I finally made it to the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente (park of living art) in Turin and visited Vegetation as a Political Agent. The exhibition charts a history of the plant world, by looking beyond the biological and exploring the political and social implications of vegetation. And it is pretty much as exciting as i had hoped.
Plants are not as neutral and powerless as we might think. For example, they played a particularly important role in the 17th and 18th centuries, when navigators and 'explorers' sent to discover the world ended up annexing the land, colonizing populations and looking for ways to exploit the financial potential of new plant species (culminating in the spice trade.)
At the other end of the spectrum are individuals and communities which, from the 1970s on, have been using plants to resist, revolt and defy. The exhibition tells their story through documents that date back to the first ecological revolutions, specially commissioned projects and contemporary artworks.
The show opens with the mural Zapantera Negra in which Emory Douglas (Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the 1980s when the group disbanded) brings together the Black Panther movement and the Escuelita Zapatista supporting the rural working-classes in Chiapas. Douglas modified one of his famous posters Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed people of the world (1969) by turning a rifle into a corn plant, symbol of Mexican populations.
By placing plants in the context of territorial control in colonial and postcolonial periods, RozO's When vegetation is not decoration is perhaps the work that best encapsulates the exhbition. On a larger-scale, vegetation can become a tool to manage a territory or, conversely to support resistance against foreign control. The installation, made of archive material housed inside a temporary architecture of bamboo and palm leaves, illustrates contrasting uses of vegetation in history:
First, black and white photos taken by the French army in the mid-1950s show the French army harvesting wheat in Algeria. They are protected by elite soldiers and armored units.
These images clearly depict the exploitation of land for the benefit of the coloniser. Aside from the word "Algeria" written on the grain sacks, it seems that we are witnessing a French cereal farming region. Here vegetation is clearly used to assimilate and acculturate. Vegetation is employed by the attacker and coloniser of a country or region, to deterritorialize its inhabitants. Rendering the natives foreigners in their own land was a technique that frequently used by colonisers. In the 20th Century, following the invasion of Poland, Nazi Germany implemented a wide-reaching process of "Germanisation" of the territory, to render it German.
On the other side are stills from Chien thang Tay Bac (North West Victory), a documentary filmed in 1952 by the Viet Minh military forces during the war against French occupation. The images demonstrate how Vietnam fighters used topography and vegetation as a weapon. Instead of traveling through the road infrastructure, the soldiers used pathways that allow them to avoid detection by the French occupiers and instead of using the traditional bamboo rafts to cross rivers, they built bamboo bridges that were almost impossible to detect as they were positioned 10 centimetres under the surface of the water.
Roundup Ready Crops are genetically engineered crops that have had their DNA altered to allow them to withstand the active ingredient of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. Farmers who plant these seeds must use Roundup to keep other weeds from growing in their fields.
Members of Critical Art Ensemble prepared an artificial plot of land with RR herbicide, and challenged people to try and grow something in the enriched soil. The result of their efforts is depressing, it illustrates better than any essay the reason why the herbicide's nickname is 'killer exterminator'.
The most fascinating work in the show for me was Adelita Husni-Bey's timeline of English 'green' movements between 1987 and 2004 as seen through the radical and underground zines they published. Before the widespread use of the internet, zines and magazines were the only way to spread counter-information, controversial ideas and research.
Dan Halter planted a colony of Mesembryanthemum, a flower originally from southern Africa which is considered an alien species in many other parts of the world. Once in full bloom, the plant forms the famous icon of the Space Invaders video game, suggesting thus a very literal take on the idea of invasion. Excepts that this time, the colonization is upside down: it's African invaders that are about to colonize Europe.
Fernando Garcia-Dory brings to our attention George Chan's models of Integrated Farming and Waste Management System. The IFWMS involves a closed sustainable cycle in which matter and energy flow within the productive unit, increasing yields to meet the demands in food and energy of local populations while at the same time guaranteeing the sustainability of the ecosystem.
This revolutionary model, called Dream Farms, is as yet largely unknown.
Claire Pentecost's series of postcards document the artist's research in Mexico where she discovered that transgenic maize is illegally cultivated. Working with grassroots organizations in Sierra Juarez di Oaxaca, she catalogs the OGM plants and portrays them on postcards that are then distributed to Mexican farmers in the hope that they will help stop the contamination.
More images from the exhibition:
Vegetation as a Political Agent was curated by Marco Scotini. It is on view at the PAV - Parco Arte Vivente in Turin until 11 January 2014.
Disobedience Archive is a video collection which explores four decades of social disobedience: from the uprising in Italy in 1977 to the anti-globalization protests and to the insurrections in the Middle East.
