The Body: Personal Dimension and Collective Memory
Notes on Italian Art of the Present

Raffaella Perna

In her book Posthuman Knowledge (2017), Rosi Braidotti argues that in the 21st century subjectivity is a paradoxical place, a theatre where multiple social, symbolic, economic and political factors come into play and intersect, and warns us that this historical phase presents us with a contradiction – its consequences are many. What we are dealing with is, in fact, the “simultaneous disappearance and over-exposure, evanescence and insurgency, of the body.”[1] According to Braidotti, the body “becomes the place where multiple and contradictory cultural codes and discursive practices overlap. For an ironic, yet attentive reader of the history of Western philosophy, the body is: Descartes’ worst nightmare, Spinoza’s source of hope and the origin of protest in Nietzsche, Freud’s obsession, Lacan’s favourite fantasy and Marx’s most glaring omission.”[2] Following the philosopher’s reasoning, the body is the object of a normative imagery spread by media and television representations, but also a space that opens up to conflict and, therefore, a place of possible resistance and dissent. It is for this reason that today corporeality continues to be at the centre of the practice of many artists who, on a national and international level, work in the field of visual and performing arts, maintaining firm relations with the experiences of the neo-avant-garde of the 1970s, which conceived of the body “as language”,[3] exploring its boundaries and its revolutionary potential. With respect to the art of that decade – which the new generations look at with interest, contributing to reactivate its history – the research of the last twenty years has broadened the spectrum of issues analysed, starting from the increasingly close connection between the body, gender identity, ethnicity, class and disability. These are at the centre of the recent actions of Chiara Bersani (1984), performer, activist and member of the Al Di Qua Artists association (Alternative Disability Quality Artists) since 2020. In Italy, in particular, the memory of the 1970s continues to resonate strongly, especially in the work of artists active since the early 2000s. The legacy of Italian feminism of difference and the thought of Carla Lonzi are taken up, for instance, in the research on corporeity carried out, for almost two decades, by Silvia Giambrone (1981), who investigates the power relations between the sexes and the violence exerted on bodies. Interpersonal conflict is the focus of the video Domestication (2020), produced during the pandemic crisis as part of the project Mascarilla 19 – Codes of Domestic Violence:[4] the artist reflects on the cultural nature of gender-based violence, on how violent behaviour is learnt and transmitted, and on how it increased exponentially during the COVID-19 lockdown[5] – as demonstrated by data collected by anti-violence centres – a twofold emergency for women. In Domestication, Giambrone lays bare the cultural and social mechanisms through which violence is acquired and passed on; to this end, she uses writings on child education published in the mid-18th century by the Swiss theologian Johann Georg Sulzer, according to whom corporal and psychological punishments must be inflicted from the earliest years of a child’s life in order to encourage obedience. From this perspective, violence is so deeply rooted in human beings that it is perceived as a ‘natural’ phenomenon. Already in the performance Teatro anatomico, realised in 2012 at the MACRO Testaccio in Rome,[6] Giambrone explored the theme of violence, but on that occasion starting from her own body, in an action that had a medical-ritual quality, in some respects similar to the performances created in the 1970s by Gina Pane. Quoting an activity traditionally associated with women’s manual labour, Giambrone had a finely embroidered collar sewn onto her skin: an obsolete object reminiscent of Victorian fashion and symbolically very evocative. Here embroidery plays an ambiguous role: on the one hand, it represents an ancient craft, an instrument of economic emancipation for women; on the other, it is a symbol of a value system which for centuries decreed women’s marginality and oppression. The artist’s body, exhibited in its singularity, is thus charged with a collective memory and stands there to remind us of a history of violence shared by millions of women, in the past and in the present. Also in the work of the younger Silvia Rosi (1992) the body is a privileged device for bringing to the surface removed stories, and the practice of “starting from oneself” is understood as a necessary strategy for tackling social issues. Born in Scandiano, Rosi is the author of a series of intense photographic self-portraits, in which she retraces the history of her family, originally from Togo. She portrays herself wearing her father and mother’s shoes, in the act of reinterpreting the traditional poses of studio photography typical of West Africa. In these tableaux, characterised by bright colours or intense black and whites, the artist tells the story of her family’s migration, drawing on the repertoire of vernacular photography while redefining the perimeter of self-portraiture and gender boundaries. She thus stages a family album, in which, however, instead of the portraits of her parents, what we see is the re-enactment of ancient habits, everyday actions repeated over time, such as carrying objects on one’s head, a custom widespread among Togolese women. In these photographs and videos, Rosi reflects on her roots and on her identity as an Afro-descendant: “Being Black in Italy always means having to be prepared to explain one’s origin and identity. I have always experienced this negatively and only recently have I started to take it as an opportunity to pose questions about and understand my history. These questions can only be answered by embarking on a journey that has allowed me to retrace my parents’ migration.”[7] Personal and collective history merge in a cycle of images, where the body is represented as the place in which memories, knowledge and stratified identities intersect. The performative work of Jacopo Miliani (1979) is more openly choral: his actions, like his publishing project SelfPleasurePublishing (started in 2014) and the film La discoteca (2021), investigate the links between language, reality and non-binary identities: “I like to think and practise the body not as an object of study, but as a subject starting from which it is possible to imagine and create realities. These kinds of constructions can be analysed through a performative methodology, looking at ‘how we construct them’ rather than ‘what they represent’. The queer world is, in my opinion, an interesting mode of ‘how we construct the real’.”[8] The visual imagery and culture of the gay communities of the 1970s and 1980s are at the centre of performances that transform bodies and dance into powerful tools for the liberation of desire, devices of rebellion that question hetero-normative models. The sources he draws on, whether high or low, are rooted in experiences that exceed the ordinary. In Throwing Balls at Night[9] (2016), for instance, he draws on Jeux (1912-1913), the scandalous poème dansé created in collaboration by Sergej Djagilev and Vaclav Nižinskij, and a more reluctant Claude Debussy. Miliani hybridises the tradition of the Russian Ballets with the equally subversive history of vogueing, which originated in New York in the early 1960s, among the queer communities of African Americans and Latin Americans, and became a global phenomenon in the 1990s. Mixing traditions and histories far removed in time, which share the desire to break aesthetic and social codes, the artist places the body at the centre: it is a liberated body that speaks to us of self-assertion, redemption and desire. In his works, as in the work of Giambrone and Rosi, the need to start from the body, to inscribe the artistic gesture on the skin, goes hand in hand with the urgent need to have an impact in the social domain, to reconnect with a fabric of collective experiences to emerge from a one-dimensional definition of the self, incapable of welcoming the richness of differences.

