Mimmo Jodice, Vedute di Napoli, Opera 57 (Via Marina) 1980.

Utopia Dystopia: the myth of progress seen from the South

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Conceived in relation to the Madre’s collection and including works by 55 Italian and international artists, Utopia Dystopia: the myth of progress seen from the South investigates contemporary practices that have responded to the massive social changes of the last half century: urbanization, industrialization, the creation of new urban peripheries, the demographic transformation of rural space, struggles related to bodily choices, freedoms and constraints. 

The exhibition proposes an analysis of the utopian promises and dystopian experiences of modernity, with particular attention to southern Italy, as well as to the representation of the substantial failure of the violent logics underpinning economic progress the failure also of an overextended system, as experienced over the last year of the Covid-19 pandemic. From Mimmo Jodice’s sharp observations of the urban periphery, industrial architectures and southern landscapes in the Sixties and the Seventies, to Antonio Biasiucci’s photographic tributes to abandoned villages and pastoral life in Campania, to Raffaela Mariniello’s and Ibrahim Mahama’s investigations of the industrial space of Bagnoli, with its powerful and toxic beauty. Also explored across six sections – Urban Space, Rural Space, Peripheral Space, Industrial Space, Extraterritorial Space and the Space of the Body –  is the potential through artistic intervention to open spaces of transformation within dystopian realities, and to create alternatives. Joseph Beuys wrote on the poster for his 1971 exhibition in Naples (created on the basis of a photographic work on show here): ‘The revolution is us’.

The modern ideology of progress affirmed the ability of human beings to reshape their lives and environments with the help of technology and science, creating new infrastructure and providing access to medical services, education and waged labor. New choices and freedoms were promised to women and others that had been historically marginalized or economically disadvantaged. Many rather found themselves isolated in the suburbs, in small households and with precarious, poorly paid and often dangerous work. The creation of utopian spaces for knowledge sharing and artistic experimentation in the periphery animated several artists in the Neapolitan context from as early as the late sixties. The work of Riccardo Dalisi, who collaborated with the artisans and young people of Rione Traiano, was exemplary in this regard. In the same period, Tomaso Binga interpreted through her artistic work the dominant media vision of women as sexual objects, far from the independence and respect declared by a society that proclaimed itself progressive. A large number of artists have sought a way out of an apparent systemic dead end, questioning, in historical perspective, the established order and accepted norms.

From the period of the unification of Italy, often experienced as the undue imposition of a northern economic and social system, the existence of a devalued and exploited south needing to reaffirm itself has been underlined, as Giulio Delvè’s work in the exhibition, Viva il Brigantaggio, reminds us. Progress and the economic system of capital growth require constant expansion, cheap labor, and new resources. The collaborating duo Bianco-Valente work with various communities in regard to the effects in the Mezzogiorno of this system, which has led to the expropriation of land, migration to the north and the big cities, with the ensuing loss of roots, cultural identity and memory. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has defined neoliberalism as ‘a program designed to destroy collective structures capable of obstructing pure market logic’ (Le Monde diplomatique, December 1998). The south nonetheless asserts itself as a territory where these structures and values are preserved and where the extreme beauty and fragility of existence are still collectively celebrated: a territory where another future can be imagined. 

Artists: Francesco Arena, Betty Bee, Joseph Beuys, Monica Biancardi, Bianco-Valente, Antonio Biasiucci, Tomaso Binga, Eduardo Castaldo, Tonino Casula, Patty Chang e David Kelley, Danilo Correale, Riccardo Dalisi, Alexandre de Cunha, Giulio Delvè, Maria Adele Del Vecchio, Romina De Novellis, Baldo Diodato, Salvatore Emblema, Bruna Esposito, Cherubino Gambardella, Eugenio Giliberti, Didi Gnocchi, Goldschmied & Chiari, Gruppo XX, John DiLeva Halpern, Rebecca Horn, Michele Iodice, Mimmo Jodice, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Désirée Klain e Matteo Antonelli, Maria Lai, Ibrahim Mahama, Domenico Antonio Mancini, Lina Mangiacapre, Umberto Manzo, Raffaela Mariniello, Margherita Moscardini, Raffaela Naldi Rossano, Temitayo Ogunbiyi, Catherine Opie, Giulio Paolini, Athena Papadopoulos, Perino & Vele, Felice Pignataro, Giulia Piscitelli, Paolo Puddu, Annalisa Ramondino, Justin Randolph Thompson, Francesco Rosi, Mathilde Rosier, Rosy Rox, Melita Rotondo, Roxy in the Box, Franco Silvestro, Eugenio Tibaldi.

