For Micol Assaël’s exhibition, the vast rectangular space of HangarBicocca’s Shed looks bare and inhospitable. Evenly illuminated by gray neon lights, the gallery resonates with an intense, mechanical noise-an unsettling symphony composed of the rumbling of fans and the screeching of power generators. Several closed cabinlike structures (including a cubic wooden room, a refrigeration unit and a rectangular glass enclosure) are scattered throughout the space. As Assaël, who was born in Rome in 1979 and currently lives in Greece, states in the press release, the gallery has been transformed into a sort of “pulsating engine room of a ship.” To me, it felt like the rusty womb of an old and neglected power plant.
The exhibition—titled “ILIOKATAKINIOMUMASTILOPSARODIMAKOPIOTITA,” a combination of Greek words joined together without meaning—presents four major works, made between 2003 and 2014 and shown en masse for the first time. One of the most potent pieces, Vorkuta (2003)—named after an old mining town near a Russian gulag—consists of an approximately 7-by-7-by-11-foot refrigeration chamber maintained at -30°C. It contains a chair kept at body temperature by an internal thermostat and a control panel traversed by currents of electricity. Conceived after a journey to Siberia, the work asks the visitor to experience, for an instant, the gulag and the situation of the Russian miners. Equally forbidding is an untitled piece from 2003, previously shown in “La Zona” at the 50th Venice Biennale. Upon entering an iron room, people are flogged by vigorous currents of hot and cold air produced by large ventilators. Transformers power several lightbulbs installed under decrepit pieces of furniture (a folding bed, a table and a steel cupboard), on which are laid tangles of electric cables. Instead of the safety of a bedroom, we face the violence and alienation of a place where we are overcome by forces outside of our control.
Much has been written about Assaël as an artist interested in creating dangerous and frightening encounters for viewers. This criticism, however, overlooks her intention to establish zones of contemplation with her works, a goal underscored in two newer installations. 432Hz (2009) is a wooden room that contains in its interior a series of backlit beeswax drawings. There is also an audio track, activated by the movements of the viewer, that reproduces the sound of bees; the title refers to the vibrations emitted by those insects. For Sub (2014), made specifically for the Hangar, iron-and-glass display units previously used in Assaël’s 2009 traveling exhibition “Fomuška” are assembled into a structure hosting a Kelvin hydroelectric generator; viewers can observe the creation of electrostatic discharge produced by the setup.
Assaël—who studied philosophy before devoting herself to making art—wants to lead the viewer to meditate upon reality and the mechanisms of perception. She interrogates our senses in order to call attention to the invisible dynamics of nature, while simultaneously investigating the uncertain territory of emotions and mental states. As we enter the various installations, we alternatively move through anticipation, concern, discomfort and wonder, tracing states in the kaleidoscope of human experience.