old masters

Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters

old masters


Our greatest pleasure, surely, is in fragments, just as we derive the most pleasure from life if we regard it as a fragment, whereas the whole and the complete and perfect are basically abhorrent to us. Only when we are fortunate enough to turn something whole, something complete or indeed perfect into a fragment, when we get down to reading it, only then do we experience a high degree, at times indeed a supreme degree, of pleasure in it.

*Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters: A Comedy, 1985

Everything falls apart. This is not meant to sound defeatist, we’re merely observing how everything around us eventually and inevitably disintegrates. In nature, the arrow of time shoots – as we well know – only one way, from order to chaos. The whole universe is permeated by this ruthless, unmistakable law. History is an ever-expanding ruin from which we try – to no avail – to organize the debris. Where is beauty and comfort to be found?

The Romantics were fascinated with impermanence. They especially loved the picturesque character of ruins, decaying constructions and archaeological sites. To artists, thinkers and poets, these became specific tropes enabling melancholic daydreaming about the transient and fleeting nature of human existence. The ruin served as a vanitas for the blind faith in progress. Sehnsucht – the romantic mood – comes from the power of the fragment, and turns into the pathological desire for an unattainable ideal, a fiery yearning for an absolute oneness or the illusion of lost harmony. Modernity is a state caught between the past and the future, nostalgia and utopia. Both of which are equally treacherous. Utopias breed ideological monsters, and "in the sunset of decay, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine" (Kundera).

Fortunately life has the ability to (re)organize. This is why we talk of organisms, which are able to order chaos spontaneously. It’s this élan vital with which biological and social systems resist entropy – for however long they can.

Avant-garde art has always played an ambivalent role in totalitarian regimes, both in the East and the West. Numerous artists initially felt drawn to the idea of being recognised as official state artists, to play an ideological role in the creation of a new political world order. However, their desire was quickly met with frustration when modern art turned out to be less welcome than expected and all cultural production became subservient to the political party’s power cult, organised in guilds. Propaganda art, the state censored ‘return to the Classics’, resulted in conventional sculptures, mosaics and bas-reliefs – monuments for the greater honour and glory of the totalitarian empire.

Postmodern criticism instilled in us the belief that there are no more great stories: everything is hopelessly fractured and the pieces can’t be put back together. We’re bombarded with fragments of words and images on a daily basis without being able to discern even the slightest trace of a coherent whole. The bits and pieces of these semiotic ruins are used to construct a temporary identity, never fully satisfying us. Isn’t this why we are drawn to populist discourse referring to culture as a single body, a quintessential entity, a historical canon?

Every fragment implies the absence of what once was or is about to be whole, but we should admit to this: shards also shine on their own. There’s something unmistakably beautiful about fragments; they keep totality at bay. Let’s look at Luca Monterastelli’s works, brought together in the aptly named exhibition Old Masters – based on the novel by Thomas Bernhard. His choice of materials is modernist, his visual motifs are fragmentary and thus highly suggestive. Monterastelli invokes emblems, symbols and monuments used by established powers to self-aggrandise and consolidate their positions, and subsequently disarms them with a great deal of finesse. Looking at his works is finding joy in the fragment. Out of assembled materials and cast forms Monterastelli allows a new visual imagery to arise like a phoenix from the ashes of its own demise. The visitors of the exhibition are left to roam around an abstract, dark forest made of steel and reinforced concrete.

In the artist’s world, things can never truly exist without words. Monterastelli’s poetic titles shouldn’t just be read, but also heard, like music for the mind. His verses are more than just captions; they make his works all the more allegorical. He thinks of his texts as parasites, subtly engrafting the works, similar to how columns do so with buildings, between the interior and the exterior. Text and image similarly complement and interrupt each other, like partners in an endless dialogue.

Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters
Installation view at "Old Masters", solo show at Keteleer gallery, Antwerp. ph by Denis Decaluwé. Courtesy Keteleer gallery
Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters

Old Masters
by Luca Monterastelli

On a mid-winter night, two men prepare to leave the house. They’re armed and proceed at a steady pace in the thin thread of snow covering the countryside. They are silent, as they were taught. This is how it should be done. There is an age difference between them, let’s say the youngest is the son of the first. He watches the other remain silent; this is how he teaches him, this is how things have to be done.

Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters

After about three-quarters of an hour, they hear the first noise. The older one doesn’t move. As they told him to, as a young man must learn to do. He calmly discovers the weapon. He shoulders it, pointing the end of the barrel to the root of the noise. Then, he’s patient.

Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters

He focuses his senses, trying to visualize the form he believes to be the cause of that sound, and where it comes from. He imagines it one claw at a time, then some feathers: one detail of the prehistoric body at a time. This is how it can be done, this is how it is done. He imagines it, one claw at a time, digging into the ground, making the dry leaves, covered by a thin layer of frost, crunch.

Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters

He imagines it loading the lower muscles to give itself a push, he also imagines feeling the small kick that the whole world undergoes under that push. Now he’s waiting for it, with his gaze directed at the point where imagination should coincide with reality, this is the right way to do it. At the end of the foliage where it is hidden, in the blue of the morning.

Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters

He knows how to coordinate the direction of his gaze with that of the weapon’s barrel, over the years, he has also learned how to find the right moment to pull the trigger, this is how he can do it. He knows that if his capacity for abstraction has not deceived him, he will encounter it at the moment in which something imagined is exchanged for something real. Now, shortly. Now, very soon. The boy looks; the father misses. The black bird flies.

It’s the XVII century

Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters

At the end of the 80s of the twentieth century, a boy notices the same bird alight on an anonymous building. He catches it but does not give it much weight.

Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters

More than twenty years later, a noise of feathers stirs a boy’s attention waiting for the bus on a cold mid-winter morning. He raises his eyes, and there it is; the same bird. The same presence. He points the phone and clicks; that’s how he can do it.

Luca Monterastelli; Old Masters

The beast points its paws. It holds as tightly as it can that strip of a city that lies beneath it.

The space boy turns and walks away.

The old masters watch the scene. They know it'll still want one last tribute before nightfall.