MAXXI Hosts Transformative Environments by Women Artists

In Rome, a group exhibition dedicated to immersive spaces encourages gleeful interaction inside the museum's walls

BY Ana Vukadin in Exhibition Reviews | 04 JUL 24

One of the main sounds you hear while visiting MAXXI’s ‘Ambienti 1956–2010: Environments by Women Artists II’ is laughter, peppered by squeals of delight or surprise. The second chapter of Haus der Kunst Munich’s ambitious group show ‘Inside Other Spaces’, which spotlights radical environments created by pioneering female artists, this exhibition is the perfect playground for adults and children alike. Nineteen immersive spaces serve as anarchic portals into riotous experiments in scale, material and technology. A wall text invites viewers to engage: ‘Every experience is unique,’ it states. ‘Some transform us.’

Tsuruka  Yamazaki, Red (Shape of Mosquito Net), 1956, installation view, ‘Ambienti 1956–2010: Environments by Women Artists II’, 2024. Courtesy: MAXXI | Didascalie; photograph: MUSA

Suspended 70 cm above the ground like a vast hanging lantern, Tsuruko Yamazaki’s Red (Shape of Mosquito Net) (1956) encourages visitors to crawl inside its translucent vinyl walls, creating a shadow-puppet effect for passing gallery-goers. Around the corner, Aleksandra Kasuba’s monumental, rainbow-coloured Spectral Passage (1975) transports participants to an otherworldly sensory plane complete with sci-fi soundtrack.

Aleksandra Kasuba, A Spectral Passage, 1975–2023, installation view, ‘Ambienti 1956–2010: Environments by Women Artists II’, 2024. Courtesy: MAXXI | Didascalie; photograph: Giorgio Benni

Red and Spectral Passage are two of a number of historical environments that have been painstakingly rebuilt at MAXXI from archival photographs and documentation. Because of their site-specific and ephemeral nature, such works – combining architecture, design and sound – rarely found buyers and were often destroyed after being exhibited, leaving their makers largely excluded from mainstream art narratives. This was notably worse for women artists, only three of whom were included in Italian art historian Germano Celant’s exhibition ‘Ambiente/Arte’ at the 1976 Venice Biennale, deemed the definitive survey of environments.

Micol Assaël, Sleeplessness, 2003–23, installation view, ‘Ambienti 1956–2010: Environments by Women Artists II’, 2024. Courtesy: MAXXI | Didascalie; photograph: Giorgio Benni

Walking through ‘Ambienti’, however, it quickly becomes apparent that women artists were some of the form’s most daring exponents. Take Lea Lublin’s riotous Penetración/Expulsión (del Fluvio Subtunal) (Penetration/Expulsion [from Fluvio Subtunal], 1970) – a brilliantly provocative 18-metre-long transparent, tunnel-shaped obstacle course representing human reproduction. To get inside, you have to squeeze through a very tight labia-shaped entrance as gusts of wind lash at you. Once you’ve penetrated the colourful tunnel, you’re in a cocooned and muffled space surrounded by large transparent PVC balls – alternately filled with water, air and foam – with which you are encouraged to play. Outside, a series of suspended phallic cylinders frequently jostle into each other as kids run amok around them (Phallus Mobilis, 1970).

Lea Lublin, Penetración / Expulsión, 1970–2023, installation view, ‘Ambienti 1956–2010: Environments by Women Artists II’, 2024. Courtesy: MAXXI | Didascalie; photograph: Cinzia Capparelli 

At MAXXI, the show’s chronography has been extended to 2010, allowing for the inclusion of women artists working with new technologies. Christina Kubisch’s The Bird Tree (1987), for instance, is a ground-breaking piece of sound art that marked the first time an audio installation took on the form of figurative art. Originally presented in 1982 as part of the vanguard sound and art exhibition ‘Sonorità prospettiche’ (Perspective Sounds) at the Sala Comunale d’Arte Contemporanea in Rimini, The Bird Tree is simultaneously a painting, a participatory sound installation and a feat of technological innovation. Electric cables run along a wall to form an enormous tree transmitting 14 different audio channels of bird songs from across the world. Wearing headphones, visitors can hear each song at different junctions in the branches, allowing them to formulate their own soundtrack for the piece by moving around.

Lea Lublin, PhallusMobilis, 1970–2023, installation view, ‘Ambienti 1956–2010: Environments by Women Artists II’, 2024. Courtesy: MAXXI | Didascalie; photograph: Giorgio Benni

Arguably the exhibition’s most daring act, however, is to include the museum itself, designed by Zaha Hadid, on the list of show works. Completed in 2010, following a decade of construction, the museum was praised for its avantgarde design and went on to win the coveted Stirling Prize later that year. At the same time, however, some critics slammed it as a difficult space to show art. Until now, the building’s internal structure has been concealed to create traditional white cube spaces best suited to exhibition display. In ‘Ambienti’, for the first time since the building’s completion, layers of panelling have been removed to expose the sharp angles, sinuous curves and serpentine ramps of Hadid’s all-encompassing environment: the ultimate protagonist of this revelatory show.

Ambienti 1956–2010: Environments by Women Artists II’ is on view at MAXXI, Rome, until 20 October

Main image: Nanda Vigo e Lucio Fontana, Ambiente Spaziale "Utopie" (detail), 19642017, ‘Ambienti 19562010: Environments by Women Artists II’, 2024. Courtesy: MAXXI | Didascalie; photograph: Giorgio Benni

Ana Vukadin is a writer, translator and editor who lives in Jesi, Italy.