In Raphaël Zarka’s recent exhibition at Bischoff/Weiss, the French artist (b. 1977) continued his interrogation of the dynamics of structures and shapes in an 11-minute video titled Gibellina Vecchia (2010), which was shot on 16mm film and transferred to HD. The piece revolves around the eponymous village in the Sicilian hills that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1968, and later rebuilt as Gibellina Nuova, about 12 miles away. In 1980, Alberto Burri was commissioned by the mayor of the city to construct a sprawling concrete monument among the ruins of the village. The memorial was left unfinished when funding for the project ran out. (Zarka ruminates on the rebuilt city in 14 views of Gibellina Nuova [2011], a 3-minute film that was shown concurrently at the Frieze Art Fair.) The exhibition at Bischoff/Weiss also included new sculptures and photographs, some of which relate directly to Zarka’s investigation of Gibellina, and others that deal more broadly with form and the appropriation of shapes.

In previous works, such as Riding Modern Art (2005) and Species of Spaces in Skateboarding (2008), Zarka has shown skateboarders interacting with neglected urban structures and modernist public art. Concrete pipes, sidewalk rails and large sculptures become surfaces for ollies, board slides and flips. In these films, overlooked aspects of public space are brought to life again, embraced by the skateboarding community and caressed by the board.

Gibellina Vecchia
, however, adopts a more somber tone with its slow static shots of the memorial taken from different vantage points. Burri covered the entire footprint of the village with a rectangular layer of concrete, covering over hundreds of feet of rolling hills; he marked the concrete with a network of meandering passageways, like cracks in one of his paintings. Zarka’s close-up shots of the concrete are accompanied by the incongruous sounds of rural life—sheep baaing, birds chirping and the distant chatter of elderly villagers. The contrast between the bucolic landscape and the barren memorial is stark and unsettling. For only a moment—when a group of teenagers gathers to lounge on the structure—does the monument feel at ease with its surroundings. Unlike Zarka’s depiction of skateboarders appropriating the most unforgiving of modernist forms, Gibellina Vecchia presents the possible failure of public art to connect with its public.

In the series “Reconstructed Angles,” Zarka presents a number of wooden sculptures on plinths. The three-dimensional works are manifestations of forms derived from Renaissance paintings. Here, Zarka’s investigation is purely formal. Shapes are borrowed and reconfigured as contemporary objects. The photographs on view employ a similar strategy; in one Lambda print, Gibellina Vecchia’s monument appears as a geometric tattoo on a man’s arm.

While Zarka is clearly interested in the formal analysis of shapes, he is also interested in the complex dynamics that evolve between forms, structures and people. The exhibition “Gibellina Vecchia” was a new development in the artist’s work, offering a deeper reflection on the way that humans interact with their spatial environment.

Photo: Raphael Zarka: Gibellina Vecchia, 2010. 16mm film transferred to HD. 10 3/8 minutes; at Bischoff/Weiss.