Contributing writer Chiara Alessio discusses the reasoning behind various actions of the modern climate activist movement ‘ultima generazione’ along with outlining their symbolic and artistic resistance against the climate crisis
For millennia, humans tried to come to terms with their own mortality: that meant finding ways to potentially overcome it. Thus, monuments, family and art arose in the West as the three big alternatives for this problem: the first became a physical boundary, a manifestation of individual power or the centre for ancestral commonality. The second established a direct line of patriarchal power that protected property and wealth. The third and last alternative, Art, was seen as an even bigger force, maybe the closest to immortality, the de facto ‘I was here’: As roman poet Horace stated in his Odes III, XXX: ‘I have made a monument more lasting than bronze / and set higher than the pyramids of kings. / It cannot be destroyed by gnawing rain / or wild north wind, by the procession / of unnumbered years or by the flight of time. / I shall always be here’.
However, what if such hopes for immortality and for the future are long gone? What If we are the last generation before the ecoclimate collapse? This is the issue portrayed by Ultima Generazione (translated to: “Last Generation”), an Italian activist group that is asking for nonviolent civil disobedience against the ecoclimate collapse, as the Italian government is set on keeping investing in fossil fuels even though the Italian landscape is already in serious drought in the first months of 2023. What does civil disobedience have to do with art and monuments? The link is within Ultima Generazione’s protest tactic in itself: splattering (washable) neon orange paint on the pure white marble, the polished bronze, the organised brick and the smooth cement of key statues and palaces of Italian cities, once the focuses of the so acclaimed within the West, the Renaissance. This tactic shocks the museum owners and the art collectors preoccupied with the “protection” of the monuments: however, humans leaving marks on the landscape, on the pure material, is not unusual behaviour even in the world of archaeology and art, from the handprints found on the walls of Spanish prehistoric caves all the way to Lucio Fontana’s physical slashing of the canvas. Ultima Generazione interacts with space not only for political means, but in the realm of the symbolic and of
the iconographical, de facto approaching the same art they are accused of ruining and disrespecting.
The enraged splashing of the orange paint by young university students in a struggling, impoverished Italy governed by a far-right elite is not only political, but superbly and quintessentially artistic. It leaves a message, it encourages the viewer to think, it breaks the elitist boundary between the citizen and the museum. As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said in Distinction: it creates a moral panic between the elites that are influencing the policies on the usage of fossil fuels, ultimately challenging the idea of the ‘good citizen’, nationalistically and loyally bound to their country and the symbols thereof (such as, City Halls, Trading Squares, Statues commemorating Monarchs or Rulers).
‘Today we chose to target the City Hall (in Florence, editor’s note), the Symbol of Power’ exclaims an Ultima Generazione activist as he’s being handcuffed after the most recent “attack”, having smeared the iconic orange paint on Florence’s Palazzo della Signoria (the City Hall, once upon a time the Parliament of the Kingdom of Italy). Meanwhile, the mayor of Florence is scolding the young man. The way he found out about the attack? The mayor was making a video for his voters, later posted on TikTok: he is heard saying: ‘Signoria Square is the biggest, most beautiful, outdoor museum’ before being seen running towards the newly painted City Hall. The difference in views on what the space is representing between mayor Dario Nardella and the young activist is stark: the biggest, most beautiful plaza is soon called a symbol of Power as the arrest is taking place and as Nardella becomes more and more enraged. A statement caught again on video and posted on the internet of Mayor
Nardella is crucial to understand how the two varying views are influenced by class and power dynamics: ‘These two uncivilised vandals have lashed out against The Palace. […] It was a miracle that we had restorers who used cleaning brushes and hydrants on the statues’ construction sites, so thanks to their help we have immediately washed the entire façade of Palazzo Vecchio (also called Palazzo della Signoria)’. As the citizens try to grab the attention of a government that is insensitive towards the climate crisis, the figures in power are concerned with the material façade as the splashing of the paint is a direct insult to the power they are obtaining: thus, the need to purge, to cancel out, and to ultimately be seen as heroes intervening against “uncivilised vandals”.
That said, reducing Ultima Generazione’s activism to pure art is banal and superficial. However, Ultima Generazione and their political (and quintessentially artistic) interaction with space brings forward a vision on art and its use that goes beyond the bourgeois need to encapsulate works of art in the museums, or to elevate them in public squares, alienating the average citizen from it and making art sterile in its message: the energic splashing of an eye-grabbing orange paint on the white marble symbolically summarises what has been the fight against the eco crisis like so far, as industrialization keeps devouring the West and the political promises are left empty: ultimately, the orange paint is the Last Generation’s political and symbolic (so, artistic) resistance.