Moving into phase two

by Arturo Galansino, Ludovica Sebregondi, Riccardo Lami and Matthias Favarato

Eighty-four days separate Sunday 8 March, Palazzo Strozzi’s first lockdown day, from Monday 1 June, the day the Tomás Saraceno. Aria exhibition reopens. “Phase Two” in the era of COVID-19 is beginning for Palazzo Strozzi too, as we reassess and rethink our IN TOUCH online project to bring it into line with this new development.

IN TOUCH was an immediate, spontaneous response with a strong sense of urgency at a time of total uncertainty as to what was going to happen in ensuing weeks. We were determined from the outset to react to this crisis with a clear goal, which was to stay in touch with our visitors – to protect our bond of proximity at a time of deep insecurity for all of us, as our normal bearings came under severe strain in this new and utterly unprecedented situation. The Tomás Saraceno’s exhibition offered us the perfect starting point; in fact it was almost prophetic in its reflection on the fragility of our world. Comparison with a spider’s web to illustrate the environment we live in, a concept that plays a major role in Saraceno’s art, is well suited to define the network of relations that have kept us united at this time – a network linked to the online world on which all our daily activities, including our thirst for culture and beauty, have had of necessity to pivot during lockdown.

The video message by Tomás Saraceno

Our choice for the IN TOUCH project was to merge our website and social channels by creating new and original content taking a fresh look at certain moments in Palazzo Strozzi’s history, rather than simply taking a stroll down memory lane, in an effort to discover new values in them in the light of our present circumstances. This led us to address such eminently topical issues as interconnection, isolation, the sense of nationhood and community, the family and inclusiveness. To address as broad an audience as possible we hosted different viewpoints, as you can see from the authors of the essays (from both within and outside the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi), with whom we were eager not to look backwards into the past but always forwards at the present and into the future. A crucial role was played by the video messages sent in by artists wishing to testify their closeness with Palazzo Strozzi in consideration of their strong bond with us and with Italy as a whole. Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons and Tomás Saraceno all aired their support for us and their contributions proved hugely popular, with Marina’s message in particular attracting almost 1 million hits.

The video message by Marina Abramović

But there are other figures that can help us tell the story of this project too. On our IN TOUCH platform we published 24 essays read by almost 60,000 single users. On Facebook and Instagram we published over 100 posts, reaching over 1.5 million people and causing our online community to grow by 10% in a mere two months. In addition to which, the fact that our visitors spent longer than average on the pages of IN TOUCH is another extremely interesting development because it shows that people preferred to focus on exploring the content in depth rather than simply skimming over it; and this, despite the moment of frenzy everyone was experiencing in the consumption of online content. The top five most avidly read articles were We’re All in the Same Boat; The Shattered Embrace; Dining with Pontormo; Men, Apricots and Cows; and Heaven in a Room. Far from being a mere hit parade, however, this list perfectly mirrors the multi-faceted nature of our approach and the variety of our readers’ interests. A project that deserves a special mention here is the remote-educational project that we christened ART AT HOME for families with children and teens on their hands. The project was visited by almost 6,000 users, many of whom then sent us in the results of their various activities. And we also very much appreciated the affection and esteem displayed by those who have been following our initiatives for a long time, given that the newsletter was the tool most widely used for accessing IN TOUCH, thus highlighting our audience’s closeness even at a time of physical distancing.

A selection of articles of IN TOUCH from our website blog.

And now, as the exhibition gets set to reopen on 1 June, we are about to launch a new phase for IN TOUCH too, turning it into a fortnightly column. Like every cultural institution eager to talk about its own era, Palazzo Strozzi is committed to addressing the most relevant and topical issues of our time, so that every exhibition and activity we produce provides us with an opportunity to explore the world we live in an increasingly contemporary vein. Over the next few weeks we will be pursuing our IN TOUCH project by seeking inspiration in what Tomás Saraceno has called “visions of the future and of reality.” We will be discussing the exhibitions, activities and daily life of Palazzo Strozzi in an effort to keep open a space for parallel debate, a place for cross-contaminating and sharing different points of view.

Being Together

by Riccardo Lami

Talking about family means discussing a personal, intimate topic in the life of every individual, a topic to which everyone feels bound in one way or another on the basis of their specific experiences, relationships and circumstances. The way the topic was addressed in the Family Matters exhibition held at Palazzo Strozzi in 2014, which explored how artists handle the topic, does not mean wondering what the family is in their eyes, so much as exploring the way in which it plays a crucial role in everyone’s life, indeed more so today than ever before.

