Roving Eye: The Plane Crash


After five hectic days in Venice for the opening of the Biennale, my wife Kara Vander Weg and I went to Bologna for a couple days of vacation. Today, Bologna is famous for its food (see: Da Nello, Diana and Rodrigo), miles of porticos, huge student population, leftist politics and the writer Umberto Eco.

The fact that there is actually art in Bologna is somewhat downplayed in the guide books, so we were pleasantly surprised to discover that Bologna has a long history as one of the most influential artistic and cultural centers in Italy.

The important old master paintings at the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna and the Civic Collection alone are worth the short hour and half trip from Venice. A variety of esoteric collections at the University of Bologna’s Palazzo Poggi includes museums of obstetrics, anatomical waxworks, animal pathology, marine and antique maps, military architecture and model ships. The detailed models of embryos, antique medical tools and taxidermied animals will delight anyone with a penchant for strange collections like the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia or the Light Bulb Museum in Baltimore.

If your tastes run towards the contemporary, Bologna offers an international art fair in January and MAMbo (the Bologna Modern Art Museum), which also operates the Museo and Casa Morandi, GAM (the Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Bologna), the Villa della Rose and the Museo per la Memoria di Ustica.

GAM was founded in 1975 during a period of radical politics in the city, culminating with massive student riots in 1977. The museum itself has been a hotbed of progressive esthetic activity for more than 30 years. Today, under the auspices of MAMbo, the institution continues to show works by international artists like Matthew Day Jackson, Sarah Morris, Seth Price, Trisha Donnelly and Guyton/Walker.

In their temporary exhibition space, a survey of videos, photography, sound pieces and architectural interventions by the collaborative group ZimmerFrei explores the role that public space plays in forming and shaping our social consciousness (through August 28). Upstairs are selections from GAM’s permanent collection: work by Arte Povera artists like Pennone, Merz and Fontana, plus archival material from important exhibitions like “International Performance Week” (1977) and “Arte di Frontiera: New York Graffiti, 1984.”

After visiting GAM, we headed to the Museo per la Memoria di Ustica, which houses a haunting, permanent installation by Christian Boltanski (currently holding court in the French pavilion at the Biennale). The memorial opened to the public in 2007 in a former tram warehouse in the middle of a residential area. The museum houses the reassembled wreckage from the DC9 Itavia plane that crashed into the Tyrrhenian Sea near the island of Ustica on June 27, 1980, during a routine flight from Bologna to Palermo, killing all 81 people on board.

The circumstances of the crash remain a mystery, and a massive conspiracy theory postulates that the plane was actually shot down by either the Italian or French air force, or by a U.S.-piloted NATO fighter, possibly in an attempt to assassinate Muammar el-Qaddafi, who was flying over Italy in a Libyan plane that day. Several high-ranking generals and military personnel were brought to trial for obstruction of justice and eventually acquitted. Even more strangely, many of the people involved in the incident died unexpectedly during the investigation in car crashes, murders or by committing suicide.

Inside the Museo per la Memoria di Ustica, the reassembled plane—in addition to large black tarp-covered crates containing thousands of personal effects found in the sea near the crash site—are placed in a recessed area on the floor of the building. You can see the installation from all sides via an elevated walkway, where 81 evenly spaced black glass mirrors cover 81 speakers. Boltanski recorded phrases and ruminations from family members who lost love ones in the crash, and periodically these whispered sentences are audible as you walk past the speakers.

Suspended over the plane are 81 bare bulbs that dim or brighten along with the natural rhythm of breathing. There is also an antechamber where you can watch an informative documentary video on the tragedy. Several computer stations include extensive records of all of the media commentary on the event. For sale is a small book of photographs, produced by Boltanski, documenting the personal effects of the dead passengers and crew.

Although I often find Boltanski’s work overly theatrical, there was something extremely disturbing—and engaging—about this installation. The wreckage is so fascinatingly morbid that I could not stop walking around it, and the back story took on a contemporary relevance that was quite profound. Of course, with a plane to catch the next day back to New York, my thoughts started to wander and I began to think about my own flight and my safe return home, hopefully in one piece.

Top: The University of Bologna’s Palazzo Poggi.

Above: View of Christian Boltanski’s installation at the Museo per la Memoria di Ustica.