When Fragility Spells Frightful
By Adriana Nordin Manan

“Unrelenting” by Francisco Simeti Image credit: Fragilita website

Fragilita (“fragility” in Italian) is an online exhibition by Italian curatorial outfit Particle. It’s the type of exhibition that calls itself not just an exhibition, but a “transformative experience”. Unfortunately, the only transformation I experienced was from being fairly interested to feeling fully irritated. Navigating it felt like being part of a user experience experiment which I hadn’t agreed to, exposing the foibles of technology in crafting such an individualised experience as a visit to an art show. A Manus x Machina that lost the plot. Applying a more charitable lens, maybe the experience simply reflected the chaos of planning an exhibition during the pandemic. Fragilita was launched online after plans for an in-person exhibition in Kuala Lumpur had to be shelved, and perhaps changing tack led to all the unresolved bugs.

Fragilita has elements of bilateral cooperation, with established Italian and Malaysian curators and artists. The support of the Italian Embassy is also explicitly stated. From the get go, this curatorial framing was unconvincing as it was unclear why this pairing took place. What about Malaysia makes it the partner country for this exhibition, we never find out. We don’t need a five-page essay going back two centuries in history to expound the choice, but a simple background on the relationship between the curators or countries that led to the exhibition is not too much to ask.

The “why” already on a wobbly footing, the curatorial essay and introduction read like they were written by somebody who took a nap and let Google Translate take the wheel.

For example, behold the second paragraph of the seven-paragraph essay:

“The dialogical confrontation between wild nature and an inhabitant of any place on earth is resolves in a clear-cut response of nature: the latter's intentions are never addressed to the happiness or unhappiness of men, but they are completely indifferent to their fate. What appears to man as offense or benefit of the elements, it is actually the free course of nature that it runs parallel to human life but without taking care of it.”

I call this out with no intention to mock the writers, but rather to pose the (rhetorical) question: did the organisers not care a smidgen about the ability of their English-speaking visitors to keep pace and understand the exhibition? The content was quite obviously written in Italian originally, which is fine, but given their stature surely the organisers could afford translator fees.

Misery, like joy, loves company. To help readers visualise the ordeal of visiting Fragilita, here’s a step-by-step description. To enter, you must first register and share your email address. Presumably they want your email address so they can keep in touch, but at the time of writing, no post-show engagement messages have been received. One can only pray that this doesn’t become a ploy to harvest emails and send unwanted newsletters in the future.

The Fragilita website welcomed visitors by the names they used to register. The landing page was filled with moving bubbles, and no intuitive way of navigating the site. I was left staring at the screen for a while, toggling the cursor around. Finally, a scroll bar appeared, only to vanish. This hide-and-seek with the scroll bar was a common feature throughout the exhibition.

The curator’s welcome message by Luigi Fassi explained Fragilita’s motivations: to show that fragility should not be construed as a negative cognition, but instead a receptacle of positive attributes such as sensitivity and kindness.

“Remainder” by Maria D. Rapicavoli Image credit: Fragilita website

The eight artists were divided into four pairs, each with an Italian and Malaysian artist. Each pair was presented with an accompanying line about fragility, such as “Fragility Builds Solidity” and “Fragility Brings Awareness to Daily Life.” Again, no explanation was given on the creative choices that divided the artists into such pairings, whether it was about the themes or frames of reference in their work.

You had to scroll through all the eight exhibits in a sequence, and couldn’t skip exhibits or move back and forth out of sequence. This made the visit drone on, as there were artists I appreciated more than others. Wong Chee Meng and Francesco Simeti’s works were enjoyable for the visual transformations they presented. Wong’s “Loss of Eyesight” was a painting over which visitors could apply a red or blue filter, which made different images appear than the ones seen on the unfiltered version. Running the filters over the painting was a captivating experience, as I made out images such as wolves and trees.

“Unrelenting” by Francesco Simeti was a video featuring painted flora and fauna images that grew in size, contorted or changed background colour. The alternating appearance and disappearance of trees, flowers and shrubs was akin to watching a colourful collage in motion, and also helped relax one’s eyes.

Maria D. Rapicavoli’s “Remainder” read like a poetic, photographic essay of her experience during the lockdown in New York City. The sense of isolation, irrational fear and finding beauty in the unseemly came through in her photographs and story about salvaging broken glass from the streets.

The visitor engagement segment at Simeti’s exhibition added to the sense of Fragilita as an exhibition that wouldn’t let you have a nice time. There was a section where visitors were invited to ask the artist a question. I had geared myself up to ask something about his inspiration, only to learn that I couldn’t type spaces between words in the space provided, so my question came out as a string of smooshed together letters. Fantastic.

Audience Feedback Question Image credit: Fragilita website

Machine-mediated experiences like us to believe that they care and want to know about our feelings, such as Facebook likes and in Fragilita, the “How Are You Feeling?” segment after each exhibit. But true to form, Fragilita didn’t permit seamless, intuitive interactions and instead, presented the range of feelings to choose from in the form of drawings which were puzzles in their own right. Visitors had to choose emotions symbolised by images of bald, faceless figures like the ones American artist Keith Haring was known for, and at least two of them looked barely distinguishable from each other. I think they represented the stage of being deep in thought or scared, but who knows the truth as Fragilita seemed more about complicating than resolving. And that was a real crying shame.

There is a running joke going around in social media that the wish of our times is not to have an “exciting” year, but to have a boring, routine one that isn’t upended by a deadly pandemic. Visiting Fragilita makes me want to extrapolate this by wishing for concise, thoughtful exhibitions that eschew the frills of performative participatory-dom that ask your name and how you’re feeling, but instead put thought to letting visitors orient themselves with articulate essays, earnest beckoning, and well-organised exhibits. For all the good it intended to do, Fragilita’s starkest success was likely unintended: it was a real-life example of how art exhibitions that trot out and talk up the technology side of things can end up looking flashy, but are ultimately vapid and soulless.

Fragilita can be viewed at www.particle.art/fragilita

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Adriana Nordin Manan is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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