Occupying the land 1/2
At a time when many of us are discovering the radical occupation of zones à defendre (ZAD) in recent months, more and more exhibitions, from London (Raven Row) to Trente (Mart) and Nice (Villa Arson), feature pieces by Gianfranco Baruchello, an unconventional artist whose most original work of art was to occupy several hectares of land not far from Rome between 1973 and 1981. There he founded an agricultural company called Agricola Cornelia S.p.A, which was, for him, a work of art in its own right. Conceived and established during the Years of Lead, a time of radical political violence and upheaval in Italy, Baruchello makes a case for the “right to squat and cultivate”. And yet, this did not stand in the way of his developing more traditional works of art on the side (paintings, sculptures, installations, photographs or videos) inspired by his farm life. Agricola Cornelia still resounds today as an artwork rich with esthetic meaning and political dedication, one that brings particular attention to our immediate surroundings.
Il publie en 1967 un livre (La quindicesa riga / La quinzième ligne) uniquement composé de la quinzième ligne de quatre cents livres pris au hasard.
La plupart des citations de ce texte sont issues de cet entretien.
The expression zone à défendre (ZAD), in English “area to occupy or defend”, is a term coined by activists to designate a kind of politically-motivated squatter’s or occupation movement, often outdoors and generally to oppose a real estate, industrial or touristic development project. Although most ZADs have sprouted up primarily in agricultural zones, the term also applies to urban occupations. In Europe, the most well known ZAD was established in the municipality of Notre-Dame-des-Landes to protect the area from a Nantes airport extension project.
Some commentators often confuse a ZAD with a TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone). A TAZ, which is much more poetic, applies mainly to cyber culture and refers metaphorically to the pirate utopia of the 18th century. For those who are able to see them, these zones manifest themselves by appearing-disappearing, thus escaping any and all forms of authority. They occupy a temporary territory in space, time or the imagination, dissolving as soon as they are identified. A TAZ can only exist through anonymity, including that of its founding theoretician Hakim Bey, whose articles, which often tout contradictory ideals, are published here and there as open sour:ce documents on paper or on the Net.
“Merciful God, uphold the just cause of the poor”
The links between the worlds of agriculture and art first culminate during the Peasants’ Wars that affected part of what is now Germany between 1525 and 1526. The revolt initially began with social demands made by the Protestant Reformation: to oppose the ecclesiastical hierarchy, elect pastors, abolish serfdom and reduce the amount of labor and feudal, crop, fishing and hunting taxes, etc. The revolt came to a bloody end (with nearly 100 000 dead) after Luther retracted his support through a pamphlet of rare violence. More than three centuries later, in 1850, Friedrich Engels studies the reasons behind their failure to better prepare the Communist revolution as he envisions it.
The Peasants’ War is perhaps the first war to be depicted by painters while it is occurring, nearly a century before Jacques Callot and the Thirty Years’ War. The first of these painters was Jörg Ratgeb, a revolutionary painter who wound up dismembered. He painted the prayer that inspired the revolt: “Merciful God, uphold the just cause of the poor,” onto the banner of one of the revolt’s leaders, Joß Fritz (whose portrait was engraved by Albrecht Dürer). Ratgeb also painted the Bundschuh, a kind of ankle boot worn only by peasants that became the revolt’s symbol. In 1525, Dürer made an etching for a monument dedicated to “the vanquished peasants”: a column consisting of several eclectic elements, at the top a peasant on his knees with a gladiator’s sword plunged into his back. “If someone wishes to erect a victory monument after vanquishing rebellious peasants, he might use paraphernalia according to the following.” Matthias Grünewald, author of the famous Isenheim altarpiece, and Lucas Cranach, with his twenty-six wood etchings for the series “The Passion of Christ and Antichrist”, were also inspired by the conflict. Hans Holbein, portraitist to the great and illustrator of Thomas Moore’s Utopia, and Niklaus Manuel Deutsch or Urs Graf, for their part, performed macabre dances considered metaphors for the misery and terror faced by the peasantry.
