Venice Biennale 2017: Thematic Highlights

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Anticipation takes hold before we head to Venice for the Biennale Arte, as we consider (and wonder about) what topics will emerge. It’s easy to experience the Biennale, now in its 57th iteration, as if you’ve never seen art before. Curator Christine Macel asked each artist to be as free as possible, to celebrate the joy of making art and living it. With that, “Viva Arte Viva” became the theme for this edition and it expresses an enthusiasm and positive energy that has been missing from areas of the art world for some time.

This year, it’s very much the Biennale of art for the artists. Of the 120 people who have been invited to showcase in the Biennale’s two main locations—Arsenale and Giardini—103 are presenting for the first time. Altogether, the viewer experience is about the discovery of new names and the recovery of forgotten ones. Regardless, with such a refreshing yet rigorous curatorial approach it’s easy to spot recurring phenomena, both cultural and visual.

Regarding technique, drawing is one of the strongest protagonists. The ink drawings of Moroccan-born Achraf Touloub make reference to an ancient art of miniatures but focus on the constant repetition of signs. Inuit typographer and sculptor Kananginak Pootoogook (1952-2010) used drawing to tell the stories of his people’s everyday lives. His large drawings on display hail from the last years of his life and include images and words in Inuktitut, his mother tongue. The essential traits of Huguette Caland’s work include female genitals visually located between fun and provocation, warm eroticism and cold portraiture. Czech artist Luboš Plný’s love for anatomy takes shape through intricate lines of colors that resemble maps or veins. Born in Romania, Ciprian Mureșan’s work underlines the overabundance of images of today’s visual culture. And this is just the beginning.

Another surprise at the Biennale is the constant presence of textiles. They’re everywhere, in the form of embroidered sculptures, large-scale installations, knitted dolls and painted dresses. The greatest concentration is at Arsenale, where Ernesto Neto presents a gigantic knitted biomorphic architecture, Cynthia Gutierrez intersects marble elements with “telar de cintura” from the Mexican Oaxaca province, Franz Erhard Walther (this year’s Golden Lion winner for Best Artist) hangs his noted sculptural textile geometries on the walls. Softness and colors are also found in the highly-Instagrammed roundness of “Escalade Beyond Chromatic Land” by Sheila Hicks. In such a small area guests travel from Brazil to Mexico, Germany to the US and event further away, imagining—literally—a common thread that connects the life of the artists.

Many works are a demonstration of a real love for imperfect surfaces and materials. These give a sense of poetic roughness. At Giardini, the Israel Pavilion is transformed through the work of Gal Weinstein and his oxidations, molds, scratched walls and layers of pigment on soft matter. This is Weinstein’s way to stop time, make it still and give a new interpretation of the icons of his homeland. A few steps away, the British Pavilion hosts the gigantic sculptures of Phillida Barlow. The packed installation make the visitor feel small and slightly uneasy. Here the materials are wood, cement, cardboard, cast and varnish, most of which are recuperated so beautifully defective.

In some installations, the transformation of organic and natural materials is literal. This is the case with the shoes Michel Blazy used as if they were the obvious place to grow plants. Organic materials are also the focal point of what we believe to be the most impressive work of the entire Biennale, Roberto Cuoghi‘s “Imitation of Christ” at Padiglione Italia. A complex creative process has been established in a lab-like environment. It starts with the serial production of several life-size dead Christs made of organic materials. The sculptures are aged in a controlled environment, where the artist cannot foresee the final result. As a final step, Cuoghi mummifies the sculptures, closing a circle of life and death, classic art and biotechnology.

Biennale Arte 2017 is open to the public from 15 May to 26 November 2017. It’s accompanied by a dense program of events, performances and off-site exhibitions.

Images courtesy of Paolo Ferrarini

Karl Kolbitz’s “Entryways of Milan: Ingressi di Milano”

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Over the centuries, Milan‘s style has been defined by its geographical position and illustrious history. The Italian city lies on a plain, equidistant from the sea and the mountains, and its climate is colder than Mediterranean Italy. Of course, French and Austrian dominations influenced design, architecture and overall culture. All this is clearly reflected in buildings across the city, where the great beauty is sometimes well-hidden—rigorous façades often conceal imaginative interiors, beautiful courtyards and lush gardens. That said, many Milanese buildings reveal their hidden identity starting at their entrance halls, surprising the visitors and hinting at the beauty that will be found inside.

