Highlights 2015 – Barbara Casavecchia

Chantal Akerman, Jumana Manna and Virgilio Sieni: Barbara Casavecchia shares her highlights from 2015

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Critic's Guides | 08 JAN 16

Jonas Mekas, In an instant it all came back to me, 2015. Courtesy the artist and A Palazzo, Brescia

In December, Jonas Mekas was in Brescia for the opening of his show ‘All these images, these sounds’ at A Palazzo, a new version of ‘The Internet Saga’ he had installed, oddly enough, at at Burger King in Venice during the last Biennale. In front of 800 images spanning more than half a century, I couldn’t help asking if he remembers every picture he took, and where, and when. The answer came with a Cheshire Cat’s smile: ‘Yes, absolutely’. For me, it was like things had come full circle. A couple of weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack, almost exactly a year ago, I had been grateful to find visual healing in Mekas’ Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man, a lust for life manifesto streamable on the excellent Vdrome website. The film was introduced with an interview of the filmmaker by Hans Ulrich Obrist. In it Mekas said: ‘Memories, they say my images are my memories. No no no! These are not memories: this is all real what you see – every image, every detail, everything is real, everything is real and it’s not a memory, it has nothing to do with my memories anymore. Memories are gone, but the images are here, and they are real! What you see, every second of what you see, here, is real. Is real. Right there in front of your eyes, what you see, it’s real. There, in front of you. Yes, from that screen, it’s all real.’

Chantal Akerman, Now, 2015, installation view Ambika P3, London

I’ve tried to keep that statement in mind, during a year in which horror and very real images of it seemed to keep multiplying uncontrollably – filtered through social media though whose algorithms we allow to edit for us our lives and diaries. Nobody put it better, I think, than Bret Easton Ellis in his recent article on the ‘reputation economy’: ‘Instead of embracing the true contradictory nature of human beings, with all of their biases and imperfections, we continue to transform ourselves into virtuous robots.’ Who or what are our electric sheep? In response to a police request to remain silent on social media in regard to the counter-terrorist operations in Brussels during the post-Paris-attacks days of late November, users flooded Twitter with cat memes with the hashtag #Brusselslockdown. In Chantal Akerman’s powerful Now (2015), at the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale (also shown later in the year at Ambika P3 in London), the only thing to be seen on the five screens was a desert, accompanied by a violent soundtrack of shootings, screams, engine noises. From Syria, the Abounaddara collective, on their website and on vimeo, regularly posts ‘films that deal with the indignity of our present without ever replicating that indignity on the screen’, as they call for ‘an ideal of a common humanity, or we will all die’.

David Horvitz,The space between us, 2015, app. Courtesy the artist

‘Even if you’re far far far away there is a connection between us’; ‘through the screen, can you feel me?’; ‘the world is at war. The inequalities between the rich and the poor increase and we’re ravaging the planet’… these are some of the lines from Antoine Catala’s Distant Feel, an online project developed for the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, and New York’s New Museum Triennial 2015 in which the artist works on the branding of a new symbol for empathy. David Horvitz just developed an app that measures the distance between two phone-users ‘and shows an arrow pointing towards the other person’. Hello, is there anybody out there? Screens change, but our inclination to believe in whatever we see on them doesn’t: before the summer, I saw a video I’ll never forget: Medicine (2001) by Latvian artist Ieva Rubeze (in the group show ‘Le fragole dal Baltico’, curated by Simone Menegoi and Zane Onckule at CareOf in Milan), involving a series of impromptu healers trying to hypnotize and cure their viewers by means of a tele-screened imposition of hands.

I was moved by frieze contributing editor Quinn Latimer’s short story ‘My Mother, My Other: Or, Some Sort of Influence’ on overcoming distance with books, daughterly love and individuating oneself, featured in the book Stationary, co-edited by Christina Li and Heman Chong. I’m grateful to Orit Gat for all her reflections on writing online and reading together IRL, and to Paul B. Preciado for his essential column at Libération, and for co-curating with Teresa Grandas ‘The Passion According to Carol Rama’ at MACBA in Barcelona. Farewell to the great, great mucca pazza of Italian art.