From conservative symbol to political ecology
This interest in peasant life is also present in some 19th century painting, particularly Vincent Van Gogh’s The siesta (1889-1890), where two fieldworkers can be seen napping in the shade of a haystack. The painting was inspired by Jean-François Millet, who perhaps best represents all things related to farm life: his realist paintings have been reproduced countless times onto cookie tins and calendars, indelibly carving themselves into our 20th century memories. Less is known about the extent to which Millet influenced the American naturalist painters, who represent a new way of considering and depicting landscapes that distances itself from Renaissance principles (landscape = window = opening unto the world). Millet’s vision is rather one of a lost ideal. Misery and labor are represented, indeed, but as part of a kind of ‘religion of work’. If Millet’s agricultural ascetics are humble and human, his way of seeing has rapidly grown outdated. Modernity, let it be said, shows little interest in agriculture. After the transition period of impressionism (which still focused for the most part on nature), the post-impressionists turn to the city. The first resolutely modern movement, futurism, depicts speed, noise and the factory. In his first manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti writes: “A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath — a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Is not one of the very first films in history Workers Leaving the Lumières Factory, from 1895? It is simply no longer on the agenda to paint rurality, as rural seems to correspond increasingly to conservative, even reactionary, ways of life. The revolution is mostly urban and made of factory workers. The peasant is suspicious of novelty, modernity and all those machines that fascinate painters but empty the farms of their laborers.
This retrograde image, however, is more complex than we think. A great many modern revolutions started in the fields, beginning with the peasant revolts in Mexico, 1910, under the guidance of the legendary Emiliano Zapata, to the 1990s-era neo-Zapatista struggle in Chiapas led by the equally legendary Subcommandante Marcos. The Chinese communist revolution is essentially a peasant one, since the “proletarians of the land” supplied the main battalions for Mao Zedong and company’s Long March in 1934-1935, while one of the principles behind the gruesome cultural revolution thirty years later was for intellectuals—or more generally, city-dwellers—to be sent to the fields.
The success of Maoism amongst Western leftist groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s is what contributes, amongst others, to a renewed interest in rural versus city. “De-urbanizers” dream of new communal ways of living, far from the tempo and restrictions of city life and the torment of consumerist society. These years also mark the creation, in 1968, of the Club of Rome, a group of scientists, economists, civil servants and CEOs from fifty-two of the richest countries, all preoccupied by the problems caused by planet-wide economic growth. The group came into the limelight in 1972 for its first publication, a report entitled The Limits to Growth, also known as “The Meadows Report” after two of its main co-authors. The title sounds like a command, especially considering that it appeared during the Trentes Glorieuses1, considered a period of unlimited growth. The report’s alarming conclusions soon become the basis for contemporary ecological politics.
The Years of Lead
Italy was then in the throes of its famous “Years of Lead”, a period when many radical leftist groups began to embrace armed struggle—including the Red Brigade—in the face of successive governments and weak or corrupt political parties. At the height of the Cold War, certain state bodies (police, security, intelligence) attempt to increase tensions by blaming Far Leftists for attacks organized by the Far Right. This “tension strategy” is meant in any case to traumatize popular opinion, weaken institutions and perhaps, in the case of some reactionary elements, provoke the advent of an authoritarian regime. The left-leaning public, showing compassion at first for the ambitions of the country’s youth, then well-meaning when confronted by the demands of the workforce, ultimately severs itself entirely from this strategy of violence following the assassination in 1978 of Aldo Moro, president of the Christian Democracy, the main post-war political party. Depending on the interpretation, these Years of Lead seemed steeped in terrorism by the Far Left, subversion from the Far Right, and could be characterized as years of state deficiency. The truth certainly lies somewhere between the three.
Italy is in a period of intense conflict, and it is hard to know which way one’s conscience should lean. But artistic activity carries on, unharmed. Italian cinema sees its most glorious hours, as does Italian design, architecture, fashion and visual arts, particularly with arte povera, conceived—at least in theory—as an act of resistance against consumerist society by using simple materials like sand, cloth, soil, wood, tar, rope, jute canvas or used clothes. The trend is meant to encourage artists to detach themselves from the dictates of the market, institutions or traditional esthetic conventions. The artist should be “poor” like his materials, except that in Italian the word povera not only means “of poor means” but also “ascetic” in the spiritual sense of the word. The group’s success and the individual destinies of some of its members quickly bring these principles into jeopardy. Regardless, the movement remains incredibly important as it reflects many of the formal experimentations and ideals of an entire era.