Section Texts

Urban Space

Francesco Rosi’s famous film Le mani sulla città (1963) examines property speculation in Naples, the city he called the ‘great capital of the south’, in the post-war period, revealing the collusion between economic and political power, and those who cut corners to increase profits. The unruliness of the public sphere is evoked more recently in a lateral manner by Giulio Delvè, who with Carazia associates the human dimension of family relationships with the authority of law enforcement agencies. In The Game, Danilo Correale stages a three-way football match where you win only if you learn to collaborate. The shared, organic fabric of the city is underlined by Cherubino Gambardella who speaks of ‘Supernapoli, the unconscious settlement, the superimposed city, the metropolis that moves in and out of the body that hosts it. All to prevent reality from establishing a supremacy over the present, restoring to utopia its right to exist, as a democratic practice in everyday thought’. Participation as a paradigm for the creation of shared urban space remains utopian in the face of the yawning gap between centre and periphery evoked by Domenico Antonio Mancini’s La periferia vi guarda con odio (The suburbs look at you with hatred). Franco Silvestro similarly exposes a mediatised vision of the urban fringe, while Rffaela Mariniello’s lightbox image of the roofs of the Quartieri Spagnoli remind us that the centre of Naples has always remained a vital and culturally mixed space.



Rural Space

In approaching the rural space, Bianco-Valente defined a line of inquiry when they decided to pose the question to all the inhabitants of the village of Roccagloriosa in the Cilento region: Cosa manca? – ‘What is missing?’ – a question arising from the inexorable flight to the cities by younger generations. Abandoned farmhouses and symbols of rural life are evoked in works by Antonio Biasiucci and Bruna Esposito. In Michele Iodice’s Migrazioni, the nest alludes to the precarious refuge of non-EU labourers, with a number of whom the artist collaborated in the construction of the work, those who today carry out fundamental agricultural work. The rural south as a crucible for historical, political and economic transformations, but also as the possible matrix of another reality, is underlined in Giulio Delvé’s Viva il brigantaggio, capturing a recent call to reactivate the resistance of the Unification period. Maria Lai’s performance Legarsi alla montagna involved the inhabitants of Ulassai, in the province of Nuoro, in 1981, in reconstructing a relationship with place and the natural world through new forms of ritual. The intertwining of nature and organic urban development is investigated by Eugenio Tibaldi in Anthropogenic Herbarium: in drawings similar to botanical plates, maps of Addis Abeba’s various neighbourhoods are juxtaposed with introduced plants and bordered with images of informal, unfinished buildings.

In his powerful series of photographs, Gibellina, Mimmo Jodice documents the project that, after the 1968 Belice earthquake, involved numerous artists and architects in the reconstruction of the destroyed city of Gibellina: what was conceived with utopian intent appears empty and desolate, with nature taking the upper hand in relation to human aspirations. In these two rooms, the natural world emerges as a set of forces resisting the logic of capital, and therefore not mastered through the sciences intrinsic to it. Mathilde Rosier’s Le massacre du printemps quotes Stravinsky’s ballet, transforming the rite of spring into its massacre at the hands of industrialised agriculture with its intensive, toxic processes. In order to recreate a relationship with the rhythms of the earth, Eugenio Giliberti sees the orchard as a site for long-term artistic research. To create the oxygen-rich air capsules of his BREATHSCULPTURE, John DiLeva Halpern lived for ten days in a sealed glass structure containing ten thousand plants, breathing once a minute. Salvatore Emblema investigates the aesthetic properties of natural elements of the Vesuvian territory: lava stone on canvas, natural pigments on trees.



