The Restless Earth
The following discussion took place on July 19, 2017, at the exhibition La Terra Inquieta (The Restless Earth) at the Triennale di Milan. The participants were Barbara Casavecchia, a writer and independent curator based in Milan (where she teaches at Brera Academy), and Vincenzo Latronico, a writer and translator based in Milan. A contributing editor at Frieze, Casavecchia is at work on a solo show featuring Susan Hiller, taking place next spring at OGR in Turin, Italy. Latronico is currently working on an Italian translation of Jeff VanderMeer’s speculative fiction.
La Terra Inquieta, a group exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni, is jointly promoted by Fondazione Nicola Trussardi and Fondazione Triennale di Milano (under the artistic directorship of Edoardo Bonaspetti). Titled after a collection of poems by Edouard Glissant, the exhibition sprawls over two floors and features more than sixty artists from thirty-nine countries. The works deal with migrations, displacements, and refugees, and in addition to the artworks the show includes a vast selection of documentary materials, mostly from the Italian island of Lampedusa. Although the present conflicts and migrations across the Mediterranean are its obvious subject, the exhibition aims to question the role of the artist as witness as well as the current status quo of an image that is not only about crisis, but in crisis itself, as the curator points out.
Barbara Casavecchia: The first artwork exhibited here—a series of flags covered in mud, titled Territories (1995/2003) by Pravdoliub Ivanov—is a revenant, to me. I remember seeing it in a corridor of the ghostly former Jewish girls’ school in the Augustrasse at the 4th Berlin Biennale (2006, curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick). And I also recall the first time I came across Ivanov, at Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana (2000, curated by Francesco Bonami, Ole Bouman, Mària Hlavajová, and Kathrin Rhomberg), which had a telling title: Borderline Syndrome. Back then, the collective anxiety, fear, and racism were focused on the immigration wave from the east, while now they focus on the south–north routes. The Mediterranean, Fortress Europe, and its art exhibitions keep on facing the same issues. And next year Manifesta will land in Palermo, a short stretch from Lampedusa.
Vincenzo Latronico: Curiously enough, the other work right at the entrance—Šejla Kamerić’s double sign, EU/Others (2000)—was also referring to that other “migrant crisis,” originally at Manifesta 3. And yet on this occasion the entrance marked “EU citizens” is barred. I do not know if this reflects Kamerić’s shifted perspective or a curatorial intervention, seeing as the show places a deliberate focus on non-white and non-Eurocentric voices (still quite rare in Italy). Whatever the reason for it, this variation on Kamerić’s work seems significant: of the increased tension surrounding global migrations, and also of the increased urgency in the ways art chooses to tackle the issue.
One of the things that struck me most in The Restless Earth is this sense of an almost didactic urgency—the long captions, the interplay of artworks and documents, the striking specificity with which many works refer to political or social issues. It’s as if the show deliberately tries to address as wide an audience as possible, often leaving behind the intricate refinement of conceptual art in order to shine more light on the issues at stake. In a way, it’s similar to how politicians like Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders have tried to move beyond identity politics to find a new, left-wing alternative to right-wing populism.
BC: The Triennale is a very popular Milan venue that brings together all sorts of publics—design, architecture, art, theater, families visiting the park, people stopping by for a coffee—so I think that the “didactic” tone is strategic. Also the last group exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni/Fondazione Trussardi in collaboration with the municipality of Milan (The Great Mother) was in a large, non–“contemporary art specific” venue, the Palazzo Reale. When the first public art projects by Gioni/Trussardi started back in 2003 (as solo shows), they relied on shock tactics and the choice of very unusual venues in order to gain attention and create a new public, which in Milan wasn’t really there yet. Fourteen years later, I’d say that the foundation has fully institutionalized itself, also in terms of exhibition formats, but that it is still actively working on the creation, expansion, and—I guess one could use such a word—instruction of a broader audience.
In Italy and not only there, the populist messages regarding immigration are aggressively pervasive. Milan has a center-left administration, so I’d say that it’s legitimate to counterbalance the mainstream narratives with cultural complexity. The works I’ve found most interesting, here, are those that resist immediate translation into “iconic” representations of migration, displacement, those who retain a right to opacity, to quote Édouard Glissant, after whose poems the show is titled. Like Phil Collins’s How to Make a Refugee (1999) and Rokni Haerizadeh’s The Sun Shines on a Graveyard and a Garden Alike, and the Rain a Loyal Man from a Traitor Knows Not (2016–17), where the brutality of war scenes and violence is turned into a surreal cartoon, exquisitely painted and drafted.
