Mass Hysteria by Dan Cameron


by Dan Cameron




Like someone in a hurry to make their point, the action typically gets going quickly in Federico Solmi’s jerk-motion, kaleidoscopic video animations. Since he began making video works in the early 2000s, Solmi has been insistent that they incorporate the ‘first-person shooter’ point of view familiar from video games, organizing the sequence of tableaux so that we appear to be constantly moving into and around the action, as massive chunks of virtual landscape sweep rapidly under, over and past us. Mimicking the twin gaming strategies of pursuit and escape, our visual perspective is never that of a stable point fixed in space, but feels more like something akin to a stunt pilot operating a small aircraft in the middle of a hurricane. A vague seasickness is not an atypical response to Solmi’s work, not to mention brief flashes of vertigo and/or claustrophobia. By the end, we might even feel somewhat depleted, as if our emotional investment was greater than is typical of bystanders who gaze passively at images flickering on a screen.

His treatment of pet themes may have evolved over the years from silly and outrageous to downright menacing, but Federico Solmi’s recurring subject is the knowing abuse of power as the example of a historical pattern evident to any serious scholar of world history. Whether one considers civilization at its most disperse or its most contained, one reliable fact about human nature is that there never seems to be a shortage of individuals who crave power for its own sake, and are more than willing to exploit the fears and insecurities of others to achieve domination. To press his point, Solmi’s works often employ characters from different historical periods, as if insisting that while individual faces and uniforms may change, the essential personality traits of these characters stay more or less interchangeable, so that a rogue’s gallery of tinpot dictators and corrupt tyrants can party freely with popes, artists and porn stars.

Such reflections may at first seem out of place when one considers that Solmi’s art is at its heart a species of comedy — albeit one steeped in extreme grotesqueries. Even so, it’s worth recalling the number of artists in the past who successfully brandished satire and mockery as the only weapons available for the powerless to use against tyranny and other forms of hierarchical malevolence. We may well be deeply horrified at a moral level by what we’re witnessing in Erlich's narrative, but the artist lures us in, encouraging us to believe that some form of safe distance can be established between us and his swirling pageant of numbing madness.

To achieve his primary goal of visual seduction, Solmi uses two effects: one that is quintessentially 21st century, while the earliest belongs to the earliest beginnings of cinema. The first, mentioned at the outset, is the digital architecture of video games, which, until Solmi began employing it, was rarely if ever incorporated into museum art, and never with its subtext of aggression so nakedly exposed. The constant forward thrusting of the phantom ‘camera,’ itself a type of overdetermine phallocentrism, conjures a vocabulary of violent subjugation: invasion, colonization, and conquest. Because he’s employed the sophisticated and versatile armature of video gaming to develop a fixed narrative, no actual combat takes place in Solmi’s works, but the relentlessness is fully intact.

The second technique, integrally related to the first, is the flickering, shaky movement of the action in Solmi’s videos, which hearkens back to very early cinema and its imperfect methods of rendering motion; as well as to the 0-1 pattern of basic software coding, with its stipulation that only two variables be capable of determining even the most complex, intricate calculations by the computer. If you study a single one of Solmi’s personages for any period, it becomes evident that each facade possesses two separate surfaces, and that the constant oscillation between them is just quick enough to avoid calling attention to itself, while slow enough to make us remember that these are creations of a singular imagination, not commercial simulations of war. They are also, in the final analysis, kinetic paintings, whose every detail must first be fashioned and detailed by the artist’s hand before being mapped onto the faces of the digital ‘actors.’ As a result, the urge to somehow inject oneself into the proceedings is continually thwarted by the brutish rhythms, the exaggerated grimaces, and the off-kilter music, none of which evoke the thrill of the hunt.

The commonly shared belief that we are somehow progressing or evolving as a civilization seems founded on a somewhat tragic, if inadvertent, misconception, which is that that the collective body “we” is somehow interchangeable with the direction of chronological time itself, which, while it does move in a more or less forward, linear direction, has also been known to periodically change direction, skip a few beats, circle back on itself, and even leave those empires it had once smiled upon stranded, sitting bewildered in history's dust. With this misunderstanding squarely in mind, Federico Solmi has an bleak and urgent message for us regarding this particularly agonizing moment in world/U.S. history: it has happened before, it will happen again, and there is almost nothing within our power that we can do to stop it. Or, as seen from the perspective of the victors (instead of the vanquished): Behold! the weight of history. Glimpse its sheer massiveness, the horrifying grind of its internal gears, as it crushes all weakness and resistance underneath its limitless bulk.

While this last message might sound cynical or overly pessimistic, it helps to be reminded that another part of Solmi’s intention is to partly check Americans’ characteristically gung-ho brand of exceptionalism. Most of us, when we’re being brutally honest to ourselves, know full well that we are mere spectators to the grand parade of life, and while a select few of us may get the lucky chance to record a portion of the procession for the sake of posterity, only a tiny handful of individuals on this planet of billions really gets to determine how and when certain levers of power will be pulled, by whom, and to what purpose. The rest of us can protest and resist, or we can huddle frightened in our homes, hoping that things will eventually sort themselves out if we busy ourselves with matters more within our control. This type of mass hypnosis enables us to believe that no matter what else happens, the forces of stability and prosperity will forever be on our side. We gaze impassively at the shredding of respect and dignity, mesmerized by the spectacle of the ultra-powerful as they dance and celebrate their conquest over the rest of us, who somehow thought we were being entertained by mindless escapism, while all along the shackles on our liberties kept getting imperceptibly tighter. Meanwhile the juggernaut of raw, brute force stops for no one, and if somehow our lives end up spared when this round has drawn to a close, it might be because some other unfortunate souls unwittingly took our place.

A vast number of Americans are direct descendants of people who once fled authoritarian and/or totalitarian regimes, but even with that knowledge embedded in our genes, we seem to suffer from a form of involuntary amnesia regarding the dangers that steadily eroded the foundations of all past empires, democratic and otherwise. If, as was the case with Native Americans and African Americans, our collective history in this country had been defined by the struggle to achieve a level playing field and the recognition of our basic rights as a full member of society, fewer illusions would have prevailed about what can happen when the worst aspects of human nature are given license to roam freely. But if in Solmi’s art it often appears to be the case that the worst has already happened and there’s no turning back from its consequences, we can interpret that partly as a testament to the artistic capacity for projecting the imagination into the future, and even more meaningfully as an expression of the artist’s deep compassion for the human predicament, as it unfolds in real time before our eyes in a country that is deeply divided, increasingly unstable in its politics, and just happens to possess the most powerful military infrastructure on earth.


DAN CAMERON is a curator and writer who lives in New York. He presented Federico Solmi’s nine-channel work The Great Farce at UMC’s Fine Arts Gallery in 2018, as part of the citywide arts event Open Spaces Kansas City.