Correspondence lovers


In 1972 Joseph Beuys had his photograph taken as he was walking. A simple walk. Not with the collective and celebratory dimension of the Fourth Estate (Pellizza da Volpedo, 1901), but instead a zoomed-in view of a single individual who with his confident stride bears witness to possible revolutions.
Change effected via an everyday habit.
In another photograph, a young man standing in the middle of the road aims a pistol. Via De Amicis, Milano, 1977. The episode is still the same: we are the revolution. And this young man too, like Beuys, is alone in the photograph. But in reality, neither of them is truly alone; indeed, they had a world with them. Both wear boots; Beuys has his felt hat, the young man a balaclava, but the confidence of their actions is the same.
Art intervenes and revolutionises. All those who take part are artists and this is the revolution, so believed Beuys when he challenged the coyote in the room (I like America and America likes me, 1974), re-evoking archaic forces; when he was one of the founders of the green movement, Die Grünen, and at Documenta (Kassel 1982), when he proposed the plan to plant 7000 oaks to give a helping hand to nature and effect an act of responsibility towards nature. A “smaller” revolution than the one hoped for; a revolution undertaken on the basis of oneself and one’s behaviour. Which is the only possible one, many would say. Without omelettes to make and thus with fewer eggs to break.
Alongside the young man in the balaclava, there is the galaxy of the opposing movement. Social conflict became radicalised but also tested collective participation as an incubator for another possible society.
And art too, without programmatic manifestos, found itself showing the way for creative politics and accentuating its experience-based value.
The Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form (curated by Harald Szeemann, Berne, 1969) exhibition had already staged a cultural revolution with works jostling to speak of the urgency of leaving behind standardised exhibition layouts, of pushing one’s thinking and questioning one’s expectations, depictions and time. Artworks, concepts, processes and suspended situations in an osmosis between art and ideas charged with new tensions and associations. Individual actions by artists who together and perhaps unintentionally stress the strength of a radical, unmediated way of doing. The historic moment is the right one.
It is the same urgency that makes someone take to the streets and talk about every aspect of social life, international politics and rights. A political word that has difficulty remaining within the parameters of the parties represented; parties that in turn find it hard to understand why they are starting to be no longer representative.
Of course, the young man with the balaclava is holding a pistol and in the succession of events and demonstrations, the number of pistols increased, but it is impossible to cancel out the photograph of Valie Export seated on a chair with her legs apart, her trousers with a “V” cut on the groin, her genitals on view and a machine gun in her hands (Genital Panic, 1969). A fundamental view of the feminist struggle in contemporary art. And nor can the image be simply tossed aside of Salvador Allende with helmet and pistol in hand (11th September 1973) by the gates of the Moneda Palace before his government was brushed away.
Renato Guttuso had in mind The death of Marat (Jacques-Louis David, 1793) and when he drew The dying Neruda in charcoal (1973), he unhesitatingly pointed an accusing finger at the perpetrators of the death of his friend, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
Everything is connected.
When Anselm Kiefer began the Besetzungen (1969) cycle of works and had his photograph taken with his arm raised in a Nazi salute, he was obviously accused of being a closet Nazi. In reality, he was manifesting the need to face the history of Nazi Germany that has been too rapidly removed and yet feeds the sense of guilt of the new generations, which in the 1960s and 1970s were asking themselves how to prevent a totalitarian regime returning to power. These are the same questions Ulrike Meinhof raised with her companions of the Red Army Faction, seeking to represent a better Germany and ashamed of their parents and grandparents who had been unable to face an unbearable historic guilt.
In 1988, when all the “oversteppings” had been declared and time was maturing for the last Wall to come down, Gerhard Richter maintained that it was no longer possible to look at the history of his country and painted the Oktober 19, 1977 cycle of works. Fifteen canvases linked to the events of Baader-Meinhof1 and the death of its members in the Stammheim jail in Germany. His painting makes use of soft focus to alter the legibility of the images but at the same time focuses the observer’s gaze on the alterations of memory and its political use in relation to contemporary history.
