Dangerous Beauty

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FRANCESCA MININI
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FRA NCES CO SI M ETI
Dangerous Beauty
Katerina Gregos
Francesco Simeti, 2005 - Catalogue
Francesco Simeti has become known for his installations, wallpapers and digital prints and his
appropriation of ready made imagery from the printed mass media. His work is primarily a comment on
and investigation into the aestheticisation and commodification of violence and war, into how news is
represented but also aims to raise questions about the very nature of this kind of imagery in
contemporary society. Indeed, in newspapers and magazines, images of horror, destruction and suffering
are not only increasingly ubiquitous but are offered - often mindlessly often by specific design - and
consumed, more-often-than-not, unquestioningly. It is in this contested arena of representation that
Francesco Simeti works. The artist selects generic rather than iconic press images from magazines and
newspapers: scenes of combat, conflict, images of refugees or hostages and environmental destruction
which he then re-arranges into carefully considered repetitive groupings and patterns in the form of
wallpaper installations, often in period settings. In these, the decorative, highly aesthetic but seemingly
anodyne semblance of wallpaper is intermingled with disturbing episodes from current world affairs to
arrive at a rather destabilising effect for the viewer, what has been aptly described as ‘guerilla décor’. The
wallpaper serves as a deliberate ‘backdrop’ which seemingly ‘neutralises’ what is on view and is a core
part of Simeti’s strategy to draw attention to problematic media strategies such as the trivialisation or
banalisation of violence and traumatic events, but also to urge the viewer to empathise with what the
implications of these images really are. Despite its overall pleasing appearance, Simeti’s work demands
closer inspection because it is upon a secondary reading that its conceptual underpinnings reveal
themselves. At first glance, his installations seem to possess all the aesthetic allure of decorative, ornate
wallpaper, in the rococo details or floral patterns. Upon closer inspection however, one will find a very
different scenario which subverts the initial impression of beauty and harmony. And it is with this tension
between the seductive and the beautiful versus the sinister and disturbing, but also the real and the
artificial, that Simeti’s work plays. In ‘Acorn Paper’ (2000), for example, inside the circular framed-like
decorative patterns one will find images of people in protective suits collecting toxic waste. In ‘Clearing
Fields’ (2001) the artist combines an already existing wallpaper pattern from the Cooper-Hewitt design
museum in New York with images of countryside warfare by the IRA and Kosovo Liberation Army, while
in ‘Watching the War’ (2002), the artist fuses images from the war in Afghanistan with beautifully arranged
images of explosions and their resulting ‘clouds’.
Simeti is primarily concerned with the way we consume images and information through the
media but also how these are ‘framed’ aesthetically and contextually. At the same time his work points to
changing geopolitical conditions in the world and is a direct comment on the current culture of fear and
war-mongering which is being propagated by some governments and media conglomerates alike. Now I
Know my ABCs, Next Time Won’t You Sing with Me?, for example, is a series of 26 prints (in two
versions, 2002 and 2003) where Simeti presents a pictorial alphabet for children. Here each letter is
visualized by a picture and a word that goes with it as in any child's book of ABC’s, except that Simeti’s
images and words are in contrast with the idea that we all have from our childhood about a pictorial
alphabet. Simeti’s ABC’s are neither innocent nor rosy; rather they present a very dystopic view of the
present, one which is steeped with the reality but also fear of war. This is an alternative alphabet for 21st
century children, through which they can be taught the ‘necessary’ semantics of warfare. So instead of
‘C’ for cat and ‘D’ for dog, in Simeti’s alphabet one will find ‘C’ representing ‘cluster’, ‘D’ for dungeon
and ‘B’ for bazooka. This work alone speaks heaps of the changed global status quo in the aftermath of
9/11.
If Now I Know my ABCs… ground the viewer in a matter-of-fact pragmatism Artificio (2003-4), on
the other hand, possesses a deliberately more sensationalist visual quality but is also more ambiguous in
its message. The work is a series of glossy, vibrantly colourful digital prints of explosions, which are not
necessarily recognisable as such. The title of each image works as an ambiguous hint by referencing the
caption of the newspaper giving out the location of the explosion or the name of the bomb. The title, of
course, means artifice in Italian, but is also a play on words since fire works are called ‘fuochi d’ artificio’
(artificial fires). The ambiguity of what is on view and the difficulty of defining the genealogy of the images
is what Simeti plays with here. Indeed the works hover between beauty and horror, between the realistic
and the simulated, leaving the viewer in apprehension as to their origin and resting more on their sheer
power of association. At the same time, they retain the iconic status and spectacular quality of their
typology though attempts to ‘place’ or ‘categorise’ these images are ultimately frustrated.
In his most recent work, ‘Garlands’ (2005), made especially for the exhibition at Vitamin Gallery,
Simeti combines the printed image with sculptural elements. The installation is a kind of hybrid between a
hunting pavilion and a fake grotto. There is a wallpaper with repeating prints of helicopters and a cave (a
reference to Osama Bin Laden), plaster casts of branches and sticks, plastic camouflage branches, a
sculpture of a bear made out of papier maché decorated with floral patterns (modelled on 3D shooting
targets available in hunting catalogues) and a series of ‘portraits’ of men modelling camouflage suits
taken from hunting and paramilitary equipment catalogues. As with many of his previous works, there is a
contradictory duality to this work, a tension between the real and the artificial, the ‘natural’ and the
contrived, in conceptual as well as visual terms. There is also, just to mention an example of one of the
installation’s references, something uncanny but also ridiculous about men who use plastic camouflage
branches and paraphernalia to venture into real nature, in order to shoot and kill, whether for hunting or
combat purposes.
In all these works Simeti deliberately emphasises the formal aspects of the individual images he
culls from the media, in an attempt to draw attention to the fact that journalistic photography and
reportage (not to mention advertising) is becoming, itself, increasingly ‘artistic’ - in some perverse, odd
sense. All of the artist’s practice concentrates on the ever-pervasive power of the media image, a power
that often usurps the message itself. On the other hand, Simeti is well aware that notions of advertising,
marketing and graphic design are increasingly infiltrating into ‘serious’ journalism, and he uses the very
same tactics in his own work as a subversive tool in order to draw attention to and expose these kinds of
mechanisms. However, the concept of design, in Simeti’s work is not delivered with the same punch and
in-your-face manner as in the work of Barbara Kruger, for example. Rather, Simeti opts for a quieter,
insidious, more ‘camouflaged’ approach – visually as well as conceptually - where the message lies in
the details, in the in-between areas of what is represented.
Simeti’s tactics can be summed up in three words: aestheticise, disguise, destabilise. These are
achieved by his ability to subvert a given system by using its own language and strategies in order,
ultimately, to draw attention to its problematics and mechanisms of representation. In this way, he
comments not only on the aestheticisation of violence but also on the way in which the media often
reduce horrific events to trivial, expendable incidents. In pictorial terms, he intimates the manner by which
such events are reduced to media sound bites or background “noise”. Simeti’s work, however, is not
concerned with offering definitive answers about the issue of media representations. Nor does he adopt a
moral stance; that is something that is left to the viewer. Instead his work is more concerned with asking
questions and with conveying the message that images should not be taken at face value, and more
importantly perhaps, that what one sees is not always necessarily what one gets.
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