BY Ana Vukadin in Critic's Guides | 12 APR 24

The Seven Best Exhibitions to See in Milan

From a spectacular solo show by Nari Ward to a plein air poster exhibition featuring Italian-based artists, here’s what to see during Miart

BY Ana Vukadin in Critic's Guides | 12 APR 24

Miranda July | Osservatorio Fondazione Prada | 7 March – 14 October

Miranda July, ‘New Society’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Prada, Mila; photograph: Valentina Sommariva

‘I met an archivist in my early 20s,’ Miranda July told attendees at the opening of ‘New Society’, her first-ever institutional show, ‘who led me to understand that what is saved is remembered, and what is remembered becomes history and then reality. If I just kept saving, I realized, it could be radical.’ At Fondazione Prada’s Osservatorio, a centre dedicated to experimentation and research, vitrines are filled with July’s performance ephemera, props and scribbled notebooks, while her wigs and costumes adorn the walls. For more than 30 years, July has been making art that probes our assumptions about vulnerability and power, frequently collaborating with strangers met during chance encounters. Equal parts author, artist and film director, she possesses a rare kind of compassion for and insight into our frailties and desires – qualities on full display in this superb retrospective. Best of all, you get to see recordings of her iconic performances, including New Society (2015), which was first staged at Center for the Art of Performance, Los Angeles. Over the course of two hours, July uses radical honesty, generosity and humour to convince the entire audience to join her in creating a new society, complete with a flag and national anthem.

Adrian Piper | PAC Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea 19 March – 9 June

Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, 1970, performance documentation, 41 × 41 cm. Courtesy: the artist

Adrian Piper’s retrospective at PAC, ‘Race Traitor’, is a gripping and all-too-relevant journey into the history of racism, gender, politics and art in the US. A conceptual artist and a Kantian philosopher whose artistic practice spans more than five decades, Piper is best known for her performative works that raise uncomfortable questions around race and politics with her predominantly white audience. Her first retrospective in Europe in more than 20 years, ‘Race Traitor’ offers a complete and complex look at Piper’s practice, from her first forays into breaking away from figuration, like the remarkable Barbara Epstein and Doll (1966), to minimalist works on paper that conceptually explore space and time as well as her many installations and performances. These include Art for the Art World Surface Pattern (1976), the piece in which politics definitively entered Piper’s practice for the first time. Inside a minimalist cube, its walls plastered with newspaper clippings reporting atrocities from around the world, we hear the artist’s disembodied voice. Playing the part of a petulant exhibition visitor who disparages politically active artists, she bemoans art for art’s sake. ‘These spoiled kiddies making expensive mud pies who can’t be satisfied with making beauty in this world,’ she complains. ‘Rauschenberg would be bored to tears!’

Nari Ward | Pirelli Hangar Bicocca | 28 March – 28 July

Nari Ward, ‘Ground Break’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan; photograph: Agostino Osio

Over the course of a month, Nari Ward carefully assembled his spectacular large-scale installations inside the cavernous space of Hangar Bicocca, a Herculean feat considering their complexity, size and sheer number. The resulting exhibition, ‘Ground Break’, immerses the viewer in sound – waves, music, song – and confronts them with a series of remarkable installations spanning more than three decades of Ward’s practice. The 12-metre-tall Geography Bottle Curtain (1997/2024) features hundreds of colourful, suspended bottles that recall the Congolese bottle tree tradition transplanted via slavery into the US’s southern states. Hunger Cradle (1996/2024), a jumbled web of brightly hued yarn and rope cradling found objects, propels visitors into Ward’s riotous world of discarded items morphed into treasure, their stories serving as portals into the lives of marginalized people and the neighbourhoods they inhabit. The darkened space of the hangar, which lends itself to live events, has a programme of performances, under the title Groundings for Ground Break, that is scheduled throughout the exhibition’s run.

Mila Panić | eastcontemporary | 7 March – April 19

Mila Panić, Südost Paket, 2023, bus tire, perfumes, cigarettes, 80 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist and eastcontemporary, Milan; photograph: Tiziano Ercoli and Riccardo Giancola

Bosnian artist Mila Panić is an avid stand-up comedian. She performs daily, including the night before her solo show opening at eastcontemporary, a gem of a gallery that nurtures and showcases emerging artists from Central and Eastern Europe. In ‘Madness’, Berlin-based Panić uses humour in boatloads – the kind of dark, gut-punching wit I associate deeply with the Balkans. It’s a tool of resistance, like in Angry Immigrant Woman (2021), a blown-up black and white photobooth self-portrait that explodes the docile, thankful immigrant trope. It shows the artist looking at the viewer defiantly, a forced smile cut out from a glossy magazine stuck across her mouth, while her anger at being expected to unequivocally assimilate to her new home remains palpable. Humour can also be liberating, and perhaps even help process trauma, as in Südost Paket (Southeast Package, 2023–ongoing), a sculpture in which a bus tyre is filled with small luxuries to be smuggled across borders – an especially popular practice in the early 1990s, when international sanctions were imposed on Yugoslavia. I recognized my grandfather’s go-to brand of cigarettes and instantly recalled the fear-tinged excitement of the seemingly endless bus journeys, crossing new and old borders, the weight of war on our shoulders.

