Alfredo Jaar

Alfredo Jaar’s Gramsci Trilogy, 2004– 2005, is a profound investigation into the role played by intellectuals facing the forces of power—an extremely relevant issue right now in Italy (where several journalists opposing the current government have been silenced by order of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) and elsewhere. This is Jaar at his best: politically radical yet contemplative, somber, and personal.

The first part of the trilogy, Infinite Cell, was shown in 2004 at Galleria Lia Rumma. A sequence of mirrors, infinitely reflecting an image of prison bars, reconstructed the austere cell where Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned and where he wrote his Prison Notebooks (1929–35). The Communist theoretician was condemned to twenty years’ imprisonment in 1926 and died in 1937 after being released, his health broken. The two new installments in Rome expanded the gaze from a space of private, claustrophobic, and definitive imprisonment to a historical, dialectical, and open space—and to a sort of hope. Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom, 2005, exhibited at MACRO, refers to an ancient poem quoted by Mao Zedong in the ’50s, when he launched a campaign to encourage intellectuals to contribute constructive criticism to the revolution. During the resulting intense but brief season of cultural debates, Chinese intellectuals spoke out in growing dissent against Mao’s dictatorship; the government responded with brutal repression, arresting, killing, or deporting them to labor camps and banning freedom of thought and speech. In a shadowy room, Jaar installed a garden of one hundred flowers, planted inside a modular zinc platform, beneath sources of light and water, which kept them alive. But at the same time he exposed them to continuous air-conditioning, which withered them. On the back wall, a video showed Gramsci’s tomb in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. In this oasis, the fragile flowers and the torture they were undergoing embodied a silent drama.The cold air blew so strongly that viewers could scarcely bear to stay and contemplate this disquieting garden, as if one’s mental discomfort at this evocation of intellectual repression had been made palpable—and nearly insupportable.

At Studio Miscetti, the installation Le Ceneri di Gramsci (Gramsci’s Ashes), 2005, named after a 1954 poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, consisted of an open-framed model of a nineteenth-century industrial building built over a wooden box whose top was a horizontal screen showing an image of an exploding star, looking something like a cosmic birth. Every six minutes the image of the star fell into a mirrored box, a sequence reproduced ad infinitum, in a breathless, endless progression. The metal frame seemed to shelter the generative star, a paternal function. Technology and nature as well as the female and male principles were reconciled, giving birth to a new possible universe.

Jaar has profoundly understood the ethical tradition of the Left in Italy, paying it a sort of homage with the entire trilogy, and honoring the integrity of Pasolini in his stimulating role of radical dissenter. He thus seems to be calling, provocatively, for the proliferation of Gramsci’s political and moral thought, spreading his legacy into the future as an antidote to what Jaar calls the “sleep of consciousness.”

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.