Clementine Keith-Roach: Herm

15–29 June 2018
Edizioni Precarie / Botteghe Colletti, Palermo


Clementine Keith-Roach traces the confluence between antiquities and relics, accurate casts and false impressions. Floating in the vitrine of Edizioni Precarie studio 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, in windows belonging to the bar Botteghe Colletti, is a collection of body parts. Items are vacuum-packed, like hard cheeses in 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.

Keith-Roach highlights how the body and heritage may equally be packaged, marketed and milked. 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.’

 Francisco de Zurbarán,  Saint Agatha , c.1630–33 (detail), Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Agatha, c.1630–33 (detail), Musée Fabre, Montpellier

In greenish vitrines – the hue of ricotta whey – are plaster casts of breasts and other fragments of the artist’s body. The surface captures the real detail of human skin. The arrangement 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. 

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.
— Clementine Keith-Roach
 Clementine Keith-Roach,  Herm , 2018 (detail), courtesy the artist

Clementine Keith-Roach, Herm, 2018 (detail), courtesy the artist