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November 2022

Field Notes: Dadamaino in “The Milk of Dreams,” 59th Venice Biennale

Francesco Gariboldi

Installation view, “Technologies of Enchantment” in “The Milk of Dreams,” 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Photo: Formafantasma.

Installation view, “Technologies of Enchantment” in “The Milk of Dreams,” 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Foreground: Laura Grisi, Sunset Light, 1967. Neon, plexiglass, steel, 219 × 30 × 30 cm. Background: Dadamaino, Optical-dynamic Object, 1960–61. Milled aluminum tiles on nylon strings on board, 96 × 96 cm. Photo: Francesco Gariboldi.

Installation view, “Technologies of Enchantment” in “The Milk of Dreams,” 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Foreground: Nanda Vigo, Diaframma, 1968. Glass, aluminum, and neon, 100 × 100 × 25 cm. Background: Lucia Di Luciano, Irradiazioni N.7 – N.9 – N.11, 1965. Morgan’s paint on Masonite, 80 × 80 cm. Photo: Francesco Gariboldi.

Dadamaino, Optical-dynamic Object, 1960–61. Milled aluminum tiles on nylon strings on board, 96 × 96 cm. Photo: Francesco Gariboldi.

Dadamaino, Chromorelief, 5° arranged, white + 14 shades of gray Chromorelief, 30° arranged, from gray 76 to gray 90Chromorelief, 10° arranged, from gray 16 to gray 30, 1974. Wooden dowels on board, 50 × 50 × 10 cm. Photo: Francesco Gariboldi.

Dadamaino, The Movement of Things, 1992. Mordant on polyester, unknown dimensions. Courtesy Archivio Dadamaino.

Amid the bright floodlit galleries of the Central Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale is a smaller, darker room filled with optical artworks installed on metallic-sheen walls and a stainless-steel platform. Both an enclosed space and a passageway between two larger galleries, this room spatializes a fundamental feature of “The Milk of Dreams” as one of the its five “time capsules,” presentations of historical works conceived by the curator Cecilia Alemani as shows within the show. Developed by the design duo Formafantasma and named “Technologies of Enchantment,” this capsule gathers the works of six Italian female artists—Dadamaino, Marina Apollonio, Lucia Di Luciano, Laura Grisi, Grazia Varisco, and Nanda Vigo—who re-envisioned the world through technology and art from the 1960s onward. [1]1
The other time capsule presentations focus on female self-metamorphosis as investigated by many early twentieth-century avant-garde artists (“The Witch’s Cradle”), verbal and visual emancipative practices (“Corps Orbite”), the female relationship between nature and the body (“A Leaf a Gourd a Shell a Net a Bag a Sling a Sack a Bottle a Pot a Box a Container”), and hybridization between technologies and the body (“Seduction of the Cyborg”).

Filled with art of the recent past yet futuristic in its perspective, “Technologies of Enchantment” is an excellent example of how our perception of the continua of human beings and technology and nature and culture are conditioned by time and, as such, evinces the posthuman positions explored by “The Milk of Dreams.” As Rosi Braidotti has written, within posthuman critical theory, “the past is always recomposed as action or praxis in the present—doubled up as actual and virtual becoming. This intensity is simultaneously after and before us, both past and future, in a flow or process of mutation, differentiation, or becoming.” [2]2
Rosi Braidotti, “Posthuman Critical Theory,” Journal of Posthuman Studies 1 (2017): 19, .
Alemani’s exhibition takes a transhistorical curatorial approach to rewrite art’s prevailing narratives by highlighting in the symbolic space of the Biennale that exhibition practices can exclude or include artists and so codify the laws of chronology and the art historical canon. Within the “Technologies of Enchantment” capsule, I adopt a similar approach to focus on Dadamaino (1930–2004) and her participation (or absence) in previous Venice Biennales to consider her multifaceted artistic career and its critical relevance to “The Milk of Dreams.” [3]3
See .

