This exhibition is an event in more than one regard. It is the first Italian retrospective (following the survey at the Geneva Centre d’Art Contemporain in 2014) of the work of an artist who since the 1960s has been producing a unique body of work that defies any attempt at classification. It is only in the last few years, thanks to a slowly developing porosity between the borders of art and design, that the relevance and power of Gianni Piacentino’s work has been fully appreciated. With more than ninety pieces presented in reverse chronological order by curator Germano Celant, the exhibition begins with one that admirably summarizes Piacentino’s ceaseless quest. Despite its title, Self-Portrait Race 1 (1991-93) is not a portrait of the artist but, rather, a motorcycle helmet hanging under a metal structure whose straight line shape evokes a design for optimal aerodynamic efficiency.
Moving vehicles are the recurring motif in the work of this artist who is obsessed with speed, racing and motorcycles. An easy rider himself since very young, starting in 1971 Piacentino began to take part in European sidecar races as a “monkey”. After a brief period in which he was one of the pioneers of Arte Povera, he allowed his passion for cycle racing to dictate his artistic practice. His first vehicles were decked out with various accessories (mudguard, seat, etc.) that soon disappeared from his production. He then concentrated on the shape of these racecars and motorcycles, which seemed to become increasingly aerodynamic and pure. False marble was quickly replaced by paint varnish, demonstrating his impressive mastery of industrial materials and techniques. Around 1970 he began to make two basic kinds of vehicles, one with a car body and the other a simple tubular structure.
Piacentino’s vehicles can seem cold and distant. At first view they seem to offer the same “insignificance” characteristic of all minimalist art. But if you asked a biker what he thinks of them, you would get a very different response. In fact, the body plays a fundamental role in the conception of these vehicles whose curves sometimes seem to be designed to accommodate the body of a driver. But all inveterate riders are convinced that their body can adapt to a machine. They don’t feel like they need a saddle or handlebars: their body and the bike are one. A machine purified of all accessories, a simple vector whose only raison d’être is speed. And if you are devoted to speed, then something becomes obvious: the most powerful motor can never outrun the speed of thought, synapses snapping together at the speed of light. At that moment the motor disappears, wheels become superfluous and all that remains is a totally simplified structure. The physical body gives way to a more ethereal body that no longer has a fixed location in time and space. It becomes a cursor in perpetual motion, and with that connects with the concerns that have haunted artists since the dawn of time.