By Agnieszka Gratza
The accidental title of Roberto Cuoghi’s midcareer retrospective, which the press release attributes to “the erroneous effects of an auto-correct program,” invites various possible readings. A reclusive and enigmatic figure who has been known to shun the art establishment, the Italian artist cultivates a hermit-like persona. The titular “pollina,” suggestive of chicken manure, put this critic in mind of Aesop’s fable about a rooster who finds a jewel in a dung heap only to cast it aside, since in his eyes the gem is no substitute for plain corn. It has certain affinities with the playful name Cuoghi adopted in one of his earliest self-portrait series, Il Coccodeista (1997), a made-up word that conjures the cackle of a hen. In an interview quoted by the show’s curator, Andrea Bellini, in the opening essay of the lavishly illustrated monograph accompanying PERLA POLLINA, Cuoghi suggests that “pearls are an illness of the seashell.” Not unlike the tumor-generating cancer—a diseased outgrowth and error in the order of nature—pearls are excessive in every way, and yet we set great store by them.
It would be fitting, for an amateur of the fugue such as Cuoghi, that his retrospective should take the form of three iterations of growing complexity. Whether this will happen remains to be seen. Of the three exhibitions, all curated by Bellini—starting with his home institution, the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, and traveling to MADRE, Naples, and then on to Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, over the course of a year—only two have taken place to date.
If these are anything to go by, there is a conscious effort on the curator’s part to vary the presentation of the selected works that goes beyond the constraints created by the exhibition spaces. By and large the same individual works and bodies of work, showing Cuoghi’s artistic evolution in the last two decades, feature in both shows, from the early self-portraits for which the artist subjected himself to all manner of grueling (and much-discussed) experiments to the ceramic crabs in the 2016 Putiferio series and the kilns in which they were fired. If anything, the inaugural show at the Centre d’Art Contemporain is the more complete of the two when it comes to the number of works on display. Moreover, the sound installations documenting Mbube (2005), Mei Gui (2006), and Šuillakku (2008) (which, admittedly, were not the most successful part of the Geneva show, as the headphone presentation failed to do justice to the complexity of these choral works) are not shown at MADRE. Instead, a seminar focusing on this aspect of Cuoghi’s oeuvre will take place during the exhibition.
Cuoghi tends to work in cycles and series, obsessively exploring a given technique or method that requires him to master a set of skills, until his interest is exhausted and he moves on to the next thing. Works belonging to each series were grouped together in Geneva in a roughly chronological fashion on the third floor (where most of the drawings, diary works, maps, and some of sculptural pieces were displayed,) resulting in a more coherent show. Those same works were deliberately mixed and matched on the corresponding (second) floor at MADRE, in a way that brought to light possible connections between discrete cycles and suggested new readings of individual works.
Take for instance Megas Dakis (2007), an astonishingly lifelike profile portrait of the Greek collector Dakis Joannou in the guise of a Roman emperor minted on a coin. The fleshy wax effigy, complete with human hair, morphs in places into strange hybrid creatures—doll and animal rolled into one. Unlike at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, where this was the centerpiece and focal point in a dedicated room, at MADRE the work was hung behind one of the Pazuzu sculptures, named after the demon of wind in Sumerian mythology, whose face in this instance bore Cuoghi’s likeness; rather than Joannou’s portrait, it took center stage. In Geneva, the work was shown alongside prints and wonderfully absurd reproductions of deep-fried surgical instruments that form part of Joannou’s collection; the fourteen works in question appeared mounted onto the wall in single file, spanning three communicating galleries in Naples, but taken out of context their overall impact felt somewhat diminished.
In lieu of the shrine to Joannou as a patron and collector, toward which the different rooms on the third floor of the Centre d’Art Contemporain built up, the eight smaller gallery spaces at MADRE strikingly featured a collector’s room. Minimally furnished with dark-wood period furniture, which served to display some of the artworks, it brought together a range of ceramic crabs, a layered map of the world, and prints of surgical instruments, hung salon style, beside the dark painted portrait of yet another maimed art aficionado, staring back at the viewer with his one intact eye. Staged in this way, familiar works by Cuoghi took on the aura of wonders produced by nature and art alike—the sorts of objects one would expect to find and marvel at in an eighteenth-century gentleman’s Wunderkammer, which incidentally is what Cuoghi’s own studio is like.