Nothing but a show

Ten artists were asked to focus on museum-exhibition design in a symbolic location: the Castello Sforzesco Museums in Milan

The "Nothing but a Show" exhibition, created by the critic and curator Alessio Ascari for Gemine Muse, ended recently. Centred on the subject of museum-exhibition design and the relationship between “content” and “container”, the exhibition could not have had a more exemplary venue than the Castello Sforzesco Museums, the BBPR redesign of which, between 1954 and 1956, represented a milestone in Italian museography. The History of the Museum in Italy was being written at that very time, with Franco Albini appointed to refurbish the municipal galleries in Palazzo Bianco in Genoa, Palazzo Rosso and the Museo del Tesoro di San Lorenzo and Carlo Scarpa redesigning the Gipsoteca di Possagno in the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona.

The “Nothing but a Show” exhibition showcased architectural intervention in museums intended not as the mere creation of aids to the display of works but as potentially artistic gestures and took the BBPR project for the Castello Sforzesco Museums as an example: a strong statement that made the works of art the central players and held them together with a concerted system of spaces. Their work was not welcomed unanimously but denounced by some as invasive and over-aggressive.
At Ascari’s invitation, Linda Fregni Nagler, Invernomuto, Jacopo Miliani, Andrea Sala, Mirko Smerdel, Super! (Massimiliano Buvoli, Riccardo Previdi and Patrick Tuttofuoco) and Luca Trevisani found themselves working in this spatial context and producing works in open dialogue with the mechanisms created by BBPR.

The works presented moved in two directions: some used a metalanguage to reflect on the function of the museum and its driving mechanisms; others emphasised some of the architects’ choices to create further signs of punctuation.

The first group comprised two works installed by Jacopo Miliani (Florence, 1979) in the Sala della Cancelleria on the subject of obscuring/unveiling: a long piece of black cloth fell from the ceiling to cover the front of the glass case containing the Testa detta di Teodora blocking it from view; and a reflective structure revealed the rear of the device conceived by the architects to support the Mandorla con Redentore Benedicente e Madonna Assunta.
Linda Fregni Nagler (Stockholm, 1976) introduced a ‘destabilising’ factor in the 11 cases containing part of the Applied Arts Collection with her work entitled Le Musée Imaginaire, named after André Malraux’s work of the same name on the creation and functioning of the Museum in Europe. She replaced the pale blue background, a colour that goes well with everything and against which the contours of all objects – from silver to majolica – stand out, with photographic prints from the archives of New York’s Natural History Museum, applying that mechanism of decontextualisation that is the paradigm of the European Museum. Oneiric and intentionally ironic, the aim of the work by Super! (Massimiliano Buvoli, Riccardo Previdi and Patrick Tuttofuoco), an aerostatic balloon suspended a few metres above the ground and lit from within, was to introduce an alien element into the environmental context that would alter visitors’ perception.

The set of works most closely related to the BBPR displays included a work by Luca Trevisani (Verona, 1979) that was perceived in two stages; the first part was a Plexiglas parallelepiped, the upturned void of a concrete structure created by BBPR to support 12th-century capitals. During the preparatory phase, a piece of cloth and some coloured smoke-bombs, which Trevisani loves, were inserted inside the parallelepiped; the bombs coloured the cloth, which was later displayed in the Cappella Ducale, behind a 15th-century Lombard Madonna.
In the Sala delle Asse, all wood-lined, Invernomuto (Simone Bertuzzi and Simone Trabucchi) conceived a video installation projected inside a truncated pyramid, the sides of which bore the signs of a partial combustion and the sound of which was displaced on the stairs to the second floor of the Rocchetta.
Andrea Sala (Como, 1976) placed an installation in the Sala dei Ducali Canada that consisted in three perforated sheet-metal sculptures based on an architectural feature in the Canadian Pavilion designed by BBPR between 1956 and 1957 (published in Domus 346 in 1946).
Lastly, Mirko Smerdel (Florence, 1978) was inspired by the funerary theme for his Mille antenne ripetono: “addio...” in the Sala degli Scarioni, in which he placed the first page of the L’Unità newspaper, devoted entirely to the funeral of Luigi Berlinguer, the Communist leader struck down by a stroke in 1984, beneath the Monumento funebre di Gaston de Foix. Smerdel’s second work, inserted in the second-floor corridor between display-cases containing the Applied Arts Collection, consisted in seven wooden pyramids covered with archive pictures of Berlinguer’s funeral, a private funeral and collages of architectural details in BBPR buildings.

An intellectually refined exhibition, in step with the BBPR architectural intervention more than 50 years ago, but those who hoped to find solutions to the practice of exhibition design today will have been disappointed.
Giulia Guzzini

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