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'TINNITUS' by Nicola Genovese at Material, Zurich

What defines something as grotesque? Etymologically, the word comes from the Italian
grottesca, which literally translates as “coming from the cave”. Indeed, grotto in Italian means “cave” —the basement, the negative space, a space of withdrawal. In Roman mythology, the sirenas dwelled in the grottos of Naples both inland und underwater, longing for their next victim. Seductive and dangerous creatures, they are bonded to the underworld. As many other mythological figures, they are monsters. Not heroic nor conforming, but negative, oppositional, grotesque. 

The underworld and the realm of the dead are close to the terminology of the grotesque and the semantics of the monstrous. In medieval arts and literature, the ‘deviants’, queer or marginal characters were often portrayed as fantastical or nightmarish beasts to emphasise their oddity and alienation from normative values. Often forced to live in the outskirts of society - in forests, oceans, caves -, monsters were feared for their multiple selves, for their hybrid and transformative bodies, as well as for their antagonistic minds, which defied the hegemony.

It’s these multiple selves that Nicola Genovese’s new series of works brings to the forefront. Researching on the topics of queerness, masculinity and gender roles is not new to Genovese. But rather than focusing on the othering, he explores the notions of juxtaposition and fragments, not only in regard to pieces and bodies but also to narratives. His fragments are set in scena to perform against normativity and linearity, with an attempt to go beyond ‘queerness’. Genovese uses craft techniques such as ceramics, textiles, and decorative patterns as opposed to minimal, conceptual, male-dominated art forms. He also challenges—or purposely reinforces—gender
stereotypes in blending dichotomies such as soft and hard; textiles and sharp metals;
penetrating versus penetrated materials; coupling, rejecting, and encapsulating. Investigating the limits of the biological body in favour of fragmented selves, Genovese dives into the underworld to find an essentially alternative visual language and mythologisation.

Rightly so, in MATERIAL, Genovese digs six feet under. With the work “Tinnitus”, there’s an interplay between a hard metal structure and a soft pillow. The soft pieces could be interpreted as bones rising from the grave. Decorative symbols emerge from the frame, such as heeled-shoes, suggestive faces, body parts. Like relics, these elements are reminiscent of the dead, fostering the belief of there being life after death.
A similar leg is found in “The Minstrel, the King and I” —a work in which Genovese continues his series of mutilated characters. The title refers to the minstrel as the medieval performer and entertainer of the sophisticated classes in Middle-Ages Europe, who sings songs from imaginary tales. A big shoe (a recurrent symbol in Genovese’s work), a leg, a suspended piece and a hand with a watch that doesn’t show time, which subtly reminds us of the anachronic nature of the artist’s work. The King, then, becomes the figure of constant authority and the ‘I’, the introspected ‘eye’, always present (see the little coined face inscribed at the back of the metal piece - is it you or me or she or him?).
In the show, decorative elements appear in every shape and form. In fact, the term grotesque also alludes to a specific decorative style rediscovered in the Renaissance in Rome, in rooms buried underground named grottesche (likely repository rooms for the dead). They were filled with friezes of motifs, animals and plants of all sorts. Cues of this dense decorative pattern are visible in “Dismembered by a caress”. The seven ceramic tiles subsequently collide to create a narrative that uncovers a mythical snake or dragon – perhaps illustrating the ultimate archaic fear, the phallic archetype and symbol of monstrosity, which is being played out and torn away by invisible hands (is it you or me or she or him?).

On the other side of the room, the work “Backlash” shows a bar wrapped in fine leather with two opposing panels. Genovese triumphantly tricks viewers by exhibiting a symbol of traditional masculinity: a trophy weapon that looks more like a pizza-baking tool than anything heroic. Made of sea balls material, the two extremities (a witty cloudy face and an animal paw) only seem to reinforce the irony of the piece. In Genovese’s own words, “masculinity backlash is the attempt to re-embody tradition with all the good and bad consequences”.

Circling back to the exhibition’s title, Tinnitus evokes the pathological ringing and repetitive noise stuck in our ear. A demonic chanting. A chant that brings an undissolved state of consciousness to the surface. As a whirlwind creative narrator, Nicola Genovese reminds us to stay connected. Connected to the ground—in our shoes—and to what lies beneath us. The tinnitus stays with us. Both divine and grotesque, the monsters unequivocally remain with and within us.

— Camille Regli

23.9.22 — 29.9.22



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