The Mast Foundation is one of those jewels that, as a resident in Bologna, you tend to take for granted, and yet you shouldn’t. First, because it is indeed a jewel, a massive multifunctional complex covering an area of 25,000 sm, designed by Studio Labics’s Maria Claudia Clemente and Francesco Isidori, graced by the presence of artworks by Anesh Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson and Arnaldo Pomodoro, and donated to Bologna by philanthropist entrepreneur Isabella Seragnoli. And then because it regularly hosts some impressive expositions, mostly based on the Foundation’s strong focus on work, industry and technology, and the latest enterprise makes no exception.
The Mast Collection, A visual alphabet of industry, work and technology, is faithful to its name and is a massive collection displaying 500 images selected from the 6000 of the Foundation’s own collection, a powerful display of photographs taken over a century and a half and documenting the industrialization of society and its evolution.
There are a few impressive shots taken from the early days of photography and the late decades of the XIXth century, portraying a world whose landscape is dramatically changing forever, with iron and concrete making their way through trees and grass, with fields and big natural spaces suddenly having to coexist with railways and smokestacks. And especially with humans facing new ways of providing for themselves and their offspring, coming to terms with different work dynamics, new waves of migrations and, inevitably, new forms of struggling and exploitation.
Then there’s the enthusiasm, along with fascinating shapes and dramatic lighting, of the Twenties and even of the more troubled Thirties of the XXth Century, with towers, chimneys, columns becoming vertical totems of progress and with manual work tools being turned into objects of fetishist attention. They are also the same years of Man Ray‘s personal viewing of his time, as portrayed in his Electricity series, as well as of Dorothea Lange‘s exhausted Migrant Mother.
The works on display at Mast are beautifully assembled on the walls of the wide, square, clean spaces of the museum, disposed along three macro-areas and grouped into words alphabetically ordered, from the A of “Abandoned” to the W of “Waste” “Water” and “Wealth”. And of course their journey through the decades continues, with notable artists as well as anonymous photographers capturing work and industry through the lenses of political propaganda or corporate publicity, showing personal alienation or collective protests, depicting wealth and poverty, abnegation and strikes, activity and pauses, uniforms and badges.
Capturing, portraying, photographing work isn’t immediate or easy, as the exhibition’s curator Urs Stahel explained at the presentation of the exhibition, but it is indeed a powerful source of inspiration and may offer a multitude of layers and points of view. For example, describing a huge collage of photos of the empty spaces of abandoned factories in the former DDR prompted Stahel to improvise a short but passionate j’accuse to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “It wasn’t a merging of two sides but West Germany taking over East Germany”, the curator said.
Talking politics is inevitable when confronted with an exhibition devoted to work and industry, with so much more to discuss than capitalism vs communism. The phots on display at Mast aren’t just beautiful per se, but also throw in the air seeds of remembrance and debate, while capturing a multitude of themes and events like the big workers’ strikes in Italy in the Seventies, or China’s Kuomintang (the market’s collapse) in 1948, or children labour in the early days of industrialization, or the exploiting work conditions that many people still experience today, especially but not exclusively in developing countries.
Again Stahel: “Photography is a child of industrialization and at the same time its most vivid visual document, it is the merging of memory and comment”. And this would be just one more reason to go visit this powerful exhibition. And when you do, don’t forget to look at the amazing Simon Faithfull‘s video on the first section. You might risk to miss it among all the photos surrounding it, but it is a fascinating piece: 12 hypnotic minutes of nature eventually taking back its space after the human predator has gone away.
The Mast Collection
A visual alphabet of industry, work and technology
Fondazione Mast, Via Speranza 42, Bologna
Until May 22th
Open Tuesday to Sunday. Free entrance.
Cover photo: Happy bathers on Sihl, 1936
© Hans Peter Klauser / Fotostiftung Schweiz