Virginia Russolo: Sets the Cool Head Aflame
2023.10.28 - 2023.12.10
Artists: Virginia Russolo


Curated by Junyao Chen

“Although we can't talk about these additional levels [dimensions] of reality, we also must not be silent.” 

    - Federico Campagna

Russolo's first solo exhibition in China begins with her interest in prehistoric caves, especially the darkest, most hidden parts where painting and sacrificial rituals took place. Russolo sees this particular space of the cave as “a place of metaphysical experimentation with the forces of life and death” and a fertile ground to dwell on wider questions on animal nature, the erotic and communication with the Sacred through materials and rituals. In her words, “my curiosity about cave painting is based on a profound need to understand the act of creation as a way to reconcile the human spiritual experience with the material world around us.”

Russolo retraces the steps into the darkest parts of the cave, deep in the earth, where for millennia humans tried to communicate with the forces of life and death. Who we are met with at the end of this journey is best described by Georges Bataille in his book The Cradle of Humanity. At the end of the cave we are met by “the human being who has not yet transcended his animal nature.”

Virginia Russolo's practice exists in the tension between modernity and mystical experience. Aware of the lens of modernity she attempts to reconcile knowledge from artefacts and rituals from a pre-modern time such as prehistoric cave paintings, burial rituals, divination through animal organs, animal instincts and eroticism. These investigations all derive from the same curiosity - how humans relate to the sacred dimension through the material world. 

In her paintings and sculptures Russolo makes use of natural materials such as beeswax, woolwax, propolis, natural resins, amber, sheep and goat horns and second-hand animal skins; materials which all have properties of protection. 

Russolo’s works prompt us to look deeper into the split from our shared past, our forgotten experiences in the caves. Real life is not without its variables, especially when viewed through the lens of history and modernity: the law of gravity, the steam engine, email, and artificial intelligence, appeared in moments that seemed inexplicable but inevitably ushered in a new era. As a result, modern mankind had to create a timeframe with the function of accommodating these novelties without threatening the system that was already in place: “modern temporality”. This time period was marked by the slogan of progress and the emergence of "revolutionary miracles” which achieved a mandatory split from what came before, from the past. 

As Bruno Latour notes in We Have Never Been Modern, the modern system is rooted in the denial of transmigration between actors and the purification of the products of this transmigration into distant and antagonistic societies and nature. However, when modern man encounters a dilemma that cannot be solved by modern science or reason, it is as if there is a return to the helplessness of childhood. Once the illusion of control he is used to possess over reality is broken, different mechanisms are set into motion. The instinct and a different kind of power emerge, both feel ancient and familiar.  

While the modern man might still struggle to find a name for this feeling, a thousand years ago philosopher Zhuang Zi (c. 369-286 BC) settled on "sitting in oblivion". Zhuang Zi's philosophy instructs to destroy the body, to obliterate knowledge, and to abandon form and intellect, in order to be at one with the Great Tao. The kind of power explained by Zhuang Zi exists on another level, far from progress disguised as power. It is instead rooted in the soil of real life, in the direct experience of nature and it is our guide against the pain of nihilism.

A thousand years after Zhuang Zi, contemporary philosopher Federico Campagna also speaks of a similar sacrifice in order to attain a new perspective of reality. In his book Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality, Campagna notes that “if metaphysics is the most fundamental way in which we determine the composition of the world, then metaphysics is reality itself.” He then puts forth the theory that to solve the problem of the "end of time”, in which we find ourselves in, we need to adopt a metaphysical approach. 

Despite being separated by time, culture and geography Campagna and Zhuang Zi share a deeply human urge to find man’s place in reality. From ancient to modern, from East to West, we have always benefited from an unnamable medium, sometimes called magic amongst many other names. This unnamable thing is rooted in the soil, flows in the blood, and lurks in everyday life as a supernatural force with which people, across time and nationality, establish a dialogue through their hearts. It is our most familiar tool, a technology that permeates the world. 

The English title “Sets the Cool Head Aflame” is a line from The Song of Amergin, an ancient Celtic calendar-alphabet. The Chinese title 摇篮 reads as “cradle”. 

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