Ocula | Alessandro Teoldi Between Vertigo and Performance: A Sensory Conflict

Shanyu Zhong, Ocula, December 2, 2021

This eye which, to contemplate the sun, face to face in its nudity, opens up to it in all its glory, does not arise from my reason... For at the moment when the lightning stroke blinds me, I am the flash of a broken life, and this life - anguish and vertigo - opening itself up to an infinite void, is ruptured and spends itself all at once in this void. [1]

-- Georges Bataille


Two contrasting materials, blanket and concrete, constitute the exhibition Alessandro Teoldi: Sole Negli Occhi at Capsule Shanghai. Using both materials to depict the human body against landscape-like backdrops, portraits or still life, the artist sparks a tug-of-war between their materiality and evokes polarized tactile sensations.


Many artists have preferred the blanket for its woven texture and materiality suggestive of warmth and security, from Joseph Beuys using it as an obsessive talisman in his biographic fable, to Alighiero Boetti, who transfigured it to a symbol of global order infused with Afghan embroiderers' labor. However, the inflight blankets used by Alessandro Teoldi are standardized products that wrap around the traveler's body with equal intimacy - and what do we care about the differences between the blankets distributed by different airlines? But when these products are cut into large pieces and sewn together, especially in a patchwork of similar tones, a vibrant palette and contrasting textures start to develop. The sense of touch is further addressed by the rough selvages and rigid contours along the seam, as if created by clumsy hands and a pair of blunt shears.


The cement, on the other hand, conveys a sense of alienation at odds with the textiles. With a crisp, precise finish, these relief-like, intimate-scale works on the wall reveal exquisite details such as fingernails, fruits, and bird wings, but no carving trace is visible. In fact, they are also collage works produced through planning, cutting and combining various kinds of paper in acrylic boxes. The composition is then sealed with concrete poured onto it. When the concrete eventually sets, the surface takes on different color gradations, texture and even moisture, but the traces of collage have escaped these timeless stone tablets.


We are at a particular time when hygiene is celebrated and therefore contact is frowned upon. And yet, Teoldi is now filling this tactile deficit within us. The exhibition title 'Sole negli occhi' refers to a moment of blazing sunlight incurring passing blindness. Here, the vertigo of staring into the sun is exchanged for the sensory stimulation of the ears, nose, tongue and body, recalling the spiritual encounter in Ecstasy of Saint Teresa as depicted by Bernini. At once erotic and holy, impassioned and intoxicated, the face of the saint reveals a moment when thresholds dissolute. The moment is also celebrated through Teoldi's depiction of subjects as well as his use of the medium. His figures often have their eyes closed, hands and fingers outstretched, their curly hair sprawling like plants, their limbs in motion climbing over each other, forming swirls that nearly engulf the blurred faces.


But the euphoria at its fullest could not be prolonged; following its dissipation, the elaborate compositions expose themselves "inadvertently." In Untitled III [2], for instance, three figures squeeze against each other, while the contours of their faces form a figure-ground relationship reminiscent of the famous Rubin's Vase illusion.


More intentionally unnatural elements unfold in other works. Taking the two holding hands in Untitled (Iberia, Norwegian, American Airlines and Lufthansa) as an example, one hangs down out of nowhere, while the other protrudes awkwardly from the body cut through by a strip of stain on the suede. Similarly, Untitled (AirFrance, United, Lufthansa and Aeromexico) depicts two ghostly hands in ultramarine, only one of which casts a pale, misty shadow. The seemingly reversed light and dark relationship create a top-heavy composition in which the bloated, oppressive body threatens to invade downward. Untitled (Emirates, Lufthansa, Air India and American Airlines) might suggest a comfortably reclining figure, and yet, the body also appears like assembled puppet parts - or perhaps the head and the left arm belong to different people, as in Salome and the Head of John the Baptist depicted by Titian or Caravaggio? Such unsettling contradictions dispel the innate warmth of the textile.


And now, the ominous contradictions force one to retreat to a distant view - in fact, these works, composed of roughly cut pieces, large blocks of color devoid of detail, never encourage us to step forward. Instead, they invite someone passing by to bump into and peek at these intimate scenes through the windows (as the gallery is located within a tranquil residential neighborhood in the former French Concession). One could see two juxtaposed large-scale works in crimson hues facing the windows, the narratives of which seem to relate to each other through the background in yellow and white: on the left, the subject covers their head but leaves the body wide open to the viewer; the work to the right, with another figure entering the image, shows the two figures clinging to each other. Their stagy gesture and the vivid, saturated colors transform the scene into a tableau, a posed photograph that performs intimacy. In another work, Untitled (AirFrance, Avianca and Qantas), the heads are even cropped a little - an amateurish composition suggesting the presence of the frame.


The grammar of photography also finds its place in the concrete works, which we must step forward to scrutinize or even intervene in. One would notice a similar composition in Untitled (Daisy) and Untitled (Shell) that isolates a man holding a fetish object on one side, leaving half of the image as negative space. Further, the close-up shot in Untitled (Medea), which displays an open book, places us in the role of the reader insomuch as the letters are reversely 'printed' or 'inscribed' on the otherwise blank, thumb-held page, urging us to flip it over. [3] And after all, the approach of transferring paper to concrete resonates a lot with the photogram, in which objects are exposed directly onto light-sensitive materials.


As the precision of the concrete works is not endowed by carving, and the blankets have abandoned their warmth, we realize how the tactile perception of materials is pre-determined and imposed on us. As its intensity fades after vertigo, the emotional sensation takes a harder hit in Marigold. The work juxtaposes two almost identical still lifes, one smooth and serene like all the other works in the exhibition, while the other shows a cracked, whitened and flaking surface - the concrete seems to manifest its fundamental quality as a building material through these changes it would undergo in reality.


Hold on, reality…? We look around the scenes across the gallery that have appeared so real to us, and realize how they are embellished fragments drawn from our memories or imagination. Like soap operas suffused with the cliché of kissing, holding hands and hugging, the works remind us over and over that we could no longer perceive intimacy as we used to.



[1] Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, p.77.

[2] The works by Alessandro Teoldi mentioned in the article were all created in 2021.

[3] We cannot avoid looking at the bright wedding band on the ring finger and the word "MEDEA" - why does the book title eerily appear on the inside page? Struck by the arrow of Eros, the sorceress Medea kills her sons in anger over the infidelity of her husband, Iason. This ironic contrast between the mythology and the ring serves as another footnote on intimacy for this work.