From 1903 to 1921, Henrietta Swan Leavitt studied thousands of photographic glass plates at the Harvard College Observatory; at the time, female astronomers were employed as ‘human computers’, but not allowed to use telescopes. After calculating the pulsations and distance of ‘variable stars’, she discovered that the universe was much larger than previously imagined. Unrecognised at the time, her revolutionary conclusion paved the way for a greater understanding of the distance between Earth and far-off, ever-expanding galaxies. The artist Rosa Barba pays a poetic homage to Leavitt with her 35mm kinetic sculpture Drawn by the Pulse (2018), which can be seen at Vistamare Studio as part of her first solo exhibition at the gallery, ‘Pensiero Spaziolungo’ (Thought Longspace). Images of the stars recorded on Leavitt’s plates flicker on the wall, while the film purrs through an intricate set of wheels before reaching the projector; the starlight moving across space and time mingles with the light beam piercing the gallery. Our ability to see, the artist suggests, relies on careful individual observation but it also takes a collective change of perspective to clarify some elements.
Judging by this autumn’s exhibitions, the Milanese art world seems to have realized that there are more women artists on Earth than it had previously realized. At Fondazione Prada, one of the three installations that comprise Laura Lima’s show ‘Horse Takes King’, Telescope (2018) – which she describes as a ‘syzygy’, i.e. an alignment of celestial bodies – brings visitors to the top of a dizzying scaffold, where an inaccessible telescope is positioned under the glass roof, so that the sky is visible only with the naked eye. On the day of my visit, an astronomer – who had been invited by the artist to deliver daily lectures – reminded me that the possibility of the existence of Martians was fuelled by the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in Milan in the 1870s.
Three gallery exhibitions devoted to key feminist artists prove that, while art history loves to idolize ‘iconic’ works of a given time, individual careers keep on expanding. The gallerist Francesca Minini (who shares this project with her father’s gallery, Massimo Minini, in Brescia) brought together a selection of abstract works produced by Carla Accardi in her last decade (she died in 2014 at the age of 90). A chequered black and grey floor in printed felt (Pavimento, Floor, 2009-10), light bulbs wrapped in varnished sicofoil (Viola Giallo, Purple Yellow, 2010) and vinyls on canvas such as Giallo Rosa (Yellow Pink, 2004) testify to Accardi’s playfulness with both colour and materials. At Kaufmann Repetto, ‘Sky Goddess’ pays homage to the late Nancy Spero with several hand-printed collages on paper. If tortured women are the subject of Real Politics (1991-92) and The Protector (2001), Life Dance (1995) and Maenad and the Dildo Dancers and Acrobats (1990) are choreographies of powerful female bodies, rendered in seductive hues. In 1976, Spero wrote: ‘Political art is always being attacked between intentions and technique – a fake argument because the problem of success in relation to intentions and techniques is not just a problem of political art, but of all art.’ At Raffaella Cortese, Simone Forti holds fort with ‘On An Iron Post’, whose ‘centre of gravity’, as she writes in her statement, are three recent video projections (Zuma News, 2014; Flag in the Water, 2014; A Free Consultation, 2016) that ‘present an intimately physical engagement with ocean, river and lakefront and with sand, water and snow (…) There is no intended message, but rather an invitation to let your body have its own ideas and thoughts’. We see Forti (who was born in Italy in 1935 to a Jewish family which emigrated to the US in 1939 because of antisemitism) holding newspapers and algae on a sunny beach or crawling over frozen branches and patches of ice with her increasingly fragile body, while trying to catch a signal with a small radio. In an older video (News Animation: Mad Brook Farm, 1986), Forti improvises dances and poems after a newspaper’s headlines, in a pulsing stream of consciousness full of irony (‘Hello Mom, I’m here on Mars’), emotion and concerns about the political state of the world.
With shows by Benni Bosetto at Fonderia Battaglia, Allison Katz at Gio Marconi and Cally Spooner at Zero about to open at the time of writing, two institutional exhibitions complete the women’s parade. At La Triennale di Milano, ‘Tightrope Walking and Its Wordless Shadows’ by Haegue Yang (curated by Bruna Roccasalva for Fondazione Furla) condenses a retrospective into three rooms. In the final gallery, the graphic series ‘Trustworthies’ (2010-ongoing), is installed along the walls like a funky, glittery frieze, while two large Sonic Dress Vehicles (Bulky Birdy; Hulky Head (both 2018) on wheels are animated by performers. At Hangar Bicocca, Leonor Antunes’s ‘The Last Days in Galliate’ (curated by Roberta Tenconi) weaves together ten groups of sculptures made from brass, iron, leather, rope, rattan and wood. Antunes intertwines her familiar references to Anni Albers and Clara Porset with Milanese architects and designers such as Franco Albini, Gio Ponti and the lesser known Franca Helg (1920-89). Helg’s rigorous elegance and passion for artisanal techniques inspired Antunes’s new series ‘Discrepancies with F.H.’ (2018) and Franca (2018). It would seem there are radical discoveries and expanding constellations in progress, here too.
Main image: Rosa Barba, Pensiero Spaziolungo, 2017. neon, 65 × 422 cm. Courtesy the artist and Vistamarestudio, Milano; photograph: Filippo Armellin