The Castello di Rivoli is a stunning contemporary art museum a few kilometers away from Turin. The exhibition had a theme i'm particularly interested in. The works brought together were worth the trip to Rivoli. So far so good. Except that Disobedience Archive (The Republic) was an extremely frustrating exhibition. Videos that were made to inspire people to question, contest and discuss suffer from being hosted into a grand castle located in a provincial town. Rivoli might be one of the most prestigious contemporary art centers in Europe but the well-earned title is not enough to attract the crowds. When i visited the show, on a Saturday afternoon, the rooms were almost empty.
Still, splendid castle to spend an afternoon:
This one is part of the collection of the museum. It has nothing to do with Disobedience Archive but how could i resist adding it:
But let's get back to my grievances about the exhibition. The whole setting was as unappealing as possible: aside from a stern broadsheet at the entrance of the show, there is no information to give context and meaning to the works. The chairs to view the videos -some of which are over an hour long- are remarkably uncomfortable. There are too many videos to see in one visit and i'm not sure many people are ready to shell out 6.50 euros each time they want to come back and watch the films they had missed on their first visit.
There is a website for the video archive. It contains no video at all.
A frustrating exhibition thus. I would have liked everybody to spend hours watching the videos but i can't blame anyone for not doing so. This was a show that only the 'intellectual elite' would have seen. It shouldn't have been. Still, i'm glad i fancied myself as being part of that 'cultural elite' because the content was exceptional.
The archive is divided into nine sections: 1977 The Italian Exit looks at the revolutionary movements in Italy in the 1970s, with a focus on 1977, year of large-scale violent confrontations with a reactionary state. Protesting Capitalist Globalization documents or comments on the new social wave against globalization. Reclaim the Streets presents proposals to create autonomous social spaces through experimental forms of education, community, urbanism and architecture. Bioresistence and Society of Control refers to Foucault's analysis of the ways the operations of power extend beyond the institutions of state. Argentina Fabrica Social explores the political and economic crisis that stretched from the 2001 uprising to the election of Néstor Kirchner. Disobedience East brings together videos of political and activist art from post-communist Europe. Disobedience University shows alternative practices and strategies in which consumption is seen as a form of co-realization and collaboration. The Arab Dissent tries to raise questions about changes and antagonism in the Middle East. Gender Politics suggest the destruction of gender identity.
The show counts 57 videos. I wish i could link to all of them but only a handful can be viewed online. Here's my very subjective selection.
Unsurprisingly i made a beeline for the section entitled Bioresistence and Society of Control as it focused on issues encountered within prisons and asylum centers, on bacteriological experiments in warfare programmes and on other strategies deployed in the modern state to regulate and control life.
The Critical Art Ensemble had 3 films in the show. One of them was GenTerra, a collaboration with Beatriz da Costa. The video documents a participatory "theater" performance that gave the public an opportunity to get a more critical and hands-on understanding of transgenic organisms in relation to environmental and health exposure.
No video for Ashley Hunt's work, alas! In Corrections, the artist investigated the privatization of the prison system in the United States, exposing the role of the penal institution in preserving racial and economic divisions within society.
Angela Melitopoulos filmed three interviews with sociologist and philosopher Antonio Negri. The first in 1997 while he was in exile in Paris, the second in 1998 in the cell of Rebibbia prison in Rome, and the final one in 2003 in Rome, after his release.
Negri's report on his life as a prisoner describes new forms of control in the penal system, the psyche and mentality of prisoners, and forms of resistance with which he was able to retain "the freedom of his spirit".
Videograms of a Revolution uses -professional and amateur- video archives to examine the role of television in the infolding and understanding of the 1989 Romanian revolution. 'Demonstrators occupied the tv station in Bucharest and broadcast continuously for 120 hours, thereby establishing the tv studio as a new historical site.'
Half of the videos in the section The Arab Dissent were dedicated to the occupation of Palestine.
Khaled Jarrar, Infiltrators (Trailer), 2012
Khaled Jarrar's Infiltrators follows individuals and groups as they are looking for gaps in the seven meter high wall that separates the Palestinian territories from Israel.
I only saw one film in the Disobedience University selection and i think i struck gold with that one:
According to professor Yeshyahu Leibowitz, "the honest man should know that he should never respect the law too closely". Israeli filmmaker and critic Eyal Sivan sat down with the philosopher and listened to him talk about ethics, science, values, but also about State, religion, law and human responsibility.
Even though Leibowitz took part of in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, he openly criticized the politics of the State of Israel, in the name of a Jewish tradition of responsibility and divine law. During the conversation, the philosopher expresses his support and solidarity with the Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.
