Artists in a Time of War at Castello di Rivoli

In Turin over 30 artists from all over the world question the meaning of war by giving voice to the suffering of millions of people afflicted by conflicts

James Turrell once said: «All art is contemporary art because it had to be made when it was now». And Artists in a Time of War – inaugurated on March 14, 2023 – is a clear demonstration of the veracity of this statement. This new exhibition, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Marianna Vecellio, takes over the entire top floor of Castello di Rivoli with over 140 artworks by 30 artists from all over the world who experienced or are experiencing war. The topic of war is addressed from different angles according to the sensitivity, aesthetics and cultural influences of each artist and is inextricably linked to the history of the museum, once a military place that used to house soldiers and weapons.

Anri Sala Nocturnes (Notturni), 1999. Single-channel video transferred from super 16 mm film and stereo sound 11’27”. Courtesy Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; Esther Schipper, Berlin; Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle, Munich

After a series of photographic works by Fabio Mauri (Language is War, 1974) and shots from the collections of GAM – Galleria di Arte Moderna of Turin, which bear witness to the bombings that took place in the Savoyard city during the Second World War, the exhibition opens with works by Anton Zoran Mušič – one of the few artists to have experienced firsthand the torment of the concentration camps. Upon entering the first room, the gaze is captured by his drawings, made in Dachau in the spring of 1945: piled up corpses, tortured bodies, faces distorted by pain. In a display case, a few steps from Mušič ‘s drawings, the first edition of The Disasters of War (1863) by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes is exhibited: 80 engravings that bear witness to the difficult period experienced by Spain during the conflict with the Napoleonic invaders. Looking at these works a question arises: what distinguishes the depictions of war of Mušič from those of Goya? Perhaps the expressive languages and the techniques employed, but certainly not the creative urgency that stems from the artists’ inner discomfort and from their traumatic and painful experiences.

Artists in a Time of War. Installation view of the exhibition at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli - Torino. Photo Sebastiano Pellion Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli - Torino

Physical, psychological and emotional trauma is in fact one of the serious consequences of conflicts, as demonstrated by the story of Bracha L. Ettinger, featured in the exhibition with her most recent work: Medusa-Rachel-Pieta (2017-22). An Israeli artist and psychoanalyst who during her period of compulsory military service – in 1967 – organized and commanded, at the age of 19, a major rescue operation of over 150 soldiers, during which she was severely injured. This traumatic experience caused her partial amnesia which did not allow her to remember those events for over thirty years. Her paintings are the result of years of work and sedimentations of personal and transgenerational memories, emotions and experiences which translate, on a material level, into several stratifications and subsequent erasing of pigments. The burden of trauma is also tackled by Anri Sala in Nocturnes (1999) a short documentary in which a former peacekeeper of the United Nations tells of his insomnia caused by the atrocities seen and experienced during the Balkan War.

Artists in a Time of War aims to tell the horrors of war by delving into the personal experiences of the artists, but without making judgments or providing political reflections. Spectators are in fact invited to reflect intimately on the mystery of war and its catastrophic effects, that always arise from two contrasting tensions: on the one hand, is the rationality that reveals itself through war strategy, on the other hand is the utter unpredictability of events, nature and man. The exhibition focuses on the major international conflicts occurred since the beginning of the twentieth century to the present: from the Second World War – also explored through canvas by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalì and Alberto Burri as well as through Elizabeth Miller’s shots intertwining the horrors of the concentration camps with the aesthetics of the surrealist ritual – to the Vitenam War with Dinh Q. Lê’s Light and Belief. Voices and sketches of life from the Vietnam War (2012) and Afghanistan’s struggle for freedom, a country that has been oppressed by foreign and local powers for decades.

Artists in a Time of War. Installation view of the exhibition at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli - Torino. Photo Sebastiano Pellion Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli - Torino

Finally, a reference to the war closest to us, which began a little over a year ago, was inevitable and necessary. In occasion of this exhibition, Nikita Kadan – a Ukrainian artist and curator currently living between Kiev and Buča – has revisited The Shelter (2015), a large-scale installation created for the Istanbul Biennial dedicated to the war in Donbas. The Shelter II, while echoing some of the themes of the previous work, confronts the visitor with the drama of the conflict in a cruder and aggressive manner. The top stacked books – deprived of their cultural value – refer to the homely methods by which Ukrainians protect their homes from enemy bombs. The lower level – formerly a refuge – is now a non-place, dark and solitary, from whose backdrop a lifeless hand comes out, as in the famous photo of the Buča massacre where the hand of a victim emerges from a wall of rubble. Here the feeling of hope of The Shelter is replaced by discouragement, while the dream of peace that once animated the heart of the artist and of millions of people seems today a faint memory of a distant world.

Duong Anh Untitled, N.D. / N.A. Part of : Dinh Q. Lê , Light and Belief. Voices and sketches of life from Vietnam War

Between the devastation and the normalization of death, however, there are artists who manage to exorcise the pain inflicted by the conflicts through art. Rahraw Omarzad addresses the regenerative and thaumaturgical power of art in his latest installation Every Tiger Needs a Horse, (2022-23), the result of a controlled explosion of dynamite and paint against large square canvases; while Michael Rakowitz investigates the theme of forgiveness in relation to the many contradictions of the war in Iraq in the film The Ballad of Special Ops Cody (2017), in which a toy model of an American soldier apologizes for the war crimes committed against the Iraqi population to Mesopotamian votive statues preserved by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

As stated by Christov-Bakargiev, art always crosses life in a mysterious and sometimes painful way. And this exhibition demonstrates how each artist, through different media, aesthetics and languages, has managed to give voice to the contingencies of the historical period in which they live or have lived, becoming the spokesperson of a heartbreaking cry that simply reads «Why?».

Agnese Torres
Scroll to Top