November 6, 2020
Titled after English economist and demographer Thomas Malthus (1766–1834)—whose contentious prediction that the world’s population would grow more rapidly than its means of subsistence pointed to the limits of anthropogenic activity on our planet while also influencing social Darwinism and eugenics—Marzia Migliora’s “The Spectre of Malthus,” curated by Matteo Lucchetti at the Museo Arte Gallarate and on through December 13, explores the risks posed by the production system of industrial agriculture. This minimal installation makes its visual richness a secret: Nothing is revealed until the viewer takes action and, it is implied, responsibility. Using technologies of vision such as the diorama and virtual reality for the first time, Migliora turns her exacting gaze on environmental aesthetics and ethics, shedding light on issues such as the exploitation of resources, hunger, and sustainability with a conceptual approach sometimes poetic, sometimes ironic, and often confrontational.
I COME FROM A FAMILY OF FARMERS who had to contend with the green revolution and agricultural industrialization, and in the end lost much of their land. Beginning in the ’50s, a process developed for which we are still paying the price. Agriculture became intensive; pesticides and chemical fertilizers took over; we witnessed a radical mechanization of production processes; seeds were genetically modified; groundwater was polluted, and lands were depleted. This approach completely transformed the products of the land we consume and the quality of life of those who cultivate that land, including my own family.
I confronted the subject of hunger and food in two other exhibitions: “Velme,” held at the Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice in 2017; and “Voce del verbo avere” (Voice of the Verb to Have), at the Palazzo Branciforte in Palermo in 2018. But in “The Spectre of Malthus,” my point of view changes. The idea began with a series of two-dozen collages that combine the techniques of drawing and papier collé, created between 2017 and 2019 and titled Paradossi dell’Abbondanza (Paradoxes of Plenty). In this series, I analyzed food production under global capitalism, its exploitation of human, animal, and natural resources, as well as the agrarian imaginary around the twentieth-century industrialization of farming. Many of the collages feature agricultural manuals from the 1960s that belonged to my grandfather. Others are inspired by a series of American postcards published around the 1950s called Tall-Tale Postcards, which mainly circulated in rural communities, and which celebrated a national myth of agricultural abundance.
At Museo MAGA, these works are arranged on wooden trays positioned on three canteen trolleys, the rear wheels of which rest on topsoil. But the first work visitors encounter in the show is Prey, 2020, a Victorian-era display case that holds a large mass of salt pierced by a harpoon, as if it were a whale. I wanted to immediately call into question the very museum system, which often acts as a voracious hunter—a logical consequence of the colonialism wreaked by large capitalist nations. This sculpture also synthesizes the show’s themes of predation and preservation, just as salt, formed during the drift of continents where the ocean once existed, is the synthesis of the land and the sea.
The exhibition develops along a sinuous path, ninety-two feet long, made up of semi-sheer curtains of organic chiffon printed with three different patterns: The first recalls a net for rabbiting; the second alludes to the evolution of digital currency such as Bitcoin; and the last is a beehive: a symbol of hoped-for conservation and cooperation. Located behind the curtain with the hunting net is La Gabbia (The Cage), 2019–2020, a box that holds a horse that isn’t there: We see only its suspended tail and a mask with blinders and earmuffs where the head should be. Viewers must put themselves in the position of the horse’s body and look inside the “mask.” There, they will see a theatrical diorama depicting a landscape that seems at once paradisiacal and ominous, populated by historical figures—Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth, Kwame Nkrumah—as well as miners, fishermen, farmers, animals, and plants. Each image has been extrapolated from hundreds of banknotes from every corner of the world.
Lo Spettro di Malthus (The Spectre of Malthus), 2020, is an iron tank, two and a half meters in diameter, in which I placed a ton of salt and a seat that rotates a full 360 degrees at its center. Visitors sit down, put on a VR headset, and view a short video that explores the conflict between so-called progress and its ecological cost. The footage was shot in the Sicilian rock salt mines of Petralia and Racalmuto, formed six million years ago. The Petralian mines have twelve levels of tunnels, forming a network seventy kilometers long, going down nearly six hundred meters below sea level. It is a place without life, where there are no insects or other animals because there is no fresh water, and where I experienced absolute darkness during my month of research there. Because all the salt gets packed directly inside the mines, when you open your saltbox on the table, it’s seeing natural light for the very first time, after six thousand years. The video is imagined as a sort of metaphorical digestive system that descends inside the tunnels; the soundtrack is a recording of me chewing.
In the salt mines, we are extracting an element that guarantees our survival, but digging into that intestine of the earth, we are depleting it, gradually eating away. It is as if we were consuming our own body from within, in almost cannibalistic fashion.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
— As told to Ida Panicelli