Micol Assaël, Chizhevsky LessonsKunsthalle Basel, 14 April– 16 June 2007
I had an electrifying encounter last summer (excuse the pun). I had heard about Micol Assaël, a young Italian artist who appeared out of nowhere to participate in two editions of the Venice’s Biennale (2003 and 2005), but never had a chance to experience any of her disquieting installations, using obsolete science lab equipments to apply even more obsolete scientific theories in works that take the form of resilience experiments conducted directly on the visiting public.
Taking the idea of aesthetic experience quite literally, her enveloping environments have a tactile quality that hits the beholder in an unexpected, almost violent way. Even if you are aware of the nature of Assaël’s work, even if a sign posted outside the installation room warns you about its real potential danger, you still don’t expect to feel so very uneasy, once you enter the seemingly empty space of the Basel Kunstalle’s largest room. For the Chizhevsky Lessons, Assaël has suspended a series of copper panels to the room’s vaulted ceiling, high enough for the visitors not to be able to touch them, but still close enough to feel them. Feel, as their function is to give air particles a negative charge, thanks to a customised power generator hanging nearby, turning the whole room into an electrostatic chamber. This physical phenomenon is well known to all of us: it happens when we rub our skin against certain kinds of fabric, when we brush our hair or when we get those small, annoying electric shocks when getting out of a car: in general, whenever we touch someone or something that carries an opposite charge. Only here this magnetism is inescapable, surrounds everything and everyone, and is clearly perceivable as something unnatural. “By no means touch the face of another visitor (especially the eyes)”, the sign outside the door said, but if my first reaction was a puzzled smile, here the tension is real – and it seriously made me feel nervous and uncomfortable. I had to walk out quickly and take a deep breath.
Alexander Chizhevsky was a Russian physicist who studied the interactions between electrostatic fields and the human psyche, testing ionised air on people as a way to find correlations “between solar activity and significant historical events such as wars and revolutions” (I have to quote the press release on this, as I am not very familiar with Chizhevsky’s theories, as probably the vast majority of the exhibition visitors). But the fascination of Micol Assaël with obscure scientific speculations is little more than an excuse to recreate a state of mind – that of danger, of fear, of anxiety, which an increasingly technological warfare industry has perfected as its major byproduct. It doesn’t matter if the technology comes from centuries, decades or minutes ago – fear is universal, and industry has especially progressed in response to military needs and consequent research funds, in the West as well as in the East.
Micol Assaël’s art is about willingly taking a risk, inviting us to explore the darker sides of our psyche, and of science and technology (and its history) as part of our everyday life. Her works are strong and haunting, complex but extremely simple in their emotional outcome. It is the poetics of sublime directly applied to the beholder’s nervous system. All this, with a minimal-oriented, rusty industrial retrò appeal, whereas the formal aspects are absolutely secondary in the weight of the work. The result might not be particularly original in its visual dimension, but it is remarkably thought-provoking in its physical and psychological implications. It is the type of work that can cause a kind of subtler shock-effect, going from your skin to your mind, and not vice versa.