Exploring the Geranos project: A conversation with Riccardo Arena

ADRIFT ON THE TORTOISE CARAPACE - Kurmachit | Suiseki Installation, variable dimensions, 2024, Exhibition View - Mattia Angelini

The Geranos project, the result of a collaboration beginning in 2021 between Italian artist Riccardo Arena and Swiss curator Noah Stolz, is part of a broad interdisciplinary investigation that involved several iconographic archives at the Warburg Institute in London, as well as two institutions in the Locarno area, Monte Verità and the Eranos Foundation. The project reinterprets the complex networks and intellectual landscapes of the 15th century, using artistic expression to reimagine the intricate labyrinth of human connections.

In this conversation, Riccardo Arena shares insights into his journey through the Warburg Institute's archives, where he engaged with a diverse array of iconographic materials, and how these explorations culminated in the visually compelling 'Geranos Planomenon Dance - Movement II' exhibition. 

Can you provide an overview of the Geranos project and share some of the key developments to date?

Geranos is an imaginative research journey that began in 2021 from an artistic residency in Ascona organized by Swiss curator Noah Stolz. The project is part of a broad horizon of interdisciplinary investigation that has involved some iconographic archives at the Warburg Institute in London, two important institutions in the Locarno area, such as Monte Verità and the Eranos Foundation, and a residency conducted in Mexico City.

In 2022, two initial contributions of the research were presented: one at Monteverità "GERANOS Choreography of a Mental Landscape - Movement I", coinciding with the Eranos conference cycle on Jung's Red Book, in which a mental diagram of the first investigations was shared with the public through a wall-collage; and a second at the Casa del Lago of the UNAM University through a reading developed at the end of the residency in Mexico City.

1_GERANOS Choreography of a Mental Landscape - Movimento I_0
GERANOS - Choreography of a Mental Landscape - Movement I, Wall Collage Diagram, 2m x 6m, 2022

In March 2024, the exhibition "GERANOS Planomenon Dance - Movement II" was inaugurated: an exhibition path developed around the three floors of the Elisarion museum in the Swiss district of Locarno, as result of the last years of work.

What was the initial inspiration behind the Geranos Project, and how did your collaboration with Noah Stolz originate?

In 2019, after visiting the exhibition "LuDD! - Topography of light", a project born from a series of research between Iran, Armenia, and Ethiopia, Noah Stolz invited me to explore the rich history of the Locarno area. The goal was to find new perspectives and interpretations of the historical archives of this region, a crossroads of utopian, reformist, artistic movements, and philosophical, symbolic, and interreligious studies.

During my first residency period at Monte Verità, I was overwhelmed by the amount of events that over time have settled in a territory as small as it is profound, so powerful to have been able to influence the course of the 20th century in Europe in multiple aspects.

I was in awe to realise that many of the figures I thought unrelated were actually part of a single and intricate story, woven from a dense network of intertwined relationships. In particular, the spiritual constellation of Eranos, whose fruits born from the conference cycles started in 1933 and active to this day, was of fundamental importance in shaping my imaginations since adolescence.

This sense of wonder soon turned into vertigo.

Every element touched has the power to open up a spectrum of potentially infinite narratives, generating a magnetic force that has enveloped the territory in a legendary, almost mythical aura. This halo of mystery has attracted scholars and researchers from all over the world over the years, who have spent tons of ink in an attempt to penetrate its secrets, adding further levels of complexity to those already existing. And among these, of course, Harald Szeemann, the architect of the remains of Monte Verità, who undertook a cyclopean research in an attempt to reconstruct its dense and extraordinary course of events, which led to the construction of his exhibition/archive "The Breasts of Truth" in 1978, now visitable at Casa Anatta.

0_Geranos - Planomenon Dance_0
GERANOS - Planomenon Dance - Movement II

It was then that I lingered on an image that had been circulating in my archives for some time titled "the tomb of the dancing women". A fragment of a sepulchral fresco found in Ruvo in Puglia, depicting the dance of the Geranos. The same dance that Theseus performs after killing the Minotaur, to which Károly Kerényi, a historian of religions and a very active figure during the Eranos conferences, traces the origins of the labyrinth in classical myth. The ritual was performed by a line of dancers tied to each other by a rope, who moved to simulate a spiral to represent the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

I found the idea powerful that the design of the infernal and labyrinthine architecture designed by Daedalus was based on the trace of a ritual movement, living and ephemeral. This led me to reflect that perhaps it was interesting to work not only on the actual history of the territory but on the enormous complexity of the web of relationships in itself, in its complexus, that is, what is woven together - to revitalize the material in order to contemplate the enormous combinatorial force in which we are all immersed.

