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Exhibitions / Fault Lines / Read more

Palazzo Cusani, Milan

Conceived for Palazzo Cusani—an extraordinary gem of architecture in the heart of Milan, which for over four centuries has been the scene of historical, cultural, political, and social events that are deeply interwoven with the story of Italy—Fault Lines presents an impressive selection of new and recent pieces that examine the concept of borders as physical and symbolic dividing lines.
Allora & Calzadilla plumb the limits and contradictions of the global world, tracing maps and routes where time and space merge together to form powerful metaphors. By means of creative combinations, substitutions, inversions, and breaks, the duo composes a mosaic of fickle landscapes and precarious equilibriums that foreground the body as the primary site of both communion and contention, connecting people to each other and to the world at large. These works have grown out of experimentation with different elements and languages—such as sculpture, photography, performance, music, sound, and video—which are combined to explore the psychological, political, and social geography of contemporary globalized culture. For Allora & Calzadilla, art is a way to investigate pivotal concepts of our time such as nationalism, democracy, power, freedom, participation, and social change. This approach is what inspired the title for their exhibition: Fault Lines, the rifts in the earth that form between two shifting masses of rock; ragged, unstable fissures that conceal a deep fragility, and could reach the breaking point at any moment. In the magnificent spaces of Palazzo Cusani—open for the first time to the world of contemporary art through the collaboration of the Army Command for Lombardy—the viewers encounter a succession of sounds, sculptures, performances, videos, and images that intertwine with the history of the site and the story of our times, disrupting them only to piece them back together with a narrative rhythm that alternates surprise, poetry, humor and epiphany.
Sediments, Sentiments (Figures of Speech) (2007) is the first imposing sculpture that visitors encounter in the courtyard of the palazzo. Inside this gigantic foam and plaster form, opera singers perform passages from the most significant speeches of the twentieth century—from Martin Luther King to Nikita Khrushchev, and from the Dalai Lama to Saddam Hussein—dismantling their language and revealing their rhetorical devices. The speech fragments seem to issue directly from the geological sediment of the sculpture, like a strange archaeological site where history comes back to life in the form of voice, music, and breath.
On the grand staircase leading into the palazzo, as a counterpoint to the eighteenth-century Affresco della Carità by a follower of Tiepolo, a jazz trumpetist improvises on the notes of the military “reveille”. Reworking one of the world’s most familiar melodies, Wake Up (Rising) (2013) draws inspiration from the pivotal role that sound and music play in military life.
Music is also at the heart of Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations of "Ode to Joy" for a Prepared Piano (2008), one of Allora & Calzadilla’s best-known works, which finds a natural habitat here in the majestic Salone Radetzky—a ballroom with its original stucco and frescoes, named after the Austrian general who had his headquarters in the palazzo until the Milan uprising. For this work, the artists have modified a Bechstein grand piano from the early twentieth century by carving a circular hole in it; once an hour, a pianist standing in the void behind the keyboard attempts to play the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Commonly known as the Ode to Joy, this famous final chorus has long been invoked as a musical representation of human fraternity and universal brotherhood in contexts as ideologically disparate as the European Union, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, white-supremacist Rhodesia, and the Third Reich, among many others. Hung on the ballroom walls are two paintings from the series Intermission (Halloween Afghanistan) (2012), showing American troops stationed in Afghanistan as they celebrate Halloween in the desert, dressed up as superheroes.
The exhibition continues in the Sala Garibaldi, where two works weave a dialogue with the monochrome frescoes of the vaulted ceiling, which depict the heroes of ancient Greece being welcomed into the Roman pantheon. Shown on a monitor is the video Returning a Sound (2004), once again centered on the theme of music: a young man rides across the island of Vieques, in Puerto Rico, on a moped that has a trumpet welded to the muffler, generating sounds with each jolt in the road or acceleration of the engine. For sixty years, the island of Vieques housed a US military base, and was returned to Puerto Rico only in 2001; the video suggests a reclamation of its landscape and soundscape, which for residents continues to be scarred by the memory of military bombing exercises and their acoustic violence. Standing on a shelf in the same room is the photograph Land Mark (Footprints) (2004) which belongs to the same cycle of works created in Puerto Rico, where the artists live: images imprinted on the white sand of the Vieques beach by the shoes of activists overlap and blur together, leaving messages that can be discerned only by those who happen upon them just after the fact.
In the adjacent Sala della Braida, twelve dancers enact Revolving Door (2011): visitors are greeted by a line of people stretching across the space from wall to wall, like a barricade. The performers march and stop in a circular motion that transforms them into a human revolving door. The choreographed sequence of movements, drawn from political protests, military marches, and chorus lines, offers a poetic meditation on the use of gestures and its role in forging communities. Visitors can walk through the room only by following the revolving door and joining in its rhythm, highlighting the complex dynamics of interaction between group and individual.
