Pirelli HangarBicocca presents an exhibition dedicated to one of America's foremost contemporary artists

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Pirelli HangarBicocca presents an exhibition dedicated to one of America's foremost contemporary artists
Nari Ward, “Ground Break”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2024. Photo Courtesy the artist and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photo Agostino Osio.

MILAN.- Running March 28 to July 28, 2024, Pirelli HangarBicocca presents “Ground Break,” an exhibition dedicated to one of America's foremost contemporary artists, Nari Ward. Since the 1990s, Ward has produced installation comprising everyday objects and re-purposed highly symbolic materials to make layered references to social issues and historical traumas—past, recent and contemporary.

In “Ground Break,” the artist stages a monumental choreography of works from the past 30 years alongside new productions, creating a highly engaging dialogue between sculpture, video, and installation. The exhibition, which is accompanied by a program of live performances in collaboration with other artists and musicians, invites reflection on some of the central issues of our time, such as social responsibility, inequality, exclusion, and migration, and offers possible visions of transformation and change.

Nari Ward (St. Andrew, Jamaica, 1963; lives and works in New York City) creates layered works by interweaving and juxtaposing found elements that allude to various social and political issues, addressing aspects of identity, race, justice, and consumer culture. In his poignant and provocative installations, videos, and sculptures, the artist takes discarded objects found in unlikely places such as abandoned buildings, streets or parking lots, and imbues them with new meanings and genealogies, revealing forgotten histories and geographies in his complex and unique narratives.

For over thirty years, Ward has created an intricate web of references and reflections between historical demands and contemporary themes, local and global: from the colonial history of Afro-Caribbean communities to the history of slavery in the United States, from the gentrification of Harlem, a predominantly African American and Latino neighborhood in New York City, to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. At the same time, he explores spiritual and conceptual issues concerning human relationships, social justice, and the construction of collective identity and community through shared historical memory. Central to Ward's practice is his transformative and collaborative approach to art, to the point that often his work emerges from direct dialogue with other people.

"Ground Break”, curated by Roberta Tenconi with Lucia Aspesi, explores this aspect of Nari Ward's research with a selection of projects focused on collaboration and performativity. The retrospective offers an in-depth exploration of the artist's career, presenting more than thirty works in the Navate and Cubo spaces of Pirelli HangarBicocca, from historical and seminal works that have never been reinstalled, to new productions conceived especially for the exhibition. The show unfolds around the large-scale installations that Ward created between 1996 and 2000 as sets for the Geography Trilogy series of performances by the leading contemporary choreographer, Ralph Lemon. This collaborative project, developed over ten years, invites reflection on notions of conflict and cultural mixing, starting with the traumatic and enduring effects of racism and colonialism. For the first time, the works Geography Bottle Curtain (1997/2024), Geography Pallets (1997/2024), Geography Bedsprings (1997/2024), and Geography Temperature Curtain (1997/2024) are presented in an exhibition setting, establishing a new conceptual choreography with the other works, the space, and the visitors' own bodies.

The exhibition opens with Hunger Cradle (1996), a large, intricate installation composed of a variety of suspended objects held together by a network of wires that physically and metaphorically connect the elements. Visitors are invited to cross this gigantic web to further encounter the artworks in the show. The work originated in a collaborative context and was conceived for an exhibition Nari Ward organized in 1996 with artists Janine Antoni and Marcel Odenbach in an abandoned firehouse on 141 Street in Harlem, which later became his studio. For the artist, each component of the work holds a specific history and memory that is activated both by the place from which it comes and by the reactions it can evoke in the viewer. As he explains:

I always felt that even this “found object” definition or classification really talks about the idea of collaborating. Because you're reacting to something that you see and you are reacting to it as a material, but also, you're reacting to the context that you're finding it in and then you're telling a story about it or you're trying to give it a narrative that brings it to another kind of expectation or space for the viewer or listener.