FLORILEGIUM # 3 Mixed media display, 75cm × 160cm, 2024

Could you tell us more about the research you conducted at the Warburg Institute?

Following the presentation of the diagram at MonteVerità, the investigations continued in London at the archives of the Warburg Institute. In parallel to the Eranos conferences, projects for a research institute on symbolism and a photographic archive containing thousands of images collected from archives and libraries around the world related to mythology, alchemy, symbolism, and universal visual traditions were developed. This valuable documentation, in addition to being used as iconographic study material of the figures present at Eranos, formed the basis for the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism in New York, and since 1950 has been part of the art history collections of the Warburg Institute at the University of London.

The Eranos material could not have found a better home.

THE GEOMETRICAL MOTHER - Demon of Analogy | Mixed media on paper, 70 x 100cm, 2024

During my four visits to London, I immersed myself in this collection with an epidermic approach, guided by the “daimon of analogy." I firmly believe in the power of images to create a derationalized space to stimulate their creative potential, in anticipation of a moment of fruitful intuition that would provide me with guidance to interpret this visionary forest made of dreams, insights, and fears.

THE ARCHIVE OF THE LOST PRESENCE | Prints on film, Plexiglass, Variable dimensions, Installation Detail, 2024

For this reason, I chose to dedicate one of the rooms of the Elisarion Museum to sharing with the public a selection of the Eranos iconographic archive through the installation titled "The Tent of the Lost Presence." In this installation, the visual materials are presented in a single vision, stripped of the classification folders that contain them, thus creating a visual space that invites an unmediated and direct experience.

How did the resources and archives at the Warburg Institute shape your approach to the 'Geranos Planomenon Dance - Movement II' exhibition? You mention that the exhibition is a culmination of your research at the Warburg Institute. Could you highlight some specific materials from the Institute that inspired elements of this exhibition?

In general, it is the Warburg Archive itself that is the main source of inspiration, a cultural object capable of simultaneously becoming an anti-archive, dismantling the classificatory components to transform into a vital substance of knowledge, which always eludes definitive interpretations, to show the fibers, the nervous system of the imagination.

In particular, during the immersion in the visual flow of the Eranos iconographic material, which has innumerable relations with that collected by Warburg, among the labyrinth of images and analogies, I was magnetized by the reproductions of the Navajo Shooting Chant and a series of depictions of Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl, two important Aztec deities for many Mesoamerican civilizations, about which I knew very little at the time.

ERANOS TAGUNGEN CONSTELLATION | Fine ArtPrint, 110 x 110cm, 2024_Detail

I took a series of notes promising myself to study them in the future, and by a sort of synchronicity, two weeks later, to my surprise, I received an invitation from the Error Association for a residency in Mexico City, supported by the Italian Institute of Culture, a period in which I was able to further deepen the research in many places, in particular at the National Museum of Anthropology, the Vasconcellos library, the Mapoteca, and the Anahuacalli Museum, which opened new corridors of the labyrinth and sowed the seeds for the beginning of the production of the imagery of 'GERANOS Planomenon Dance - Movement II.

When within my research, governed by what I call the dominion of possibilities, these types of meaningful coincidences occur, I consider them as a kind of revelation, signals of an underlying and mysterious reality, which cannot be understood, but only experienced. On this particular aspect, I find Pavel Florenskij's thought enlightening.

FLORILEGIUM # 2 | Mixed media display, 75cm x 160cm, 2024

Could you tell us a bit about the exhibition 'Geranos Planomenon Dance - Movement II'? Can you share any challenges you faced during your research and how they shaped the final outcome of your exhibition?

The exhibition path develops on the three floors of the Elisarion Museum: the archive collections, memories, and historical documents initially presented in their "archaeological staticity," gradually stratify and crystallise into collages, assemblages, drawings, sculptures, and increasingly complex installations until they create new fields of vision within which the starting material will lose its historical narrative frame, increasing its meanings and metaphors.

