Abandoned machinery that “speaks” to us and tells us it would like to start working again. Fragments of failed and closed factories that, like disiecta membra scattered along the Boot, stage the fall of the so-called Italian “miracle”. Images of industrial warehouses, the same in Ragusa as in Cremona, which, like a Via Crucis, document the standardisation of the urban and rural landscape of that industrial adventure that ended badly for our country. Though leaving us the legacy of the environmental impairment of its land. One breathes the spirit of Greek tragedy, as the artist Gian Maria Tosatti and curator Eugenio Viola, by now an inseparable pair, say in the Italy Pavilion presented at the 2022 Art Biennale, in the large spaces of the Tese delle Vergini at the Arsenale, promoted by the Direzione Generale Creatività Contemporanea of the Ministero della Cultura, whose General Director is the Commissioner of the Italy Pavilion, Onofrio Cutaia, and produced also thanks to the main sponsors Valentino and Sanlorenzo. For the first time they have been entrusted to a single artist, Tosatti, who here develops his narrative, materialising the ghosts that have accompanied him for some time (“they are with me every day”, he observes) and which are in large part also ours. “Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete” (Story of the Night and Fate of the Comets) is the evocative and metaphorical title of this story, which refers to an uncertain and meta-pandemic present and illustrates with poetic realism the parabola of the rise and fall of what was once enthusiastically referred to as the Italian “miracle”. “I suggested the title myself”, explains Tosatti, “but Eugenio thought it was too long. “I generally like ‘short-sharp’, one-word titles”, specifies Viola. “The evening before the presentation of the project, we found ourselves having to decide”, says Tosatti, “and at that point Eugenio said to me: “The title is what you suggested”. Because in this case a narrative, evocative title was necessary to recount the rise and fall of Italy’s industrial dream. “The story of a nation”, observe Viola and Tosatti, “that has experienced extraordinary economic growth, unfortunately indifferent to the needs of the land. A country rich in contradictions, diversity and highly complex regional specificities. We asked ourselves how, in the light of current scenarios, we could go back to thinking about the environment, and what kind of public debate was possible on the urban landscape and sustainable ecologies, and finally what role art could play in building a better world in the aftermath of the crisis”.
A path that, once again, Tosatti and Viola take together. “Gian Maria and I are fellow travellers, observes Eugenio Viola. His mastery of space, which also comes from the ‘original sin’ of theatre, is connected to the poetics of performance and the tradition of the environment that are very close to my curatorial research. There are many points of contact between my research and his artistic practice, because we are both supported by a solid theoretical approach and we both see our projects as a continuum. I consider all my projects as a constantly forming novel in pictures and the chapter we are about to open is probably the most important one of our career.”
Tosatti has “built” a single, large, intermedial installation, with a theatrical syntax, as is in his heartstrings, which includes a prologue and two acts and blends a plurality of languages along the way (in which visitors will be invited to participate): from literary references to visual arts, from theatre to music and performance. With some tutelary deities, such as the last Pasolini, that of Petrolio. But, above all, that of the article published on 1 February 1975 in the Corriere della Sera, “Il vuoto di potere in Italia”, in which he wrote provocatively: “I would give the whole of Montedison for a firefly”. The “Storia della Notte” is the first part of the installation and visually describes the rise and fall of the “Italian miracle”. The second part, strongly influenced by the spirit of Pasolini, is the “Destino delle Comete”, which draws its consequences in a melancholic atmosphere. However, it leaves an open ending tinged with hope. In addition to Pasolini, the literary references are, amongst others, to Ermanno Rea’s La dismissione, linked to the dismantling of Ilva in Bagnoli. And, remaining in Veneto, to Andrea Zanzotto himself, who in an aphorism stated: “In questo progresso scorsoio / non so se vengo ingoiato / o se ingoio” (In this racing progress / I don’t know if I am devoured / or I devour). The first act, the “Storia della Notte”, “metaphorically retraces the rise and fall of the Italian industrial dream and prepares for the final vision, the “Destino delle Comete”, a palingenetic and cathartic vision, which nevertheless offers a proactive look at the present”, Viola and Tosatti explain. Because it is not a “trial” of the postwar industrial system and the final judgement, even in today’s difficult environmental and social context, is not apocalyptic. Gian Maria Tosatti goes on to explain: “Having left this dream of blissful development in which many sincerely believed, we now look at ourselves in the mirror and find ourselves ugly, perhaps hideous, but it is from an awareness of the collapse, also environmental, into which we have fallen that we can find the impetus to change. “Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine has also interrupted that ongoing attempt to change the energy development model, to make it more economically sustainable. We have gone back to coal and oil. On the other hand, wars and environmental disasters are always linked. The spirit of Greek tragedy that pervades this work also stems from my conviction that it is not pessimistic compared to what is normally attributed to it. It is precisely from the vision of it, from the awareness of the dramatic nature of events that, in the end, the will to change can arise, and man himself must do this. Because even the optimistic note that ends the narrative stems precisely from confidence in our ability to renew ourselves in the face of an ancient but just and severe nature, which confronts us with our responsibilities: change or sink”. “But optimism remains a necessity, we cannot do without it”. Viola concludes.
