Figures at work seen in Contemporary Art

The Fondazione Aria is pleased to present the exhibition Vita Activa. Figure del lavoro nell’arte contemporanea, curated by Simone Ciglia. The exhibition aims to address one of the most pressing issues of the contemporary world, which has had a dramatic effect on Italy above all: work. This issue has long been addressed in art history and the exhibition will offer an overview emerging from the most recent artistic production, with a panorama embracing the entire spectrum of visual arts, from painting to sculpture, photography and video, installation and design. Although it is one of the most frequent topics present in public debate, the subject of work is only minimally presented by the exhibitions scenario, at least in Italy in recent times. This exhibition aims to redress the balance and for this purpose some of the main figures of the national and international scene are present, not to mention a special focus on the local area.

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Work is a complex topic that can be approached from many perspectives. The exhibition opts for the philosophical angle, based primarily on the thinking of Hannah Arendt. In The Human Condition (1958), the German philosopher distinguished between the two meanings of ‘work’: one linked to the biological development of the human being, icastically embodied in the expression animal laborans, and the other to homo faber, the maker of the artificial world of manufactured goods. More than fifty years on, these reflections have not lost their relevance and prove to be an even more useful tool for reading our present. Without seeing them in a dichotomous manner, Arendt’s categories are used on this occasion as a theoretical framework for the exhibition and are the ideal guide to the works presented.

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A first statement of intent is apparent in the chosen exhibition venue: a disused store in Pescara city centre. The decision fell to this location in the first instance for its link with the world of work, then for its symbolic value: an epitome of the recession gripping Italy whose fallout is felt in the field of employment.

The exhibition makes no pretence of being thorough, but it intends to present to the public the variety of approaches through which contemporary art has observed the theme of work. The changes that both the former and the latter underwent during the twentieth century produced a very varied landscape. On the one hand there seems to be a continuation of the realist style that marked arrival in the modern era of the employment issue, in the mid-nineteenth century. The ideal invocation of these origins can be seen at the start of the exhibition with an artwork by Teofilo Patini, a champion of this expression. His presence also serves to establish a direct connection with the area in which the exhibition takes place. This realist leaning continues seamlessly into the second half of the twentieth century, when painting and even more so photography turn their attention to work, to the representation of the figure of the worker and the workplace, in particular with regard to the industrial world. This was the persuasion underpinning the photographic work of Armin Linke, whose tireless travelling built a veritable archive of the human being, including aspects of work.

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Another and possibly prevailing way of unravelling the relationship between work and contemporary art is that of the plane of instrumentality. In this case, work becomes a complex of structures and relations to be used in the artwork. In the second half of the twentieth century several authors opted for direct participation in production processes, favouring the process of pushing out the boundaries of art that came to include virtually any object or aspect of human experience. Artists like Joseph Beuys and Gianfranco Baruchello, for instance, implemented practices into aesthetics that had previously been excluded, like agriculture or manufacturing enterprise. Even an all-rounder like Bruno Munari reveals a commitment that passes effortlessly from art to design, graphic design and publishing.

Perceptions like these appear historically crucial to developments in artistic practices over the last two decades. The flowering of new languages like relational aesthetics, theorized by Nicolas Bourriaud, has produced a new focus towards work: numerous authors intervened in various forms within different working contexts. One of the most acute reflections on the topic under consideration is offered by Liam Gillick, whose work moves in the field of artistic production as well as that of theoretical reflection. The artist returns repeatedly to this subject, in particular with reference to the profession of artist in the context of neo-liberal economics. A reconnaissance of the field of work cannot overlook the contribution of Santiago Sierra, an artist who perhaps more than any other has pondered this issue over the last few years. In the Spanish author’s grim vision ‘work is the selling of the worker’s time, intelligence and strength for the benefit of the contracting party in exchange for remuneration’. With his work he seeks to lay bare the mechanisms of exploitation in the capitalist economy: ‘people are objects of the capital state and they are paid for this. Which is what I want to show’.

4Santiago Sierra, Interramento di dieci lavoratori, one of 6 b/w photographs

The video has been a favourite medium with contemporary authors for addressing the issue of work. Adopting the logic of the archive, filmmaker Harun Farocki explores the representation of this subject in cinema. Under a programme sponsored by Siemens, Chinese artist Cao Fei developed a project in the Osram light bulb factory (Pearl Delta River industrial district), involving workers in an exercise of imagining possible alternatives.

The exhibition also devotes its attention to the territory in which it takes place: two of the most significant voices from Abruzzo – Matteo Fato and Paride Petrei – have been chosen for a period of residency at a company. At the conclusion of this time in direct contact with the world of work, the artists created an opus that will be presented in the exhibition.

To accompany the exhibition a calendar of activities has been scheduled to involve many different fields: philosophy, literature, music, theatre, cinema. The intention is to engage a broader audience and offer a more extensive and multifaceted insight into the topic under consideration.