force had caused them to buckle, like tectonic plates in perpetual collision. In response, the upper surfaces undulate unevenly, molded into hills and declivities by the seething activity below.
Abstracted ceramic forms covering one corner of the floor give the impression of rock formations or bones flattened and eroded by time and the elements. Against the walls, massive ceramic boulders suspended from wire cables reveal the artist’s hand marks and gouges, recalling our forebears’ earliest compulsion to create. Touching these works, two of which are tinted a bluish mineral color in contrast to the installation’s predominately warm earthy tones, is encouraged.
Scratching the Surface opens a dialogue with the site that invites meditation on different temporalities and the passage of time. In addition to the temple to Mithras underfoot, a vitrine adjacent to Casasempere’s work displays Roman artifacts, from shoes and jewelry to crockery, excavated from the surrounding area. Viewed together with Casasempere’s blocks, which seem to operate at the scale of geological time, these artifacts offer a reminder of human transience and the ease with which the earth will swallow our own civilization, its vestiges perhaps to be excavated in the future.
Casasempere is right: an installation can only scratch the surface by attempting to grapple with urgent issues. Artists can, nonetheless, plant seeds in viewers’ minds. The juxtaposition of warm, tactile ceramic blocks with cold, polished conveyor belts conjuring assembly lines and globalized trade seems more than purely aesthetic—the implied message is that we need to slow down production chains and care for our environment before it is too late.