Daniela De Lorenzo’s exhibition at La Nuova Pesa
and possible happiness. Daniela Lancioni

The route through Daniela De Lorenzo’s exhibition at La Nuova Pesa begins with the video Aiutanti (Helpers). At first deceptive, the work only gradually reveals its true image, related to the ancient story of the cave (Plato, The Republic), in other words to the eternal ambiguity between the object and its shadow. The same shadow, it should be remembered, that the psychoanalytical culture of the twentieth century redeemed by making it the guardian of precious secrets. The video begins with two hands that join together at intervals. The rhythm of the sequence is accelerated, and we are initially astonished by the precision with which the fingers, despite moving so quickly, always fit together perfectly. Only after a while do we notice the material substance that fills the background of the screen and ascribe it to the plaster on a wall. At that point we associate the sound of the video, previously indecipherable because it was drowned by the noise of the projector, to the gesture of the hand as it brushes the wall, and the enigma of the double is finally solved in the perception of a hand and its shadow (we learn from the artist that the blurred effect – the trail that the hand leaves as it moves – and the transparency effect were achieved by shooting with very little light, and that the camera followed her gloved hand).
At the next station of the exhibition, too, the visitor is enveloped bya slight penumbra and another video, D’altro canto (On the Other Hand) is projected on the back wall. It is a collage of different frames, in black and white, each showing the detail of the face, the neck and the shoulders of a woman. At intervals a hand appears, brushing against the mouth or covering the eyes. Each shot fades slowly into the next. Sometimes traces of a previous frame merge with the image of the following shot, causing a slight deformation, disfiguring the face (almost the citation of a proto-cubist painting, reminiscent, perhaps, of Picasso’s famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon). A specular logic also dominates the work. At the beginning there is a white screen, from which the image of the face gradually emerges. The video ends with the gradual annulment of the contrasts as another image, this time the back of the neck, fades into the same white screen as the beginning. The artist never gives us an overall view of the woman’s bust, but explores its details from unusual viewpoints, from close-up, from below, almost entering the dark holes of the nostrils and the wide-open mouth. The soundtrack is taken from Victor Fleming’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941): Doctor Jekyll, played by Spencer Tracy, is whistling as he walks, perhaps thinking of happy memories, until the tune suddenly changes as Mr. Hyde takes over. The idea of the whistle, the artist reveals, comes from Kafka’s short story Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk, where the meaning of art for the people is conveyed perfectly by Josephine’s faint whistling, which contains “a bit of our poor childhood, a bit of our lost and unfindable happiness, but (...) also a bit of our active daily life”.

In the room in which D’altro canto is projected, resting on a rectangle of red felt placed on the floor, is Pantomima (Pantomime), a sculpture made in 2009 from the same red felt as the cloth on which it rests. Daniela De Lorenzo, as we know, has been using felt (always of the same 3-millimetre thickness) since the early 1990s. An ancient material, she explains, whose technique of production by pressing predates weaving. For Pantomima, as for all her most recent sculptures, she uses a type of felt produced by a German firm, from whose colour samples she always chooses the same dark red, somewhere between crimson and scarlet: the colour of the liver, as the artist points out. A red similar to that of living flesh, of blood-soaked tissues. The sculpture Pantomima is also a piece of anatomy, created, in fact, by the stratification of bones, muscles, veins and skin that forms the portion of a shoulder blade or a neck, together with the arm, the forearm and the hand of a human being. However, the position of the arm and the neck does not reproduce the resting posture generally used in anatomy illustrations, but suggests a torsion of the body, a straining posture. From a technical point of view, the artist has produced the work from a mould created by pressing the wet felt against her body, filling the hollow surface with variously shaped layers of felt, each corresponding to a muscle, a vein, a bone or a nerve, with an anatomy atlas to hand.

The layout of the rooms in the gallery means that the visitor has to retrace his steps to arrive at the next station of the exhibition. After crossing the entrance where the video Aiutanti is projected, we encounter two works, both Senza titolo (feltro) (Untitled, felt) of 2009: two reliefs in felt, in the same crimson-scarlet red as Pantomima, arranged on the wall. They have the rectangulartraditionally associated in painting with figure portraits, and both offer the partial view of a human body with its back towards us. Nude figures which at the two ends, the top and the bottom, gradually emerge from the background surface or gradually sink into it (the same dynamics, expressed with different means, seen in D’altro canto). The two bodies are the same size (human scale, as always in the work of Daniela De Lorenzo), but one has more accentuated muscles. The more feminine figure is represented from the head to the pelvis, and twists slightly towards the right. In the more masculine figure, the arms are raised and the head is not visible, pushed into the surface by the sterno-thyroid and sterno-hyoid muscles. The two works were produced by assembling on a flat felt surface the mass of bones, muscles, arteries and nerves, this, too, reconstructed piece by piece out of felt. As in Pantomima, it is the result of long and painstaking work, carried out with the help of an anatomy atlas. Unlike Pantomima, however, the body in these reliefs has its skin, made by pressing another sheet of felt, the same size as the sheet that forms the background, onto the anatomical mass. What we see is the fruit of a mould, therefore, whose matrix, hidden from our eyes and pressed between the two sheets of felt, is not the human body, buts its reproduction, a sort of puzzle, a segmented whole, to which the skin-felt of the surface gives the visual impression of the unitary form of the body.

