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If Tomorrow Is Fragile
An Exhibition on the Future at the Baths of Diocletian

Daniele Di Girolamo, Inerte, 2015, video, 1’17”, loop, courtesy the artist

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

The younger generations have always been asked to imagine tomorrow. Where the fatigue of a life already partly lived leads to an individual retreat of one’s expectations, the vision of what the future has in store for the community seems, by necessity, the prerogative of a fresh look – a more confident one, perhaps the product of a dream, and ideally prophetic.

What the future holds for us is the fundamental question that echoes through in the collective exhibition Dopodomani, organised by the Quadriennale di Romaon the grounds of the Baths of Diocletian to mark the first edition of its festival Quorum. It is difficult to say what the answers might be. But it is possible to put forward some considerations, relating to the selection of works and artists invited on this occasion, to highlight the possible lines of research that attempt to anticipate the moods of the time to come.

Firstly, the exhibition venue, the Baths of Diocletian, inevitably draws comparisons with the presence of the past and with archeology: although in a fragmented state, these structures are still able to transmit grandeur and monumentality. They do so as a form of celebration of the present in which they were conceived and created, but above all as a projection into the future which we inhabit today. Embracing the concept of unmonumental that was already explored in the renowned inaugural exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in 2007,[1] contemporary artistic production seems not to embrace any unconditional impulse towards the future but rather to point the finger at the precariousness of the present. And if even the present is precarious, how can we focus on what comes next?

In an article published in this magazine, which later became an essay and an exhibition,[2] I had the chance to focus on how one possible glimpse into the future foresees the creation of artefacts, an ‘archeology of the future’ that uses the aesthetics of discovery to predict the life and the society that lay ahead of us. Even when this direction does not take such an immediately recognisable form, some key concepts survive that turn into unstable, ephemeral, incomplete forms. It is as if the uncertainty principle examined by Zygmunt Bauman, the precariousness highlighted by Judith Butler, the flexibility theory identified by Richard Sennett and the fragility traced by Leonardo Caffo[3] came together to form an aesthetic outcome that makes all these aspects its own. An idea of transience devoid of heroic optimism to which, however, there is an attempt to instill a touch of resistance.

Stefano Canto (born Rome, 1974) makes explicit reference to archaeology – but also to Bauman’s liquid modernity – in his Archeologia dell’effimero: here, ice and cement confront each other in a struggle for survival which is unequal, but also ultimately has irreversible effects on both elements involved. The cement powder, the building material par excellence, is malleable, ready to take unexpected forms while the block of ice disappears.

The tension between transience and permanence appears to also be one of the foundational points for Younger Than Jesus — the title of another New Museum exhibition aimed at offering an overview of the millennial[4] generation. Take for example the roots and galvanised seeds of Lucia Cristiani’s work Dove ogni cosa resta (radici) (born Milan, 1991). Here, hanging silhouettes are linked to a very specific story – the resistance of nature in a territory tormented by war, Bosnia – but become the visual story of a space of suspension, like the one that exists between today and tomorrow. Being a metaphor for what is in all respects an existential dimension, the work entrusts the galvanisation process with the task of preserving lime seeds collected by the artist in Sarajevo and making them a memory for the future – a small monument to stability in a precarious setting.

By interpreting the idea of artefacts as a hypothetical fossil discovery, in the series Dafne (2019-2023) Lucas Memmola (born Bari, 1994) grafts copper corals onto a wooden branch, suggesting the birth of a new life on a dead body. The work undergoes a further mutation in its display, attaching itself to a mechanical structure that resembles the fixings used in orthopedic surgery and thus joining the wooden sculpture to a bony body.

Metamorphosis, transformation and contamination therefore appear as recurring processes in imagining a future in which the human is compromised and new scenarios of intermingling between species, as well as between the natural and technological, are envisaged: it is the mutation from Homo Sapiens to posthuman, where the latter is understood as an open and evolving work.[5] However, it may be interesting to note that this perspective, at least in the Italian context, seems to be expressed primarily through the language of sculpture rather than by resorting to the possibilities offered by digital and new technologies, save for a few exceptions. The adjective ‘futuristic’ does not appear too bound to the idea of ‘future’, at least from what appears in this collection: it is difficult to say whether it is due to a sort of mistrust in new forms of media or little knowledge and specific training in their use.