Tosatti’s work on the Italian Pavilion was, as he puts it, a “Grand Tour” through the relics of post-economic miracle industrial Italy rather than through the places of art, as the scions of European aristocracy did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “There were also enlightened entrepreneurs in our postwar period”, says Viola, “such as Adriano Olivetti and Achille Maramotti, who knew how to combine industrial development with the wellbeing of their employees, respect for the environment and love of culture, giving something back to society”. “Or cases like that of the Florentine engineer Luigi Conti Vecchi”, adds Tosatti, “who in the early 1920s managed to transform the malarial swampland of the Cagliari pond into a colossal salt works by reclaiming it. It was a state-of-the-art industrial plant that employed over a thousand people and around which a village was built, with after-work and recreational facilities, where the families of owners, managers and workers lived together, with their children going to the same nursery school and free meals in the canteen. It is an industrial reality that still exists and has now also become a naturalistic oasis. But on my trip around Italy I also met the plant manager of Bergamo, once an advanced industrial area, who said to me: “There are only two production plants left here, all the rest is logistics”. And over everything hovers the spirit of that “Lucifer” who was also the third stage of the “Sette Stagioni dello Spirito” project that Tosatti, always with Eugenio Viola at his side, conducted in 2015 in Naples, which has become this Roman’s adopted city. And who he also mentions several times today. A Lucifer, investigated by the artist linking religion, history, linguistics and philosophy, who can in some way be a beneficial figure, because the encounter with him can give a turning point to our existence. In this case, choosing the difficult path of environmental sustainability, or giving in to the temptation of leaving everything as it is and sinking into the lost Italy of the post-industrial era. Because Tosatti deeply believes in roots, our roots, on which an artist must necessarily draw to express himself. “There is nothing that irritates me more than the claimed originality of a work of art”, he explains. “If an artist claims to have original ideas, they are probably not good ideas. All ideas have roots and our job is to keep them well cleaned so they can germinate and develop. Ours are deep, I am thinking for example of the influence on me of an artist like Caravaggio, of the paintings in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, which as a child I went to see almost every day, accompanied by my mother. An Italian artist cannot but be enriched and influenced by the extraordinary artistic heritage of our country. In the United States, where I also lived for several years, it is more difficult to develop as an artist, because from what we see around us, in such a young nation with no history behind it, the stimuli that arrive are relative. The Italy Pavilion is also conceived as a continuous forum, in presence and online, thanks to a programme of scientific-promotional meetings that, for the entire duration of the Biennale, will bring together professionals and experts in the ecological and environmental sector and leaders from the world of culture on the subjects dealt with by the exhibition. The programme of conferences will expand from Venice to the rest of the world, thanks to the involvement of several international institutions that will host debates on the subjects addressed by the Pavilion, genuine embassies of “Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete” abroad. All the topics dealt with, the ideas emerging and the reflections developed will be collected on a website, which will always be available to anyone wishing to continue research into alternative models of life and development. At the same time, a corpus of audio-visual documents of the work will be produced, from its realisation to its public presentation.
The Pavilion catalogue, published by Treccani, is a dialogue between Gian Maria Tosatti and Eugenio Viola. Edited by Viola himself, who also wrote the introductory text in which he traces the genesis of Tosatti’s work, contextualising it in the artist’s career, the book includes institutional pieces and is accompanied by a tribute to Mimmo Jodice, accompanied by a series of photos taken in the early 1970s denouncing industrial decline in the South. Finally, there is also Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Firefly article”, which was one of the “drivers” behind Tosatti’s work for the Italy Pavilion at the 2022 Art Biennale.