Few Italian contemporary art institutions are more than ten years old. So it is perhaps no surprise that, although the driving forces behind these venues demonstrate a great deal of energy, in most cases they are still learning how best to channel that vitality. Instead of being celebrated, many of these anniversaries would benefit from being considered as opportunities for reflection.
This was precisely the approach taken by Andrea Viliani, the recently appointed young director of the Fondazione Galleria Civica in Trento. For his inaugural exhibition, ‘Civica 1989–2009: Celebration, Institution, Critique’, Viliani has created a show in which works by around 60 Italian artists, whose practices have in some way affected the institution’s history, are installed in different areas around the city, thus turning Trento into the site of a topological mapping of local and national present and recent past. ‘Civica 1989–2009’ opens with an installation devised by Massimo Bartolini (‘Archivio del Futuro’, Archive of the Future, 2009), a series of neon signs – identical to those of the businesses that occupied this former industrial space before it was incorporated into the new contemporary art centre in 2000 – that are installed on the façade and in the entrance corridor of the Galleria Civica, like stratified fossils. Bartolini’s neons not only recount the passage of time and the overlapping historical layers of the building’s functions, but also highlight the constant evolution of the notion of contemporaneity. In Italy, contemporary art has struggled, time and again, to create a niche for itself, and continues to be on the look out for acknowledgement from a political establishment that rarely sees any primary need for it.
The exhibition provides further glimpses into the past with works by a number of key figures from 20th-century Italian art history – including Lucio Fontana, Francesco lo Savio, Piero Manzoni and Giulio Turcato – installed with solemn elegance in the rooms of the city’s Museo Diocesano, relaying the discrete versions of Italian modernity experienced in the 1950s and ’60s, between Informel and Abstraction. Luigi Ontani, meanwhile, presides over the Castello del Buonconsiglio with an installation in which his usual narcissistic pantheon of (predominantly Italian) art-historical divinities – all bearing the artist’s likeness in the form of life-size photographs and sculptures – converge in a crowded sequence of baroque ecstasy, sex and banality (Ennesima Cena, The Umpteenth Supper, 1993). It is no coincidence that, within a show which uses the history of an institution to sketch out an episodic account of Italian art, Ontani wanted to include a room that exuded the iconography of Catholic martyrdom, exhibitionism and decoration, and that his work once again portrays the excessive, baroque conscience of a country that has, by contrast, exported a modernity of moderation and good taste.
At other times, a more markedly local identity – pertaining to the culture and landscape of this mountainous region – gives direction to the relationship between art, history and context in the exhibition. This is clear at the Sezione Operaia Società Alpinisti Tridentini (Workers Union of the Mountaineers Association of Trento), where Alessandro Pessoli has produced a series on the theme of the Alpine scene as depicted on the labels of the local Amaro liqueur (‘Gran Cordiale Amaro degli Alpini’, Amaro Alpine Liqueur, 2009). Just as Viliani frequently uses the layout of the exhibition to acquaint the visitor with the manifold aspects of the apparently isolated reality of a city nestled amongst the mountains, so there is also an evident attempt to articulate the multiplicity of contemporary expressive forms in relation to the different functions of each exhibition venue.
Against this background, it is somewhat disappointing that the exhibition’s critical reception was dominated by the furore generated in the local media about Lara Favaretto’s Momentary Monument (2009), which comprises a wall of sandbags around the statue of Dante Alighieri outside the city’s train station. (Debates were initially prompted by the proposed production costs, but soon the right-wing party Lega Nord picked up on this to call into question contemporary art in general). Dante is portrayed with hand raised, as though to prevent someone or something from advancing towards him (originally this was intended to symbolize the preservation of the Italian language from Northern European influence, but nowadays many on the right see it as according with their nationalist–chauvinist attitude towards foreigners). In building around this figure a protective structure with overtones of war, Favaretto’s work hints at an embattled culture. This intervention could – and should – have been discussed, interpreted and legitimately criticized. Instead, typically of what we are currently experiencing in Italy, it was absorbed into what is now the dominant language introduced by national politics and televisual culture – a language that trivializes and refutes.