Massimo Bartolini: Golden Square

25 May - 30 Jul 2016 Soho Square, Golden Square

I like the name Golden Square. It makes me think of an enchanted place as well as of Malevich straying from the black.


Researching the history of Golden Square I came across much of interest, so my decision, taken at first lightly, to make an exhibition about the square began to solidify into a series of clear ideas which would become works in themselves.


Among all the stories in London’s extensive archives, one of the most touching is the reported mass grave in Golden Square. Dating to around 1665 it is reputed to contain more than 4000 victims of the Black Death. The idea that this place, which must be one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world, is founded on the bones of 4000 plague victims, turns this exhibition into a kind of Memento Mori.


In the space at Soho Square, Airplane (over 4000) consists of two sculptural works, one per room, made out of Bardiglio Imperiale marble, which clearly shows the geological strata, like a core of rock from the centre of the earth. The two marble pieces take the form of plinths; the top carved with a bas-relief representing an unfolded paper airplane. In this way they resemble a broken column – nothing can rest on top of these plinths as they are objects in themselves; they are not just the support, but the actual ‘statue’. The two sculptures can also be considered as memorials for the dead buried in the common grave nearby.


At Golden Square another sculptural work, Georgius, highlights some less considered aspects of stone sculpture. The statue’s literal background, the support and the base, are things which are complementary to the work itself. Georgius is carved using the same technique employed to simulate natural rock in statuary. These rusticated forms often act as supports for the statue. They are significant details but they often go unnoticed by the viewer. Who, for instance, remembers the stone under Michaelangelo’s David’s foot? Michelangelo (and I apologize for using his name in reference to my sculptures) offers interesting insights into the possibilities of the 'unfinished'. In his series of sculptures The Slaves he seems to draw the figure out of the rock (though never completely), carving away the marble itself while at the same time leaving some rough chisel blows in the unfinished stone. These quick chisel blows demarcate the boundary of the natural and the man-made – not quite figure, not quite virgin rock.


In Georgius I try to retrace this path, reinserting the statue into the rock in a process of metamorphosis from the figure back to the landscape. In this work the plinth itself evokes landscape: a horizon is painted directly on the marble (the Ancient Greeks used to paint their statues) and the mountain ‘hovers’ like a cloud above it. The circle which began with the extraction of the statue from the rock ends with the return of the statue to the rock itself, just as tearing down monuments – often the ones representing the most unpleasant figures – can produce mountains rather than ruins. Georgious is in fact a small mountain that takes it’s profile from the statue in Golden Square: a king as an Ancient Roman figure inscribed ‘Georgius II’ that Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby described as a 'mournful statue, the guardian genius of a little wilderness of shrubs'.

Dickens also mentions in the same book the scent of tobacco in the square. Toscano is a machine that ‘smokes’ a Toscano cigar, working as a scent diffusor like a censer in a church.


Another work partially inspired by Dickens is the eponymously titled Golden Square, a piece of music composed in collaboration with Edoardo Marraffa using the instruments and words that Dickens mentions to describe the noises in the square. The composition also takes the melody of Ring a Ring of Roses as inspiration for its theme. The music is recorded on a vinyl record, and at the centre of which rests a ten-inch brass cube – a transformation of a square into a cube creating a spinning, glinting, mesmerizing machine.


Other wall-based works at Golden Square include Dust Chaser and Untitled, Dust Chaser, which are drawings of specks of dust. Each tiny mark is a portrait of something, a hair or a piece of fluff, but at the same time they might be nothing but simple doodles. Dust is the very last state of nearly everything, it is the 'thing' we have in common with the rest of the universe.


Untitled is simply an enlarged side of a birdcage attached to a canvas like a collage. This change in scale turns the object (itself full of symbolism) into an abstract geometrical monochrome painting.


Diagram (graveyard) is an assemblage of 4000 map pins that creates a plan for a cemetery for those buried in the mass grave in Golden Square. At the same time it acts as a glittering frame for a mirror that has no reflection.


This exhibition is full of footnotes, things which cannot be integrated with the rest of the show but are still important and rich in relationships and interferences. On the ground floor of the gallery space at Soho Square there are two works on paper: Hole is a brass eyelet punched into a sheet of paper and Shell, a shell also sunk in the paper. But the very longest footnote takes the form of two works installed in the basement of Soho Square:


Between 1601 and 1782 the Spanish priests of the Inquisition sent to Sicily by Torquemada interrogated and tortured in God’s name innocent people held in the cells of the Palazzo Chiaramonte in Palermo. In 1906 graffiti left by some prisoners of that time was discovered. One of these inscriptions reads Manca Anima (Lack of soul). I have enlarged this ten times and reproduced it in neon as red as the bricks which were ground and mixed with saliva to create this ancient graffiti.


The prison brings to mind perhaps the most celebrated prisoner in art history: Prometheus, as painted by Barnett Newman in his work at Folkwang Museum in Essen. Prometheus Bound (called after Newman’s painting) retraces Prometheus’ black abyss in a rotating video projection. The camera scrolls endlessly down, beyond the lower edge of the painting, running over the floor until it reaches the feet of the cameraman completing a full circuit, which concludes in an image of a flower caught in a spider’s web.


– Massimo Bartolini



Massimo Bartolini (b. 1965 Cecina, Italy) has exibited widely. Recent exhibitions include Museo Marino Marini, Florence (2015), Tell it Slant, Frith Street Gallery, Soho Square (2016), Proportio, Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation, Palazzo Fortuny, Venice (2015), and The Disappearance of the Fireflies, Prison Sainte Anne, Avignon (2014).


Installation Views