PRINT December 2006

Massimiliano Gioni

MILAN PROBABLY DOESN’T EVEN EXIST. Though still called Italy’s “moral capital,” the city has become slightly irrelevant, surpassed by Turin and Rome as a center of cultural participation and production. Or, more accurately, Milan has turned itself into an expensive luxury item, an accessory powerful in its beauty yet strangely unnecessary, even unreal. Little by little, Milan could easily come to resemble one of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities: Anastasia, the metropolis that awakens desire only to suffocate it.

Milan is a city of broken promises and frustrated dreams. In recent years, each new municipal administration has heralded ambitious plans for museums and cultural centers. But nothing has ever come of these proposals, and Milan remains one of the few large cities in Western Europe without a contemporary art museum. Private investors have therefore taken on the role of public institutions: Collectors and foundations are of crucial importance in keeping contemporary art alive here, as is an extremely active set of galleries. However, it is also important to note that numerous Italian artists now exhibiting prominently in Milan actually live elsewhere, and it’s increasingly common for those who do reside in the city to spend at least part of their time abroad, with Berlin, London, and New York becoming temporary homes or destinations for art-world pilgrimages. And so while Milan remains host to a thriving artistic community, this community is nevertheless fluid, mobile, and hard to pin down according to any geographic parameters.

Put another way, the art scene here is alive and buzzing, but it’s mostly hidden in the trenches, strangely unable to penetrate the mainstream cultural life of the city—although the past year witnessed many attempts to change this situation. In fact, reaching out to a larger public might have been the unifying principle of the Milan art world’s 2006. More than thirty galleries recently joined forces to form a consortium called START, which organizes special events and joint vernissages for which the exhibition spaces stay open late into the evening. For all its simplicity, START seems to work, having attracted the attention of both the public and the press—something of a coup, particularly in the latter regard, as the city’s art writers usually focus on exhibitions organized by private foundations. (This year, the foundation shows that garnered the lion’s share of ink included Marina Abramović at Hangar Bicocca, Martin Creed at Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Jannis Kounellis at Fondazione Arnaldo Pomodoro, and Tom Sachs at Fondazione Prada—but of course, most of the discussion took place only in newspapers and fashion magazines. Competent art criticism is not common on the Italian information circuit.) Also, in order to increase their visibility, some of the city’s most interesting dealers—including Massimo De Carlo, Manuela Klerkx, Francesca Minini, Ida Pisani of Prometeogallery, and Paolo Zani of Galleria Zero—have opened up new venues in an industrial area called Lambrate, a strange, homemade version of New York’s Chelsea that occasionally hosts group exhibitions and public events in bare loft- and hangarlike spaces.

But Milan is not New York; it lacks the latter’s honesty and brutality. Milan, it seems, is more interested in simulation, which is probably why the city is slowly turning into a province of television. In the past few years cultural politics have been dominated by commissioners and city councillors who appear as guests on talk shows and embarrassing programs, shouting and drooling in front of the camera. It’s as if television were imagining our city, not vice versa.

Perhaps, then, one best grasps and judges Milan’s art world not by its geography or demographics, and not by the movements among its galleries and collectors, but rather by its qualities—and, in particular, by the ways Milan’s fantasy world is reflected and distorted in contemporary artworks. The younger artists of the city are engaged in an art that appears to be intentionally oblivious, as though self-expression were to be obtained only in a form of extreme artificiality. Theirs is an art engaging the superfluous and representing it as such—an art that has nothing to do with imagining a new future, but which attempts instead to come to terms with an affluent society that seems tired, showing the symptoms of an imminent breakdown, suffocated by a surplus of multicolored commodities and inessential products. It’s certainly not a coincidence that Francesco Vezzoli has become one of Milan’s most recognized young artists on the international scene, with his peplum extravaganza Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s “Caligula,” 2005, appearing first at the most recent Venice Biennale, and then this year at the Whitney Biennial before landing at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. Vezzoli’s unreality shows and trailers for imaginary movies are—for better or worse—the most accurate representation of Italy’s current state of mind, which is to say, infatuated with anything that is trivial, fake, and vulgar.

It seems apt, too, that colorful plastic has lately become Milanese artists’ material of choice. While certainly still connected to the tradition of Italian postwar art and design, the material as it is used today no longer embodies the kind of optimistic faith in the future that typified the city’s adopted son Lucio Fontana and his friends during the ’50s. It seems to have more to do with the artificial bubbles we create for ourselves to block out the traumas of the present—suggesting that today’s artists have a more problematic relationship with the future and are more skeptical about its potential, or perhaps they are simply less naive.

Consider, for example, the work of Massimo Grimaldi: He creates hypersynthetic universes, worlds without oxygen, by using computers, iPods, and images downloaded from the Internet to fabricate frigid displays of commercial desires. In his show this year at Galleria Zero, a highlight was a live performance, titled Egypt, in which the artist reconstructed the choreography of a Daft Punk video, underscoring the absurd mechanisms of televisual seduction by replicating them in real life. A similar impulse could be observed in Patrick Tuttofuoco’s first large solo show—held last spring at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin—where he displayed videos and sculptures made from materials gathered on a recent trip to seventeen megacities throughout Asia, South America, and the United States. Like Dave Eggers in his whirlwind travelogue You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002), Tuttofuoco had crisscrossed the globe at incredible speed to execute his project. With his sculptures in particular—a parade of objects with shiny, hypnotic surfaces—the artist conjured the frenzied sensibility of a binge consumer who desperately fills up an existential vacuum with an explosion of possessions. This dark, sardonic sensibility also pervades the assemblages and strange appliances appearing in Pierpaolo Campanini’s paintings, which are often seen at Francesca Kaufmann’s Milan gallery: His macabre still lifes are the product of a slow, meticulous painting process, but they speak of a world in which objects have short lives, quickly becoming mere waste.

Such industrial materials have been taken up by some artists attempting to create social spaces and situations, as did, for example, Riccardo Previdi in his ephemeral contribution to the Green Light Pavilion, a temporary exhibition space in Berlin that was active during the past couple of years. Lara Favaretto’s festive environments and carnivalesque celebrations similarly bring people together, creating joyful interactions that are nevertheless tinted with dark undertones—as though she were presenting a strange, premonitory ritual that precedes some terrible end. This ominous tone is even found among artists with more strictly object-based practices, such as Alessandro Pessoli, whose 2006 appearances in New York (Anton Kern Gallery) and Milan (Studio Guenzani) delved into “minor” genres such as comics to depict historical figures and ghostly creatures inhabiting a world seemingly on the verge of melting away.

Indeed, another dynamic among Milan artists has been hermeticism: They retreat from the world, or see it only through the prism of their personal obsessions and memories, creating a contemporary grotesque. Pietro Roccasalva, whose morbid, introspective work was included this year in a number of group exhibitions in Milan, distinguished himself as one of the city’s most convincing artists. Influenced by the monstrous physiognomic studies of Marisa Merz and Gino De Dominicis, he has developed a completely closed iconographic system, as the same images—human figures with masklike visages—appear and reappear in his paintings, pastels, and photos. This sensibility has also taken a reverse course in artistic practice, with an internal psychology seemingly projected onto the objects of the real world with paranoiac intensity. The sculptures, installations, and collages of Christian Frosi, for example, incorporate industrial materials in a way that draws them close to the biomorphic. One of his best-known works, Foam, 2003, is a foam machine that at once evokes ecstatic entertainment spectacles and the menacing substances of chemical warfare. The sense of approaching catastrophe similarly looms in the works of Micol Assaël, a Rome- and Berlin-based artist who also spends time in Milan, where she shows with Galleria Zero; Assaël assembles rusty and broken machinery into threatening installations, in which sparks and sudden gusts of air keep viewers in a state of constant alert.

Finally, there is the sinister shadow cast by the work of Roberto Cuoghi, who has been engaging the act of metamorphosis in a series of animations, paintings, and personal transformations of both himself and his art-world friends. Cuoghi first gained attention for a reallife performance, spanning years, in which he turned himself into the living image of his father; since then, he has extended his practice to include a wide variety of media. His most recent project, exhibited this fall at Galleria Massimo De Carlo, comprises a series of songs (mixing the artist’s own voice and random sounds) that sound foreign but are not. Mei Gui, 2006, is Cuoghi’s version of traditional Chinese music; Mbube, 2005, is based on a very European, slightly colonial idea of what African music might sound like. Tweaking stereotypes and audience expectations, Cuoghi creates an ersatz exotic universe—a Walt Disney sound track that plays on our simultaneous fear of and desire to assimilate distant cultures.

Such a near-hallucinatory approach to reality may be found among Milan’s young photographers as well, although, as if in deference to stereotypes about Milan itself, their work is often coolly detached. Paola Pivi, for example, submits life to sudden manipulations, turning reality into a stage set for a surreal television commercial with her images of zebras on snowy mountains and donkeys at sea—or of crocodiles playing with whipped cream, on view this year at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin’s Miami space. And Luisa Lambri explores monuments of modernist architecture: Her 2006 solo shows at Luhring Augustine in New York and Studio Guenzani in Milan focused on buildings designed by Walter Gropius, Luis Barragán, and Marcel Breuer. In her photographs these solid structures, portrayed through marginal details or lateral views, become mirages hovering in the desert—traces of a past whose dreams for the future never became a reality. A perfect mirror, perhaps, for the plastic dreams with which Milan is so obsessed, and for Milan, the invisible city.

Massimiliano Gioni is a curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and Artistic Director of the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan.