Posts tagged Italian Avant-Garde
THEORY STUDY: GUISEPPE PENONE'S ARTE POVERA - MANIPULATED NATURE
Image courtesy of Fendi

Image courtesy of Fendi

I went to Rome for the weekend after visiting some factories in Italy recently. Although extremely beautiful, being alone in Rome was fairly boring except my time at the Fendi HQ on the outskirts of town. Unbeknownst to me, Fendi actually plays a big role in modern Rome, having paid to restore the Trevi Fountain and taking up headquarters in a building Romans call the 'Square Coliseum.' Locals call the building this because of its classical Roman arches in an otherwise modern rectangular buildingThe building formally known as the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana was commissioned by Mussolini, and is a bit of a controversial building on its own given its fascist origins. Designed by architects Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula and Mario Romano, the travertine marble building was intended to be the centerpiece of Mussolini's new Roman empire, but was abandoned after WWII. The building was essentially in disrepair until Fendi took on restoring it in 2015.

Being so bored in Rome got my wheels turning, "what else is there in this great city besides tourist attractions that I can do without knowing any locals? And then it hit me that some Arte Povera artists lived and worked in Rome! After asking around for anything Arte Povera, I was instructed to go to the Fendi HQ to both see the amazingly rehabilitated building and to see Guiseppe Penone's exhibition that is on display on the ground floor of the building.

A long cab ride into what appeared to be 'normal Rome,' ie not touristy or super-duper old, and probably where a majority of Romans live, I reached the monumental building. It seemed like it was five stories in the air, just on the ground level. I entered through the marble stairs and was greeted by one of Penone's trees.

Image courtesy of Fendi

Image courtesy of Fendi

Having recently moved to New York, I actually thought the tree was just a sad winter tree like so many I see in my city, but upon closer inspection, I realized that there were metal pipes and sculptural elements in the 'tree.' Admittedly, my heart raced a little faster once I realized I was looking at Penone's work. There's something so exciting about experiencing something in real life that was once only experienced through the internet.

In the main foyer of the building, I entered the exhibition area where I was immediately confronted by Penone's Soffio di Foglie, or 'Breath of Leaves.' The current exhibition at Fendi is just a recreation of Penone's original, but I presumed that the impression of the human body in the pile of myrtle leaves was created by Penone. My mind went to the images I had seen of his body on the leaves in 1979. I missed that moment in time, but the pile here in 2017 excited me. (Funny how a pile of leaves can do that).

Arte Povera, the genre to which Penone's work belongs, literally means poor art. It is exclusively Italian, and a reaction to the high production and high price ticket art of the post-modern era. Using common objects (such as leaves and trees in Penone's case), Italian artists worked to both criticize contemporary art and to create a new genre. 

You can see a brief essay I wrote on Arte Povera here.

Observing Penone's work in such an environment was paradoxical to me, and after I looked at the pile of leaves for a while, I burst out in laughter (thank goodness I was the one of two others visiting at the time). Being in a Mousollini commissioned building that is now operated by luxury brand Fendi is the antithesis of 'povera.' The whole thing seemed ridiculous to me for a moment, but I suppose since arte povera's conception, a gallery setting in and of itself undermines the driving force behind the artwork. And I think that's ok because no matter what the reason it's being made, art really should be for the people, and the first step to getting it there is for it to exhibit in a gallery. Plus artists deserve to have their work exhibited in a respectable place.

Fortunately, the Fendi exhibition was free to enter, so I let my mental tangent stop there. Beyond 'Breath of Leaves' were sculptures of tree forms, holding what looks like pieces of Roman ruins. Penone often examines the tension between humanity and nature, and these pieces fit very well with my experience of Rome where ruins would literally have been engulfed by nature were it not for humans actively manicuring the growth.

Below: Fendi

Below: Fendi

 
Blurry image courtesy of my iphone

Blurry image courtesy of my iphone

 

There was also a black polyptich (top left) comprised of four panels painted black with with graphite haphazardly drawn all over. As I looked at it in amazement, I also recalled a time in my life where I might have thought, "I could have made this." The drawing was seemingly aimless, representing some kind of scales on an animal or maybe the surface of a water worn rock, with solid painted boards that take no real skill. But nowadays I understand that I couldn't have made it, one because I wouldn't have thought of it (most importantly), and two, I didn't make it, Penone did, and if I had used the same materials and had the same objective, my work would have resulted in something completely different.

At the time when Arte Povera was first exhibited, it is said that many critics didn't consider it art. A pile of rocks, sticks and other natural objects especially repulsed lovers of so-called high art, where there tended to be a preference for modern materials such as lucite, acrylic and plaster in sculptures, which is exactly why I look to Arte Povera so often.

Fashion is so overtly made by people of privilege, and it reinforces class structures just by virtue of its cost, and though Bagtazo may not use as common of materials as Arte Povera artists did/do, I like to think of my entire brand mission to be a big 'fuck you' to the mainstream fashion world, so thanks for reading along as I explore my heroes.

