With a considerable geographic, semantic and cultural leap, Andrea Lissoni launches a second series in Milan's newly refurbished HangarBicocca with an exhibition that opens alongside the Chiara Bertola–curated installation The Happiest Man by Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. The new exhibition Equilibrando la curva [Balancing the curve] looks — with sensitivity and rigour — at Cuba and one of its young talents, Wilfredo Prieto: it follows April's exhibit on masters Genikian and Ricci Lucchi, and precedes the autumn shows dedicated to Germany with Carsten Nicolai and Argentina with Tomas Saraceno.
Prieto's work is undoubtedly critical. There is no other way to explain the decision of occupying the vast, imposing space opposite Anselm Kiefer's magnificent towers with a selection of salvaged objects that all things considered, objectively speaking, are rather ugly: a concrete mixer, a bus, a series of spheres gathered from who knows where, an old engine, a mound of hay, some anonymous black socks. Its "visual immediacy" — stated in bold in the exhibition press release — is also unmistakable: even though, objectively, it is the removal of these objects from their context, more than the objects themselves, that creates the "wow factor". Less pure, however, is who or what the denunciatory poetry of the Cuban artist is aimed at.
In 2001's Apolitico, Prieto "decoloured" 30 flags of UN countries, hoisting them in a new black and white garb: first in Ireland and then in Italy and France. Here, alongside the "visual immediacy" (and formal beauty), one could detect a note of political controversy contained in the gesture and its recipients. The same goes for other provocative actions that have marked Prieto's participation in Fairs and Biennials all over the world. Here, over time, he has attacked the economic and food systems, environmental, cultural, public and private institutions and their short-circuits, always with a slender sly grin, with more wit than controversy.
In Equilibrando la curva, many of the installations are site-specific to the Milan gallery, and the suspicion arises that one of the targets of the inventions is actually art itself. Or worse still (or maybe better?), there is the feeling that we, consumers of this kind of art, are being parodied together with it. Are we accused of losing ourselves at art exhibitions just like a "needle in a haystack" in the monumental heap of straw that welcomes the visitor — announcing the show's title, otherwise we would have no clue — and hides a needle within its enveloping mass? That it is we who seek, in many cases invent, and sometimes paradoxically find meaning, sense and poetry in the total banality of anonymous objects because they are placed in an exhibition? That we move backwards through an "avalanche" of spheres of dubious nature, like an undefined solar system made from planets that increase in size until we get to the one that encloses all the others and will be serving vodka and orange juice live to the patrons of the Hangar Bicocca until September?
Perhaps. But probably not.
Here is the deception of art at its most successful, when it moves along the unstable but abiding ridge between the impression of having hit the mark and the certainty that the game thrives off multiple interpretations, perplexity and surprise. Prieto's work has an extraordinary capacity to situate itself between the tautological immediacy of "a concrete mixer is a concrete mixer is a concrete mixer" and the simple and direct wonder of certain children's stories where you "turn the page, find the castle". Wandering around the show, you discover that the concrete mixer is blocked by litres of liquid cement, transformed into a heavy weight, anchoring the object to the floor, imprisoning it. You discover the giant chrome cloud that outlines the ceiling, in its volatile and soft lightness, is in reality made from seven kilometres of barbed wire: is it a threat that looms over our heads or symbol of liberation and elusiveness?
The most controversial piece, and most memorable for those who were born or who have come to live in Milan, is also the most difficult. Without a title (Equilibrando la curva) and a caption to hand we wouldn't have a clue what it is about: a 18-metre-long articulated bus, appearing courtesy of ATM [Milan's Transport Authority] standing on 1 euro coins, going who knows where, its emergency lights on. If this is a metaphor, for a journey, a route, a "curve", an emergency, the impression is that the resolutive element — the 1 euro coins that the outer wheels of the bus sit on, hiding them — should be taken literally as being money. Whether the bus represents the present moment of economic crisis, or if it is an allegory for art (we are in a gallery, after all) remains open to question. It also remains unclear if the work is an homage or an affront to the Milanese, whether the euro is meant to indicate a low value or stands as metaphor for a more considerable pecuniary sum overall, and whether it is unbelievable or plausible at least an allusion to one of the sponsors of the Hangar Bicocca, Pirelli, who have gained such international fame with their tires that it is on the strength of this that the very wheels of the Fondazione Bicocca itself are supported…
In the end, it is this ambiguity that, alongside the undoubted visual impact, raises questions and stays with the visitors as a memory of the exhibition. Equilibrando la curva is very much like another work by Prieto, shown at Amsterdam's Annet Geliknk Gallery. In Poison and Antidote, there are two transparent 20 ml bottles: one doesn't know which one contains the poison and which one the antidote. And you never will know. Chiara Alessi (@chiaralessi)