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Issue 140

State of a Nation

On the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification, curators and critics respond to the country’s political crisis and its effect on cultural institutions with Gabriella Belli, Cecilia Canziani, Massimiliano Gioni, Francesco Manacorda and Alessandro Rabottini

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Features | 01 JUN 11

Barbara Casavecchia

A contributing editor of frieze and a contributor to La Repubblica. Casavecchia also co-curates the public art project ‘All’Aperto’ at Fondazione Zegna, Trivero, Italy.

It is telling that Bice Curiger, Artistic Director of this year’s Venice Biennale, has chosen Tintoretto as the ‘patron saint’ of her exhibition, ‘illuminazioni’ (illuminations). Besides gaining a reputation for his chiaroscuro, the Venetian painter also had a reputation for being indifferent to money: after completing the 23m-wide Paradiso in Palazzo Ducale in 1594, he refused to set a price, leaving it up to the generosity of the senators.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, Italy has been swept by what Paul Chan and Sven Lütticken have described as the ‘Idiot Wind’ blowing across the West. Culture has been targeted as useless. State cuts hit funding to regions, provinces and local boroughs; resources for primary and secondary school were then chopped, as well as those for universities, festivals, opera houses, ballet, cinema, concerts and so on. It’s illuminating that even the National Institute of Statistics, guilty of turning out less and less optimistic yearly reports on the state of the nation, has been put in jeopardy.

Sasha Waltz, Dialogue 09, Performance documentation, MAXXI, Rome, 2010. Photograph: Bernd Uhlig.

After months of angry protests against the announced 40 percent cuts to the cultural budget, the Minister of Culture Sandro Bondi stepped down in March, to be replaced by Giancarlo Galan. Over the course of the same week, Giulio Tremonti, the Minister of Economy and Finance (who claimed to have been moved when the conductor Riccardo Muti asked the public at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma to sing Verdi’s chorus Va’ Pensiero as an appeal against the cuts), ruled for more than ¤170 million to be reinstated, bringing back the budget to last year’s levels. The lesson seemed to be that, in case of need, culture should not target institutions but individual politicians – with a farewell to independence.

The following statements from five Italian curators and critics in response to this situation are accompanied by, among other images, Armin Linke’s ‘Il Corpo dello Stato’ (The State’s Body, 2010), a series of photographs taken in the offices of Italy’s main institutions. They look like temples of a bygone era, whose emptiness mirrors the invisible presence of power and influence. While ‘pornotopia’ – a term coined by philosopher Beatriz Preciado – occupies the centre stage of mass communication, reality goes on behind the screens.

The impact of strategic deregulation is extremely concrete. The Colosseum in Rome recently secured a €25 million sponsor: Tod’s, a shoe brand. In Venice, where the Biennale is predominantly funded by private sponsorship, other brands are taking over spaces around the city: collector François Pinault, founder of the French multinational ppr that specializes in luxury brands, owns Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana; the Prada Foundation (in collaboration with the Fondazione Musei Civici) has announced its arrival at Ca’ Corner della Ca’ Granda, an 18th-century palazzo on the Canal Grande; while Louis Vuitton has taken care of the restoration of the Padiglione Venezia at the Giardini.

Unless there is a change to a recent law that states that in 2011 art museums will have to cut their spending by 80 percent, they will be forced to open up to the entrepreneurial logic of private operators. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Culture allocated the organization of the Italian Pavilion (which has gained an extra 3,800 square metres) to a private company, Arthemisia. The curator of the exhibition, celebrating Italy’s 150th anniversary, is Vittorio Sgarbi, a controversial art critic, collector, politician, TV showman and regular contributor to the pages of Il Giornale, the right-wing newspaper owned by Silvio Berlusconi’s brother.

At the time of writing, very little official information has been released, but Sgarbi’s exhibition will apparently include more than 200 artists, each chosen by a different Italian intellectual. The show will move beyond the Pavilion, spreading throughout regional museums and abroad, in the Italian Cultural Institutes around the world. It’s as if the best strategy for silencing difference or dissent is endlessly multiplying information and exposure, up to the level of white noise.

Gabriella Belli
Director of MART, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, and President of AMACI, the Association of Contemporary Art Museums of Italy.

In Italy, culture suffers from a lack of the kind of politics that might be able to understand the current difficulties of the cultural system. It’s a problem that has become more and more dramatic over recent years, but that has always marked the relation between politics and culture, so that, despite the fact that Italy can boast one of the most celebrated cultural heritages in the world, our funding for culture has always proved inferior to many other European countries.