The title of John Clang’s series of photographs, Being Together (2010–14), is an expression that almost sounds out of place in these times echoing with such words as self-isolation, quarantine and social distancing. But at the same time, it appears to meet a deep-seated need that is more topical than ever, the need not to be alone, the need to be part of a “family”: both our birth family and our chosen family.

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John Clang, Being Together (Family), 2010. Courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing

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John Clang, Yeo family (New York, Sengkang), 2010, Courtesy the artista and Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing

Clang’s series comprises over forty portraits of families whose members are physically separated from one another, sometimes by even thousands of miles. In each photograph, through the use of a webcam projecting images on a 1:1 scale on the wall, several different people are connected with the place in which one or more members of their family are located. All the photographs are taken through live Internet connections as in any normal video call, and all the settings shown are the real homes of the people who live far away from their families. They are living rooms or sitting rooms, rooms filled with objects that reflect their daily lives. Each portrait creates a kind of “family reunion” in the non-place that is the photographic image, revealing a search for identity and belonging but, at the same time, also a deep sense of extraneousness and alienation.

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John Clang, Goh family (Bellevue, Bedok), 2011, Courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing

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John Clang, Lim family (London, Upper Serangoon), 2012, Courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing

A crucial aspect of the family portrait is the tension between the public and private dimensions, an element that underpins the work of Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner. In his video entitled Soundtrack (2013) Ben-Ner, his children and a few friends create a sequence of images that are superimposed on part of the soundtrack from the Hollywood movie The War of the Worlds. The alien invasion in Spielberg’s film becomes the soundtrack for a series of unlikely domestic events. The work’s strength lies in its ability to create a short-circuit between reality and the imagination, in which the figure of the family becomes an ambiguous space, safe and dangerous at the same time, the epicentre of the zany irony that dominates the entire video.

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Guy Ben-Ner, Soundtrack, 2013
Courtesy the artist and Pinksummer, Genova

Ever since the 1980s, in parallel with his output devoted to other issues, German photographer Thomas Struth has been working on a series entitled Familienleben  (“Family Life”), a series of portraits generated by specific families, with the families of friends, colleagues and acquaintances captured in their respective homes. Typical of Struth’s work is the strong formal control that in this case underscores the focus on each individual detail such as the sitters’ gazes and expressions, their clothing or the setting. Each work becomes a kind of magnifying glass that highlights each family’s specific nature but also its broader exemplary value. Struth asks his sitters to look straight at the camera, concentrating as hard as they can and staying as still as possible. “No smiling boys or girls, no happy mums or dads. What I’m really interested in is giving my audience a place to look at that is a little uncertain and at the same time a little ambiguous.”

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Thomas Struth, The Falletti Family, Florence, 2005
De Pont museum of contemporary art, Tilburg NL

Each picture portrays specific faces and situations but also becomes a model for the clearly defined construction of roles, hierarchies and dynamics. Alois Riegl had this to say about the portrait of a Dutch group in the 17th century: “[The family portrait] is neither an extension of the individual portrait nor yet the mechanical composition of individual portraits into a single whole. It is far more than that, it is the depiction of a corporation.” The individual portrayed is defined by his or her relationship with the other figures, i.e. as the father or mother of…, or the son or daughter of… and so forth. By the same token, people looking at a family portrait feel prompted to unravel the relationships on the basis of their own situation, linking the images to their own life, bonds and family. Unlike individual portraits or group portraits in which the sitters depicted are exalted in the features unique to them, the family portrait does not depict a distant or detached situation but a shared, family reality.

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Thomas Struth, Untitled (New York Family 1), New York, 2001, De Pont museum of contemporary art, Tilburg NL

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Thomas Struth, The Richter Family 2, Cologne, 2002, De Pont museum of contemporary art, Tilburg NL

The idea of the family portrait benefits from a counterpoised revisitation in Nan Goldin’s work. Famous for its heavily realistic, almost diary-like approach, her work has always revealed an inextricable link with her own life story. In her work, the family comes across as the result of an existential need: “all sticking together, based on the individual’s sense of incompleteness.” In her hands photography becomes a relational tool, and her entire career is a journey through images of encounter and connection: “I’ve never believed that a single portrait can determine a subject, but I do believe in a plurality of images testifying to the complexity of a life.” Her strong sense of spontaneity goes hand in hand with a stringent formal control that emerges quite clearly in her use of focus, in her construction of overturned perspective levels and in her careful composition of lights and lines.

