21x21 equals 100 – that is, the occasion for presenting ‘21 Italian Artists for the 21st Century’ is the centennial of Confindustria, the Italian industrial union founded in Turin in 1910. Curated by Francesco Bonami, the exhibition – which focuses on artists born after 1970, plus a project by Alberto Garutti – pivots on the all-inclusive theme of tradition and innovation (somehow echoing the hendiadys ‘tradition and revolution’ which served as the subtitle for his previous overview on the production of the Belpaese, ‘Italics’, at Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 2008).
‘What’s art got to do, got to do with it?’ asks the catalogue essay by Ilaria Bonacossa, who records the way ‘the world of contemporary art, in perennial search for financing patrons […] has found in the Italian industry a solid source of support’. Bonacossa lists the numerous foundations, prizes and residencies fuelled by private capital that have responded to the chronic lack of funding and the short-sightedness of many public bodies, a condition that has thinned the possibilities for institutional, political or economic critique. In his text, Bonami – perhaps ironically – writes: ‘We live in a world where everything is pre-packed, from food to ideas […] The “outsiders” have disappeared and everything is organised by “insiders” who are programmed to produce consent. But real culture has never been nurtured on consent.’
Innovation is not necessarily a synonym for revolution, and it’s tricky to argue whether an art work represents a given identity or ‘pre-packaged’ stance inscribed by national borders. The task is even more difficult when two-thirds of the participants in the exhibition are based abroad. Instead, the ‘Italian innovation’ that ‘21x21’ seems to pinpoint is the artists’ critical reading of the country’s past and present (trying, for once, to leave aside nostalgia for the golden age of modernity). The works assembled here are a reflection on how much space for experimentation the current state of cultural affairs allows.
In The Sun Shines in Kiev (2006), Rossella Biscotti muses about the manoeuvring of information and the (re-)writing of collective memory. Via a film, three slide-projections and a poster based on personal, contradictory recollections, Biscotti reconstructs the life of Ukrainian film director Vladimir Shevchenko, who worked at the power plant in Chernobyl and was one of the first to document the effects of the nuclear accident there in 1986. Last year, Biscotti stirred the quiet waters of Italian amnesia by installing five bronze heads of Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel III in the Nonas Foundation in Rome (The Heads in Question, 2009). Biscotti had found the busts in a basement of the Universal Expo Rome, a large complex inaugurated in 1935 by Mussolini and planned to open in 1942 to celebrate 20 years of Fascism – plans that were interrupted by World War II.
Both Matteo Rubbi and Patrizio Di Massimo critique the rhetoric of ‘historic’ celebrations. Rubbi’s contribution, Appare il futuro terribilmente vicino (The Future Looks Terribly Close, 2010), is a pile of anastatic copies of La Stampa (Turin’s daily newspaper, owned by the Fiat Group) from 6 May, 1961, the opening day of Torino ’61, the World Expo that marked the centenary of the Italian state. The newspapers burst with the bombastic optimism of the ‘boom’ era. It is difficult not to read the headlines – such as ‘The world’s most advanced countries show us the prodigious conquests by the man at work’ – against post-industrial Turin’s high unemployment. Di Massimo, whose most recent works have investigated the implications of Italian colonialism, installed his ‘non-monument’ Ben Bene (2010) in the garden overlooking the Fondazione. The sculpture is a three-metre high stele of Perspex filled with soil from a nearby hole in the ground of the same size, as if reversing the marker’s symbolic possibilities.
All My Friends Are Dead (2010), a horror road-movie/trash-TV-fiction-cum-cinéma verité shot in Cameroon last winter by collective Alterazioni Video (with anthropologist Ivan Bargna) hit a soft spot by addressing the commonly held paranoia about ‘aliens’ as a parable of witchcraft and zombies in Bandjoun, a small village of Cameroon. Nearby, Garutti’s Temporali (2010), a huge chandelier made of a thousand bulbs that light up whenever lightning strikes Italy, hung from the ceiling as if waiting for a heavenly sign marking a new Italian Miracle. Wouldn’t that be nice?