So long, 1970s!
Alighiero Boetti, Gli anni settanta (The 1970s, 1973)
Palazzo Reale is a Neoclassic building in the centre of Milan, housing blockbuster Old Masters exhibitions alongside the odd contemporary art show, in the hopefully temporary absence of a museum proper. It has just opened a sprawling exhibition on the local art scene in the 1970s, titled ‘Addio Anni 70’ (So long, 1970s), co-curated by Francesco Bonami and Paola Nicolin. The show is part of a programme meant to stress the city’s renewed focus on contemporary art, after the change in administration in May 2011. As such, for better or worse, it’s indicative of a wider trend in Italian cultural policies.
The first room displayed two works: the first, Gianni Colombo’s Bariestesia (1975), comprises three tilted and skewed flights of stairs that invite the viewer to walk on them; they could be seen as both an aesthetic experiment and a metaphor for changing times. Alighiero Boetti’s Gli anni settanta (The 1970s, 1973), a drawing of the name of the decade (which had only just begun, but which the artist was parodying as a sort of brand name) in his iconic ballpoint pen style that covered the surface of the image, as if creating a negative image. Both works symbolize what was going on in Italian art (and society) in the 1970s and neither have previously been seen in Milan; yet the show eschewed any attempt to contextualize the work. This combination of great pieces and disregard for viewers characterised ‘Addio Anni 70’.
Gianni Colombo’s Bariestesia (1975)
The exhibition included several other landmark pieces of the decade, many of which have seldom been publicly shown before. These included Vincenzo Agnetti’s Progetto per un Amleto Politico (Project for a Political Hamlet, 1973), a set of instructions and props for the re-staging of Hamlet’s famous monologue with numbers instead of words; Luciano Fabro’s poetic formal analysis of a Palladian church in Venice Ogni ordine è contemporaneo ad ogni altro ordine (Every Order is Contemporary to Every Other Order, 1972–3); and a whole room devoted to Emilio Isgrò’s witty, yet surprisingly deep affidavit series (one set with his family swearing he wasn’t himself, another with artists and curators stating random, vague or contradictory facts about his persona). There were also less canonized but equally striking pieces, such as Ettore Sottsass Jr.’s series of photographic statements on utopian architecture. The 1970s Milan art scene as evoked by these pieces was incredibly varied, original and exciting.
L’avventurosa vita di Emilio Isgrò nelle testimonianze di uomini di stato, artisti, scrittori, parlamentari, attori, parenti,familiari, amici, anonimi cittadini
This evocation, however, was by no means straightforward. Art works were scattered in no apparent order around Palazzo Reale’s 30 or so rooms, lost between frescoes, marble floors and a bizarre 19th century centrepiece a good dozen metres long. Many significant pieces (among them Fausto Melotti’s enthralling gold wire sculptures) succumbed to the poor lighting, which made it impossible to read the bulky, 70-page exhibition guide. Similarly, the lack of wall-texts gave viewers no opportunity to contextualise what they were seeing, to reconstruct chronologies or influences or even to tell ground-breaking, influential artworks from the minor pieces they were surrounded with.
La danza (The Dance, 1972)
This could have been a deliberate attempt by the curators to rescue seminal works of art from a merely historiographic discourse, offering viewers an unmediated, if confused, experience. But what could have been a curatorially savvy, if elitist, approach to a historical retrospective, fell dramatically short when it came to documentation. The exhibition abounded with black and white photographs and videos documenting 1970s artistic and political events; but the absence of any explanation made the latter eerily similar to the former. Pictures of the scientific reconstruction of an anarchist’s assassination by police officers, one of the decade’s most cruelly symbolic political moments, looked like documents of a performance to any uninformed viewer (and the exhibition drew a lot of attention from the general, and especially younger, public). Similarly, shots of the Festa del Proletariato Giovanile (Proletarian Youth Festival) the 1976 youth gathering that would sow the seeds of the decade’s political movement, could easily have been confused with documentation from the Festival du Nouveau Réalisme (a public art event held in Milan’s central square with Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely) displayed on the same wall. Surely, when dealing with a period in which art and political unrest were so deeply intertwined, dissolving the latter into its aesthetic surface amounts to sterilizing – or at least taking the controversial edge off – much of that period’s significant art. Whether this was or was not deliberately planned, the result was problematic to say the least.
Laboratorio di Comunicazione militante –
Festa dell’occupazione (Laboratory of Military Communication, Festival of Occupation)
20 November, 1976
It is unclear to me whether the problems with this exhibition outweigh the sheer pleasure of seeing, often for the first time, a timely and consistent body of work. But a group of art works from the same decade, some of which outstandingly good, does not make a show about art in that decade. This consistency and quality were in no way explained to the public: ‘Addio Anni 70’ was an insider’s-only exhibition set up by an organization – the City of Milan – whose outreach ought to be significantly wider. In an approach that is typical of Italian cultural policies, problems and compromises will be justified along of the lines of something being better than nothing (but is it always?). Undoubtedly, some of the problems with ‘Addio Anni 70’ derived from the need for it to open one year after the local elections, in order to show that something was being done. But this need seldom resonates with curating thorough, interesting exhibitions and promoting visual culture among the public.