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Two art exhibitions adopted Dante’s masterpiece ‘The Divine Comedy’ as their main theme, but each with a completely different interpretation. One was titled ‘Dante and Islam, Meetings of Civilizations’, hosted by the Biblioteca di Via Senato in Milan, between November 2010 and March 2011; the other was titled ‘The Divine Comedy’ hosted by Harvard University Graduate School of Design in Cambridge, it ran from March until May 2011.
Dante (1265-1321) was an influential Italian poet in Europe’s Middle Ages, he wrote his masterpiece, ‘The Divine Comedy’ (widely considered one of the greatest literary works of all time), between 1308 and the time of his death. The 14,233-line poem is very influential in Western literature, it describes the journey Dante took towards God, which took him through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven; three places that define the three major parts of the poem. The poetic lines describe this journey through various places and with different characters in detail, bringing to the reader a visual description of the mysterious ‘other world’, inspired by astrological and scientific theories and explorations of that time, and eventually inspiring further future theories and thesis.
The first exhibition, ‘Dante and Islam, Meetings of Civilizations’, dealt with the content of Dante’s poem in a direct way, providing reflections seeking to understand the dense cultural exchange that took place during the Middle Ages between the Christians and Muslims of the Mediterranean basin. Despite the fact that Dante’s lifetime was a period of military expeditions and wars of conquest between the two worlds on both sides of the Mediterranean, it was nevertheless a period of strong cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab Muslim world, with travelers exploring and merchants trading. In turn, this helped create and establish bridges and strong links between the two worlds.
What the exhibition basically did was put the “Divine Comedy” in direct comparison with the case of “Israa wa Me’iraj” in the Islamic religion, a theory that was widely discussed and promoted by Miguel Asin Palacios and Enrico Cerulli, two scholars of Islamic studies in the early 20th century. On the other hand, other scholars, like the famous 20th century Italian orientalist Francesco Gabrieli, found no significant relationship.
The exhibition was divided between two main halls: the first was painted black and red with images of fire projected on the walls representing hell, also included were some texts and maps. The other hall was white with a cloudy environment representing heaven, and included historical original pieces of Dante’s poem with some inspired drawings and illustrations, in addition to parts of the Quraan speaking about the ‘Israa wa Me’iraj’. A corridor painted in black and white strips linked the two main halls, representing Purgatory and also featuring original texts.
Apart from the poor visual effects and overall exhibition quality, in my opinion the main point of weakness was that the exhibition idea and consequently its content was frozen in the time of Dante’s writings, it did not elude to the debate of scholars to provide a deeper perspective, which is in itself an outdated debate. Then there was the focus on religion. Those who know the “Divine Comedy” well would understand that –despite any good intentions behind any explorations of cultural influences– Dante held a disrespectful and negative view towards the Muslim world. This comes through clearly when he described the existence of mosques in the city of Dis in the fifth circle of Hell, and in another location where he encounters the prophet Muhammad and Ali, his cousin, in the eighth circle of Hell.
So in the end, the exhibition fails in its attempt to promote an idea of mutual respect and understanding, highlighted by a big ‘Dante and Islam’ poster overlooking one of Milan’s busiest streets. The exhibition did not even refute or confirm the opinion of Dante’s inspiration from the Islamic religion, since it remained neutral. It simply describes the situation at the time with documents, drawings and timelines both on the Islamic Arab side and the European side. It simply leaves the question unanswered and open to the viewer.
The second exhibition took a very different approach to the subject. Titled “The Divine Comedy”, it featured three spaces and three famous artists, again following the structure of Dante’s poem and the three places of Hell, Heaven and Purgatory. But in this case, the idea was to set up as a journey to explore the themes of the mind (Olafur Eliasson), history (Ai Weiwei) and the cosmos (Tomás Saraceno). The exhibition seeks to explore spatiality and the convergence of art, design and activism today, examining how it can engage the public domain.