Dadamaino, Optical-dynamic Object, 1960–61. Milled aluminum tiles on nylon strings on board, 96 × 96 cm. Photo: Francesco Gariboldi.

At the entrance of the capsule, Dadamaino’s Optical-dynamic Object, created between 1960 and 1961 when Dadamaino’s work aligned with that of the New Tendency movement in Europe, is composed of manifold tiles that visualize kinetic energy and produce deceptive and variable optical effects. This vibrating image, a sort of screen surface resembling a work of industrial design, is highly representative of the utopianism of New Tendency artists and their ambition to build a new, more ethical world combining experimental theories of perception and industrial production. This work could have been displayed at the 32nd Venice Biennale in 1964, if Dadamaino had been invited. Indeed, the artist herself stated that, on this occasion, “the ‘New Tendency,’ the group I belonged to, was invited in toto except for Piero Manzoni, because [he is] deceased, and for me, probably because [I am] a woman, so not a very credible artist, or a negligible one, I presume.” [4]4
Dadamaino, interview in Simona Weller, “Dadamaino: una donna a Venezia,” Noi Donne, December 9, 1980.
In this regard, the very nature of the “time capsule” functions as a sort of Deleuzian “image-time,” a virtual image of the past that is made actual in the present, so that Dadamaino’s absence at the 1964 Biennale is made real only by her participation in the 2022 edition. The linearity of time here becomes blurred: the real present cannot be distinguished from an imaginary past, but both simultaneously coexist in an oneiric vision. [5]5
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
This curatorial interpretation of the past contributes to the generally surrealist atmosphere of “The Milk of Dreams,” and the exhibition seeks to undo the dichotomies of truth and fiction, reality and imagination, and ultimately, life and death. Coming from a phantom past, female artists re-presented in the “time capsule” can tell their own stories, and thus, the exhibition rights historical wrong of Dadamaino’s exclusion.

On the wall opposite Optical-dynamic Object are Dadamaino’s Chromorelief works. First assembled in 1972, they are made of wooden dowels arranged at various angles that create three-dimensional dynamic images: the visual-kinetic effect of the Optical-dynamic Object is here made much more complex through the works’ sculptural articulation. A bizarre combination of handcrafted product and industrial good, the Chromoreliefs embody Dadamaino’s revolutionary ideology, which she shared with her fellow New Tendency artists, as she created art that sought not to satisfy the capitalist trade but rather to capture the means of production and be accessible to the widest public possible. The Chromoreliefs exhibited in “Technologies of Enchantment” are crucial as they immediately precede a turning point in Dadamaino’s artistic production. Before and especially after the protests of 1968, Dadamaino was deeply involved in Marxism and for several years she devoted herself exclusively to politics, attending student- and labor-movement demonstrations. Indeed, beginning in the early 1970s, she felt conflicted about the revolutionary potential of her optical works. [6]6
In 1972, she talked about “the contradiction of being understood only by the élite the artist fight against and not by the comrades the artist fight with.” See Dadamaino, “La tendenza dell’artista a sentirsi coinvolto nella politica”, Arte e società, May–June 1972.
Moreover, she understood that the emerging feminist movement manifested a broader epistemological shift from the supposed objectivity of ideology toward a new vision focused on individual subjectivities. [7]7
Dadamaino herself said, “In 1975—let me first state that I’m not a conventional feminist—the rising of the feminist movement challenged all my works. Since then, I enhanced self-awareness, as an individual, and I understood I had reached a dead end.” See Simona Weller “Dadamaino: una donna a Venezia”, Noi Donne, December 9, 1980.
As a result, Dadamaino abandoned the rigorous, optical geometry of her works and began to obsessively make freehand marks on paper, and in doing so, she wrote the passage of time itself and transcribed it into an alphabet of unknown letters.

Dadamaino, Chromorelief, 30° arranged, from gray 76 to gray 90, 1974. Wooden dowels on board, 50 × 50 × 10 cm. Photo: Francesco Gariboldi.