Francesco Arena, Untitled (Bologna), 2010, Marble, 150 x 150 x 2cm. Courtesy: Monitor Gallery, Rome. Photograph: Matteo Monti.

Inadequate funding isn’t the only evidence of the critical state of the relationship between politics and culture: there is an evident superficiality at work in Italian politics. Especially over the last two decades, it has become common to subordinate culture to electoral exploitation and local tourism.

Nevertheless, despite this progressive degradation of political support, our cultural institutions have displayed a considerable vitality, thanks to a strategy of teaming up with other national and international institutions, and sharing scientific and cultural projects (as well as research and production costs) with others. This has helped to enforce the credibility of our museums and safeguard their economic balance. At the same time, multiplying and strengthening relations within their respective regional and local context has fostered new collaborations for museums, which have brought to them additional economic resources now crucial for their survival.

Paradoxically, instead of depressing our museum culture, the persistent precariousness and lack of public support has stimulated it, pushing museum professionals to find solutions that have resulted in a sort of immune system, which has helped us to ward off the effects of the economic crisis. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expect a more responsible attitude towards the needs of culture from Italian politicians. As a matter of fact, if they carry on in the same way, they will condemn our institutions to a condition of mere survival.

Francesco Manacorda
Artistic Director of Artissima, Turin, and a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art, London.

Italy is on an economically and socially regressive path. Liberal populism and the resulting wide-spread individualism in civil society have eroded any sense of common good. I believe that the main issues at stake in cultural policy are, on the one hand, the confusion between government and state and, on the other, the politicians’ refusal to take responsibility in planning long-term strategies. The practice of appointing civil servants (including museum directors) according to political allegiances is certainly a sign of the first issue; the political silence on future cuts is a sign of the second. In the current financial crisis, culture – and particularly contemporary art – is perceived as superfluous expenditure. The Italian Minister of Culture recently resigned because of the cuts his ministry had to accept from the Minister of Financial Affairs, who, a few months ago, declared that ‘culture cannot be eaten’.

Nonetheless, I see very positive signs emerging from four different directions. From the point of view of artistic practice, a strong generation of young artists is emerging, larger than in previous years and self-organized. In some Italian cities small, artist-run galleries and curatorial ventures are programming in a truly innovative and informed way: chan in Genoa, Peep-Hole in Milan, gum studio in Carrara and Cripta 747 in Turin, among others. Magazines like Mousse and Kaleidoscope are expanding their editorial activities into catalogue publishing and exhibition programmes. Lastly, Italy has some amazing collectors who are refined in taste and independent in their choices, some of whom have accumulated collections that Italian public museums can only dream of. In the last ten years private foundations have been at the forefront of contemporary art in Italy. New entries in the category have formed a network of private, experimental situations that range from the residency/exhibition programme at the Morra Greco Foundation in Naples to the postgraduate workshops at Ratti and Spinola-Banna Foundations and the curatorial ventures of the Nomas and Giuliani Foundations in Rome.

The system of cultural institutions and museums in the country is similar to the political situation before the unity that Italy attained 150 years ago: decentralized initiatives are often entirely funded by regional and local governments, making them dependent on changing political situations. Only since the opening of maxxi in Rome last year has Italy had a state-funded museum of contemporary art – aside from the Venice Biennale, everything else is funded by regional or municipal money. Under these conditions, centralized strategies cannot be put in position. Besides enlightened policies by local governments, the only solution I can see is expanding the emerging network to connect all like-minded institutions that can see the advantage of working together beyond their competitive brand outreach. Regression can only be fought with experimental research and unexpected development, activities that the new generation of cultural producers will need to ring-fence in their shoe-string budgets.

Massimiliano Gioni
Artistic Director of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan, and Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions at the New Museum in New York.

The fact that, at the time of writing, I can’t even remember if the Italian Minister of Culture has resigned and if his resignation has been accepted serves as a pretty clear sign of the current status of Italian cultural politics, at least at the ministerial level.

Maurizio Cattelan, L.O.V.E, 2010, White Carrara Marble, roman travertine, 11.4 x 5 x 5m, Installation view, Piazza Affari, Milan. Courtesy: Galerie Perrotin, Paris and the artist. Photograph: Zeno Zotti.

Having just returned from a trip to the United Arab Emirates, I am once again surprised by how short-sighted our cultural agendas appear when compared with many other countries. And the usual refrain that we invest all our resources in ancient art cannot serve as an excuse this time, particularly after the collapse of the House of the Gladiators in Pompeii, which clearly proves that even when it comes to conservation we are not exactly doing our best.

