Located between London and Rome, Petrocchi is an Italian young artist, she starts from photography as a confidential instrument to generate undefined ways of media, assembling and creating new narratives. Mixing through digital elaboration of found images with 3d printing and collages otherwise resetting these objects into the space as sculptures and installations, Petrocchi draws on the high cultures of anthropology, archaeology and Western museums history, to elaborate stories, unedited archaic imageries without times, that are stressing the values and meanings of our relationship with the idea of collective knowledge.
The aim of her work seems related to the exploration of mythological atmospheres and archaeological practices by investigating – on one hand – the relationship between both epic and fantastic creatures and the cultural modalities in which they are generated. The artist reflects (as requested to the audience present) on the crucial questions to photography like collection, cataloguing process, methods, and archive. On the other hand, she downloads online virtual collections or reactivates discarded institutional ones (e.g., those of Smithsonian Institution or The Princeton University Art Museum), working on them and mutating these materials. In this way, the artist is enriching a non-linear narrative of the world with her own utopian list of “monsters”, “others” as proponents of chaos and wilderness, stands in juxtaposition to the ideals of civilization, at least until they are recognized by and legitimized by an authority (museums, galleries, exhibitions, etc). As a contemporary Plato’s allegory of the cave, the Petrocchi's research brings our thoughts to birth and encourages us to ask ourselves about the ideas of reality and illusion.
The exhibition includes three series of works: Sculptural Entities, Modular Artefacts, Mammoth Remains and Magic Lanterns. All these projects explain to us something about cultural creation, storage, transmission, and modification through contemporary photography. To make that, Petrocchi draws on the iconography of the fossils, something that - as W.T. Mitchell wrote - no one has ever seen yet, everyone knows what he has looked like. We are faced with fantastic categorizations, where the function of the image is twofold: on the one hand, we attribute the meaning to it based on the imagination and the imaginary. On the other hand, Petrocchi’s starting images, in most cases, are also fantastic approximations based on a small set of paleontological evidence. Petrocchi's starting fossils are, therefore, images that are also build and generated by the creative imagination. In this sense, are they "true" more than those included in the artist's private collection?
In Sculptural Entities (2020), the images of mammoth molars are enthusiastically categorized, playfully juxtaposed and put in dialogue with both individual pieces of 3D cardboard puzzles, with resin print of the finds, depicting floating stylized dinosaurs’ bones. Every single frame contains two simple things in discussion, isolated from any external interference, close-up shots, spatial flatness, and great formal austerity. At the same time, the sequence of images that make up the overall installation activates our primordial cognitive structures to create a world. Repetition and comparison of these elements (firstly sliced and elaborated through Photoshop), in fact, create an ambiguous speculative catalogue of fictional “techno-archaeon treasures” to explore not only the contacts between organic and artificial forms, but also between the ways in which we build and learn the ancient and the contemporary. The attempt to reconstruct a story is also stimulated by the small monster reproduced in the lower right corner, the only coloured element of the work. In that context, photography becomes an essential tool to understand the relationship between representation and the visible world, to highlight characters and hidden potentials. This structural analysis gradually subtracts the ancient claim of transparency, restoring photography as a junction and mediaton of the imagination and the meaning of production itself.
This approach is visible also in Modular Artefacts, Mammoth Remains (2019), this project, developed one year earlier by Petrocchi starts from the fascination with the classification and arrangement of ancient art in Western traditional museum’s collections. The artist creates her own fantastic collection of surreal artefacts, cataloguing images manipulated, coming from different sources to underline what underpin culture as no-fixed dimension, constant flux and semiotic sphere. Although these elements also gravitate in the representational space, as well as those of Sculptural Entities, a sort of yardstick has been inserted beneath them which makes this process of building a collection – indeed - non-existent even more paradoxical. To generate an even stronger, short-circuit between these new documents and their perception, Petrocchi distorts the information of the glass negatives depicting historical artefacts, combining originals with new ones. In the unpredictable materials differences among the elements, the irreducible action of entropy emerges upon careful observation together with the encounter between a piece of reality with fantasy that only this conceptual photography makes possible.