In 1980, Gino De Dominicis made Sbarre violate (‘Violated bars’). This was an emblematic, almost playful work, in which the folded bars stress how there should be no limits in existence. The CUB (‘Comitati Unitari di Base’ workers’ organisation) posters, which were affixed to the FIAT gates in the 1960s and 1970s already used that image of bars from which one should escape. And it remained familiar until at least the end of the 1980s, when the space limited by bars appeared as the only possible epilogue for the history of many.
If still alive, the young man with the balaclava would be amazed by these connections, but that is how history goes[1].
We make history and the artist, who weaves the invisible thread between things, makes history permanent.
Art is nothing if it does not aim to be everything and if it remains within aesthetic ideology, it can mean nothing. Culture plays its own part, illustrating, protecting, forcing or cancelling the time to which it refers, and it probably makes little sense to seek other explanations for the bond with real life that is not the succession of events.
Eugenio Montale was against war and dictatorships but his resistance would be applied above all to safeguard poetry and culture from savagery.[2]
Many artists in the 1970s instead risked jail for their support to opposition movements. But this changed little.
Those who were on the Spanish front in 1937 certainly were not thinking about Picasso’s Guernica,[3] but after the passing of years, that painting recalls the horror of civil war; Sartre spoke to the French May[4] and his words not only echoed strongly during the clashes in the street but still preserve its memory.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was a committed intellectual but was not very sympathetic when he accused those who opposed the police charges of being reactionary. [5]
And certainly the young man in the balaclava cannot have liked him. Yet his being “against” is still full of meaning.
Anyone ‘acting’ has an idea of politics that is too pressing to take the time for the action. This is why active politics and art, culture are indeed necessary to each other, but prefer to love and gaze at each other from a distance.
History is a complicated and almost never objective matter, and the artist draws connections within it.
He dives into the whole of known history and seeks to give form to it. For science and politics, art has no immediate tangible use, and yet without art little remains. And whether one has been indifferent to the work of the artist or poet or not, when all is over, art will continue.
Claudia Gioia
Alfredo Jaar | Abbiamo amato tanto la rivoluzione – Fondazione Merz, IT/EN, 2013, ISBN 9788877572578, Euro 35, 264 pages
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The text is part of a wider essay, To All of Us, we republish thanks to the author and the publisher we thank a lot. The book has been published within the homonymous exhibition by Alfredo Jaar hosted by the Foundation on 2013
[1] 1. The armed organisation belonging to the RAF Rote Armee Fraktion, which first appeared in Germany in May, 1970. Responding to Gregorio Magnani, who claimed to note “a certain pity” in the pictures of the celebrated series, Gerhard Richter replied: “There is suffering, but I hope that this may be interpreted as suffering for people who died so young, and in such a crazy way, for nothing. I respect and also respect their aspirations, or rather, the power of their aspirations. Because they have tried to change the stupid things of the world”. (“Interview with Gregorio Magnani, 1989”, in Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961- 2007, Thames & Hudson, London 2009, p. 222).
[2] This, which flickers at night / in the skullcap of my thought, / mother-of-pearl snail’s trace / or mica of crushed glass, / isn’t church or factory light / to feed / red cleric or black. / All I can leave you is / this rainbow in evidence / of a faith that was contested, / a hope that burned more slowly / than hardwood on the hearth. […] It’s no inheritance, no talisman / to survive the monsoons’ railing / on the spider’s thread of memory, / but a history lasts only as ashes / and persistence is pure extinction. / The sign was right: he who saw it / can’t fail to find you again. / Everyone makes out his own: pride / wasn’t flight, humility wasn’t craven, / the thin glimmer striking down there / wasn’t that of a match. (From Eugenio Montale, “Little Testament”, Collected Poems, tr. Jonathan Galassi, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1998, p. 407).
[3] This is the title of the painting executed by Pablo Picasso in 1937 following the bombardment of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and presented during the International Exhibition of Paris. In accordance with Picasso’s wishes, it was not returned to Spain until the fall of the Franco regime.
[4] In May 1968, Jean-Paul Sartre took part in the student revolts, aligning himself with the political positions of some nonparliamentary left-wing groups. Later, he would repeat this extremely critical position with regard to the French Communist Party.
[5] Following the clashes at Valle Giulia, Rome in 1968, Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote a poem called Il PCI ai giovani in which he took the side of the police.



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