Night, Destiny and comets

Eugenio Viola and Gian Maria Tosatti present the Italian Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennial Art
by Mariachiara Marzari

For the first time the Italian Pavilion is presented by a single artist: Gian Maria Tosatti, selected by curator Eugenio Viola.

History of the Night and Destiny of the Comets: what is the genesis of your project and where did you get inspiration for this ‘enlightening’ title?
EV_The title is the result of the genesis of the process that led to the project, since I decided to involve Gian Maria in the selection of the works. It’s mainly thanks to him if we chose such an evocative title as inextricably linked to the issues we wanted to address, first of all the relationship between man and his surrounding environment, an environment that at this particular time could be defined as “metapandemic” and “pharmapornocratic”.
GMT_The title tells the story of the work itself, a large environmental installation winding through a real path within the Pavilion that essentially deals with two specific moments: on the one hand the present in relation to our way to face the past; on the other hand how we are trying to move towards the future.
When we talk about history here, we are not actually talking about the past: I believe that our work has nothing to do with the past, in the same way as the wrinkles on a person’s face do not represent his past, but his present, the result of his experiences that created the person he is today.
“History faced man” is a very interesting English expression. What does this mean? It means that all the experiences he has lived up to that moment have materialized in wrinkles giving him his present look. His face becomes a manifesto of his life, a manifesto filled up with his past, relying on his past, but at the same time an authentic, tangible expression of his present. So a part of the Pavilion deals actually with our present time, a present that at the time we started working we did not think could be the equivalent of such a pitched dark night: we believed, in fact, that we were facing at that moment the worst of our recent history, we couldn’t imagine that the tragic dimension of war could become such a topical issue. Of course we had not deluded ourselves that war didn’t exist any longer, but we believed that it was a reality concerning only those geographical areas affected by huge problems and where weapons seem to be the only tool available to struggle for survival. Obviously this doesn’t justify the wars that have been taking place for many years in those areas; I believe that war is the most senseless tool to solve problems and divergences anywhere on earth. But I certainly did not expect that such a war would break in the Western world where democracy was set up several hundred years ago. Unfortunately what has happened shows how talking about “night” was sadly appropriate.
When we were asked to create this Pavilion, I agreed with Eugenio that it was urgent to talk about the present, that is to say about “night”. As we had to focus on our present time, we couldn’t but talk about the unsustainability of our lifestyle, not only from an energy and environmental point of view, but also and above all from the point of view of our dreams which will be more and more difficult to achieve. The Pavilion we had in mind had therefore a clear political perspective, being able to address all those issues we have tried to solve so far but that today need to be tackled in a completely different way.
We have dealt with these subjects using a logical interaction, also because it was clear that we had to try to formulate, to elaborate a synthesis considering the physical limits of the exhibition space, although its size is really huge, about 2000 square meters.
Looking at the Pavilion, my thoughts go to the work I had done in Odessa in 2020, entitled My heart is empty as a mirror – Odessa episode; the two projects have in common a feeling of death hovering over them, an absence of people telling us that humanity has got to its final destination. When you visit the Pavilion you will see that it’s full of stationary machinery and that it could easily be associated with a war scenario, a war that, right now, we do not know at all where it will lead us to.
I am firmly convinced that a work is always greater than its author: when you realize a work you are convinced of doing a certain thing, but then your work absorbs by itself and for itself the consciousness of the Zeitgeist, a collective thought where the author is just an instrument to convey it.
Observing the strident emptiness of my project in Odessa, I find myself thinking about what my Ukrainian friends have been writing to me in the last few days, describing the empty factories. I read a statement by Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, in which he invited workers and entrepreneurs to stay in Ukraine and go to work, to ensure their country a bit of normality so as to prevent its full capitulation.
It’s like the sensitivity which gave life to the Pavilion had predicted the war even before it broke out, imagining its main scenarios and themes. This is the reason why I do not consider myself as the real author of my works, but rather the mouthpiece of the sensitivity that inspires them.