Moving on, the Sala delle Allegorie—a jewel of a room whose frescoed ceilings feature eagles with outspread wings and scenes from Greek mythology—houses the screening of Raptor’s Rapture (2012), a film presented last year at Documenta in Kassel and shown here for the first time in Italy. Bernadette Käfer, a flautist specialized in prehistoric instruments, plays a 35,000-year-old flute carved from the wing bone of a griffon vulture, a majestic bird shown in the video as it watches and listens to the musician’s efforts. This flute, recently unearthed in Germany, is the world’s oldest known musical instrument, a symbol of the dawn of human culture, whereas the griffon vulture, a European raptor with an amazing wingspan and a name straight out of mythology, is an bird now threatened by extinction. The film portrays an attempt at dialogue and a moment of communion between woman and animal, tying together human and animal evolution and reflecting on the birth of music as a milestone event in human history. In the opposite corner of the room, the bronze sculpture The Bird of Hermes is My Name, Eating My Wings to Make Me Tame (2010)—cast from a special-ops helmet with battlefield accessories like camera and microphone, but also fitted here with wings—is a contemporary representation of Hermes, the Greek deity who was a divine messenger, protector of travellers, and the god of transitions and borders. The inventor of the flute, Hermes was the only being capable of entering and leaving Hades at will, travelling unharmed across every realm of the world, of history, and of death.
The Sala dell’Ingegno instead houses Cyclonic Palm Tree (2004): rotating counter-clockwise—the same direction as the cyclones which form off the coast of Africa, develop in the Caribbean or Atlantic, and finally arrive in the United States—a fan cuts through the trunk of a five-meter-tall palm tree, creating a little domestic hurricane. A monitor next to the sculpture shows the video Sweat Glands, Sweat Lands (2006), shot in Loiza, Puerto Rico, in which a pig is being roasted on a special spit attached to the back wheel of a car. When the engine is revved, the spit turns faster, while the voice of Residente Calle 13, a young reggaeton singer from Puerto Rico, addresses the viewer in Spanish in a free form rap written in collaboration with the artists. The piece evokes examples of non-human social organizations as possible alternative modes of being-in-common: part reality, part fiction, the world the singer describes is an antagonistic state of order and disorder, civility and barbarity, in an age of armed globalization.
The adjacent Sala degli Intarsi houses the video Apotomē (2013), the second chapter (after Raptor’s Rapture) of a trilogy shown here in its Italian premiere, which centers on the ancestral ties that link together humankind, the animal world and nature through music. Shot inside the Musée national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, the video is inspired by the story of Hans and Parkie, two elephants brought to the French capital as spoils of war in 1798. That year, a concert was organized for the two pachyderms in the Jardin des Plantes, to test the effects of music on animals in captivity and establish a channel of communication between the human and animal world. Evoking the spirit of this experiment, the artists arranged another performance to be held before the bones of the two elephants: a selection of pieces from the previous concert, sung by vocalist Tim Storms. Storms has the world’s lowest voice: a unique range can that can reach notes down to 0.189Hz, a full eight octaves below the lowest G on the piano, and so low that only animals the size of elephants can hear them. In the video, we see him walking through the halls of the natural history museum, performing a surreal, melancholy serenade as he caresses the bones of the Hans and Parkie.
The extraordinary frescoed ceiling in the last room, the Sala degli Amorini, frames the sculpture Petrified Petrol Pump (2012), an abandoned fuel dispenser that time has turned into a fossil of our era. An archeological artefact from the future, this man-made object—symbolizing the mad rush to exploit natural resources that underlies contemporary technology—seems to have been swallowed up and spit out again by nature, like a piece of alien refuse, a destructive source of pollution that embodies the precarious relationship between man and nature on which our civilization is built.
The exhibition comes to an end in the video 3 (2013), the third chapter in the trilogy exploring the ties between man, animal, nature and music, to which Raptor’s Rapture and Apotomē also belong. The video revolves around the famous Venus of Lespugue, an object carved out of a mammoth tusk some 25,000 years ago, showing a steatopygous Venus, an anthropomorphic figurine with accentuated female secondary sex characteristics. This precious Paleolithic statuette—which resides at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and was filmed for the first time on this occasion—is one of the oldest depictions of the human body ever discovered. There are many hypotheses surrounding the peculiar ideal of beauty found in this Venus, whose exaggerated proportions could be read almost as deformities: some scholars see her as a fertility symbol, others as a prehistoric deity, whereas mathematician Ralph H. Abraham and philosopher William Irwin Thompson argue that her body’s linear measurements closely match the diatonic musical scale, known as the Dorian mode of the Ancient Greeks. The video thus attempts to portray, in visual and musical terms, a process of transcription of the Venus figure into music, using the proportions of the statue as a musical scale. Based upon these rules, composer David Lang has written a piece for solo cello, performed by cellist Maya Beiser in the presence of this precious artefact, which thus becomes a three-dimensional score.
With the exhibition Fault Lines, Allora & Calzadilla transform the sumptuous Baroque rooms of the Palazzo into a many-hued music box in which sound acts as a metaphor for relationships of power, resistance, and seduction, and as a tool of self-knowledge, to examine our history and lay the foundations of future change.