Magic Lanterns (2021 -ongoing) includes a series of hand-made collages. These artworks have been done using discarded glass slides from The Princeton University Art Museum collection in New Jersey. Petrocchi has picked up and gathered them during her visit to New Jersey because the museum staff was disposing of these glass slides after completing the process of digitizing the whole collection. After that, she scanned the miniature plates and recreate again links between these waste materials and the collective knowledge production process. Petrocchi reintroduces colours in her artworks, practice temporarily set aside in previous series and it seems that she gives life. It is a coherent act that find explanation in the artist's poetics, aesthetics, and psychology. It is not a coincidence, that Petrocchi titled these works "Magic Lanterns", which is one of the oldest image projection tools. The latter were projected through a closed box containing a candle whose light, filtered through a hole, was transmitted through a lens. In her choice, the close box is the scanner, the light is related to the fluidity and metamorphosis of objects via digital manipulation. These works are presented as photographic sculptures: the slides, after being scanned, reworked and printed like photographs, are proposed as 'objects' to preserve ideally their own essence. In the end, abstract forms give material consistence to the glass slides, to preserving memories and the object deterioration process.
Foam Magazine, The Archival Issue, Text written by Kim Knoppers 2021
Italian Giovanna Petrocchi grew up amid the conserved fragments that together form the heart of the city of Rome, surrounded by demarcated World Heritage attractions with entrance gates that millions of tourists a year (pre-covid) are drawn to like bees to honey. Archaeological artefacts in museums and archaeological sites were a self-evident part of her upbringing. They are engraved on her memory as a mental archive of images.
Since 2015 Petrocchi has been making collages based upon images found online showing ancient landscapes and archaeological artefacts, fusing together digital and traditional techniques. She takes inspiration from surrealist paintings and sculptures, ancient cultures, virtual reality, video games, and representations of the future that resemble science fiction. To her collages Petrocchi adds contemporary objects (often 3D printed) that show fascinating similarities with objects from the past. In the case of the series Modular Artefacts, Mammoth Remains (2019) they are scanned cut-outs of cardboard skeletons from kits for making miniature dinosaurs. She combines these with digital images of artefacts from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, which are archived online. The original images are glass negatives numbered chronologically from 1 to 5,075. Sometimes Petrocchi erases details to insert new ones, making them engage in a visual dialogue. Elements from the collages have been removed from their original context, digitally trimmed and transformed into a fictional platform that gently mocks the traditional museological classifications.
In contrast to her earlier series, in Modular Artefacts, Mammoth Remains Petrocchi opts to work in black and white. It is a choice largely imposed on her by the Smithsonian’s online archive, although the absence of colour also means the focus is on the shapes. Perhaps even more importantly, it creates the impression that we are dealing with a seriously intended, authentic and faithful archive in which the act of documenting is central.
Archaeology and photography are inseparably bound up together. The development of archaeology as a separate scientific or semi-scientific discipline coincides with European expansionism and the rise of photography in the second half of the nineteenth century. Photographers like Felix Teynard (1817-1892) accompanied archaeological expeditions to the Ottoman Empire. A little later, adventurer, businessman and pioneer in the field of archaeology Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), who famously discovered Troy, commissioned a photographer to record the artefacts he excavated there. The photographs were made in a no-nonsense, straightforward manner, from the front, and naturally in black and white. The camera was a means of providing visual evidence. A photograph appeared to be the objective, efficient and accurate registration of a new, supposedly scientific discipline that left little space for the imagination.
Like photography, archaeology soon developed into a discipline with an ambivalent character. On the one hand what it does is measurable and scientific, on the other it is a discipline in which an absence of information is filled in by the imagination. Much about the past is unclear. Cities have degenerated into ruins, historical objects and paintings are often mere fragments of what they once were. Those fragments invite speculation, the addition of missing information, imaginative interpretation, narratives that cannot be directly corroborated by quantifiable proof. In the early 1980s this created a movement known as post-processual archaeology, which stresses the location-specific subjectivity of archaeological interpretations and distances itself from the idea that archaeology can draw unequivocal, objective conclusions. There is a striking parallel here with Petrocchi’s fictional photography.
