People didn’t talk about pollution very much in the seventies, and mentioning the topic as a problem for society was an act of accusation which was inconvenient and had to be stifled if possible.

In 1972, Bologna became the stage for presentation of a visionary idea introduced by Fondazione Iris and its artistic director, Gianni Sassi, who commissioned 26 artists to produce a critical, poetic expression of the theme of contamination and pollution.

The city’s historic Piazza Santo Stefano was the setting for Pollution, a true act of accusation and awareness representing an anthropological, social and environmental revolution; a challenge forcing people to reflect on their position in the environment they live in.

Pollution was portrayed as the product of the capitalist system: in a vicious circle, unrestricted growth in consumerism all over the world was condemning society to collapse. This loss of control of consumption inherently led to loss of control of human social processes.

Photo by Emilio Fabio Simion

The exhibition

The artists who participated in Pollution 1972 were Ableo, Vincenzo Agnetti, Agostino Bonalumi, Mario Ceroli, Federico Chiecchi, Lucio Del Pezzo, Amalia Del Ponte, Bruno Gambone, Piero Gilardi, Laura Grisi, Ugo La Pietra, Armando Marrocco, Mambor, Gino Marotta, Hidetoshi Nagasawa, Antonio Paradiso, Gianfranco Pardi, Claudio Parmiggiani, Andrea Raccagni, Piero Raffaelli, Gianni Ruffi, Gianni-Emilio Simonetti, Ufo and Concetto Pozzati, who however decided not to exhibit any works, with Franco Battiato and the group Solo and Ensemble.

Piazza Santo Stefano was paved especially for the occasion with ten thousand ceramic tiles measuring 33×33 cm bearing a photographic reproduction of a lump of earth (and the cover of Franco Battiato’s 45 rpm entitled Pollution), made, numbered and signed by Iris Ceramica. On this “artificial field”, between October 8 and 14 1972 artists were asked to propose ideas and methods for working with a “mutant nature” deformed by pollution and human actions.

The theoretical foundations of the exhibition project were inspired by debate about the capitalist model, by reflection on the consequences of an unhealthy system and by the first inkling of awareness of what pollution was doing.

Gianni Sassi asked art historians Daniela Palazzoli and Luca Maria Venturi and architect Carlo Burkhart to help the organisers, focusing on a particular aspect of the discussion, regarding ecological fraud, on the basis of a scheme in which Sassi asked the artists to for critical participation.

Ecological fraud

In this scenario, just as pollution was a product of capitalism, its solution had also evolved: ecology, the science of protecting humans’ relationship with nature.

But the Nature we were promising to protect, with all our ecological efforts and alarms, was a false vision of Nature, a mask distracting human beings from their powerlessness: a true “ecological fraud”.

Pollution responded by overturning this point of view, contrasting the uncontaminated Nature celebrated by the capitalist aesthetic with a polluted Nature, victim of human action, but still admirable.

This new perception of pollution was intended to reawaken human beings and encourage awareness of the world we live in, declaring all the products of capitalism to be beautiful: not only untouched Nature, but chemical rivers, oil-tainted beaches and uninhabitable cities. If this appeared absurd, it was because the system that had created it was absurd.

In this short circuit, the artists of Pollution revealed the deception and contributed to the generation of a greater awareness. On an expanse of ceramic tiles that reminded people that nature had become an industrial product, their installations opposed the apparent refinement of the actions of street furnishings – yet another mask – to force us to take on new points of view and decontextualize public space, clearly and intentionally declaring that it is separate from the environment.

Iris Ceramica in 1972

Iris believes that problems with quality of life are already having a major impact on industry in Italy, and that they will become of key importance in the near future.

Romano Minozzi, Iris Ceramica Chairman, Humus n.1

In the seventies, at a time when pollution was an issue raised only by political and environmental radicals, Iris Ceramica was already working on a new model of industry in line with the new demands of society, ecology and urban living, becoming one of the first to come up with a corporate philosophy that distanced itself from feverish industrial production in search of better quality of life.

Photo by Emilio Fabio Simion