Cittadellarte exhibition at the Kunsthaus Graz
The brainchild of Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, Cittadellarte was founded in 1998. It is an art collective conceived as an open international network, operating out of a converted industrial complex in the town of Biella in Piemont. At the moment their focus is on Re-Birth Day, a date symbolically scheduled to coincide with the widely proclaimed End of the World, which is actually rather soon: December 21st 2012. Cittadellarte’s theory is that humanity has gone through two paradises. The first, in which it integrated fully with nature; the second, in which it expanded into an artificial world of its own, which grew until it came into conflict with the natural world. It is time to begin the third stage, in which humanity will reconcile and unite nature and artifice, creating a new balance at every level and in every area of society: the Third Paradise.
This all sounds potentially esoteric, but isn’t. The core idea behind the Cittadellarte. Sharing Transformation exhibition at the Kunsthaus Graz - and indeed behind Cittadellarte itself - is to inspire responsible change in society through public participation and interaction, in an artistic yet down-to-earth kind of way. This is not just socially engaged art, it is supposed to be socially engaging art. Thus it seems only natural that one aim of the exhibition should be encouraging you, me and Joe Bloggs to get involved hands on with the artistic interventions it presents.
The idea of public participation at an exhibition, however, invitably arouses a little cynicism. Especially here: my experience of most Kunsthaus exhibitions has definitely been one of Keep your sticky hands away from our art - even when it’s not strictly necessary or desirable. At the Diana Thater gorillagorillagorilla video show a couple of years ago, my children where told off for stroking - not a valuable exhibit - but the concrete block propping up a projection stand. Last year at Autotheater I saw an unsuspecting tourist being shouted at for sitting on a sturdy metal Franz West chair - yes, that’s It doesn’t matter what the art looks like but how it’s used, Franz West of the touch-me adaptives.
At the top of the escalator on the way into the Space01 at the Kunsthaus, one is usually greeted with a large sign stuck across the floor: Please do NOT touch the exhibits. For the current exhibition, the NOT has been peeled off. Even so, you wonder just how participatory any art exhibition here will prove to be. Can we throw off years of ingrained cultural conditioning and lose our inhibitions not just about touching, but also joining in with art in a gallery?
From the very start, it must be said that the lovable Cittadellarte exhibition furniture goes a long way already to overcoming these barriers. The rambling wooden construction was made by constructLab, a collaborative construction practice with architect and joiner Alexander Römer at its centre. They ordered the wooden planks and then built the Kunststadt themselves over a couple of weeks: a hands-on, dynamic team that aims to integrate design into the handling of the materials and the construction process. It’s an open, raw structure with a down-to-earth practicality that reflects their philosophy, yet entirely without the amateur shoddiness that often mars idealistic art-collective efforts. Embellished with details, it even includes a useable wooden carousel. Other aspects of its rawness add to its success: its warm colour, the deliciously fragrant woody smell, and the striking contrast these make with its gallery setting.
With its re-use in mind, the wood was cut as little as possible and screwed together. One area of the exhibition is devoted to what should happen with the planks once the exhibition is over: suggestions are invited and pinned to a wall for public space uses. Some are serious - pages and pages of printed proposal, while others are scribbled on post-its, more like little jokes - Build some treehouses in the park. All are evidence in my hunt for traces of genuine public interaction.
The layout resembles a trail of stations, with contributions by various individual artists or smaller collectives on different themes around the subject. There are also a couple of areas presented by curators rather than artists, and it is interesting to note how quickly one can spot which they are. It is hard not to warm to all of these stations, however: there is a strain of gentle humour running through that goes a long way to easing even the prickliest, most cynical of reserves and which also helps to dissipate the (albeit admirable) earnestness of the social intentions behind them. Viennese landscape designer Leopold Calice cooks the urban landscape in the kitchen station, with ingredients he finds around the city. For a while the results of each meal were presented in pickling jars, until they started to smell. There is a book where visitors can write down favourite recipes. Berlin-based studio Para Art Formations (PUF) collaborated with The Graz Rebikel crew to build a delivery bike out of recycled parts, which can be borrowed for art interventions. One of their own interventions is shown in a video: couples dancing salsa at locations in the Graz city centre and inviting others to have a go. This caught my attention, since one sunny day last summer I witnessed a Graz crowd standing resolutely stock-still before a despairing Jamaican reggae DJ. Apparently, however, there really were enthusiastic takers for this spontaneous salsa intervention.
At the heart of the space is the Love Difference table, a vast mirrored Mediterranean surrounded with comfy chairs, which serves as a discussion forum during the exhibition. I won’t describe in detail the many other stations, especially since one of the peculiarities of the exhibition is that there are no guided tours: the premise being that the show should be discovered for itself by each individual. Perhaps my favourite, however, is the Experimental Station by Chicago-based artist Dan Peterman, which places Styrian goat’s cheese in a greenhouse, relying on the visitors’ passive participation to mature the cheese by breathing carbon dioxide into it. Another aspect to the smell sensation of this exhibition.
Predictably, it is children who are quickest to embrace the notion of participation. Co-curator Katia Huemer shows me a notice board where residents of Graz are invited to suggest improvements for the city. Katia’s small daughter has drawn the Schlossberg clocktower, surrounded by blue felt-tip water. The message: Graz would be better if it had a seaside.
With one station offering the option to earn a Certificate of Transformation’ in return for making some paper handicraft, there is the feeling that you are being invited to discover your inner child - though I don’t mean that in a bad way. Even if you do end up observing more than actively participating, the exhibition puts a smile on your face for a long time afterwards. It achieves a great sense of friendly, meaningful involvement and inclusion, without slipping into triteness. Originally the plan was also to have free entrance, this however proved impossible due to political constraints. Nonetheless, if you are around on December 21st - the End of the World - the Cittadellarte exhibition will be staging a big Re-Birth Day party, with free entry for everyone. I’ll be there, and I might even be persuaded to join in.