Before the Revolution

by Marco Scotini, Sassuolo

Borgo Venezia. Circolo Alete Pagliani.
Not even an address, just a simple set of directions. A town, a neighbourhood, a clear reference point, which stands out among all those possible. A place, however, that as soon as one reaches it, one finds it too be full of ghosts, haunting this inhabited area, waiting to be summoned up not by the remains of a lost or forgotten history, but by something which is still present and deeply embedded in the urban fabric: in the street names, in people’s gestures. Via Monchio, via Costrignano, via Manno, via Marzabotto, via Gabriella degli Esposti are street names in memory of the scenes of slaughters, victims of fascist dragnets, all taken from a suffered yet “proud” common history: fragments of a great tradition which has been known to us as the Resistance for more than fifty years. As Michel de Certeau says, places are “stories waiting to be told”, and Borgo Venezia is perhaps something more: it is also a story “in action” within the space of an utterance, where history (that history) is continually written and rewritten by its own surviving protagonists. Here, where the Resistance is not simply a memory, but still part of everyday life, shared by real people in flesh and blood, with their own faces, their own fears, and their own values to defend, there is no room for abstract representation, let alone a sterile evaluation of its transmission, or an analysis of its handling.

These figures (the characters, the faces) that can always be found at the Circolo Alete Pagliani are the same that are here portrayed by Gianmaria Conti, in his red T-shirt with a photo printed on the front, in a strange moment. The choice of stance is a temporary, non-official one, in which the personal history of the artist comes face to face with History, in its most direct, hard-hitting version.

Each of Gianmaria Conti’s works is, in fact, a (photographic, video or narrative) illustration of a “family-tree”. It is not a linear, diachronic or combined sequence of history, but rather a circular or cyclic space in which we are always brought back to the starting point. Not to square one: always to something poised “between” two or more events, things or stories. The event around which this space revolves each time is the figure of the artist himself. On one hand we have his private family biography, and on the other his own sense of dispersion. Thus, the photographic archive, the catalogue or the inventory are used here to great effect.
Gianmaria Conti proceeds via the retrieval of images and other fragments of the past moving through ever-increasing circles of association. From individual memories, to family testimonies, to historical and social documents. Just as “Le Sette Settimane” (1998) depicted the original bond of affection between the artist and his aunt, the 60 faces of “Identità complesse” (2001) with its blurred cross-overs represented the family nucleus of fathers and children, mothers and brothers. And it is no coincidence that the never-ending circular sequence opened and closed with the portrait of the artist himself: a self “rediscovered” in others, in his own kind, yet for this very reason, irreparably compromised, never distinct and thus forever caught up “between” various identification processes.
“Eravamo tutti uguali” is simply another stage of this project; it may be thought of as the outer ring like that of a tree trunk. The phenomenon of the Resistance is featured here more as a backdrop or “theatre” of events than as a particular moment of our recent civil history. It represents, moreover, the artist’s homeland, the Modenese territory, different areas of his home town. This also explains Conti’s use of the precise street map on which the three expositional centres of the project are positioned.
Photos of survivors, audio interviews, official documents on Partisan training, distant voices echoing in the space between the deposits and the archives, the videos, the manipulated declarations as well as bits of revolutionary flotsam and jetsam are just some of the materials to be found in the bazaar of “Eravamo tutti uguali”, the project with which Gianmaria Conti, mixing reality and imagination, attempts to strip bare a sort of collective social sub-conscious regarding one of the key moments of our recent history, as well as the local memory of the context in which he is operating.
Conti’s gaze is that of one who performs a sort of urban archaeology among the ruins of the present, after the fall of Utopia, in an attempt not so much to put back together the pieces of the past, but to uncover the use, the exploitation, the processes of removal that have been carried out on that past. Thus, his is not an excavation through the layers of history so much as a form of contemporary archaeology.
Ever mindful of individual memories, family and trans-generational testimonies, through his use of photography and his renowned image collages, Gianmaria Conti attempts to retrieve these by juxtaposing faces, people, facts and landscapes. “Eravamo tutti uguali” sets the scene for an examination of one of the most complex chapters of our history, turning it into an object of desire, research and imagination. Of course, it is not a history without subjects. However, “memory” is not a suitable term to be used with regard to Gianmaria Conti’s work; or rather, it proves itself to be wholly insufficient and inadequate. This work is not aimed at protecting or preserving an individual or even collective identity, nor at retrieving memories of the past for the sake of posterity or in an attempt to rescue them from the reaches of obliquity. As a matter of fact, through the illustration “of lost time”, it is the very concept of individuality which is put on the spot and which comes out of it torn to shreds. As with many artists of the younger generation who make use of documentaries, catalogues and photography, here too the fragments of history (always carefully classified as much as they are altered, manipulated, imagined etc.) offer the most effective tool for its own deconstruction. This family-tree, albeit arbitrary or personal, thus becomes the only way not to exclude history from the present or the contradictions of the past.