The Crystallisation of failed Utopias
I’ve been living in Bologna for nine years already. Like many others, I arrived in this city with the aim of studying at the local university (the oldest in the world…) and eventually decided to stay. Most of the students who come each year keep the myths that characterize the city alive and deepen them: on the one hand, it’s an open, outrageous city whose streets bustle with life and brisk activity; on the other, it’s a city of cultivation and intelligence. Nonetheless, thanks to its way of being, the city is known particularly well as a rabble-rousing, revolutionary city dominated by left-leaning tendencies.
As we walk down the university alleys, we might easily encounter such baffling phenomena as young people loitering in the streets dressed in ‘60s- and ‘70s-style clothes – a Peruvian-style coat and sweater, Clarks shoes and creased trousers, Alain Robbe-Grillet-style jackets, thick-rimmed glasses from the period, the long beards of spiritual leaders on twenty-year-old faces, moustaches, unbelievable numbers of young people with long hair and dreads who see themselves as spiritual descendants of Bob Marley and advocate marihuana.
The city itself seems caught in a nostalgic snare it would have trouble extricating itself from – but there isn’t the least desire to do so. It’s as if the ghost of times past were a millstone around the neck of the present, a present with no dream-affording Utopias.
This feeling of mine was intensified when I learned about the story of the ‘glass Stalin’ who surfaced after having been consigned to oblivion in some cellar somewhere for years. Bologna, the most important seat of the communist party in all Western Europe, had witnessed a singular event – the workers of the Priton & Co. glassworks had prepared a special gift for their communist leader as part of the celebration of Josef Stalin’s seventieth birthday (in 1948): a glass bust, about two metres tall, of the dictator surrounded by allegorical symbols including a light bulb signifying the light of knowledge and industrial innovation, the hammer and sickle, a book and a pen, a painter’s palette – and even a football and a pair of skis. The so-called ‘glass Stalin’ was in reality a glass bas relief that, at first glance, seemed to represent a Masonic leader more than it did Stalin. It was a rather coarse sculpture which, after being transported to the Soviet embassy in Rome, could not be sent to Moscow due to its more than 250 kg in weight for the transportation costs would have been too high. So, it was returned to Bologna, where it was forgotten in the cellar of the communist party headquarters in an old palace in the city centre which houses the present-day DAMS (Drama, Arts and Music Studies). Thus, it may now be said that it passed into the storerooms of the new buildings that housed the headquarters of the Italian Communist Party. And today, this highly curious sculpture has resurfaced from the depths of oblivion and again become a subject of conversation.
It is an object which survived, in silence, part of the history of the city – a city which, from the end of the war to the present has been one of the main starting points, components and junctures of important events, including the communist ideology of the entire Western world – and much more. The object represents a certain type of primordial symbol, a symbol of coolness and seclusion – of a certain psychological block, even – and on the other hand it is an object which can be thought of as having taken part in all the city’s events.
The extent, the significance and the whole history of the sculpture represent, in and of themselves, a certain sign of the assertiveness and determination that reigned inside the city and formed the basis of what was, back then, a realistic socialism.
And it was during these years that the ability to combine a social politics of equality with considerable economic growth turned it into an example of how prosperity and communism need not always represent opposing poles.
At the time, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) had become the strongest communist party in Western Europe, one of the main bases in Western Europe for the entire Soviet Union, with which it maintained uninterrupted and very close ties.
The 1960s were marked – as they were elsewhere – by the revolutionary events of 1968. In the 1970s, Bologna became the protagonist of events on both the national and international scenes. In 1970–1971, Umberto Eco founded DAMS, with its focus on drama and music; within this framework, subjects were introduced to subjects, such as semiotics, which were considered quite pioneering at the time from the standpoint of the university’s development. DAMS became the breeding ground of young students and groups, the main representatives of movements that emerged in 1977 – movements which were entirely new compared with previous student movements with regard to both form and content. They were movements which criticised and wholeheartedly repudiated any activity carried out by leftist parties or unions.
In that year, Bologna became the scene of violent street clashes that forced the minister of police at the time to send armoured vehicles into the student quarter and other affected areas in the city to quell the upheavals. In September of that year, a rally was held against the repressive measures in the city, which stood at the very onset of the emergent movement. Over the next three days, personalities like Nobel prize winner Dario Fo, Sartre and Toni Negri made speeches. Bologna thus became a meeting place for the most varied singers, artists, important comic writers and directors.