VL: Yes, I personally found Haerizadeh’s series the strongest part of the show. That whole room, actually, gave me a lot to think about. Besides that series and the videos he made with Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, a long wall displayed a selection of illustrated covers of La Domenica del Corriere, a popular Italian weekly newspaper supplement, from the very beginning of the twentieth century. At the time Italy was the starting point, not the destination, of yet another “migrant crisis”—people fleeing hunger and poverty, headed mostly to Argentina and the United States. This statement has by now become a cliché in the Italian debate around migrant rights, with supporters of more inclusive policies repeating that once, the migrants were us. And yet seeing the depictions of this cliché—a self-representation of the Italian lower and middle classes—somehow breathed new life and relevance into the analogy, made it work: the sunken, harrowed faces, the boats filled beyond capacity, each deck overflowing with ragged, emaciated refugees. In their stereotypically illustrative style, those images were strikingly close to those we see on television every day now, and resonated eerily with Haerizadeh’s piece, the interplay of background photographs and painted additions creating a momentary illusion that the images all belonged in the same series, all depicted the same thing. Which of course they do.
BC: In the same room, there are also the photos that won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, thus further helping to short-circuit the fictional and the documentary. It’s one of the turning points of the whole show, I agree, precisely because it reveals how certain aesthetic canons (the tragic, the pathetic) operate within the mass media, and how as viewers we are used to and conditioned by them. Personally, I think that when art moves into that realm, it becomes problematic, despite its best intentions (here, Isaac Julien’s cinematic video projection Western Union  seems to me to move along uncomfortably blurred lines). Another key point, I think, is the last room before the exit, where a small photo by John Berger from his book on Portuguese migration in the 1970s is exhibited next to Banu Cennetoğlu’s The List (2005–ongoing), a compendium of more than thirty thousand migrants dead within European borders since 1993, drafted on the basis of published news.
VL: In a way, the whole exhibition seems constructed as a lead-up to that room. The somewhat cramped lower floor, labyrinthine and crowded with artworks, leads to the massive, dimly lit and relatively empty upper level, resonating with Paweł Althamer’s Real Time Music (2017), the recording of a Guinean asylum seeker singing a lullaby about lovers crossing the sea to meet, and drowning—her voice muffled and softly broken, heartbreaking. After the violent, colorful parade of works seen below, viewers are taken aback by the dark and muted atmosphere there. Of course, this acquires its full significance after a few steps through the hall, as soon as it is understood as the context for a list of names of the dead.
I first saw the exhibition with two friends who were as captivated and shocked by that room as I was. After a while, one of them said, “This is quite a bold statement for an art exhibition to make.” I initially agreed. But thinking back on it, one might wonder why there should be anything surprising in an exhibition making a bold statement.
VL: A week after our initial conversation took place, news emerged that the Syrian film collective Abounaddara had originally refused to participate in the Triennale with a selection of their videos, declaring that the show served “an aesthetical-political discourse on the ‘refugee crisis’ from a Western point of view.” But the curator still decided to include the works, with the somewhat leaky explanation—provided only after being called out by Abounaddara Films—that they were available on the Internet anyway.
The issue is quite tricky to unfurl. On the one hand, when seeing the show I had the impression that its Western point of view was a strong political gesture reflecting a desire for the exhibition to enter the heated, and crucial, discussion around migration in Italy, and to do so with a specific agenda. In this respect, rather than a limitation, it would have probably been best to see its focus and perspective as an opportunity.
On the other hand, the curator’s choice in this case appears a rather indefensible breach of trust and ethics (and possibly of copyright law), and moreover, this unilateral decision to ignore the artists’ rights seems, paradoxically, to corroborate their original reasons for deciding not to participate.
BC: In the public statement “The Syrian Who Wanted the Revolution,” republished on Documenta 14’s website, Abounaddara claim their right to an image that is not one-sided: “the right to self-determination in this media age.” In the meantime, it is the duty of the world to respect those rights, that dignity, moving away from the principle of “the ends justify the means.” In his catalogue essay for The Restless Earth, the curator points out how the exhibition’s aim is to question “the representation of migration” by including artists “who deal with the traumatic events of the contemporary world but reject the traditional hierarchical relationship between artist and viewer, as well as any form of omniscient, one-way narrative.”
The problem with cultural hegemonies—and I think that the flood of harsh criticism faced by Documenta after its decision to entitle itself to Learning from Athens—is that they adopt self-referential perspectives, never mind their progressive agendas. As we were discussing before, this exhibition puts on the line Western, and specifically European, perspectives on the role and use of images of migration. What happened teaches a hard lesson about what we think we are looking at. And yet the question still stands: How to make a statement?
Barbara Casavecchia is a writer, curator, and editor based in Milan.
Vincenzo Latronico is a writer and translator based in Milan.