Twenty Years of Italian Art

A three-way forum with Andrea Mastrovito, Margherita Moscardini and Eugenio Tibaldi

Edited by Nicolas Ballario


Andrea Mastrovito: It is curious that Eugenio, Margherita and I have only met once. With Margherita in New York and with Eugenio a few months ago, at the opening of the Venice Biennale. Yet our names have recurred, even in association with each other, several times in stories about art over the last fifteen years. This is a fact worth considering. Some phenomena in our country which are significant in terms of their own substance, strength and form may not touch each other at all, even though they are contemporary. And this anomaly was something that accompanied the Italian art system even before 2000. It probably owes to a cultural dispersion, which makes Italy a “republic of the communes”, divided into a thousand small systems, each of them extremely rich. Maurizio Cattelan emerged from the provinces — from Padua — as Nico Vascellari did from Treviso: important names, added to those to which such dichotomous entities as Rome and Milan have given rise. The result is a rich panorama, difficult to decode, because it is made up of authors whose activity is still in full swing, whose work is ever-transformed and refined. But in this conversation, which aims to trace some significant trajectories in the history of these years, one can identify particular types of artistic research and, perhaps, also quite clear cultural “zones”. I am thinking of Garutti’s influence that marked a good part of the first decade of this century, which then vanished completely. This left room for the more robust paths which had already begun at the start of the last two decades, making themselves felt from a distance when fashions faded away. I am reminded, for example, of the research of Marinella Senatore, of the aforementioned Vascellari, of Masbedo, of Arcangelo Sassolino, Alice Cattaneo, Gian Maria Tosatti, or of slightly older artists, including Adrian Paci and many others. My gaze was formed from within the system, considering that I participated in several “approach-driven” exhibitions, organised between the 2000s and 2010s.

Margherita Moscardini: I don’t think I have been the best observer of what has happened on Italian territory in the last twenty years, but I really struggle to reflect in “territorial” terms in the face of an increasingly connected global perspective. I find it easier to recall works and exhibitions that have been important to me or, at the most, to talk about what I think has been missing in comparison to other contexts.

Eugenio Tibaldi: As for me, I consider myself a passable observer, also thanks to the marginal position I have continued to have, seeing as in my artistic career I have continued to lack any place that connotes me or an origin. And, frankly, it seems to me that important guidelines have emerged in the art that has developed since the year 2000: phenomena that have characterised the description of these years in Italian art and will continue to do so. One aspect that has always jumped out at me is that our generation has lost the value of irony. This element was very much present in the 1990s, in the power of the research of Vedovamazzei, Cattelan, Piero Golia. If there is irony, in our works — at least in the most significant ones — it is only indirect and, almost always, bitter, as in the political and social analysis carried out by Francesco Arena or Rossella Biscotti. Another interesting fact is the realisation — even if an unintentional one — that we represent a kind of decadence. This does not mean that our work has no strength in terms of meaning and impact, but the horizon in which it is set is that of a twilight. We need only think of Adrian Paci’s wonderful The Column. What we have been able to see on an international level has shown us that the role of Italian art is not to attack the concept directly, but to create superfetations of thought generated by a familiarity with the study and knowledge of phenomena, which does not go hand in hand with the spasmodic need to devour them. But more than talking about individual exhibitions or works — whose real significance will perhaps be understood in a few years’ time —it is stimulating to look at the recent Italian scene with the aim of understanding what it is trying to say, even without communicating in a literal way. In this regard, what Andrea says is interesting: we all don’t know each other that well directly. But it is also true that History doesn’t give a damn about these aspects, when it finds convergences it will unite us without too many problems, and in my opinion these convergences are there.

AM: In this regard, Eugenio, I have always had a particular interest in cycles, in repetition; I began my journey by visiting an exhibition at the PAC in Milan in 1998, Due o tre cose che so di loro… (“Two or three things I know about them”), whose subtitle read: Dall’euforia alla crisi: giovani artisti a Milano negli anni Ottanta (“From euphoria to crisis: young artists in Milan in the 1980s”). If we translate this to today, we could consider it perfectly relevant still now. The start of this century was characterised by the fall of the Twin Towers, but Italy continued in its revelry, with the help of the Berlusconi period, living in a kind of euphoria, at least until 2008, when, with the economic crisis, artists’ work also changed. I can certainly register this in my work, but I think it was a fairly generalised effect, which then took a rather specific form in Italian art. And in fact today, in 2022, I can state in no uncertain terms that Italian art is completely outside of the international context. The reason is simple: today, global art is guided, as is often the case, by a single way of thinking, relating to ethnic, gender or sexual orientation issues, which in Italy are only marginally addressed by the art system and everyday reality. We, as you said, have another way of approaching this framework of social and civil issues. We have another perspective. We know them well on the basis of their historical recourses. We keep them at the edge of our visual field without losing sight of them altogether, but, in essence, we deal with something else entirely. This pursuit of a historical perspective parallel to the American-style cultural mainstream has a substantial influence on our marginality. I do not want to say that there have not been artists who have narrated the history of the last few years; there come to mind Francesco Arena, Rossella Biscotti, and Gian Maria Tosatti himself with his work in the Italian Pavilion at the last Biennale, who narrated the Italy of the past years using it as a metaphor for this moment. But it is evident that it is precisely our gaze aimed at the cyclical nature of History, and not at the scandal of the present, that determines the specificity with which our scene tries to find a solution to the enigma of the future.

