Yael Bartana, Trembling Time, 2001, video, color, sound, 6 minutes 20 seconds.

Yael Bartana, Trembling Time, 2001, video, color, sound, 6 minutes 20 seconds.

“The Street”

Yael Bartana, Trembling Time, 2001, video, color, sound, 6 minutes 20 seconds.

WITH ITS UNAMBIGUOUS TITLE and broad inclusion of upward of two hundred artworks by more than 140 artists from every habitable continent, “La strada. Dove si crea il mondo” (The Street: Where the World Is Made) addresses how art, design, and architecture shape our urban environments and influence how we participate in daily life. Hou Hanru, Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo’s artistic director and the exhibition’s curator, identifies the street as a predominantly political space, one defined by the totality of systems that animate it: transportation, business, and work, as well as food, entertainment, sex, and civic engagement. Hanru’s assessment is reflected in the show’s seven themes: “Street Politics,” “Good Design,” “Community,” “Everyday Life,” “Intervention,” “Mapping,” and “Open Institutions.” Dense, agitated artistic interventions in different media engage viewers with kinesthetic experiences that stimulate all the senses (yes, even that of smell, which artist and scent researcher Sissel Tolaas activated by translating some of Rome’s aromas into 3-D prints). The exhibition elicits many emotional responses and pointed questions, while also managing to be terrifically—why not?—entertaining. And MAXXI’s idiosyncratic, Zaha Hadid–designed architecture, its interior conjuring a baroque highway that winds around a piazza of sorts, is perfect for a dynamic presentation of the art.

Lin Yilin, Golden Hill, 2011, HD video, color, sound, 36 minutes. From “Golden Series,” 2011–12.

Visitors to the exhibition are plunged headfirst into the turmoil of protests taking place in every part of the globe, greeted by a cacophony of traffic noise, whistles, demonstrators’ voices, ambulance sirens, and music blaring from the show’s many videos, which are installed to provide an immersive, kaleidoscopic vision of street life. Collectively, the disparate artworks heighten awareness of the urban experience in ways that feel both strange and familiar. Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado’s O século (The Century), 2011, emits the bewildering racket of cans, helmets, stones, and scrap metal being thrown onto the street (perhaps to outfit some urban warrior?). The rousing “Warszawianka,” a Polish workers’ song dating from 1905, accompanies Santiago Sierra and Jorge Galindo’s Los encargados (Those in Charge), 2012, which features a mournful procession along Madrid’s Gran Vía of seven black sedans transporting monumental upended portraits of King Juan Carlos and the Spanish prime ministers. Yael Bartana’s video Trembling Time, 2001, documents a minute of silence observed in Israel for Yom Hazikaron—the national remembrance day honoring fallen soldiers—during which highway traffic comes to a halt. South African artist Kendell Geers’s sculpture The Devil You Know, 2007, a five-pointed star made from ten flashing police lights, at first seems festive but in fact re-creates and magnifies the same state of alarm we experience when a city’s visual and aural stimuli overwhelm us. But the show includes some lighter touches as well: photographs of cars designed by artists such as Andy Warhol and Wim Delvoye; stands “serving” food-inspired manga comics; sexual innuendos graffitied on the museum’s walls by Flavio Favelli.

The exhibition elicits many emotional responses and pointed questions, while also managing to be terrifically—why not?—entertaining.

The street is also where economic inequality is most visible, and many works in the exhibition address marginalization and the urban poor, capturing poverty’s psychological impact, whether it elicits ambivalence, empathy, or violence. Francis Alÿs’s video Sleepers II, 2001, documents people and dogs slumbering on the roads and benches of Mexico City, while a video from Lin Yilin’s “Golden Series,” 2011–12, depicts the artist rolling on his side across a San Francisco sidewalk amid indifferent pedestrians; both works blur intimate and social space. The show also confronts one of the great paradoxes of contemporary society: that the same technologies that distract and divide us play a fundamental role in how we forge social connections. As urban planners develop ecologically correct and technologically efficient “smart” cities, Mark Wasiuta and Farzin Lotfi-Jam’s installation Control Syntax Songdo, 2017, comprising architectural models and videos, investigates the vulnerability of hypertechnological places, examining the titular South Korean city—with its excessive surveillance and consequent erosion of privacy—to reveal the shortfalls of this kind of utopia. Addressing the relationship between the individual and society, the exhibition seems to ask, “Who owns a city?” A poetic answer appears in Botto & Bruno’s L’enfant sauvage, 2012, in which children run freely on the street, exploring with innocent curiosity their reality and the adult world.

Boa Mistura, Crossed Anamorphosis, 2018, paint. Installation view. Photo: Musacchio Ianniello.

For Crossed Anamorphosis, 2018, the Spanish collective Boa Mistura painted the words cultura sveglia popolo (“culture wakes people up”) on a ramp joining two of maxxi’s floors, a visual bridge connecting the galleries to the larger world in viewers’ minds. A few works even make it outside. Barbara Kruger’s The secret of the demagogue, 2018, is painted along the top of MAXXI’s roof; posters by Alfredo Jaar and Liu Qingyuan can be seen throughout Rome and in the Piazza Vittorio subway station. The exhibition proposes that a museum does not merely exist to preserve culture; rather, it is a civic space as well, one that can powerfully shape public discourse. In the accompanying well-researched two-volume catalogue, Hanru asserts that an engagement with street life is in fact necessary for the museum’s survival, and scholar and theorist Homi K. Bhabha argues that museums are active agents in the shaping of civil society. Yet for all of its complex and contentious offerings, “The Street” is also enormously pleasurable, a rare opportunity to open oneself up to the blurry boundaries between art and life. 

“The Street: Where the World Is Made” is on view through April 28.

Ida Panicelli is a contributing editor of Artforum

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.