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Nan Goldin, Guido with his mother, grandmother and shadow, Turin, 1999, Guido Costa Projects & Matthews Marks Gallery

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Nan Goldin, My parents kissing on their bed, Salem, MA, 2004, Courtesy the artist

In some images Nan Goldin conjures up a generational confrontation within a single family group, while in others she portrays such taboos as parents’ sexuality. As she says herself: “I don’t believe that a single portrait can express what a person is.” Her work does not set out to provide a sitter with a certificate of his or her identity so much as to capture a gaze that reveals a human relationship, transforming it into a memory capable of withstanding the passage of time.

 

Cover photo: John Clang, Tye family (Paris, Tanglin), 2012, Courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing

We’re all in the same boat

by Riccardo Lami and Ludovica Sebregondi

“We’re all in the same boat” Marina Abramović wrote on the poster that she designed for the Barcolana regatta in Trieste in October 2018 and which was also displayed on the façade of Palazzo Strozzi for the duration of its exhibition entitled Marina Abramovic. The Cleaner, reflecting on the fact that “we are all on the same planet: those who love the sea love the land, and those who love the land love our future.” That slogan, originally coined in an environment-related context, is now taking on a broader significance in 2020: a message of mutual trust and hope together with a reflection on the need to forge a common front at such a difficult time. It has been quoted on countless occasions in recent weeks, first and foremost in the social media. On a wall in the popular Sant’Ambrogio market in Florence, it even appeared on a poster signed with explicit acknowledgement of its origin: “D’après Marina Abramović”, with the “B” of the Barcolana being replaced by the “C” of Covid-19.

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Left: Marina Abramović, We’re All in the Same Boat, manifesto per Barcolana 50, 2018.
Right:
Michela Carlotta Tumiati, Lima, 2020.

Reflecting on her life and on the world in which she lives, Marina has always shone the spotlight on crucial aspects of the human condition, succeeding in communicating with the present better than any other artist, interpreting its inconsistencies and its urgencies. Faith in the community and opening up to others are goals that Marina reached over time, from her initial performances in which she probed her capacity for individual resistance, via the performances that she created with Ulay. One of those that appears to us today to be particularly strong and relevant to the present moment is Rest Energy (1980), an extreme portrayal of trust, in which Marina’s life was in Ulay’s hands for four minutes and twenty seconds, creating an unforgettable image of tension, a metaphor or our relationship with others. “I held a large bow and Ulay pulled back its string, his fingers holding the base of an arrow pointing straight at my chest. We were both in a state of constant tension, each of us pulling in their direction, with the risk that, if Ulay had loosened his grip, I could have ended up with an arrow in my heart. In the meantime, a small microphone was fixed to our chest so that the audience could hear our amplified heartbeat. And our hearts beat faster and faster.” (from Walk Through Walls: A Memoir, 2016).

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Ulay/Marina Abramović, Rest Energy, 1980, Amsterdam, LIMA Foundation.
Courtesy of Marina Abramović Archives e LIMA, MAC/2017/034

Over time, the flow of energy, the deep exchange that previously existed between her and Ulay embraced a growing number of people searching for “total vulnerability and openness to the audience.” Her manifesto symbolising this is The Artist is Present, a performance held at the MoMA in New York in 2010, in which over 1,675 people took turns to sit opposite the motionless and silent Serbian artist and to stare at her for as long as they wanted. On that occasion Marina perceived people’s “immense need to have even just a contact.” In March 2020 her words reflecting on our relationship with others are more topical than ever.

“Towards the end of The Artist is Present I felt a mental and physical tiredness that I had never felt before. Also, my point of view, everything that had seemed important to me before – daily life, the things I liked and the things I didn’t like – had completely changed.” Just as she has done throughout her artistic career, Marina reflects on deprivation in order to assign fresh importance to the essential things in life. Isolation, silence, the disappearance of a direct relationship with others help us to grasp the importance of staying in touch and of valuing the gaze and the presence of the people we have before us.

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Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2010, New York, Abramović LLC.
Photo Marco Anelli. Courtesy of Marina Abramović Archives e Sean Kelly, New York, MAC/2017/071

“Are we so alienated from one another? How has society managed to make us so distant from one another? We send each other text messages without ever meeting, even though we live just around the corner from one another. That is how people’s solitude is formed. That chair didn’t stay empty for a single second. Visitors in the queue slept outside the museum, waiting for hours and hours, even to be able to come back again. What was happening? I look at you, I feel you, you’re being photographed and everyone else is looking at you, they’re scrutinising you and you don’t know where to look, other than inside yourself. And just when you’re really inside yourself, that’s the very moment when all your feelings and emotions rise to the surface and overwhelm you. That is why people start crying: it’s an all-pervading experience. That doesn’t happen in the privacy of our own homes because we’re no longer in touch with ourselves. But on the stage that I created for the purpose, something really did happen, something different that I’d never done before.” (Marina Abramović)