The last room of the exhibition, too, is characterized by a slight penumbra, broken only by the lights pointed at the two works on display. This lighting project aims, it seems to me, to make perception ambiguous, causing us to mistake the sculpture placed at the entrance of the room for a human figure. It is a bust on two legs of red felt. Hung from the ceiling, the sculpture can oscillate slightly or turn if something moves the air around it. The artist produced it by taking a mould of her body, pressing the wet felt (and thus reproducing the action that characterizes the process by which the material is obtained from animal wools) and correcting its form with a few stitches. The title, Cura la tua destra (Keep Your Right Up), as sometimes happens in the works of Daniela De Lorenzo, suggests a literary reference (perhaps chosen by the artist after the completion of the work), in this case Jean-Luc Godard’s film of the same name, Soigne ta droite (1987), which in turn is a reference to Jacques Tati’s short film Soigne ton gauche (1938). Both films feature a fool. The other sculpture present in the last station of the exhibition is A parte (Apart), 2008: on a felt-covered structure that gives a summary impression of a chair, the simulacrum of a human body, similar to the one that forms the work Cura la tua destra, crouches in an unnatural, upside-down posture. To describe the movement the artist refers to a game played by children, a sort of competition to keep their whole body on the surface of the chair. Both these works have already been presented in other contexts, often associated with different works inspired by the phenomenon of hysteria (sculptures and videos reminiscent of the iconography of the Salpétrière, the female asylum in Paris that became the theatre of Jean-Martin Charcot’s famous studies at the dawn of modern neurology). Hysteria is the pathological psychic state which is expressed through phenomena and symptoms that regard the body and which makes the patient capable of auto-suggestion (Joseph Babinski’s definition confirmsthe link between this pathology and the mould technique favoured by Daniela De Lorenzo). According to Freud’s first interpretation, the symptoms of hysteria are an expression of repressed psychic desires and aspirations that find an outlet by turning into somatic phenomena. For Christopher Bollas unrequited love is the path chosen by the hysteric, who sees self-affliction as the only way to move the object of her love. It is also well known that hysteria can prove to be a subconscious form of rebellion expressed by those who suffer most from the violence of inhibition and, in this sense, has historically been associated mainly with female behaviour.

The culture of the second half of the twentieth century, to which the work of Daniela De Lorenzo belongs (her first exhibition dates back to 1985) was dominated by two contrasting attitudes. To simplify, on one hand there was Minimalism with its inflexible reduction to essential forms and physical phenomena, on the other hand the compassionate assumption of fragments of experience (from New Dada to Arte Povera). Like other artists of her generation, whose date of birth set them outside the epicentre of these phenomena, Daniela De Lorenzo has helped to open up an alternative path. In her works the image does not emerge with precision. It does not have clear outlines (the blurred effect achieved by different means in the videos and the reliefs), despite the fact that they “represent” the human body, it does not have immediately recognizable features (there are distortions, overlapping, and unnatural postures, as we have seen), it offers itself to our view or takes its place in the surrounding space bringing with it a dose of ambiguity (at times deceptive, as in the case of Aiutanti, often offering a perception swinging between opposing elements: the object and its shadow, the relief and the completely flat, male and female, living presence and simulacrum). The ambivalent character of her works allows us to interpret them as an invitation to contemplate both sides of everything, the principle of reversibility, the transmigration from presence to absence (death) and the specular phenomenon of appearance (birth), to cultivate the awareness of an invisible zone (the cave or the shadow) that leaves its mark on the visible zone (the surface or the skin) according to the lay parameters of psychoanalysis or Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s metaphysics. Her works appear to the world with discretion. But their discretion does not involve the practice of subtraction. It is obtained through an active process of staging (with the relative deployment of techniques). And it is first of all due to the craftsmanlike manner with which Daniela De Lorenzo restores physical presence to the work and material substance to the figure that her work differs from that of other artists who have contemplated the coexistence of different states and conditions or of those who have assumed a mimetic strategy towards the world. I am thinking in particular of the patient manual work with which she reconstructs the insides of bodies or of the use of the primordial technique of the mould with which she verifies reality. Even more, however, her work is distinguished by the human character that infuses her operations, which do not have pairs of universal values (birth and death, inside and outside, good and evil) as their only reference. Her works also dealwith the particular (as can be seen in her predilection for the detail) and can be read as the expression of the individualistic society in which we live. I am referring to the positive aspects of this society, those which have led to a growth in individual responsibilities and the respect of the individual (leading in the field of medicine, for example, to the development of the principle of targeted treatment, based on the symptoms of the individual patient). The works of Daniela De Lorenzo, at least those shown in this exhibition, seem to assume the weight of the wounds, the unhappiness and the suffering that can strike human beings (that strike all human beings in the presence of death, so that an individual problem is also universal). In the face of these wounds, the artist recomposes the figure (actually reconstituting its limbs), halts its spasm by moulding onto it a protective material (the felt – a material often used by Beuys – in the colour of the liver, the reparatory organ whose job is to filter impurities and eliminate them from the body), celebrates the rite of healing as an exchange with the Other by putting together works reminiscent of ex votos (as recently explored by Georges Didi- Huberman), and above all assures the survival of the figure with the creation of its simulacrum (she arrests the flux of time in the fixedness of the mould, performing the original and always relevant gesture that gives the work the status of art). Through slow and meditated technical processes, in her works distortion or hysterical contortion, courageously observed, are represented in a way that gives them dignity, without turning to the categories of social denunciation or provocation. Images that rise into the sphere of art (slightly above the sphere of everyday life, but still within the range of the eye, or of the ear like Josephine’s whistle in Kafka’s story), perhaps conceived in the wake of the vitality of the negative (Hegel) and of the wound that opens up communication between living beings (Bataille), but ultimately, perhaps, always in the direction of a cure, of a possible happiness.

Daniela De Lorenzo’s exhibition at La Nuova Pesa and possible happiness
Daniela Lancioni