Hangar Bicocca is a non-for-profit contemporary art space located in
the outskirts of Milan. It was opened in 2004 and is fully sponsored by
the Italian giant conglomerate Pirelli. A far greater corporate
contribution to the arts than what Louis Vuitton did with their LVF in my
opinion. A main component of its success is its leadership: its Artistic
Director is Vicente Todolí, a monumental curator who headed the giant
powerful Tate Modern for 7 years from 2003 to 2010. If the contemporary
art world would be compared world politics (not that it is that
far-fetched of a comparison), the Tate Modern would probably hold a
comfortable seat at the UN Security Council, veto-ing what is art and
what is not alongside its mega-powers peers: the MoMA, Guggenheim, Centre
Pompidou and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. No wonder that the
ex-president of the Tate would make such a great job creating a new art
nation outpost in North-East Milan.
I had the chance to visit Hangar Bicocca in late
August 2015, alongside my trek to the new Prada Foundation. Three
exhibitions were open: Damiàn Ortega's Casino, Anselm Kiefer's permanent
installation The Seven Heavenly Palaces and Juan Muñoz's Double Blind and
Around - all three curated by Todolì.
In retrospect, this visit was probably the most emotionally charged
response I've got from art all year long. A word I can describe the
Hangar is theatricality. A 15,000 square meter ex-factory of train parts
turned into a stage of creative minds exploring, conflicting, engaging,
discussing about the meaning of life. The building was indeed a factory
belonging to the Breda group, which 'manufactured railway carriages,
electric and steam locomotives, boilers, farm machinery and equipment
and, during the First World War, aeroplanes, projectiles and other
products for the war effort. The devasted industrial past is something I
could feel in the air walking through this art foundation's rooms. They
are not rooms: they are stages, huge efforts of ingenuity.
Factories are standing in isolation, outside the realm of the city life.
They are special buildings, just as special a church is to the
continuation of residential buildings that make up the streets of the
European city. But what differentiate factories is that their only
symbolic meaning is one of labor and capitalism. Once the activity of
labor is gone.. what becomes of them? Do they just become large
meaningless spaces? Well isn't that the perfect blank state for art to
come in and give it the meaning of life.
Is it a coincidence that contemporary art's best suited environment is in deserted factory?
After these witty and rough comments on industrialization, we enter the
world of Juan Muñoz. A poignant, cynical world full of clay figures -
theatrical stages of silent human interactions.
Muñoz (b. 1953, d. 2001) was a Spanish sculptor working primarily in
papier mache, clay and resin. He was fascinated by the public interaction
with his life-size sculptures: He took empty space as a blank canvas upon
which we could compose narratives and movements - he transposed what
artists have been meaning to convey with paintings to an audience-based
His figures in his Many Times (1999) installation are scarily realistic.
Made of grey clay, they each possess a different body position and facial
expression. They are dressed usually in a similar uniform. Put together
in a room, it looks like the artist super-sized a toy kit of soldier
miniatures and took the arms off. Alternatively, it may seem like the
visitor is entering a film set or a theater scene, but a scene that makes
him feel like an outsider, one that he cannot interact with, one that he
is alienated from. On this work, Munoz commented: "The spectator becomes
very much like the object to be looked at, and perhaps the viewer has
become the one who is on view". I have never been this impressed with
sculptural installation before. An inspiration for all visual artists out
We move to the permanent installation.
Seven towers. Seven floors each. This is unprecedented: 7 seven-level
buildings put in the context of an art installation. It took me 20
minutes to tour the installation: simply to walk around these buildings
and back. I felt like I was put in a heterotopia: an alternate city
within the space of the Hangar Bicocca in Milan, Italy. I was transposed
to a James Bond movie set, to ancient Babylon, to contemporary Baghdad.
Wartime was upon me: we are looking here at seven ruins.
Seven ruins, but not of ancient Roman times. Seven modernist ruins. The
cube structure of the buildings are very Corbusier: simplified,
non-superfluous, functional residential units made of seven cubes piled
one on top of each tower. A very familiar sight found throughout the
slums and ghettos of cities found throughout the world.
But these modernist buildings are non functional, which poses a problem.
These are beat-up construction, with open door frames acting as windows
or jumping points. I hear snipers as I walk past each building. I am
ready to hide at any moment I hear a rocket coming. It reminds me of my
days in Sarajevo passing through 'Sniper Avenue', or a central avenue
that was constantly under bullet attack for years during the Yugoslavian
Yet these buildings are called Heavenly, and Palaces by the artist. I
quote the official Hangar Bicocca's statement about the piece:
The name of the site-specific installation The Seven Heavenly Palaces,
2004 was drawn from the palaces described in the ancient Hebrew treatise
Sefer Hechalot, the “Book of Palaces/ Sanctuaries,” which dates back to
the 4th-5th centuries A.D. The volume narrates the symbolic path of
spiritual initiation that anyone who wants to become closer to God must
undertake. The seven towers – each of which weighs 90 tons and rises to
heights varying between 14 and 18 metres – were created from reinforced
concrete using the angular construction modules of shipping containers.
A factory, a theater, a stage of warzones, non-functional machines and
clay figures: Hangar Bicocca is a must-see visit if you are in Milan.
Located about 20 minutes from the city center, it is definitely worth the