STIRring Dreams: Arcangelo Sassolino on ‘Diplomazija Astuta’ at Venice Art Biennale

Sculptor and installation artist Arcangelo Sassolino talks to STIR about his monumental artwork at the Malta Pavilion that involves molten steel, inspired by a Caravaggio masterpiece.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Jun 27, 2022

Arcangelo Sassolino was born in Vicenza, a city in north eastern Italy, where the artist continues to live and work. However, his work has been carried across the globe at venues including Grand Palais (France), Tinguely Museum (Switzerland), Palais de Tokyo (France), Swiss Institute (USA) and several others. The artist explores formats like sculpture and installation, with a driving interest in mechanical behaviours contextualised in both industrial and environmental phenomena. His work brings together art and physics, initiating investigation into the spaces of overlap between the two. While Sassolino’s practice leans on research and conceptual design, it manifests in large constructions with a heavy-handed focus on its materiality. The artist represents Malta at the Venice Art Biennale (VAB) with Diplomazija Astuta (2022), a work that re-imagines The Beheading of San Giovanni Battista (1608), Caravaggio’s paramount masterpiece. He speaks to us about his process, practice and presentation at VAB 2022.

Diplomazija Astuta (2022) at the Malta Pavilion at Venice Art Biennale Video: Courtesy of STIR

The installation on view at the biennale is a spectacular sight to witness, if nothing else. The artwork stands as tall as the ceiling, dramatically dropping thick threads of molten steel into cold water. The steel is melted in real-time, using induction technology to create an extreme temperature of 1500 degrees Celsius. The kinetic work melts over one hundred and eighty kilograms of steel every day. The melted metal is then collected in seven separate pools of water, after which it is removed on a daily basis and returned to a steel factory nearby which originally produced the steel coil for the installation. The artist shares with us what Caravaggio’s 17th century masterpiece inspired in him saying, “What moved me was Caravaggio's obsession with reality. The Beheading depicts the moment in which St. John has been decapitated and in which the killer is putting away his dagger. The fleeting passage of light that is seen in the Pavilion when the molten steel drops fall, this in between a moment of darkness and another moment of darkness seemed to me pertinent to Caravaggio's need to get in touch with reality. I believe that this obsession with adherence to reality is fundamental for artists of all ages.”

Diplomazija Astuta, 2022, molten steel and metal armature | Venice Art Biennale | Arcangelo Sassolino | STIRworld
Diplomazija Astuta, 2022, molten steel and metal armature Image: Massimo Penzo; Courtesy of Arcangelo Sassolino

Although the installation is deeply considered, and has been adapted from a Baroque painting into a contemporary, minimalist artwork with fascinating ease, Sassolino had his reservations in relation to environmental impact. He says that melting steel is no joke, and nearly two hundred kilos every day for months would certainly demand significant exploitation of our natural resources at a time when climate crisis is imminent. Is it really worth it, he wondered? When he brought this up with the artist, he explained to Sassolino that his studio had taken several measures to ensure the carbon emissions were countered. Sassolino says, “The steel is melted through induction at 1500 degrees Celsius by seven machines (as many as the pools) that have been specially designed and built for this installation. This incredible technology allows steel to be melted in almost real time. Diplomazija Astuta has been certified as Carbon Neutral Art Installation. It applies a voluntary international standard (ISO 14067: 2018*), certifies the equivalent CO2 emissions produced during its construction and preparation through the verification of a third-party body, and then offsets these emissions through a forest protection project. With the team, we have identified several ways to prevent the emission of greenhouse gasses. These practices include the use of energy deriving from entirely renewable sources during the Venice Biennale’s seven months and the complete recovery of the steel, which will be melted and then totally recycled in a nearby production circuit.”

Water basins to collect molten steel threads | Venice Art Biennale | Arcangelo Sassolino | STIRworld
Water basins to collect molten steel threads Image: Agostino Osio; Courtesy of Arcangelo Sassolino

Although the impact of the immense artwork is almost certainly not hundred per cent carbon neutral, it does make the effort to minimise its impact - a critical step when creating art of such massive scale. The artist discusses what motivates his practice. He says, “I believe that by applying physics (speed, pressure, gravity and, in the case of the Malta Pavilion, heat) to materials there is a new possibility for sculpture, since you can liberate it from the form, from its static dimension. I subject materials to a series of actions in order to bring them to their extreme limits, with the intention of revealing in their breakpoint and strain a potential intrinsic to them. Stones, glass, steel plates, wooden beams: everything holds, in its extreme limit, a sound, a light, sometimes a scent, in any case, always a possibility. Going through different states of the material, I produce moments of suspension, conditions of danger and instability, and dynamics that are necessarily open to the possibility of failure. Contingencies that seem to me unavoidable conditions of any existence.”

The artist’s draw towards deep engagement with material is reflected in the installation on view. The large scale installation has a powerful yang (or masculine) energy, with its large armature, dark colour and dynamic state. The very fact that it uses hot, molten steel lends a larger-than-life feeling, keeping the viewer alert to the almost dangerous elements of the installation.

Diplomazija Astuta at the Venice Art Biennale 2022 | Venice Art Biennale | Arcangelo Sassolino | STIRworld
Diplomazija Astuta at the Venice Art Biennale 2022 Image: Massimo Penzo; Courtesy of Arcangelo Sassolino

Sassolino explains the process of conceptualising Diplomazija Astuta, and what his intentions were during the process. “What I try to capture is the instant of change of state, the moment when something is becoming something else, the energy is transformed into a bright light and becomes a moment of absolute instability that is at the origin of those moments of equilibrium that are the before and after. That is why I decided to work on metal and its transformation. The idea that moved me is to free metal from that closed form, to bring its liquid, impalpable, luminous origin to exposure. This is a work about continuous loss, about the impossibility of holding back, about the inexorable and unstoppable flow of everything and events. But it’s also about the fact that being is only revealed in vanishing, that light is an evanescent interval of darkness,” he says. The only sounds accompanying the installation is the sizzle and hiss of hot steel cooling rapidly in water, and a Gregorian hymn which dictates the timing and frequency of the steel dropping into the water.

Installation view at the Malta Pavilion | Venice Art Biennale | Arcangelo Sassolino | STIRworld
Installation view at the Malta Pavilion Image: Agostino Osio; Courtesy of Arcangelo Sassolino

The visual artist shares how his work fits into the biennale’s theme Milk Of Dreams saying, “I believe that art is always a means of raising questions about who we are as beings. In this sense, beyond the specific theme of this year's curator, all the artists - I have seen - converge in this idea of questioning our existence from multiple different points of view. It is wonderful for me to be part of this community of different languages, cultures and visions that converge in the curator's project.”

The Malta Pavilion is curated by Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip. It will be on view until the closing of the VAB in November, 2022.

A portrait of the artist | Venice Art Biennale | Arcangelo Sassolino | STIRworld
Artist Arcangelo Sassolino Image: Massimo Penzo; Courtesy of Arcangelo Sassolino
Arcangelo Sassolino’s work at the Venice Art Biennale 2022 Video: Courtesy of STIR

The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice. 

Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.

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