Editor Karl Kolbitz is so passionate about this Milanese dimension that he worked with TASCHEN on a beautiful new book, aptly titled “Entryways of Milan – Ingressi di Milano.” This photographic tome shows 144 of the city’s most stunning entrance halls, focusing on the timeframe from the 1920s to the 1970s. This perhaps unexpected perspective on Italian modernism focuses on the work of not-so-famous architects as well as renowned names like Giovanni Muzio, Giò Ponti, Piero Portaluppi, and Luigi Caccia Dominioni.

Kolbitz worked on the book in collaboration with photographers Delfino Sisto Legnani, Paola Pansini and Matthew Billings. Their photos are incredibly rich, despite the architecture sometimes being sparse. Not just about visuals, the book includes thoughtful essays from international architects and lecturers such as Penny Sparke, Fabrizio Ballabio, Lisa Hockemeyer, Daniel Sherer, Brian Kish, and Grazia Signori. With detailed descriptions of each design—from materials, to architects, furniture brands, and even full addresses—this is a comprehensive guide.

A book for locals and visitors alike, Koblitz writes in the foreword, “Milan is a city that draws you in, that shows itself while screening itself at the same time. It is at once private, grandiloquent, and refined. How can it be that this city, which has exported its design all over the world, has kept so silent about its exuberant and profuse entryways?”

Entryways of Milan – Ingressi di Milano” is available online for $70.

Images courtesy of Taschen

Milan Design Week 2017: Studiopepe’s “The Visit”

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How do we offer access and exclusivity through design at the same time? How do we maintain intimacy in the age of social media? These are questions that seem to have yielded one of our favorite projects at Milan Design Week this year; “The Visit” by Studiopepe. Set inside the Brera Design Apartment, a private space of multiple identities in the heart of Brera (one of the most elegant and design-savvy neighborhoods of Milan), the installation was arranged in and as a real home. It was a space begging to be lived in, far from the classic commercial presentations and galleries just outside.

“The Visit” extended afterward the festival, but reservations were required throughout. In a way public and private at the same time, the exhibition offered a peaceful reprieve during design week’s hectic scheduling. Arianna Lelli Mami and Chiara Di Pinto, founders of Studiopepe, were always present to welcome guests and eager to describe every single detail of the never boring, always elegant space. Vintage pieces, works of art, colorful walls, masterful lighting, materials of all sorts—everything united to create a game of contrasts. This was Studiopepe’s manifesto, and their most complete project to date. Further, it reflects the values of the new Milanese interior design movement.

The project was born in a private moment, in one of the most famous design spots in Milan, Lelli Mami explains to us. “More than a single product or set-up,” she says, “We wanted to tell a rite, a gesture, that of visiting the intimate dimension of the apartment. It all began from a chat between Chiara and me at Bar Basso.” All of this intimacy is evident through the experience.

Entering felt like a visit to a friend’s home. The reason why is simple, “After working for projects in larger spaces, showrooms and fairs, we were looking for a more intimate dimension, [that would be] able to unveil what we are and what we like through details. This is the intimate atmosphere that we would like to bring—even in a non-domestic project, like a hotel,” Lelli Mami says. “When we design our objects, we always think of a house, where to place them, and what kind of person may like them. As creative directors, we love each project to tell a story.” In fact, being at “The Visit” one could imagine stories about the possible inhabitants of the place, and narratives that could originate a novel or even a movie.

Studiopepe’s touch and taste in interior design becomes clearer and clearer with every project. When we ask Lelli Mami about their artistic and cultural references she explains, “We love Gio Ponti a lot and all the design milieu of those years, where there was really a happy design vision and an intense intellectual exchange between creative minds. We love a delicate, intense and ironic feminine touch, from Charlotte Perriand to Sonia Delaunay, to Nanda Vigo and Natalie du Pasquier. At an artistic level Brancusi is, for us, an inexhaustible source of inspiration and joy, for its very strong, hard yet poetic, masculine—in antithesis to what has been said before.”

“Our work allows us to continue to discover and look at what may seem common or everyday with ever-new eyes, this is a great deal of privilege,” she continues. “Being a duo and having a studio with several people will definitely help in this process. We would like to find a container to carry out this research and to systematize it. And eventually in our near future there will be a book.” We look forward to their continued evolution.

