Animal Farm On The Chess Board
A close-up of Alessandro Gallo's Animal Kingdom. | Image courtesy Alessandro Gallo.

Animal Farm On The Chess Board

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23 | Chess Event Coverage

Animal Kingdom is a recent piece by the Italian contemporary artist Alessandro Gallo, who combines his usual style, where animals play an important role, with the game of chess. Chess.com spoke to Gallo about his work and his views on chess & art.

Born in Genoa but now living in Helena, Montana, Alessandro Gallo is a contemporary artist with a passion for chess. He plays regularly at Chess.com under the username @BadaBing33.

Gallo recently combined these two passions in a piece called Animal Kingdom, which borrows its structure, symbolism and dynamics from the game of chess.

Alessandro Gallo Animal Kingdom
"Animal Kingdom" | Photo: Alessandro Gallo.

Gallo provided the following introduction to the piece: 

It mirrors our daily battles, as active fighters or witnesses, to succeed, to be better, to adapt to an ever-shifting habitat and not be swallowed.

Chess is essentially a symbolic war and the mix of analysis, intuition and strategy it requires offers metaphors that are constantly used in everyday conversations, even by people that know very little about it.

The game of chess has been represented in art numerous times since its sheer existence, but still Gallo found a relatively original approach by going for a vertical piece. This hasn't been done too often, except when we go back to the earliest times. 

1283 Libro de los juegos
An early example of chess-related art is this illustration, which in fact represents a chess problem, from the 1283 book Libro de los juegos, a book about different games commissioned by Alfonso X of Castile, Galicia and Leon. It should be noted that this chess board was not necessarily seen as 'vertical' in those times, when perspective in visual arts was not fully developed yet.

By choosing a vertical format, which is completely normal for internet users, book and newspaper readers, the artist wanted to stress the point "that sometimes the battle is against yourself." Because, diagrams are still often presenting a puzzle, centuries after the aforementioned medieval book.

"I never saw a vertical piece of chess art, so this was an exciting thing to do," Gallo said.

Alessandro Gallo Animal Kingdom
A picture with the artist, so you get an idea of the size of the piece. | Photo: Alessandro Gallo.

On a rather big board, (72 x 72 inch or 183 x 183 cm), made of wood and covered with steel tiles, the pieces are busts with heads of animals made of ceramic. The choice of the beasts was not trivial.

"Every animal head and posture find its reasons in the name of the piece or how it looks or the moves it can make on the board," explained Gallo. "For example, the king only becomes active at the end where I imagined it as a conqueror that makes decisions but not necessarily acts upon them. I decided to pick Pig from Napoleon in George Orwell's Animal Farm, the animal that starts the revolution in the farm, the one that decides on the rules and exceptions."

Alessandro Gallo Animal Kingdom
A close-up of the white queen and king. | Photo: Alessandro Gallo.

"For the bishop I imagined an oblique, cardinal counselor speaking from dark corners. I went for a reptile, cold blooded and thick-skinned, callous and sly."

For the queen, Gallo was inspired by a bust of Elizabeth the First, where he found the ruffle consonant to her stature as the most powerful piece.

"The knight had to be a horse," writes Gallo in his introduction. "I used the uniform of a general for his outfit. I sculpted the bridles to state some form of restraint from a superior authority and also to echo their predetermined L shaped movements."

Alessandro Gallo Animal Kingdom
A side-view of the white pieces. | Photo: Alessandro Gallo.

For the rook, the artist had medieval battering rams in mind. He chose the bighorn sheep to reflect a brute-force, head on attack.

Gallo: "Eyes are an important feature of all the pieces I made, so it seemed fitting to have pawns blind. They are hooded falcons. The head harness implies a master and a higher form of control over their decisions and suggests the potential of promotion when it is removed, when a pawn, against the odds, survives through enemy lines and reaches the opposite end of the board."

Alessandro Gallo Animal Kingdom
Two white pawns. | Photo: Alessandro Gallo.

Animal Kingdom is the only chess piece as part of his solo exhibition Most of the Time that currently runs in the Abmeyer + Wood art gallery in Seattle. His other pieces are persons with animal heads in different situations, or as one reviewer put it: "a sculptural array of bestial-headed humanoids."

Alessandro Gallo One Tricky Pony
"One Tricky Pony" | Photo: Alessandro Gallo.

About these pieces, Gallo said: "I construct stories and I want to tell about the world that surrounds me. I use emblematic figures that represent subcultures, the world we belong to. The animal masks are a way to display inner features. It's not my invention, it has been done before, but it is a personal twist. Posture, animal heads and clothes are the elements that make my pieces."

Animal Kingdom is not Gallo's first chess art piece. In 2006 he made Animal Farm, a chess set for which he used stoneware for the pieces, and marble and black slate for the squares.

Alessandro Gallo Animal Farm
Alessandro Gallo's 'Animal Farm' (2006). | Photo: Alessandro Gallo.

Animal Kingdom (2019). Material: Ceramic and mixed media. Dimensions: 72 x 72 x 7 inch. Currently visible as part of the exhibition Most of the Time that runs until May 31 in the Abmeyer + Wood art gallery in Seattle. More information about the artist can be found on his websiteFacebook, and Instagram pages.

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