The First Humans - Pump House, Battersea

The First Humans, a six artist show, at Battersea’s Pump House Gallery is premised on the idea of temporal collapse, on the simultaneity between past, present and future. The influence of history, we are told, is clearly discernible in the methods of artists working today: ‘In the past few years,’ writes the exhibition’s curator, Angela Kingston, ‘quite a number of artists…have been making prehistoric-looking objects and primeval-looking landscapes. Why this tendency?’ Certainly, this concern with examining the past is observable in a series of recent shows: for example, History Is Now at the Hayward Gallery (10 Feb – 26 April 2015), in which seven artists have been invited to re-examine Britain’s cultural history; and the Barbican’s Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector (12 Feb – 25 May 2015), in which there is a palpable sense of historical narrative in the collections of post-war and contemporary artists. Artists seem intent on exploring the characterisation of history as narrative, on identifying its discontinuations and overlaps, and on exploring the entanglement of present, past, and future.

Salvatore Arancio is such an artist. He has long been fascinated by the natural sciences, which, since the 1600s, have sought to describe and quantify nature, as well as the correlative dissemination of encyclopaedic treatises that attempted to categorise and systemise knowledge: ‘These volumes represent a synthesis of scientific knowledge, popular culture, and myth,’ he tells me. ‘What interests me is that there is this attempt to rationalise things, but the source material is kind of messed up.’ Arancio’s projects always start with a period of intense research: the artist pores over etchings that depict natural phenomena, in which fissures and craters are reduced to incised lines and areas of tone, seeking to find some thread, some motif with which to run. Alternatively, he focuses his research on the gallery site in a bid to unearth an event, or story. ‘If I’m lucky,’ he acknowledges, ‘I’ll stumble on a popular myth, or an historical artefact that sparks off a thought.’ Arancio’s method is informed by geomythology, a science in which geological phenomena are examined through popular mythology. He cites Dorothy Vitaliano’s Legends of the Earth (1973), in which geologic folklore is taken at face value, as having impacted on him: ‘This book was very influential; it introduced me to mythical narratives, geological sites, and crucially, a wealth of ideas to research.’ Yet, these imaginative narratives presuppose human existence—these are stories transmitted over generations—and it is this intervention between man and nature that really galvanises him. Somewhere in between rationalised thought and folklore lies his inspiration.

Within the second-floor space at the Pump House is a collection of Arancio’s gestural sculptures, and on the walls are several photo etchings, which inscribe the landscape within the constraints of the frame. An Active Volcanic Summit in The Valley of Stones(2011) presents a landscape littered with stone fragments, yet there is something hyperreal, rather than naturalistic about this terrain. Stones pile high, balancing effortlessly despite their weight; in the background a volcano puffs and smoulders, yet grassy slopes surround it. The Valley of Stones is, in fact, a known quarry where stones are haphazardly arranged so the question remains whether this site is geological, or man-made. Arancio exploits this ambiguity in his photo etching, through a careful process of re-mediation. Sourcing his images from the scientific encyclopaedia cited earlier, he scans these into his computer, and digitally alters them in Photoshop. Here Arancio explains, ‘The images contain a lot of things that I see as distractions,’ revealing, ‘I systematically remove those elements, and then rebuild the image through a process of collage, creating my own landscape.’ In this, Arancio acts out his own myth of creation and his incisions, cuts and pastes are an attempt to re-create, as well as embody, the pseudo-scientific renderings of his eighteenth-century forebears. Notably, the Enlightenment’s impulse to record implicitly involved a degree of narrative, with professional engravers charged with the task of rendering complex things intelligible; we can think of Diderot and D’Alembert’s eighteenth-century Encyclopédie as an example. It is this selfsame slippage and flickering between fact and fiction that is Arancio’s starting point, ‘Sometimes it’s a question of altering what’s in the image, or adding something that completely changes the narrative’. Arancio, it seems to me, is the present-day Enlightenment artist.

