Roberto Cuoghi at the Venice Biennale

Roberto Cuoghi’s Imitazione di Cristo (2017) is certainly one of the darker features at a Biennale that has garnered much criticism for being too “hippy,” cheerful, and politically tone-deaf. Commissioned specifically for its showcase in the Italian pavilion, Cuoghi’s installation is an assembly line dedicated to making Jesus figures cast in perishable organic material.

Cuoghi, whose durational performance work often deals with decay and mortality (a decade ago he completed a project of “imitating” his father in dress, diet, and daily routine for seven years), has said this Imitazione fits into a complex vision that explores the transformative properties of materials and “the fluid definition of identity.” This seems a pat and trendy explanation designed to deflect from the shocking effect of the basilica-like space of the Arsenale transformed into a factory for churning out devotional figures inspired by the ascetic medieval text. The new religion of technological materialism uses the space to force consideration of the decaying power of images, of memory and repetition, and the unstable iconographic memory of art history.

The installation – a workshop set up for producing these sculptures from start to finish, from casting the organic material in a single mold all the way to the phase of fixation – unfolds through decomposition and composition, death and regeneration. A realistic medical-grade inflatable mortuary shows the “corpses” in stages of putrefaction and desiccation; undercutting the humor of the cryogenics lab at the end of the hall, for freezing the bodies until they “resurrect.”

“Il Mondo Magico” (The Magic World) is the title of the exhibition for the Italian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. The show, curated by Cecilia Alemani, also presents works by Giorgio Andreotta Calò and Adelita Hosni-Bey.

Imitazione di Cristo, 2017. Photos by: Roberto Marossi, Getty Images;  Awakening/Getty Images; and Agence France-Presse.

Posted by Jean Marie Carey

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