PRINT May 1994


A SHARED IMPULSE AMONG young artists today—to reject the idea of art’s autonomy and address its connection to larger social contexts—has made itself felt in a host of recent international exhibitions, from the “Aperto” section of the last Venice Biennale to Sonsbeek 93 in Arnhem last summer, the Whitney Biennial in New York, and “Project Unité” in Firminy. In each of these cases Italian artists have made specific contributions to this general, international trend.

The tendency has a number of subordinate features. Nicolas Bourriaud, writing in the “Aperto” catalogue, for instance, notes that today’s young artists, rather than reacting against the movements that preceded them, seem to adopt the languages of their artistic precursors, but in forms diluted of radical potential.

This diminution of political agency, however, does not bespeak a willful complacency on the part of the artists; rather, it is symptomatic of an awareness that they are living through a tragic era but can find no language adequate to it. Particularly on the left, the narratives that once sustained their ideological dispositions have unraveled. Artists today see experience for what it is, and its fragmentary and alienating nature informs their artistic disposition.

In Italy, much of the art that has emerged since the ’80s “trans-avantgarde,” and outside its influence, has been dubbed “neo-Conceptual.” Though the artists themselves will often have nothing to do with this label, seeing it as a banality based on a merely formal approach to their work, still, like most banalities it contains a certain truth. The methods and principles of Conceptual art, as well as certain art-analytic processes of “Modernist” derivation, are indeed reference points for many younger Italian artists. After the ideals of neo-Expressionism had played themselves out, there may have been a need to reclaim a certain skepticism—to return to language-based art, and to the analysis of art’s conventions.

This rethinking of “historical” Conceptualism obviously takes off from the investigations of the late ’80s. Its aims (or at any rate its obvious ones) would include an expansion of interest from the text to the context of art, from the codes of esthetic expression to the system in which those codes operate. There is an effort to understand how the art system legitimizes itself, what ideologies sustain it and circulate around it, how it contests other modes of communication and how it supports them. These are classical Conceptual intentions, all coming down to art’s relationship with the social. At the same time, both the theoretical, reflexive aspect of Conceptual art (in the work of Joseph Kosuth, obviously, or of Giulio Paolini) and its anarchic, behavioral side (in Stanley Brown, for example), as well as the analytic drives of ’70s painting, are being reinterpreted. To the young artists of today, radical late-’60s and ’70s art was fatally ineffective in disarming the information system’s manipulative power. It also failed to satisfy the needs of its society.

Thus Chiara Dynys, a young Italian artist working out of Milan, turns the Minimalist text of truth through self-reference into an allusive fiction, making groups of irregular bas-reliefs that can be seen as plans for uninhabitable spaces. They are also perceptually deceptive, looking as if they’d been made in the same medium but in fact produced in a range of materials from marble to porcelain to plastic. The Milan artist Maurizio Arcangeli’s pencil drawing Giovane che ri-guarda Lorenzo Lotto (Young man looking at Lorenzo Lotto again, 1981–82) is a copy of a Lotto work that Paolini too has copied, though mechanically, in a photograph. The work reopens issues that Conceptual artists thought resolved: the supremacy of ideation in artmaking, the meaninglessness of the distinction between esthetic and social communication. Recent pieces of Arcangeli’s are groups of handmade monochrome canvases, each element shaped as a letter of the alphabet, then hung to spell the words “Un Quadro” (A painting). This tautological testimonial is contradicted by the letters’ arrangements, which transform them from verbal signs into visual ones: painted gray and hung in long diagonals, they refer to glancing rain; yellow and arranged in a circle, they suggest the sun; and so on. The evocation of the most conventional modes of visual representation is both obvious and deliberate: brought into the formal cage of Modernism, these conventions act as one pole of a conflict between the immediately legible stereotype and the aristocratic hermeticism of Conceptual art’s metalinguistic processes.

To confuse the boundary between life and art is not necessarily to elude the self-heroicizing values of certain forms of Modernism. Both Brown and On Kawara, for example, may liken the production of art to daily routine, but they also seem to share an ideal of existential freedom that is a myth of its own: they may identify art with life, but it is a life somehow liberated, and completely in the hands of the artist, who is still, dangerously, seen as a demiurge. A recent Milan installation by the Florentine artist Luca Pancrazzi deconstructed this notion: five desks each held five small aluminum boxes, each containing a date stamp, these too cast in aluminum. The name of the gallery, the Transepoca, was engraved on each box, and each stamp was set to a different date within the exhibition’s run—though only to the days when the gallery was open (in other words, Monday to Friday; the recurring groups of five themselves referred to the number of workdays in the week). Instead of the “liberated time” of a life identified with art, Pancrazzi was addressing the divisionof free time from work time that orders the days for those of us who cannot share in that identification. The date stamps’ measured succession of dates also contrasted with the irregular temporal sequences of On Kawara’s work. And paintings on the walls, in a limited range of grays, showed views of offices and other anonymous rooms—the space of art not as a world laid open to the artist’s desire, and marked and validated by his testimony, but as institutional space.

The anonymity of modern life is the issue for the Genoa artist Luca Vitone, who addresses the difficulty of constructing and maintaining historical memory and cultural identity. In Identificazione del luogo (Identification of place, 1988–92), Vitone applied reproductions of land-registry maps to the windows of exhibition spaces. Such maps divide the landscape according to criteria of property ownership and land use—criteria that control the experience of the environment. Sonorizzare it luogo (To sound the place, 1988–93) comprised traditional products of the region and cassette recordings of local songs. Thus Vitone “revived” local culture, but in a qualified way that only seemed to demonstrate its poisoning and ghettoization as folklore, or as a tourist attraction. Connecting the exhibition space to its socio-cultural context, Vitone also emphasized the difficulty of that link, suggesting how historical and social awareness is lost. In his most recent pieces he explores the decoding of topographical signs by turning small pieces of paper to the wall, so that they are difficult or impossible to read.

