EXHIBITIONS AND DISPLAYS
HOW THE SICILIAN MAFIA HELPED US APPRECIATE ART
FAHAD EL LADER
February 28, 2021
An exhibition of Luisa Lambri's photographs at Milan’s Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea connects iconic twentieth-century designs with the carnage of the Mafia.
Recalling the Anni di piombo (Years of Lead), a period of intense terrorism in Italy that lasted from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, often associated with the left-wing guerrilla group Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), another wave of violence marked much of the 1990s. This time, however, the bombings and killings were not politically motivated but perpetrated by the Sicilian Mafia to intimidate the government and terrorize the public.
The so-called Via Palestro massacre was carried out in Milan on July 27, 1993. The explosion of a car bomb in front of the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea (PAC) and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna was a shock to the city. Until this point, the Mafia had limited its gruesome killings to southern cities like Naples and Palermo, or the country’s capital, Rome. The terror had now moved up the Apennines into Italy’s financial capital and its most cosmopolitan city. The country was pretty much defenseless given the secrecy of the Mafia and the arbitrariness of their attacks. Why not attack the Borsa Italiana, the nation’s most important stock exchange; Stazione Centrale, the city’s infamous Fascist-built railway station; the giant Stadio Giuseppe Meazza; or one of the airports? No one ever figured that out, but it was part of a broader, coordinated strike on iconic symbols of art and culture. Also targeted were the Uffizi in Florence, and Rome’s Basilica di San Giovanni and San Giorgio in Velabro.
The PAC bombing resulted in five deaths: the firemen Carlo La Catena, Sergio Pasotto, and Stefano Picerno, museum security guard Alessandro Ferrari, and Driss Moussafir, a Moroccan immigrant who happened to be nearby. Twelve others were severely wounded. It was later discovered that four members of the Brancaccio and Corso dei Mille crime families had made the bomb and handed it over to Antonino Mangano, boss of the Roccella family. What exactly happened after that is still not completely known. But on the evening of July 27, Ferrari (the museum guard) noticed a Fiat Uno parked in via Palestro with smoke coming out of it. The car, it was discovered later, had been stolen a few hours before. But in the moment, not fearing anything other than a possible short-circuit in the car’s electric system, which 1980s Fiat Unos were notorious for, he called the fire brigade to inspect the vehicle.
They found a gun on the driver’s seat. Shortly after that, they made an even more chilling discovery: a bomb in the trunk, which detonated via a remote-controlled device. The blast was so extensive that it crushed the windows of the surrounding buildings and damaged some of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna galleries. The most extensive damage was to the PAC, which collapsed when its outer walls caved in. A few hours later, gas that had accumulated in a broken pipe caused an even more intense explosion that reduced whatever was left of the PAC to rubble.
Inaugurated in 1954, the PAC was designed by architect Ignazio Gardella (1905–1999), widely considered Italy’s leading architect in the 1960s and 1970s. Gardella was born in Milan, where he lived and worked for most of his life. He graduated in engineering in 1928 from the Politecnico in Milan and received his architectural degree from the prestigious Università Iuav di Venezia, which had been founded in 1926 as one of the first architecture schools in Italy. It is difficult to attach a particular style or school to Gardella’s architecture. Sometimes he worked like a rationalist, while at other times his work could be described as highly conceptual, even impractical. By the 1950s he had more or less adopted a style one could call Neo-Internationalism, based on principles of rational and modern architecture first introduced in Italy by Giuseppe Terragni and Gino Pollini in the 1920s. If anything consistently runs through Gardella’s architecture over his very long career, it is an interest in classic form—straightforward, refined, always focused on the holistic design of a building and its interior spaces. A kind of timeless architecture.
