The works of Virginia Russolo (b.1995) invite us to explore ancient rites, belief systems, and rituals, activated through the surfaces of painting. The artist ascribes a ritual significance to the application and order of materials; repetitive action allows for a state of meditative tranquility free from distractions and the expectations of viewership. Animal and plant materials, such as beeswax, propolis and oils, are reworked, anointed and massaged, gradually revealing the translucence, hue and even the scent of the final form. Russolo’s newest series of works, Mappe Altari (Altar Maps), began shortly after her move to Crete. These maps blur the boundaries of the real, the abstract, and the sacred, suggesting connections to dwelling, geological matter, ritual and animated play. As sculptural cartographies, they stimulate our primordial understanding of touch as a means of navigation, heightened through the uncanny interplay of fur elements and suspended objects.
Virginia Russolo grew up in Italy, the United States, Japan, the Netherlands and the UK. In 2017 she obtained a BFA from The University of Oxford and since then her work has been shown at gallery T293 (Italy), K-Gold Temporary Gallery (Greece), the 7th Thessaloniki Biennale (Greece), The Pitt Rivers Museum of Ethnography (UK), Modern Art Oxford (UK), Tate Modern (UK) and Fondazione Spinola Banna (Italy). This May, Virginia will be participating in the Mediterranea 19 Young Artists Biennale in San Marino.
In conversation with Ariana Kalliga
Ciao Virginia! We first met this year in Athens after your big move to your studio in Crete. How is life in Crete treating you so far?
The move to Crete has been good. I found an amazing studio, the largest I’ve ever had and in it I started making the smallest works I’ve ever made. Being here is a dream come true because of the proximity to archeological sites and the access to animal materials. It’s only been a few months but I’ve already noticed I’m using a wider range of materials from sheep and bees in my work.
I can’t wait to visit this large studio packed with your tiniest work. Can you tell me about the current body of works you’ve been busy researching and the choice of materials you’ve been exploring?
My most recent series is titled Mappe Altari (Altar Maps), it’s still a work in progress so I’m finding things as I go along. I’m putting together research on maps as tools to explore non-physical places and the situation of objects being moved on a surface of symbols, which is similar to that of a board game. These works keep me circling around to the dynamics of ritual, the fetish object and the proximity of play and the sacred.
The choice of using materials such as fat, propolis, beeswax, lanolin, bee pollen and animal fur is about protecting the knowledge on the surface of my work. To better understand this dynamic with my paintings and sculptures, I’m looking to the worship of objects. One branch of this research concerns the cult of sacred stones in the Mediterranean, including the baetyls of ancient Minoan Crete. I’ve been looking at the imagery on seals and coins to learn about materials involved in worshipping these stones such as olive oil and wool.
How central is topography to your current series Mappe Altari (Altar Maps) and your long term exploration of ritualized spaces?
Using these materials forms an inextricable connection to the land I’m working in. For example, all decisions that concern color are in response to the colour of beeswax, which is never the same and is determined by the flowers that were in season. The materials I use are, to me, archives of information and can act as gateways to get a sense of larger cycles of transformation of matter on earth.
Regarding ritualized spaces, I’ve recently discovered the importance of touch in my process. I’m at the beginning of researching the activation that touch enables when worshipping sacred objects. Some of these objects are stone oracles of the Mediterranean, such as the Omphalos at Delphi and the Bocca della Verita in Rome, but more broadly any surface that has to be touched in order to create a spiritual connection. This is reflected in my recent works which have a smooth finish similar to marble or stones subjected to the touch of worshippers over time. I’m currently exploring this in a large painting for the Mediterranea 19 Young Artists Biennale.
I wonder if these Altar Maps draw on any past examples of equally ‘playful’ mapping practices. Have you looked into cultural precursors to these ‘game-board’ like structures?
The practical element of Mappe Altari, the tracing of two-dimensional symbols and paths with objects, is crucial for me as they are first of all tools for exploration and information gathering. This aspect of the work guides my research. Part of this research began upon seeing paintings by Ngupulya Pumani at the National Gallery of New South Wales. I was amazed by the ability to map, to condense into an object, part of the colossal legacy of the Dreamtime. I’m also interested in the role Saami Shamanic drums play in facilitating movement through non physical spaces during ceremonies and their place in the house as tools to seek advice from. I’m also interested in the way they are activated through touch.
Another branch of my research concerns Sankei Mandara, large scale topographical depictions of sacred sites from late Medieval Japan. These maps functioned on different levels: to encourage a physical pilgrimage to the temples depicted but they also served as a conduit for a non-physical journey by inducing the viewer to project themselves into the map and receive the spiritual benefits of the pilgrimage. These pieces of my research function for me as material evidence of the possibility of traveling through images and condensing legacy into objects.
Created through the repetitive application of beeswax, oil, leather, fur, and other natural materials over time, your works naturally undergo a process metamorphosis, containing within them intimate knowledge of your own ritual process. How do you envision this series will change over time?
I’m very excited not to know where the work and research will go next! I’m currently making a large painting, a large map, measuring roughly three meters each side. This scale has allowed me to feel a more bodily connection to the symbols and the materiality of the work. I imagine the intensity of this experience will inform my next pieces.