Petrocchi seems at first sight to be using photography to create a record. The use of black and white and the presence of the chequerboard scale bar typical of archaeology emphasizes the scientific character of the work. In fact, however, she does precisely the opposite. In her collages she portrays a fake narrative, an imaginary story that lies somewhere between the past, the present and the future. She puts it like this. ‘There is a sense of mysteriousness evoked by ancient cultures, their traditions, the use of objects and tools, their relationship with animals, that I find very fascinating [...]. This leaves much space to the imagination and that’s why I am so drawn to them.’ (email correspondence, 9 May 2021)
Nevertheless, Petrocchi’s fake narrative seems to come closer to the reality of archaeology than the artificial classification by period and geographical location that is applied to museum collections.
An observation by Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) perhaps helps to make clear what I mean. ‘In the world of our own day there are no longer any cultures that exist separately, distant from everything else, in isolation. Nowadays every culture, although each to a different extent, is influenced, hybridized, marked by eclecticism. All cultural currents now meet in the great delta of modern civilization, where because of modern means of communication that encompass and connect the planet, they interpenetrate and combine together before, in a single channel, pouring into the new era to form the coming cosmic civilization.’ (Ryszard Kapuściński, Lapidarium. Observaties van een wereldreiziger 1980-2000. Amsterdam, De Arbeiderspers, 2003, p. 95, originally published as Lapidaria by Czytelnik, Warsaw. Quote translated via the Dutch.)
Archaeological fragments are continually in flux; they transcend their own time, are distributed to other regions, given new functions, reused, destroyed by iconoclasts and reconstructed by guardians of heritage. They therefore become part of a story that is broader and more continuous than anything represented in their museological pigeon-holes.
The entities presented by Petrocchi do not belong to a specific time or place either. In most cases they float against a white or black background in which the notion of scale has been abandoned. The scale itself remains, but not its relationship to the object. Her collages have become free spaces made up of real data concerning the artefacts along with new visual information. They are not accompanied by captions to guide the viewer in a specific direction. They poke fun at the historical, linear and scientific perspective and in doing so contain a promise to tell a different story, that of a Universal Collection of artefacts linked together across time and space in which cultures mix, just as the artefacts themselves do.
A Play on Knowledge, from my publication Sculptural Entities, text written by Sunil Shah 2021
The collection and analysis of scientific data serves to construct knowledge about our world. Indeed, the modern era is characterised by its reliance upon science. Global exploration, colonial expansion and overseas acquisition were underpinned by the successful mapping and navigation of the world followed by a need to understand the unknown and develop knowledge of nature and civilisations, past and present. Hence the formation of social and scientific disciplines is based upon the fundamental drive for human progress.
The shape of the world we inhabit today is therefore built upon this epistemological foundation. The taxonomies and classificatory systems of knowledge in the form of archival data and images are common concepts. Particularly images, which form a representational relationship to what is being recorded. We are so well versed with the logic of representation that we are impelled towards belief and hence scientific veracity as a result.
Giovanna Petrocchi’s sculptural collages appear familiar to us. They evoke a geological, palaeontological archive of fossils and invite a comparison with the mysterious figures aligned to their right. Are we looking at a cross-section of the fossil or some representation or abstraction of it? Is this relationship based on some trajectory of evolution between a prehistoric form and a modern, contemporary object? Perhaps, but we soon discover the images are almost complete conceptual fabrications. The elements are unrelated except for a set of subjective and formal choices the artist makes in bringing these configurations together.
In reading these images then, the assumptions based on the knowledge we think we know is short-circuited. There is a latent displacement to be found which removes us from the epistemologies of science and into a plane of transcendence. This is done by the artist playfully, coaxing us to deliberate over the disparate objects as schematically connected.
We remind ourselves that ancient civilisations recorded and represented their lives and beliefs, without the aid of scientific surety, readily evoking spirits and gods in their lives to explain the often unexplainable. Petrocchi in this way, alludes to a grasp for lost knowledge that we are so in need of today as the modern world spirals out of control.
Bad Museology, from the publication Sculptural Entities, essay by Christopher Littlewood 2021
One evening in September 2018, Brazil’s Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro was eviscerated by fire. As Latin America’s largest museum, its collection included some 20 million scientifically and culturally invaluable artefacts. Among those were the skull of Luzia – the oldest human remains from Latin America, dinosaur skeletons and a Pompeian fresco. Devastated, as many Brazilians were by such a loss to their cultural heritage, the artist Vik Muniz was compelled to respond. Working alongside the scientists who were recovering what little remained, Muniz offered his capabilities in an attempt to retrieve some form of lasting connection to that history. Known for his ambitious photographic works that recreate popular imagery through complex collages, he was well placed for such an undertaking. By salvaging ash from precise locations in the wreckage, Muniz recomposed images of selected artefacts with material from their own remnants. Museum of Ashes, the resulting project, is a series of imitations – either in photographic or 3-D printed form. Capturing some essence of the originals, they also highlight how visual artists can provide alternative possibilities in the face of scientific limitations.
“Scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably expect to answer,” says Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In describing early Homo sapien foragers, Harari points to a period, what he calls The Curtain of Silence, for which we have no concrete cultural knowledge. Only “a few fossilised bones and a handful of stone tools that remain mute under the most intense scholarly inquisitions.” Present-day tools can generate specific data like the DNA sequence of a mammoth tusk. But convey nothing about the meanings behind our prehistoric ancestors’ material expressions, such as the anthropomorphic animal engravings found on mammoth tusks. Many assume that the Paleolithic people who left those engravings – or those who drew the cave art at Serra da Capivara – had inherently the same minds of people today. Yet despite well-informed speculation, will we ever know what was behind their thinking? As Harari surmises, “these long millennia may well have witnessed wars and revolutions, ecstatic religious movements, profound philosophical theories, incomparable artistic masterpieces [...] But these are all mere guesses. The curtain of silence is so thick that we cannot even be sure such things occurred – let alone describe them in detail.”
Imperialism and the colonial impulse to acquire, map and collect has led to miscellaneous collections of artefacts and curios. Often housed in Western museums – not infrequently at the detriment of more vulnerable cultural groups – they represent, for some, an overwhelming history of inequality and destructive political ideology. And despite museums attempting to make their collections more widely available via open access public domains, the dilemmas of museology continue to run deep. What then is the role of contemporary artistic expressions in such a context? According to the artist Mark Dion “The job of the artist is to go against the grain of dominant culture, to challenge perception and convention.” Importantly for him, without destroying what was there before. Speaking about a group of like-minded artists, he says, “rather than dynamite the museum, our idea is to make the museum a better place, or more representative, more responsive, more enlightened, more interesting.” Unlike the sciences, that means asking questions without expectations; it means presenting highly subjective visual languages that challenge empirical theories. But also imagine potential new worlds – encoded with signs and symbols for future generations to decipher. After all, it was the human imagination that created ancient artefacts in the first place. In that spirit, we can picture the artist, not as an isolated genius but a link in the chain of cultural expression.
Archaeology and fragmentation are leading principles for creative people today. Identified by design curator Li Edelkoort as a predominant theme among young designers, her exhibition concept Post-Fossil brings together what she calls contemporary archaic forms. Excavating and recomposing, these design disciplines are rooted in a desire to hybridise earth-bound matter with technological advancements. By developing new material research in this fashion, Edelkoort argues that this generation of makers is fueled by their world existing in a time of disarray. Consequently, they are shifting the emphasis from a materialistic mentality – to one conscious of ecology and overconsumption. “They propose ritualistic tools for a new kind of well-being,” Edelkoort says. Likewise, established ateliers incorporate notions of archaeology into large-scale built projects, fragmentation into their research. Within what could almost be a movement, this propensity is also prevalent across the visual arts. Fittingly titled A Desire for Archaeology, Perspectives on the Future – an exhibition at Musée d’Art Contemporain in Nîmes, during Arles in 2018 – is a case in point. Through a rereading of colonialist discourses, the show was constituted not only by material objects but also images, archives, gestures and narratives.
In photographic terms, we can think of archaeology not only as subject matter but as the driving impulse behind the excavation and activation of archive material – most pertinently here, in the form of collage and montage. Misdirection and misinformation go hand-in-hand with that process, resulting in images that urge the viewer to reconsider narratives they had constructed for themselves – around the types of photographs they already know. In other words, collage asks us to recalibrate our reference points. Heterogeneous, deconstructed, distorted, hybrid, fantasy – the nature of collage has made it a powerful tool. Particularly during times where historically manipulated truths are being scrutinised like never before. Together with its low economic means of production – the practice can take place equally in the studio, the bedroom, or simply on a laptop – a duality emerges between the political and the personal. By appropriating pre-existing imagery, photographic collage also variably involves questions around the consumption of information. The act of recycling itself carries with it an important message – to borrow is to say enough’s enough, let’s reinvent what already exists.