Beyond the first section of the exhibition, I found a sparse forest of pillars and a felled Penone tree. I really enjoyed this section, as it seemed to be created for the space. The wood-like glossy stone floors and the stark white gallery walls coordinated with the real wood with rich color variation, made to sit on pillars or plaster looking bases made me feel like I was in a reverse-city setting. Usually human manipulated natural materials creates at least a village-like if not urban environment, but in this case, the natural objects were manipulated to create a man-made natural environment.

Another blurry shot from my iphone

Another blurry shot from my iphone

In the second room, one of my favorite pieces lines the wall: Penone's series of self portraits where he made the same expression but changed out reflective contact lenses in some of them. Between my love for repetition, self portraits (not to be confused with selfies), and the subtly of the contact lenses, the photos kept my attention for close to a half hour... I basically just slowly walked past each one, stepped back, look at the series as a whole, went back to inspect each individual photo, etc.

Also, I mean, look how hot he looks:

 
Penone's self portrait (one of many in a series)

Penone's self portrait (one of many in a series)

 

Also in the center of the second room is a hollowed out tree with many broken branches. It reminded me of a canoe or for some reason, a parody of the table used in the Last Supper. 

Maybe because Penone grew up in the wooded town of Gargessio, Italy, Penone's work focuses on the connection between humanity and nature. Through this lens, he manipulates nature (much like we do as humans in general), but he keeps much of the natural integrity of his medium, which often deceives the viewer. Like when I mistakenly thought the tree outside was a sad winter tree, for example.

I'm not totally sure what he 'means' by creating any of these things, as I haven't read any interviews or know if he has ever explained his work in terms of meaning to anyone, but I do enjoy considering how keeping the integrity of the natural materials he works with makes me think and feel.

So anyway, if you're in Rome soon, I highly recommend visiting Fendi HQ.


COURTNEY CADY, © BAGTAZO 2017


BIBLIOGRAPHY

All images not credited, or clearly the artist's original work, were taken on my phone.

How to Spend it, Fendi Salutes Giuseppe Penone in a New Exhibition.

Yaetzer, Natural Affinities: Fendi Hosts First Contemporary Art Show in Rome Showcasing Works by Giuseppe Penone.

 


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DESIGN STUDY: CONCEPTUAL ARCHITECTURE, 'SUPERSTUDIO' & UTOPIA

Superstudio - "Happy Island," 1971

I've been studying architects quite a bit lately. I'm especially interested in their relationship with Utopia. It's as if each rendering is an insight into the architect's notion of perfection. People are depicted using a design... sitting on a bench having a sandwich, walking up stairs, etc. These drawings portray ideals of society as much as they portray the utility and applications design.

While I mostly design things of absolutely no utility, like an architect, I am nevertheless considering the function of everything I make as well. If one did not have to wear the things I make, my rings would be outrageous, I'm sure. And I would have produced a few of the necklaces I designed early on that require directions in order to be worn correctly. 

But what if I didn't have to consider reality or application in my designs?  

In the mid 1960s through the 1970s architects began exploring the notion of conceptual architecture by asking a similar question. By the 1960s almost everything in architecture was 'modernist' cement and steel blocks, and as a reaction to this homogeneity, some architects began rejecting the wholesale acceptance of futurity and modernism in general. 

Perhaps the first to do so, (and my favorite) is a group from Florence, Italy who called themselves Superstudio.

Superstudio formed in 1966 and began their work by creating fairly useless things made of wood, glass, steel, brick or plastic. But this work quickly was followed by a few useful objects such as tables and chairs. Despite their utility however, these objects were not intended for use as much as they were intended to be used as a means to critique consumerism and society's, "continuous drive for novelty." Blandly designed, these objects served as a rather politically charged message from Superstudio that western decadence must be put to an end.

In 1968, architecture & design magazine Domus published some of Superstudio's work (above) where people were depicted 'using' architecture in unorthodox, and perhaps even impossible ways. Considering conceptual architecture had not been formally introduced to society at the time of publication, Superstudio was asked to publish a theoretical article in Domus as a follow up that same year. The combination of the two publications is one of the finest examples of early postmodernist thought, in my opinion, and perhaps the first example of conceptual architecture.

In Superstudio's follow up article, a sort of manifesto was created where their theories were explained. Citing prior movements in architecture in three main stages known as: architecture of the monument, architecture of the image, and technomorphic architecture, Superstudio's manifesto titled, "Superstudio: Projects and Thoughts," simultaneously rejected futurism and historical revival, arguing for an all-together new approach to architecture they called, architecture of reason.

Just read this amazingly postmodern excerpt:

The increase in the speed of reading (transport as a factor in spatial velocity, consumerism as a factor in temporal velocity), and the increase in social mobility, call for architecture that can take stock of the situation moment by moment... To bear witness becomes working in history, with history and for history.

