Renato Nicolodi

NL Koele minnaar van de architectuur
Ivo Verheyen, 2014
NL De melancholie van het lege oord in het werk van Renato Nicolodi
Joannes Késenne, 2013
EN L'inquiétante étrangeté
Johanna Kint, 2009
NL L'inquiétante étrangeté
Johanna Kint, 2009
NL Als de reflectie van water in een waterput
Patrick Auwelaert, 2008
NL Een bevreemdende en beangstigende schoonheid
Dan Holsbeek, 2008
NL De Monumentaliteit der Herinnering
Dieter Ohler, 2007

L’ inquiétante étrangeté.

In 1999, Tacita Dean made a cinematic documentary on Sound Mirrors, that once were part of the defences installed on the English coast and that date from the 20s and 30s of the last century. At that time, the possibility of being attacked from the air was a very real danger for the national security of England. Sound Mirrors is the name given to gigantic auricles or acoustic warning systems, designed to detect signals from the enemy air force which, via an operator or 'listener’, would then be recorded onto vinyl carriers in a sound room set up under the construction. However, the success of radar experiments meant that around 1936 the Royal Air Force (RAF) lost whatever interest they might have had in these mirrors. The concrete structures fell out of favour. Nowadays, they have deteriorated into motionless obstacles. Surrounded as they are by coastal waters they are in danger of sinking into an entropic landscape that slowly but surely will become just a memory of a long ago historical past. 

The monolithic structures from Dean’s Sound Mirrors call to mind irrefutable  associations with Renato Nicolodi’s spatial installations. Time and space solidified in the motionless mass of concrete. Not a trace of human presence, or maybe indirectly, as a soundtrack with accidental sounds in the background. As if the human hand was never involved. In black and white images, slowly slipping by, Tacita Dean records these  architectonic relics as witnesses of an ideology that is no longer ours. They are anacronistic and unreal signs from a period in which the constant development of science and technology was a guarantee of the ultimate motive of society and art.

Renato Nicolodi’s installations refer to archetypical architecture models. Real and ambiguous signs of timelessness and duration. At the same time, paradoxical signs. Monoliths of a recent date. Visual anchor points. Mental beacons in a time in which society found itself in a gigantic digital momentum where everything is questioned: science, technology, nature and the role and identity of man in it. 'Untitled’ and 'Antrum 03’, two temporary installations, were produced respectively in 2002 (Galmaarden) and 2003 (Brussels). The measurements run parallel: with its 630 x 506 x 345 cm 'Antrum 03’ is just slightly sturdier than its predecessor that was somewhat broader. Both installations have practically the same impenetrable character as the auricles on the English coast. Their stark, bunker-like shape sucks in the surroundings only to reject them, with that one difference: they are motionless monoliths made from cement and wood with a rich textural quality. 

Renato Nicolodi’s architectonic models have a minimalist import. His systematic, dry approach gives these models a classical austerity, with which Renato follows in the footsteps of the language of forms of major Utopian architects such as Etienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Renato’s spaces start out from a mathematically-ordered grid. They do not have the proportions of Vitruvian norms – or the ideal male nude of Leonardo da Vinci that stands in the middle of a square and a circle. The spaces are arranged and organised departing from stereometric figures such as cubes and pyramids; perfect and introverted in their abstract, purified form. Didn’t the French painter, Paul Cézanne, once say that all forms in nature can be brought down to circular, cylinder and conical?   

 In these stark and tectonic spaces, stairs function as visual hyphens between inside and outside, plinth and body, closed and open, below and above, above and below. The stairs irresistibly pull the gaze from the periphery of the closed or open environment, in which stand the models, to the architectonic middle point. Their compelling, centripetal presence means that we experience the production developed by Renato as a space to be entered that goes somewhere, that leads somewhere. To a fictitious centre, a dark area. To an empty atrium. 

Antrum means cavern in Latin. Antrum refers as well to an entrance. Viewed from a distance it is as if the motionless mass of 'Antrum 03’ has been given an opening, a black hole, along one side by the artist as access to the interior of the building. What, at a cursory glance, appears to be an entrance, is on closer inspection a constriction, that gradually and step by step is worked into the wall and that leads rhythmically to a shallow, not to set foot into, area. Along this side, all our attention shifts from the monolithic mass of the building to a dramatic play of light and shadow that, from the light, draws one compellingly to the darkness. 

With 'Antrum 04’ Renato follows this course further. 'Antrum 04’  (Beersel, 2003) is a sight specific work as scale model in the form of a massive table made from reinforced concrete. Here too, we see the return of the surprising ambiguity between perception and experience, between what you see and what you experience, between what you see from a distance and what you experience at arm’s length from the work. The first impression is that of looking at an empty plinth. What appears flat is in reality however deepened. In the table top, lying at a strategic height of 125 cm, a square has been cut out in the form of a terrace that slowly leads to a kindred entrance of 'Antrum 03’. The scale of 'Antrum 03’ no longer corresponds to that of 'Antrum 04’. The tall side wall of 345 cm is here snapped shut to a flat horizontal surface, with the building that literally seems to be descending into the ground and that becomes a reflection or a negative of itself. 