Originating from Rome, an outdoor museum in itself, Petrocchi describes the effect of that cultural fabric on her formative years. “Ancient sculptures, artefacts and archaeological sites are part of my cultural heritage and education – they have been impressed on my memory as a sort of mental imagery”, she says. Yet despite readily available access to such sites, Petrocchi’s work orientates more towards the impossibility of fully understanding and accessing the past. Playing with the practices of museum classification and categorisation in a way that highlights an inherent absurdity. Petrocchi’s arrangements of bones, relics and statuettes repeatedly resemble miniature theatre sets. Animated, juxtaposed and divorced from a rigid, linear reading, the characters in these sets are given license to roam free. In Modular Artefacts – a series parodying an imagined museum cataloguing procedure – we encounter monsters, mutant vessels, floating amulets and a conversation between a bird and an abstract shape. Like the source images that Petrocchi de-contextualises, her creatures too are fugitive; on the run. Not only that, they are intruders and disruptors – gate-crashing museum cabinets after the curators have gone home.
With Sculptural Entities, we see several of Petrocchi’s recurring visual themes coming together into a single framework that gets repeated. The ancient relic, represented here by the mammoth tooth fossils; the speculative contemporary form, embodied by the scanned cutouts from 3D dinosaur puzzle kits; the digital artefact, revealed in the overtly clone-stamped backdrops; and the mythological being, symbolised by the animal glyphs in each bottom right corner. Other, more subtle layers also emerge, such as the imperfections caused by damage to the original glass negatives – hinting at the analogue photograph as a relic in itself. Supplementing the main body of images, an ‘archive’ section purports to unpack layers of methodologies – as evidenced by measuring rulers, puzzle manuals and original in-tact images. Part ‘how-to’ guide, part postscript, these elements, whilst revealing, ultimately remain abstracted and illusive.
Layering and compression – qualities we can associate both with photography and stratigraphy (Earth’s geological and archaeological layers) become a lens through which to contemplate the work. Since 2009, The Anthropocene Working Group (an interdisciplinary research collective) have argued that the planet has shifted geologic time scale – from the Holocene epoch to the Anthropocene – where irreversible human impact is the agent of that change. Evidence for this partly comes from the material remnants of the technosphere (the technological systems of the Anthropocene), in other words, concrete, plastics and any synthesized materials. Compacted as layers within landfill sites or washed out to sea, these remnants are known as ‘technofossils’.
Each of them unique, fossilised mammoth molars are naturally conserved under permafrost. At 1.2 million years old, DNA from a recent mammoth discovery was identified as the oldest known to science. In contrast, the puzzle pieces are computer-automated designs, produced by the batch-load in a matter of minutes. Both objects are anatomical, both are deconstructed in some form, though they couldn’t be further apart in timespan or scarcity. Yet in Petrocchi’s world, they are digitally composited into typological surfaces through printed internet sources. With their inherent flatness and uniformity – where everything can be reduced using standardised tools – digital technologies are particularly effective at comparing disparate entities. Through the visual trope of imitation, one possible reading is that the puzzle pieces attempt to mimic the fossils, albeit in a simplified geometric manner. Despite the appearance of a museographic sequence, any attempt to draw solid conclusions from such comparative methods is ultimately arbitrary. Does that make Petrocchi a bad museologist? Or through qualities like empathy and humour, does it animate the discourse in a refreshingly relatable way?
Imitation and mimicry have a strong lineage in an art-historical context. But this type of reading – one that seeks to attribute mind to matter and relationships between objects – might find a more enduring foundation in the belief system of Animism. A system that does not distinguish between human and nature, where all things – alive or allegedly inanimate – are characterised as living beings. And where all living beings are interconnected. While Animism likely has roots in ancient mythology, it is a growing school of thought in today’s world – no doubt resulting partly from our increasingly distant connection from multi-species communities. Giovanna Petrocchi’s work, with its fragmented animal representations, not only points to that disconnection but envisions new species and new communities. Against the outdated ideologies of western museums, her work contests the objectification of nonhumans – offering a more interwoven perspective on nature and culture.