On Dec. 12, 1969, a bomb exploded at Milan’s Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura. Known as the Strage di Piazza Fontana (Fontana Square Massacre), the event signaled the beginning of a turbulent decade marked by domestic terrorism that came from both the extreme right and left. On the night of the bombing, the anarchist and railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli was arrested for suspected involvement in the crime; after three days of questioning, he died under suspicious circumstances, falling from the fourth-floor window of the police station. A court later ruled Pinelli innocent, as evidence pointed to neo-Fascists and members of the Italian secret service. However, the Piazza Fontana case was closed in 2005 without criminal charges ever having been brought against Pinelli’s interrogators or any of the likely suspects.
On Dec. 12, 2009, a commemorative installation by 31-year-old Francesco Arena, one of Italy’s most promising young artists, opened at Monitor gallery (which funded it). Titled 18.900 metri su ardesia—la strada di Pinelli (18,900 Meters on Slate—Pinelli’s Route), the room-size work comprises 322 square slate slabs, each carved with some 100 parallel lines that together add up to the total distance—about 62,000 feet—covered by Pinelli before he entered the police station on the day of the bombing. (The artist reconstructed the itinerary from court papers that document his movements from the end of his shift to his attendance at a meeting of the Ponte della Ghisolfa anarchist circle, where he was arrested.) Partly lining the gallery floor and partly piled in three columns, the gray slabs formed a sober, if not somber, landscape.
As a floor-bound sculpture composed of regular units, the work echoed Carl Andre’s late-1960s floor pieces; it also evoked Walter De Maria’s 1979 Broken Kilometer, although the political and personal references in Arena’s installation turned Minimalism’s neutral impersonality on its head. And while the slab-free corner to the left of the room’s entrance seemed an homage to Pino Pascali’s 32 metri quadrati di mare circa (About 32 Square Meters of Sea), 1967, with its corner squares detached from the overall composition, the gravity of this installation is far removed from the Arte Povera artist’s playfulness. The idea that the distance a man covered on his last day of freedom before an unjust arrest could be contained in a single room was terribly poignant.
Concerned with what he has called “memory’s lack of resistance,” Arena has realized some of his strongest works by drawing on controversial moments in history, mostly Italian. For example, 3,24 mq (3.24 sq. meters), 2004, is a life-size reproduction of the room in which, in 1978, the center-right political leader and former premier Aldo Moro was held captive for 55 days before being killed by the leftist terrorist group Brigate Rosse. Mature both formally and conceptually, 18.900 metri su ardesia bridges politics and esthetics by forgoing a simplistic political stance. Instead it presents a bare historical fact, engaging viewers both physically and emotionally while raising their awareness about space’s lack of neutrality.
Photo: Francesco Arena: 18,900 Meters on Slate—Pinelli’s Route, 2009, slate, 322 pieces, each 231⁄2 inches square; at Monitor.