Peripheral Space

Throughout the post-war period, the habitations of the urban working class were relegated, along with those of newcomers from the countryside, to peripheral areas that had previously been agricultural fields, in a forced exile barely mitigated by the housing promises of INA-Casa modern social housing. At the same time, road and flyover construction was multiplying and community life was considered almost secondary to the road system. It was in this context from the end of the 1960s that figures such as Riccardo Dalisi began to experiment with utopian participative practices involving local communities in multidisciplinary artistic projects. His work with the children of Rione Traiano constituted a relational experience that demonstrated how art and design could have transformative social and political effects. Felice Pignataro’s equally strong ethical commitment, born ‘to awaken slumbering consciences’, began in Secondigliano and then continued in Scampia, finding its greatest expression in collective murals created with local schools and community groups.



Industrial Space

The former steelworks at Bagnoli are located on a part of the Mediterranean coast recognised since Greek antiquity for its immense beauty, which in the twentieth century became the site of this most toxic industry. From 1910 to 1992, in the 2000 sqm on the bay of Pozzuoli, this story of the mass production of steel elements unfolded it devastating environmental pollution across land and sea, bringing with  it, among many other themes, the conflict between health and working conditions, which came to the fore in a different light from 2020, during the Coronavirus pandemic. Important historical works by Mimmo Jodice and Raffaela Mariniello interpret the history of the place, contrasting the toxic paradise of the bay with stark visions of industrial space. Red rivers and Garden of Eden by Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama link Bagnoli to certain areas of West Africa, one of the sources of raw materials used in the steelworks. Contradictions emerge in an economic system preaching free movement but channeling capital and toxic waste in different directions on north-south axes. The two works are part of a larger project by Mahama, Parliament of Ghosts, which explores how the utopian promises of failed technologies and infrastructures of the past can be activated differently in the present.



Extra-territorial Space

The nation-state in the modern era promised individuals a set of protections pertaining to rights related to work and basic needs. The dynamics of the relationship between North and South tell a different story, one of structural inequality, extraction and liminality. Extrajudicial and frontier spaces create forms of extraterritoriality in which ethical, political and social voids intersect. Many artists interpret these suspended realities, particularly in reference to movements to the north. In the project Inventory: the Fountains of Za’ atari Margherita Moscardini creates a visual catalogue of the fountains in the inner courtyards of a refugee camp in Jordan, affirmations of intimate and welcoming space. Francesco Arena comments on the drama of illegal immigration with Orizzonte, which reconstructs the point of view, from the sea, of the line of land. Finis Terrae by Monica Biancardi departs from the invisibility of Kurdistan on geographical maps to pose the problem of stateless peoples. The internal exile of more than a million villagers displaced when their homes were covered by water during the creation of the enormous Three Gorges hydroelectric dam in southern China, is evoked in a surrealist way by Patty Chang and David Kelley in their project Flotsam Jetsam, which fantasises about an alternative underwater existence to examine the relationship between landscape, identity and memory. The artistic reflection on belonging and territory is expanded by Kiluanji Kia Henda beyond the Earth, towards new colonies and extra-planetary frontiers, reflecting not only terrestrial colonial relations but also future schemes to privatise space, in the desire to exploit, for example, lithium reserves on Mars.



Space of the Body

The modern promise of progress in social recognition for women and others discriminated against because of their sexuality or cultural origin becomes the focal point of artists’ examinations of how the body interacts publicly and privately. The work of collectives such as Gruppo XX (founded in Naples in 1977, the name referring to female chromosomes), urgently opposed the marginalising manoeuvres of the patriarchal cultural model through performative actions. Tomaso Binga inserts offcuts of a polystyrene whitegoods box as a mechanism for viewing and displaying images objectifying women, while Melita Rotondo tramples on the fiction of constant female benevolence. Subsequent generations of female artists seek ways to experiment with and affirm other relationships to notions of gender. Betty Bee and Rosy Rox explore bodily performance to camera, while Roxy In The Box films Gennaro De Masco performing a moving gender fluid version of Mater Annunciazione. Catherine Opie comments on the iconography of the Madonna and Child in a formal portrait of her son on her niece’s lap; the evocation of the social institution of the family and its rituals and constraints is at the heart of Romina De Novellis’ performance La Sacra Famiglia. In Justin Randolph Thompson’s film doan yu tell noone i did it, Florence city councillor Antonella Bundu performs the moving speech given by the first Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor in Palazzo Vecchio in 1962, condemning nationalism and dehumanisation and underlining the need to restore ethical principles now lost in imperialist cultures.