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Title One, I dreamt, Clara and other stories, Rossella Biscotti, Castello di Rivoli

Text by Thomas Roueché


Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. Photograph Sebastiano Pellion

In 2013, as part of her installation at the 55th Venice Biennale, the artist Rossella Biscotti set up a dream workshop – her Laboratorio onirico – at the women’s prison on the Giudecca in Venice. Biscotti’s workshop of 14 incarcerated women was inspired by the story of a member of the Red Brigades who, having been sent down for life, would trade stories of his dreams with other inmates as a survival strategy. The result was an audio collage of the women’s dream stories, and an installation of structures made from leftover food from the jail. Grappling with the question of how to represent these women, Biscotti asked one of them to draw the group; 11 framed portraits of the inmates form another element of the installation.

This remarkable work sits at the heart of Biscotti’s mid-career retrospective, Title One, I dreamt, Clara and other stories, at the storied Castello di Rivoli in Turin this spring. One of Italy’s most exceptional institutions and richest collections, particularly of Arte Povera, forms a strong conceptual backdrop to Biscotti’s politically informed and stridently uncompromising work. The installation spans a number of rooms on the Castello’s top floor, with works breaking through from room to room.

Laboratorio Onirico marks a midpoint in the show. The earthy structures of the work start in the previous room, and continue through the gallery wall. There we find Biscotti’s work, The Trial, which responds to the 7 April 1979 arrest, detention, and 1982–4 trial of communist militants and intellectuals (including Antonio Negri) for the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the head of the governing Christian Democratic Party. A key moment in the Italian 1970s Years of Lead, evidence of the guilt of these defendants has remained unfounded. Biscotti’s work uses a six-hour long audio edit of original recordings from the courtroom, which has been translated into a number of languages; printed pages of foolscap lie in piles next to the headphones. Around the room are concrete casts of elements from the courtroom, heavy in their bulk. For Biscotti, the act of translation is core to the work; a way of bringing the language of the historical trial into the present.

The concrete blocks set the tone for a preoccupation with materiality that becomes evident as the show unfolds. In her work Clara (2016), Biscotti tells the story of Clara, the fifth living rhinoceros to be seen in Europe since Dürer’s in 1515, who toured the continent in the mid-18th century, and was depicted in many works of art. Clara was imported by the Dutch East India Company and as such is tied to the emerging colonial commercial realities of the time. Biscotti represents the rhinoceros as a pile of bricks corresponding to Clara’s weight, an image of a banknote relating to her value, and a pile of tobacco leaves to which Clara became addicted. This disintegrated portrait of an animal in terms of value draws attention to the absence of her personhood.



Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea. Photograph Sebastiano Pellion


Another series of works, Buru Rubber, take their name from the The Buru Quartet (1980-1988) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer which recounts stories of the oppression and dissent of Southeast Asian women. Here, Biscotti uses the form of batik prints, which are traditionally incised into rubber, to represent the stories of specific women. The rubber sheets hang from the ceiling and lie on the floor, their reddish-pink hue reminiscent of skin, still bearing the scarification of traditional patterns.

Time and again, Biscotti’s sense of the historical comes to the fore. This is particularly pronounced in her video work The City (2018), which brings the deep past into dialogue with the present. Over a series of seasons spent working on the neolithic archaeological dig of Çatalhöyük near Konya in Turkey, Biscotti creates a palimpsest of perspectives that narrates the complex work of the archaeologists, who form a modern citizenry of this ancient city. Close up videos of dust being scraped off stone beg the question of where the artefact ends and nature begins. The installation, moreover, is structured around a break – when the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey brought work on the dig, and Biscotti’s work there, to a close.

The show’s final work is perhaps its most dramatic. As is characteristic in Biscotti’s work, its charge is made present through absence. In 2010, Biscotti was awarded a 20-ton block of Carrara marble as a prize by the International Biennale of Carrara. Her work, The Journey, traces the itinerary of a ship that carried this block of marble through the Mediterranean, between Italy, Malta, Tunisia and Libya before dropping it into the sea. The ship’s route traced paths and features of the Mediterranean: from geological rifts, to oil and gas licencing divisions, marine wrecks, the track made by a sea turtle, and a series of coordinates from where distress calls by migrant boats had been received. Here, The Journey’s Sonic Diary (2020–2021) plays audio that was captured in Carrara, Malta and on the ship, Diligence, which transported the block to its final resting place.

The dense conceptual layers of Biscotti’s work bely its elegance and politically stubborn complexity. Expertly curated by the team at Castello di Rivoli, the show offers something of a counterpoint to the institution’s weighty collection of Arte Povera masterpieces and the eccentric dollhouse of the Cerruti Collection. The result is as refreshing as it is troubling, a show of forensically conceived works that disrupt and question the apparatus through which we perceive them. ◉