Abraham Lubelski Asks You to Write on the Wall
“Public Meeting”

Erika Snow

“Le Citta’ In/Visibili” at La Triennale di Milano comprises eleven installations by different artists each interpreting one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The book describes a voyage of imagination—the installations are an exercise in literal visualisation, translating text into material form.

Being rooted in the context of a pre-existing work of art, and one of words at that, there are inevitably pre-set conditions against which the works are judged: the effectiveness of the translations, their truth to the original form. Nowhere is the essence of Calvino’s thought more subtly and effectively rendered than Carlo Bernardini’s Ersilia. The piece consists of a clean glowing web of optical fibre spanning a darkened white room, representing a city that stretches string from each house “to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life.” Eventually these relationships become so dense that they usurp the inhabitants themselves, who “are nothing.” From different positions in the room, each line is seen bisecting others and forms a new geometrical shape, representing another ‘relationship.’ Yet this shape is essentially an empty space. Paradoxically, Bernardini gives perfect body to the “intricate relationships seeking a form” of Ersilia.

The exhibition goes beyond simple translation, however. Ugo Volli’s Leonia updates Calvino’s social commentary, linking a city whose opulence is defined not by the new but by the old, the piles of waste that as technology increases defy decomposition in rubbish sites outside the city, to our current age of consumerism. Some of the pieces assert their own identity by deviation from the original form. In graphic representations of the cities the context is changed according to the comic-strip style of the genre, and the archaic and exotic world of Calvino’s work becomes futuristic and urban, perhaps more accessible.

The graphics form an interval in the middle of the exhibition: singular, exclusive and concrete interpretations (several include words as well as illustrations of Calvino’s surrealist setting) where the viewer is not complicit in the meaning. Le Citta’ Invisibili, however, relies on the ambiguity of language and the participation of imagination to complete the picture: the cities’ invisibility is their key. Such potential for variation is threatened by visibility, particularly Marco Pozzi’s Zobeide, which includes a narrative video clip; it’s protagonists complying with stereotypical televisual standards. Compared to the original, the experience is disappointing. Ironically, the visionary aspect of Calvino’s words has the sense of being constricted into one rigid physical form.

Other artists deal more successfully with this problem. The oscillation between visible and invisible is captured with flair in Gaetano Pesce’s Fedora. The city of constant change is represented by live birds, their continuous living state the embodiment of “what is imagined possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer.” So the artist’s technique translates the writer’s: to initiate conditions which evolve with the imagination or the passing of time.

For the most part, “Le Citta’ In/Visibili” translates this aspect of participation. Occupying a three dimensional space, the installations and sculptures allow the viewer to respond beyond the imagination through the senses. Giuseppe Piccioni’s Chloe, chaste city of imagined encounters with strangers whose eyes meet in passing, engages the viewer directly in its dialogue. The dark room is flooded by a large screen with images and sounds of public places, flanked by screens on other walls showing film footage of eyes. The viewer returns the direct gaze and thus their curiosity, actions and subsequent imaginings complete the narrative as in Calvino’s text. Due to the conceptualism and symbolism of the pieces, the nature of each city remains partly obscured from view: partly invisible. It is the process of viewing itself that finally reveals their meaning, and the real merit of this exhibition.