Enriched by poor art

Image of Peter Aspden

Arte Povera, or “poor art”, was the name given to an artistic movement of the 1960s in Italy that disdained that country’s postwar economic “miracle” and called for a more pragmatic and modest cultural response to its excesses. In sharp contrast to Pop Art, its ostentatious contemporary, Arte Povera sought to restore poetry and simplicity to art.

There was nostalgia and humility in its ambitions. “In Italy,” wrote designer Ettore Sottsass in 1964, “there is none of the hard sell that comes with Coca-Cola, no post-cowboy violence, little birth control, little use of deodorants and boules is still played.” Notwithstanding their ironic tone, the distrust of affluent modernity is palpable in those words, as is the feeling that the poor life is also the purer life.

Now, in the middle of its worst financial crisis since the second world war, Italy may need to rediscover some of those sentiments. Its young artists certainly seem ready to do so. At the 18th edition of Turin’s Artissima art fair, held at the former Fiat car plant of Lingotto, there was an appropriate feeling of restraint in the air.

Held in a city that is Italy’s most sympathetic to contemporary art, Artissima lacks the glitz of equivalent events in London, Miami or Basel. Boosted by significant contributions worth €400,000 from local public bodies, it feels a responsibility to be didactic rather than opportunistic. If you are after the latest Damien Hirst, says its softly spoken artistic director Francesco Manacorda, “this is not the place to come to. We want people to see new things, unknown things, and to learn.”

Among the special projects commissioned for this year’s fair were two that captured my attention. The first was “Back to the Future”, a section devoted to galleries offering works from the 1960s and 1970s that had been neglected and are, Manacorda thinks, ripe for reassessment. He says this rediscovery is artist-driven. Today’s young practitioners are tiring of the endless rounds of conceptual games that pass for artistic inquiry, and also of the over-commercialisation of the art world.

They turn to past works that had a more rooted relationship with the social and political context in which they were produced. The high point of radical feminism in the 1970s, for instance, produced sharp investigations of gender and identity.

The work of Lynn Hershman Leeson, nowhere near as well-known as that of her compatriot Cindy Sherman and offered by the Waldburger gallery from Brussels, chronicles the adventures of her alter-ego “Roberta” as she constructs an identity for herself – opening a bank account, looking for an apartment, and so on – before disappearing. It is a prescient look at the menacing implications of an over-intrusive social network, and feels very resonant today. Manacorda wants visitors to feel a “temporal displacement” when confronted by such anachronistic themes.

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The other remarkable project at the fair was “Artissima Lido”, an invitation to 40 underground artists’ groups from all over Italy to create interventions in the city centre. I talked to a handful of these, and was struck by the intensity of their ambitions, which sought to disrupt the way we regard our cities and, by extension, the way we live our lives. Actually selling work seemed to be the last thing on their minds.

In one abandoned space, Andrea De Stefani, a young Venetian, was solemnly constructing a thin steel cube, about the size of a small room, and draping it continuously with salted damp cloths. The aim was to subject the structure to an accelerated rusting process. In time, he explained to me, it would disintegrate.

I silently wondered whether the work was a metaphor for poor Venice, but then thought, let’s face it, it could equally have applied to Italy, the eurozone or the world economy. At its best, art has a way of ordering a recalibration of our values. Arte Povera, poor art, signalled that the ways of the rich were becoming unsustainable. Today’s anxieties are of a more complex order, and you could do worse than rummage in the side streets of one of Europe’s most elegant cities to begin to understand where we are all heading.


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