Strudel and Melancholia: Re-reading the 9th Biennale Gherdëina
Val Gardena, South Tyrol
by Lorenzo Graf

Janis Rafa, Landscape Depressions, 2023. Film still, single-channel video with sound, 25 min. Image courtesy of the artist.

The impression would last only a few seconds. A kid is standing clueless in the bushes. Packed in his mountain wear, surrounded by the woods, he seems immobilised by a thought or a feeling that crosses his mind, leaving him spaced out. What comes next has become unthinkable. Meanwhile, his hands gently stroke the leaves and branches. This casual movement increasingly reveals a specific pattern: a search. In this very moment, when we recognise that action, the visualisation of this melancholic anaesthesia flees away to allow the narration of Eva Giolo’s film Memory Is an Animal, It Barks with Many Mouths (2024) to unfold.

But this would be untrue. The kid’s melancholia was never there. Actually, the boy never stands still before revealing his searching intention. It is merely the projection of my own phantasy that made up his initial hesitation. With no trace of this interruption, the 26 minutes of Giolo’s film are a delicate and playful tribute to the Ladin language, characteristically spoken in some valleys of South Tyrol, and the local mythologies it narrates.

Eva Giolo, Memory Is an Animal, It Barks with Many Mouths, 2024. Film still, single-channel video with sound, 26 min. Image courtesy of the Artist. 

Commissioned by and displayed at Bozen’s Ar/Ge Kunst, Giolo’s film introduces the Biennale Gherdëina 9, which centres in Val Gardena, a picturesque valley about 40 km further north-east. This new collaboration between a prominent cultural institution like Ar/Ge Kunst and the Biennale, a relatively young project born in 2008 as a collateral event of Manifesta 7, is telling of the latter’s growing recognition. Founded by the then-novice director Doris Ghetta, and originally dedicated to the valley’s wood-carving tradition, the Biennale Gherdëina has grown into an international event. For this edition, two renowned curators make up the curatorial team: Lorenzo Giusti, the Director of GAMeC Bergamo (awarded Museum of the Year by Il Giornale dell’Arte in 2020) and Marta Papini, who heavily contributed to Cecilia Alemani’s The Milk of Dreams and is currently conceiving an extensive public art project for Fondazione per l’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea CRT in Turin.

In face of the event’s successful structural expansion, already at the press conference, I began noticing a melancholic undertone. First, Lorenzo Giusti presented this edition as a not viable model of sustainability in spite of its ecological content. Then, a reporter from the South Tyrolean news portal Salto raised a question about the Biennale's relationship to over-tourism. The question was swiftly set aside by a representative of the local tourism association. This somewhat anti-triumphalist sentiment is not officially named among the thematic strands of the curatorial concept (as Eva Giolo’s film does not point toward the dramaturgic derailment that I have tricked myself into). Yet, it seemed to be everywhere. Below, I will try to trace this melancholia emanating from the underside of a discourse that on the surface recites multi-speciesism, the “wild”, and local mythology.

Ingela Ihrman, First Came the Ocean, 2024. Environmental installation, 25 x 5 m. Image courtesy of the artist and Ögonblicksteatern i Umeå, Sweden. Photography: Lorenzo Graf

The installation by Ingela Ihrman helps to better understand this “melancholy nature” (a formulation I borrow from Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands). Consisting of arranged wood chops from a timber tree ravaged by the bark beetle, Ihrman’s First Came the Ocean (2024) resembles the remains of an oversized, aquatic beast that was proven to inhabit the region when the Dolomites were a coral reef. The beast’s grandiosity matches the sublime mountainous scenery of the Sella group it is set against. However hostile this extraordinarily vertical massif may appear from afar, it houses one of the largest ski areas in the world with about 500 km of slopes. The installation’s positioning prompts an analogy between the extinct animal and the exploited mountains.

But it is not this admonition about the habitat’s endangeredness that constitutes the melancholy nature in Mortimer-Sandilands’ sense. It rather lies in the ecotourist zombification of nature that not simply fails to grasp the life gone away, but “incorporate[s] environmental destruction into the ongoing workings of commodity capitalism”. [1] In other words, Ihrman’s installation helps to understand melancholy nature not because it addresses it, but because it is itself a manifestation of the incomplete mourning that lies at the core of melancholia.

The zombie serves as proof of the original wildness that ontologically sets the human apart from the nonhuman. Zombification of nature in this sense means to turn the nonhuman into a “human prosthetic extension”, [2] in Jack Halberstam’s words. Importantly, this projection of Otherness only works with cadavers - bodies that are already at complete biopolitical disposal, such as a mountain range turned ski resort. To mourn such conflated cadavers is mourning a man-made exploited nature. This is grief gone narcissistic.