Today we are all "intellectuals" or cultivated. Everything seems charged with reference and recall. The primitives of modern architecture – the Bauhaus, the 1920s – are the first models for the operation, initiators of the key cultural position that we are interested in continuing. Not "revival" but "survival" – permanence, that is, of vital reason.

We begin anew from the art of building, from the economy of materials, from the reasons for construction and from the meanings of a building. Reason has reaffirmed its place, accounting for itself.

I'm such a nerd, I get super excited reading that. Perhaps because what they are saying is still valid today. Everyone is not only cultured now, but they're also photographers, filmmakers, critics and everything else outside of science and medicine that was once preserved for specialists. And consumerism is likely worse now than it was in the 1970s. With webstores at anyone's fingertips, people can both create and patron a sales platform without much capital. Plus we've all accepted personal advertising through social media, and originality in idea or design is pretty hard to come by. So yes, Superstudio, yes! Let's PLEASE design from reason rather than novelty. (I'm looking at you 14k emoji face earring studs)...

But I digress... Having established a cannon of ideas, Superstudio began exploring what they called, "negative utopias," eventually publishing a series of works in 1969 known as Il Monumento Continuo (or Continuous Monument). 

This series, (above) was a direct attack on the dull nature of modern architecture in the 1960s. As steel and concrete boxes began to overrun cities, erasing historic culture, Superstudio saw a need to make fun of the possible outcomes of an unchecked modernist society. And while these warnings were clearly humorous, they were equally effective in making their point. 

Continuing in this vein, Superstudio moved on to form an "anti-design" campaign in 1970, beginning with their series, Quaderna (above). Designed using severe, geometric forms made of plastic laminate normally found in provincial Italian towns, Quaderna was a comment on the excesses of pop design of the time. Applying similar aesthetics as Continuous Monument, both works served as a critique of global modern design, suggesting that the outcome of sparse, functional spaces results in sterile environments, "free of local color and individual expression." In both works, Superstudio is essentially suggesting that, "everything could be replaced by the continuous, global grid."

But of course this is simply satire, because though much of their work appears utopic and rather surreal; and while most of the objects present in their collages are actually modern and beautiful, there is a bleak undertone of sterility that suggests modern, man-made objects have the ability to take over nature and humanity in adverse ways. 

Excerpts from "12 Ideal Cities," 1971

Disillusioned with modern society, global culture and consumerism, Superstudio continued their work in the 1970s mostly with collage. Partly due to the economic decline and scarcity of resources in post-war Italy, but more importantly as a result of their critique of society, Superstudio created a corpus of work without creating objects. 

In 1972, a series of collages were made with a grid motif. In the collages there is a theme between nature and humanity, which are juxtaposed with man-made elements such as modern architecture and consumer goods. The grid motif, used again by Superstudio, this time is meant to represent not only man's need to organize and categorize, but it is also used as symbol of 'democracy,' as all points of the grid are considered equal. In this series, the grid is known as the 'superstructure,' furthering the discussion started with Continuous Monument.

Much of these collages were put into a film, Supersurface - An alternative model for life on the Earth, in 1972. In the film, Superstudio's theories are reiterated, but the film furthers their discussion by proposing life "without three dimensional structures as a basis." Again, this is satirical, but the message serves as a warning against hyper-modernity and homogeneity.

This film was the first of five films in a series, Fundamental Acts. In Fundamental Acts, each piece was dedicated to what they called "primary acts in human life," namely: Life, Education, Ceremony, Love, and Death. Supersurface was made to correspond with the first act: life.

The five stories in Fundamental Acts were used as, "philosophical and anthropological reconstruction of architecture" and first appeared as text, images and storyboard in Casabella magazine between 1972 and 1973. The purpose of creating these films for Superstudio was to "explore a propaganda of ideas, beyond the typical channels of the discipline of architecture."

Currently, only two pieces of the five films are available to the public, both of which I find poignant and hilarious. (The second is my favorite of the two).

Click on thumbnail below to open a new tab for 'Supersurface.' PLEASE watch it in its entirety... Also the article below the video is worth reading. (After you're done reading this, of course).

Click on thumbnail below to open a new tab for 'Cerimonia.' Trust me, it's really good.

 

 

After their films, it is unclear what exactly Superstudio was up to, because there's not much else about their work post-1973. I do know that the group dismembered in 1978, though each member continued their work as architects (or architecture theorists, at least) afterwards.

Since Superstudio's work was politically charged, and like most maturing adults, the radical politics of our youth tend to appear extreme, unnecessary and maybe even completely incorrect later in life, it is understandable that the group could not continue working together under such circumstances forever. (Abandoning their political views is cited as a major reason for their dismembering, btw). Regardless, Superstudio's contribution to conceptual architecture and conceptual art in general was massive. I likewise think that their critique on society was needed then, and could stand to be heard again today.


Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo 2016