Enzo Mari goes to XVI Triennale di Milano
Taking inspiration from the projects Eppur si muove (1979) and Eppur si muove? (1981), which were shown in the exhibition Enzo Mari curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist with Francesca Giacomelli, we offer some insights into Enzo Mari’s participation in the XVI Triennale in 1979.
Revolution and reform at the Triennale
When the XVI Triennale opened in 1979, the aim was to reshape the role of the institution in the wake of the identity crisis that had come about after the events of 1968. Funds were low for this edition, and there were only just enough for the day-to-day running of the Palazzo, which was also in a very sorry state. “We decided to open as a challenge” declared the then president, the sociologist Giampaolo Fabris.
From this edition onwards, the Triennale began to form its new structure as an institutional laboratory for research and experimentation as well as a permanent centre for the production of events related to design culture, while also opening up to areas that it had previously excluded, such as audio-visuals and fashion. It also lay the foundations for setting up its own archive system.
Based on this policy, the Exhibition was divided into three sections, lasting for a total of two years and two months, each with a full calendar of exhibitions and events linked to five themes: knowledge of the city, architectural projects, positioning design, fashion sense, and audio-visual space.
Positioning Design was one of the main themes of the XVI Triennale, with Mario Bellini, Achille Castiglioni, Ettore Sottsass jr. and Filippo Tartaglia on the advisory committee under the guidance of Gae Aulenti (council manager) and the coordination of Franco Origoni and Franco Raggi, in collaboration with Michele De Lucchi. Based on the premise that it is difficult to establish hard-and-fast disciplinary boundaries for design, the exhibition Inizio di un censimento, verso la raccolta, which was shown in the first section, explored issues concerning the production, consumption and use of objects, while also recording, in an anthropological vision of design, the different forms adopted by the design culture of those years.
The survey started with the personal poetic visions of 12 Italian designers – the number was dictated by limited resources and time – who were invited to reflect on their own work (as well as to take part personally in setting up the exhibition – again due to a lack of funds).
The designers – Mario Bellini, Francesco Binfaré, Andrea Branzi, Achille Castiglioni, Riccardo Dalisi, Paolo Deganello, De Pas-D’Urbino-Lomazzi, Enzo Mari, Roberto Sambonet, Richard Sapper, Ettore Sottsass, and Superstudio/Adolfo Natalini – were all very different in terms of method, culture, and artistic and political vision.
Opening of the exhibition La sistemazione del design – Inizio di un censimento, verso una raccolta, during the first series of exhibitions of the XVI Triennale, 1979 © Triennale Milano – Archivi
And Yet it Moves!
For Eppur si muove, an installation that appeared in the form of a political and social experiment. Enzo Mari took inspiration from a famous phrase attributed to Galileo, which is usually used to express doubt about a commonly held view: “Eppur si muove!” – “And yet it moves!”
He hoisted a large wooden wheel, three metres across, onto a metal scaffold, where it was fastened onto an off-centre hub, bearing three words:
“Revolution” in letters made of firecrackers and fireworks;
“Reformation” written in Meccano pieces;
“Restoration” in tomb-like letters in the Bodoni font.
The instructions invited the public to: 1) turn the disk, 2) hold on firmly, 3) reflect.
When the visitor turned the large disk, they could choose to stop it in a position that would make one of the words legible, thus in a position that was ideological rather than physical. Mari predicted that the words most people would choose would be “Revolution” or “Reformation”, so he designed the wheel in such a way that, once it was released, it would return to the word “Restoration”.
The invitation to the viewer was to take a personal stance and work hard to keep the chosen word – the chosen ideology – to the fore. But it was also collective, requiring cooperation with other visitors in a joint effort to avoid the eternal return of a “Restoration” (of old ideas, and of the absence of debate).
As was his wont, Mari observed the visitors and noticed that only a few of them actually rotated the disk and even fewer involved others in a collective effort.
A key place in Enzo Mari’s vision of his work and of the role of design was given to personal responsibility and collective self-awareness, and he explained this in a note on the autograph drawing published in the exhibition catalogue: “The choice may be easy or difficult but it can nevertheless be made – the problem may arise later.”
*The work Eppur si muove is one of the works in the Archive Collection that Enzo Mari donated to the CSAC, the Centro Studi e Archivio della Comunicazione of the University of Parma.
Where is the artisan?
The third series of exhibitions linked to the XVI Triennale opened in December 1981. In a geodesic dome measuring 26 meters across, placed in the park, Enzo Mari set up Dov’è l’artigiano, an exhibition put on at the 45° Mostra Internazionale dell’artigianato in the Fortezza da Basso in Florence in April and May 1981
The exhibition examined the issue of craftsmanship, defining its parameters with examples that involved examining the sectors in which it is to be found. The underlying premise was that a craftsman, to be such, must have possession of his work and the ability to produce experience. This implies that, in the creation of an item, the various stages of the work – from planning to execution – cannot and must not be distinct.
In the range of objects on display, it was emphasised that products sold as artisanal are often mass-produced by machines while various aspects of industrial production are actually handmade by artisans (such as prototypes for the automotive industry or for large turbines, precision tools, or furniture).
Here the artisan is viewed as a stationary driving force behind industrial production – rather than behind what is referred to as artisanal, which often tends towards the logic of artistic craftsmanship and kitsch.
The exhibition examined all the various facets of craftsmanship, which is to say artisanal quality in industry (prototypes, tools, moulds, quasi-prototypes, and construction sites), the extremes of work (for the few, with little reward), tradition today (from functional to decorative, and from decorative to decorative, though still functional), and artistic research (craftsman, architect, artist).
The exhibition space was arranged around a central arena with concentric rows of seats for daily debates, which were considered as an integral part of the exhibition. The topics concerned the various categories of craftsmanship as represented by the objects on display, but they also concerned schools of design, architecture and crafts, and included a conference on the “problem of artistic craftsmanship”.
For Enzo Mari, Dov’è l’artigiano was another opportunity to reflect on one of the themes closest to his heart, which was that of work that can be freed from alienation only if those who carry out every stage of it take possession of it. In other words, the exact opposite of what happens in modern industry, which tends to break it down and reduce it to no more than a series of constantly repeated actions in order to optimise profits.