Gabrielle Goliath | Galleria Raffaella Cortese | 5 April – 30 June

Gabrielle Goliath, Elegy (detail), 2015–ongoing, performance project. Courtesy: the artist and Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan

South African artist Gabrielle Goliath’s deliberate and careful practice often takes the form of durational artwork. She tackles racist, gendered and sexualized violence in a world in which five women or girls are killed every hour by someone in their own family. For her inaugural exhibition at Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Goliath’s long-term commemorative performance, Elegy (2015–ongoing), is being shown for the first time as a ten-channel video installation. Spread across the gallery’s three spaces on Via A. Stradella, the work features ten performances staged around the world, each one showing a group of seven female vocalists dressed in mourning who alternately take the spotlight for an hour. The resulting, haunting chorus of elegiac voices quickly becomes overwhelming and heart-breaking, amplified by the knowledge that each performance pays tribute to a woman or a queer person raped and killed in South Africa. Lovingly written letters to each accompany the show. Crucially, Elegy celebrates the lives of the victims, no longer a statistic but a full life cut brutally short, in a moving act of remembrance and repair. 

ITALIA 70 | Fondazione Nicola Trussardi | 8 April – 21 April

Petrit Halilaj, The History of a Hug, 2020, steel, fabric, feathers, leather, original wood from Kosovo, silicon, paint, hair, 200 × 60 cm Courtesy: the artist, ChertLüdde, Berlin, Mennour, Paris; photograph: Trevor Lloyd

In 2004, thousands of posters created by 16 Italian artists – including Elisabetta Benassi, Adrian Paci and Paola Pivi – took over Milan’s public spaces, appearing alongside billboard advertisements in the city’s streets and squares. Titled ‘I Nuovi Mostri (Life Is Beautiful)’, the plein-air art show included the free distribution of a pamphlet reproducing the poster images and including a dictionary of Italy’s stereotypes and clichés. Two decades later, to coincide with miart, Fondazione Nicola Trussardi has returned to the same formula, calling on 70 artists working in Italy to propose a poster based on a new or existing work. Ranging from emerging to established, this year’s participants include Chiara Camoni, Maurizio Cattelan, Petrit Halilaj, Adelita Husni-Bey and Nico Vascellari. Keep an eye out as you walk the city’s streets in this treasure hunt of sorts. Highlights include Halilaj’s poignant photograph History of a Hug (2020), first conceived at his wedding to fellow artist Álvaro Urbano. The image depicts a man dressed as a white raven hugging a large tree branch: it’s the same branch that Halilaj’s grandfather hugged joyfully when he was told, while working in the fields, that his wife had given birth – at a time when male emotions were stigmatized. This work is sadly relevant in Italy, a deeply misogynist country, where same-sex marriages are not yet legal and where, in 2023, non-biological same-sex parents lost their rights.

Erika Verzutti | Fondazione ICA 10 April – 19 July

Erika Verzutti, ‘Notizia’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione ICA, Milan; photograph: Andrea Rossetti

Since first opening its doors in 2019 in a former 1930s office block, Fondazione ICA has organized a number of excellent contemporary art shows, spotlighting some of the most interesting international artists working today, including Simone Fattal, Aziz Hazara and Christine Safa. Modelling itself on London’s ICA, it frequently commissions new works for its exhibitions, including its latest show, ‘Notizia’ (News), by Brazilian artist Erika Verzutti. Questioning what it means to produce art in a world of devastating inequality and instability, Verzutti starts from the anxiety generated by the relentless information overload to which we are all exposed. Fondazione ICA’s ground floor space is filled with totem-like sculptures made from bronze, ceramic, paper, resin and newspaper cuttings. Commonly presented vertically, some of these works, such as Crisis of Sculpture (2024), are here installed horizontally, in an irreverent take on modernist masculine paradigms.

Main image: Nari Ward, Hunger Cradle (detail), 1996/2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan; photograph: Agostino Osio

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