Images by Paolo Ferrarini

Milano Design Award 2017: Winning Installations

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Each year, after visiting Milan Design Week, everybody wants to discuss their own list of favorites. A few years ago Elita had the idea of turning the gatherings of designers and friends that used to happen at Valentina Ventrelli’s home into a real award. Milano Design Award is, to date, the only of its kind devoted to celebrating the best installations of the Fuorisalone, otherwise known as the events that happen in the city not the fairgrounds. One of the goals of this award is to document the evolution of taste and the emerging trends at Milan Design Week. However, it also aims to recognize the work of the international community of design.

After seven years, the Award is now also supported by the design districts of Milan. They help in the preliminary selection from the more than 1500 events that happen in our city’s most intense week of the year. The seventh edition award ceremony took place at La Triennale di Milano on 6 April 2017 and was opened by two lifetime achievement awards, meant for people and companies that built the history of Fuorisalone. The winners were Cappellini for the category of historical company in the field and Tom Dixon for his work as a designer, both of which were awarded by Giuseppe Sala, Mayor of Milan.

The international jury was chaired by Luca Cipelletti (architect and winner of the 2016 edition) and composed of Illustrator Olimpia Zagnoli, designer Giorgio Di Salvo, Marco Velardi (founder and director of Apartamento magazine) and Cool Hunting’s co-founder and executive editor Evan Orensten.

LG’s “S.F._Senses of the Future,” hosted by Superstudio Più in via Tortona, took this year’s top honors. The installation, designed by Tokujin Yoshioka, made use of OLED technology to create an overwhelming yet poetic environment. Yoshioka imagined a series of sculptural chairs made with transparent glass and monitors that displayed abstract images of colors and shapes derived from natural landscapes. The backdrop was an impressive wall of 30,000 tiny OLED screens, which powerfully mimics the vibrance and intensity of sunlight.

Foundation, an exhibition that showcased the work of Formafantasma at Spazio Krizia, by two Amsterdam-based Italian-born designers gained two awards: Best Technology and Press Choice. Foundation presented the light experiments made by Formafantasma. Their work is centered on an artistic approach toward technology and the essential installation was mainly orchestrated through the light and color effects created by the objects on display.

One other category, Best Concept, was destined for winner Maarten Baas and his installation for Lensvelt. “May I have your attention, please?” was part of one of the most interesting areas of Design Week, Ventura Centrale. Baas filled one of the old warehouses of the Central Railway Station with chairs and megaphones. Counterintuitively, the sound emitted was not noise and cries, but just whispers coming from several different sources. The result was a clever, analog parody of the desperate desire for attention that we all live with, in the digital age.

This year’s Best Storytelling Award went to Panasonic’s “Electronics Meets Crafts,” designed by GO ON and Panasonic Design with Shuichi Furumi. As the title clearly states, Panasonic’s desire has been to reveal the beauty of the most traditional Japanese crafts in combination with their most sophisticated technologies. The installation was made of three different stages, hosted in the historic Accademia di Brera, the most prestigious Italian art academy. The first space was a theater in which inspirational videos were projected onto a screen made of precious kimono fabrics. The second phase presented artisanal Japanese daily objects like tea pots, bamboo lamps, wooden buckets—all of which were filled with hi-tech products. Curiously, you could hear the sounds of the forest coming from the tea pots, the buckets were able to keep sake at the right temperature, and the lamps had no visible light source. The third and last step showcased collaborative work conducted by Panasonic with the design students of the Accademia.

One of the most photographed installation of the week was “New Spring,” designed by Studio Swine for COS. Their minimalistic tree created bubbles filled with perfumed smoke and visitors lined up for hours to pop them and to take photos and selfies. Such a level of involvement, the emotion and the smiles it created were among the reasons for which the jury decided to give them Milano Design Award for Best Engagement.

The Unicorn is a new entry in the competition and its goal is to award installations that are difficult to define, those which stand at the crossroads of disciplines and inspirations. The winner of the Unicorn was “Superfollies” by Nobody&co in collaboration with Studio Toogood and Arabeschi di Latte. The installation was set in a beautiful private garden, usually closed to the public, once the area in which the horses of the Royal Palace were kept. This history is what motivated the company to ask Toogood to create small shelters for objects—an installation that used dollhouses and dog houses and more to conceal design items. Further, the cute little wooden unicorn that served as the physical prize is a sculpture by artist Duilio Forte, who also imagined the other colorful horses that have become a coveted symbol of Milan Design Week.