The protests slowly waned in the late 1970s. Some students took up the armed struggle, others took the path of drug use and the remainder of the movement decided to abandon the political ideas of the past. In the end, only a decidedly small group remained.
One year later Aldo Moro, the prime minister at the time, was kidnapped and later killed, which only confirmed the mysterious intertwining of the history of the country and that of the city of Bologna. On those fateful days, the former prime minister, Romano Prodi, was in the countryside with a group of friends and university professors. As a lark, someone came up with the idea of having a séance, during which the word ‘Gradoli’ was heard. The Italian armed forces subsequently burst into the small town of Gradoli in northern Italy with the aim of unveiling the Red Brigades’ hideout – to no avail, however. Only later, when the prime minister had been murdered, did it come to light that he had been held in captivity in a Gradoli Street in Rome. It is highly probable that the séance was used to keep silent the name of the informer.
But 1980 was to be a dark year. On 27 June, an Itavia Airlines flight which had taken off from the Bologna airport disappeared from the radars near the island of Ustica. Twenty-seven years later, the causes of the catastrophe are still unknown. At the very start of the investigation, the accident was set down to a defect in the construction of the plane. For that reason, Itavia Airlines went bankrupt. Subsequent investigations revealed that the plane had been hit by a military missile which was probably fired from a NATO aircraft that had flown into Libyan airspace while ostensibly flying over Italy. Despite this disclosure, NATO and Italian military leaders instituted an information embargo on the case, making it impossible to unearth the truth.
On 2 August 1980, 85 people died and approximately 200 were injured in a bomb attack at the Bologna train station. Although the attack was imputed to several right-wing extremists, the case has not been completely clarified to this day and there are many doubts concerning the culprits. Ever since, we may note how the hands on all the clocks at the station stop at the time the explosion took place – 10:25 am – and a large cleft in a wall of the damaged part of the station still serves as a reminder of the catastrophe.
The late 1980s were marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as the transformations experienced by the Italian communist party: in November 1989, in one of the quarters of the city – Bolognina, to be concrete – a congress took place which resulted in the dissolution of the party and the subsequent founding of a new political party intent on ending all further prosecution of communist ideology.
The city, which has too often found itself at the centre of historical events, has undergone a very difficult psychological transformation. It is a city which has evolved in much the same way as did the former Soviet Bloc. A feeling of nostalgia for the past or of a crystallization of failed utopias engulfed not only the thinking, but the political proclivities of many people.
From this standpoint, I think we may speak of two types of nostalgia: a fruitful nostalgia and a sterile nostalgia.
The political community of the city is a palpable example of nostalgia in the bad sense. An exemplary illustration may be found in the case of the transformation of the Gallery of Modern Art (Galleria d’arte moderna, GAM) over the last thirty years.
In the 1970s, the city was filled with numerous groups of people who shared a very strong progressive and utopian spirit oriented toward the future. The very faith in the practicability of change made it possible to conceive a wide variety of revolutionary endeavours such as Pier Luigi Cervellati’s urbanistic project which attempted to combine economic development, social welfare and cultural progress in one central apparatus that would break down the system of compartmentalisation into individual productive activities as well as the distinction between centre and suburbs. The trade fair district, where the Gallery of Modern Art was built, may serve as an example; it was the epicentre of expansion to the north, with its admirable skyscrapers and the visionary architecture of Kenzo Tange.
Upon the fall of the Iron Curtain, it seemed as if the some of the city’s efforts to plan into the future were on the wane. The erstwhile avant-garde views of the world characteristic of the seventies had turned into a defensive conservative attitude oriented toward the past. An immanent sign of this attitude was the closing of the original site of the Gallery of Modern Art, which was moved to an old renovated building in the city centre which stands as an instance of industrial archaeology.
While in the past the city had a very concrete vision toward the future (envisioning buildings in new utopian areas), now we can see that the same city is mostly looking to seduce tourists.
The art world, on the contrary, succeeded in sublimating that feeling of nostalgia within the framework of a number of very estimable projects. The following two examples may be presented in illustration.
