MARINELLA SENATORE: Piazza Universale/Social Stagesby Yasaman Alipour
Queens Museum | april 9 – july 30, 2017
Piazza Universale/Social Stages is the first major exhibition of the Italian artist Marinella Senatore, whose work deals deep with themes important to the mission of the Queens Museum, namely: self-examination, community orientation, and political responsibility. Senatore’s practice is informed by a life of social engagement. She initiates occasions where roles are returned to the citizens—professionals and amateurs, scholars and illiterates—who become writers, actors, dancers, singers, and the ultimate decision makers. An art educator throughout her career, Senatore dedicates her practice to activism, community empowerment, alternative education, building platforms, and through it all a historical study of the relationship between art and society today.
Piazza Universale/Social Stages consists of four sections, each dedicated to a city and its residents, who collectively explore their shared history, longings, and imagined futures. Three are major projects realized in the past decade and the fourth is a stage for the story of New York. Each project shifts between video, opera, theater, installation, music, collage, and posters. Through these expansive multimedia collaborations, communal voices unfold.
The Queens Museum approaches this work—which inherently belongs to the public realm—with uniquely playful self-criticism. The decoration of the entrance brings to mind an amusement park; visitors enter through the mouth of a gigantic head. Inside, the space resounds with the loud soundtrack of the different pieces, switching randomly. As one traverses the long room that houses the three recent projects, lights switch from one piece to the next, flashing over walls covered with large text, posters, and collages—abounding in heavily leftist political statement. In every other corner there are video installations that document the actual happenings, films, plays, and performances. Select objects from these events rest among the documentation. Though at points verging on cacophony, the Queens Museum’s decision to not adhere to a chronological narrative invites viewers into the work of an artist determined to understand the contemporary moment through historical and materialistic social studies.
The first and earliest project, Speak Easy (2009–17), is a musical dedicated to Madrid and the horrors of Franco’s era. Realized and funded by the participation of 1,200 of its citizens, the video presents the oral history through the narrative language of wartime American cinema, which was blocked under the dictatorship. As such the work—saturated with nostalgia—reconsiders history as the intersection of the individual’s trauma and the social memory. The next section belongs to MétalOpérette (2017), a theater piece based in Auberville, a former industrial suburb north of Paris. In the dramatic piece one finds the worn narrative of class struggle but this time written, planned, and performed by the residents of the town stricken by unemployment—due to the recent market crash. The brief video documentation is accompanied with a wall that turns the Liberetto into posters in the graphic style of Atelier Populaire recalling France’s May 1968 Student Movement. The horrors caused by the contemporary system are mirrored in the Marxist discourse and leftist movements of the land’s yesteryears. Here history is no longer an objective dead past, but it has become a potent tale unearthed by the urgency of the present.
In Senatore’s third piece, Modica Street Musical: the Present, the Past, the Possible (2016) she explores an intertwined image of historical narratives, present desires, and visions of future through the citizens of her homeland. The three-act piece starts with the “present;” the city’s diverse performers take over the town. It then arrives at the “past ... in its capacity to bear witness to the evolutions of the social fabric through the historical transformation,” which is told through stories, anecdotes, and recitation of local histories. Rather than the final act being the future, per se, Senatore dedicates it to the “possible,” an honoring of the legacy of activism. For this act, Senatore worked with her long collaborator, composer Emiliono Brando, to make a soundtrack based on audio recordings of the streetscape submitted by local residents. Senatore isn’t merely an artist and activist informed by Marxist traditions; she belongs to the complex contemporary moment, wherein historical thinking is convoluted by human desires and when the need for the future to be reconsidered—and sought after—as a realm of possibilities has become undeniable.
The last piece, Protest Forms: Memory and Celebration (2016–17), noticeably more reserved than the rest, is separated from the other installations. The room is a gathering of Senatore’s graphic and text works that employ the aesthetics of protests through iconic photographs, quotes, and poems. The space borrows the style of New York’s eminent 1980s activist art collective Group Material and gives way to Senatore’s April 9th performance, Protest Forms: Memory and Celebration II (2017), which drew nearly 300 participants many associated with local activist groups such as Black Lives Matters, Circle World Arts and Brooklyn Nomads; Lesbian and Gay Big Apple Corpse Symphonic Band, Woman Initiative for Self-Empowerment, and so many more. The performance took over the entire museum and expanded to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Chanting and parading, the participants meshed into a beautiful group, which did not represent any single political agenda, but made evident the cohesion of a community coming together to celebrate their unique strength.