Michela de Mattei
13Fish shop (hydrophone voice recording)

Michela de Mattei’s video installation Acquavideo, 2020, is presented at maat in the context of Aquaria – Or the Illusion of a Boxed Sea.


A digression around the origin of a title

Written by Giorgio Mega


"There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl."

— Julio Cortázar, Axolotl, Final del juego (1956) 

Fish shop (fish voices recording with hydrophone). Image courtesy of Michela de Mattei.

I remember the moment I set foot in Sabbioni well, the first step off the bus and one element, the air: good, almost drinkable compared to Bologna’s polluted one. I don't remember any sand (→ 1), but chestnut woods, on a slope towards the West and the Savena foot of the valley, and in the middle of the woods a mysterious abandoned house. Going up a path to the ridge where the Futa road climbs, an ancient link between Florence and Bologna now traced by the 916 bus line, there were a handful of houses, pink, close together but not attached, in liminal rows between the vegetation and the asphalt of a car park and then the road. To one side of the car park, in a concrete basketball court at the back of a newly built church, stood a priest puffing out steam warming up during short jogs complete with cassock. It was morning and the silence was loud like the sweetness of the air.


"Here's the kitchen, through this little window I once saw a wild boar, I immediately grabbed my rifle and BOOM, I splattered it nicely onto that cherry tree you see over there". 


I remember very well the moment I first met F., a few minutes after getting off the bus. The appointment was in one of those pink little houses on the edge of the woods that would be my home for the next three years. "Oh, there's also a safe next to the fireplace; what do I know, if you’ve got a gun or something..." F. spoke to us as if he had known us forever with a childlike smile on his wide cheerful face. The house was just what we wanted and the rent was affordable-deal. 

  • (1) The name of the place, Sabbioni, means Big Sands in Italian. 

Plymouth Aquarium

National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth. Image courtesy of Michela de Mattei.

Video stills from “Acquavideo” (2020) by Michela de Mattei.

Still Acquavideo

Still Acquavideo Still Acquavideo


The centre of Sabbioni is built on both sides of the Futa, around an inn (now called "Il Telegrafo", a bar, tobacconist's, tavern, games room, informal post office and small den for Bologna football fans), this since 1315. Apart from those few buildings (including the new church, low, wide, made of wood and stone, and the crumbling old one), a number of villas with gardens were built in more recent times, scattered towards the Idice valley to the east. These gardens on Via Verdi, Via del Pozzo and Via Napoleonica were home to a constellation of Dobermans, Rottweilers and Maremma shepherds. Then the woods again, mushrooms and wild boar. At the entrance of the village is a retirement home. The house where F. lived was at the other end, still on the Futa road, which on that side leads to Loiano, Monghidoro, and then to the watershed that divides Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. At the time, the only shop in the village apart from the all-round tavern was a dimensional tear called Acquavideo. 


It was F. 's lair, where a myriad of small artificial light sources criss-crossed between screens and coloured bulbs, a labyrinth of reflections, a kaleidoscope of questioning looks under glass and crammed shelves. The products on sale formed an unexpected but, to think of it, coherent mix: aquariums and video cassettes. To the left of the counter an anonymous yet heavy grey curtain separated this small space from an even smaller, deeper room, the pornography section. As a black hole in Sabbioni, Acquavideo concealed and manifested at the same time its obsession for observation. On the other hand, one of the clearest memories of my neighbours in those years was the curtains suddenly shutting when I would come home. Unlike, however, the person who lived in the little pink house to the right of my little pink house, an elderly man always sour and stiff, only picking porcini mushrooms and declining his gazing into spying through the window, F.'s desiring carnival looking with enthusiasm to the other watching itself, an archive of possible totemic animals in an atmosphere inclined to taboo. The cohabitation of so many small fish and other animals in varying degrees of presentability – there were also a few parrots, and rumours of pythons and iguanas or amphibians and who knows what else hidden somewhere beyond the visible – with a range of VHS from blockbuster to X-rated ones, was articulated in a cabinet of wonders of beings and objects more or less forbidden and more or less exposed. 

Dubai Mall Aquarium, underwater advertising by Blancpain. Image courtesy of Michela de Mattei. 


Dubai Mall Aquarium, fish boat tour experience. Image courtesy of Michela de Mattei. 

Dubai mall Aquarium

Dubai mall Aquarium

I used to show up in this bizarre and tiny territory of desire and amazement once a month, cash in hand, to pay the rent. F. was almost always cheerful and cracked jokes out loud. Sometimes, however, he had a weirder expression where his good-natured cheerfulness was shadowed by despair. Perhaps this had something to do with the letter I received halfway through my stay in the Emilian Apennines. It was an official letter from the Court of Bologna notifying me that F.'s property had been seized and that from then on I would have to pay the rent into a bank account in the court's name. I began to meet F. very rarely, in passing, and of everything I know about him I cannot remember what I was told first-hand and what by someone else. Around his life swirled a kind of mythical field in which absurdity and likelihood precipitated. It was perhaps F. himself who told me how the foreclosure came about because of a scam he had been involved in. He had been persuaded by a couple of foreigners to act as front man for a porn video shop in Bologna. These shady adventurers disappeared into thin air after doing crooked business with the video shop as a front, leaving poor F. in a lot of trouble. F. was obviously prone to leaps and bounds without a parachute, doomed to a daring and vitalistic failure. It certainly was not him – most probably L. – who told me about the time when a Neapolitan came to Sabbioni out of nowhere with a van equipped with a freezer, and about how he inexplicably convinced F. to take all the unsold buffalo mozzarella. About twenty kilos of mozzarella.