The first is a Christopher Williams exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in 2007, the last project held in the old building by the architect Leone Pancaldi in the trade fair district. The Californian artist, born in Los Angeles in 1956, integrated the entire architectural structure of the museum into his project and, at the same time, fashioned it into something full of historical, artistic and intellectual connections and references. And – as was the case in most of Williams’ artwork – it was through the medium of photography that one was able to enter into the concrete story and move about in it.
The first thing one noticed during the exhibition was the renewal of the original architectural form of the building on the day of its inauguration.
The changes that took place from 1975 to the present day, as well as the countless exhibitions that came one after the other, had resulted in most of the gallery’s directors at the time disfiguring the original structure with their interventions. They had partitions built, windows walled in and the entryway altered. Williams gave us the chance to see the building the way it looked before the first exhibition organised there – and yet his interventions remained clearly discernible. On one wall one could see clear traces of masonry work. A rent in the wall which served to enlarge the numbers of visitors, was bordered with fair-faced brick, creating a caricatureseque or of self-reflective impression.
Here, as in the entirety of his photographic oeuvre, he emphasised the possibility of self-development. The critic John Kelsey rightly pointed out in a text written for the show that this type of renovation was also a certain allusion to a displaced communist identity. By renewing the original lines or providing access to the building’s original concrete structures, the artist had indirectly made it possible for the ‘red’ institution to breathe again and make itself felt at least one last time before the gallery was closed once and for all. In his work, Williams tried to open up a dialogue between the building that housed the museum and his own ‘notions’. Thus we saw 1975 photos of the building whose semblance we all knew from recent years and a snapshot depicting the building’s new appearance – it is as if the photographer were constantly moving forward and backward along the timeline of the museum.
Similarly, his photographs, which were components of the exhibition, were both spatial and temporal mechanisms that had a tendency to mirror themselves.
The case of a photograph having as its subject a Kiev 88 camera – a Ukrainian copy of a Hasselblad model made before the fall of the Berlin Wall – is quite indicative: it was a cheap and conspicuously failure-prone device. Since professional repairs were hard to come by, as were instruction manuals, photographers were forced to get the help and information they needed from amongst themselves, thus keeping the ‘communist’ item alive – though just barely. It was no matter that the camera didn’t work or that communism had been overthrown – what mattered was the voluntary collectivisation of knowledge and of photographic production.
Williams’ work consists of individual snapshots that precede the moment the shot is taken and transcend it as well. It is a meta-programme which forms the framework where the camera is joined with concrete historical and social moments. His conception of photography is constantly bound up with the political times, times which were highly unstable. A photo of the wreck of a 1968 Renault auto – an often-seen phenomenon in the wake of the events of 1968 in Paris – in black-and-white, created in the artificial light of a studio, gives the impression of being a product from a high-end catalogue. It thus represents an image which is considerably dubious and uncertain, wavering between conflicting interpretations.
The photographs in the Bologna exhibition represent a concrete series of the artist’s works devoted to the Cold War period: photos of well-known buildings in Łódź, Poland; photos of factory machines in the Eastern Bloc; catalogue photos of Dacia automobiles; and photos of Afri-Cola bottle caps.
All these pictures were placed in spaces designed by the artist for the exhibition to speak about the history of the city itself and the period in which Bologna had become the foremost partner of the Soviet Bloc. In the end, an inner formal similarity was to be seen within the photographs (factory machines from Łódź and machines for making photographic paper, for example) as was an unresolved relationship with the cold war.
And it was those time gaps between each picture that became the artist’s fundamental aim and constituted a certain type of inner obstacle to the incessant attempts at a return. They served, in a way, as street barricades that interrupted the normal flow of life with the goal of re-programming it. If Brecht’s claim that modern things are all those things we haven’t yet learned to use is taken to be true, then it may be assumed that those street barricades, uprisings and strikes were just the means to create a modern life by re-programming and extending the ways we use not only streets and factories, but time as well. And it is that intentional interruption of the forced rhythm of life which reassures us that we have not yet reached the rock bottom of the possible uses we are capable of.
At the same time, we can see that these inner semantic gaps open up a space for the emergence of new, more modern meanings. Moreover, one can observe the same intention behind the combinations of individual snapshots that have nothing in common at first glance: a combination of snapshots, one of which depicts a Pirelli tyre and the other a type of sea nettle carries within it a certain suspension, a halt. There is no information provided whatsoever. In this case, the observer is overtaken by a marked uncertainty with regard to his or her personal function.