Then again, this lack of control from a central authority in Italy has always resulted in a flourishing of a variety of private, regional and local initiatives that have animated our cultural life. The Venice Biennale is perhaps our best example of a public institution that maintains its independence and credibility – but unfortunately the appointment of the curator of the Italian Pavilion by the Minister of Culture has already proven quite problematic on the last two occasions.

In Italy I have the good fortune to work outside public of institutions and so the programmes of the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in Milan, which I direct, haven’t suffered from the dramatic cuts in the public sector. While I am not very familiar with public institutions, I can certainly say that from the outside it appears clear that the cuts have particularly damaged the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, which has gone from being an example of what a public contemporary art museum should look like to a rather struggling institution. The fate of madre – the other most important contemporary art museum in Naples – is also very unclear. And it is a strange symmetry that as two of our most important museums seem to suffer from a lack of funds, in Rome maxxi and macro have opened to a fair amount of well-deserved fanfare. And while they have undoubtedly contributed to the increase in public awareness of contemporary art (for a few days during their inauguration, I almost felt like I lived in a normal country), they seem – at least from afar – to lack a bit of traction; maxxi in particular seems to be still finding its profile and probably its bearings in a rather complicated architecture.

In Milan, on the other hand, the Museo del Novecento – the museum of modern art that brings together works from 1900 to the 1950s – has opened to a record attendance of 400,000 people in three months, a result that might help set the priorities straight for the Italian capital of contemporary art, which for decades has failed to create a public structure to support its many private excellent enterprises. In this past year, in fact, the municipality of Milan has tried to bring contemporary art to the forefront with a series of initiatives that most of the time lack any accuracy but that have at least contributed to keep art at the centre of the public debate. The fact that the most-discussed contemporary art work in Milan is Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture of a raised middle finger (L.O.V.E, 2010) – installed in front of the Stock Exchange – is for better and for worse the clearest sign of where things stand.  

Cecilia Canziani
Co-director of Nomas Foundation in Rome, with Ilaria Gianni. Canziani is a founding member of the non-profit space 1:1projects and teaches museum education at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Palermo and modern art at the University of Rome La Sapienza and at IED, Rome.

It seems as if every other day I receive a petition about a museum at risk of closure. Some of my colleagues working in public institutions have been informed of their budget cuts and now can at least plan, while others won’t know for months how much money they will receive. Institutions that are not directly linked to the municipality or the state, and which receive donations from private sponsors, are no better off – the political fight between city, region and state often picks a museum as a battleground. If cultural investment gives a realistic measure of the state a country is in, the current cultural policy shows us a clear picture of Italy: a desert.

I recently participated in a silent sit-in in front of parliament. It seems to me that since last September my main activity has been taking part in marches, demonstrations and protests. I protested against the cuts to culture and education, and against reforms to limit the autonomy of magistrates. I protested for the constitution and for the rights of workers, and I expressed solidarity with my students at the University of Rome, whom like many of their fellow students across the country took part in occupations of their faculties.

You might imagine that the art world is part of these demonstrations, marching hand-in-hand with students, actors and musicians, and that its representatives in such public occasions are invited on stage to express their opposition to the current cultural policy, and to explain to the people gathered that when a museum closes the victim is the citizen, who is deprived of something that – as is made clear in our constitution – belongs to them.

Well, I’m afraid it’s not the case.

There is a lot of attention paid to the fact that a young generation of Italian artists is finally giving form to our recent history, as a way of overcoming amnesia, by reviving the relationship of art to politics. I am interested in this myself, especially in performative works that resist the idea of the memorial as a way of sedating the past. And I’m also aware of the work that many curators are doing to assess exactly what the turmoil over financial cuts means to museums.

I respect the difficulties faced by many small-scale, non-profit organizations that have never received any public funding because there is no arts council in Italy. I am looking with pride at the richness, the generosity and the impressive work that Italian artists, curators and institutions do against all odds when I follow the research of Fucking Good Art (artist duo Rob Hamelijnck and Nienke Terpsma), which we at Nomas Foundation commissioned to investigate the Italian cultural scene, vis à vis the political and economic crises. I believe that the Italian art system represents an interesting laboratory in the context of a general redefinition of European cultural and economic politics towards the proliferation of independent projects, forms of self-organization, mixes of public and private funding, and bottom-up initiatives. I know that the current scenario is the consequence of 20 years of an irresponsible administration ignorant of culture and cultural heritage.

