Visual Art: Land of the living dead

Mimmo Paladino South London Gallery, London Mimmo Paladino/ Brian Eno Roundhouse, London
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The Independent Culture
Before setting off to see the two new installations by the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino, which are currently on show in London, you might like to arm yourself with the following facts. Paladino, now 50, first came to the public eye as a member of the Transavantgarde movement at or around the Venice Biennale of 1980. Transavantgarde sought to counter the conceptual strictness of Sixties and Seventies art by returning to figuration, fantasy and what the critic Achille Bonito Oliva called "working with the hands". Only in this way, wrote Oliva, could the movement's members realise "their own happy visions".

If you anticipate something in the nature of cheeriness in Paladino's work as a result of all this, prepare yourself for a shock. The Neopolitan's new installations may be figurative, fantastic and factured, but happy they are not: unless, that is, your idea of happiness is a guided tour of the Jungian unconscious, with all its attendant horrors.

To break yourself in gently, start at the South London Gallery, where Paladino has installed 20 larger-than-life stone sculptures, with 20 mixed- media works on aluminium in a frieze above them. The effect is to divide the space vertically into what you may think of as zones of the conscious and un-conscious. The former - beyond one's reach, almost beyond one's vision - is a glowing space of silvered panels, decorated with alchemical symbols of the intellect. The viewer, though, is at a lower level, among the stone sculptures of instinct.

One of the SLG's staff remarked that she does not like to be left alone with these at night, and you can see why. With their mute, hieratic faces and symbolic gesturalism - hands held palm outwards, in a generic gesture common to everything from Etruscan tomb sculptures to paintings of Christ's stigmata - they seem to tap into something beyond rational articulation. I am not sure whether Paladino really has found an entrance into the dark caverns of Jung with his faceless archetypes, or whether we simply find them creepy because we have a disturbing sense of having seen them somewhere other than in Camberwell. At any rate, they do have the power to disturb, not least because their blank massiveness seems at odds with the whiteness of their stone, the evident refinement of their sculpture. (This latter, given the ideals of Transavantgarde, was not done by Paladino's own hand; but then, 1980 was a long time ago.)

One fears to think what the nervous gallery employee would make of Paladino's second installation, with its soundtrack of human voices and frog croaks by the musician Brian Eno, set in the newly opened undercroft of the Roundhouse. The basement is like a cartwheel, with arched brick tunnels radiating outwards from a central, circular chamber. Paladino has installed his own version of the Apocalypse: foetal figures in terracotta, lying on mounds of salt. Again, the feeling is of archetypal, rather than of specific, horror. From Carthage to the Bible, salt has resonance as an agent of destruction; Paladino's crumpled figures, frozen in the moment of death, clearly draw their inspiration from Pompeii (near which the artist was raised), but might as easily come from Hiroshima. It is no coincidence that the show's organiser, James Putnam, is both a savant of contemporary art and curator in the British Museum's Egyptian department.

As at the Camberwell show, these archetypes set out to draw on some kind of collective unconscious of symbolic form to produce a nightmare that is timeless. Again, I find it impossible to say whether Paladino has succeeded in tapping into this universal mother-lode of terror, or whether he is simply stealing the horrible familiarity of, say, Pompeii to recreate that terror at second hand. Is this, in other words, some subtle work of transformation, or is it that cadavers, scattered in dark tunnels, are (as the manager of the London Dungeon knows) likely to give people the willies?

Paladino's installation is certainly scary. More than that, it calls to mind the specific nightmare in which flight is repeated-ly offered and then barred. The tunnels leading away from the central chamber seem to invite escape, but only one (and that by no means easy to find) actually does: the rest are blocked with wooden crocodiles. The problem, though, as with all Grand Guignols, is that an excess of horror tends to provoke laughter, and this does. If you only have time for one of these shows, choose South London.

Mimmo Paladino: South London Gallery, SE5 (0171 703 6120) to 17 October. Paladino/ Eno: Roundhouse, NW1 (0171 424 9991) to 6 October. New prints by Paladino: Alan Cristea, W1 (0171 439 1866)