Pervilion in Palermo

Clementine Keith-Roach: Herm

15–29 June 2018 

Clementine Keith-Roach traces the confluence between antiquities and relics, accurate casts and false impressions. In ‘Herm’, an installation in vitrines along via Alessandro Paternostro, Keith-Roach highlights how the body and heritage may equally be packaged, marketed and milked.

Floating in the shopfront of Edizioni Precarie is a delicate impression of a herm – a slip of a thing that overlooks the flow of residents and visitors, workers and drinkers. Across the street, a collection of body parts is lit up in windows belonging to the bar Botteghe Colletti. Items are vacuum-packed, like the ricotta salata on deli counters and market stalls – pre-empting their eventual journey out of Sicily in the circulation of consumables. Suspended in a void of taut, transparent plastic packaging, the fragments shake off the dust of the reliquary and reveal the fetish of the hermetic seal.

A key reference is the mutilation of Agatha, a patron saint of Sicily from the third century. Legend has it that as a young girl, the dedicated virgin refused to marry a Roman governor, and was tortured by having her breasts cut off. The severed breasts have been depicted through the ages by artists from Piero della Francesca to Zurbarán as clean lumps, carried by the martyr on a tray before her. They have also been abstracted in a version of the traditional Sicilian delicacy, the cassatella. Keith-Roach says: ‘I have tried taking boxes of ricotta-filled, breast-shaped cassatelle back from Palermo, only to find a milky mess in Arrivals. I am interested in the melting and setting points – when myth hardens into souvenir or melts into something sensual.’

Plaster casts of breasts and other fragments of the artist’s body capture the real detail of human skin. Their arrangement in greenish vitrines – the hue of ricotta whey – reaches out to the votive shrines and retail cabinets embedded in the city walls as much as to archaeological museum display. This fixation on traces of the body is also redolent of relics such as the ‘stone of Saint Agatha’ in Palermo, where the saint is supposed to have leaned to adjust her sandal, leaving the imprint of her foot.

Keith-Roach has created a counterpart to the abstracted fragments in collaboration with Edizione Precarie, a women's collective working with paper from Palermo’s markets. Using pulp made from offcuts of food wrappings, they have pressed a relief of a life-size figure – a herm. This ancient minimal form is usually a stone pillar topped by a bearded head, with male genitalia protruding at the front. It mainly represents Hermes (its namesake), messenger of the gods and god of merchants, and was venerated as a boundary marker, to ward off the evil eye. Here, Keith-Roach inverts the traditional gender of the herm using a pair of the plaster cast breasts to create a relief. They strip the herm of its volume, and by compressing paper remnants, replace stone with a sediment of the city. Surface becomes substance, and the ancient form an interface with daily life. 

As dusk falls on 15 June, the vitrines light up and an offering of bite-size cassatine is shared with the audience in exchange for a stamp on the hand.

Photos by Camille Bokhobza
Film by Zoe Nutchey