Daniele Genadry, Apparitional Mountains (pink) I-XX, 2023- 2024. Acrylic on canvas, 33 x 41 cm and 35 x 50 cm. Image courtesy of the Biennale Gherdëina 9. Photography: Tiberio Sorvillo

I encounter incomplete mourning again in the paintings of Daniele Genadry. Depicting mountain landscapes both in Val Gardena and Lebanon, where she lived until recently, these small-sized acrylic paintings are a challenge to look at. Their nearly monochromatic palette results in a painfully low contrast remindful of photographic overexposure. Genadry’s works perform a visual refusal by which some information is nonetheless retained. This sort of perceptive weakening rearranges the power relations at play: it is not the cutified mountain landscape that needs to be saved; it is humanity that is on the verge of extinction, as it casts this last exhausted look at the mountains it has hoped to commodify up until the last breath.

In terms of composition, Genadry starts from photographic references that have little or no anthropogenic elements in them. If nature is “psychically ‘ungrievable’ within the confines of a society that cannot acknowledge nonhuman beings, natural environments, and ecological processes as appropriate objects for genuine grief”, as Mortimer-Sandilands writes, how is humanity supposed to be able to grieve its own total disappearance?

An answer to this absurd question may lie not far from the images created by Janis Rafa in Landscape Depressions (2023). This 24-minute long, single-channel video is set around an artificial lake in Greece deriving from the construction of a dam. It shows humans having suddenly fallen into a deep sleep while busy with their daily activities (a postapocalyptic composition reminding me of The Walking Dead). The snoring bodies are surrounded by nonhuman animals that took over the space left unguarded by the drowsing wardens. Meanwhile, a voiceover describes the process of the dam construction and the successive flooding of the landscape. Something in the descriptive quality of the Greek-speaking narrator steers towards an account of a historical catastrophe, reminding of Pliny the Younger’s testimony of the Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD.

This dormant state in Rafa's film suggests a deeper, more permanent sleep of the human species. However, interpreting the film as an allegory for "a better world without humanity" is overly simplistic. If humanity was indeed to be erased, how would the cows, dogs, and goats—shown alive in the film but trapped in interiors, cars, or barns—free themselves from captivity, which persists despite human extinction?

Janis Rafa, Landscape Depressions, 2023. Film still, single-channel video with sound, 25 min. Image courtesy of the artist.

The entire landscape is kept in a manicured confinement. The vivid colours of the sunset, the idyllic meadows by the lake, and the pristine beach resemble scenes from a tourism commercial. Rafa’s images prove how an entire ecosystem could be destroyed, exchanged and then zombified – smoothly. It is through the extraction of humankind that we come to realise this. As the zombified environment is unexpectedly reanimated like a Frankenstein monster, we become aware of the life that vanished. Is this already mourning?

So many parallels can be drawn between Rafa’s film and Val Gardena, an ecotourist destination that feels almost secluded given the degree of class privilege needed to access it. But such a frontal attack would be superfluous. Nonetheless, Lorenzo Giusti and Marta Papini have managed to sneak melancholy nature into the 9th Biennale Gherdëina as a way to pursue a subtle critique that feels as powerless as awkwardly refreshing – in a positive way.

[1] „The idea of a pristine nature on the perpetual verge of destruction is not only a violent rationale for the dispossession of peoples and livelihoods but a seductive fantasy that keeps consumers poised to watch that destruction (the more exotic and the more at-risk the better).” Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, „Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies“, in: Queer Ecologies. Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, editors Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, Bruce Erickson (Indianapolis: Bloomington 2010) 331-358.

[2] Jack Halberstam, Wild Things. The Disorder of Desire (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 150.

The Parliament of Marmots
9th Biennale Gherdëina
31/05/ - 01/09/2024

With works by Talar Aghbashian, Atelier dellʼErrore, Alex Ayed , Nassim Azarzar, Ismaïl Bahri, Yesmine Ben Khelil, Ruth Beraha, Chiara Bersani, Alessandro Biggio, Julius von Bismarck, Nadim Choufi, Elmas Deniz, Esraa Elfeki, Andro Eradze, Marianne Fahmy, Valentina Furian, Daniele Genadry, Eva Giolo, Shuruq Harb, Arnold Holzknecht, Michael Höpfner, Ingela Ihrman, Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Katia Kameli, Laurent Le Deunff, Linda Jasmin Mayer, Femmy Otten, Sara Ouhaddou, Eva Papamargariti, Diana Policarpo, Janis Rafa, Lin May Saeed, Helle Siljeholm, Tobias Tavella, Markus Vallazza & Martino Gamper, and Karin Welponer.

Curated by Lorenzo Giusti with Marta Papini as associate curator