This new Conceptual production, titled The Facts of Life, is not presented in “Technologies of Enchantment,” but was displayed in 1980 at the 39th Venice Biennale, Dadamaino’s first invitation to show in this exhibition. On this occasion, she transformed a room of the Italian Pavilion into an environment: on three walls hung hundreds of sheets of paper filled with replicated marks that looked like typewritten expressions from the artist’s unconscious. The room conjured the time of our inner subjective experience, and its walls were silent palimpsests, expressing the artist’s confusion about tragedies in history. Once again, Dadamaino’s remarks are notable: “Last summer, I was anguished by the Siege of Tel al-Zaatar […]. [8]8
During the Lebanese Civil War (1975–77), the Christian militias of the Lebanese Front laid siege to the refugee camp of Tel al-Zaatar that housed Palestinian refugees in Beirut. After a seven-month siege, on August 12, 1976 thousands of Palestinians were massacred.
I wrote a letter to all the women in the world, so that they fight to stop the massacre. Since men could only decide Final Solutions, women had to stop them using the power of their different conscience. It was a foolish act and I desisted. Furious and grieving, powerless, I felt the urge to make marks. This was the only thing I could do.” [9]9
Dadamaino, “In den Sand geschrieben,” in Trigon 77. Der Kreative Prozess, Dreilanderbiennale Italien Jugoslaven Osterreich (Kunsterhaus Neue Galerie, Graz, 1977).
Ten years later, Dadamaino received her second and last invitation to the Venice Biennale. In the Italian Pavilion, she installed her new body of work, The Movement of Things: two eighteen-meter-long works made of transparent polyester and covered with tiny handwritten hyphen-like marks. The overall effect was both cosmic and biological, and the works appeared both like breathing organisms and representations of a sort of eternal present, blurring the lines between the living and the inanimate.

Seen through the lens of previous Venice Biennales and “The Milk of Dreams,” Dadamaino’s practice can be understood as a challenge to time. The work excluded from the 1964 Biennale included in 2022 seems to extend the “time capsules” transhistorical approach also to Dadamaino’s work. Past and future are reversed, and using anachrony as a form of historical interpretation, the artist’s optical works may be seen in retrospect as continuations of the “earlier” Facts of Life and Movement of Things works. In this regard, the difference between Dadamaino’s optical and the conceptual works seems to dissolve, while the somatic aspect of her whole production becomes much more noticeable. Indeed, the handcrafted nature of the Optical-dynamic Objects and the Chromoreliefs may be related to the handwritten marks of her conceptual works and can be considered as an embodiment of Dadamaino’s painstaking artistic research on the ties between human experience and the unconscious, on one hand, and the capitalism and machines, on the other hand.

Extending the self and the body to technology, the artist’s work encapsulates a strain of argumentation presented in “The Milk of Dreams.” By choosing to revivify Dadamaino’s optical works, Alemani has highlighted their transtemporal aspect and re-enacted their revolutionary potential in our current context rather than in their historical dimension. Under the pervasive pressure of technologies and advanced capitalism, human subjectivity is now a matter of urgency to rethink our relationship with machines in order to achieve what feminist theorist Silvia Federici has called the “re-enchantment of the world.” [10]10
Silvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (Oakland: PM Press and Kairos, 2018).
In this regard, as Dadamaino did not intended her optical works to be absorbed by industrial production and capitalist circulation but to envelope the viewer’s eye in a captivating image, they are outstanding examples of enchantment. And that is why, in our posthuman condition, listening to Dadamaino’s story, begun over a half-century ago and retold in Venice in 2022, amounts to an act of re-enchantment.

Francesco Gariboldi is an art historian based in Milan. He graduated from the University of Pavia MA in art history and cultural heritage. He specialized in curating contemporary artists’ archives and is currently working at the Dadamaino Archive, doing research on documentary materials and artworks and collaborating with museums and art galleries.

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