Turin's Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in the fabulous spaces of the baroque Castle of Rivoli, recently dedicated a retrospective to Piero Gilardi. Focused on the first 22 years of his career, the exhibition covered his early Nature Carpets, which brought him considerable international success in the 1960s, and a wide range of works illustrating his decision to leave the Art System and devote himself to "creative" charity work in a psychiatric hospital and, later, his direct involvement in social and political activism. Piero Gilardi in many ways anticipated later movements in seeing the aesthetic value of shared space and collaboration -- a value underpinning the open-source, Internet-based nature of tech-art today. He pioneered the "art of sharing," ushering politics into art and linking art to social issues in a participatory way. For Gilardi, ethics come before aesthetics.
Andrea Bellini, curator of the exhibition, calls Gilardi a "forerunner of relational art." Now I don't want to take issue with Bellini or challenge the paternity of Gilardi's work, but to call it simply "relational aesthetics" -- a rubric invented by Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s and misused ever since by curators lacking in imagination--hardly does it justice. Gilardi's work goes beyond the "relational"; his sense of "collaboration" embraces a shared goal and implicitly contains the sharing of knowledge and action, the horizontal dimension of participatory democracy. These artistic elements have plenty in common with the concepts that underpin art in a globalized world and the ethics of art in our global, digital age. Open source, the art of networking, Internet freedom, horizontal democracy, freedom of speech, participation and new forms of social representation are all political issues that technology always brings to the fore, concepts which people make either positive or negative use of.
So let's take a look at how and why social issues infiltrate Gilardi's art. As an outsider to the world of Italian art, Gilardi was a leading figure in the emergence of the Arte Povera movement. At the opening of the exhibition he explained:
My break with painting was marked by the Machines of the Future exhibition (1963), a sort of techno-scientific slide show on the future development of a cybernetic civilization. It was a Dadaist and radically anti-aesthetic gesture.
Piero Gilardi: Collaborative Effects (1962-1985) will be on view at Van Abbemuseum from September 8, 2012 to January 6, 2013 and Nottingham Contemporary from January 26 -April 7, 2013.
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