“New Spring” image by Josh Rubin, ceremony image courtesy of Milano Design Award, all others by Paolo Ferrarini

Interview: Curator Joseph Grima of Space Caviar

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Player Piano: A Subjective Atlas of a Landscape of Labour” was one of the most cerebral, engaging exhibitions we saw at this year’s 10th Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne. It was the final exhibition in the exploration of the Cité du Design, the event’s primary location. Here, the 1000-square-meter room appeared to be almost empty. A round, metallic stage sat in the middle of the former-industrial space and was surrounded by dozens of monitors that showed scenes of laborers working all over the world. Live piano music was in the air but there was no pianist. In fact, the score was composed and played in real time by a robot. This presence, as well as the title, is inspired by “Player Piano,” a 1952 dystopian novel written by Kurt Vonnegut, where automation takes over humans. Visitors to this exhibition felt a clear sense of invasion of technology and a desire to be free from it.

Joseph Grima from Space Caviar curated the exhibition. We met him to discuss this piece and the mutations of physical work, which was the theme of the entire design biennial.

Don’t you feel that every visitor to the space immediately asks, “Where are we?”

Well, we are sitting at the moment underneath the island of Abraxa. This project was commissioned by Olivier Peyricot, the director of Saint-Etienne Biennale, as a conclusion to this reflection that he organized through the Biennale on the nature of work. Work is something that defines culture and it has a very strong link with design, but it is also in rapid transformation. This is a very hot topic right now, [and there’s] a lot of both pessimism and optimism, fear and also excitement.

Did he give you specific guidance for the commission?

Being the last exhibition on the circuit, Olivier asked us to react and to look toward the future. The idea that we wanted to suggest with this exhibition is the dream of liberation from work and from the dread of technology. These are ideas that we’ve been thinking about for a very long time, that we’ve been struggling with for three million years. We were very interested in reframing these questions as timeless questions, and liberating them a little bit from this very constrained perspective of the present. We’ve been embarking on a journey and attempting to remove ourselves from this oppressive presence, and to look at these questions in historical terms.

Can you explain how you gave shape to such an abstract concept?

We decided to set up a kind of fictional narrative. We decided to propose to the visitors a journey to the island of Abraxa. Abraxa is an interesting place because it was mentioned first by Thomas More as the original territory in which Utopia was constructed. So we set up this island in a place that is not specified and also a time that is not specified. We began to populate it with a series of stories, micro narratives and scenarios, which you can seen walking around the space.”

The stories of work and labor are all over the place but not as an oppressive presence. How did you achieve this?

We went to 20 countries to get all of this footage. Some of them we had to travel for a week to get. At the same time, we didn’t want to do it on how many places we went to. So at the entrance we simply list the locations, because the point is not where they were or how much work we did, but more like a simple concept of correlation. They’re all real, but we were not interested in the reality. We were interested in presenting fictional characters or fictional scenarios, so we removed all specificity of time and place, and simply presented them as a whole. Our intention was that it would be a little bit like editing a film through the movement of your body, that you would be taken through a series of transitions of connections and relations. And through all of this, it suggests the possibility of a completely different reading of history.

Where does this come from?

This is essentially what Abraxa tends to suggest, the possibility of a less pessimistic reading of the future than “Player Piano” by Vonnegut. This installation is in a way an homage to a great writer, but also an attempt to reframe his narrative, his fiction, presenting it instead as a not-inevitable future. It’s a very dark novel, very pessimistic. Speaking of technology and speaking of automation, it’s very easy to be drawn into a kind of deterministic dystopian narrative.”

So you avoid oppression and darkness?

We wanted it to be a little bit lighthearted, and the visit concludes with a kind of touristic apex, which is the binoculars in which you look through and you can see the inhabitants of Abraxa beginning to collaborate to create a civilization. Over the period of one month, civilization becomes increasingly complex. And it will begin to make interventions, it’ll begin to transform the landscape.”

What about the future of work? What do you personally think about the digital transformations of our working life?

I agree that it is necessary to retake the control and to not simply become passive subjects of a sort of new liberal market driven universal reality in which there’s no alternative. And instead, begin to dictate those terms of the future that we create and to retake control of the political terms in which technology is deployed. And I think that this is also an invitation to designers, architects and practitioners to again immerse themselves to take control, to become engaged again, not simply in thinking around or researching, but creating and inventing the future.”

