Curated by Cristina Costanzo

7 – 29 October 2017

Performance by Iratxe Hernandez Simal

Crypt of the church of Santa Maria del Piliere, Palermo


A migrant by vocation and cosmopolitan by education, Nélida Mendoza manages to combine her own training in the field of sculpture with an innate conceptual attitude; she does so through an exploration of diverse languages and aesthetic tools that include drawing, painting, sculpture, installations, and new media, in this way undertaking evocative contaminations, with interdisciplinary and multicultural aims.

In recent years the artist has increasingly focused on such themes as identity, diversity, the territory, and boundaries and so has arrived at an original and high quality production, one that is appreciated and recognized at an international level. Wandering between one medium and another, Nélida Mendoza’s aesthetics are not only individual but collective, open to a dialogue with others and in search of a content. The privileged interlocutors of such a dialogue are Latin-American culture, a subject often to be found in the artist’s work, environments (often natural ones) selected for site-specific interventions, and the collective memory of places with which to compare herself and through which to measure the diversity of the places themselves.

In line with this attention to places, Nélida Mendoza has now concentrated on the specificity of the church of Santa Maria del Piliere, in particular the crypt, the venue chosen for her installation, an unprecedented action that has found its only possible completion in the place that hosts it and, therefore, generates it. Starting from thoughts about traversing as an impelling aesthetic need, the artist favours materials that are fragile, ephemeral, changeable – wax, paraffin, paper – and also able to transpire, thus alluding to water. The attention she pays to this symbolic element – one that in Latin America is a natural agent converted into a myth, but also a source of energy and a frontier when interpreted as the water of a river – is directly linked to the history of the church in Palermo. It was founded halfway through the sixteenth century by the noblewoman Giulia De Panicolis following the discovery of a wooden statue of the Virgin on a pillar (“pileri” in Sicilian) inside a well near to the crypt. Many believers were attracted by this miraculous discovery and by the redemptive power of the particularly fresh waters of the Piliere.

So it is not by chance that the Basque performance by the artist Iratxe Hernandez Simal is concerned with the themes of regeneration and purification, underlined by a sound and participative dimension that leads to an original analysis of the space. Because the historical-artistic events of the church of Santa Maria del Piliere are still being studied – the church has some fine decorations attributed to Vito D’Anna and the school of Serpotta – the crypt reveals itself to be a place that can stimulate the imagination of both the artist and the visitor despite its precarious state of conservation, due to wartime events which were followed in the immediate post-war period by the closure of the site. Today it can be enjoyed by the public thanks to the involvement of the Associazione degli Amici dei Musei Siciliani.

During her various inspections, Nélida Mendoza, interested in inquiring into the volumes and spaces of the church, concentrated on the key role that absence and its multiple implications have in the crypt where, following a subtle plays of references, there are registered layers of traces, signs, and passages of something that no longer exists, such as the furnishings of the crypt which are virtually non-existent. They suggest, however, a ritual adapted to the place just as the gaps, lines, holes, and incrustations on the walls evoke persistent forms and contents. In order to highlight the identity of the place, which is still notable despite the various absences it reveals, the artist has inserted layers of paraffin wax and traced out the perimeter of such key elements as the altar and the crucifix, bringing back temporarily what is no longer there but is still present. The paraffin wax, applied in thin and non-invasive layers to fill the voids that were once occupied by symbolic objects, acts as a sheet able to mirror what once lay below and, by alluding to transpiration and transfiguration, imposes itself as an icon and tangible sign of the absence perceived by the artist and now restored to the viewers. As both a monitor and interface, the paraffin wax mirror that absence by noting it and accentuating it. If, as the artist has stated, “the space, the itinerary, and the evolution of the material have always been the main points of interest for beginning to think about an idea, a project”, then the intervention by Nélida Mendoza does not limit itself to occupying an empty place, to create what has been removed or to substitute an element that has been subtracted by time, war, lack of care, and greed, but highlights it as the trace of memory and the identifying mark of that place suspended between what has gone and what has remained.

For the crypt of the church of Santa Maria del Piviere, Nélida Mendoza has invented an intervention that can allow the surfacing of a new perspective, one that does not aim at superimposing and covering but at mirroring the passage that separates the before and after by reinventing time through an ephemeral medium. Wax, paraffin wax, and paper all highlight the marks in the crypt’s space, transient and yet tangible materials that become a metaphor for the rarefaction of time and for a perishable existence, one consisting of both spirit and material. This is not just one place but many places that are sparked off by sharing an aesthetic of time, memory, and space, as well as abandonment.


Cristina Costanzo