In any case, the relationship with this future remains in most cases anchored to an analogical experience, which leads to a relationship with matter and with reality. In this regard, water becomes a central element, as it is able to evoke the fluidity that constitutes one of the key elements in the production and theoretical thought of recent generations. Looking back at the exhibition Dopodomani, the work of Giuseppe Di Liberto (born Palermo, 1996) stands out in this context. Here, the aquatic element represents a symbol of vitality in the face of death, as the cast of the tombstones in Venice cemetery (whose shape relives in the softness of the foam for cut flowers) comes alive through the water taken from the cast of the artist’s teeth. Through this, the monument par excellence, which is entrusted with memento mori, connects with the still-fresh — and thus liable to mutations — cast of a part of the artist’s body. Different temporalities that again emphasise the transience of the human body: the future is there, but we can only see a part of it before the water ceases to pass through us. Fluidity, understood in this case as an overlap between human and natural motions, returns in Inerte (2015) by Daniele Di Girolamo (born Pescara, 1995). Despite being one one of the artist’s first pieces, the video is nevertheless connected to his most recent research. Here too, the ambiguity of the image, where the human body is seen in a process of perennial transformation, when amplified by the circularity of the loop, seems to indicate a nonlinear direction, which rewinds and turns back on itself. If on the one hand, the fog that is illuminated by the chromatic smudges and made rhythmic by the sound seems to want to hide, on the other, it appears to develop into a sort of cocoon ready to release a new living being.

The difficulty with drawing an image into focus can itself be a metaphor for looking to the future. In reflecting on the relationship between reality and its perception, Federica Francesconi (born Milan, 1994) creates paintings dotted with shadows that appear to deceive like the Platonic myth of the cave. They are projections of reality yet they detach themselves from it, the extent to which is not known. The imperceptible and the uncertain becomes a powerful image of a future whose contours, but not substance, are loosely perceived. Equally uncertain is the image from the video Struggle for Life by Irene Fenara (born Bologna, 1990): the first piece made by the artist using the technology of surveillance cameras talks about reaching for the sky, a notion that is constantly betrayed by the settings of a machine that lead us to look back down. In this case, the projection towards the future seems to clash with the weight of a present that does not leave wide escape routes.

Finally, we have the star of the Planetario by Gabriella Siciliano (born Naples, 1990), another invitation to look at the sky but this time with the enchanted gaze of children, which through a shimmering plastic surface is able to see the beauty of the cosmos, of infinite worlds and possibilities. As in many works by Siciliano, the lightness of the vision is struck by a sense of melancholy, projecting us into a celebration that, despite not having begun, seems to have already ended. One therefore wonders whether the impulse to predict and tell the story of the future is not in fact another opportunity to deal with our individual and existential fragilities that are shared and deeply anchored to the present. If the memory of the past lives on in the power of its architectural structures that have reached us, it is perhaps best, in the absence of a properly ‘constructive’ thrust, to rely on these structures to find the right impetus and imagine tomorrow.

[1]Unmonumental is actually an exhibition split into three acts curated by Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman and Massimiliano Gioni and dedicated to the concept of unmonumentality in the field of sculpture, of two-dimensional works and sound: Unmonumental. The Object in the 21st Century (1 December 2007 – 30 March 2008); Collage: The Unmonumental Picture (16 January – 30 March 2008) and The Sound of Things: Unmonumental Audio (13 February – 30 March 2008).

[2] A. Troncone, “Archaeology of an Unwritten History The Artwork as an Artefact of the Future”, inQuaderni d’arte italiana III, September 2022, pp. 62-69; Ead., Costruire la memoria disfacendo la materia. Appunti per un’archeologia del futuro, essay for the exhibition of the series Paesaggio of La Quadriennale di Roma, Palazzo Braschi, Rome, 19 November 2022 – 15 January 2023, with works by Alessandro Biggio and Antonio Fiorentino.

[3]Z. Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Polity, 2007; J. Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Verso, 2004; R. Sennett, The Corrosion of Character, The Personal Consequences Of Work In the New Capitalism, Norton, 1998; L. Caffo, Fragile umanità. Il postumano contemporaneo, Einaudi, 2017.

[4]  The Generational. Younger Than Jesus, curated by Laura Cornell, Massimiliano Gioni, Laura Hoptman, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 8 April-14 June 2009.

[5]  L. Caffo, Fragile umanità. Il postumano contemporaneo, Einaudi, 2017, pp. 55-61.