Nari Ward in Milan, a hymn to things and their multiple existences

In the spaces of Pirelli HangarBicocca, Nari Ward brings his multifaceted universe of objects, (anti)monuments to humanity created from a mountain of waste.

Mango seeds, plastic bottles, glass bottles, rope, soil, sugar, wooden pallets, kitchen gloves, fabric, aloe vera plants, shoestrings, Perspex, microwave ovens and light bulbs. The heterogeneous list could go on and on; these items represent but a tenth of the 114 types of materials and reused objects collected by Nari Ward to compose his latest, colossal yet intimate, retrospective exhibition at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan under the curatorship of Roberta Tenconi with Lucia Aspesi.

Here, around 30 pieces of work create a mise-en-scène of around 30 years of artistic production. It would be hard to find a more urgent and coherent oeuvre. Ward, a charismatic 61-year-old New Yorker with Jamaican roots, is an inveterate collector of found objects, but above all he is a meticulous, disciplined artist who reconfigures “stuff”, cast-offs expulsed by the consumerist circuit, which he salvages, manipulates and assembles in a process of profound aesthetic regeneration overflowing with meaning.

Nari Ward Hunger Cradle, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy. Photo Agostino Osio. Courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca

These former objects are redeemed from the worthlessness and insignificance that is given by their loss of function to become devices activating the spectator’s imagination. They do so through traces of individual and collective memories that the threadbare fabrics and peeling surfaces still carry within. The artist’s intention to provoke wonder, amazement and enchantment by transforming humble discards into (anti)monuments to humanity and our capacity to change, reform and evolve is declared at the entrance to the exhibition route.

To gain access, visitors must literally traverse the first installation, a tunnel of entwined string, wire and rope knotted into a blue tangle and hung with a variety of objects, titled Hunger Cradle (1996-2024). It looks like a quivering chrysalis about to give birth to beauty; a fisherman’s net in which goods and existences have gotten snagged; a wormhole that connects memories and hope with space and time; a fragment of our brain, where neuroscientists at Harvard and researchers at Google have seen myriads of branched cells and neuronal connections; it also looks like a cruel spider’s web whose trapped victims project mesmerising shadows on the floor.

Photo Agostino Osio. Courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy

This environmental sculpture – first presented in 1996 at a derelict Harlem firehouse and rearranged for each exhibition to adapt to different gallery spaces, incorporating new local elements every time – can allude to these and so many other things because it succeeds in being exactly what Ward wants it to be, “a visual and emotional space that combines poetry, imagination and memory.”

The artist’s intention to provoke wonder, amazement and enchantment by transforming humble discards into (anti)monuments is declared at the entrance to the exhibition route.

He also achieved this with the exhibition “Gilded Darkness” in Milan’s Città Studi district in September 2022. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni and organised by Milano Sport and the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, the show was held at the Centro Balneare Romano outdoor swimming pool built in 1929. The pool’s 4,000-square-metre surface was covered with hundreds of thermal metallic blankets, the kind used for emergencies and for migrants, too. The gold aluminium sheets made the enormous pool become a glitteringly gorgeous, poignant sea, rippled by the wind, conjuring images of shipwrecked people and desperation but at the same time, hope and change.

Photo Agostino Osio. Courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy

The political and poetic image combined memory and imagination by working with the emotional charge of the location, intensifying the echoes of human life that it contains and preserves, just like objects do. In Nari Ward’s artistic practice, salvaging things equals taking care of people and their history. He started out by portraying his own life story as a 12-year old Jamaican immigrant in the United States, using thrown-away items he found in the neighbourhood as his art materials.

But his account is inclusive. It widens to the troubled vicissitudes of his community, from the diaspora to the Black Lives Matter movement, all the way to universal themes such as suffering and hope. One testimony among the many works spread out under the tall, dark naves of HangarBicocca is the small and potent, fragile and heart wrenching Behold (also from 1996). It is an assembly of a stroller, a ladder and a walker, obviously all cast-offs, tied together by a wrapping of white string, an open weave that makes one think of the inexorability of time and the continuity of life; of the existence of an individual coming to an end to make room for others.

Photo EPW Studio and Maris Hutchinson. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin

It is a moving metaphor that exemplifies how the tale outlined by Ward opposes the culture of commodifying things, people and places. With Ward, however, the act of recycling, gathering waste to give it a new life, has little or nothing to do with environmentalist preoccupations, as he stated at a public encounter in Milan. “Many label me with a green approach because I recycle materials. But I am not directly linked to the conservationist movement.” Instead, Nari Ward recycles with imaginative and liberatory motivations to demonstrate that every object, like every existence, can exit their predetermined destiny and become something else, be reborn. Recycling means salvation.

Opening image: Nari Ward Hunger Cradle, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy. Photo Agostino Osio. Courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca

Nari Ward, Ground Break
Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy
From 28th March to 28th July 2024

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