15 October 2020

Enzo Mari and Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Triennale

I have never designed just for the pleasure of it but because I was thinking about what was wrong with the things around me and – with the limited tools at my disposal – I tried to examine and respond to the meaningless words that do the rounds in the design world. That’s why I think I’ve made, and always have made, things that were not goods, things that were not for sale.” With these words, Enzo Mari was referring to the “purpose” of his “art” in a conversation with Stefano Boeri and Hans Ulrich Obrist a few years ago. Who knows if that’s when the idea for the long-awaited exhibition Enzo Mari Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist was conceived. Due to open on 20th April last, then delayed by force majeure (the Covid-19 pandemic), it will finally open at the Triennale on 17th October. The retrospective was curated by the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, the historical section by Francesca Giacomelli, the art direction by Lorenza Baroncelli and the display design by Paolo Ulian.

The exhibition project was informed by the ongoing dialogue over the years between one of the most-loved and discussed masters of Italian design, and the Swiss art curator, critic and art historian, and focuses not only on Mari’s work but also on his approach: an excursus of objects, projects, drawings and archive material documenting more than 60 years of activity that have influenced contemporary design in Italy (and beyond). The exhibition is further enlivened by contributions from internationally-renowned figures from the art and design world, such as Virgil Abloh, Adelita Husni-Bei, Tacita Dean, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Mimmo Jodice, Dozie Kanu, Adrian Paci, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Danh Vo and Nanda Vigo, asked to pay tribute to Mari with site-specific or new works. Nando Vigo’s contribution, finished shortly before her death, is deserving of affectionate note and is a poetic, light-harnessing reinterpretation of one of the designer’s most famous works, I 16 Animali.

The historical section of the exhibition begins with a reinstallation of Mari’s last exhibition, curated by his studio at GAM – the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Turin - in 2009 and contains some 250 projects, considered the most significant and representative of the more than 2,000 conceived during his career. The exhibition unfolds in chronological order, with no distinction between disciplines, techniques or fields of research. Meanwhile, nineteen Research Platforms delve further into nineteen designs from which themes central to Mari’s practice and poetics emerge such as, for example, his early studies into perceptual ambiguities, his research into experimental and mass production, and the concept of standards. This section also includes one of the designer’s final projects, carried out before he retired from the scene, the stunning display for the exhibition Vodun, African Voodoo, designed for the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris in 2011, of which a space has been recreated with powerful formal references to the structures of the models making up his 1974 Proposal for a Self-Design.

The exhibition closes with a series of video-interviews by Obrist, which testify to Mari’s constant ethical tension, his theoretical depth and his extraordinary ability to give shape to the essential in design. All his projects attempt to respond to the social urgency and moral necessity that he has felt throughout his life. As the designer says: “My first master’s name was Plato. As a child, I glimpsed his name when I went to study at the Biblioteca di Brera. Plato struck me because he talked about ethics, about projects not carried out merely in the interests of a single person, but for everybody. So, that’s always been fundamental for me.”

The Triennale exhibition is an extremely important one, given the fact that Mari donated his entire collected works to the city of Milan, where he lived and worked, although he has stipulated that his archive should remain under wraps for the next 40 years. “Because I believe, with the conviction of a slightly optimistic child, that it will be forty years before a new generation, not spoilt like that of today, will be able to make informed use of it. My great hope is that in the not too distant future there will be a generation of young people who will react and will take on board the deep meaning of things.”

What we can expect is a stunning show that puts the spotlight on Mari’s non-conformist theoretical research, irreverent, yet always ironic. We’ll give you the lowdown in this Magazine once we’ve been to see it!


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