Heavy black curtains conceal the entrance to the Malta pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but if they open at the right moment, you’ll catch a glimpse of streaking lights falling from the ceiling like meteorites trailing through the night sky.
The piece is Arcangelo Sassolino’s , at once a technological marvel (the artist uses induction technology to liquify 400 pounds of steel each day) and a reference to one of Malta’s most historic Baroque paintings.
“Induction is really magic,” Sassolino told Artnet News. “Through a magnetic field, it can turn steel from [room temperature] to 1500 degrees Celsius [2732 degrees Fahrenheit], which is the point which steel melts.”
A large metal armature stands inside the pavilion, concealing a computer-programmed system that feeds steel coils into the induction machine. The installation is inspired by Caravaggio’s altarpiece, (1608), at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta, and reflects the artist’s famed mastery of dramatic lighting.
“When steel is melted, the energy is transformed into light,” Sassolino said. “There is darkness and then a moment of light, and then the return of darkness.”
The steel collects in seven pools of water, where the light extinguished as the steel hisses and sinks to the bottom of the basin, also made of steel. Workers at the pavilion collect the steel each day and send it back to the factory that produced the original coil, working with Carbonsink, a “climate solutions provider,” according to its website, to offset its CO2 production.
The basins of water are arranged to mirror the placement of the figures in the Caravaggio painting, creating a 21st-century take on the artist’s depiction of the brutal scene.
The flaming steel is set against a backdrop of a large steel plate, titled , on which is etched an inscription by Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci that features text from Ezekiel 37 and Psalm 139 in a combination of Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. The pavilion’s third artist is Brian Schembri, who composed a soundtrack for the installation, and the curators are Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip.
The over 12.5-by-16-foot piece is an exact match to the dimensions of the original Caravaggio altarpiece, which he painted during a brief stint in Malta, after he was exiled from Rome in 1606.
Caravaggio was briefly inducted as into the Knights of Malta before being cast out of the order, likely due to a physical altercation with another knight. Two years later, he was dead.
“Going to Malta was supposed to save Caravaggio’s life,” Sassolino said.
See more photos of the pavilion below.