In this moment of global emergency museums are closed. The following reflection by Kenneth Drummond on the exhibition «The Quest for Happiness», curated by Maria Stella Bottai, Lorella Scacco and Pirjo Immonen, hosted at the Museo Gösta Serlachius di Mänttä, reconnects to the period we are living in and it will be relaunched as soon as it will be possible to go and visit. Among other things, it is an important appointment for fostering and celebrating Italian contemporary artists abroad.
The Quest for Happiness (which, with a certain sad poetry for an exhibition so titled, has been curtailed by the current pandemic) at Serlachius Museum Gösta in Mänttä, Finland, brings together the work of fourteen contemporary Italian artists and artist-collectives, each connected by the shared theme of happiness. Such a theme feels especially resonant here in Finland, a country which repeatedly (and somewhat to its own surprise) finds itself at the top of the United Nations’ yearly index of happiest nations. What such rankings and this exhibition have in common is that, when it comes to the substance of happiness, they raise as many questions they answer.
Perhaps most indicative of the complex picture of happiness presented in the exhibition is that so many of the artworks contained refer— obliquely or otherwise — to the traumas of Italy’s absolutely tumultuous recent history. Exemplary here are pieces by Goldschmied & Chiari. This duo evoke sensory pleasure with their motif of gorgeous coloured smoke flares, as for instance in Untitled View (2017), printed on a glass mirror. The smoke effect is giddying to look at: while recalling the heavenly clouds of a renaissance ceiling fresco, it channels at the same time the possibilities and danger of a modern street protest, the joys of a welcoming dancefloor, and the aftermath of a bombing.
They also have an installation here, the striking Where Shall We Go Dancing Tonight? This bright pink room is scattered with the debris of a party — empty bottles, a glitter ball and streamers — all confronting the viewer in the same rich array of colours as the duo’s signature smoke pieces. Its ostensible subject is the hedonistic consumption culture of the 1980s, but the reference is not wholly sardonic; the scene is displayed with the warmth of nostalgia, viewed almost literally through rose-tinted glasses. I find it impossible not to see this piece also through the lens of Italy’s 2011 debt crisis and the ensuing austerity programme, the logic of which (as elsewhere in Europe) served to recast the preceding era as one of heedless social excess. Happiness manifests here in the form of its avatar, pleasure, which in turn never appears without its dialectic partner, guilt.
A more peaceful approach is taken by Matteo Montani. His work The Prayer is a bowed figure in unadorned white wax, resting on a metal tray. A concealed heating element slowly liquifies the wax, which melts into a flood of surprising colour as a dyed interior emerges. This connects the wax to its familiar metaphoric role: its malleable properties have often lent it to philosophic meditations on the relationship of form to essence or body to soul (as in Aristotle) and that of intellect to the senses (as in Descartes). Where Montani’s work stands in relation to such speculations is clarified by his paintings, also represented here. These are semi-abstract, showing a series of peaks resembling a distant mountain range, which shimmer strangely (he achieves uncanny effects by slightly off-piste materials, such as sandpaper as base). The result is something between sublime landscape and ecstatic vision — the sort of thing the brain might conjure during a near-death experience. Speaking of these paintings, the artist describes the eye operating as an experiential “threshold… a subtle screen suspended between two dimensions”. In this art, happiness is to be sought in unifying the opposing philosophic dyads that lie at the heart of our nature.
The exhibition’s premature suspension, for reason of the coronavirus outbreak, has inevitably added retrospective meaning to what were already affecting works. This is especially so in the case Marinella Senatore, and her film Palermo Procession (2018), showing a crowd dancing through Palermitan thoroughfares. The piece is a joyous affirmation of precisely that communal relationship to public space which — along with the exhibition itself — has become just another casualty of the current pandemic.
curated by Maria Stella Bottai, Lorella Scacco and Pirjo Immonen.
Artists: Yuri Ancarani, Silvia Camporesi, Loris Cecchini, Federica Di Carlo, Goldschmied & Chiari, Francesco Jodice, Marzia Migliora, Matteo Montani, Okkult Motion Pictures (Alessandro Scali & Marco Calabrese), Federico Pietrella, Pietro Ruffo, Marinella Senatore, Federico Solmi and ZimmerFrei.
images: (cover 1) Goldschmied & Chiari, «Where Shall We Go Dancing Tonight? | Dove andiamo a ballare questa sera?», 2019, site-specific installation, mixed media. Photo: Sampo Linkoneva, Serlachius Museums (2) Matteo Montani, «The Prayer | Preghiera», 2019, sculpture in wax. Photo: Sampo Linkoneva (3) The Quest for Happiness – Italian Art Now, Museo Gösta Serlachius di Mänttä, Finland,Exhibition view. Photo: Sampo Linkoneva. (4) Loris Cecchini, «Waterbones», 2019, site-specific installation, variable dimensions. Photo: Sampo Linkoneva, Serlachius Museums (5) Pietro Ruffo, «Migration Globe», 2017, ink and cut outs of paper, steel and wood. Courtesy the Maeci – Ministero Degli Affari Esteri e Della Cooperazione Internazionale, Rome.