A week after the opening of the 55th Venice Biennale, the Appeal Court in Turin sentenced the Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny to 18 years in jail because of the asbestos-related diseases caused by his factory, Eternit, in Casale Monferrato. After years of fighting against environmental pollution, the sentence was a victory for campaigners.
Luca Vitone based his project Per l’eternità (For Eternity, 2013) on the Casale Monferrato case as part of his series of ‘Monochromes’ (2000–ongoing, made from dust, ashes and smog), which records the ‘intoxication’ of the Italian landscape. Vitone created an ‘achromatic olfactory portrait of Eternit’ by reproducing its smell via a mixture containing rhubarb essence, which, although initially pleasant, soon becomes nauseating and results in a sore throat. Sprayed among the 117 photos of Viaggio in Italia (Journey through Italy, 1973 – 84, a project curated by Luigi Ghirri, involving 20 photographers creating alternatives to the Bel Paese clichés of Italy), this least visible work of the Italian Pavilion is, to my mind, one of the most apt.
Curated by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, director of MACRO in Rome, the pavilion is titled ‘vice versa’ in homage to Giorgio Agamben’s book Categorie italiane (1996; The End of the Poem, 1999), in which the philosopher analyses Italian culture through a series of ‘conjoined polar concepts’, as if its complexity can only be grasped through conflict. The pavilion is also the ‘vice versa’ of its predecessor, a politically embarrassing mess curated by the right-wing politician Vittorio Sgarbi – but to prove that contradictions are a national speciality, it should be remembered that Agamben was one of the 200 intellectuals who accepted Sgarbi’s invitation to select artists for his show.
The 12 selected artists are divided into couples and themes: Ghirri and Vitone (view/place); Francesco Arena and Fabio Mauri (body/history); Flavio Favelli and Marcello Maloberti (familiar/strange); Giulio Paolini and Marco Tirelli (perspective/surface); Gianfranco Baruchello and Elisabetta Benassi (system/fragment); Piero Golia and Sislej Xhafa (tragedy/comedy); Massimo Bartolini and Francesca Grilli (sound/silence). All of the work is new (with the exception of Ghirri and Mauri, who are both deceased) and the pairings are not exactly duets, since the works were developed individually; in fact, it was a curatorial decision to create an atlas of dissimilarities. Whereas, for instance, Bartolini subverts the logic of couplings by including in his installation Due (Two, 2013) – a ramp scattered with rubble and debris, cast in bronze, which leads to an inaccessible room – a series of ‘auditory’ inks on paper by Fluxus artist Giuseppe Chiari, Grilli stages an installation (Fe2O3 Ossido ferrico, Iron Oxide, 2013) in which a performer interacts with the drops of water falling on an iron sheet – the harder she sings, the more water flows. Favelli tackles monumentality with a huge Vatican-esque dome (La Cupola, 2013) in sheet metal, wood, glass and neon, while Maloberti’s contribution, La voglia matta (Crazy Desire, 2013), is a fragile architecture of textiles, held in place by four performers, on top of a giant slab of marble, surrounded by dozens of precarious plywood tables to be supported by other performers. In the garden, Xhafa’s surreal ‘barber in the trees’ (Parallel Paradox, 2013) offers visitors a free shave and haircut, while Golia invites them to share his ‘golden occasion’ at the Biennale by chipping away pieces of his large Minimalist cement cube sculpture (Untitled [My gold is yours], 2013), as valuable souvenirs. It’s worth something both literally and metaphorically: dispersed within it is a kilo of pure gold.