INTERVIEW WITH ENZO BIFFI GENTILI

Enzo Biffi Gentili, curator of the exhibition Le Rovine Esposte. Urban Exploration (Exposed Ruins. Urban Explorations) interviewed by Livia Dubon.

Part of Turin’s 2013 Architecture Festival, Le Rovine Esposte. Urban Exploration took place from 28th May to 23rd June 2013 in the Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR), the former railways repair workshops. Initially intended as a photographic survey of Turin’s Architecture inspired by the example of Gabriele Basilico, the exhibition ended up to be an exploration of the value of ruins – Ruinenwert. The show included works by French artist Christophe Dessaigne, member of the UrbEx (Urban Exploration) movement, a subculture whose affiliates are specialized in the scenographic documentation of derelict places; an installation by Italian artists Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese exclusively made of found photographs of Detroit deteriorated buildings; a video by Carlotta Petracci unerringly entitled Ruinenwerk.

LD: Does the exhibition Le Rovine Esposte. Urban Exploration (Exposed ruins. Urban Exploration) talk to the past or to the future? The aesthetic of ruins often introduces temporal relations. In Piranesi’s times they were material memories of long gone values. On the other hand, for Walter Benjamin, ruins are a mean to re-imagine the future. Do you feel there is a temporal aspect in this exhibition?

EBG: Yes, undoubtedly. The ruins are symbols of time, especially in a city like Turin and in an exhibition space such as the OGR, this nineteenth century “work cathedral”, one of whose rooms is indeed known as the “Cathedral” because of its evocative aspect. The ruins of important factories appear as real “monuments” for all their high or low devotees – from Becher to UrbEx. Therefore I was not surprise to see the artists in the show defined as “neo-Piranesian” in a article of the Art Newspaper entitled Builders of Ruins. I asked our exhibition designers, the Undesign, to realize an inscription at the entrance of the exhibition space in capital letters: RUINENWERK, which means ‘value of the ruins’, a German expression, which we do not owe to Walter Benjamin but to Albert Speer. An architect maudit, he was one of the first to state that designers should also think at how their work will appear once it is deserted. Unfortunately I think our current builders will produce too many mediocre and uninteresting ruins. Therefore this exhibition has talked both to the future and the past.

LD: In this exhibition the Urban Exploration releases the unseen. What does it seek to unveil? Unknown stories of this city? Vanished ideologies or extinct/novel aesthetics?

EBG: I would like to answer by quoting Yves Marchand and Roland Meffre, the authors of the remarkable book The Ruins of Detroit (Steidl, 2010): “Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes, small pieces of history in suspension. The state of ruin is essentially a temporary situation that happens at some point, the volatile result of the change of an era and the fall of empires” (my words are in italics).

LD: From the curatorial point of view which element did you find most challenging?

EBG: The decision to inject into a disciplined and professional context such as a festival organized by architects and designers, an undisciplined way of representing reality while opening the floor to outsiders.

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LD: Especially after 9/11, the global recession and the ecological disasters of the first decade or so of the twenty-first century, ruins have come to symbolise geopolitical strife, economic crisis or the prospect of planetary destruction. I see in the strong post-production of works by UrbEx exponent Christophe Dessaigne a surrealist touch. What is your view of these works and how do you think this sub-culture contributes to the aesthetic of ruins?

EBG: The twenty-first century started in 2001. If we do not want to pin it down precisely to 9/11, we can generally say that it started with the “Decline of the American Empire” and the breakdown of a degenerate financial system. Six years after the physical fall of the Twin Towers, this decay, through the crisis of the subprime market, has resulted in the worldwide loss of 4.100 billion dollars in three-years time (source FMI 2009). Whilst the cost of the reconstruction of the World Trade Center, which will soon be finished after 10 years, is estimated at a little less than 4 (four) billion dollars. The representation of physical ruins, like Dessaigne’s, can thus be interpreted as an “objective correlative”. This explains the most imaginative of UrbEx’s statements such as the introduction to the show Beauty in Decay. Urbex (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2010): “They say that history is dead (…) Their history is dead”.

LD: If I am not mistaken, in the introduction to the exhibition you speak of “first-time gazes”, while in describing the fourth section of the exhibition, the one dedicated to the local explorer, you speak of the revelation of unexpected talents. Could we say that a key word for this exhibition is “discovery” as well as “exploration”?