9_GERANOS_PLANOMENON DANCE_Riccardo_Arena_Elisarion Museum_Exhibition View_Ph Mattia Angelini_2024 copia
GERANOS - Planomenon Dance - Movement II - Exhibition View, Ph Mattia Angelini, 2024

This process is conceived as a choreography both physical and psychic, moved by the will of systemic organisation and the instinctive and impulsive tension, which will lead at the end of the path to the complete abstraction of the study elements, saturating the large dodecagonal hall of the Elisarion with a large installation: a visual choreography made up of forms suspended in space that takes the name of Planomenon – the subtitle of the exhibition – whose meaning is 'wandering', a term used in ecology to indicate the set of organisms that live free suspended in the waters.

PLANOMENON | Wall paper Collage, Exhibition View, Ph Mattia Angelini, 2024

What do you hope visitors will take away from the 'Geranos Planomenon Dance - Movement II 'exhibition?

Through the powerful metaphor of the labyrinth's architecture as a gestural and mental movement of knowledge, the intention is to stimulate the audience on the vital role that imagination plays, today more than ever, in the development of our society. Creating a poetic dimension to reflect on the crucial importance of the difference between what is visual and what is visionary, returning to a wider audience the complexity and poetry of a universal heritage, such as the Eranos iconographic archive preserved at Warburg, which continues to inspire entire generations of artists, scientists, and philosophers.

THE ARCHIVE OF THE LOST PRESENCE | Exhibition View, Ph Mattia Angelini, 2024

The Warburg Institute is known for its focus on the afterlife of antiquity and the transmission of ideas. How do these themes resonate within your work?

During my academic studies, the encounter with the figure and vision of Aby Warburg marked a crucial moment in my education. It provided me with new ways to understand the research process as a generative act, of aesthetic creation, and to consider symbols, allegories, and visual and mental images that cumulate in history, as flowers closed waiting to be opened to contemplate their interdependence, shimmering, and the wonder of their content.

During my academic studies, the encounter with the figure and vision of Aby Warburg marked a crucial moment in my education.

I believe it was from that encounter that I began to work on mental maps and diagrams, initially employing them as a tool for visual reflection to orient myself in complex research and later as creative material, substance of artistic expression.

Similarly to the panels that make up the Mnemosyne Atlas, within the diagram, studies, images, notes, intuitions, and documents stratify and amalgamate through a web of correspondences that play with the possible relationships of the research material. A landscape of the mental laboratory shaped by the oscillating movement between documentary analysis and intuitive abstraction, whose power is to dissolve the historical and geographical frames of the material, in order to transfigure it from one register to another of forms, stimulating its evocative potential.

I also think that the diagram and its execution process incorporate the fundamental symbolic elements for creation and escape from the labyrinth: on one hand, Ariadne's thread, the rope that unites the dancers of the Geranos, the line of memory, the gesture traced in space to connect and relate things and on the other, the wings that Daedalus will build for his son Icarus, the ecstatic flight that allows the vision of the labyrinth map, looking from a distance to contemplate the general composition, the path of a geometric destiny, in an attempt to give it meaning.

GERANOS - Choreography of a Mental Landscape - Movement I - Wall Collage Diagram, Detail, 2022

Riccardo Arena, (Milan, 1979) is an artist, teacher, and independent researcher. His artistic practice is dedicated to creating evocative environments that, combining theoretical and visual research, are conceived as cultural devices of imaginative knowledge. Installations, films, visual reflections, narratives, seminars, and workshops intertwine in a constellation of expressive languages aimed at contemplating in the accidental the universal components that link distant stories, cultures, theories, and myths in time and geography.

Animated by these tensions over the years, he has dedicated himself to the development of long-term investigations in various countries around the world: China “Four Times a Tree” (2006–2008); Argentina “Dual Death Ellero and Visual Ecosystem” (2009–2012); Russia “Vavilon” (2013–2017); and Iran, Armenia, and Ethiopia “LuDD! - Topography of Light” (2017–2020). He is currently working on the “Geranos” project, born in 2021 from research on the history and archives of Monte Verità, Fondazione Eranos, Warburg Institute, and the Anthropological Museum of Mexico City.