Carla Accardi,Origine(Origin), 1976/2007, Sicofoil, 21 black and white photographs, wood strips, variable dimensions © Carla Accardi Collection Antonella Sanfilippo, Rome

Two works, both titled Origine (Origin), are still very present in my mind. The first is a choreography by Virgilio Sieni, presented at Fondazione Prada in Milan during his cycle of actions ‘Atlante del gesto’; it involved couples of mothers/fathers and sons/daughters of all ages, from very young to very old, working together on the transmission of gestures, so that intimacy and reproduction of common features kept intertwining. The other Origine (1976) was an installation by Carla Accardi, her first work after quitting the feminist collective Rivolta Femminile (co-founded with art critic Carla Lonzi), consisting of transparent sicofoil strips hung side by side, a series of black and white pictures of herself and her mother, at the same age. Neither of them is characterised by any role, not even reciprocally, and they are never together, though both share a common ancestor, a lady in a frock whose portrait hung nearby. The piece was included in the encyclopaedic exhibition ‘La Grande Madre’, curated by Massimiliano Gioni at Palazzo Reale in Milan. Together with the amazing archive of symbolical images of ‘primitive’ deities of fertility collected by Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn from the mid-1930s onwards, which had a crucial impact on Jung and is now part of the Warburg Institute, to me Accardi’s Origine reminded us of the need to constantly re-write history and re-examine the commonplaces of our genealogies, categories, ways of framing gender.

Jumana Manna, A magical substance flows into me, 2015, film still. Courtesy the artist and CRG Gallery, New York

Jumana Manna’s A magical substance flows into me (2015) at Chisenhale Gallery, London, based on her research around the music of different communities living in Palestine, as originally recorded by the ’30s radio program Oriental Music, glued me to the seat (thank you for the blankets, it was freezing): not only thanks to the power of music – Mediterranean roots running deep – but also for the wonderfully surreal husband-wife, father-mother duets that Manna uses to destabilize the documentary format, in a perfect blend of the personal and the political, feminism and post-colonialism, culture and humour in harsh times.

Ilama ceramic sculptures (1500 BCE) at the Museo del Oro Calima in Cali, Colombia

In the year of systematic terrorist destruction of world-famous archeological sites, to come across the astonishingly beautiful Ilama ceramic sculptures (1500 BCE) of human figures and limbs at the Museo del Oro Calima in Cali, Colombia, was a reminder of how superficially I have been taught to understand art history and its lacunae. Another lesson came from Renee Gabri & Aireen Anastas’s unreadable archive When counting loses its sense (2015) for the Armenian Pavillion at the Mekhitarist Monastery on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni in Venice, awarded the Golden Lion. And again in Cali, the small multimedia exhibition Ceramica Sonica at the Archeological Museum La Merced, reconstructed, with the help of musicians from the native communities, the ‘voices’ of several artefacts from the museum collection, otherwise muted forever. Petrit Halilaj included in his current exhibition at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan ‘Si Okarina e Runikut’ (2014), a series of sculptures in clay and brass, to be played by visitors. He created them with the help of Shaqir Hoti, a scholar from his hometown in Kosovo, who has studied traditional ocarinas for years, in order to recreate experimentally a precious item that once belonged to the collection of the local museum, a Neolithic-era instrument, that had gone lost because of war. The memory of a sound.

Another exhibition to remember was Guerre Pace (Wars, Peace) by Luca Bertolo at SpazioA gallery, in Pistoia: a chronicle of current events in the form of paintings of abstract fences and unrecognizable soldiers, as well as of intimate vases of flowers, as if only the most basic forms of expression could still exercise a right to the image.

Petrit Halilaj, ‘Space Shuttle in the Garden’, installation view Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan; photograph: Agostino Osio

A personal oasis of peace and grace were the days spent talking, writing, walking around, discussing freely, dancing, eating and drinking together at ‘The Eternal Internet Brotherhood/Sisterhood residency/summit/project happening organised by Angelo Plessas at the Malaspina Castle of Fosdinovo, in Tuscany. Thanks also to a mercifully flagging internet connection.

And finally, milles merci to John Giorno. To watch him perform ‘Thank you for nothing’ at Palais de Tokyo in Paris provided me with lots of affection, poetry, humour, possibly wisdom. And a lot of good energy. May love, indeed, come to our rescue.

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.