On the floor sits a collapsed dung-stone-like structure, with a metallic glaze that glints in the light, suggesting alchemical processes. Solid, uncompromising and strangely mesmeric, it takes its place among a number of hand-sized sculptures, twisted and manipulated into stalagmitic forms. One mysterious organic form seems to ‘grow’ in a corner beneath the ceiling, and on a plinth sits a crystallised form filled with a pool of dark resin. Arancio describes how these sculptures are coiled from clay, a relatively new material for the artist, and one that strongly deviates from the flatness of the computer screen. ‘The reason why I’ve been using clay is, basically, to get away from pressing buttons all the time: I wanted to have a connection with materials,’ states Arancio. Yet, I would venture that this engagement has a much more implicit logic. Clay is one of the foremost materials for artists; it is sourced directly from the landscape, and has been worked on and shaped for centuries. However, it is also a stubborn material: once fired it transforms into durable ceramic. Arancio’s choice of clay, therefore, links the works in the exhibition materially: it operates dialectically between past, present, and future. It is clay that takes shape in his quasi-rock forms, yet it is also clay that is the bedrock of his etched landscapes. 

The most curious sculpture, however, is positioned on a ledge by the entrance. Holes (2015) is an objet trouvé: a bundle of encrusted barnacles that the artist found in a flea market in southern France. There is a sense of continuity etched into their rough, pink calcite shells; barnacles ‘swamp’ together, attaching themselves to surfaces, and holding fast. Yet, the barnacles’ dogged resolve has been exaggerated and camped up for this exhibition: in place of their soft, fleshy insides are pools of resin, and a rather rude finger of Milliput (or, modelling putty) protrudes out of one of the openings. ‘I wanted to create a subtle reference to altered perceptions and psychedelia,’ giggles Arancio. ‘I made this by coincidence: I was just playing with the Milliput, but then I realised that barnacles do actually have this sort of protrusion; it’s how they mate.’ In a sense, Arancio’s barnacles have been re-born; they have endured the long journey from the seabed to the exhibition space, and their raw sexuality is here on display. To my mind, it is an explicit gesture towards the circularity of history.

Throughout the exhibition, Arancio demonstrates a profound sensitivity to materials — the durability of clay, the immediacy of Milliput, and the steadfastness of barnacles—and it is this consideration that earns him his place here. Time is deeply embedded in the structure of these materials. Clay connects us to prehistory, whereas Milliput situates us firmly in the present (or, post-1970s to be precise). It is these subtle allusions that Arancio seizes on in his practice: how materials have been, and are used to re-present and manifest ideas, from the eighteenth-century etchings of the landscape to the aesthetics of ritual objects and the contemporaneity of psychedelic glazes. However, Arancio is also attuned to the idea that the artist (or, indeed, an object) has a relationship with the present, the past and the future simultaneously. Perhaps, this sensibility stems from his training as a photographer, in the recognition that the act of recording an event is both immediate andmediated.

So, is Arancio’s work about disentangling fact from fiction? ‘Yes, most of my work plays with this ambiguity. I like the fact that, with the photo etchings for example, I am able to create something that looks old using digital technology. I find that kind of hybridisation interesting, because it encourages the viewer to question what’s in front of them. That’s the exciting bit.’ And this technique is not too dissimilar to the scientific method, where ideas are synthesised, re-worked, or falsified. The artist’s confessed fascination with pseudo-scientific treatises is reflected in his own exploratory, and, at times, fanciful sculptures. Arancio works with meticulous attention to detail, and this visual and intellectual acuity is self-evident. He is the artist as scientist.

The First Humans is an exhibition with remarkable scope. Other notable works include Andy Harper’s quasi-primitive The Threefold Law (2012, main image) an acid-coloured hanging piece that conjures up notions of cause and effect in its exacting Rorschach-like symmetry. Also Caroline Achaintre’s large textile piece, Zibra (2011), which resembles the bold markings of zebra hide, yet tumbles into puddles of yarn on the floor. Is this just another flawed attempt to impersonate nature? Jack Strange’s That Thing Inside The Thing Outside of The Thing Inside of This Thing (2015) is similarly error-prone; the GoPro cameras embedded in his giant-boulder-form repeatedly glitch during the exhibition. Although this was not the artist’s intention, I can’t help but warm to it. Rather than advance inexorably towards a seamless digital future, we are here, stuck in the fallible present.

‘Time is decidedly porous,’ writes theorist, Rebecca Schneider, in Theatre & History (2014), ‘pockmarked with other times.’ Arancio exploits this porosity, and fills its holes with resin.

Main image: Andy Harper, The Threefold Law (seen from below), 2015, oil paint & plywood, 208×120×3cm. (photo: Eoin Carey, courtesy of Pump House Gallery)

The First Humans, a touring exhibition curated by Angela Kingston, funded by Arts Council, England.
Pump House Gallery, Battersea Park, London, 22 January – 29 March 2015
Plymouth Arts Centre late 2015
Crate/Limbo & Turner Contemporary, Margate 2016

Aurora Corio