Olafur Eliasson’s contribution, titled “Three to Now”, engages the tacit forms of experience and understanding that underline both scientific theorization and our knowledge of the exterior world. This installation at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design consists of 55 technical instruments, machines and other objects that challenge or subvert the trusted and familiar routines of perception by which we order our comprehension of the physical world. The space reads like a walk through a mad scientist’s workshop; for example it includes a model of the solar system called ‘Orreries’, which illustrates the relative positions and motions of the planets in the solar system using a light bulb in place of the sun, placing the viewer in the position seen only by God perhaps, or maybe a satellite. Eliasson is among the most influential and widely acclaimed artists of his generation, his approach explores the relationship between reality, perception and representation. In his exhibitions, he wants the viewer to experience his work, and invites him to appreciate the qualities of being in a space where his senses are being provoked. So it is exactly this tension between the micro and the macro (in the case of the solar system for example) that pulls viewers into his works and allows them to make their own journey.
Tomás Saraceno is widely known for his rethinking of urban geography and its potential migration into the physical and political atmosphere over our heads. His inflatable sculpture, “Cloud City” (part planet part vehicle and by definition humanly inhabitable), is embedded with solar technology and sensors that record and interact with aspects of the wider environment. The sculpture has the potential to launch and travel through the atmosphere, while harvesting data and communicating back to the installation site. It is a large inflated polyhedron that has a smaller polyhedron inside of it. The artist uses a variety of devices to record data about the surrounding area and to draw attention to alternative habitats. Such structures may well be future living spaces for humans on Mars or in space. His background as an architect gives him the ability to smartly engage in dialogues with buildings and their complex, underlying structures.
Chinese artist and architect Ai Weiwei’s installation, “Untitled”, memorializes the thousands of schoolchildren who died as a result of the major earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province in May 2008. A site-specific work of 5,335 identical school backpacks represents the exact number of children who died during the earthquake and in the subsequent collapses of poorly constructed school buildings; the backpacks are arranged in the shape of 3 meters high cubes. Counting the earthquake’s student victims and the collecting details about their deaths are the products of a “citizens’ investigation” conducted by Weiwei and his studio, this led to growing government censure and landed WeiWei in prison until today.
Indisputably, Dante’s poem continues to astonish generations of readers with its power of striking, imaginative conceptions. The two examples discussed here present two different approaches of how to interpret the same themes. One exhibition chose a direct, albeit unfair, comparison to the Islamic religion, which in my opinion did not add much or help achieve its intended purpose of dialogue and mutual understanding at time of tension. It is important to note that after all, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is a Christian epic poem written during the Middle Ages, where a general attitude of contempt and disdain towards Islam prevailed. It appears that the pride and ego of Western ideology represented in that exhibition did not stop at questioning the authority of the idea itself, but it went on preaching the poem’s apparent affiliation to Islam.
On the other hand, the second exhibition gave a strong message and provided a strong contrast between the poem’s language about the untouchable and faraway worlds and places, and between three different interpretations of worldly activism: the kinetic and physical devices and explorations as in the case of Eliasson, a natural disaster and the corruption of the government as in the case of Weiwei and finally creating a meeting place where science, art and architecture meet safely in the controlled space of a gallery, including the active measurement of phenomena such as air, wind and light by Saraceno.
The message of art is to interpret the ideas and visions of artists and thinkers into visual objects aiming to inspire and provoke the senses of the viewer. It also reflects the background and knowledge of the artists and their society. But above all, giving the exhibition a theme, or curating it, is the core issue being discussed here. Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” not only affected my senses as a viewer, but it left me reading and reflecting on opinions and critiques that led me to a point of confusion for a period of time. But after reviewing the Harvard exhibition, I was relieved to see a different and inspirational interpretation incorporating art and technology. In the context of the current tensions and religious conflicts dominating different parts of the world, the debate discussing those two examples can be considered useless and unnecessary, especially in the case of the first exhibition. But looking to the current religious conflicting environment we are living in and witnessing almost daily, I think it might be a good and needed reference and guide.