Thursday, 3 September 2015

Beautiful Boxes: Food for Your Eyes, 1

Things discussed: Triennale; Arts&Foods; Expo 2015; Impractical Furniture; 3-D Encyclopedias; Dioramas; Liver Cleavers; Houses of Better Days.

Special/Expo 2015
written by f

In the course its three "acts", Arts&Foods lets you see atomic shelters and space pods, avant-garde kitchens and bourgeois dining rooms, cocktail bars and wildly impractical furniture; a fully built temporary house; model cargo ships from a bygone era; tiny people buying tiny groceries and even tinier people tormented in a McDonald's hell; huts made of bread, and couches made of bread, and igloos, also made of bread. And giant hot dogs having a nap by the campfire. 

But this is not a silly exhibition: it's playful, mostly, but never frivolous. This is one of its strongest features. And with all its immense quantity of material on display, with one small but very annoying exception, it is always clear.

Arts&Foods is one of the two beautiful exhibitions in the already beautiful Triennale venue in Milan. The other is called Cucine&Ultracorpi (Kitchens&Invaders in EnglishI'll come back to the difference in naming in the dedicated post.)


With Arts&Foods dubbed "The only Expo Milano 2015 pavilion in the City", both Triennale exhibits were made on occasion of, and in collaboration with, Expo 2015. And they share the larger theme of food: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life (Expo's official title.)

Both Arts&Foods and Kitchens&Invaders provide a view of the general theme as seen through art and design. But have largely different concepts and aims.

Arts&Foods is composed from hundreds of piecesranging from one entire and fully furnished house to the tiny coffee spoongathered from museums and private collections the world over; it has a loose chronological pace, and at times is both archival and anthropological in taste. After all, the subtitle is "Rituals since 1851". 

With Cucine&Ultracorpi/Kitchens&Invaders we have in a sense the exact reverse: it is conceptual in nature and made entirely from the Triennale Design Museum permanent collection, which is a celebration of Italian design.

In fact, the Triennale Design Museum has the habit of displaying its collection in such a fashion: thematic rides through objects and installations chosen from pieces that are already there.

Both share the same curator and mastermind in Germano Celant and are complementary in essence, with a maximalist and didactic approach in the first, and a minimalist and meditative one in the second. I will talk at length about Kitchens&Invaders in a later post. Let's concentrate on Arts&Foods for now. 

As anticipated, the exhibition unrolls in three sections and on the whole is a result of a curatorial choice of great quality, great strength, even if not always of great beauty.

One of its weaknesses is soon evident in the first room of the first section: the captions are very small, usually printed on transparent stickers (which is annoying in the case of vitrines) and, at least in one case, completely useless.

I'm thinking of the unnerving case of the Fijian and New Caledonian cannibal forks and the liver cleavers from New Zealand—objects with names such as Ai cula ni bokola, Iculanibokola, and Wahaika. All from the late 1800s.

The latter especially are wonderful wooden axe-knives with intricated carvings, with a haunting quality to them.

They are right in front of the Dada and Post-Dada display, the one with Duchamp's Boîte en-valise and Meret Oppenheim's homage to Duchamp. It is natural to mistake them for Western contemporary art, and the choice plays on such ambiguity and expectations.

The pairing may be clever, but the near-absence of captions and labels makes it stupidly obscure. The reason why I know what these objects are, how they're called, where and when they are from, is because I bought the catalogue. 

The catalogue, unlike the labels, is great in that it organizes the material into informed and informative essays. Along with the Kitchens&Invaders one, it will have a post of its own.

In the exhibition itself, you can find the labels right at knee-level, on the side, like an afterthought. This oversight
or worse if it's a conscious decisionmakes for a very dull, uninspired display.

As annoying as this is, it is an incident in an otherwise very positive experience. It is also true that whenever I visit an exhibition, particularly such a large-scale one, I'm always ready to be disappointed. The occasions weren't far afield in this one either. But only at the very beginning.

When so much in the actual Expo pavilions is based on promotion and interaction, the Triennale exhibitions are a meditation on that promotion and that interaction: their meaning, their unfolding, their directions. 

Of the three sections of Arts&Foods, this first one is the more serious in nature. And is the one that suffers most under the weight of the material, such that it doesn't quite seem geared up for what it's set out to do.

The very first thing that one sees entering the exhibition is that it combines two contemporary obsessions: food and archives. As we walk on, it does it better and better and becomes more relaxed and more interesting. But at the very beginning the objects look crammed or scattered at random.

The problem may well be the overwhelming amount of stuff on display. That is usually the difference between a temporary exhibition and a permanent one. And this is what the first section of Arts&Foods has set out do be: a museum.

The Museum is a 3-D encyclopedia we can browse through following one thematic thread at a time, or just wiki’ing about with no particular order. 