An uncategorizable artist
It is precisely at the height of this effervescent time that Gianfranco Baruchello appears. It is impossible to classify this artist. His paintings are populated by small images drawn from life experience, economics, science, advertising, popular culture in general, and from thousands of other things inhabiting his indomitable imagination. It all comes together in archipelago fashion, giving way to inconceivable meanderings and paths. When the lines where two images meet seem too visible, they are erased or dotted. It cannot be understand all in one go, rather by navigating his continual digressions. Which does not necessarily mean that his world is absurd or nonsensical. Above all, Baruchello paints the chaos of our thoughts, the very way that our brains function, with billions of synapses connecting the myriad bits of information coming at us at any instant. He gives form to the things “that come to mind”. It is visually fascinating but also conceptually so, since without realizing it, through this network of links and multiple intersecting references, he develops a way of reasoning that closely resembles our current-day Internet, particularly in his paintings on layered sheets of Plexiglas. Except that with Baruchello, these links have poetic content without depending on a precise or unequivocal discourse. Baruchello is indeed a poet. His painting is built and can be read like language2. Which is, incidentally, how he began his artistic career in 1959, by creating a lexicon of pictograms and ideograms (Primo Alfabeto) representing sentiments, moods and/or ideas, after directing the research and development department at a biochemical company founded by his father. By then he is already 35 years old and has “lost”, as he puts it, ten years of his life.
Baruchello also makes cinema, directing his first film in 1960 (Molla), a second in 1963 (Il grado zero del paesaggio) and, together with director Alberto Grifi, a third in 1965 (Verifica incerta). The latter is considered a pioneering film in Italian experimental cinema. Following a principle of found footage, he edits (or re-edits, would say the original authors of the footage) images and sounds constituted essentially of film scraps from forty-seven Hollywood features of the 1950s and in cinemascope, collected off the projection-room floor. The images have one thing in common—they are repeat frames used to study composition. He also makes short films with hyperbolic dramatizations denouncing the power of money, the Vietnam War and racism. In 1967, he founds Cooperativa Cinema Indipendente to make activist cinema. The same year, he founds the fictitious company Artiflex whose slogan is “Artiflex commodifies all”, provoking the exchange of objects and materials with various audiences, either through performances or newspaper announcements. The procedure is entirely original for the art world at the time. These initiatives show the artist’s desire to break free from the traditional economies of art by inventing autonomous modes of production. Parallel to this, he participates in the Far Left movement Pottered Operation which dissolves in June, 1973, when its armed branch carries out an attack on a Far Right militant, killing two of his sons. The event is known in Italy as “Il rogue di Primeval”.
Agriculture as a work of art
Following that event, Baruchello decides to change his life and moves to a property on Via di Santa Cornelia at the northeastern border of Rome municipality. He needs more space to work and to store his pieces. He also decides to take his distance from activism. He plants a vegetable garden, and then produces his own energy using solar panels. He learns that the surrounding plots have been acquired a few years earlier by investment agencies intending to build a vast suburban complex. Wanting to protect the environment and avoid runaway real estate speculation, the municipal hall declares the land unfit for development by classifying them as farmland. Baruchello decides to occupy the lands without a permit. “I was taking over the lands of a bunch of speculators.” And yet, he still informs the owners who are based in the north of the country. They do not react, or at least they cannot react, since they are restricted by the municipality’s legislation.