My heart is empty as a mirror – Odessa episode, 2020, ambient installation, site specific. Courtesy of Galleria Lia Rumma Milano/Naples

Do you think that in the light of the current facts the positive ending of the Pavilion narrative machine would need to be changed?
GMT_I would not change the end; keeping it means that in the absurdity of this situation we realize that we are listening above all to those who strongly repudiate this war. Placing ourselves in a more human than merely national perspective, we want to give voice to a humanity that can make it. We have the opportunity to retrace our steps, to correct our mistakes. And so we don’t want to change the end, absolutely not: it’s probably the truest aspect of all our story. There are pages in our history we are certainly not proud of, but they are somehow accepted anyway, confirming that mankind can always become master of his own destiny, at any time. In the past we have been capable of wonderful things and we will be so in the future.
The message of the Pavilion is precisely the following one: never give up, never be discouraged, never be disillusioned. The main problem of our generation is precisely disillusionment, which is often accompanied by the concept of cowardice. Each of us must bring out the courage to be able to take positive action, we must firmly believe that we can do it. The Pavilion speaks of this, putting us in front of a defeat, for sure, but also in front of the possibility of redeeming this same defeat by rewriting a destiny that cannot be pre-established. We are given the opportunity to change the course of our destiny every day and even several times a day.
A very recent statement by Putin’s spokesman impressed me a lot: “In our country there are those who support the President; and then there are those who deal with culture.” I believe that this sentence tells us a lot about the present times. It tells us, for example, that a country with a high level of culture is a country that snatches soldiers from the battlefield, one by one. It is a country where war is not possible and where the black pages of history have no place.
We do not live in a messianic world. The Pentecostal Spirit will not come over us to save us from this situation: if we want to get a better country we all need to make a concrete effort towards it. All people dealing with culture like us must be the first to be able to show people that there are other ways to improve our lives than physical and ideological clash.

I believe Gian Maria is a sort of ‘contemporary mystic’: his stage training has led him to fill his exhibit spaces with an emotional charge which is quite unique in the contemporary art scene, offering the visitor plenty of stimuli to be reprocessed in different ways (Eugenio Viola)

What are the living sources and essential references of the ‘intermedial’ language– art, literature, theatre, music, performance – used for the realization of your work?
EV_When we designed our Pavilion we wished to realize a fully immersive experience. Gian Maria’s work has always been characterized by a strong semantization of the spaces and of the devices he uses to concretize the spirit of his work.
The spaces of the Pavilion will recall those described in La Dismissione by Ermanno Rea (Feltrinelli, 2002), which I consider the last industrial novel of Italian literature, focused on the disposal of the factory Ilva in Bagnoli, a disposal to be understood more extensively as the demolition of a whole thinking system. By starting from a specific event like this one it is then possible to deal more widely with a problem that involves the society as a whole and the ideas that support or have supported it up to a given moment. A mental disposition, a vision I would say, that characterizes both this important novel and the project of the Pavilion, as a proof of the strong metaphorical power peculiar to art making.
Among the Pavilion different references, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s work plays a major role as it already did in the past in other works by Gian Maria, especially as far as the dystopian and oracular Pasolini is concerned. In this case the incipit was the article entitled Il vuoto del potere published in the “Corriere della Sera” on February 1, 1975, which later became famous as “The article of the fireflies”. An intellectual relationship that takes shape here in a “Ut pictura poësis” with a strong literary connotation, a main feature of Gian Maria’s artistic research and of my curatorial investigation as well.

What are the deep roots of your partnership and how do you manage to be complementary in your creative process? How would Gian Maria define the role of Eugenio’s curatorship in his work and how does Eugenio explain the choice of the artist Tosatti as the unique voice of his curatorial thought??
EV_It was a choice dictated directly by our working habit. In fact we have been working together for several years now at different levels. We met in 2011 in Rome, when I visited one of his site-specific environmental installations entitled Devotions at the Water Tower at San Camillo Hospital. His work immediately impressed me so much. I am convinced that his work has powerful significant psychoanalytic aspects, as his devices are often designed for one visitor at a time. A physical and metaphorical journey that for obvious reasons will not be possible to reproduce in our Pavilion.
I remember that when I met Gian Maria at the Professional Days in Venice I told him: “If you wish to do something in Naples, we will do it together.” He then came to visit me in Naples and we carried out this absolutely visionary project, confronting each other without ever fighting; we both have strong characters but we know each other very well and our habit to work together certainly helps us a lot. Obviously it’s not only a question of dating: at the base of our choice there is the ability of Gian Maria to transform spaces even three times larger than the Pavilion, as in the case of the exhibition Seven Seasons of the Spirit in 2016 in Naples. The biggest challenge of this project was to bring a strength and a plastic-dynamic coherence in the spaces of the Italian Pavilion: a challenge that only Gian Maria could meet and face. All ‘fault’ of his eccentric formation, of his continuous confrontation with the spaces of living. I believe Gian Maria is a sort of ‘contemporary mystic’: his stage training has led him to fill his exhibit spaces with an emotional charge which is quite unique in the contemporary art scene, offering the visitor plenty of stimuli to be reprocessed in different ways.
GMT_Although Eugenio and I, we have very different tempers I have realized over the years that we are linked by a very strong affinity both from a biographical and professional point of view. Eugenio is a very calm person, on the contrary I feel like being perpetually on a raft crossing a lava river; despite these clear differences, we share very strong tensions on an ethical, political, and obviously cultural level. We don’t consider persons like Pasolini and Ortese ‘only’ excellent narrators of Italian literature, but we look at them as witnesses of a very strong moral vocation that we fully share. These similarities, which are evident also in our artistic itinerary, have led me to get into contact with some areas in the world it would be better to stay away from and they have led Eugenio to operate in some very difficult context such as the Colombian one, as head curator of MAMBO – Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá.

