The Book of Questions

The Book of Questions Title imageAldo Iacobelli. Adelaide Central Gallery. 9 May 2024


The entrance to Aldo Iacobelli’s exhibition at Adelaide Central Gallery is via the reception area, past open plan offices, through the kitchen and down a corridor. It is quite a ceremonial passageway drawing the visitor towards Iacobelli’s latest solo exhibition, The Book of Questions.


The first element of the exhibition to be encountered is a pad of single-page A3 catalogue hanging from a hook on the door. When ripped away, each page contains an essay by gallery curator Andrew Purvis on one side and a reproduction of a predominantly black painting And when you change the landscape is it with bare hands or with gloves? on the other. This collection of black glossy catalogues appears like a portent or harbinger of darker things to come; as Purvis noted, it was hung on the door due to a lack of space within the gallery to place it.


On entering the gallery, the scale of this ambitious new body of work is evident. Twenty oil-on-canvas paintings are hung salon style, filling almost all of the wall space. A series of wax sculptures, all titled Debris, are dotted around the edges of the floor, not quite against the wall, but almost touching. The overwhelming first impact is of a stark spaceall white and black – with monochrome paintings filling the entire gallery. The portent becomes even more ominous with a welcoming piece of Mount Gambier limestone, mounted at waist height on a black wall with the carved words: WHAT WILL YOU DO, GOD, WHEN I DIE?


The Book of Questions 1

What will you do, God, when I die?, 2024. Photo Sam Roberts @samrophoto


With this text drawn from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, Iacobelli posits the first question of the exhibition. It sets the mood of an artist contemplating his own mortality and what is left of the body, soul and spirit after the flesh has died. Death and the questioning of life and purpose are vivid threads throughout all of the works — with each painting inspired by a line of poetry from Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions. Published in 1973, just before Neruda’s death, the book of 320 unanswerable questions evokes the wonder of childhood with the experience of growing up and becoming an adult.


The Book of Questions 2

Yesterday, yesterday I asked my eyes when will we see each other again?, 2024;

Do you have room for some thorns they asked the rosebush?, 2024; Debris 1, 2024.

Photo Sam Roberts @samrophoto


The questions are playful but also steeped in ambivalence and the mystery of the natural world and our place within it. A large painting of a dead cockroach on its back is a dominant image in the space. With the title Yesterday, yesterday I asked my eyes when will we see each other again? the effect is unsettling, but also compelling. Iacobelli recreates the underbelly and fine hairs of the six legs and antennae as a monstrous abject object. Even in death, the cockroach both repels and attracts, as it invites closer inspection and a study of the nuances of the artist’s finely tuned technique and brushstrokes.


Beneath the cockroach is a smaller painting of three black circles, seemingly balanced or rolling along the base of a white oblong. With the title Do you have room for some thorns they asked the rosebush? are these perhaps giant droppings of the dying cockroach, or a Sisyphean ball endlessly being rolled up a mountain then crashing back down to earth? Close by on the floor, a dark brown wax sphere rests on the ground, solid and dark, creating a textural element, inviting a desire to touch and feel the weight of this ‘debris’.


Like most of the paintings in The Book of Questions, the black shapes against a white background create an effect of negative and positive space — reflecting the nature of a question and its response. The wax sculptures are also heavy and dark, appearing to be anchors or discarded industrial parts. The dark material has an alchemical and earthly feel and gives three-dimensionality to elements contained in the paintings.


The Book of Questions 3

Why do we keep erasing the truth?, 2024. Photo Sam Roberts @samrophoto


The canvases are of varying sizes and are unframed, yet they are all bordered by a single or double black line. This bordering is inspired by the public death announcements of the Italian city of Naples; simple white notices outlined in black, which are hung in public spaces to alert the community to a recent passing.


On first glance, the blurred-out words and sentences in the painting Why do we keep erasing the truth? might appear to be one of these death notices. But on closer inspection the words ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ across the top of the painting come into focus. For many Australians, the ‘No’ result in the 2023 Voice Referendum represented a time of shame and sadness. Iacobelli captures this and reflects on his own response to the referendum by blurring the words of the Uluru statement. Through the disappearing words, and question posed by Neruda, Iacobelli ponders why Australians cannot face and accept the truth of colonisation, recognise First Nations peoples, and move forward as a country.


There is a pervasive sadness and almost despair in these works. With a range of themes hinted at including loss of innocence; climate change and ignorance; of voices silenced and words wanting to be spoken but erased. The Book of Questions could be read as a lament to a world that is in crisis — and it is partly this, but it is also an ode to optimism. To see the world as Pablo Neruda saw it; complex, playful, full of questions, yet full of potential and possible answers.


It is always a pleasure to see new works by this important, senior South Australian artist. Iacobelli has exhibited for several decades and maintained a consistent practice, continuously evolving in scope, technique, and concept. He worked closely with Andrew Purvis on the development of this body of work and they have carefully collaborated on the placement and assemblage of paintings and objects in the space. However, this is a substantial body of work, which did feel cramped and hemmed in by the limits of the gallery space.


It seems that Iacobelli has a lot to say at this point in his life and the paintings might have benefited from more ‘air and oxygen’ around them. These are subtle yet big statements on life, death and the unknown and require room for contemplation.


Where the close proximity of the hang does work successfully, is that the paintings may be read as a series of pages. As a selection of questions gathered like a book, which evolves from beginning to end, with chapters, arcs, and storylines.


The Book of Questions might be inspired by death notices, but this exhibition is also an affirmation of life. Iacobelli invites the audience to contemplate their own views of life and death, to feel both the lightness and heaviness of everyday existence. He reminds us that art and literature are vehicles for us to interpret the world and that asking questions is essential to how we understand each other and everything around us.


Julianne PierceThe Book of Questions Title image


When: 9 Apr to 25 May

Where: Adelaide Central School of Art Gallery

More Info:

More of this Writer