The 57 videos were accompanied by two thematic rooms. The opening one contained artworks and archive documents related to the student and workers protests in the Italy of the 1970s. Again, a bit of context and explanations would have been welcome.
The final room amassed books, props and other objects associated with political and social dissent in first decade of the 21st century. Works by Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas, Superflex, Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, Oliver Ressler, Arseniy Zhilyaev, Critical Art Ensemble, etc. It should have been a fascinating, informative and inspiring display. Alas, and I'm going to repeat myself, short texts about their meaning and significance would not have been superfluous (the ones in the broadsheet/guide of the exhibition were a bit too general.)
I suspect that my opinion of Damien Hirst is fairly common: i like his work/i don't like his work. I find the guy likeable and then i don't. I did however, enjoy visiting the two exhibitions that presented a small selection of his private collection Murderme. I saw a part of it 6 years ago at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The show was called In the Darkest Hour There May Be Light. A skeleton dressed like an Inuit was lying on an ice cube and Sarah Lucas had her Chicken Knickers on. The collection is having another outing right now but in Turin, at the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli. The title of the show this time is Freedom Not Genius. The artists shown are roughly the same (the artworks aren't): Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol; Richard Prince and his nurses; many of Hirst's YBA friends; a couple of Banksy. But also artefacts i don't remember having seen in London: taxidermied exotic animals, 17th-century vanitas paintings, vintage photographs and old skulls.
There were a few works i didn't care about (mostly the ones by Jeff Koons), a couple that surprised me (and that includes one by Jeff Koons) and many more i found rather uplifting. The Murderme collection is pure entertainment. Death is made dramatic and sometimes even cheerful. The artists have names most people have heard about. I found the exhibition curious and fascinating, it's that contemporary art world I find seductive but also utterly alien to me.
One of the rooms was dedicated to various memento mori with skulls from past centuries, a Picasso's Nature morte au crane et au pot, skulls adorned with a variety of materials, a Murakami (obviously my favourite), the skeletons of Tweety And Sylvester, etc.
Collishaw's The Garden of Unearthly Delights was probably the most photographed (or rather videoed) work in the show. The zoetrope was illuminated by stroboscopic lighting, giving the illusion that the figures were animated and that little children were gleefully throwing rocks at butterflies, crushing snails and bashing fish.
Freedom Not Genius remains open at the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli in Turin until 10 March 2013.
Maurizio Anzeri makes his portraits by sewing directly into found vintage photographs.
I'm quite convinced that in contemporary art, "The Poles Do It Better." Demonstration:
Pop is a waxwork of Turk as Sid Vicious in white jacket and black trousers, pointing a gun with the same gesture as Elvis Presley in the famous Andy Warhol's painting.
Rachel Foullon's barn objects from the Clusters installation look like props from a Western movie. They look worn and faded but they are also impeccably clean and their fold, creases and position seem to be the result of a careful study.
Teresa Margolles asked people she met in the streets of Juarez what they thought about the city. The answers were incised on keys hand-made by a local artisan who works on the streets.
Random views (i visited the fair on press day, hence the empty space):
An art fair is not the best place to discover works related to science, technology or politics. And when there are indeed such works on offer, they are not easy to spot. Galleries exhibiting at art fairs don't usually accompany the artwork with a text explaining what the piece is about. In fact, several galleries don't even write down the name of the artists they exhibit. You have to go and ask them. Which i do when i'm desperate but most of the time, i just want to keep on walking from gallery to gallery (there were 172 of them this year at Artissima) and see the rest of the show before my head explodes.
I did however, spot a few gems at the latest edition of Artissima.
The paintings of Taisia Korotkova immediately got my attention. There is something odd and slightly off-putting in the way she portrays childbirth. In the Reproduction series, Korotkova combines her impressions of her recent stay in the hospital with imagery of recent technology for artificial insemination. the intimate subject of child perception is tripped bared from any privacy by depicting the process as purely scientific, hightech and machine based. The anti-utopist Korotkova stresses that she recreates the already observed with sharper edges, while her style is reminiscent of optimistic illustrations of the 1960s with the cold pastel tones.
Korotkova paints her modern icons in the technique of traditional icon painting in tempera with a dip of humanized social realist painting.
