Let’s Spit on Blue Ghettos: “The Unexpected Subject: 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy”
Marco Scotini and Isabella Zamboni in conversation
The title of the exhibition hosted at the FM Centre for Contemporary Art is borrowed from the pivotal feminist essay collection Sputiamo su Hegel (Let’s Spit on Hegel), written in 1970 by Italian art critic and activist Carla Lonzi and the Rivolta Femminile group. Only “those who are not trapped in the master-slave dialectic” can introduce “the Unexpected Subject into the world.”1 For Lonzi, the struggle is not only against the capitalist sovereign but also against the male one, hence the need to leave behind the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic—whose slave-and-master binary ignores the patriarchal trap of the “natural” (not cultural) opposition of the sexes—and releasing, as its ultimate victory, unforeseen possibilities of life. The exhibition intends to trace the variety of signs of this “Unexpected Subject” by gathering, for the first time so extensively, around one hundred female artists connected in various and individual ways to the feminist movement in Italy. In the following interview, Marco Scotini, who curated the exhibition together with Raffaella Perna, explains why body and language are the main battlefields against male oppression; how an overthrow can create new forms of being in the world; the merits of earliest “pink ghettos”; and how to perceive one’s own “topographical point of view” through a curtain.
Isabella Zamboni: The exhibition focuses on two particular tendencies of the experience of the 1970s female Italian artists—the body and language. Why exactly are word and flesh, among the many oppressive manifestations, the chosen arenas for the fight against male dominance?
Marco Scotini: “Looking for the body of language, the woman has also found her own.” With this sentence in the catalogue of the 1978 Venice Biennale, Mirella Bentivoglio summarized the work of about eighty artists (mostly Italian) who were for the first time part of the great international exhibition—always a stronghold of male creativity. This compact formation took the title Materializzazione del linguaggio (Materialization of Language), with explicit reference to the terms “matter” or “matrix” as well as to the noun mater, in trying to open a self-expressive and irreducible gap in the official language of the pater.
A re-proposal of that historical exhibition occupies a large space within our exhibition, but that was not the only reason we lingered long on the relationship between feminism and language in the Italian context. Starting already in the first room, a series of voices (Cathy Berberian, Betty Danon, Ketty La Rocca, Katalin Ladik) create a short-circuit with the display of the recorder with which Carla Lonzi documented the consciousness-raising meetings of the Rivolta Femminile group and through which, before the feminist turn, she edited that key book of militant art criticism, Autoritratto (Self-Portrait) of 1969.
I believe that a reflection on the relationship between Italian creativity and feminism should start from the Aristotelian consideration that the only animal that has language is a political animal. Here, then, we find a response to the secular silence and the interdiction that the writing of the feminine world starts precisely from language—but a language that must be sabotaged, denaturalized, to be removed from sexist power. At the center of much so-called visual poetry (in all its forms) there is an act of discourse that disputes grammar and the alphabet, which becomes situated and feminized, which recovers the voice or gesture by becoming corporeal, which continually displaces the pronouns “I” and “you” from their predefined dialogic positions, which resist normalization at the cost of loss of intelligibility.
The language of gestures and calligraphy as gestural writing by Ketty La Rocca, the photo-corporeal alphabets of Tomaso Binga, the childish doodle by Anna Oberto, the collages by Lucia Marcucci, the mimesis of the scripture of Irma Blank, the sewn books of Maria Lai, the indexical sign in Mirella Bentivoglio, the typographies of Giovanna Sandri, the epistolary format of Amelia Etlinger, the stave papers of Betty Danon, before anything else, are ways of denaturalizing language (and its devices) in which gender is given. And at the same time, they are signs of urgency and a need to communicate. Whether this attitude was conceived as “pen embroidery” or presupposed a fusion with the body (the “unrepeatable handwriting of myself” by La Rocca or the performed texts by Patrizia Vicinelli), there is always a rejection of the sayable imposed by the masculine language. As in Betty Danon or Irma Blank, the original text must always be deleted before it becomes the object of appropriation.
IZ: Precisely about this urge to delete: although various examples of a “free” and self-ruling expression are on show, many of the works exhibited seem defined primarily as a rejection, as an opposition, as “against” patriarchal apparatuses and devices. In a recent article Alain Badiou criticized recent political movements, from Occupy to the Yellow Vests, as mainly determined by a contrast to the existing: “To propose something that goes beyond denial… means doing something different, absolutely different,” not simply, or just, against.2 Can the urgency of recognition hide the risk of displaying and affirming geographies of power?
MS: I believe that the birth of feminism opened a new way of conceiving dissent and cultural transformation. As Lonzi stated in Sputiamo su Hegel, what is at stake is leaving behind the servant-master dialectic. Lonzi recognizes on the one hand that woman is not an antithesis of man, and on the other that in the Hegelian dialectic the original roles, which remain such, are not lost, even if in the end one (the servant) mechanically overturns the other (the master). Remaining in the struggle, but leaving the dialectic, means letting a new subjectivity emerge, such as unexpected possibilities of life. This legacy then passed into the Zapatista movement, into anti-globalization movements where disobedience is seen not only as an overthrowing practice but as an affirmative, creative form where the question is no longer how to conquer power, nor how to build a new power. The point is to invent ways of existence according to elective rules, irreducible to knowledge and power.