MM: I continue to struggle to recognise an art that we can define as Italian. On the other hand, we live in a period in which everything is present, and we are making history. The latest news does not have time to exist as news because it immediately becomes History. Probably the lack of irony that Eugenio mentioned a moment ago, or the crisis that Andrea referred to, are the product of an inability — though I can only speak for myself — to suffer our time in the proper way, let’s say.

ET: I very much see myself in what you just said, in this sort of inability to suffer our time to the full. In fact, with respect to the title of the exhibition Andrea mentioned, for our generation the subtitle could be “from the crisis to the systematisation of the crisis”. We were born in a time of crisis, and we manage to survive in the now systemic crisis conditions. We arrived when the champagne was already finished, found the confetti on the ground and the guests ready to go home. There is a kind of melancholy that pervades our research, a disillusionment with any post-utopia. It is no coincidence that we try to pigeonhole the work of artists between 2000 and 2022 into macro-schemes of the past, even though these same artists live within a great dichotomy: we are the last generation that studied books, but we started working directly with the Internet; we had to put up with the idea that information far exceeded education, so that the quantity and speed of news outstripped the ability to understand it. This creates disorientation and disillusionment. Vettor Pisani said something beautiful to me one evening, which made me think a lot: “but what do you want to do with contemporary art, it is like a circus performer who enters the arena doing one somersault and the audience watching him does two”. He was talking about my time, not his. “It is very complicated today to think about the stupor of art”; I think he meant that spectacularisation has reached such a level that art can no longer be spectacular, or rather, no longer on our latitudes. And to accept giving up the spectacular aspect of art would be something very complicated to admit.

MM: I have never believed that the arts have to be spectacular. I think I have matured a need to recognise in art not just a commentary on reality but the capacity to act in the present and disrupt paradigms, conditioning the sensitive dimension we live. One often has the impression of being part of a circus, of entertainment. It might be important instead to try to resuscitate mystery, political incorrectness, wickedness…

AM: You are right, but I think that, precisely in order to get out of the “accredited version” and meet with reality, at the beginning of the second decade of this century, some artists of our generation began to work outside the studio, looking directly on the ground within the social geography for what interested them. The three of us, for example, without us ever having spoken to each other, moved in this direction: Margherita’s project The Fountains of Za’atari (2015-2019) comes to mind, Eugenio’s Tabula rasa in 2008, at Manifesta 7, or Informal Poker Room in 2015, at the Havana Biennial. And so have many others. The reason is that the means of greater media-cultural homologation cannot descend to these depths. The Internet still cannot. Humanity, contact with people, are safe territories in this sense — for now. This has meant that we have chosen to fly below the radar that intercepts the buzzwords of a history of the present that, as you said, is a pre-packaged product. We inserted the work between the folds of reality, constructing it in a very articulate way through people’s contributions, and redefining its spaces. We went beyond the white cube of the gallery to land in the territories, in the streets, giving substance to a broader perspective of exchange between artist and audience, thus characterising the art of our time. This is perhaps the sense of decadence that Eugenio was talking about. At the beginning of the 2000s, on the other hand, the “temperature” was quite different, there was a great euphoria, at least in Milan, on a commercial level, because young people had the opportunity to work with many excellent galleries, they had a market, and above all they were involved in generational museum exhibitions, for example the youth “biennials” organised by Assab One (2002 and 2004), Apocalittici e integrati at the MAXXI (2007), and Nessuna paura at Pecci in Prato, also in 2007, which told the story of the generation that had emerged in the previous five to six years. It seems to me that this has not been repeated. Since the 2008 crisis, the work of artists, which had back then been spectacular — I well remember a work by Luca Francesconi, which was not spectacular in itself but already in its title, Abbassare le montagne (2005; “Lower the Mountains”), declared a will to power and the ability to reshape the world — has fitted into considerably different dimensions. Today we speak more of melancholy and decadence than of power. This shift from euphoria to crisis has become endemic but all generations have experienced it and will experience it. Certainly that pyramidal relationship between artist and audience has disappeared, as has the power of the galleries, in favour of the curators.