Ward's desires each object to transform to create a space of enquiry and to find a new place through the collaboration or dialogue between its history, its appearance, and its relationship to the space that contains it. This aspect of his practice also draws on the resourceful approach of reconfiguring discarded materials into consumer products by giving them a new function. In Carpet Angel (1992), for example, plastic mats, bags, bottles, carpets, and rope are used to create an angelic figure hovering over an accumulation of improvised objects, as a reflection on the sense of the sacred and everyday spirituality. In Behold (1996) and Crusader (2005), Nari Ward transforms a baby stroller and a shopping cart into sculptural objects, redefining their social function and economic value.

In Ground Break (2024), the work that gives the exhibition its title, the artist is interested in the idea of the "street memorial," which he describes as a devotional and spiritual space of exchange, not connoted by religious symbolism, but made so by the collective memory of a community. Commissioned by Pirelli HangarBicocca, the installation is a new and expanded version of an earlier floor work by the artist, Ground (in Progress) (2015), which consists of about 4,000 copper-clad bricks placed on the ground to compose an abstract pattern with symbolic meaning. The work is also conceived as a stage for performances in collaboration with artists and musicians that will take place throughout the duration of the exhibition, as well as for further works to be displayed on its surface. In addition, the title of the exhibition itself, "Ground Break," is intended to highlight Nari Ward's exploration of periods of disruption and interruption that appear unstable and precarious, yet are capable of generating hope, alternative memories, and new possibilities for existence beyond history and the temporal conventions of past, present, and future.

Ward's works exist as independent entities, but the undivided space of the Navate allows for an ongoing dialogue between them, offering visitors an unprecedented overview of the artist's oeuvre. In particular, three historical videos will be shown together for the first time and on LED screens: Father and Sons (2010), Jaunt (2011), and Spellbound (2015). Themes and images related to Nari Ward's personal history, colonial history, and contemporary mechanisms of power are intertwined and spread throughout the exhibition space. Their combination offers a profound analysis of the concepts of social justice, nationality, care, sacrifice, and belonging. The exhibition ends in the Cubo space with Happy Smilers: Duty Free Shopping (1996), a complex and emblematic installation first presented at Deitch Projects, a historic New York gallery in Soho. The work is divided into two interrelated spaces: the first room, decorated with an awning in bright yellow, is followed by an alienating labyrinth in which fire hoses are weaved to become walls, a fire escape is suspended from the ceiling, and an altar-like sound system repeats the sound of heavy rain on a tin roof. This work, made with the diverse media and materials typical of Ward's practice, brings together and encapsulates the many issues the artist addresses, from the construction of space as a container of memory, to the relationship with his native Jamaica, and the idea of ascension, disorientation, and transformation that is enabled and activated by the alchemical power of art.

Numerous international institutions have hosted Nari Ward's solo exhibitions, including: Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan (2022); New Museum, New York (2019, 1993); Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (2019); The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield (2019); deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln (2018); Socrates Sculpture Park, New York, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2017); The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia (2016); Pérez Art Museum Miami, Scad Museum of Art, Savannah (2015); LSU Museum of Art, Baton Rouge, Louisiana (2014); Château de Blandy-Les-Tours, France (2013); Mass MoCa, Massachusetts (2011); Contemporary Art Galleries at the University of Connecticut (2007); Palazzo delle Papesse - Contemporary Art Center, Siena (2006); GAM, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin (2001); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2001, 2000); Magasin, Grenoble (1994). His works have also been presented at numerous international biennials, such as: Sharjah Biennial (2023, 2005); Whitney Biennial (2006, 1995); Taipei Biennale (2006); documenta, Kassel (2002); Venice Biennale (1993). The artist has received numerous awards, including: Vilcek Prize in Fine Arts, New York (2017); Joyce Award, The Joyce Foundation, Chicago (2015); Nadine Carter Russell Chair, LSU College of Art + Design, Louisiana (2013); Rome Prize, American Academy in Rome (2012).

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