Classical and ancient sculpture is alluring in a very primitive way. What we recognise and idealise as a form of perfection, cast permanently in marble, exudes an immense kinetic presence. Betraying their psychology through pure aesthetic marvel, the most iconic - full of symbolism - have become symbols of their own. Italian sculptor Fabio Viale draws on ancient sculpture’s history and powerful narratives to reimagine what classic might look like in a contemporary context.
It would be easy to fall into the trappings of creating a sculpture depicting the contemporary zeitgeist woven into an ancient model - say, Mary crying over and cradling a mobile phone rather than Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pietà. Doing so can seem a bit like a cheap trick, especially if the sculptures don’t retain any of the deep allegorical nature of their original counterparts.
What makes them so impressive is the detail. Rippling muscles, sinewy joints and curvaceous bodies detail the epitome of the human form. Viale’s modern take develops the intricacies of the original works they are based on, but reshapes them slightly - and covers them in tattoos.
Akin to the realism of the sculptures, the tattoos aren’t blithely painted on but are a part of the marble, being woven into it subdermally, as a tattoo would function on human skin. These models look like artefacts detailing an alternative history.
Turin-based, Viale is deeply indebted to the vast artistic heritage of his home country. Drawing on the most iconic works of antiquity, Viale utilises the medium and the material by creating figures that appear weightless - figures contorted in motion that carry with them the inherent drama of this style.
Having them covered in tattoos, ranging from the full-body Japanese irezumi of the Yakuza to Russian prison tattoos elicits a cognitive dissonance whereby the audience are uncertain of how best to reconcile the two vastly different artistic traditions. Still, the tattoos he chooses do have a traditional role - each serving its own narrative function within a particular subculture.
Another way of looking at his works is that the tattoo is the centrepiece and the bodies they’re on are simply displaying them in the grandest way - not necessarily putting emphasis on the beauty of ancient sculpture, but using it as a functional showcase for the powerful art of tattoo. In doing so, he removes tattooing from its contemporary context - where every second person has a tattoo - bestowing upon them great importance to how we perceive the person. The permanency of marble reflecting the permanence of the image.
Viale’s reverence of tattoo is particularly evident in his Laocoön (minus his sons) sculpture, where the full-body tattoo is the story of Dante’s Inferno as imagined by Giovanni da Modena in the 15th century. Viale’s knowledge of art, its history and his materials and their own stories, are all formidable. Combining a curious mind with patience and the ability to integrate emblems of various cultures into his sculptures allow his overall body of work to transcend time.
Refusing to be situated in any milieu, his Laocoön sculpture has an iconographic relevance. By telling two intertwined stories of life/death, with the subject and the tattoos, Viale manages to communicate a great deal with his art. This is an extension of him as a person. He’s a great communicator, an astute storyteller whose own joie de vivre comes alive through his creations that are static only in their marbled mass.
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