But I also think that the lack of art-world representation in political protest today is a huge problem that we have to finally face, or we will simply disappear in silence. When people don’t recognize the art world as part of their dissent, it means that our discourse, desires and needs are perceived as separate from the same public sphere to which we flatter ourselves to talk to.  

Students marching on the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome last year in protest against the vote on an education reform that is to cut around 7.8 billion from the education system by 2013. Photograph: AFP/ Getty Images/ Alberto Pizzoli.

Alessandro Rabottini
An art critic and freelance curator based in Milan and London. He is also as curatorial consultant for the GAMeC in Bergamo, Italy, where he is curating solo shows by Tim Rollins + K.O.S. and Pratchaya Phinthong.

Bologna, Italy, 2 August 1980. Eighty-five people are killed in a terrorist bombing at the Central Station, a massacre that still constitutes one of the darkest chapters in recent Italian history, not least due to ongoing suspicions regarding the involvement of Italy’s secret service. As many other unsolved cases from the same period, in terms of public awareness the Bologna bloodbath stands as a negative milestone: one that is still to be built. Thirty years later, the Italian artist Francesco Arena created his own memorial to this strange gap in the collective consciousness, turning that lack of historical acknowledgment into a sculptural starting point. Arena’s Untitled (Bologna) (2011) is a marble panel on which the 85 names of the victims were repeatedly inscribed until only holes in the stone were left, silhouetting the area where the names once were.

Arena’s work is part of a wider interest that an emerging generation of Italian artists has recently been developing in national history, collective traumas and individual amnesias. Whether this means the evolution of a New Realism is beside the point; what is interesting is that artists such as Arena, Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Rossella Biscotti, Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio, Patrizio Di Massimo and Matteo Rubbi are responding to a question that has been cropping up for more than a decade: why is Italian art is lacking in political engagement? If previous generations of artists were mostly concerned with a hyper-subjective vision of reality, and produced images that seemed to portray a psychic and moral disconnection between the artist and society, young Italian artists today are ready to get their hands dirty, confronting repressed memories of colonialism, Fascism and terrorism – and the contradictions inherent in our current social landscape.

If Arena, Biscotti, Di Massimo and (more loosely) Rubbi are facing the present by restaging the past, Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio as well as Andreotta Calò are scrutinizing contemporary phenomena more directly; they employ immigration and urbanism as metaphors for an identity crisis, that of a nation still negotiating its own modernity. All these artists together represent a shift away from a previous tradition of a more metaphorical, non-descriptive approach to reality, where the ‘political’ was rather performed on the level of a subjective symbolism – a trajectory that still has its strongest historical precedent in the Arte Povera movement.

For most of these artists, memories are inscribed in materials and collective traumas must be introjected in order to uncover new readings, which is why their investigations of history go hand in hand with a formal dissection of the rules of representation and with an often personal engagement with facts as feelings.

The equation between memory and excavation is central in one of the most beautiful works from the last few years: Andreotta Calò’s contribution to the recent International Sculpture Biennale in Carrara, titled Per ogni lavoratore morto (For Every Dead Worker, 2010). As a memorial to the anonymous people who died while working in the marble caves, the artist decided to extract a block of marble by means of the pre-mechanized method; he then placed it in a desecrated church like an interiorized monument, a social memento created from the artist’s own exhaustion. Exoticism and eroticism, and history described almost as a bodily function, are the factors that come into play in Di Massimo’s work. In his multimedia practice, he investigates Italian colonialism in Libya and the implication of its hyper-sexualized iconography for the persistence of racism. In his double video installation Faccetta Nera, Faccetta Bianca (Little Black Face, Little White Face, 2010) the artist questions the infamous Fascist song ‘Faccetta Nera’ (1935), which was composed in order to attribute a noble motivation to Italy’s colonialist invasion of Ethiopia; Faccetta Bianca was the subsequent request of the regime that didn’t relish the first song. Here the historical anecdote has been turned into an almost abstract close-up of a black man rimming a white man and vice-versa.

It seems to me that the historical model for this vital body of practices – diversified in its formal approaches and motifs yet coherent in its aims and motivations – is still Fabio Mauri’s performance Intellettuale (Intellectual, 1975). In this iconic piece Mauri projected Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964) on the chest of the director himself, turning his body into the projection screen. While the audience was watching the film, Pasolini obviously was not able to see the projection properly, and – as he attested afterwards– drifted off, entering into his own subjective dimension of time. Some of the most interesting emerging Italian artists are similarly reworking culturally charged materials, transforming official narrations and collective mythologies by way of the medium of their own perception.

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