Massimo Bartolini explores sculpture in a field so expanded that he looks beyond form. An alternative point of view to the familiar is typical of his approach, and in the case of sculpture, that alternative is to make an object into an event, a stage where metamorphosis from one state to another is followed and expectations shifted. In Bartolini’s hands, the object not only exists, it transforms the observer’s preconceptions of time and space, of permanence and ephemerality.
Consequently, an encounter with the work of this Tuscan-born artist engages more senses than sight. In the case of his recent exhibition, “Hagoromo,” the experience was super-sized, the largest that Bartolini has created to date according to Centro Pecci. The show, whose title derives from Japanese Noh theater, was best approached as a continuous performance in complementary movements extending through 10 large rooms. Across several of these spaces, three distinct presences unfolded and interrelated simultaneously across several directions, in the manner of an information superhighway.
The first presence was a floor-to-ceiling scaffolding of verticals, horizontals, and bracing diagonals that coursed through seven galleries, turning corners to cross floorspaces and thresholds without interruption like an open-weave steel wall or elemental “pre-building” anticipating imminent construction. The second had no physical dimension, consisting instead of sound shaped into a repeated, layered, and separated composition. For this piece (In là, 2022), Bartolini collaborated with British minimalist musician Gavin Bryars, who learned his craft as an assistant to John Cage.
The third element gathered various examples of Bartolini’s output from the last 30 years to form a personal retrospective of ideas as well as objects. Scale and media varied constantly, from a large-scale cast and a furniture-like construction encircling a pool to wall drawings and mechanical toys, to tabletop objects—small, experimental pieces touchingly evocative of ideas taking physical shape in a laboratory or workshop. Some of these Studio Matters (1994–2002) were made by others and bear no overall authorial resemblance beyond their common expenditure of energy and imagination. Metaphors come easily when interpreting these works and Bartolini’s other sculptures, and like the objects themselves, they work off each other in the manner of weather systems. Sometimes calm and then momentarily clashy, the mental environment they project infiltrates as far as the viewer’s sense of self.
Elusive and prone to transformation, Bartolini’s objects appear shaped by natural forces rather than by hand. Meanwhile, Bryars’s music occupied background and foreground in the visitor’s progress, with notes floating into rooms from the space just left, then supplanted by new phrases emerging between pauses along the length of the scaffolding. Bartolini adapted the hollow metal poles into vast linear organ bars. From their variously open and stopped mouths came complex harmonics played by a similarly lo-fi barrel organ perched on the structure.
Work, walls, and music were orchestrated into subtle perceptual shifts of surroundings. With Bartolini, stasis is not an option; he conducts space, with his sculptures as instruments. The music seemed to alter direction with each room, as if thresholds represented different measures in the score. At one point along the scaffold’s itinerary, the fixed walls suddenly changed from white into abutting bold color—red, yellow, blue, turquoise, and so on around the room. To some synesthetes, single tones and chords isolated from their musical context stimulate specific colors. The organ pipes were tuned to a range of three octaves, from lowest C to B natural below middle C, perhaps corresponding with walls that might have been said to be singing. The combination opened a channel to possible meaning, but one by no means definitive—the totality of any piece was kept out of reach. Bryars’s composition never resolved into a complete orchestration: each room was allocated only its part in the score.
On the pathway through “Hagoromo,” evidence of change was commonplace but took unexpected shapes. A coin-counting machine, hoisted high on the wall, dropped small change on the floor with a clatter that occurred at measured time intervals. The English title, Untitled (And the Penny Drop) (1999–2022), imports the notion of “realization,” the moment when an abstract proposition is cognitively grasped. Elsewhere, a small, 19th-century wooden statuette from Myanmar of a seated Buddhist monk at prayer was mounted on a plinth. Having appropriated the figure to make Revolutionary Monk (2005, again titled in English), Bartolini placed it on a continually spinning turntable hidden within the plinth.
As happened throughout the show, the apparent simplicity of the monk’s appearance masked the conceptual intricacy of potential meanings. The visual effect was both trance-inducing, as if evoking the Buddha’s teaching on enlightenment through meditation, and playful, as notions of “revolution” collided. At the same time, the form’s mutation from a static, variegated silhouette to an indeterminate, continuous profile created through circular energy opened the imagination to the instability of matter and identity. The piece also recalls Renato Bertelli’s late Futurist sculpture, Profilo continuo del Duce (1933), a bust of Benito Mussolini. Thus, dimensions of thought shift around one idea, disturbingly bringing into play explosive comparisons between philosophies of peace and war.
The prospect of change extended to Bartolini’s offer of different starting points. A visit could commence at either end of the installation (although gallery publicity enumerated the rooms in only one sequence). Deviations from either approach area were also permitted within the flow of rooms. Since the pipe organ divided the space it traveled through, viewers could join one “lane” or the other; from there, the parallel route was visible but could not be entered except by first walking the structure’s entire length, after which a different perspective was available. Time was similarly rearranged: the objects were set out in achronological fashion, stimulating irregularities that began to feel as necessary as waymarkers on a journey through states of mind on the brink of consciousness.
Bartolini attempts to pin down the quicksilver moment of dawning awareness. As a consequence, any material is serviceable since everything contains the seed of natural phenomena. His handling resembles a scientist’s explorative touch as much as an artist’s. So, water revolves into a conical wave to observe peristaltic function, a mound of stones and dirt achieves unlikely permanence through casting in bronze, and the subtle texturing of a painted surface acquires the artificial dappling of dew. As sound fractured the space, the viewer was immersed in its tone and rhythms, captured by work that refers beyond itself.