Screen image courtesy of Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne, all other images by Paolo Ferrarini

 

Highlights From Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne

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Located in the south east of France, the coal mining city of Saint-Etienne launched the Biennale Internationale Design 20 years ago. The 10th iteration recently opened (and will run through early April). Within, one will find an exploration of the concept of change. This theme, officially “Shifting Work Paradigms” was chosen by Olivier Peyricot, Scientific Director of the Biennale and Director of the Research Department at the Cité du Design. Since design is about problem-solving for the future, the exploration of work, technology, politics and society through that lens makes perfect sense. Of course, sometimes doubts are more relevant than the certainties—and the works at Saint-Etienne reflect that. While some look playfully at utopic futures and some are grim, all of them make a valid point about the ever-evolving nature of work, commerce and their effects on us as societies.

Several projects feature Detroit as a protagonist. While that might seem unexpected, the American city actually has quite a lot in common with Saint-Etienne—specifically an industrial past and a lively, evolving creative scene. “Out of Site” recounts the work of design studio Akoaki, whose founders (Anya Sirota and Jean-Louis Farges) create public installations and performances meant to generate experimental environments. Music plays a key role and, according to Sirota, “in Detroit, music is everywhere and it’s one of its most interesting forms of design.” The installation they present in Saint-Etienne is made of 450 pieces and can be easily dismantled and stored on a truck. This nomadic installation has already been used more than once in attempts to revive and excite suburbs—of course, accompanied by live music.

Another common theme at the event is that of work—more specifically work in the context of technology. Thanks to relentless notifications for e-mails, messages and calls, even without a traditional office, work follows us all the time. The exhibition “Working Dead” presents this idea as a spectacular installation. Five environments are aligned in a 1000-square-meter industrial space. Fake floors and ceilings recall a fairly dull office space, but no objects are on display—there are only sounds, voices, and images that create immersive and evocative situations of work. According to curator Didier Fiúza Faustino the five installations “look like temples or mausoleums, maybe graveyards” for quite a maudlin message.

Following logically along the work theme is that of economy and currency. When thinking of an ideal future, equality and freedom are oftentimes key words—both of which are primarily reserved for the wealthy. At Saint-Etienne this year, visitors have the chance to live in a commune where you can stay for free in exchange for work. Artist and designer Jerzsy Seymour has created the colorful “Lucky Larry Cosmic Commune” inside an abandoned industrial building. Anyone can go and have a space, but it’s necessary to work for the good of the community by producing merchandise, cleaning, cooking or organizing lectures, conferences and concerts. Seymour states that this is “a non-utopian utopia based on exchange economy.”

Also tackling the saturation of technology in our lives—both personal and professional—artist Tess Dumon created “Take Shelter.” This piece embodies a tiny room where everything is covered with images found on a phone—in essence, everything consumed via a smartphone each day is now physical. The result is both colorful and scary, invasive yet intriguing, something visitors can’t turn away from—just like our smartphones.

On now at Citè du Design as well as Mine Museum and Park, MAM Contemporary Art Museum, Art and Industry Museum and the stores in Rue de la Republique, Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne will run through 9 April 2017.

Images by Paolo Ferrarini

Osservatorio Prada: observing from both sides of the camera

Osservatorio is the most recent addition to Fondazione Prada. Opened on December 21, 2016 it is located in the very heart of Milan and is meant to showcase “photography and visual languages” today.

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Curated by Francesco Zanot, the opening exhibition is “Give me yesterday”.

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Fourteen Italian and international artists are the protagonists. Their names? Melanie Bonajo, Kenta Cobayashi, Tomé Duarte, Irene Fenara, Lebohang Kganye, Vendula Knopova, Leigh Ledare, Wen Ling, Ryan McGinley, Izumi Miyazaki, Joanna Piotrowska, Greg Reynolds, Antonio Rovaldi, Maurice van Es.

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The art on display is eye-catching, as well as the sourroundings. Being on top of the historic Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, from the huge windows we can observe the glass top of the ancient arcade. This unusual point of view makes Osservatorio a real observatory over the city.

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I visited the space at dusk and had a lot of fun with my Fuji X100T. But I was not alone, since lots of photographers and phonographers were all going back and forth from looking at pictures to actually taking pictures.

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And this composition of Italian panoramas by Antonio Rovaldi is probably the most instagrammed work of the entire exhibition.

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Osservatorio is an ideal place for those who really love photography, from both sides of the camera.