Figures of Speech at aA29 Project Room / Milan

Figures of Speech
Helena Minginowicz, Clèment Bataille, Giovanni Copelli, Gianna Dispenza

Curated by Dobroslawa Nowak and Nicola Nitido


aA29 Project Room
Piazza Caiazzo 3, Milan

Foto: Alessandro Zambianchi

Figures of Speech

A subtle ambiguity hidden within the linguistic term “figures of speech” set the conceptual foundations for the title of this exhibition. Envisioning palpable “figures” (be it painting, sculptures, or other objects) as part of or the result of the “speech” opens the door to vibrant speculation. Interestingly, pondering the idea that speech materializes isn’t that absurd, for instance, for sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz: “My words are in the objects I’m making. This is my speech; this is my language. And it’s the only language I can express myself freely.” (Tate, 2023)

Following this thread, what would it mean for the communication we engage in today if words could actually turn into objects? Language is our innermost sanctuary, an ever-growing set of individual habits. It’s shaped by personal experiences and time, comprising, therefore, hints to all that we have gone through. Within this kingdom of self lies an endlessness of real and imagined worlds. Yet, speech is fragile, prone to slips of the tongue, pauses, and pitch modulations, intended or unintended. This powerful tool can evoke extreme emotions, but if things go astray, it’s just as prone to misuse and misunderstanding. Speech can be questioned; a figure is certain.

Such a figure (understood as an object), a result of one’s creative effort, i.e., of one’s unique language, holds all the qualities of a speech (can communicate and transmit emotions), but it’s also tangible. Once created, an emotional charge it holds isn’t in the hands of an author anymore but in those of the recipient. It means that the meeting of minds and hearts occurs without disruptions and enables unprecedented intimacy.

Speaking of intimacy, nowadays, it’s common to expose one’s most intimate aspects outwardly, especially through social media and other online means. For intimacy that retains its essential characteristics but is no longer hidden or private, the French psychiatrist Serge Tisseron coined the term “extimitè,” born on the day when, in the 1980s, a woman revealed on a television program that she had never had an orgasm with her husband. (Bassetti, 2017) This clash between a personal sphere and a mass media audience and the resemblance of these dynamics to those of art exhibition is another point of interest in Figures of Speech. 

Four international artists from different cultural backgrounds were invited to share, or in some cases even produce, their works to enable a broad view of the condition of intimacy vs. extimacy today as well as the capacity of artworks to convey the emotions of the authors and establish a connection with recipients (addressing this way a wide-ranging topic of making art in general).  

Following Gianna Dispenza‘s delicate blue lines passing through 21 separate images set in one composition leaves us wondering if an erotic interpretation of what could also act as flowers, fruits, and seeds is valid. At one point, noticing the milk ducts in the breasts and eagerly reaching hands invites us to rediscover the entire series of works again and probably more than once, revealing layers of what is fully exposed and yet, neatly hidden until we are entirely ready to see it.

Helena Minginowicz drifts away even further, leaving behind the notion of ambiguity and creating her world from scratch instead. It’s captivating that her figurative paintings — while all undeniably represent either a person or an object — are hard to describe as non-abstract. They link to a mental representation of real-life physical objects, but they never are what they refer to. An unconscious process of coming to terms with this uncanny truth makes us look at them longer than expected. 

In opposition to the other-worldly scenes depicted by Minginowicz, the touching simplicity and a refreshing grounding are to be found in the set of works by Clément Bataille. The pleasure of observing these refined portraits (note that “Thistle,” 2023, can also be considered as such) comes with the attentiveness the artist devotes to the emotionality of portrayed individuals, willing to analyze them without invading the subtlety of their psychological profiles. These images also express a disobedient approach, as the artist applies an intentional misuse of the form of an icon, i.e., metaphorically and literally “turning his back” to tradition.

Two installations, a sculpture, and several paintings are part of Giovanni Copelli’s regular pictorial practice — an exploration of images of the past, from Pompeian frescoes to mosaics, from Renaissance painting to nineteenth and twentieth-century artists. An astounding number of people and human-like figures depicted in his works, a nameless mass (heads without faces, bodies without forms) engaged in disinhibited corporeal interactions, seems to be watched from afar with an emotional detachment. Only a few individuals depicted are possible to name, including — hovering over the others — the artist himself. Can you create more sense of intimacy than when you expose the fragility of your ego to the eyes of complete strangers?

Step inside Magdalena Abakanowicz’s forest of woven sculptures | Tate. (2023, January 6). YouTube.

Bassetti, R. (2017, 24 March). Dall’intimità all’estimità? Gioie e patologie delle condivisioni in rete. Remo Bassetti.

Text by Dobroslawa Nowak


Rhetorical figures characterize not only literary texts but also visual culture. The presence of anaphoras, metaphors, and synecdoches, among others, flows into the immensity of the emotional mare magnum

Wandering in this ocean, we come across an iceberg whose sharpness suggests a great mass hidden in the depths: just like what is intimate, hidden, and often lying in the abyss. Showing one’s intimacy is equivalent to revealing the most private parts of the Self; when something is intimate, it can be considered transgressive if represented externally. 

Figures of Speech, therefore, explores the experience of intimacy perceived through the aforementioned rhetorical figures that emerge from the vision of the artworks. The exhibition also looks at some of the possibilities in which the fine lines between intimacy and extimacy are brought into play between the public and private spheres. The exhibited artworks, many of which were created ad hoc, represent the practice of four international artists: Clement Bataille, Giovanni Copelli, Gianna Dispenza, and Helena Minginowicz. 

The research presented by the artists develops along different lines, sometimes in parallel, sometimes intertwined. Bataille focuses on intimacy conceived as an experience to be lived alone and perceived in a devotional form, presenting small format works reminiscent of icons to turn to. 

Copelli’s response on the theme manifests itself through the transversality of the media presented, in fragments that compose the intimate matter, which becomes extimacy in the case of the two large structural works, and which instead crystallizes in the other classic and timeless works. 

Dispenza imagines a composite work in several pieces on paper, a puzzle of delicate gestures and symbolic allusions to the breast (as the title suggests), a recurring leitmotif in the artist’s pictorial and sculptural production. 

Minginowicz, in her first exhibition in Italy, proposes her glossy vision of some details, which are zoomed in and show – without any shame or modesty – the quality of an intimate relationship. 

Imagined as a prism of display possibilities, the exhibition delimits the faded contours of an opaque mirror, clouded by the vapors of relationships but yet, if unsteamed, offers a lucid provocation, ready to become a new rhetorical figure.

Text by Nicola Nitido