File Note 98: Salvatore Arancio - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Sam Thorne




Salvatore Arancio Images References Quote Biography Credits

Salvatore Arancio

The mythographer Marina Warner has written compellingly about what she calls ‘the monstrous imagination’. This is reason’s dark side, a way of thinking (or perhaps dreaming) that ‘revels in excess and assemblage’. Monsters are, Warner suggests, embodiments of our lack of understanding, a way to delineate the borders of what we don’t really know. After all, sea serpents only populated the parts of nautical maps where no ship had yet dared to sail.

Salvatore Arancio is an artist whose work has often depicted those dark places — volcanoes, caves, faraway oceans — where the biomorphic and science-fictional collide. Place, for Arancio, is most often composite, as with his ongoing photo-etchings of assembled landscapes. Pictures taken from geological primers are tweaked and sutured together; Stromboli comes to be conjoined with Fingal’s Cave. Wanting to retain some continuity between form and content, the Sicilian-born artist occasionally reinserts these doctored landscapes into books, as with his publication Wonders of the Volcano. Captions stay the same though, the hope being that what he has called ‘a strange temporality’ will emerge, where you’re not exactly sure where you might be, or when.

Over the last few years, Arancio’s preoccupations have shifted from images to objects. Or, it might be better to say, he has honed in on what happens when two dimensions are transposed into three, and then back again. As with his earlier works, though, figures and forms that are in various ways hybrid or grotesque remain present. Perhaps this is why Arancio has been recently drawn to the Martin Brothers’ turn-of-the century stoneware, in which faces erupt and leer from jugs, occasionally disgruntled that an ear has become a spout. These are domestic objects, such as a goblin-shaped spoon warmer, that teeter on the edge of useful-ness. Arancio is also keenly interested in the history of the mandrake root, lysergic trips, the field of geomorphology and early 20th-century books about mushrooms. This is the zone where the hallucinatory and the ecological mingle, where mycology meets myth. 

Arancio was introduced to working with clay during 2011 resi-dencies at Museo Carlo Zauli in Faenza, Italy and Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire. Up until then, he had spent most of his life as an artist pressing buttons — taking photos, making films, manipulating files in Photoshop or Final Cut. Now, his hands were dirty; where photography was fast, ceramics was slow. Clay became a way to open up possibilities that he felt were limited by photography. It lends itself to organic shapes, he found, noting that the material can feel almost alive. It arrives pre-packaged in plastic bags, but, once unwrapped, clay has a lifespan, moving only so long as it doesn’t dry. Arancio never tests glazes, preferring happy accidents instead; collapse and failures can lead to new and unintended forms. But Arancio has also noticed parallels between the two mediums: both are a way of ‘freezing time’, as he puts it, while unexpected results emerge from the kiln just as they swim into vision in the darkroom.

For his 2014–15 Ceramics Residency at Camden Arts Centre, Arancio wanted to think about the relationship with the grotesque in nature. What he had in mind was, specifically, thinking about the gardens in Bomarzo, Italy’s mid-16th-century Sacro Bosco (Sacred Wood), or the Park of Monsters, a proto baroque riot of ornamental oddities, dark delights and grottoes posing as the Gates to Hell. (Salvador Dalí was, inevitably, an admirer.) So Arancio set about making a garden in miniature, rendered in clay. Rather than do this alone, the project was to be devel-oped in concert, working in the ceramics studio alongside students from the Slade and a group who attended regular lessons. Something attracted Arancio to this way of working. It felt democratic. Authorship would be ambiguous, and no distinction would be made between background, age or ability. Both groups were set the same brief: look around you, consider nature in its strangest and most startling forms. 

When we met in the ceramics studio, on one of the final days of his residency, Arancio told me how he had borrowed an idea from a 2005 performance work by Richard Slee. First presented at the World Ceramics Biennale in Korea, the piece’s title, Big Nose, was an allusion to the Korean nickname for Westerners. Slee lay on his back with his face covered by a bulbous mask-like slab of clay. Arancio liked how the piece recalled the strange miens of Goya’s witches, while chiming with the excessiveness of Archimboldo’s protuberant portraits, in which fruit and vegetables cluster into faces. For a week, Arancio’s and the two groups’ green-glazed ceramic forms were grouped on the floor of a low-lit gallery space, like growths poking through the soil. A subtle soundtrack was built from recordings of the crackling of glazes cooling, which you sometimes hear when you open the kiln door after a firing. It’s a sound that Arancio calls ‘beauti-ful but also violent’. 

In the midst of this assemblage of ceramics, there were several performances, happenings in this temporary garden. Performers would lie face-up on the ground, with their heads resting under one of several grotto like vessels. Lying prone, faces covered, they seemed to be asleep, dreaming, or maybe even tripping. And, as goes the title from Goya’s famous etching, the sleep of reason produces monsters. Here, as elsewhere in Arancio’s work, nature is a kind of theatre for ritual, a willing collaborator with altered states, a way of thinking monstrously. 


Hope, Ascott R. Wonders of the Volcano. 1890

Kitchner, Athanasious, Mundus subterraneus, quo universae denique naturae divitiae. 1665 

Vitaliano, Dorothy B. Legends of the Earth: Their Geologic Origins. 1973. 

Eaux D’artifice. Dir. Kenneth Anger, 1953.

La Soufrière. Dir Werner Herzog, 1977.

A Journey To Avebury. Dir. Derek Jarman, 1971.

In the Shadow of the Sun. Dir. Derek Jarman, 1981.

2001: Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968.

Delia Derbyshire

Coil, The Remote Viewer. 2002.

Coil, Time Machines. 1998.

Broadcast and The Focus Group, Broadcast & The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age. 2009.

 “those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands.” Giorgio Agamben, “What is the Contemporary?”


Salvatore Arancio (b. 1974, Italy). Arancio studied Photography at the Royal College of Art and currently lives and works in London. Selected solo and group exhibitions include: PROJECT 09: Salvatore Arancio, Contemporary Art Society, London (2015); The London Open 2015, Whitechapel Gallery (2015); Une Taxonomie des Sens et des Formes, Centre d’art contemporain La Halle des bouchers, Vienne, France (2015); Cinéphémère, FIAC, Paris, France (2014); The Hidden, Ensapc Ygrec, Paris, France (2014); Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing, Hayward Touring, UK (2013–2014); Cyclorama, Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, Mexico (2013); Alternating Layers of Contrasting Resistance, Rowing, London (2013); The Little Man of the Forest With the Big Hat, Federica Schiavo Gallery, Rome, Italy (2013)


Sam Thorne is the Director of Nottingham Contemporary. He is also the co-founder of Open School East, contributing editor of frieze magazine and a visiting tutor at the Royal College of Art.

Supported by The Headley Trust.