The Italian contemporary artist Agostino Iacurci specializes in translating the feral, strange beauty and wonder of the natural world into colorful large-scale murals and physical installations. His work begins with place—perhaps cityspace, warehouse, room or wall—and seeks to illuminate aspects of the environment via the work. He invites viewers to consider not just the artwork but also the site: What do they notice? What do they feel? What do they remember while in this place?
Most recently, that place was the architecturally significant Largo Treves tower in Milan, temporary home to Iacurci’s Milan Design Week installation Dry Days, Tropical Nights during Milan, which won a Fuorisalone Award this year. More than just a collection of sculptures, the work transformed an entire building, inside and out.
It included a sea of neon-lit cacti and palm trees within the Largo Treves in the Brera Design District—a bittersweet setting for Iacurci’s installation as the stately tower faces imminent destruction. In contrast to the slow, seemingly inevitable destruction of Earth’s landscape as we know it, the building is slated to be demolished soon.
“This was my first project for Milan Design Week,” the artist tells me from his home in Bologna, with his six-month old son in the background. “It was a fantastic experience because I could really nourish my work with dialogue between different disciplines.”
Iacurci was approached by curator and publisher of Flash Art magazine Cristiano Seganfreddo to take over the building for one week during the world’s largest annual design event with the caveat that it would be destroyed afterward. Iacurci saw it as an amazing opportunity, and approached the brand glo™ to partner as part of its glo™ for art initiative. Though working with neon was a new experience for the artist, glo™accepted his proposal.
“I had the idea of creating a sculpture with iron and LED tubes,” he explains. “Even though the building is gigantic, it is quite unique in its interiors: beautiful sky windows, and tall columns which made me think of a palm forest… Cities are evolving, landscapes are evolving. I was thinking, ‘How would Milan look in 1000 years?’”
Iacurci had been reading Journey Through Italy in the Anthropocene, in which philosopher and evolutionist Telmo Pievani and geographer Mauro Varotto imagine Italy in the year 2786. They imagined Italy as a very small piece of land with tropical weather, and Iacurci, in turn, re-imagined Largo Treves as a natural space with nothing natural about it.
A climate-inspired work
The end result was Dry Days, Tropical Nights—an installation inspired by the predictions of climatologists and the anticipation of a future in which only the most resilient and tropically inclined plants survive. That this neon-lit desert landscape would bloom in brutalist Arrigo Arrighetti’s strikingly curved building in Brera is a reminder to viewers that environmental destruction has global ramifications: not even the most palatial, beloved structures can defy intense climatic conditions.
In darkness, Iacurci’s neon cacti glow with an unsettling Kryptonite-esque luminescence. In the daylight, they are more benign, located between argyle-clad poles and pastel-hued walls. Overall, there is a macabre feeling to the sculptures in their unreality. Iacurci created a sense of haunted, transient beauty with color, design and even sound.
“I wanted it to be a Las Vegas scenario with all these shiny, attractive lights, but there’s a dark feeling underneath,” he says. “I wanted it to be seductive, but at the same time, haunting. There’s a subtle dark element.”
But what really brings the atmosphere to life is the soundtrack, he says. “I asked South American DJ and sound designer Lechuga Zafiro to create a bio sonar landscape. He created a Jurassic Park feeling: he was recording water and frogs, so you hear this sound when you enter the building. It was very powerful, that sense of a forest with echoes that added to the dark side of the work.”
Who is Agostino Iacurci?
Designing a large-scale exhibition for Milan Design Week is a far cry from twelve-year-old Iacurci’s days spent painting graffiti around his Southern Italian hometown. Originally from Foggia, in southern Italy, he moved to Rome at nineteen and then at twenty-three to Nuremberg, where he worked for Adidas. Then it was back to Rome before moving to Berlin in 2016. He, his girlfriend and their young son only just moved to Bologna to be close to his girlfriend’s new job in Venice, which he says is convenient without the complexities of the sinking city.
Iacurci is a traveler at heart. Since the age of twenty, when he created a large mural that attracted international attention, he has traveled eight months out of the year, producing works in the U.S., Europe, Australia and elsewhere that feature his signature flat geometric forms.
“I work on these wall murals that are very specific to the wall, the public space,” he says. “Being abroad, it’s always a challenge that forces you to deal with your own identity. When you live abroad, people project onto you. I became Italian abroad because I never thought of myself as Italian until I traveled.”
Iacurci’s work both questions the environment and projects upon it. One of his guiding principles is genius loci—a concept he acknowledges is complex.
“It comes from the Roman and Latin belief that each place has a spirit,” he explains. “This concept adapts well to my work because I always have my own research when I go to the site, and then I try to mediate stories from people, things I taste, random encounters and I pick from those ingredients and cook them with my own sensibility to inspire the work.”
The outcome of that approach can border on the transcendent. Once, as he painted on a house in Abruzzo, having done only light research to prepare, he rendered a very specific flower that grows in the mountains in the region. “After I painted the wall, the owner showed up and said the thistle had been the symbol of the house for generations. Every year, his father would pick these specific thistles, do a composition, and leave it in the center of the table for the year until he repeated the process.”
Iacurci’s future is a busy one
Last year, the artist’s paintings and sculptures dedicated to Horti Picti, classical Roman painted gardens, were exhibited at Rome’s Ex Elettrofonica Gallery. He also undertook a three-month residency at New York’s International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP). The year prior, in addition to painting murals, he collaborated on a pop-up one-night-only hotel in collaboration with fashion brand Hermes and creative director Laure Flammarion. Iacurci designed the furniture, interior decor, lighting, invitations and menu for the temporary hotel, Hotel il Faubourg in Teatro Parenti, Milan.
All signs point to this year being just as full.
“Tomorrow, I go to Geneva where I have a group show in a gallery called Gowen Contemporary,” Iacurci says. “My next large project is a solo presentation in Los Angeles for the Pacific Design Centre in September… And I’m looking at a one-month residency in Seoul, South Korea.”
As for the hauntingly glowing cacti that make up part of Dry Days, Tropical Nights, Iacurci says they will not be destroyed along with Largo Trevi.
“I didn’t want to construct anything [permanent] within the building, to keep it a low impact intervention while still being transformative,” he says. “Part of the project included that the light sculptures—nine cacti, and one large palm—would be donated to an institution, probably a museum.”
At the moment, the light sculptures are in Iacurci’s studio, but unlike the transitory artist who crafted them, they will be settled in their permanent home within the year.