Magazine article Artforum International

Dust to Dust

Magazine article Artforum International

Dust to Dust

Article excerpt

CAN A HISTORICAL EXHIBITION of Arte Povera, which necessarily reframes as sculptures works that were once performative and ephemeral, provide something new to contemporary viewers and still honor the unrepeatability of the first experiment? One answer was posed by "Ante Povera pia azioni povere 1968" (Poor Art Plus Poor Actions 1968) at the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina (MADRE) in Naples this past winter. (The exhibition was part of "Arte Povera 2011," a nation-wide celebration coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Italian unification.) Curated by Eduardo Cicelyn and Arte Povera's instigator, Germano Celant, the show directly appropriated the title of one of Arte Povera's founding events: a three-day festival held in the southern Italian seaside town of Amalfi in 1968. The danger here, of course, is that attempting to reconstruct a historical event is like excavating an artifact inevitably removing the object of study from the ground that provides its contextual meaning. Yet the MADRE show, which was touted as being "inspired" by Amalfi, delivered on re-creating a sense of witnessing something remarkable. It managed to move beyond hagiography to powerfully suggest what it might have been like to see these works for the first time.

Among scholars of Arte Povera, the Amalfi weekend is legendary. Funded by collector Marcello Rumma in an effort to bring contemporary art to southern Italy and curated by Celant, the ambitious project comprised objects, actions, and debates, all convened in a medieval arsenal. Many of the invited artists arrived with works in the trunks of their cars or improvised with what they found on-site, contributing to an atmosphere of ludic spontaneity. Although Celant's theory of Arte Povera as an art freed of transcendent meaning and stylistic categorization had originally been applied primarily to Italian artists, here he also invited artists from the Netherlands and England. Amalfi marked the entry of the Italian artists into international conversations and signaled the emergence of a new generational phenomenon in Europe.

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The archival photographs from Amalfi evoke nostalgia for a typically postwar, utopian model of art as participatory and emancipatory: Richard Long greeting Amalfitans on the docks, Emilio Prini and Ger van Elk playing soccer among sculptures, Michelangelo Pistoletto's troubadours drawing crowds of children, Mario Merz cooking a pot of beans next to Gilberto Zorio's giant bowl of fluorescent liquid. And yet already in 1968, Amalfi participant Piero Gilardi was warning that museums would soon try to take control over such open and experimental practices; he noted that "the physical nearness and the brief moments of individual identification and emotional understanding that distinguished Amalfi will be difficult to repeat." The question is, How could such magic be conjured nearly forty-five years later, and could it be done without destroying the artifact itself?

To start, one must admit that Amalfi is ontologically unrepeatable. The artists in the original event are no longer young and no longer unknown. The works, brand-new in 1968, are now part of the canon. These are things the curators can't control. But they do have a hand in the premise of the show, the works exhibited, and the location. Though a few objects in Naples were first shown at Amalfi, the checklist as a whole bore slight resemblance to the original. Gone were the non-Italian artists, such as Long and Jan Dibbets, whose presence in Amalfi contributed to those "brief moments of emotional understanding" praised by Gilardi, as well as some native Italians previously included. Instead, one found those whom Celant later deemed the official core of Arte Povera, including two who did not participate in 1968 (Giuseppe Penone and Pier Paolo Calzolari). The show thus painted a neat picture of what Celant (and the market) came to think of as the social nexus of Arte Povera and didn't allow us to challenge that view or glimpse the messier idea as it was in progress at the time. …

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