It is as if we were two monks, very different in our characters but both devoted to the same religion. We have chosen to join a doctrine characterized by very strong rules which overshadow everything else. This ‘religion’ we have decided to join firmly believes that culture can be an instrument to take a concrete action in our society and in our present (Gian Maria Tosatti)

It is as if we were two monks, very different in our characters but both devoted to the same religion. We have chosen to join a doctrine characterized by very strong rules which overshadow everything else. This ‘religion’ we have decided to join firmly believes that culture can be an instrument to take a concrete action in our society and in our present. It is a constructive force which underlines the importance not of people like me, Eugenio, Pasolini or Ortese but of the ideas and tensions we can express, in our constant dialogue with the present.
When I first met Eugenio I soon realized how important this encounter was to me. We are linked by such a strong and complex relationship that I have almost stopped working with other curators. I know it’s not easy to work with me. I deal with burning issues, I propose itineraries where ‘there is no place for tourism’. I take the visitor to ‘human war zones’, I know that this expression might sound inappropriate, but I can’t find a different one right now. When you decide to go down this road, it’s because you want to help, to fight, to do something tangible, you must have the vocation to be there.
I have been doing this job for twenty years now and I realize more and more that the most important thing is not the personality but the inspiration shared by people who can be different from each other but are linked by a strong vocation, be it political, ethical or cultural.
For this reason my relationship with the curators is almost inexistent, unless this relationship turns into a collaboration with a travel companion with whom I can share a vocation that goes beyond the simple professional relationship.

Gian Maria Tosatti Padiglione Italia Biennale Venezia 2022
Gian Maria Tosatti, photo: Maddalena Tartaro

And then there’s Naples… “Don’t disunite”! suggests Antonio Capuano to Fabietto/Sorrentino in The hand of God . Which is the fundamental Neapolitan imprinting in the DNA of your Pavilion?
EV_It is certainly a Southern traction Pavilion, which is born in Naples, just like our partnership, which looks at the Neapolitan area in particular referring to Rea we were talking about before. Just as Rea starts speaking of the individual level to move on to the universal one, in the same way we start from Naples to move on to the universal to finally go back to Naples.
GMT_I am convinced that for a long time artists were asked just to be interesting and original without taking into account many other aspects influencing their personality, such as their places of origin. On the contrary, I think that an artist has strong roots, which have to confront, intertwine with other roots. History of art has always taken into consideration cities and contexts where an artist is born and develops his personality.
Some artists can be considered ‘individually’ detached from everything that surrounds them maybe because they have very difficult personal stories, but these are undoubtedly exceptions. The most important histories of art have always dealt with cities, places, relationships.
Naples was an important phase in my career, a fundamental encounter with a very strong cultural heritage. It was such an intense relationship that I finally decided to go and live there. Needless to go around: in Italy we have a city with a very strong cultural power, i.e. Milan, but we have to recognize that Naples has played a major role in the cultural production of the last generation, practically in every cultural field, both at a national and international level.
Naples is also the city where the first strong performance by Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0, took place in the Studio Morra gallery in 1974. Marina has carried out countless projects in her long journey, some of which have become in all respects “history of art”. Some pages of this history has been written in Naples thanks to some extraordinary protagonists of the contemporary scene with whom Eugenio and I collaborate, such as Giuseppe Morra of the Morra Foundation, who also supported us in the creation of this Pavilion.
Personally I have always clearly denied the idea of a supposed, aseptic originality that would characterize the profile, the work of an artist regardless of the context in which he thinks, operates and creates; the idea of a phantom artist popping out of nowhere, supported by the titanic force of his art is in my opinion a non-sense, a sort of Sturm und Drang for teenagers. For me, art is a story made up of people, communities, cities. As far as we are concerned, we are children of the history of Naples and of the twenty-first century, which in turn rests on the history of Naples in the twentieth century and goes gradually backwards to its deepest cultural and anthropological roots.
Which is the Neapolitan imprinting in our Pavilion? It’s simply the two of us because without Naples we would not be here today.
semplicemente, senza Napoli noi oggi non saremmo qui.