Private Aquarium

Private aquarium set, manufactured sex toy and fish. Image courtesy of Michela de Mattei.

Iced Fish



Still Acquavideo


Iced fish, artist’s personal melting experiments. Image courtesy of Michela de Mattei.


Video still from “Acquavideo” (2020) by Michela de Mattei.


  • Dubai Mall Aquarium, the touch experience, still from “Acquavideo” (2020) by Michela de Mattei.

Touch experience

L., by the way, was second to none in terms of legendary status, just think that he settled in Sabbioni starting from Marcianise as a small-time drug dealer, going through a real transformative epic that lasted a few years in Mexico, and arriving in the Bolognese mountains in the form of a hippie with an almost Franciscan outlook. One day, the priest of the jogs approached him and, frowning, reported to L. that he had been told some alarming news by anonymous believers. He had been spotted going through the woods with a satanic pace and huge horns on his head. After days of wondering not only what they might think of him, but also through what powerful visions they saw him, L. realised that even if they hadn't exactly made the story up, there had been some imaginative distortion. As with Acquavideo’s glass and screens, there was a slight tendency towards illusion and metamorphosis. Most likely they had seen him return home with upturned roots on his shoulders, which he often used as a base for making wooden sculptures.

There were no devilish stories about F., but "rumours spread":
"You see that orange light flashing in the dark up there,
at F.'s house all night long?
That's the light to make the eggs hatch.
It makes them hatch faster,
and they come in all shapes and sizes!
Tropical birds. Illegal reptiles.
It's the room where he sleeps, with those flashes, all night long!
There's his bed and these big egg cases.
And all around him, on the walls, Playboy posters...
and a big collection of guns."

Only now, thinking back of the room where he lived, do I realise a strange coincidence: a few years before hearing those stories, at the time I was an Art student in Bologna, I used to imagine impossible installations or “situations”, and one of them suddenly came to my mind, in one piece, like a vision: a club late at night, with orange strobe lights, half-finished cocktails on the tables, sticky floors and DJ sets still going strong, but there is not a single human in the place, only ostriches.

Perpex distorting tube tank

Fish shop


Fish shop (fish voices recording with hydrophone). Image courtesy of Michela de Mattei.


  • Dubai Mall aquarium, Perspex tube tank. Image courtesy of Michela de Mattei.



Fish shop


Fish shop (tank perspective). Image courtesy of Michela de Mattei.


  • Video still from “Acquavideo” (2020) by Michela de Mattei.



Still Acquavideo

I've heard that F. no longer lives in Sabbioni, and that almost nothing is said about him in the village, at least not to strangers: "Ah, I wonder what happened to him?” And who knows what happened to those animals, or their offspring. In the Acquavideo, the metaphor of the dialectical vision between inside and outside the aquarium triggered the possibility of overturned perspectives. Neither have I lived in Sabbioni for many years now.


“I believe that all this succeeded in communicating something to him in those first days, when I was still he. And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he's making up a story, he's going to write all this about axolotls.”
— Julio Cortázar, Axolotl, Final del juego (1956)

The video-installation entitled “Acquavideo” by Michela de Mattei takes a water leakage that occurred at the Dubai Aquarium inside the Dubai Mall in 2010 as its starting point. It juxtaposes Internet footage of the
incident with the artist’s first-hand recordings. Projected on two separate screens, the video visually and conceptually links the fish tank and the Dubai Mall as enclosed spaces of desire, power and control. From an extreme exposure and visual intoxication, the tension escalates in a short circuit, a figurative and symbolic crack in the system that leads the second part of the video to collapse into a nocturnal and acoustic dimension, a submerged world that is both hypnotic and fictional. The work, dated 2021, reflects on the relationship between consumerism and wonder using the affinities of fish tanks or the aquarium to shop window displays, as both are carefully designed to allow viewers (or consumers) to imagine, escape and disengage from their own everyday reality.

Michela de Mattei is an Italian artist based in London. Working directly with moving image and mixed media installations Mattei creates fictional scenarios and unusual associations to explore different forms of authority and control. Her interests include the animal world, the use of current technologies and the shifting dynamics of communications systems.


Giorgio Mega studied art in Bologna and Berlin, and, during the same years, as a musician, he took part in the experimental, improvisational and noise network in Europe. Mega lived in many different cities, dealing mainly with events organisation, but also DJ sets installations, field recordings and photography, archives and anarchives. Influenced by different cultures and convergent and divergent perspectives in philosophy, anthropology and ethnographies, his research between sound, image and writing takes place in a nomadic and hybrid field. He currently lives and works in Palermo.

“maat Explorations” is an ongoing programme that delves into the socio-cultural and environmental transformations concerning the current bio crisis and ecological destruction, providing insight into the hard science of climate intervention and the creative speculations behind innovation-led research to safeguard our planetary co-existence.


The exhibition Aquaria – Or the Illusion of a Boxed Sea (maat, 18/03 – 06/09/2021) reflects on the possibilities and new questions that arise when rethinking our relationship with the marine world. Curated by Angela Rui, the exhibition path unfolds through 11 installations offering different points of view to emphasise how the ways of understanding the marine environment were once designed and how they should be reconsidered today.