What is hiding behind this deepened area? Why is one forbidden to enter? Like the artist says: ' Once the entrance is passed, being within the space, nothing can be observed except the darkness itself. The spectator cannot physically enter the dark space, so he is invited to approach this space mentally’. 'Antrum 03’ and 'Antrum 04’ strongly resemble a shrine, as carrier of a secret that must not see the light of day. A sealed space, which we will never have the chance to set foot in. L’inquiétante étrangeté. Uncanny. Das Unheimliche. In 1919 Freud published an essay with the same title in which he couples the subject with a longing for death, Oedipal fantasies and primary experiences that generally become suppressed and only then raise their head in moments of fear and loss of self-control. Linked to this experience is also the impossible desire to return to the origin; the origin that Freud identifies with the womb. Phenomenologists like Eugène Minkowski claim that space is determined psychologically and can be symptomatic for pain and neurosis. Minkowski is talking about a black or darker space that you – even though it is pitch black – always feel around you. It is the space of the physical and sensorial, even intellectual existence.  

At the same time Renato Nicolodi makes us distance ourselves and to remain a few steps removed from his installations. To come to a halt. To reconsider our perception of time and space. As if he were inviting us, via the medium of his installations, to learn to listen once again to the important stories that they preserve and guard in their motionless stateliness. 

They are typological signs from our collective memory with names such as Mausoleum, Observatory, Belvedere, Atrium, Panopticon. They are monuments that preserve the memory of philosophers and thinkers such as Plato, Thomas More, Tomasso Campanella, Francis Bacon, Jeremy Bentham and their search for an ideal – read Utopian – and in their eyes, legitimised society. They are monuments whose mythical form should be registered, such as in those days with Utopia or, such as at the time of modernism, with La Città Nuova from Antonio Sant Elia or Le Corbusier’s La Ville radieuse; blueprints, in fact, of the Dionysian and rational belief of two young architects in a technological and mechanised future that today has become more of a Dyotopic reality. 

Mausoleum I (2003) is composed of various concrete modules, attached together with silicone. The modules have been poured and assembled in such a way that, on a perfectly symmetrical plinth of nine tiles with a total surface area of 240 x 240 cm, a cube rises up as plastic, introvert tower-like building. This upwards aligned cube repeats the compelling symmetry of the plinth with, at the top, brief architectonic references to stairs that lead out onto a deepened, dark midfield in a concentric grid of squares. 

The clear, mathematical articulation of each modular part as regards the whole is completely eliminated in the version of Mausoleum II ( 2004). Seams have disappeared. There is no visible grid any more. A smooth grey skin covers a form that at first sight appears to be composed of simple geometric figures that, on closer inspection, is extremely subtly conceived. In frontal view, the triangle of a step pyramid, with a vertically cut out beam-shaped opening, converges in a completely symmetrical way with the arch of a barrel vault that in its turn is shored up by two fanned-out pyramids; the whole thing resting on a beam-shaped plinth. In frontal view, you see a three-layered wall as a sucked out play of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines with one single curved line. Its plastic volume is only noticeable if you would topple this wall and look out over from the top. 

Mausoleum II is, as form, perhaps even more closed and introvert than Mausoleum I. The plinth and upwards rising architectonic body form one, irrefutable whole and no longer function as a sum of the parts. With Mausoleum III ( 2005) Renato Nicolodi distances himself from this monolithic working with volumes and plays an ingenious game with open and closed forms and with viewing holes and working with depth. In this way he opens the space of the building to form a rhythmic arcade of columns inclining inwards, the top finished off in the form of a deepened terrace. The whole is also mounted on a plinth with stairs worked in on the four sides that in their turn give access to a visual extension in a centrally integrated narrow set of stairs in the building.

These installations have in common, an abstracted and stripped of all causality reference to the conception of mausoleum. In this way, they give the spectator full scope in the many associations that the notion calls to mind. This is what Renato Nicolodi wants to achieve: 'The spectator is confronted with the significant 'Mausoleum’ but he doesn’t receive any information concerning its signification, the work is open for a free interpretation without relationship with specific personalia. The 'Mausoleum’ can symbolize also an elapsed time of anything that can pass by.’ What the artist – an authority on Plato apparently - hands to us is a generic image, an archetype, a matrix from which new images are created. 

