Into the Unknown

The 23rd International Exhibition of the Milan Triennale explores the mysteries of the world around us to redefine the limits of human knowledge.

In “PLANET ∑,” a 2014 short video by director Momoko Seto, giant creatures are trapped inside the ice. Submarine explosions provoke a global warming, and a new life begins for animals. Momoko Seto

“What don’t we know that we don’t know?” This is the fundamental question around which the ‘archipelago’ of exhibitions and projects of the 23rd International Exhibition of the Milan Triennale revolves. The event, which is opening this Friday, addresses the theme of the unknown, asking questions about the mysteries of the known world.

Titled “Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries,” the multifaceted group of exhibitions puts forward a new way of looking at this topic as an opportunity for investigation, from the furthest universe to dark matter, from the bottom of the oceans to the origin of our conscience. The unknown becomes a dimension to be experienced as an element of surprise in front of the vastness of what escapes us.

“Just think of the universe and the billions of galaxies, but also the billions of bacteria that inhabit our bodies and that, until a few years ago, we didn’t think we could map,” said Stefano Boeri, President of Triennale Milano, during a preview of the event.

In line with the tradition of Triennale’s International Exhibitions, the 23rd edition includes a main thematic exhibition — curated by Ersilia Vaudo, an astrophysicist and Chief Diversity Officer at the European Space Agency — and a section dedicated to the countries invited under the auspices of the Bureau International des Expositions, through government channels.

Francis Kéré, the winner of the 2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize, designed four installations in the Palazzo della Triennale and curated two installations dedicated to the voices of the African continent.

According to Mr. Boeri, the exhibition offers technical solutions but also questions, from multiple points of view. “We looked for the unknown in the sky,” he said, “but also in everyday life, in the domestic life of the family, and in the ability to tell the story of a close but unknown continent like Africa.”

“Africa is a huge country, is the closest neighbour to Europe, but sometimes if you follow the news you have the feeling we don’t know much of each other,” said Francis Kéré, the winner of the 2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Photo by Astrid Eckert.

“If you think about all the main exhibitions around the world, this huge continent with so many great countries is always excluded,” said Mr. Kéré. “For Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda is a great possibility to say ‘hey we’re not just little countries that are struggling and you have to help us.’ It is a great chance to show something different than what we, in the West, know about it. And I believe that this is close to the topic of ‘Unknown Unknowns’ simply because Africa is a huge country, is the closest neighbour to Europe, but sometimes if you follow the news you have the feeling we don’t know much of each other.”

The works for the 23rd International Exhibition by Mr. Kéré encourage viewers to use all of their senses. They serve as reminders that there is a type of knowledge that is far too frequently overlooked and that we should rediscover in order to deal with the “unknown unknowns” that lie in store for us.

Mr. Kéré designed a 12-meter-tall tower at the Triennale entrance and the installation “Yesterday’s Tomorrow,” located in the middle of the International Participations area, which investigates the vernacular architecture of Burkina Faso, with its practices and representations, from his point of view. He also designed “Under a Coffee Tree,” an area of the Triennale café that celebrates the tradition of drinking coffee, and worked on the “Drawn Together” project, a wall that guests are welcome to help design, for the Burkina Faso pavilion. “We selected the curators and let them express themselves freely,” said Mr. Boeri.

The constellation of exhibitions and projects brings together 400 artists, designers, and architects from more than 40 countries; more than 600 works; and 22 international participants. Special attention was given to the presence of Ukraine after Triennale withdrew its invitation to the Russian government, and for the first time, the exhibition hosts the Roma Sinti pavilion.

Designed by Space Caviar and created by Wasp, the elegant staging of the main exhibition is fully 3D printed and created in the Triennale space by major printers on an architectural scale, using only organic materials primarily derived from the food industry. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani.

