Let’s start by saying that one does not often happen to find oneself in the right place at the right time. Especially in art, the visitor often lives that condition of inadequacy, between someone who seems to have arrived a moment after what has happened and someone who looks at a work that deals with a theme in a forward-looking manner the moment before it happens.
However, this feeling of a perfect cosmos can be fully experienced with a visit to the exhibition The Restless Earth at the Triennale di Milano, organized by the Nicola Trussardi Foundation, which for many years has been highly focused on identifying social issues that can make art accessible even to those who do not live it every day, introducing or addressing topics that are sometimes uncomfortable and dangerous. It is topics like these that Massimiliano Gioni, the curator of the show, decided to openly address with a project titled after a collection of poems by the French Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant, who has always lived westernization in his own skin.
The show presents the condition of refugees (or of those who want to become refugees) through the vision of about 60 artists, many of them of African origin and many of them Westerners. These artists have, over time, tried to put themselves in the shoes of 16 million people who challenge nature every day in search of a life better than that which their home country has offered them.
The entire project exposes, in a precise and sometimes even shameless way, a theme that would risk being taken as affectation of these times. However, it admirably bypasses this obstacle with a rhythm and meter that, room after room, almost astonishes us.
The exhibition speaks of physical, tangible borders, but also of invisible, mental limits.
There is a full selection of works alternating with documents, photographs, and archives provided by institutions (such as Comitato 3 Ottobre) that offer the viewer the possibility of seeing not only the traditional materials belonging to an art museum but also spine-chilling materials in the shape of objects, documents, and personal belongings of those who did not survive the crossing. For the first time, these objects are shown to the public exactly as they were found. They are like works of art worth tens of thousands of euros on a blurred border between fiction and reality – inside display cases as war memorabilia or ornaments of bygone eras, on immaculate walls or in rooms revisited for the occasion.
In this manner, a diary with personal notes in Arabic, a cell phone covered with salt, and a lost passport come into contact with the reflections of artists who come from the same countries as the victims did, and who, for years, expressed their feelings through a less formal language – such as painting, video, and sculpture.
It has been a long time since an exhibition imparted such excessive power to contemporary art. Works that could appear frail in another context are here emphasized as if they were specially produced for the occasion.
The success of The Restless Earth lies above all in its offering a unique journey that keeps unfolding in the next days, when images of works mixed up with survivor interviews and archive photographs continue to resurface.
Images become even stronger when, once the viewer leaves the museum and is confronted with hundreds of current news reports, reality magically refers to the artwork.
If the success of a work of art is that of setting the artist apart from the viewer, as a real witness of social changes in our history, I recommend everyone visit this show. As happened in the Renaissance or through the works of the ‘60s the show tells the story to those who have not experienced it first hand, and for that reason it must be visited.
An oversized planisphere by Alighiero Boetti finds a new strength right after one of the most agonizing works of the show –The Mapping Journey Project by Bouchra Khalili. Through the use of other maps that appear as dreamlike constellations, this work tells the real journey of some refugees. It is a work that touches the hearts of those who enter the room and that, according to the artist herself, is still in progress, or – alas – in a state of continuous updating.
“In the face of dramatic events and social and political transformations,” says Massimiliano Gioni, “the artist can pursue reality with, however, images that are themselves migrant, oblique, fragile, and fragmentary. The exhibition analyzes the crisis of globalization, the relationship between people and borders, and does so with a lyrical approach that shows an idea of truth as a multiplicity of narratives and points of view.”
Artists: Adel Abdessemed, John Akomfrah, Pawel Althamer, Francis Alÿs, El Anatsui, Ziad Antar, Kader Attia, Brendan Bannon, Yto Barrada, John Berger and Jean Mohr, Alighiero Boetti, Anna Boghiguian, Andrea Bowers, Tania Bruguera, Banu Cennetoğlu and Nihan Somay in collaboration with UNITED for Intercultural Action, Phil Collins, Comitato 3 Ottobre, Constant, Thierry De Cordier, La Domenica del Corriere, Forensic Oceanography / Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, Meschac Gaba, Charles Gaines and Ashley Hunt for Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, Giuseppe “Pinot” Gallizio, Rokni Haerizadeh, Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, Manaf Halbouni, Mona Hatoum, Lewis Wickes Hine, Thomas Hirschhorn, Wafa Hourani, Pravdoliub Ivanov, Khaled Jarrar, Isaac Julien, Hiwa K, Yasmine Kabir, Šejla Kamerić, Bouchra Khalili, Runo Lagomarsino, Dorothea Lange, Zoe Leonard, Glenn Ligon, Liu Xiaodong, Ahmed Mater, Steve McQueen, Aris Messinis, multiplicity, Paulo Nazareth, Adrian Paci, Maria Papadimitriou, 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography (Daniel Etter, Tyler Hicks, Mauricio Lima, Sergey Ponomarev), Marwan Rechmaoui, Hrair Sarkissian, Thomas Schütte, Hassan Sharif, Augustus Sherman, Xaviera Simmons, Mounira Al Solh, Hamid Sulaiman, Rayyane Tabet, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Wolfgang Tillmans, Andra Ursuta, Danh Võ, Henk Wildschut, Zarina.