Research into the contemporary
We are living in decidedly “interesting” times. This is the title chosen this year by Ralph Rugoff (director of London’s Hayward Gallery) for the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale, which recalls: “May You Live In Interesting Times”.
This expression, long attributed mistakenly to an ancient Chinese curse, today evokes challenging, even threatening, times that remind us that ours is, for all intents and purposes, a difficult period above all because it foreshadows what may be an even more complicated future and an uncertain scenario.
“Art does not exert its efforts in the field of politics,” underlines Rugoff […] In an indirect way, however, art can perhaps offer a guide that helps us to live and think in these ‘interesting times’.” Art therefore has a social role that includes both pleasure and critical thought, fundamental for analysing a future that will bring an unprecedented revolution about which there are contrasting opinions on its nature and imminence. A future in which robots and new technologies will change every level of our lives, thanks to bioengineering and artificial intelligence. A scenario in which, thanks to Big Data and automatic learning, algorithms will understand what happens in the human brain better than humans can as individuals, becoming able to fully manage our every need.
With the constant and increasingly frequent risk of oversimplification imposed by our times, fluid, fast, approximate, we run the risk of never pausing to reflect on what, how and where we are living. There is a need for critical instruments to interpret information in order to distinguish what is important from what is irrelevant and, above all, in order to be able to frame all the information in a broader global scenario.
First of all, clarity must be brought to this and Giorgio Agamben, in his seminar What is the contemporary?, gives his answer to this question, reflecting on what it means to be contemporary in the era of post-modernity and what it means to belong to one’s own century.
Certainly, according to the definition given by Nietzsche, “the contemporary is inopportune, it contains a mismatch, a disconnection, a non-coincidence”. So he who does not coincide perfectly with his time is truly contemporary, he who, according to Agamben, fixes his gaze in his own time to perceive not the light but the darkness. But what is the darkness that we see? All times are dark, the perception of the darkness is not a failing but a special ability.
From 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, this special ability is translated into acquiring a “great mental flexibility and substantial reserves of emotional equilibrium. It is necessary,” writes Harari, “to continuously abandon parts of our best competence and be at peace in the unknown. If we cannot be certain of the peculiar aspects of the future, we can certainly trust the fact that change, of itself, is an unavoidable certainty.
To remain relevant, not only economically but above all socially, there is a need to continue to learn and know how to constantly reinvent oneself by constructing new narratives. Nothing more than art and culture can be a sufficiently formidable instrument to win the challenge to all inclinations to oversimplification, a kind of deviance that, if used as a way to interpret the world, would make us live like fossils, without the ability to change.”
Art and culture can provide us with the instruments to reconsider our possibilities and transform problems into exciting new challenges. Art, in the broadest sense, therefore has a privileged role since it is capable of illuminating certain contemporary aspects of our psyche, society and social relations together. A code through which to understand and read the present, a language that we can use to express that ability to change, to live, to swim in the darkness of which Agamben speaks.
A virtuous example that is worth noting for its originality, born of the idea of someone who sees in art the same expressive potential and the most effective way to understand and represent contemporaneity, is the exhibition Contemporanee/Contemporanei, inaugurated on Tuesday, 10 September 2019 at the Polo Santa Marta of Verona University, curated by Denis Isaia of the MART museum of Rovereto.
The exhibition is an innovative project that aims to involve students in contemporary art. For the project, AGI Verona of the well-known collector Giorgio Fasol, who for years has invested almost exclusively in the works of young, emerging artists, in agreement with Verona University, undertook to provide, free of charge, students with around a hundred works from his collection in the hope that the new generations can experience their own time as central figures, that is, contemporaneously.
To be central figures, Harari writes, “you must not hold on to some lasting identity, work or conception of the world, you risk being left behind as the world flies far away from you like a powerful roll of thunder”.
The exhibition is a compendium of the linguistic Babel of our day in which traditional languages like design or figurative painting live alongside more conceptual interventions, the installation and video art, giving rise to a colloquial process with the works for the purpose of emphasising their communicative power and creating synergies and diverse cultural interests. An example of how art is a frontier language, which navigates its way among different disciplines, different cultures and perspectives of identity and which finds in non-definition the best way to define contemporaneity.