Having no real experience in agriculture, Baruchello hires Alfonso, a seasoned farmer who becomes his closest collaborator. Alfonso moves onto the property with his wife and daughter who also work the farm. Together they hire seasonal workers, decontaminate the soil and plant many crops: sugar beets, corn, potatoes, squash, salad, wheat, barley and a fruit orchard. They quickly start to raise bovines, sheep, goats, pigs, rabbit, poultry and bees. They also produce cheese. Everyone is entirely committed. Baruchello founds a real company (Agricola Cornelia S.p.A) and works continuously for the success of his project by taking a temporary break from the art world, whose mode of operation he often criticizes. In this way, he takes a different stance than the land artists who, at that same era, act upon the landscape using a range of gestures, from small to monumental. He criticizes their lack of involvement in social realities. He uses Christo as an example; in 1974, Christo wrapped the Porta Pinciana in Rome without really taking into account the environment, in particular the extreme poverty of the neighborhood next door. Baruchello also opposes the great myths of space exploration—starting with our conquering the moon—, which he believes distracts people from the issues of managing and preserving their land here on Earth. With Artiflex as a kind of presage, he also tries to redefine the use-value of an artwork, which, through the form of Agricola Cornelia, becomes a useful good since its financial value contributes to the concrete production of agricultural products.
After two years, Baruchello starts to have a lot of insight and begins to question the utopian nature of his “para-political happening”, as he calls it. Although he never gained any personal profit, since all revenue (artistic or agricultural) was reinvested into the farm, his company continues to grow. Nobody opposes it, neither the municipality nor the owners. “If I’d been just somebody out of work who lived in a slum… everything would have been tragically different. The police would have arrived in no more than a day or two.” He sees his radical status as a paradox. He also experiences a personal crisis and seeks to resolve his own contradictions. His farming activity increasingly spills over into his artistic universe. In his paintings or sculptures, more and more direct references to farming appear: work charts, irrigation charts, strata, drawings of animals or tools. He far surpasses the framework of simple representation gradually assembling a true graphic network that examines every angle of the social and economic links produced by agriculture as a source of exchange. From that point on, he considers his project a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art made up of many media and artistic disciplines, with a willfully complex scope, combining several reflections on life and the world.
His pieces also take on a more allegorical dimension, notably with the creation of Grande Biblioteca beginning in 1976. Although the result is not that gigantic in size (six sculptures making up a total 210 x 200 x 20 cm), it grows huge through its mode of production, which includes notes taken during his tenure as a farmer mixed with drawings, wheat germ or tiny pebbles. Everything combines into a hive-like structure containing hundreds of miniature books. Using the same glass box procedure, he makes Eros Sélabeille (1977) after observing an immense swarm of bees found on the farm, and based on the thoughts of a bee keeper, a close friend of Baruchello’s, who referred to the swarm as “the shape the bees take when they want to reach an important decision.” The Greenhouses series (also in 1977) is a collection of many small, architectural sculptures in which “the greenhouse becomes a house for feelings.” L’altra casa (1979) is, for its part, a diorama of a house built from the memories—undoubtedly incomplete ones—of houses in which the artist has lived.
Arid and sweet
Throughout his years on the farm, Baruchello also feels a need to photograph or film the activity of his daily life. The documentation that ensues is presented at Galleria Milano in Milan in 1981 and in two books. The first is published for the exhibition. It is simply entitled Agricola Cornelia S.p.A 1973-81. The second, How to imagine: a narrative on art and agriculture, comes out in 1983 and is based on a long interview conducted by American art critic Henry Martin3. The extent to which Baruchello shows absolutely no concern for his documents’ esthetics is striking. This choice stands in clear opposition to the majority of conceptual artists in the 1970s—notably land artists—who went to great lengths for their images to have a certain quality. Even the film Il Grano, made in 1975, conceived as a fixed shot on a field of wheat to show the changing landscape seems barren. In fact, for Baruchello, the documentary form does not exist. One must seek the memory of one’s work elsewhere. Agricola Cornelia IV. Bird’s-eye view (1978) is, for example, a panorama of various crops produced across the entire surface of his farmland. Whereas Agricola Cornelia V. Phantasmatic parasites of the tomato (1978) offers an interpretation of the parasitic process—that of the worm—with fruits from his orchard.