The title of the exhibition For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sure La Société Industrielle (Revision 5) makes straightforward reference to the changes undergone by a previous exhibition in Vienna (Revision 4). All of Williams’ photos dealing with the Cold War are transformed or adapted to each particular exhibition as needed. These photographs, which retreat once again in new ways and seem to refuse to give up their force, return in new manifestations and it is that constant return which becomes the way the differences that lie in the system as a whole can be made visible. From this perspective, Williams takes up a relationship to redundancy.
The general context takes up an important perspective: in this case it is a gullible Bologna under the sway of communist ideology, Bologna oriented toward the future of the 1970s. That same Bologna in which masses of students trying to pull away from both the ideology of the original political economy and the communist party at the same time expressed the desire that their lifestyle be approved of accompanied by an effort to theorise the aspect of their rejection of work. The entire generation had occupied itself with ruminations on how to accomplish a creative and strategic use of laziness, passivity and inaction. At the same time, such concepts rejected only some of the tenets of Marxism.
If we reflect again for a moment on the consequences of this crisis, we may conclude in the end that this revolution in many respects merges with the paradigm shift toward a globalised post-industrial economy. A large part of these experiments were immediately absorbed by productive systems within the framework of post-Fordism, which were founded on flexibility and communication, on the shift from factory production to work at home, on temporary work, on relationship networks and on a new service sector and on the merging of work and free time. And it must be noted that it was only Pasolini who realised the expediency of those mass movements in connection with the emerging capitalist society.
And once again we must examine the context surrounding the 1975 inauguration of the Gallery of Modern Art, which saw the unveiling of such first-rate works. There were exhibitions, symposia with the participation of people such as Umberto Eco, historical works and presentations by artists such as Fabio Mauri, who secured a projection of Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo di Matteo).
And that is only one of the reasons why, in certain rooms, Christopher Williams decided to exhibit showcases designed by the architect Pancaldi containing objects such as an attractive catalogue from the gallery’s inauguration (the cover is the calendar of events for the year 1975), a 1978 CD by the musical group Scritti Politti titled Skank Bloc Bologna, photographs taken at the first exhibition, a book titled Red Bologna in several languages and small statues of artists like Asger Jorn and Franz West.
One of the characteristic traits of art based on memory and, at times, feelings close to nostalgia, is to be closely linked with the dynamics of the photographic media. Photographs are the real trace of something which appears as already lost and, thanks to their character, they may manifest themselves as the voices of something or someone who is no longer there. From this standpoint, it is a common phenomenon when artists like Christopher Williams work with photographic ‘approaches’ even at moments when they are installing or presenting their work.
The Bolognese artist Flavio Favelli (1967) presents himself in a similar manner. His project My Deep Dark Blue (Abissi) was exhibited at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin (www.fondsrr.org) in 2007. The principal theme of his work was the abovementioned airplane accident near the island of Ustica.
In this work, Favelli persistently tried to rework various conceptual fragments. They were often pieces of furniture, chandeliers, fences, mirrors, carpets or market-bought antique objects which the artist then transformed, making them almost unrecognisable and commonly endowing them with further uses.
In connection with analyses of the odd, mysterious atmosphere of his paintings, Giorgio de Chirico used the term ‘profonditá abitata’ exclusively, by which he meant a phenomenon which appeared to find itself outside reality, in which it seems as if nothing at all were happening, but at the same time the space is filled with a considerably disquieting atmosphere reminiscent of a crime scene, a space where something horrible is about to occur or a space which conceals some sort of secret. Critics have drawn connections between this phrase and the photographic medium. That is why photographs are considered to be a sort of real impression of events that have already transpired and thus ‘dead’, anchored in time and unable to undergo any transformation whatsoever; the snapshots are often filled with a disquieting atmosphere and countless possible meanings.
In the work of Flavio Favelli, we find objects that transmit an almost dreamlike unrest and uncertainty from those who have come back from the past – albeit a past distorted by memory. The artist himself put it thus in his catalogue: ‘It is as if they were three-dimensional photographs capturing places that transcend our existence or three-dimensional postcards. I always try to capture environments that take me back again in time. I often notice that what I’m looking at are pictures from my personal past with the aim of preserving them and enabling intense moments of my life come to life once again’.
