Untitled, 2006–16. Steel and hydraulic system, dimensions variable. A mechanical grapple bucket, unhooked from its arm, attempts to grasp a concrete floor, but only succeeds in scratching and gouging it, and making it screech. In this impotent struggle, the movements of the mechanical organism become uncontrollable, and it takes on unexpected forms. N. MIGULETZ, © FRANKFURTER KUNSTVEREIN, COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GALLERIA CONTINUA

On the Edge of Being: A Conversation with Arcangelo Sassolino

The work you are about to encounter is like no other. Engineered for danger, Arcangelo Sassolino’s sculptural machines explore power relations and conflict by subjecting materials to extreme force. The realities of physics are employed to deliver action and transformation. Then comes fear. Sassolino’s sculptures are to be experienced and felt first hand. Your eyes will shutter, your ears will quake, and the floor will move.

These works reveal a new understanding of what sculpture has become. No longer does material have to be formed into a representation of something else; instead, pure materials, joined with physical force, can render an expression directly. Getting closer to an action can get you closer to the truth of a material, while making you face your capacity and limitations as a viewer—as someone who has feelings, as well as deep-seated fears and pleasures. Highly engineered and controlled (or not), Sassolino’s sculptures resonate long after you have seen them.

B., 2012. Steel, pneumatic system, and PLC, view of mechanical sculpture.
Photo: Federico Perezzani, Courtesy the artist

Joshua Reiman: How did you arrive at work of such intensity?
Arcangelo Sassolino: My work is situated at the intersection of physics and the natural world; I apply the properties of physics— including speed, gravity, pressure, and vibration—to natural materials in order to bring sculpture to life. I want to push the material past its physical limitations, allowing it to take on a new voice, a new form. It is a process of unbecoming and becoming—it is a new sculptural language, but also one that aligns itself with and pays homage to its Italian predecessors.

JR: When we are in a space with your work, we are confronted with danger, as well as with our own fears. As you conceptualize your work, how do you imagine this experience will be for viewers?
AS: Art is not about metaphor. Art is a way of being in the world. And my hope is that my work allows viewers to understand themselves and the world in a new light. If that means people are sometimes afraid, so be it. If it means they are rapt, even better. I think art is dangerous. Life is dangerous. Society is dangerous. Flying in an aircraft is very dangerous. There are a thousand little things that can go wrong. Great art keeps viewers on the edge of their own state of being.

Figurante, 2010. Steel, bone, and hydraulic system, dimensions variable.
Photo: Federico Perezzani and Fausto Caliari, Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua

JR: In Figurante (2010), a steel mouth slowly crushes a cow femur over a period of three hours. The machine materializes stress for viewers to watch. Is this about pleasure through pain?
AS: No. It is about bearing witness. In many ways, Figurante is my most literal sculpture to date. I wanted to see what type of pressure was necessary to crush a bone to the point of being liquefied. It reminds me of our collective Paleolithic past. I want viewers to understand the visceral ramifications of hearing bones break—it would be helpful if humanity were less jaded, less detached from real world events with real world consequences.

JR: Power as a force is quantifiable, but otherwise the word can be quite subjective and political. Foucault believed that power could not be exercised without the production of truth. What is “truth” to you in your work?
AS: Truth? There is no truth. I think our current global society frames that better than any one work of art. My truth is for the viewer to be present.

JR: Sound is an important presence in Continual Friction (2005), a concrete block moving on a concrete floor; Untitled (2006–16), a mechanical grapple bucket that tries to grasp a concrete floor but can only scratch and gouge it; and Untitled (2008–16), a hydraulic machine that splinters and snaps a thick wooden beam. How does sound operate as part of the content in your work?
AS: Sound is very important, but it is not something that I pursue at the onset. It is always a discovery. Every person and every thing has its own voice—our songs, or perhaps our screams, each have a unique tone or vocal signature.

Untitled, 2008–16. Steel, wood, and hydraulic system, dimensions variable. A thick wooden beam is held by two steel cables against a piston rod. The slow but implacable force of the hydraulic system overcomes the resistance of the wood, eventually destroying it.
Photo: Dario Lasagni, Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua

JR: Yes, but sound is present in every work.
AS: No one and no thing is that stoic.

JR: What was the most surprising outcome you have experienced in making your work?
AS: Vaporizing glass upon impact.

JR: What about Aphasia 2 in which you use nitrogen compressed to 250 atmospheres? This is a silent force embodied in a fairly benign form, but the contained danger is immense.
AS: Sometimes the work is very explicit. It can break or destroy materials. It can form or deform material in a split second. It can go from solid to dust. Sometimes force is in equilibrium. I like the word “conflict.” I like conflict between materials. Heraclitus said that conflict is the father of everything, in reference to war. In regard to Aphasia 2, I worked closely with a company in Vicenza that specializes in gas and oil extraction. I wanted to build a tank with the maximum pressure that could be sealed. It was a long discussion, and in the end, I created a form that contains enough pressure that, if it were to explode, it would raze the building that contains it.

D.P.U.F.A. (dilatazione pneumatica di una forza attiva), 2016. Steel, glass, polycarbonate, and nitrogen, dimensions variable. A glass bottle set inside a steel case protected by polycarbonate is connected by a tube to a nitrogen tank. The gas enters the glass bottle slowly; the pressure gradually builds up until the glass yields and the bottle suddenly explodes.
Photo: Dario Lasagni, Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua

JR: That is quite the opposite of B. (2012) in which a steel mouth moves randomly across a steel sheet. Danger and futility come to mind, but they are active and anthropomorphized.
AS: That machine is like the mouth of a turtle; it is a trap. It randomly snaps shut. And then, it opens again.

JR: It made me think of how animals evolve, but you make machines that are evolving. Do you see your work as an evolution?
AS: I am interested in the human condition. My work questions how we, both as a species and as an imaginary, evolve.

JR: What are you working on now?
AS: Speed. Vibration.

Aphasia 2, 2008. Steel and nitrogen at 250 atmospheres, 53 x 70 x 70 cm.
Photo: N. Miguletz, Courtesy the artist and Piero Fiorentini

JR: How do you convince galleries, museums, and audiences that your work will be safe to install and view?
AS: It is a serious aspect in my work, in any work really. You always want the work of art and the viewers to be and feel safe. I am also interested in bringing the potential for material conflict to an audience. In a public space, we have to deal with the law and safety. It depends on the courage of the curators. I have been fortunate to work with very courageous curators all over the world.

Joshua Reiman is an artist living in Portland, Maine, where he is an assistant professor in the MFA in studio art and chair of the sculpture program at the Maine College of Art.