[1] R. Braidotti, Posthuman Knowledge, Polity Press, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Il corpo come linguaggio. (La “Body-art” e storie simili), ed. by L. Vergine, Prearo, 1974.
[4] The project, promoted in 2020 by the Fondazione In Between Art Film, is curated by Leonardo Bigazzi, Alessandro Rabottini and Paola Ugolini.
[5] See the Report published November 24, 2021 by ISTAT and the Italian Department of Equal Opportunities, L’effetto della pandemia sulla violenza di genere – Anni 2020-2021, (The effect of the pandemic on gender-based violence – Years 2020-2021) <> (accessed October 5, 2022).
[6] The action was presented on 12 July 2012 at the MACRO Testaccio in Rome, on the occasion of the exhibition Re-generation, curated by Maria Alicata and Ilaria Gianni. Francesco Nucci, physician and president of the Fondazione VOLUME! in Rome, collaborated in the performance.
[7] S. Rosi, interviewed by M. Zanchi and S. Benaglia, «ATPdiary», 1 July 2020, <> (accessed October 8, 2022).
[8] J. Miliani, interviewed by F. Angelucci, «Inside Art», 125, September 18, 2022, <> (accessed October 10, 2022).
[9] The work was presented at the David Roberts Art Foundation in London in 2016, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2017 and at the OGR in Turin in 2021. For an in-depth look at Miliani’s work see T. Macrì, Slittamenti della performance. Volume 2. Anni 2000-2022, Postmedia Books, 2022, pp. 243-261.

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