Notes for the definition of a portrait of Italy, based on the work of some artists with a social-realist style
“We always think of architecture as something eternal, but eternity has to be earned in the field, with time”, Eugenio Tibaldi told me in a phone call. Born in Alba in 1977, when he was 23 he moved to the outskirts of Naples to investigate the social, urban and anthropological transformations and rhythms then underway. He is interested in marginality, and thus in the aesthetics of marginality. As he repeatedly points out, he is interested in what is perceived, not what is real. In fact, in perception something is experienced that regards reality. And the task of artists – he specifies – “is to be politically incorrect, because research must not offer solutions. The artist, in fact, must never be philologically consistent, and moreover he is not a scholar”. . These reflections of his – above all in the dichotomous relationship between what is real and what is a perception of reality – open the field to a more general discourse concerning the relationship between some contemporary Italian artists (this is not a mapping exercise but a hypothetical first overview that will be examined point-by-point) and a raw, unmasked vision of Italy.
From the penetrating explorations of Tibaldi, to Bianco-Valente’s experiences created to develop an empathic and emotional reflection with places and stories, to the work developed on the photographic front by Francesco Jodice, and the experiences of other artists: there is a line of Italian art that renounces the extreme rigor of minimal form – characterised by an attitude towards a voluntary disengagement, at least apparent, in political and social terms – to focus on what is around us, on what we live, to shine a raw light, often through images. Nothing neorealistic or vernacular, but rather concrete and thus corporeal Fundamental to this type of approach was the project Incompiuto siciliano by Alterazioni Video, a collective founded in Milan in 2004 by Paololuca Barbieri Marchi, Alberto Caffarelli, Matteo Erenbourg, Andrea Masu and Giacomo Porfiri. For over a decade it has been outright mapping unfinished public works, relics of collective indifference, including theatres, churches, residential buildings, hospitals, swimming pools, viaducts and other structures which are documented and archived, inventorying prospects, projects, photographs and specific data, including the year the work was started and its geographical location: “Art is not an abstract body, disconnected and autonomous from society; it is one of the nodes in the network that constitutes the real and it is from the world that we take our cue for our actions and try, as Boetti said, to ‘Put the world into the world’. With Incompiuto siciliano, for example, we thought of developing a reverse system of signs that could superimpose itself on the existing one, to start producing a new and different sense, an answer to the anger, to the sense of defeat and impotence felt as we tour around the sites of the unfinished works. We considered it necessary to create a reversal of meaning and look for answers to the frustration and the impossibility of adding new words to the already said and new actions to the already done. Art can contribute to elaborating new strategies to trigger transformation processes, even if folks today are not sensitised even by a slap in the face”.
There is, therefore, the full awareness that comes from an essential, valid and persistent principle: the work is always the formalisation of a shared thought and of different points of observation. And this is the other factor that ought to be understood as a possible common denominator of the artists included in this possible overview, which above all seeks to highlight a certain disposition, here made explicit by a more or less complete exploration of one of each artist’s projects. They range from unauthorised buildings to stories of immigration – for example those explored by Elena Bellantoni in several recent projects, such as 2016’s Maremoto, or by Giuseppe Stampone in the extraordinary works produced with a biro, which reinterpret masterpieces of art history reworked with inserts related to contemporary history, from Lampedusa onwards, or by the Sicilian painter Andrea Di Marco, who used the delicacy of painting to make a ruthless critique – and even private anxieties.
So, the works you will read about here are above all exempla, given further specification by quotations from statements or other textual materials, coming from websites or from interviews with the artists.
A conspicuous part of my text will be dedicated to Tibaldi, precisely because he is among the Italian names who today concentrates, with most commitment and emphasis, on narrating this country’s essence. His richest works certainly include New Informal Museum’s Room Room of 2016 at the Museo Marca in Catanzaro, curated by Simona Caramia, for the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti. As he puts it, “when I was invited, I was told that it would be possible to use the outside courtyard or possibly a space inside the permanent collection, since the internal areas of the gallery were all already being used. So, I thought that the most interesting work would be to make an unauthorised extension of the gallery in the courtyard. The popular unauthorised extension, widespread in southern Italy, corresponds to the classic illegally enclosed verandas that present, on the outside, the precariousness of the materials and the brief time devoted to their construction, and on the inside, a finishing that fits with the normal parameters of the other rooms of the house. Present especially in coastal areas, they have now become part of our aesthetic canons. The second key element of the research is an installation: this work will be used to contain a work of documentation that will be realised on-the-ground and exhibited inside the illegally claimed space. The work realised therein emerged thanks to an alienating sensation that I felt during a visit to Catanzaro and more exactly on the coast north of Catanzaro […]. Operating a territorial division, I invited the young people who took part in the seminar to collect some images and send them to me; I made a selection of the most significant of these images, with which I composed some works”.
