View of “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia, 1918–1943,” 2018. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti.

View of “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia, 1918–1943,” 2018. Photo: Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Cappelletti.

“Post Zang Tumb Tuuum”

Curator Germano Celant called it “showing the showing.” “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum. Art Life Politics: Italia 1918–1943” was a gigantic show focusing on art exhibitions in interwar Italy. Although this may sound like a hyperspecialized initiative intended exclusively for exhibition-history nerds like me, the organizers succeeded in making it a sexy, widely admired, and massively attended event. To do so, Celant, in collaboration with New York design studio 2x4, employed two main curatorial devices. First, he scaled up original photographs of Venice Biennales, other major shows, and private apartments and artists’ studios from the period, turning these archival images into life-size, three-dimensional environments into which he inserted some of the actual works of art. Visitors could step onto photographic reproductions of original hardwood floors and see actual paintings, sculptures, and furniture against backdrops of slightly blurry black-and-white installation views. Second, he used his exhibition’s catalogue, website, and ubiquitous ads to disseminate Photoshopped images of original photographs, reproducing the works that were exhibited at the Fondazione Prada in color. As a result of these interventions, the works in the show functioned less as autonomous objects than as indexical references to situations and people from the period. For example, Umberto Boccioni’s painting Dynamism of a Soccer Player, 1913, usually seen in the white-cube context of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, now returned, notionally, to F. T. Marinetti’s apartment in Rome, where it functioned as a backdrop for Futurist performances and staged photographs. Arturo Martini’s sculptures, meanwhile, were reinstalled as they had been in the 1942 Venice Biennale, so you could see them as Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels did when he visited.

Not unlike the Arte Povera artists who played with viewership and art-historical memory—Giulio Paolini quoting Lorenzo Lotto, or Michelangelo Pistoletto appropriating a classical Venus—Celant used the works in “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum” to reflect back our act of looking: Seeing ourselves in the position of Goebbels, Mussolini, and, more generally, the interwar Italian public, we could realize this was the same public that saw (and caused) the collapse of parliamentarianism, the Fascist power grab, the enactment of racial laws, and World War II. This made the exhibition, which opened just before Italy’s general election this past March, disturbingly relevant, as populist, xenophobic, and nationalistic parties gain power in more and more Western democracies.

The show had its flaws, however. One was the lack of interpretive angles or critical perspectives that seem particularly important as we grapple with hot issues such as the role and responsibility of artists, curators, and intellectuals under authoritarian regimes. This reconstruction of exhibitions did little to reflect on the wide range of roles artists played during the rise and fall of Fascism. In addition, the reenactment of exhibition-going did not offer a critical perspective on the relationship between admiring this art and accepting or supporting the regime. What gave me the creeps inspired right-wing visitors to fire off proud hashtags and tweets celebrating the Duce. One of the blown-up photos in the show functioned as a mise en abyme of the entire operation: It showed a reconstruction of Mussolini’s office when he was a young journalist that was created for and exhibited in the celebratory 1932 show “Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista.” The staging of history in exhibitions through (carefully selected) historical documents was, in other words, explicitly a tool of his regime’s propaganda. A reiteration of that staging arguably does more than merely impart a sense of “art life politics.” Ultimately, the Prada show aestheticized Fascism through its own means. A beautifully packaged exhibition, including beautiful art pieces, “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum” largely overlooked the everyday reality of discrimination, oppression, and violence that characterized life under Fascism.

Collecting, archiving, and exhibiting are inevitably partial and manipulative endeavors, and this show, with its Photoshopped or otherwise altered archival images and objects, was a masterpiece of manipulation. Yet in writing that the exhibition aimed “to construct a totality of historical and social, poetic and aesthetic material, made up of documents of reality that serve to forge a ‘cultural understanding’ of the complexity of the constellations of an era,” Celant claimed to treat the works on view as neutral carriers of truth, contradicting one of his show’s fundamental premises; that display is inherently ideological. This contradiction was especially troubling in a show dedicated to the Fascist regime, which systematically utilized art exhibitions to construct consensus and consolidate power. Still, to the extent that it invited such questions, “Post Zang Tumb Tuuum” could be a stimulus to further study and discuss the history of exhibition making, starting with a more careful consideration of its role and responsibility in collapsing democracies.