EBG: I wrote that we can notice in most of the participants’ works a “visual lateral thought”, which is opposite to a more traditional photographic representation. In some cases even a sort of “divergent thought” may emerge. An essential element for UrbEx’s expansion and diffusion has been the digital. Entering deserted buildings is often an illegal practice. This demands speed of execution and often a subsequent editing of an image acquired in an anomalous situation. The relations between the members of UrbEx have mostly developed through and thanks to the web. Many of these urban explorers are eccentric personalities, quite at odds with professional organizations and institutions. For example, I have recently discovered a Barcelona policeman who covers thousands of kilometres in Europe in order to enter ruins where he creates videos of himself au naturelle, with ingenious and absurd results.

LD: These explorers make us think about the popularity that UrbEx enjoys. Why are more and more people attracted to ruins and to urban exploration?

EBG: In the best cases, as the late Dario Bellezza wrote, they prefer the “great star at the sunset of civilization than the false myth of modernity”. An exhibition explorer quoted this sentence while looking from the OGR’s windows towards the construction site of the Intesa San Paolo bank new skyscraper… The headquarters of Regione Piemonte (local governmental body) offer another example of problematic construction. Maurizio Panzarella has famously defined this unfinished skyscraper as a “ruin of intentions”. And, of course, these buildings are always haunted by the risk of being just the symptom of a temporary fashion or a market trend, or the product of professionals who, although technically flawless, betray a drift toward mannerism – a sort of sickness.

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LD: The invited artists seem to have very different visions and practices; the Arcara installation and Santese’s works remind me of Jordan Baseman’s funeral portraits and Ronald Barthes’s spectres, while the video-performance of Carlotta Petracci recalls some works of the hyperrealist and post-internet aesthetics. Could you tell us a little more about these works and the curatorial criteria which have guided you?

EBG: I chose Arcara and Santese because even if they are both excellent professional photographers, they felt inadequate faced with the task of representing Detroit ruins. During their visit, they had found abandoned family photos or archive material which they felt was dramatically expressive: that is why they preferred to talk about inhabited ruins. Inhabited by spectres, of course, but here in Turin, twinned with Detroit, the other motor city, the process described by Barthes, where the subject photographed becomes a ‘specter’ has become to the spectators even more perturbing… Carlotta is another case of serendipity: her journey started in order to video-document Dessaigne’s work, its backstage, the locations and so on. However, when I saw the first cuts I thought that her work had elements of autonomy. More than a simple reference, it was a modification in terms of visual and rhythmic suggestion. Associated with a soundtrack by performers Paolo Spaccamonti, Davide Tomat and percussionist Dario Bruna, it became even more intense. This is how the performance Ruinenwerk was born.

LD: Do you have any suggestion or advice you would like to offer to a young emergent curator?

EBG: I don’t think I am a good teacher but I will answer the question. Since we are talking about time, my first suggestion is to remember that we are working in the 21st century, not in the 20th. We are already in the second decade of the new century in a crisis that is producing and will continue to produce ruins. Among the positive effects of this crisis, we hope to see the ruination of the conceptual and market paraphernalia of the so called “contemporary art system”. This is why even if I am ‘old’ , I will not stop rummaging amongst the ‘slums’ of the art world, well beyond any disciplinary boundary, as Luca Beatrice, in a gentle mockery, has put it. Doing it this way, you can pay a high price. But it is worth it, especially in the current economic climate!

For more info on the exhibition Le Rovine Esposte (Urban Exploration), visit the website.

Livia Dubon  is a London-Florence based art writer and independent curator. With her curatorial practice she wishes to offer a platform where innovative ideas thrive and an interdisciplinary dialogue between creative individuals is encouraged. Curating and writing is a journey to discover new ways of conceiving the world. She is especially interested in artists who allow her to reflect on that space between the physical feeling and the mental process of re-experiencing the past. Memory is not just a spectre of past events, a passive melancholic act. It is a place where we reflect on reality. It forms our identity and it is what we hope to leave when we are gone. Livia successfully completed two masters Degrees in Museums and Gallery Studies (Newcastle), and Art History (Parma, Italy). She writes for Artkernel, Artribune and Kritica.

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