In the project’s centre stood a 400 m2 tarp made of Airtex, an industrial fabric – meant in the future to cover the remains of the airplane which are presently located and protected from the elements at the archaeological museum – at the opening in Bologna on 27 June 2007. Within the framework of the investigations, almost all the fragments of the wreckage salvaged from the sea were subsequently taken to Bologna and reassembled underneath the tarp, which was supposed to serve mainly to protect the wreckage from the ravages of time – much like a covering for a car – as well as to keep the presence of memories of the catastrophe alive for as long as possible, protecting them from further transformation. It’s almost impossible not to think of a shroud, though.
Many other pieces based on the transformation of memories of yearned-for events and thus connected in the artist’s mind with the tragedy near the island of Ustica were on display at the exhibition. There was a postcard printed by the airline Itavia with the ironic and rather disquieting text ‘Greetings from Rome’, a photo of another Itavia airplane of the same type as the downfallen one taking off and snapshots of the individual pieces of wreckage. All these items were inserted into frames designed by the artist, who explains, in his catalogue, his view of the ‘photographs of flying airplanes that, according to him, harbour ill-boding secrets’.
The oppressive atmosphere of uncertainty the photos exude managed to evoke strong feelings of vertigo, of both a fear of emptiness and an idea of the distances the plane sets off into – which in this case included the depths of the sea. ‘The airplane plunged at Condor Point, a spot which was outside radar range. It is one of the deepest spots in the Mediterranean Sea, where depths reach over 3,700 metres […], an expanse of water that conceals within it one of the greatest of aeronautical mysteries. Eighty-one people lost their lives there, the Itavia airline went bankrupt, there was the Cold War, NATO and political interests.’
And it was no accident that the subconscious of the entire nation at the time was stricken by the pictures of the first dead bodies pulled out of the sea, images which seemed to have been published on every magazine cover and newspaper front page. Suddenly, the calm surface of the sea (and of the photographs) had given up its secrets, the secret of the crime it had concealed. Favelli was deeply moved by this, which is why a snapshot meant to bring the situation closer to home, taken by him personally from a helicopter, became a part of the exhibition. It captured an odd piece of wooden furniture floating on the surface of the sea.
There was also a photograph taken on 11 September 2006 in which George W. Bush is pictured at the memorial to the victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York; we see a wide vat filled with dark water and a flower wreath bobbing on its surface. Favelli was trying to bring his own personal interpretation to bear by using a wide vat of water surrounded by potted plants and a glass object floating on its surface.
In addition to the piece of furniture which had been tossed into the sea for the express purpose of being photographed, we find a whole series of further pieces of furniture which were reworked into the form of wooden lidless chests. Also to be seen is a glass showcase in the centre of which a collection of white seashells and pieces of coral have been put on display, an attempt to ‘tame’ the sea fauna, an attempt to create a unified collection of sea plants.
An entire room was devoted to exhibiting a collage of geographical maps on which we find, for example, the island of Ustica situated in the vicinity of the capital, Rome, and its palaces of power.
In closing, there was a whole collection of clothing created in collaboration with the artist Mouna Moussie and Studio Osti, a Bolognese fashion atelier. The title FFMM (Clothing Versus Habitat) makes reference to the necessity of protecting oneself against the environment, the passage of time, as is the case in the case of the tarp spread over the airplane wreckage.
At the same time, it is a way to defend memory itself against the passage of time. ‘Men’s clothes differentiated by different evocative forms of needlework […], instead of designer labels like Armani or Polo Ralph Lauren, we find all sorts of numerals and labels here. It is up to each one of us to decide how we take in these particularities. The clothes on exhibit are labelled Itavia, or PA 931166 (the license number of onf of one of the cars accompanying Giovanni Falconi, a famous judge who became a victim of a mafia assassination attempt); all in all, one might say that they are symbols and words which remind us of concrete moments of our lives. Dressing up in them means protecting oneself against the passage of time.’
Quotations were taken from:
John Kelsey, Progresso fotografico; a text distributed in the course of For Example: Dix-huit Leçons Sur La Societé Industrielle (Revision 5), an exhibition which took place at the Gallery of Modern Art in Bologna, 2007.
Flavio Favelli, My Deep Dark Blue (Abissi); an interview by Ilaria Bonacossa and published in the catalogue for the exhibition, which took place at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo-Electa, 2007.