The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2018

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MAR 2018 Issue

The Ghosts of Italy’s ’68

Carla Cerati, Mondo Cocktail, 1968. Silver gelatin print. Courtesy Elena Ceratti.

On View
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea
Time is Out of Joint
October 11, 2017 – April 15, 2018

Haunting the grounds of Valle Giulia, where the Galleria Nazionale sits with grandeur, is the ghost of 1968. Fifty years ago, a declaration in graffiti on a wall across from the museum read “Valle Giulia / è solo l'inizio” (“Valle Giulia / it’s just the beginning”). That same year an American bomb was also desecrated with the line “only the beginning” in chalk as it was loaded into a plane heading for Vietnam. The question that echoes through the halls of the Galleria Nazionale fifty years later is: “of what?”

On the first of March in 1968, 4,000 people marched on Valle Giulia to occupy the faculty of Architecture of the Sapienza University of Rome. They were met by police—on horses and with firearms—in what became the first major violent clash of the year. The university was just one institution that needed to be “liberated” from the tyranny of oppressive bourgeois conventions—the museum is another. 

The Galleria Nazionale, dependent until now on deeply carved historical narratives of 20th century painting and enamored with its canon, has decided to reject all its institutional decorum and pledges allegiance to the promises of ’68, among which are: the rights of workers, of women, the freedom of their self-determination, anti-institutionalism, for a new politics, a reorganization of state, of family, of religion, profession, anti-capitalism, an end to wars… Yet what do we do with this project of deep internal contradictions, as personified by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s famous stand against the student occupiers at Valle Giulia—who he accused of having the “bourgeois faces of their parents”—while as a principled Marxist he aligned with the “proletariat” police.

In conversation with this history, the show’s prelude, curated by Ester Coen, is titled, almost apologetically, “è solo un inizio. 1968” (it’s only a beginning. 1968), modifying the original syntax to isolate 1968 as a discrete point—an only—from which the exhibition flows both forward and backward. Indeed, “time is out of joint,” or rather it has been thrown out of joint quite deliberately by Cristiana Collu, the director of the museum.

Walking through the main exhibition spaces the permanent collection appears in complete chronological disorder, “punctured” with key works, primarily Italian, from 1968. Among Futurism, Spatialism, and de Chirico and Modigliani’s works of oil on canvas, for example, is Luciano Fabro’s Italia rovesciata, “Italy turned upside-town.” A map of the country in battered aluminum that gracefully traces its topography—finally unified without borders—is hanging helplessly by a thin thread looped delicately around the toe of its boot. Arte Povera pieces in carbon, iron, scorched plastic and matted burlap—Burri’s scars from the war—have been wrought with fire and violence to furnish the show with its material subconscious. The show relies on an accumulation of radical artistic gestures to permit authority to speak, as it breaches the subject of ’68 with deep, self-conscious reserve. It is the ultimate failure of the revolution of ’68, sealed with the assassination of Aldo Moro in 1978, which enables these works to exist within the museum, doomed to remain enshrined within the very walls they sought to desecrate. Recognition of this destabilizes the curators ability to look back and write a privileged, coherent narrative. And so, almost theatrically, the curators turn to Deconstruction.

Carla Cerati, Morire di classe, 1968. Silver gelatin print. Courtesy Galleria Nazionale D'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea.

These are the clues to the nature of the ghost haunting the museum: the curators see it as the reappearance of the apparition of Hamlet’s father that cues Hamlet to moan “time is out of joint.” Giuliano Ferrara, when asked to reflect on the legacy of 1968 in the show’s catalogue, also traces it back to T.S. Eliot when he decrees “in my end is my beginning.” The trauma haunting both Hamlet and Eliot is described as chronological rupture, outlining the form the museum then imitates. Hamlet’s phrase “time is out of joint”, which Derrida loved to the point of obsession, described the measureless mourning that follows death, specifically a death that continues to haunt, to return, refuses to stay dead. It gives birth to a new form of disorder—here expressed chronologically—that infects both family and state. The curators acknowledge that even as time folds back it remains enigmatic, ghostly. Even with fifty years of distance, retrospection only generates greater uncertainty, magnifying the internal contradictions of that moment. Robert McNamara, in Fog of War, also quotes T.S. Eliot as he looks back to that year. He is teary-eyed and waxes apologetic as he recites “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”

The ultimate dissonance and ruptures of Italy’s 1968 are most convincingly represented by Carla Cerati. Hanging alongside photos by Diane Arbus, Cerati’s mosaic of social-realist photographs spans worlds of seemingly incompatible resistance and institutional hegemony: performances by The Living Theatre company dedicated to political protest through Artaudian cruelty, the decadent milieu of high-brow Milanese cocktail parties, and the patients of the asylum at Gorizia before it was “liberated.”

Carla Cerati met Judith Malina and Julian Beck of The Living Theatre in Europe after they had been essentially persecuted and arrested by the state for their production of The Brig and its overt criticism of the U.S. Marine Corps—mocking its sadistic torture mechanisms and worship of authority. When the police stormed the gates of the theater, calling for the arrest of Malina and Beck under the pretense of tax evasion, the two actors locked themselves inside the prison on stage. It was from this symbolic prison—where the crime of too much realness was committed—that they were dragged into the real prison. Cerati photographs them performing “Paradise Now,” a euphoric, unscripted, tempestuous call to break social taboos: to dance naked, incite revolution, to scream loud and deep. In Milan Cerati saw the Fellini-esque decadence and eccentricity of socialities riding the post-war economic boom. This is the “Milano da bere,” [Milan to drink] before its wealth and excess became synonymous with political corruption through the “Mani Pulite” (“Clean Hands”) investigations of the early ’90s. And Cerati was also taking portraits of patients in Gorizia, the site of the famous experiment in collective psychiatry by Franco Basaglia, whose methodology and tireless activism led to the closing of asylums in Italy in 1978. The asylum was another of the “total institutions” that needed to be liberated from the repression of political authority that sanctioned forms of abuse, neglect, and Basaglia’s famous admonishment—“death because of class.” [“morire di classe”]

Galleria Nazionale makes the case for a museum that contains temporal multiplicities and can accommodate internal contradictions. It ultimately invokes the optimistic spirit of the student demonstrators in the face of trauma. Collu urges us to have “urgency, an incorruptible desire, to be in love and furious, to be young” [“un’urgenza, un desiderio inossidabile, occorre essere innamorati e furiosi, occorre essere giovani.”] And maybe even Pasolini would agree, that the museum is ripe for its liberation, but then again: “how young we must be to believe it possible.” [“quanto bisogna essere giovani per crederlo.”]


Michela Moscufo

Michela Moscufo is the Development Associate at the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2018

All Issues