Following this concrete yet allegorical logic, in 1978 he begins to research “Mild, as a flavour” (Dolce, 1978-1981), which leads to a book, a documentary video and a large format painting. Starting with sugar beets and honey, “he seeks,” says art critic Carla Subrizi, “to understand the cultural, philosophical, practical and narrative components” of mild sweetness. The film includes twenty-four hours of interviews with philosophers (such as Jean-François Lyotard, a close friend of Baruchello’s), friends, strangers, workers or farmers who often visited Cornelia. The images are so erratic that it is hard to follow the meaning and content of their discussions. Once again, Baruchello remains unconcerned with finding beautiful images or producing a didactic discourse; he records his talking guests as much as the crying child or a dog passing by. And yet what remains from this flood of fertile ideas is that for most of the interviewees, “dolce” is a reassuring substance. This cliché recalls a dimension that is often overlooked in the exegesis of Baruchello’s oeuvre, which is the concern, or perhaps the care, he brings to the world around him. This concern is shown first and foremost through the actions carried out at Agricola Cornelia. “The earth must be cared for the way one cares for the spirit.” Similarly, if the recurring use of miniscule signs can be considered a refusal of the spectacular, it might also be seen as an art of the minutiae, that is, of the attention, much like what the Flemish renaissance painters developed in their time. It is no coincidence that Baruchello uses a creamy white background for most of his canvases. Like American artist Cy Twombly, whom he met (and undoubtedly influenced) in the 1950s in Rome, white makes us think of healing and therefore of the soothing virtues of art.
Becoming a painter by working the earth
When Agricola Cornelia comes to an end in 1981, the farm already spans ten hectares of land. In his text How to imagine: a narrative on art and agriculture, Baruchello hardly explains the reasons for halting his farm activity. Relationship trouble makes him rethink his plans for the future, and with age (he is nearly 60 by then) it is harder to imagine continuing to work in such difficult conditions. The world has changed profoundly since 1968. Utopias have lost steam. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are in charge. One could also say that Baruchello simply exhausted the experience. His work gained new meaning and intensity by being rooted in a real-life enterprise. His vocabulary of signs and shapes, which he had been researching since 1959, grew stronger out in the fields. He writes that he “became a painter by working the earth.” He no longer needs to prove he is an artist; he just is one. And yet abandoning the farm work does not necessarily mean forgetting his ideals. Over the years to come, Agricola Cornelia turns into Fondazione Baruchello, allowing him to archive his heterogeneous body of artistic work. He still invites friends over for long, digressive conversations, just as he invites young artists to live and work on site. Little by little, the farm turns into a philosophical garden. And though the agriculture disappears, there is still care for the environment, for instance with Il Bosco in 1990, where decontaminating a nearby forest becomes a work of art. The plowed fields are replaced by a park and a forest. Activity fades, wisdom settles in.
No matter what, Agricola Cornelia remains one of the most unique works of art of the twentieth century. It is original for its political nature, of course, but also for its completely experimental quality. In 2018, it remains as relevant as ever, directly linked with the issues of our contemporary world: real estate speculation, sustainability, permaculture and local networks. It is an artwork that lies between the ZAD (occupying the land) and the TAZ (the poetic metaphor for action). A real-life utopia. But what makes it infinitely fascinating is also that the artist’s political and social dedication to the project never detracted from the quality of his art. On the contrary: it is so rare to observe such harmony between a chosen way of life, an artistic stance and a complete work of art that can be “exhibited”, so to say, in a museum, art center or gallery. Nothing was pitted against the other, nor made without one another. This also applies to the moral and esthetic perfection of an artist who never gave up on his political ideals—even if he refined them over time—or his desire to put art at the center, even at the very origin, of every experience. Baruchello never hid his doubts and he developed the project alongside his uncertainties. Without going as far as to call it a model—a term Baruchello would certainly refute—Agricola Cornelia remains a singular work of art… and all the while, an entirely universal one.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Thanks to Carla Subrizi, Daniela Zanoletti, Nicolas Bourriaud and Villa Arson
Cover: Gianfranco Baruchello, Raccolto di barbabietole [Beet Harvest], 1975. Photo documentation. Baruchello Foundation, Rome, Italy.