In a similar way, the Genoa artist Cesare Viel compares various modes of communication: oral, audio-visual, but particularly written, with writing seen as the record of a kind of syntactic community, a system of conventions for the recognition of the subject. Viel handwrites brief statements and aphorisms on wall panels, then asks others to read them—professional actors, who “stage” them as dialogue. If writing and reciting present aspects of the body (gesture, voice) as elements of individuality, the dialogue form refers to the other as a necessary condition of discourse. The structure of Viel’s work is fluid, aleatory. In Esecuzioni comunicative (Communicative executions, 1993), an actor spoke on video to an unseen questioner, to whom his speech referred; seen on television, he suggested a talk show host. On the walls, photo panels showed the actor, the space in which the video had been shot, and the gallery in which the show was installed, in a deliberately theatrical arrangement. Though faced, confusingly, with several different communicative orders at the same time (video, TV, theater, photograph, gallery show), the viewer was also the interlocutor to whom the text was directed (a text itself divided into four parts, each with its own emotional tone). Thus the viewer, implicit referent of all these disparate operations, was confronted with his or her membership of a new collective, a community without name, no longer definable by the traditional sociological categories. Like others among these younger artists, Viel seems to suggest that the only place the social community comes together today is in the same mass media that have been its undoing.

The Genoa team of Marco Formento and Ivano Sossella examine the art system through their concept of the “optional,” the surplus, the only form of good possible in the capitalist marketplace: a good accompanied by the theft inherent in the creation of surplus value. They site their deliberately parasitic art in this surplus by circulating it at the expense of other, preexisting channels of distribution. They may, for example, enclose printed or audiovisual material—the Supplemento (Supplement), they call it—within different publications: art magazines, business journals, the catalogues for exhibitions they’ve been in, the catalogues for exhibitions they’ve been left out of (Documenta 7, for example). Turning these books’ and magazines’ distribution systems, their access to a public, to its own use, the team develops a parasitical logic that it also applies to conferences, conventions, and television broadcasts. In effect, the “supplemento” is an autonomous field of operation, separate from the host environment. And the informational surplus it produces becomes an occasion for critical reflection as a “surplus” of meaning. This has emerged clearly in exhibitions where Formento and Sossella have “framed” both the site of art (by creating alternative sites; a children’s playground, for example, for “Aperto”) and the ritualistic moment of looking at art (by creating support services, a refreshment stand, for example, at Bergamo’s Galleria dell’Accademia Carrara, duplicating the museum’s own one).

A number of artists today are examining the role of art in a context where power increasingly depends not on possessing the means of production, as in the classic Marxist formula, but on possessing the means of information. At a time when social life is more and more anonymous, artists are also renouncing their once sacrosanct individuality to work in groups, or to delegate the task of artmaking to the unpredictable interventions of others. The early works of Milan’s Premiata Ditta s.p.s. group, for example, were promotional efforts, their subject being the group itself. The artists organized debates, conferences, and statistical research, and exhibited the results as graphics, videos, and publications. And they constantly compared themselves with workers in other branches of the “information industry.” In their most recent work, which they describe as the product of a service industry, they address current events and internationally significant themes—the flows of immigration, the global distribution of income—or else, at the other extreme, the behavior of small, determinate communities. For “Project Unité,” for example, they asked the residents of a French apartment block (built, not coincidentally, by the Modernist architect Le Corbusier) to find ways to express their friendship for their neighbors. In reaction to the isolation and anonymity of modern life, they stimulated new interpersonal relationships, new forms of socialization.

Maurizio Vetrugno also explores alienation in daily life, and particularly in sexuality. He often focuses on the effects of computerization. In 1993, Vetrugno took a job at a service that provides virtual sex by telephone, via computer and modem; pretending he was a transsexual, he made his conversations with his callers into a computer printout, and exhibited the results. The piece certainly invaded the callers’ privacy, and yet, interestingly, there was nothing really private here to violate—the text for the most part reiterated the most familiar sorts of pornographic narrative, revealing how stereotypical the pornographic imaginary is, how lacking in invention and subjectivity. The Padua artist Maurizio Cattelan too is a kind of pirate, who specializes in disturbing the various systems for transmitting specialized knowledge. He may exhibit safes showing the marks of attempted burglaries, for example, or portraits made from police identikits. In 1990, having put together a soccer team made up of African immigrants, Cattelan produced promotional materials for the team and sold them from an unlicensed stand at the Bologna art fair. This illicit sales venture (which mirrored many African immigrants’ principal means of income) set the popularity of soccer, and the disturbing echoes of fascism that some have found in football’s large, unified crowds, against Italy’s emerging race prejudices. The team’s logo was a Nazi slogan. Cattelan’s work is often provocative in this way; for the Sonsbeek show, for example, he put up posters in the town announcing a meeting of Nazi skinheads.

Work like this stages the separation of art from life as a false problem. Cattelan has also addressed the connection between socioeconomic structure and art production by making unusual requests of the institutions he has exhibited in—walling off a gallery, for example, so that the work can only be seen through the windows, or asking the dealers to wear carnivalesque wild-animal costumes throughout a show. Such devices ironically underline the idea of the artist’s privileged role. At the same time, Cattelan has emphasized the art system’s closeness to the rest of the world of commodities, as when, for “Aperto,” he sold his space to a perfume company, which installed an ad poster there. These piratical disturbance strategies are measuring instruments, and what they meter are the controls that prevent us all from building our own utopias.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.