Ai Weiwei's Reframe: the eternal indignation of Florentines (and Camillo Langone's rants)

Ai Weiwei's exhibition begins, with the installation Reframe on the facade of Palazzo Strozzi, and immediately the Florentines' discontent begins.

It is certainly not to be discovered today that many Florentines are now pervaded by motions of indignant revulsion toward all works ofcontemporary art that dare to invade the streets and squares of the so-called “cradle of the Renaissance”: the criticism that Ai Weiwei ’s Reframe installation is receiving in these hours is but the latest chapter in a story about a lack of tolerance on the part of a good portion of the city toward artistic expressions of the present. The problem, however, is largely hidden behind the very definition of Florence: it seems that for many of its inhabitants the city has stopped at the early sixteenth century, and must remain plastered in its glorious splendor.

And the same is true for many commentators: thelatest article by Camillo Langone of Il Foglio comes to mind, who finds no less than five reasons to consider Ai Weiwei’s work even humiliating to Italy. Some of the rambling ramblings in the piece are objectively hard to answer: this is the case, for example, with the consideration that the work is humiliating because the artist is Chinese and therefore from a country “that not satisfied with having us in its grip economically is now invading us artistically” (beyond the leghist terminology with which Langone seasons his reasoning, the journalist probably ignores that Ai Weiwei has had and continues to have major problems with the Chinese authorities precisely because of his artistic activity that is highly critical of the political and social reality of his country... and in any case, it is always abject to make remarks about anyone solely on the basis of his nationality). However, it is worth dwelling on one of Langone’s five reasons: certainly not because the aforementioned has produced any particularly sophisticated or innovative reasoning, but for the simple fact that the hypothesis that “installation profanes the cradle city of the Renaissance” is the same one that recurs on the lips of so many people who perhaps have never set foot inside the Brancacci Chapel or could not tell where Pontormo’s Deposition is, but are indignantly opposed and scandalized at the idea that even in Florence one can contaminate the ancient with the contemporary.

To think that Florence (which is mostly identified with its historic center) is untouchable is harmful in many ways. Reducing the city to a “cradle of the Renaissance” incapable of updating itself and thinking about an identity that, while taking into account its tradition, would project the city into the future (if a Renaissance was born in Florence, it is because the Florentines of the time had, precisely, a future-oriented idea of their city) has had the double and disturbing effect of transforming Florence into a sort of 15th-15th century playground, with a center in which Florentines are reduced to acting as obsequious ceremonialists to the new masters of the city (mass tourism, multinational corporations, wealthy private individuals who often consider the places of Florentine sociality to be private property), and with a periphery that is at the same time forced to accommodate inhabitants who are pushed out of the center, but which is the object of very little attention, so much so that it does not even get a lack of degradation situations. To put it briefly: Florence has become, in essence, along with Venice, the Italian capital of gentrification. And this unedifying role that the city has taken on has been, and continues to be, fueled by politics that grants public goods for use to wealthy entrepreneurs eager to close them to the citizenry, that is unable to think of an alternative development model, and that uses art as a means of consensus and not as a tool to form the civic sense of citizens.

Allestimento di Reframe di Ai Weiwei
Setting up the installation Reframe by Ai Weiwei

It is that same politics that grants approval to contemporary art installations, with all its load of contradictions: think of Ai Weiwei installing his inflatable boats on the windows of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence amid the praise of Mayor Dario Nardella, and at the same time the politics that would not demonstrate a clear, constant and transparent commitment to control where exactly the weapons produced in Italy end up. However, perhaps paradoxically,contemporary art can become a means of arresting the inexorable decline mentioned above: among the few occasions when Florence has been able to reflect on itself have been those offered by the recent public interventions of contemporary artists (think Jeff Koons and Jan Fabre, before Ai Weiwei), which have had the merit of stimulating lively discussions not only on the role of contemporary art, but also on the transformation of the city. Ai Weiwei, with his Reframe that acts as a “side dish” to a solo exhibition that will run until January (and that we at Finestre sull’Arte are going to visit), gives us the same opportunity, allowing us to conduct a further reflection on the drama of migrants, shoving in our faces those dinghies that for so many are synonymous with escape, mourning, despair, according to a way of proceeding typical of an artist accustomed to proposing works endowed with strong symbolic meanings, which aim to impress the observer.

The distance between the dinghies of migrants and the large windows of Palazzo Strozzi is the same as that between those fleeing wars and misery and the society that should welcome those who choose to rebuild their lives in another part of the world. And symbolically this distance, through a mechanism of fine provocation also often present in Ai Weiwei’s art, is reflected in the rejection of the work by “purists” who would like ancient art to be far from any kind of contamination. Perhaps that such rejection is also what society opposes to migrants? These are reflections to which Reframe induces, and it is precisely this ability to move minds that makes Ai Weiwei, as a note published on the Palazzo Strozzi website states, “an artist who, by crossing different artistic genres, from architecture to cinema, from photography to poetry, from sculpture to painting, can transform an artifact or an inert object, such as a dinghy, into the lacerating cry of humanity” and “a free thinker who wants to give art a very important social and political role, in the noblest sense of the term.”

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