Temporary exhibits on the other hand are usually smaller and more focused; monographic ones on this scale are more the stuff of National Museums. The "food" and "rituals" themes of Arts&Foods are wide-ranging, far-reaching ones. 

It is unusual, in Italy at least, to visit a temporary exhibition of these scale and ambition.

It wasn't in the past, at least in Northern Italy. Institutions like Palazzo Grassi in Venice or Palazzo Reale in Milan were once famous for hosting such breakthroughs as I Fenici (The Phoenicians), in 1988; I Greci in Occidente (The Greeks in the West) in 1996; I Maya, in 1998; Gli Etruschi (The Etruscans) in 2001; I Faraoni (The Pharaohs) in 2002-2003; Roma e i Barbari (Rome and the Barbarians) in 2008, in Venice. And Iside. Il mistero. Il mito. La magia. (Isis. The Mystery. The Myth. The Magic) in 1997 and Hokusai. Il vecchio pazzo per la pittura (Hokusai. The Old Man Mad About Painting) in 1999-2000, in Milan. And so on. 

Huge, complex international efforts to put together hundreds or thousands of pieces from around the world, with painstaking scientific accuracy and in-depth historical research. These exhibitions contributed to the advancement of knowledge in their respective subjects, and offered insight into forgotten or little-known cultures to the general public.

Today Palazzo Reale has been dulled down and effectively crippled, chopped off into four or fiveI don’t even care to checksmaller exhibition spaces, each usually hosting a generic show of little substance and mainstream appeal. Easy money seems to be what they're after. 

Palazzo Grassi holds on to its signature quality, but is now completely dedicated to contemporary art, showcasing highlights from the collection of its owner, François Pinault.

The Triennale is famous for large scale retrospectives of contemporary artists, such as the very beautiful and very successful The Andy Warhol Show, The Jean-Michel Basquiat Show, The Keith Haring Show. The space is huge, and it tends to be used for huge events. But a retrospective is an essay, not an encyclopedia.

Arts&Foods has this double nature of art exhibition and museum. Dealing with such scale and size on a curatorial level, you are forced to make your own choices as visitor.

I decided to follow fully realized spaces rather than single objects. And the most interesting progression to me was what I'd call a political one.

Having a didactic attitude, this first part offers a look at society at its micro- or nuclear level: the dining room, the dinner table; and at middle- or social level: the butcher's shop, the cocktail bar, and so on.

Almost immediately, there is a diorama quality to some of the displays, and these near-dioramas are built with a strong sociological and anthropological eye.

Incidentally, when an actual diorama comes into play, it's model ships on a sea of silk. One of the strangest things from a visitor's point of view. 

You first peer into it through a strip-window on the wall, not knowing what to make of it, and finally see it in full sparkle once you walk round the corner.

Beyond this and encompassing or trying to encompass it all, there is a macro- or political level. 

This is when this first part is at its strongest: when it shows how new technologies, new radical production techniques, and behavioral instructions are imposed from aboveor fail to do so.

And this can take two basic forms, both aimed at a deep rationalization and standardization of everyday living: the ideological anxieties of Le Corbusier and other radical designers of the early XX century, on one hand; and the economic planning and large scale marketing strategies to promote (impose) the use of new technologies, on the other.

The former failed in itself but cast a long shadow on the strategies adopted by the latter.

And here lie the highlights of this first section: a full house complete with furniture and appliances. It's La Maison des Jours Meilleurs designed in the 1950s by the French architect Jean Prouvé, who was then specializing in emergency shelters. I quote from the label:

The "House of Better Days" [wasdesigned in response to an appeal by Abbé Pierre, founder of the Emmaus movement for assistance to the poor and homeless.
The structure had an area of 57 square meters [about 614 sq. ft.], was able to accomodate a family of four-six people and could be mounted by two people in just seven hours. Organized around the kitchen, opening completely onto the living room, it had functional furniture designed by Prouvé himself.

Projects of this kindtemporary homes, emergency sheltersare more common and more urgent now than ever before: refugee camps, migrant camps, disaster relief areas and so on. 

Arts&Foods only hints at them with La Maison des Jours Meilleurs, and it does it rooted in its historical perspective. 

This is not, in other words, the "hot" topic emerging from this exhibition: the standardization of everyday living is. 

What's literally missing but is the ideal
and factualpoint of arrival of all this is where we are now: the Ikea home.

(This is the first of five posts dedicated to my visit to the Triennale in Milan. The first three will be dealing, respectively, with the first, the second and the third section of Arts&Foods; the fourth post will be about Cucine&Ultracorpi/Kitchens&Invaders; lastly, the fifth will be taking a look and a read-through of the catalogues of the two exhibitions.)

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