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Irene Coppola Memory Exercises


Irene Coppola

curated by Agata Polizzi

7 July – 29 October 2022


Curatorial text by Agata Polizzi with observations from Irene Coppola

 But, please, gently tell me everything, even your sadness

(Patrizia Cavalli)

The view toward Mount Pellegrino is immersed in a warm amber light. Every detail seems irradiated with gold: the sand, the vegetation, the water, the houses, the boats. The very air seems to breathe; the dense and summer-scented air of Palermo at the turn of the century, at the frontier of two temporal shores.

It is the gaze of Michele Catti (1855–1914), the painter of refined and memorable seascapes that contemplate Palermo from the city’s south coast, the coast depicted in many of his works in the collection of Palermo’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna: the coast of a city with the sea in its heart, which savoured the ocean’s salt and which was famed throughout Europe for that inimitable landscape.

What happened?

It would be difficult and reductive to compress it into a few lines. For decades, shameful, senseless and murkily obtuse politico-economic choices have condemned the south coast to degradation and desolation.

Irene Coppola, belonging to a generation far removed from that of the landscapist Catti, scours the past of her city. In the cracks of a landscape torn asunder, she retraces Catti’s steps, delicately and respectfully exploring the history of the same environments. She reexamines the long arc of time that has left its mark on the coast, attempting to read its recent past afresh through her own gaze and sensibility.

The artist observes, salvages and interacts with objects and industrial refuse found along the coast, buried in the compacted sand of the so-called mammelloni – ‘mounds’ – dating from the reckless postwar construction boom known as the Sack of Palermo. Coppola uses this repository of the city’s uneasy urban, political and social memory to offer a grotesque civic portrait in the video Fuoco grande! – its title derived from the expression ‘focu ‘ranni’ (‘big fire’), which in Sicilian dialect denotes a complicated situation, one difficult to defuse.

Forgotten, dismembered and buried material culture is brought to light through small repositionings in Coppola’s Contro-display, generating new sensory and ludic relationships between fragments of industrial debris, now devoid of any specific function; as if to constitute an authentic living archive of ever-shifting elements and narrations.

The jetsam of a boat’s rubber cladding serves as an admonition, urging this necessarily continuous and interconnected gaze, emphasised by the artist through the expression Mi volgo d’attorno – ‘I look around myself’ – hand-carved into its dense surface. Wrought into a Möbius strip, the rubber becomes a no-longer orientable surface, thereby opening onto infinite possible interpretations.

In the same way, the artist has recovered and remodelled many of the fragments of old Sicilian majolica, once used to pave floors, strewn across Romagnolo beach. In Memorabilia (Palermo), she renders them the precious relics of a memory still awaiting its rewriting.

The ruins of gutted art nouveau mansions, too. Usurped by housing projects, cast off by ‘malaedilizia’ – malconstruction – and the rampant speculation of the 1970s, they have now become the works Saette and Antenne. The buildings’ waste is redeemed and revived, coloured by the luminous, vegetal and near-alien forms that emerge from the artist’s subtle manipulations. Rusted reinforcing iron, which had seemed desperate to flee the material in which it was engulfed, is reinvigorated. It extends tentacle-like toward the future, toward the hearing of new stories.

With her meticulous and regionally-conscious practice, Irene elaborates and reaches beyond her city’s difficult inheritance. She gazes into the distance, rehabilitating past failures even as she distances herself from them and begins anew. Hers is the generation of revival, one equipped to recognise the taste of home in any part of the world; a home that dwells in people, streets and chance encounters.

If it is true that Irene Coppola’s journey departs from the south coast of her own Palermo, it is equally true that she summons other memories: those of voyages and experiences elsewhere, of other seas and other coasts, other pains and other wounds – but also of joy. She recalls the children who, like her, have played at the seashore.

The close bond between Irene’s art and life allow her to trace an emotional map of physical geographies and of sentiments experienced.

In her first solo exhibition with FPAC, the artist narrates all this through sculpture, photography, a video work and a floor installation in which confetti of majolica reduce past atmospheres to powder. She presents works made from aesthetically seductive elements that nonetheless cut like poetry. They are the desire for another gaze upon the world.

Memory Exercises is a marvellous tangle of considerations on the city of Palermo – complicated, beloved, magnetic – but it is above all the gaze of a sharply observant young female artist attuned to what has transpired and what is still transpiring. She bears the weight of these sensations, not always easy to master, as a heavy burden and yet a precious one. It is the burden of those aware that we need to know who we are in order to continue onward. We need to know who we do not want to be. We need to know that small, inexorable gestures are the ones that will outline the change.