When Gianni Piacentino was 23 years old, he abandoned art to renovate classic motorbikes. At the time, he was one of the leading members of a ’60s avant-garde movement called Arte Povera. But his sculptures were too polished for the studied carelessness of his peers. Motorcycle restoration, on the other hand, was a job for perfectionists. Beginning with a vintage 1930s Indian, he refurbished old bikes to a fetish finish.
He also raced them. Speed was an obsession, as were mechanical performance and metallic luster. At a certain point he asked himself why he’d never been so obsessive about his art. And he began making sculptures with spoked wheels and chrome.
Nearly five decades later, Piacentino remains fixated on speed and obsessed with perfection. The dozens of vehicular sculptures currently on view at the Fondazione Prada in Milan attest to his craftsmanship, and also to the wisdom of following his passion. What makes Piacentino’s sculpture so arresting is his application of body shop logic in purely formal work.
Germano Celant, the curator of this retrospective (and founder of Arte Povera), positions Piacentino’s work between Pop Art and Minimalism. It’s a reasonable claim – given that motorbikes are pop-cultural objects and Piacentino pares them down to their geometric essence – but his thesis seems too firmly settled in the art world, especially when you see the sculptures’ unsculpturelike dynamism.
Piacentino himself gives a less theoretical grounding for his work. “I drive very fast on a motorcycle, so I know that if there is something a little bit off, it can be risky,” he explains. “I apply the same attention to art.” An explanation for his perfectionism, this statement also captures the allure of his sculptural vehicles. They are designed with an engineer’s attention to necessity, built with the minimalism of machinery. Piacentino’s objects are sculptural expressions of specific functions. They look dynamic because they’re built for speed.