Unknown Unknowns: guide to the 23rd Triennale Milano

From the main exhibition to the international pavilions, via the Portal of Mysteries and the Il Corridoio Rosso, here is what to see at the international exhibition, which will be open until December, but is worth a visit now.

The very same day the world was shown the most profound images ever of space, with galaxies millions of light-years away, as portrayed by the new James Webb Space Telescope designed by NASA and ESA, the XXIII International Exhibition of Triennale Milano opened its doors with the enigmatic and thought-provoking title “Unknown Unknowns – An Introduction to Mysteries” (of “what we do not know that we don’t know”). There could not have been a better coincidence and occasion to shed some light on this unknown universe that expands with every reflection and reverberates with an energy that is so vital to the thirst for knowledge of us humans.

It is no longer, and not only, a matter of the classic scheme of the “I know that I don’t know” Socratic paradox as the engine of the knowledge of a few thousand years concerning human history, but rather of the more contemporary and complex – at times disturbing and inexplicable – “I don’t know that I don’t know” awareness, that is, the now certain condition of the necessary confrontation with the uncertain.

It was precisely in 2020, the bleak year in which we first had to deal with SARS-CoV-2, that the first reflections and comparisons for the definition of the theme started to take place. Since the Triennale has always dealt with “emerging” (and alarming) themes, the decision was geared towards the recognition of an “explosion of the unknown”, especially due to a pandemic that put us face-to-face with something that was unconsciously developing inside our bodies. This was the starting point for all the other urgent reflections that now structure this great international exhibition, from the farthest universe to dark matter, from the bottom of the oceans to the origin of our conscience, with the aim of mapping, without necessarily geographising, the edges of the contemporary unknown.

23a Esposizione Internazionale Triennale di Milano. Foto DSL Studio. Courtesy Triennale Milano
23a Esposizione Internazionale Triennale di Milano. Photo DSL Studio. Courtesy Triennale Milano

In order to make this journey into the unknown, the Palazzo dell’Arte has been transformed into a spaceship where new forms of knowledge are encountered, where Arts and Sciences seem to coincide, traversing common spheres in which constellations of thoughts, ideas, works, documents, research and voices are released from a territory waiting to be explored. Exploring and exhibiting have common roots, and so this is surely the right place to ask questions, not immediately worrying about the answers, training the ‘non-calculating’ thought free to speculate, but trying not to slip into that territory where the mysterious becomes mystical.

Yuri Suzuki, La morte nera, “Unknown Unknowns”. Foto DSL Studio. Courtesy Triennale Milano
Yuri Suzuki, La morte nera, “Unknown Unknowns”. Photo DSL Studio. Courtesy Triennale Milano

So, who better than an astrophysicist could have guided the spaceship that has just landed in Milan? Ersilia Vaudo is the general curator of the XXIII Triennale and, with her clear vision and willingness to put herself to the test with an art (and science) exhibition, she does not want to fall into the stereotypes of the unknown. Rather, from the very beginning and perhaps out of professional deformation, she has recognised the unknown not as an antagonist but rather as a dimension to experience and then let go of.

Crateri di Encelado e complessi terreni fratturati. Courtesy NASA JPL SpaceScienceInstitute
Encelado craters and complex fractured terrain. Courtesy NASA JPL SpaceScienceInstitute

Alongside Vaudo, Francis Kéré, winner of the 2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize, has been brought in as a special guest of honour to put his sensitivity at the service of the exhibition, curating, designing, and setting up works and spaces in which to find a political vision of the world as it is known or should be known. Almost in antithesis to a hyper-uranic language that characterises most spaces, and for this complementary reason, his work draws on ancient and popular techniques, seeing the past as something that always informs the future through participatory and inclusive actions. With this prominent role, Kéré also acts as an ambassador for Africa – the largest and least known continent on earth and Europe’s little-visited neighbour.


Besides the main thematic exhibition, reflecting the tradition of the International Exhibitions, there is a section devoted to the 23 international participations promoted by institutions and universities. Of all the international and universal exhibitions that tour the world and highlight the main themes, this exhibition is characterised by a twofold challenge in addition to the one programmatically posed by the new theme – it is necessary to make the city more attractive to international visitors. Moreover, as this exhibition does not want to specialise like many other events that at regular intervals – every 2, 3, 4, 5 or 10 years – trace the state of the arts divided by disciplines – painting, sculpture, architecture, design, cinema, music and so on –, here the disciplines mingle and multiply, becoming vehicles for opening up to a new contemporary culture.

Francis Kéré, Yesterday Tomorrow. Foto DSL Studio. Courtesy Triennale Milano
Francis Kéré, Yesterday Tomorrow. Photo DSL Studio. Courtesy Triennale Milano

In addition to the work of the main curators, another large group of artists has been called upon to curate other collateral exhibitions: “Mondo Reale”, curated by Hervé Chandès, the Directeur général artistique of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris, and “A Tradition of the New”, curated by Marco Sammicheli, the Director of the Museum of Italian Design at the Triennale Milano. Also playing a key role in the event are special project installations involving art historians Giovanni Agosti and Jacopo Stoppa (Il Corridoio Rosso), musician and writer Francesco Bianconi (Playing the Unknown), philosopher Emanuele Coccia (Portal of Mysteries), Milan Polytechnic researcher Ingrid Paoletti (Alchemic Laboratory), artist and Grand Invité for the four-year period 2021-2024 Romeo Castellucci (domani / EL) and the great architect and designer Andrea Branzi (Mostra in Forma di Prosa).

domani, Luca Del Pia, 23ª Esposizione Internazionale, Romeo Castellucci. Courtesy  Triennale Milano
domani, Luca Del Pia, 23ª Esposizione Internazionale, Romeo Castellucci. Courtesy Triennale Milano

Finally, in addition to the interesting renovation of the exhibition built around Ettore Sottsass’s Casa Lana, which on this occasion is dedicated to the theme of “Il Calcolo” (“Calculation), there is a full calendar of events organised in the Public Programs, some digital activities such as the new chapter of the “Game Collection Vol. 2”, a collection of new experimental video games created by game designers, and “1923: Past Futures”, which allows visitors to recreate “past futures” and offers a journey through time to discover the history of the International Exhibitions.

In the gallery, you’ll find our comprehensive guide with all the essential things you need to know and keep in mind before you visit the exhibition. 

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