Over the past decade, Damiano Bertoli has developed a sophisticated engagement with the languages, forms and politics of late modernism. For example, for his series ‘Continuous Moment’ (2002–ongoing), he co-opted designs by the famous Italian practice Superstudio, founded in 1966 in Florence as part of the radical architecture movement of the late 1960s; while his recent show at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography, ‘Continuous Moment: Sordid’s Hotel’, presented the third iteration of his reworking of Pablo Picasso’s play Le Désir attrapé par la queue (Desire Captured by the Tail), written 1941 but which premiered in 1967. Artist, writer, collaborator and one of the first members of the influential Melbourne artists’ run space, Ocular Lab (which ran from 2003–10), Bertoli, and his prominence in the local landscape, was acknowledged by his inclusion in the recent survey show ‘Melbourne Now’ at the National Gallery of Victoria.
For ‘Associates’, Bertoli presented nine drawings that have been two years in the making. Each one consisted of coloured pencil on a standard A0 sheet, every centimetre of which had been worked on: in itself, an epic of manual labour. Yet time and production have particular resonance for the artist. Extending his interest in the radical sentiments of the 1960s and ’70s, Bertoli here engaged with the Memphis Group, a radical design studio operating in Milan from 1981–88, several members of which were associated (tangentially) with left-wing politics. However, Memphis’s principal revolution was opposing the ideology of functionalism that had characterized early 20th-century design. Playful, esoteric, even downright ugly, Memphis explored ideas rather than solutions, generative possibilities over taste. Resisting a sociological rationale – such as improving everyday life – it took an anti-ideological stance, which meant deploying everyday affects and materials through an ‘anti-design’ process.
Bertoli couples this non-design redistribution of daily forms with the similarly humble but pervasive strategies of the Italian leftist Autonomia movement of the 1970s. Part of the remarkably rich history of the country’s extra-parliamentary political protest (that extends to the present in figures such as the Italian comedian, blogger and political activist Beppe Grillo), the Autonomists adopted tactics focused on the disruption – as opposed to the destruction espoused by the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades) – of social codes. Nik Papas describes these connections in his excellent essay for ‘Associates’: ‘Mockery and wit were employed liberally, providing a means of expression and a source of entertainment against the ideology of crisis and austerity advanced by both governments and political parties.’
The drawings take the labour involved in applying pencil to paper to generate an idea – the degree zero of art making – and expand this into a manifesto. Literally in many regards: the drawings collapse political typography (block-capital renderings of poster headlines and pamphlet slogans from the Autonomia era) into Memphis derived patterns, the repeated cross-hatching suggesting the woven textiles from which many of the designs are borrowed. Each drawing is named after a Red Brigade revolutionary. So, Mario (2012) proclaims: ‘Revisionist bureaucrats in congress maintain peace for the bourgeoisie / In the factories, workers continue class warfare / Workers-students united in struggle.’ As Papas suggests: ‘Bertoli establishes a point of equivalence between the activist and the artist, realized as a common physical surface rendered literal in the iconography and acts of design.’ As he makes clear: for Bertoli, the artist is the ultimate radical.