The Castello di Rivoli was showing a black and white photo by Simon Starling. As its ultra long title suggests, the work is inspired by Christopher Williams's seven photographs of the Grande Dixence, the Swiss dam where Godard shot Opération Béton (Operation Cement). I'm mostly copy-pasting the description provided at the fair (the Castello di Rivoli is a museum, hence the magnanimous addition of information): Starling re-photographed Williams's shots and exhibited them with a title that describes how Switzerland profits from the resale of energy. Actually, the work is based on a stratagem that Switzerland carries out, buying electrical energy at night from nearby countries, at a low cost, then using that energy to pump water into the dam's holding reservoirs, generating hydroelectric energy, which is then resold by day at a higher price to those same neighbouring nations. Taking his cue from this small escamotage, or evasion, the artist carried out an analogous action that, through his appropriation of Williams's photos, causes his work to take on an already substantial value, which he then increases by printing these same images using a platinum rather than silver salt process - the former being a much more costly process than the one originally used. In this way Starling adds the material value of the means employed to the 'artistic' valie of the acquired photographs, infusing Williams's work with new meanings and adding another stage in the object's evocative path.
In the 1780s mineralogist August Nordenskiöld was employed by the Swedish king Gustav III to discover the legendary alchemical substance Philosopher's Stone and turn base metal into gold. The gold was intended to finance Sweden's military and economic expansion, but Nordenskiöld had a different agenda, he aimed to produce so much gold that its value would be lost and the "tyranny of money" abolished. One of the few remaining artifacts from Nordenskiöld's laboratory is a coal burning alchemy furnace.
In the project The Nordenskiöld Model, Goldin+Senneby (a duo of artists as elusive as an offshore company and who have been exploring the abstract nature of money for several years) explore the relation between contemporary finance and Nordenskiöld's utopian ideals and alchemical experiments.
Kamen Stoyanov's Tomato Product takes forms and ideas from the physical to the virtual and back. The work started with a very literal take on the Facebook game, Farmville, in which players receive a small piece of land to grow virtual crops and raises livestock. The artist used the garden of a historically significant building in West Hollywood (a city associated with an 'unreal' lifestyle) to grow tomatoes. Each plant pot measures 12x12 inch, the size of land ones get starting to play Farmville. Stoyanov also prepared tomato soup, canned it, added a label and put it on display, as a reference to Andy Warhol.
And a happy new year to you, dear readers!
Almost two months ago, i wrote a couple of measly posts (Arnold Odermatt, policeman photographer and Artissima - Valerio Carrubba) about the 19th edition of Artissima, the contemporary art fair that takes place in Turin each year in November. I've finally decided to catch up with my reports from the fair.
While reading articles in the local press, i learnt that Artisima broke all its records of affluence this year. That doesn't surprise me. A few years ago, Turin decided to squeeze all its major cultural events into the same November week. So the art fair was accompanied by various openings in the city and by an 'off' fair, nothing unusual here. But that same week also saw the commissions It's Not The End Of The World displayed in various museums for a few days, a digital art festival, a festival of electronic music, a photo fair, an exhibition dedicated to 'emerging art'', etc. A fantastic strategy to attract tourists. A lame idea for art-loving people who live in this city.
As a brief intro (which will actually be the third 'brief intro'), here's a quick copy/paste of the photographic works that i found most interesting at Artissima. Some of them are purely photographic works. But because i didn't see as many stunning photos as usual this year, i'm adding images that document performances and interventions. Starting with...
The 11 metre long, pink neon sign was first erected on the roof of an abandoned barn in a region of Norway made famous by Edvard Munch. Kjartansson lived there for a week, looking dejected and playing the guitar for days, many of which not a single human visitor came.
Naufus Ramírez Figueroa was one of the 3 winners of the Premio Illy for young artists.
Karen Knorr's series of large-scale photos star wildlife animals inhabiting the elegant salons of famous cultural institutions and castles.
Edgar Leciejewski: a name to add to the already long list of artists working with blow-ups of "Google Street View".
Per-Oskar Leu's "The English: Are they human?" site-specific installation showed two Italian Mille Miglia parka. Their integrated goggles and 'built for speed' appearance has made these jackets a sought-after garment among football fans with inclinations towards fighting and luxury apparel. Since the early 1980's groups of British 'risk supporters' have embraced a dress code of upmarket, mainly French and Italian sportswear brands, a look which has in turn been adapted by fans in Europe following an increase in 'The English Disease' of football hooliganism. Simultaneously, Leu conjures up imagery from other cross-cultural phenomena equally fixated upon the cult of youthful aggression; namely the Italian Futurist movement and its English offshoot the Vorticist group, founded in 1909 and 1913 respectively.
In 1999, Nedko Solakov wrote fourteen short messages and narratives on the wings of six of Luxair's Boeing 737's. Each of them was visible only from the window seats.
In case you were wondering what the fair looked like:
One last reason why i love Artissima: