Looking to literature, history, art and design, and his immediate environment for inspiration, Santiago Cucullu embraces the surprising connections that result from his chance-based process of borrowing, stacking, and combining imagery and objects. Consistent with his practice, he worked intuitively in conceptualizing and creating The Wandering Rocks, his commissioned, site-specific project for MMoCA’s first floor corridor—an installation of floor-to-ceiling photographic murals and painted ceramic vessels. In abstracting and reconfiguring our everyday surroundings, Cucullu presents viewers with an enveloping collision of visual information that opens up new ways of seeing, experiencing, and understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of contemporary life.
The murals are comprised of photographs Cucullu captured in various locations both locally and around the world. Flashes of stairwells, utility shafts, corridors, and arched doorways intersect with the narrow architecture of the museum hallway, creating a perceptual experience of shifting space, depth, and perspective. Moving through the hallway from the lobby, the wall to the right begins with an image of the entryway of the artist’s apartment complex in Milwaukee, then shifts to his view from inside a tent in Montana (on a trip to help find fossils), and ends with a pedestrian bridge over the I-43 by his studio in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood. On the back wall that leads to the Henry Street Gallery is a collage combining an image of a Hindu temple in South India with a covered pedestrian walkway in Bologna, Italy. On the left side, again starting from the lobby, the first mural captures the utility area of an apartment building in Bangalore, India. The piece that follows is an altered photograph of an illustration from Lübeck, Germany’s Marzipan Museum. The illustration depicts the founder of the Niederegger Marzipan Company holding a religious painting, which Cucullu replaced with a point-of-view shot of reading a newspaper in a garden (he also lopped off the founder’s head in a move he described as being “like Judith to Holofernes”). In the final mural, the artist weaves together views of MMoCA’s lobby reflected in the glass windows with views from his apartment window and a filmstrip of a wooly mammoth.
For the artist, these images represent moments from his own life when architecture marked a boundary between different states of being. In other words, they illustrate instances of spatial or temporal transitions: inside to outside (or vice versa), profane to sacred, historic to present, hidden to revealed. As such, if a photograph “freezes time,” then the frozen time embodied in these murals are distinct occasions of transformation and change—modes of existence in conflict with photographic stasis. The murals’ static imagery is thus visually and conceptually playful by nodding toward durational time and shifting space.
The installation also includes surprising visual interpolations in the form of 18 colorful ceramic plates affixed to the murals. Like the images that envelop them, the plates are indicative of shifts and transitions, serving as the end points of one visual idea and movement to another—similar to punctuation in passages of text. Loose, gestural linework in blues, oranges, yellows, and greens cover the surface of the ceramics, helping to break up the grey tones and sharp angularity of the printed murals. The tactility and dimensionality of the vessels (their physicality or realness) further contrasts with the surrounding black-and-white imagery, which is flat and illusionistic. In this way, Cucullu presents us with two conflicting ways of seeing and experiencing our surroundings: one that is concrete, another that is boundless.
The number of ceramic plates and title of the installation reference James Joyce’s epic Modernist tome, Ulysses. “Wandering Rocks,” the tenth chapter in the book, incudes 18 vignettes (and one coda) describing the movements of over a dozen Dubliners as they simultaneously experience a single hour in a single city. Although the sections chart out the activities of separate characters, the people or occurrences from one episode often make a chance appearance in another character’s section, thereby linking the entire chapter through a series of interconnected actions. In conceiving his installation, Cucullu visually echoed the manner in which Joyce constructed his “Wandering Rocks” text. Just as each of Joyce’s 18 vignettes transition the reader from one narrative episode to the next and serve as an integral part of the larger (and surprisingly intertwined) chapter, each of Cucullu’s 18 ceramic vessels transitions the viewer from one visual thought to the next while functioning together as elements of a unified whole.
“The Wandering Rocks” is the only chapter that Joyce does not directly parallel with a section from Homer’s The Odyssey. Although the ancient Greek poem makes reference to the Wandering Rocks, it only does so to indicate the route Odysseus avoids on his journey back to Ithaca. Joyce, by inserting this chapter into Ulysses, cleverly alludes to the road not taken. Structurally, the chapter is an interlude. To get from the first half of the novel to the last half, readers must make their way through the chapter’s episodic meanderings. And, absent a single point of view or narrator, the chapter unpredictably shifts from one vignette to the next, pivoting the reader’s attention so frequently as to implicate her in the act of wandering—in parallel to the wanderings of the novel’s characters. In structure and subject, Cucullu’s The Wandering Rocks again mirrors Joyce, functioning as the transition from one section of the building to the other and elevating the very process of wandering to a place of central importance. The artist suggests that it’s in the wandering that we find accidental meaning, in choosing the road not taken that we discover new things about ourselves and about each other. Whether wandering through thresholds of spaces, through the chapters of a book, or though the byroads of the mind, we open ourselves up to myriad connections that link together and gradually transform the ways in which we understand and move through the world.
Perceptually, Cucullu’s The Wandering Rocks tricks our eyes into imagining that the walls of a narrow passageway can push beyond their physical limitations and extend the space upwards and outwards. Conceptually, the imagery references an expansiveness of time and the durational possibilities of space (when a space is a threshold and marks a shift from one mode of being to another). Narratively, the artist alludes to a segment in a literary masterpiece that illustrates the richness of chance encounters and the impossibility of finding a direct path through life. As we traverse MMoCA’s transitional corridor now occupied by The Wandering Rocks, Cucullu asks us to consider the boundaries or thresholds we have advanced through during our own wanderings, and how the cumulative impacts of these moments gradually shift each of us.
about the artist
Santiago Cucullu was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He holds an MFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (1999). Cucullu’s work has been shown both nationally and internationally. Solo exhibitions of his work were presented at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, and Loock Galerie in Berlin. His work has been in a number of group exhibitions, including shows at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Wisconsin Triennial (2010, 2013). He is represented by Alice Wilds (Milwaukee) and Galleria Umberto DiMarino (Italy).
Santiago Cucullu: You still make me tremble