Remember the story about the rhinoceros with the crutches? And the one about the bar with the wheels? Have you ever come across that little garden suspended on springs? And those two guys balancing on tall stilts? Have you seen them walking, slow and careful like cranes, through swampy land? And the very pregnant women together in little groups? You’ll have heard them speaking with absolute naturalness, although on their heads were growing hats totally out of scale with respect to the conventions of our time?
Not everyone will remember having come across these images when they first appeared, and others are perhaps too young to have done so. So you need to keep in mind that, many years ago, in the context of what is, by convention and desire for status, usually called the “art world”, these and other strange images began to circulate, at exhibitions and events, and in catalogues and publications of various kinds. I was there, I was right there, so I can assure you that, beginning in the second half of the 1990s, an artist named Simone Berti, having completed his studies in a well-known Napoleonic academy in the Lombard capital, began to publish a series of bizarre creatures, hybrid forms that were a mix of human and natural, animal and mechanical. They could be videos, photographs, drawings, paintings, performances. The medium was not important, because in those years it was thought that any instrument was valid for giving shape to the artist’s visual imagination. In Berti’s case – as with, even more than his companions of that time – what was surprising was the coherence of the imagery in these visions, despite the difference of medium. When meeting these characters, objects and shapes in a well-known Milanese gallery, as well as at famous international exhibitions, it was easy to see how they shared certain features. Whether they were people, animals or plants – in the Berti’s world such distinctions seem pointless – they were all equipped with some sort of prosthesis, generally of the homemade kind, which seemed to serve a double role of hinderance and elevation. While it’s true that these prostheses confined people, animals and plants into single position, it’s equally true that they not only gave them the ability to overcome certain fixed obstacles and morphological risks, but they also lent them a degree of regality, as though elevation were not just a physical question.
Taking them together, then, these creatures could certainly be read as moments and details of a more articulated story, of a coherent imaginative vision. As with other of his colleagues, whose work emerged more or less in the same years (Cuoghi, Favaretto, Galegati, Maloberti, Perrone, for example), in the sum of the micro-stories, characters, images and situations which consistently populate his works forms of a potential narration emerge. Certainly Berti’s creatures seem to have come out of some medieval fable, or out of a retro-futurist or neo-primitive fantasy, in which a mountain is miraculously suspended on top of a gigantic structure, dames without knights wear hats that are as grand as palaces, artist friends are portrayed along with their most famous work or flowery plant prostheses, like signs of heraldry for modern times.
In the years that followed Berti has continued to enrich his imagery with new characters. The ones that fill the space of the gallery continue and renew that imagery, adding to it a series of deer with branching horns of surprising colors and heights and large series of trees of different shapes and colors. While the horns conquer the air but hinder any agile movements of the animals, and even become roots that become horns, the tree trunks are instead depicted in all of their muscularity. Seen from up close and almost never in their entirety, these trees are painted so as to have the sculptural strength of a column, and the spatial dimension of a building. Like some of Berti’s animals, they are concentrates of time, of a time that has become – through sedimentation – form. They show knotty roots, so strong and articulated that dens can open up inside of them. The space of nature and of man once again overlaps in a universe that does not seem to allow for the division of species and categories: that which before him was defined as the “the unitary substance of everything, men beasts plants things, the infinite possibility of metamorphosis of that which exists”. 1
Moreover – as with, perhaps even more than his fellow artists cited above – Berti has brought a small town sensibility and different way of looking at things, linguistic models and visual and human imagery that is saturated in a popular culture embodied in bodies alien to any homogenization. Narrative models such as the fable, the nursery rhyme, the legend, have been put back into circulation – with the potential critical goal – of creating a “protected” space for difference inside of the fast-moving flux of modernity; to make them stories that stand as alternatives to mainstream ones. Through forms of folk tales these artists convey situations of symbolic, mythical nuclei, which seem to inhabit an “immemorial” time, unbound by the limitations of chronological time: the circular time of eternal return as opposed to the linear one of progress.
And as with others of his generation, Berti has understood from the beginning that we should have some suspicions about this modernity of ours, of its wish to exalt the anthropic over the animal, the human over the vegetal. If we then consider that Berti comes from the swampy regions of the Po Delta, from the region of Polesine, the site of an epic flood, we can better understand the need to build crutches and stilts, prostheses and structures to protect oneself from watery invasions. We can understand the need to develop in vertical, to check whether the embankments are submerged. And we are able to imagine the need for those trees so strongly rooted to the ground to become protection, shelter, even home, in a world that risks being submerged by new climate crises. What seemed like tales of time past, have become parables of a time all too soon to come.
1 Italo Calvino, Introduction to Fiabe Italiane [Italian Folktales], Mondadori, Milano 1991, p. xvi.