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Journeying in the Present
The Urban Ambition in the Work of Gian Maria Tosatti

Gian Maria Tosatti, Kalbim Ayna Gibi Boş – İstanbul Bölümü, 2021, environmental installation, site specific

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Public space is a constant in Gian Maria Tosatti’s work. Cities, neighbourhoods, sometimes entire towns, are horizons for the incubation and development of his visual works, but also constitute the conceptual scenario for some of his theoretical texts. These writings organise a whole generation of artists around the archetype of the street, understood as a terrain of political engagement between art and the complex reality in which we live, amidst the first seasons of the digital revolution and in the aftermath of the collapse of ideologies.[1]

The urban dimension of Tosatti’s research was already present in his first works set in Rome, in the Devozioni cycle (2005-2011). Here, the artist introduced an unprecedented mode of environmental intervention that appropriates, and merges with, the civic context, and thus constructs an immediate continuity between work and reality. In the history of environmental art, Mike Nelson and Gregor Schneider precede Tosatti’s work by a few years, but there is the added difference that the Italian artist steers clear of working in a fictional dimension like the Englishman’s or the intimate dimension like the German’s. Doing without the concept of a “room within a room”, Tosatti uses architectural space not as a container, but as a device for radiating his work through the surrounding historical and political context, and thereby developing an inextricable continuity with it.

One example of this came in Testamento — devozioni X (2011), the final installation of the Roman cycle. Here, the tall water tower of the San Camillo hospital allowed the artist to gain a position from which to rise above the entire city, which was, indeed, the true space of this work. The artist projected an apocalyptic sensation across Rome, anticipating the “end of the species” feeling that would pervade the beginning of the following decade.

The same relationship of close continuity between architecture, urban space and the civic dimension is also present in the American project I’ve Already Been Here,conducted between 2011 and 2017, with some works realised and others remaining on the drawing board.

In the first two episodes, Apt. #102 and Headache, both from 2011, the artist chose to set two apartment-works inside buildings of no particular note, which thus blended into New York City perfectly.

This same predisposition toward the fusion between the artistic device and the space of reality was then developed, in a yet more precise and articulated manner, in the Naples experience of Sette stagioni dello spirito (2013-2016). This was a project with a visionary layout, stimulated by a reading of St. Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle. A long process of study and preparatory research, ever the basis of Tosatti’s work, led to the gradual identification of seven palimpsest-places in the city of Naples. These are each sites in which the tension between past and present is evident; ones on which time, “this great sculptor” (as Marguerite Yourcenar put it), has indelibly impressed its traces. For various reasons these places also each have a strong identitarian bond with the capital of the Campania region. Through this selection the artist attempted to “install the entire city”[2], this time not by means of a projective distance, but by actually coming into contact with every fold, every element of dark and light in the complex system of streets that, like blood vessels, structure the body of the Neapolitan territory.

The places inhabited by the artist thus became true “environment-works”, radiating devices that extended from the urban fabric into the human one, animating entire neighbourhoods.[3]

One emblematic experience in this sense is 6_Miracolo (2015) — the sixth stage of the project, set up in a former factory in the heart of the city’s Forcella district. The deliberately muted opening of a door riddled with bullets, as an access to a hypothetical paradise, generated a collective performance in this troubled neighbourhood that established a true practice of good, identified with the space of action.

Cultivated by simple actions — invested with a symbolic meaning that then, by osmosis, returns from metaphorical paradise to everyday life — the intervention prompts the voluntary participation of the inhabitants of the surrounding alleys. This gives the work a sense of chorality, without which it would have been impossible for the meaning of this “miracle” to be expressed. Individually, or in groups, the patrons (adults, children, habitués — all of them indistinctly, accidental visitors/performers) found “their” way of inhabiting this other dimension, separated from the alley through an invisible diaphragm, an open portal that, however, only seemed to lead to the very heart of that social and civil group that gave body to the city.

The artist developed a similar relationship a few months later working at the point where migrants from many different routes met, the “Jungle” in Calais.

In his following steps, which coincided with his return from the United States and the beginning of his project Il mio cuore è vuoto come uno specchio (2018—present), Tosatti’s practice fused with the concept of pilgrimage. The pages of his diary referring to works such as Episodio di Odessa (2020) offer an account of his journeys on foot across the plains of Ukraine, following gas pipelines and getting lost in peripheral city districts, in which works without any kind of frame were then activated. One example of this was the artist’s intervention in which he ideally extended Odessa into lake Kuyalnik,[4] giving the impression that some disaster had submerged and wiped out histories, houses, and existences. The same applies to Episodio di Istanbul (2021), in which the artist chose to operate in real time in the heart of the demolitions carried out by the Turkish government in the Kurdish quarter of Tarlabaşı, weaving a plot for a critical reading of this phenomenon, devoid of any distance or separation from it. All this culminates in the Italian pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. Here, the separation of the Arsenale warehouses from the urban space is overcome through the representation of the artist’s journey through Italy’s depressed industrial areas and factories bankrupted by the pandemic. It does this by reconstructing Tosatti’s own physical travels, piling up and reassembling shreds of factories in a pattern of feeling able to convey an image of 21st-century Italy, set on the sharpened critical ridge between past and future.

[1] At the theoretical level, the reader can turn to texts such as “Il neorealismo visivo secondo Gian Maria Tosatti” or “Ritratto dell’artista dopo l’Apocalisse”, both first published in Artribune and recently republished in La scuola delle cose, VIII, February 2023, Lyceum.
[2] Expression used in the conversation between the artist and the architect Eva Franch i Gilabert.
[3] It should be emphasised that these works were neither presented to the press before they were opened, nor was any effort made to signal them. Rather, they were left open and accessible to the public without any information. This helped to fuse them inextricably with the context, almost as if there was no difference between the artistic context and that of life itself.
[4] Again, this work was realised and set in the urban space without any communication. This generated a perceptive short-circuit in visitors, who could take the intervention for the real pre-existence of the place itself.