This is evident in the PAC. The twelve-hundred-square-meter exhibition space encompasses three levels. The first level interacts with the park of the famous Villa Reale (today Milan’s Museum of Modern Art) and was initially intended to house sculptures. The second level is sectioned by several large walls and was designed for paintings; big skylights control the environment’s brightness. The third level, intended initially to host drawings, prints, and photography, is a rectangular tunnel illuminated with artificial light, with a balcony overlooking the second level. The three levels encircle a central area that keeps them in dynamic relation—one readily notices diagonals, loops, and other interesting perspectival connections. Three years after the explosion, in 1996, Gardella and his son oversaw the building’s reconstruction based on the original plans (with some technical improvements).
In February 2021, the Italian photographer Luisa Lambri opened a large-scale midcareer survey at PAC. Lambri is well known for her semi-abstract photography that deconstructs and dissects architecture; this has been her specialization since her first show in 1996 at Galleria Galliani in Genoa, Italy. She came to significant international attention at the 1999 Venice Biennale, where she won the Golden Lion for her participation in the Italian Pavilion, which was introduced as a display of works by Lambri and the artists Paola Pivi, Grazie Toderi, Monica Bonvicini, and Bruna Esposito inside the International Pavilion. Central to her investigation is humanity’s relationship to space, the global development of modernist architecture, and the history of photography, all seen through a highly feminist perspective. Although she photographs iconic modernist structures—a stylistic movement she views as entirely male-dominated—she never shows the entire building, or even a whole room, but rather deconstructs her subject, subversively focusing on details such as windows, doors, or staircases, such that it’s impossible to tell where the photo was taken. The titles likewise only allude to what the subjects might be. She has taken pictures of buildings by Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Luis Barragán, Rudolph Schindler, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Giuseppe Terragni, and many others.
The title of the exhibition, Autoritratto (Self-Portrait) pays homage to the art critic Carla Lonzi, who, before devoting herself exclusively to politics, published a series of interviews with fourteen artists from the 1960s avant-garde under the same title. Lonzi’s conversations allow readers extraordinary access and insights into the individual processes of the artists interviewed. Lambri likewise constructs personal and intimate readings of her subjects, and in doing so, encourages a dialogue between the viewer, the artwork, and the space in which the interaction is taking place. Her specific investigation of space has from the outset been a form of self-exploration, or self-portraiture, even if the artist never physically appears in the photographs. Instead, Lambri shares with us her own gaze—we see what she discovers in the spaces she is inspecting.
The entire museum is given over to her exhibition. One particular highlight is the installation on PAC’s first level. It continues the concept of the dialogue, here with the Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi, who in 1957 created her iconic freestanding glass easels for the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. At PAC, exact replicas are the substrates for ten photographs Lambri took at the Sheats-Goldstein House in Los Angeles, designed by John Lautner in 1963. The pictures depict a skylight opening up to various views of trees. The delicate installation—pictures of glass displayed on glass, all referring outward in intentional and interconnected ways—is impeccable. It is clear that the artist spent weeks observing, researching, and just being in the PAC spaces. Likewise one could almost imagine that Gardella foresaw, nearly seventy years ago, that at one point Lambri would make an exhibition in his museum, so perfect is the convergence of architecture, gallery spaces, and photographs.
The first works by Lambri that the visitor encounters are photographs of Lucio Fontana's Ambiente Spaziale, another figure closely associated with the city of Milan. Fontana’s violent act was in part a statement about the end of painting, and perhaps echoed on a much larger and more devastating scale in the bombing of the museum itself. Lambri’s dialogue with Gardella’s architecture, the work of many more modernist male architects, Lonzi’s book, Fontana’s iconic cuts, and inevitably also a specific, brutal event of Milan’s postwar history are all uncannily interdependent in this exhibition, each of the latter adding a new element of complexity and rigor to the photographs.
Fahad El Lader was born 1981 in Oran, Algeria. He received his BFA in photography from Parsons School of Design in New York and his MA in Arabic language and literature from the American University of Beirut. He is currently based in Asmara, Eritrea.
Cover photo courtesy of: Jens Hoffmann Luisa Lambri AUTORITRATTO, Padiglione d'Arte Contemporanea, Milan (Installation view)