At the same time 'Mausoleum’ also reveals affinities with the common concept of 'Monument’: 'When reflecting, one can be astonished by the fact of daily confrontation with monuments in cities or villages, where nobody remembers why they ever have been built.’ This same reasoning can also be applied to 'Omwalling 01’ and, in a certain way, to all of the other installations from Renato’s hand. There was a time when monuments, such as this one, filled a specific role in the socio-cultural, economic fabric of city or country. Nowadays they have deteriorated into obsolete signs in the modernistic landscape. Or they have become nothing but megalomaniac anachronisms when they are actually built in our post-industrial age, such as is the case with the Pyramid of Peace, built by the famous British architect, Sir Norman Foster, in the former Soviet Republic of Kazachstan and opened in 2006. Foster’s work in the, since 1997, new capital, Astana, is, besides the associations in the central area with the hanging garden of the legendary Babylon, in its overall form, indebted to the visionary work of the eighteenth century architect, Etienne-Louis Boullée, and more especially to his never executed drawings for pyramidical memorial stones.

Modern society, according to Michel Foucault, can be compared to a well-oiled machine, with each individual applying themselves to their task and doing it properly. In Surveiller et Punir, published in 1975, Foucault works out his premise of the 'grand confinement’ from the changes in the dispensation of justice and execution of sentence that have developed in the course of modernisation. Finally, according to Foucault, it ultimately concerned putting into practice a society in which the state can prescribe to the citizen in detail how he or she has to behave. The techniques employed here were developed in the nineteenth century in closed institutions such as prisons as development laboratories, from where the modern power strategies spread into the rest of society in the course of the twentieth century. The model used for this was the Panopticon or the Inspection House, published in 1791, from the English philosopher and utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham. 

What does Panopticon actually mean? In Bentham’s version, Panopticon stands for a ring-shaped architectonic construction that makes it possible to control, observe, discipline and reform a large group of people. The tower, in the centre of the building, provides a view, via smoky windows, of the cells on the inside of the ring. From this tower, a guard can carefully observe those in the cells without actually being seen himself.   In time, his gaze will even be internalised by the prisoners.  From that idea, comes the bringing into line of pan-opticon with continuous visibility, which leads to the controllability of the individual. External control leads to self-control. Power is exercised through the strategy of the gaze, without using any perceptible physical force.

For Foucault, Panopticon is much more than a suitable architectonic plan for a modern prison. Panopticon is the underlying model of a fully-ordered society, in which the comings and goings of the individual are continually being observed and normalised. Panopticon is, in other words, the idée fixe of the new 'homo domicilis’ or the individual who time and again must adapt himself and be obedient, hard-working and be forever tormented by his conscience.

The discipline society, in Foucault’s analysis the continuation of the sovereignty societies of olden times, reached its peak at the beginning of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, they have been relived by another image of society: the control societies, that no longer function via enclosure but via permanent control and instant communication. The American novelist and essayist, William Burroughs, was the first to make an analysis of this. Deleuze, just days before his death, wrote down the shocking socio-political contours of it in a short, apt essay from 1990 entitled Post-scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle. With much verve, Deleuze describes how individuals have now become 'dividuals’ and how the masses have changed into data, target groups or 'files’. The numerical language of control is composed of figures that give access to information or simply deny access to information. The control societies operate on the basis of electronic data or data that is collected about our daily conduct, from identity to consumer behaviour, from financial to medical registration. The electronic medium that manages and controls our social behaviour on a world-scale leaves little doubt that also today we move in a panoptic system whose scale has only gained in momentum. 

It is impossible to miss the closed spherical form, the principal motif of Bentham’s installation, 'Panopticon 01’ (2006).  And yet Renato Nicolodi is not intent on presenting a building as a neurotic fixed image of power and repression. A literal transcription and concrete visual translation of monuments and their designers are, as mentioned, not what he is interested in. The translation is subdued. Massive columns support a part finished, part enclosed arena-like area, with stairs that lead to four static openings in the central part of the construction from a strategically clever distance from the plinth. These openings call to mind fascinating associations with windows. Not only do they allow access to a raised podium via stairs in the concentric structure, they also operate as an ingenious viewing hole throughout the whole architectonic model. 

With 'Panopticon 01’ the artist testifies to a timeless, compelling presence, partly through the construction itself, partly through the way in which this construction inter-reacts with the spectator and his surroundings. Because, in contrast to the previous installations, this work demands of the spectator not to come too close to it. The building in fact forces the spectator to remain at a distance. Only then can the endless, fascinating game of watching and examining, from looking in and looking at begin, without losing oneself in the gaze of the other. Pan-opticon, therefore, is thus the disquieting all present and visibility.  

Since the end of the 50s Bernd and Hilla Becher have been systematically making an inventory and archiving the vanishing industrial heritage in Europe and the United States. The Bechers approach these industrial structures as unrelated, independent forms that they photograph again and again and in an identical manner in their displaced de-contextualised surroundings. Renato Nicolodi’s installations translate themselves as abstracted monuments that, in their plastic isolation, in turn raise questions about the role, legitimacy and ambiguity of the historic consciousness in our society. No one remains unmoved by these vital questions.

Johanna Kint

Translation: Simon Shrimpton