IZ: What are the dangers—or the merits—of the so-called pink ghettos, meaning exhibitions dedicated solely to women?
MS: The cultural and social movement of Négritude exemplifies how the contingent process of liberation from colonizers means claiming as one’s own and distinctive those cultural constructions for which one has been subjugated. Even in the case of feminist artists, the ghettoization of the first hour was voluntary, a strength and a self-assertion. In 1973 Lucy Lippard stated in “Why Separate Women’s Art?”: “In a few years, women’s art exhibitions, issues of magazines focused on women’s art alone, women’s art class, etc., will hopefully be unnecessary. For the time being, however, acknowledged discrimination against women pervades the international art world in subtle and often cruel forms.”3 I believe that now, however, pink ghettos make sense only in a historical and retrospective vision. The feminist criticism of feminism itself challenged the implicit risk of a reconstituted identity when it began to call that initial “unexpected subject” by other names: eccentric subjects (Teresa de Lauretis), fractured identities (Donna Haraway), nomadic subjects (Rosi Braidotti), to mention just a few.
IZ: I am curious about your decision to start the exhibition with the film Anna (1975), directed by Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli. As you write in the exhibition catalogue, it is a declaration of a “topographical point of view,” the point of view from which one looks, of a specific “situated knowledge,” as Donna Haraway put it.
MS: Let’s say that, even in this case, the reference goes to a feminist thought. The universalist discourse always presumes to be abstract and objective while it does nothing but hide the affirmation of particular interests. Projecting a fragment of the cult film Anna over a sort of theatrical curtain at the beginning of the exhibition not only means letting the destiny of “a woman in revolt” emerge, as Rachel Kushner called her in Artforum a few years ago.4 It also means staging the crisis of the film director’s patriarchal gaze through an underground filmmaker like Grifi. It means essentially questioning the sovereignty of the observer in order to place it in a particular topography, situated with respect to a time and a context. The risk is always of re-naturalizing things, re-proposing an essentialist discourse on identity, instead of deconstructing the ways in which certain cultural constructions have established themselves over time. After all, placing this film on the threshold of the exhibition, letting the spectator cross the curtain, means putting her or him on guard against the preconceptions that accompanied her or him and that do not cease to accompany her or him.
IZ: What do you think could be the legacy of past artistic experiences related to feminist thought with respect to the recent debate on gender, or to a certain tendency that links contemporary language and art today?5
MS: Certainly, if I think of a contemporary artist like Moyra Davey and her reenactment of forms of mail art, I come back to figures like Betty Danon, Amelia Etlinger, and many other artists present in the exhibition. Seeing the legacy of that visual poetry movement, scaled over the years, would be an interesting operation. Ketty La Rocca’s photos of hands and calligraphy anticipate the first productions of Shirin Neshat; likewise with La Rocca’s 1960s poem-flyers and the Truisms by Jenny Holzer. The same thing if we compare works by Mirella Bentivoglio and Barbara Kruger. I could go on and on. It would be interesting to see all this against the background of changed contexts and how such archaeology continues to function today, within the broader debate on gender.
IZ: How do you regard this show in relation to the broader program of FM Centre for Contemporary Art, where you are the artistic director?
MS: Since the first exhibition, L’Inarchiviabile/The Unarchivable. Italia anni 70 (2016), we have maintained two fundamental criteria: the idea of the archive, and what could be called the minority or subordinate subject. I believe that the buried archives of the past must always be reopened in order to give voice to those who have been deprived of one. In this sense we have presented, over the years, the subject under socialism, or the one under colonialism, now the feminist one—a subject that is always disobedient and never present in official narratives. It is nothing but a way to deconstruct the Western subject, which is always implicit. This is why we are interested in opening new chapters, rewriting history: that of the contemporary multitude.
1. Carla Lonzi, Sputiamo su Hegel (Milan: Scritti di Rivolta Femminile, 1974), 14. English translation by Veronica Newman available at http://blogue.nt2.uqam.ca/hit/files/2012/12/Lets-Spit-on-Hegel-Carla-Lonzi.pdf.
2. Alain Badiou, “Leçons du mouvement des ‘Gilets Jaunes,’” L’Autre Quotidien, March 10, 2019, https://www.lautrequotidien.fr/articles/2019/3/13/alain-badiou-leons-du-mouvement-des-gilets-jaunes-, my translation.
3. Lucy Lippard, “Why Separate Women’s Art?,” Art and Artists 8, no. 7 (October 1973): 8–9.
4. Rachel Kushner, ”Woman in Revolt: Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s Anna, Artforum 51, no. 3 (November 2012).
5. Quinn Latimer, “Art Hearts Poetry,” frieze, May 29, 2014, https://frieze.com/article/art-hearts-poetry.
The Unexpected Subject: 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy
curated by Marco Scotini and Raffaella Perna
at FM Centre for Contemporary Art, Milan
until 26 May 2019