The result “was ruthless”, because it revealed the paradoxes and follies of communities that do not respect their own urban landscape and thus their own identity and the moral and aesthetic inheritance to be bequeathed to subsequent generations. Not by chance, to speak about protecting the landscape also means admitting failure and delay.
One of Francesco Jodice’s most intense works, Margine, is linked to an expanded concept of marginality and a reflection on the urban landscape and the traumatic transformations of cities. From 2017, it opens with the words of the writer Carlo Cassola: “I love the periphery more than the city. I love all the things that are on the margins”. In around four minutes, it runs through a mix of film clips, voices, and images in which the cinema of both past and present has reflected on this discourse: “The work is made up of clips from about sixty films set in the peripheries of Italian metropolises between the 1950s and the present. The film is constructed with the use of a split-screen that compares and sets in dialogue places in transformation and characters from Italian cinema, producing an imaginary and infinite conversation between places and personalities from distant periods and geographies. The result is a kaleidoscope of voices and social landscapes, which re-enact the genesis and evolution of the peripheries of our country, recounting their dreams, virtues, failures and precariousness”.
Bianco-Valente (Giovanna Bianco and Pino Valente) works by exploring the relationship between the forms of life, the contexts and the boundaries of the emotional intimacies of communities, in relation to individual places and their history. Often, the duo’s projects are developed in close contact with the first users of their work, that is to say, citizens, both in contexts outside the world of culture and art and in galleries and other devoted sites Bianco-Valente’s method presupposes long sessions of verbal interlocution, capable of generating stories, presences, tangible evidence of a long journey, which is the journey of the encounter, of an art capable of giving rise, first of all, to a relationship. Such is the case of Cosa manca (2014) in Roccagloriosa; it provides one of the tangible examples of their working method, but above all a result linked to the search for a latent, hidden emotionality, of a “minor” Italy that wants to express itself, and that succeeds in doing so thanks to the commitment of the two artists. Solitude, bitterness, visions, intimacy: these are the cardinal points of a public confession, which gradually developed on the balconies of the town: “In a first phase we addressed the same question to several Roccagloriosa residents we met on the street or in their homes: What’s missing? An apparently trivial question, but one also able to leave people gobsmacked – and on several occasions, before answering, they asked us if we were referring to the individual or to the community. Over a few days, we painted the answers on these sheets and tablecloths, then asked the inhabitants to display them on the day of the inauguration, having each person display on their balcony the answer expressed by another person, so as to intertwine in an uncontrollable way the different points of view on the desires and needs of the community. The response was enthusiastic and for a day it changed the streets of the village and the inhabitants’ way of interacting, offering many points of reflection and discussion”.
To finish this initial overview, we cannot leave out another artist able to delve into the folds of an Italy far from the obvious imagination, Nico Angiuli. In Tre Titoli (2015), he made a trip to the Foggia area in search of the coexistence between the lives of local farmers and the community of Ghanaian men and women who occupy some abandoned pieces of land: “With Tre Titoli – a film shot in Cerignola, the birthplace of Giuseppe Di Vittorio – we tried to weave together two apparently distant communities: the farm labourers of the twentieth century – who fought with Di Vittorio against the big landholding interests – and the new local farm labourers, coming from Ghana; the latter are reliving the same exploitative conditions to which local workers were subjected a century ago. The film connects these two communities, looking at the caporalato (i.e. black-market hiring by gangs) not according to the logic of journalistic reporting in the style of ‘bite, tell and run’, but trying to build a third social and political body, produced through the combination of these worlds which are specular but on distorted temporal planes. I believe that artistic research, when it has the strength, can stitch together the profound sense of collective values such as work, national identity (see ‘Prima gli italiani’, i.e. Italians First), the landscape, etc. Perhaps this sartorial role should also fall to politics, but it seems to me that today it speaks like Instagram stories, from one day to the next. Artistic practices represent a form of reading and investigation of the world, sometimes with socially engaged operative proposals, and sometimes more theoretical or symbolic ones, but in any case linked to emancipation from schemes, preconceptions and prejudices. There are many audiences for art: those who buy it, those who study it, those who seek it out in order to take a selfie, those who go to exhibitions to network, and so on. I think that the most involved audience is the one with whom the artists directly develop their projects. Maybe I’m taking things too far, but really those who attend galleries should find themselves making art and not only consuming it. Contemporary art in particular could have a greater weight in society, entering into a more complex dialogue with the different forms of participation in public affairs”.