Vicious and Ominous: Two Expositions on Conflict in Milan

“But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise” and “Ye Basta Hijos de Puta” and opposed perspectives on war are disarming blows to the idea that people observing conflicts from beyond fences and oceans, policy makers and public alike, may ever understand the cruel obscurity of these struggles.

The ways to cope with trauma are as many as the people suffering from it. One can embrace the injury, accept it as a part of the self, letting the wound heal while learning to live with the cicatrices; another is to try and reject the foreign body, screaming the laceration to the world. But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise (11 April – 17 June) and Ye Basta Hijos de Puta (28 March – 20 May) incarnate these opposed behaviors. Aptly located in bordering museums in Milan, the expositions center around artists born into two conflict-ridden zones of the world, the Middle East and Ciudad Juarez. Although I ignore if by design, the venues themselves suit perfectly the spirit of the art on display.

But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise, loaned from the Guggenheim Museum, is a collection of works that seldom addresses the brutal effects of the conflicts it addresses. Social strife, the decay of art, the fragility of entire cultures are, in the curator’s words, “smuggled” through extreme abstractions borrowing heavily from the everyday experiences of the artists. Sociocultural changes are observed from grainy drone footage, past glories rot on the ground of the neoclassical royal palace, the reassuringly banal 19th century villa of the Savoy dynasty. War and strife, when they emerge, seem to be filtered through dreamlike perspectives: emblematically, the view of the Iranian Rokni Haerizadeh on Mubarak’s trial is a printed frame from a YouTube video, painted so to transform the deposed dictator as a sacrificial white donkey. One of the most direct works however is that of the Lebanese Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige: angered by the attempts of Beirut’s political class to sweep the decades-long civil war under the rug, they embark on an almost literary journey. They imagine the life of an aging photograph, who records inexistent photographs in numerous volumes put on display. Images that could’ve otherwise been altered or reframed are preserved in their original form through written descriptions, transforming a subjective point of view in a picture of the conflict which is more reliable than a visual representation. These works escape both the popular depiction of the MENA region as an eternal warzone and the overly naïve view that tries to minimize the lacerating forces of war.

Near the Villa Reale lies the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea. If in the previous exposition pain is expressed silently, with the dread of who sees a catastrophe unfold daily before their own eyes, Ya Basta Hijios De Puta screams the same anguish with unheard violence. This is not the same expression of “simple” brutality: it’s the declaration of a literal violation of the bodies of the weakest in Mexican society. The works of Teresa Margolles, a former forensic pathologist, chronicle the confrontation between the authorities and the narcos in one of the most hit cities, her hometown of Ciudad Juarez. The war on drugs is witnessed through the eyes of trans sex workers, women, young abducted girls and leaves and seeps into the visitor through a series of cleverly horrifying displays. One hall, Vaporizacion, is filled with a thick fog, vaporized disinfected water from sheets used to envelop bodies of people who have been killed violently in Italy. 57 Cuerpos is similarly gruesome: “The installation comprises a 21.9 m-long thread, stretched between two walls. The thread is made up of 57 pieces- these are residual threads employed after the autopsy to stitch up the bodies of unidentified victims, which Margolles found in a morgue of Guadalajara, Mexico”. The repercussions of the war haunt the pavilion, itself crossed by a wound on the wall reminding its destruction in 1993, when the Sicilian mafia set off a car bomb in the nearby Via Palestro as part of its war on the Italian State. Violence is made actual and impossible to forget through Margolles’ vicious reminders.

These opposed perspectives on war are disarming blows to the idea that people observing conflicts from beyond fences and oceans, policy makers and public alike, may ever understand the cruel obscurity of these struggles. They’re a judgement of the arrogance of tourists of tragedy, the first as an unsettling abstraction, the second through a deafening outpour of grief. If you happen to be in Milan, make yourself a favor and visit them both.

57 Cuerpos.

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