ET: There is a further relevant line that needs to be drawn, linked to the Garuttian direction we were talking about at the beginning. At a certain point, in order to belong to an international scene, we were asked to strip down our work and destroy all imagery in order to get to the concept, in a very direct, dry way — thus sacrificing an important aspect for us Italians, i.e. figuration. I decided not to accept this compromise and not to sacrifice the idea of an aesthetic construction which is important for my work. As absurd as it is, because for years I used materials that looked like scraps, in reality I have always constructed the work as a huge painting, because I come from there and I believe that this approach is important in order to be able to make a portrait of a place or a dynamic. All of us, all Italian artists who decide to be present on the national scene before the international scene, cannot fail to come to terms with a radical and upstanding idea of figuration. Having said that, it is true that the crisis has played an important role and that the collapse of the idea of spectacularisation has embroiled us all. Yet there is no renouncing it; the moment we bear the name of artist, we must remind ourselves of what this entails, i.e. making things “artfully”, “artefacts”. So, the claim of a direct, unmediated link with reality, this tendency towards a simple, almost journalistic equation, is not something that concerns us. We do not produce news, we do not write texts or treatises, we create autonomous images, which begin to exist precisely in the public gaze, triggering a dialectical process that produces meaning. But those images are not given once and for all. They are dynamic objects, which remain in our heads and change with us, mutating over time. This shows that our works are not objects of immediate consumption, they are not bound to the time of the news, but above all they do not act on the subtle level of the present. Rather, they descend vertically, in a stratification of layers that allows them to take root not in the fleeting dimension of time, but in the profound dimension of being. This means that we are confronted with something that has a greater duration and concreteness than our contemporary existence and being, and, above all, overshadows the pressures of exaggerated quotes on the markets. This awareness, which is not fashionable in our country, but is rooted (even in a certain scepticism of the market itself), still allows us to make mistakes with great serenity, giving us a freedom that is much more difficult to maintain elsewhere, because the artist’s defence mechanism ensures that it must always be all “accomplished works”, all finished, all exceptional. Looking at my work, but also at the work of other artists, I often see that it is not all “accomplished works”, but neither is it all interesting; there are flows with ups and downs that are nevertheless useful for the work that’s yet to come. These processes demand a certain serenity with respect to the times, which contemporaneity imposes or seems to impose.

MM: I believe that artists must respond, each with their own means, to the urgent demands of the present. To do this, it may be necessary to construct and protect their own time, within which they hope to offer visions and conceive devices capable of intervening in the contexts to which the artist refers. The arts are a much bigger project than the market can contain. They should not even have an economic value, of exchange, but only of use. And it is in this direction that it is interesting to look.

AM: I share your thoughts on the nature of the artwork, even though I am convinced that the market has a determining influence, always has and always will do; if it is not willing to believe in the artist and the work, the artist will have a hard time continuing on. This is not because one has to depend on collectors, institutions or galleries at all costs; rather, it seems to me that the artist lives by engaging with these subjects and, above all, with other artists. And in Italy this aspect is very much lacking; Italian artists have stopped writing, stopped talking. I am not saying that they are intellectuals, because the artist can also be “as stupid as a painter” (quoting the French at the end of the nineteenth century); but the fact of not engaging in exchanges with each other has really been a problem. As for the role of institutions, it cannot be denied that the Italian Council was fundamental, and also the New York Prize, which, as in my case, was a driving force for many. In New York, I realised aspects that are not visible from Italy, but above all, I met other Italian artists that I hardly knew or only knew by name, Andrea Galvani, Gian Maria Tosatti, Luisa Rabbia, Gabriele Picco, Giorgio Andreotta Calò, and many others, who, because of the instinct of community that one experiences when abroad, had a spirit of engagement and exchange that was missing in Italy. The Quadriennale has also started to do something. The fact that we are meeting here in discussion now bears witness to that. These interventions make Italy a little more similar to other countries, which sponsor their artists a lot. But to return to the identification of important moments, I would like to attempt an inverse way of addressing this. There is currently an anthological exhibition on Christian Frosi at the GAMeC in Bergamo, ten years after his retirement. It is a much discussed but extremely courageous operation. In a way, it is an exhibition about the failure of a certain idea of making art. I think that GAMeC is the Italian gallery that has done the best work lately, certainly since the pandemic. This also enables a project painting a “chiaroscuro” portrait of Italian art, revealing the difficulties, the problems that have characterised the years of the new century, which are at the basis of our national system closing in on itself and the lack of an international echo.

MM: On the identification of pivotal moments of these twenty years, more than exhibitions, one can speak of works that have made a difference. The image of the hanging children by Maurizio Cattelan is one of them. Also L.O.V.E. in Piazza Affari in Milan and All at Palazzo Grassi in Venice. And then Rossella Biscotti’s work for the 2013 Venice Biennale (I dreamt that you changed into a cat… cat… ha ha), Marinella Senatore’s The School of Narrative Dance, Eva Marisaldi’s Legenda… If I have to think about what’s been done on Italian territory, it is easier to say what I think has been missing. For example, artistic operations and practices such as those of Yael Bartana, Forensic Architecture, Teresa Margolles, Laura Kurgan. Or Francis Alÿs. The desire to intervene effectively in the present seems to me to have been absent here.

ET: I’ll conclude with a provocation. Do you think there has been a lack of such works, or of their visibility? Because, thinking about Italian art, there have been some incredible works which have not had any visibility at the international level. The research on the unfinished by Alterazioni Video, for example, or Itavia Aerolinee by Flavio Favelli. Geography has counted for a lot in the last twenty years, and our “non-geography geography” has not had a leading position; but this means nothing compared to the works that have been done.

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