Grégory Sugnaux at Bibliotheca Herztiana / Rome

Grégory Sugnaux / POST SCRIPTUM / curated by Lara Demori (BH Postdoc Fellow and Scientific Assistant)

31/01/2024 - 12/04/2024

Bibliotheca Hertziana
Max Planck Institute for Art History
Via Gregoriana 30
00187 Rome

Photo credits: Bibliotheca Hertziana/Enrico Fontolan, courtesy: the artist.

Press Release

In the 15th century, an anonymous artist penned his observations about working in the recently discovered “chambers” of the Roman Domus Aurea: “The summer feels cooler here than the winter... Along with supplies of bread, ham, fruits, and wine, we crawl on the ground, presenting a spectacle more comical than the grotesques.” Anyone who witnessed the Swiss artist Grégory Sugnaux emerge from his personal Domus, his grotto in recent weeks, ascending, coughing and panting, from the basement of Via Gregoriana 9 – the main setting for the video central to this exhibition — wearing an almost startled expression, as if he had lost awareness of both the temporal and spatial dimensions to which he had been transported, will inevitably recall those early reports. You might find they are evocative of those Renaissance painters who descended through narrow shafts not far from the Colosseum, stumbling upon a perfectly preserved past just a few meters beneath the floor of their own time. Enthralled by the frescoes of antiquity, these artists were captivated by the ‘grotesques’ — hybrids of human, animal, and plant species — o such a degree that they conjured forth these beguilingly disquieting monsters onto the surface, recreating them within the contemporary context, even to embellish the rooms of the Vatican. 
Forming a central theme in Sugnaux’s artistic approach and practice are elements of descent, digging, retrieval, and breaking of boundaries between yesterday and today, between the sacred and the profane, as well as integrating figures and elements that seem disparate or incongruent upon first glance. Equally significant is the bewildering simultaneity of emotions that this process evokes. Fear, affection, mockery, disgust, attraction, and repulsion are feelings that simultaneously sustain and fragment in face-to-face encounters with his art, as well as in the process of creation. This holds true for his works around the so-called “cursed images.” 
Those images that have surged to the surface from the depths of the internet since 2016 distinguish themselves not only by their questionable quality and disconcerting content (usually involving cuddly toys, food, disparate body parts, teeth, animals, nothing is where it is supposed to be), but mainly because they evoke a sensation within us that we don’t fully grasp or comprehend. A diffuse pleasure in agitation, a hunger for the ambiguity embodied in the image. This holds true for the series created during his four-month scholarship at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, as well as the video and exhibition titled “Post Scriptum.” Where the Swiss artist would once have typically immersed himself in the internet for his research in preparation of his artistic endeavors, seeking hovering/floating ghost images, lost visual souls, and providing them, if only momentarily, for the duration of a show, with an anchor, a sense of a place, a contextual backdrop, he has now plunged into the seemingly endless expanse of the Hertziana archive, allowing images to unfold before him. 
At the beginning, there was a word, a search term: “grotesque.” Hertziana’s website responded with “over 3500 results.” Sugnaux kept scrolling, looking, sifting, and feeling, until something concrete began to take shape. Certain patterns. Connections spanning epochs and genres. Figures and gestures that served as an echo of his experience in the city of Rome, its layers, its decadence, its irreverence. 
As was customary for him, he quickly and intuitively replicated initial elements: a caricature of Pope Innocent XI smoking in bed by Bernini, which he sketched in an elongated form on a wooden board found on a street in Rome. A naked old hag pulling her hair like a curtain, which he painted over a preexisting image depicting the Halloween disaster in Seoul. Harlequins, punks, witches. Many of his characters stem from magazines of the seventies and eighties. Others, like the Alexamenos Graffito (depicting Jesus as a donkey, one of the earliest caricatures of its kind), derive from books that researchers left lying around in the library, the pages of which the artist secretly leafed through in their absence. They are often the unloved protagonists of the visual memory of art and pop culture, the quirky fringe characters, those images, which Sugnaux has chosen in an affectionate gesture as they are rarely sought after, represents an attempt to elevate the comedic. They are the so-called Roman fools. 
Grégory Sugnaux’s artworks seldom exist in isolation; rather, their true potential is unveiled in dialogue with others, in the juxtaposition within the context of an exhibition. It is the encounter with elements that do not seamlessly align that propels movement for the artist, revealing truths that already exist but seemingly lurk and are often overlooked by us. In the case of “Post Scriptum,” Sugnaux’s images came together for the first time even before the exhibition, shielded from the gaze of viewers. The clandestine gathering took place in the mentioned “grotto,” into which he disappeared for days — a location fittingly named for this mysterious convergence. Its name is “La Cage aux Folles,” the Cage of Fools. 
This modern ruin is nestled in the heart of Rome, just a few meters from the Spanish Steps, and a short stroll from the Hertziana. Like almost everything in this city, this abandoned, forgotten structure has lived through several incarnations. In the 1920s, it housed a gallery, whose founder became a notorious smuggler and forger in history. Later, in the seventies and eighties, the Roman youth gathered here to dance and lose themselves in the night. In the future, the overflowing library archive will find a new home here. 
Before the impending arrival of books with their categories, styles, and epochs, the artist liberated their overlooked heroes. He welcomed them to wander through these spaces, intermingle, expand, adhere to the walls, and claim the ruin entirely for themselves. Much like parasites. In a way, akin to the artist himself. It is conceivable that he and his subterranean fools will persistently linger in the scholarly halls of Hertziana, even after their departure, intermittently disrupting the established order. 

- Annabelle Hirsch