- By Sophie Arni
Hangar Bicocca is a non-for-profit contemporary art space located in the outskirts of Milan. It opened in 2004 and is fully sponsored by the Italian giant conglomerate Pirelli. The main component of its success is its leadership: its Artistic Director is Vicente Todolí, a monumental curator who headed the giant powerful Tate Modern for 7 years from 2003 to 2010. If the contemporary art world would be compared world politics (not that it is that far-fetched of a comparison), the Tate Modern would probably hold a comfortable seat at the UN Security Council, veto-ing what is art and what is not alongside its mega-powers peers: the MoMA, Guggenheim, Cntre Pompidou and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. No wonder that the ex-president of the Tate would be a great new leader of a new contemporary art space.
I had the chance to visit Hangar Bicocca in late August 2015. Three exhibitions were open: Damiàn Ortega's Casino, Anselm Kiefer's permanent installation The Seven Heavenly Palaces and Juan Muñoz's Double Blind and Around - all three curated by Todolì.
In retrospect, this visit was probably the most emotionally charged response I've received from an exhibition all year long. If a word can describe the Hangar it would be 'theatricality'. A 15,000 square meter ex-factory of train parts turned into a stage of creative minds exploring, conflicting, engaging, discussing about the meaning of life. The building was indeed a factory belonging to the Breda group, which 'manufactured railway carriages, electric and steam locomotives, boilers, farm machinery and equipment and, during the First World War, aeroplanes, projectiles and other products for the war effort. The devasted industrial past is something I could feel in the air walking through this art foundation's rooms. They are not rooms: they are stages, huge efforts of ingenuity.
The devasted industrial past is something I could feel in the air walking through this art foundation's rooms. They are not rooms: they are stages, huge efforts of ingenuity. Factories are standing in isolation, outside the realm of the city life. They are special buildings, just as special a church is to the continuation of residential buildings that make up the streets of the European city. But what differentiate factories is that their only symbolic meaning is one of labor and capitalism. Once the activity of labor is gone.. what use do they hold? Do they just become large meaningless spaces? Well isn't that the perfect blank state for art to come in and give it its own world of meanings. Is it a coincidence that contemporary art's best-suited environment is in a deserted factory? After these witty and rough comments on industrialization, we enter the world of Juan Muñoz. A poignant, cynical world full of clay figures - theatrical stages of silent human interactions. Muñoz (b. 1953, d. 2001) was a Spanish sculptor working primarily in papier mache, clay and resin. He was fascinated by the public interaction with his life-size sculptures: He took empty space as a blank canvas upon which we could compose narratives and movements - he transposed what artists have been meaning to convey with paintings to an audience-based walk-able experience.
On this work, Munoz commented: "The spectator becomes very much like the object to be looked at, and perhaps the viewer has become the one who is on view".
His figures in his Many Times (1999) installation are scarily realistic. Made of grey clay, they each possess a different body position and facial expression. They are dressed usually in a similar uniform. Put together in a room, it looks like the artist super-sized a toy kit of soldier miniatures and took the arms off. Alternatively, it may seem like the visitor is entering a film set or a theater scene, but a scene that makes him feel like an outsider, one that he cannot interact with, one that he is alienated from. On this work, Munoz commented: "The spectator becomes very much like the object to be looked at, and perhaps the viewer has become the one who is on view". I have never been this impressed with the sculptural installation before. An inspiration for all visual artists out there.
I was transposed to a James Bond movie set, to ancient Babylon, to contemporary Baghdad.
We move to the permanent installation. Seven towers by no other than Anselm Kiefer. Seven floors each. This is unprecedented: 7 seven-level buildings put in the context of an art installation. It took me 20 minutes to tour the installation: simply to walk around these buildings and back. I felt like I was put in a heterotopia: an alternate city within the space of the Hangar Bicocca in Milan, Italy. I was transposed to a James Bond movie set, to ancient Babylon, to contemporary Baghdad.
Seven ruins, but not of ancient Roman times. Seven modernist ruins. The cube structure of the buildings is very Corbusier-inspired: simplified, non-superfluous, functional residential units made of seven cubes piled one on top of each tower. A very familiar sight found in the slums and ghettos of cities throughout the world. But these modernist buildings are nonfunctional, which poses a problem. These are beat-up construction, with open door frames acting as windows or jumping points. I hear snipers as I walk past each building. I am ready to hide at any moment I hear a rocket coming. It reminds me of Sarajevo's 'Sniper Avenue', a large avenue which was constantly under bullet attack for years during the Yugoslavian war (1990s). Yet Kiefer calls these buildings Heavenly and Palaces. I quote the official Hangar Bicocca's statement about the piece: The name of the site-specific installation The Seven Heavenly Palaces, 2004 was drawn from the palaces described in the ancient Hebrew treatise Sefer Hechalot, the “Book of Palaces/ Sanctuaries,” which dates back to the 4th-5th centuries A.D. The volume narrates the symbolic path of spiritual initiation that anyone who wants to become closer to God must undertake. The seven towers – each of which weighs 90 tons and rises to heights varying between 14 and 18 meters – were created from reinforced concrete using the angular construction modules of shipping containers.
A factory, a theater, a stage of warzones, non-functional machines and clay figures: Hangar Bicocca is a must-see visit if you are in Milan. Located about 20 minutes from the city center, it is definitely worth the visit.