Everyone Is South of Something

by Lorenzo Bruni

The South is not only a physical space but also a state of mind

What is the South? When I was asked to collaborate on SOUTH magazine, which takes an ironic look at stereotypes about the South, I was in one of the many southern cities: Palermo (Sicily). The condition of the South is based on the pleasure of a warm climate and the difficulty of easily organising practical things. As Matisse said: working in the South of the world is dramatic, working from the South is an economy. I believe that in a moment of crisis ‘South’ can become a ‘model of attitude’. We must consider South to be not only a physical space but also a state of mind. This statement gives us the chance to think of the South as a destination to go back to as well as an ‘exotic place’. I would like to start my short journey by looking at these two meanings of ‘South’.

In “Il Filocolo” Boccaccio describes Florio’s journey around the world looking for his beautiful Biancifiore. This impossible love “because of religion and different cultures” ends happily after many vicissitudes between North and South. They move to the North/East to generate wealth and stability and to the South/West looking for themselves, searching for the mythical place where the known world begins. In fact, maps up until the sixteenth century showed “paradise on earth” as being located in the south-west of Athens. This mysterious land persuaded people that a perfect society (even if hidden or vanished) existed, which could then be used as a starting point to built a new society. In this way we can interpret the words of Nick Bottom, one of Shakespeare’s characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He says that there could be many “South”, but only one North.

This contradictory way of living – dreaming about another society in an exotic place – is embodied by the poet Arthur Rimbaud, who, disappointed by western society, wandered in Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea, before reaching Abyssinia, where he became an arms dealer. Sometimes we escape from a place to rebuild a model of something that we would like to change. Sometimes an exotic place is nearer than we think, as Emily Dickinson stressed in her works when she defined her room, from which she never escaped, as her perfect southern archipelago.

These literary quotes are all examples of the South being defined as a place that allows one to look and live differently. This literary dimension inspired Gauguin to leave a self-righteous society and reach Haiti. However, it is an intellectual attitude towards the South that the twentieth century rethinks and represents with many different nuances, thanks to the new technological advances such as cameras and smart phones that are popular and portable.

From the eighties onwards our imagination has been marked by a new idea of the South thanks to  campaigns that spread generic images of poverty and makeshift documentary makers. These images testified that the South was a physical presence, but also flattened out post-colonialist problems, rather than solving them. The South was always the destination of escape. From the nineties onwards the arts tried to cover the distance between this utopian ideal (Chatwin) and the pragmatic and simplistic representations promoted by advertisements (Benetton, Greenpeace, WWF). Politically-oriented art and the use of a documentary style (as exemplified by Documenta 3, curated by Okwui Enwezor) opened the doors to different and new political, social and anthropological way of thinking that were not shaped by western habits. Works by Alfredo Jaar, Steve McQueen, Carlos Garaicoa, Francis Alÿs and Armin Linke eschewed mass communication, while artists such as Hans Peter Feldmann, Roman Ondak and Johanna Billing focused their attention on making the images implode. On the other hand, Rikrit Tiravanija, Surasi Kusolwong and Cai Guo-Qiang preferred to express their alternative views of South and of the far away through a relational type of art, letting mankind see the world and its differences. Thus the South is everywhere.

Rainer Ganahl, Reading Antonio Gramsci (2002), Courtesy of the artist and BASE /                             progetti per l’arte, Firenze

But in a collective sense, what does South mean? 

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the western model entered a period of crisis and the concept of national belonging lost importance, creating the problem of a need to construct new, aggregated systems. The diffusion of new media, which allows people to be connected but detached, enabled the creation of an autonomous mental geography, divided from the physical one. This way of consuming knowledge has destroyed every boundary that limits information to what can be found in national newspapers. Nineties ‘movements’ such as No Global (ironically a movement of international and globalised people) were created not to oppose a strong system but as a compensation for a generalised arrangement of social ideas. Where are those young people? How did the social and political changes affect them?

After many years of discussion about the fake democratisation of information and the birth of a series of apolitical social network, such as Facebook, a real transformation has taken place: the Arab Spring. A Cairo blogger writes: “the South has something to teach to the world again.” The question is: why doesn’t this type of action happen in the North? Why do London’s clashes cause only destruction and plundering? Edward Saïd said that the most important weapon for the future of the South would be that the people from the North lacked imagination. At this time, the South, thanks to the easy use and transfer of information, can suggest a new way to affect reality and to reflect on the idea of society and cultural belonging.

In 2002, during the famous Social Forum of Florence (one year after the tragedy of Genoa), two artists in Tuscany made two different works highlighting the necessity of building new communities, even temporary ones, which are based on dialogue and meetings. This was their idea of a pragmatic revolution – and it was very similar to the one that is now starting in the South. The first work was Leggere Gramsci/Reading Gramsci by Rainer Ganahl, made for an exhibition at a not-for-profit space in Florence, Base/progetti per l’arte. The exhibition comprised photos, a video, texts and books that were mentioned during a series of meeting with students of philosophy from all over the world. The work consisted of Ganahl inviting people to help him improve his Italian by reading with him Gramsci’s texts concerning popular culture and immigration to the North. The result was to make the general public reconsider apparently commonplace statements.

The same year, a few months after the Social Forum, I curated an exhibition called So far so close/Così lontano così vicino for the Fondazione Baldi, Pelago, which is still directed by the international art critic Pier Luigi Tazzi. On that occasion, Pavel Althamer created a performance based on a family trip from Warsaw to Tuscany. For three day, Althamer’s Polish relatives became involved in the Pelago community, making the inhabitants think about the concepts of belonging, foreignness and South/North. The starting point of the performance, and the only thing that remains to testify that it happened, is a poster hung all over the town announcing the arrival of this family and inviting people to a party at ‘la casa del popolo’ for dancing and ‘foreign’ food. The poster is a family portrait taken during a picnic showing young people dancing, children playing and old folks taking a rest on a blanket. On the right, three people are carrying one little apple, while a black cat looks carefully up at them. This family portrait has all the iconographic codes of the Garden of Eden, showing the possible elements/secrets that will put its integrity in danger. In the twentieth century the South was the place where you could escape from the North’s rules and secrets. Instead, as Boccaccio said, it is actually a place where there are no secrets because there are social conventions and not enough time. The main concept now is to recreate this impulse – not to escape, but to establish a new perception of community and reality. Thus in this modern, liquid society every place can embody the South.

I am finishing writing this article while in Palermo. Everybody says the South is the perfect place to reflect, but that it is not so good for working in a practical way and getting results. But in reality, this is not necessarily the case. In January, in Palermo, a popular and apolitical movement raised public awareness of the planned private sale of some of Zisa’s sites after renovation. After this event, there was a week of meetings about the RISO issue. In fact, the RISO museum will temporarily close because it has won a European grant of €12 million. Then the ‘Movimento dei Forconi’ began because the island was stalled because of transportation issues, and Palermo’s mayor resigned. Who could imagine that after Berlusconi, in a time of global crisis, such movements would begin in Sicily? Everybody has remarked on this paradox, telling us that maybe we have now done enough and reached the end of the road. Let’s hope, instead, to be only at the beginning.



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