Storia della Notte e Destino delle Comete

Relationship between man/nature/territory/development/industry. It looks like we were reading the common destiny of two cities, Naples and Venice, whose survivals are linked to the will of the Volcano and to that of the tides. Neapolitan creativity and vitality have shown over time how permanent uncertainty can become a substantial element in managing the present, while the destiny of a place of art and art collector like Venice seems to be that of a storage of ideas generated elsewhere. How can an artistic and curatorial project introduce elements of life beyond the short existence of an exhibition? How can uncertainties become the foundations of the future?
GMT_It is no coincidence that the Venetians are called “the Neapolitans of the North”.
I believe that a state of uncertainty is strictly linked to a waking state of our consciousness. When we are satisfied, fulfilled and safe we forget everything and look no longer outside our lives, we fall asleep. In a state of uncertainty we notice everything surrounding us because we need it; in lack of certainties we realize the value of things, because we feel their precariousness, their inherent fragility, the real possibility of losing them.
Recently, talking about the theme of tragedy with the stage director Romeo Castellucci, we highlighted the role of art in bombarding certainties: it is bad to say this at a time when reality is fully overcoming art in fulfilling this role, but this confirms how art can awaken people’s conscience, more and more asleep in its own alleged certainties especially in the opulent Western world.
On this occasion our work comes into contact with the uncertainty of reality, inviting people to question all the certainties that have led us to the present situation, such as our consumption, our habits that are often harmful to the planet. These certainties sometimes may have to do with the belief that it is not so important to dialogue with other people or that it’s normal to overwhelm our fellowmen through self-referential words and attitudes.

When I first met Eugenio I soon realized how important this encounter was to me. We are linked by such a strong and complex relationship that I have almost stopped working with other curators. […] A travel companion with whom I can share a vocation that goes beyond the simple professional relationship (Gian Maria Tosatti)

How does the Italian Pavilion relate to the theme/title of Cecilia Alemani’s Biennale and how does it detect or interpret her vision of art under transformation?
EV_Ci siamo incontrati per pura coincidenza, come spesso accade. Non eravamo in contatto e non sapevamo su quali tematiche la sua ricerca curatoriale si sarebbe concentrata. Eppure si è creato un dialogo molto stringente tra l’afflato che ha dato vita al nostro Padiglione, una visione nonostante tutto ottimistica e catartica, e il nucleo tematico de Il latte dei sogni, le galassie concettuali che Cecilia Alemani ha costruito attraverso il meccanismo di mutamento, trasformazione e creazione di mondi possibili.
Ricollegandomi a quello che diceva Gian Maria, credo che un altro elemento di convergenza tra il nostro progetto e quello della mostra principale della Biennale sia la convinzione che l’arte debba fornire un punto di vista alternativo e complementare alle grandi questioni politiche e morali che ci troviamo ad attraversare in questo momento. Quando la realtà supera l’arte stessa nello scardinare le nostre certezze, ecco che immaginare dei mondi possibili e migliori diventa un atto di resistenza culturale.
Questo a sua volta si inscrive in quella che credo sia la ricerca curatoriale di Cecilia più ad ampio raggio, visto che il titolo del Padiglione Italia da lei curato nel 2017 era proprio Il mondo magico, uno dei migliori degli ultimi anni, testimonianza a sua volta di come la sua ricerca fosse già coerente con quello che quest’anno presenta in veste di curatrice dell’intera Biennale.

What is Eugenio Viola’s and Gian Maria Tosatti’s Milk of Dreams?
GMT_As far as I am concerned I believe that The Milk of Dreams is the evidence I always find in the people I meet. Traveling the world gives me the strength and inspiration to do what I consider to be the job of my dreams, the job I have chosen myself, not a profession I found by chance. A job that is not rooted in my identity, but in the truth I discover through the people I come into contact with, a truth that these people allow me to handle and to bring back within my art.
EV_As far as I am concerned The Milk of Dreams materializes in a galaxy of optimism.