The thematic exhibition, curated by Ersilia Vaudo, is the centre of the event. More than a hundred works, projects and installations by international artists, researchers and designers address a series of themes including gravity, seen as “the greatest designer”, an artisan that tirelessly shapes the universe to which we belong; maps, as systems by which trajectories and routes are determined; the new challenges facing architecture, that is opening itself up to brand new prospects such as how to live in extraterrestrial space; and the mysteries linked to deep space.

The selection of works includes four special projects commissioned to Yuri Suzuki, Irene Stracuzzi, the US collective SOM, and Refik Anadol; and a series of site-specific installations by Andrea Galvani, Tomás Saraceno, Bosco Sodi, Protey Temen, Julijonas Urbonas and Marie Velardi.

The sleek staging — designed by Space Caviar and created by Wasp — has been entirely 3d printed and it was produced in the spaces of Triennale by large printers on an architectural scale, using only organic materials, largely deriving from the food industry.

The twenty-two international pavilions — promoted by institutions and universities as well as by numerous governments — offer a diversified proposal in terms of themes, outlooks, contexts and provenance. Compared to previous editions, the presence of the African continent, represented by six countries, is especially significant. The participating countries are: Australia, Austria, Burkina Faso, Canada, China, Cyprus, Croatia, France, Germany, Ghana, Kenya, Italy, Lesotho, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Serbia, Ukraine.

Triennale Milano has invited the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art to the 23rd International Exhibition with the exhibition “Mondo Reale.” Photo by Andrea Rossetti.

Triennale Milano has extended an invitation to the Fondation Cartier Pour l’Art Contemporain to take part in the 23rd International Exhibition. The exhibition “Mondo Reale” is their answer to the questions addressed by the Triennale around mystery and the unknown through the work of seventeen international artists, selected by Hervé Chandès, Artistic Managing Director of the Parisian foundation.

The works focus on the wonders that inhabit the world around us and all the secrets beneath its incomprehensible perfection. If “Unknown Unknowns” departs from Earth to revolve around the idea of mystery in the cosmos, “Mondo Reale” (meaning, real world) is an examination through the eyes of both art and science of the reality we experience every day.

The sophisticated exhibition design by Formafantasma brings together pieces by both well-known and up-and-coming contemporary artists, including Jean-Michel Alberola, Alex Cerveny, Jaider Esbell, Fabrice Hyber, Yann Kebbi, Guillermo Kuitca, Hu Liu, David Lynch, Ron Mueck, Virgil Ortiz, Artavazd Pelechian, Sho Shibuya, Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye, Patti Smith, Sarah Sze, Andrei Ujica, and Jessica Wynne.

The Italian Design Museum at the Milan Triennale has been revamped to showcase the stories of the innovative and revolutionary power of Italian designers over the decades. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani.

Triennale Milano’s Museo del Design Italiano, under the direction of Marco Sammicheli, presents a revised selection of pieces from its collection that illustrate how Italian design has always taken a daring stance. The exhibition “La tradizione del nuovo (A Tradition of the New)” showcases artworks, installations, documents, works-in-progress, and experimental pieces that have influenced the advancement of society between 1964 and 1996 concerning sociological, economic, ecological, technological, and cultural aspects.

Many prominent personalities have been invited to offer their perspective on the topic. This edition of the Triennale features projects by the musician and writer Francesco Bianconi, the philosopher Emanuele Coccia, the researcher and lecturer at the ABC Department at Politecnico di Milano, Ingrid Paoletti, the artist and Triennale Grand Invité for 2021-2024 Romeo Castellucci, and the legendary architect and designer, Andrea Branzi.

There is no shortage of content. For the next five months the Milan institution is hosting a rich public program featuring talks, happenings, and performances.

The renowned art historian Giovanni Agosti presented an exhibition that faithfully reconstructs the corridor of his Milan flat to start a journey into the unknown to understand the limits of human knowledge. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani.

“The Red Corridor” by Giovanni Agosti and Jacopo Stoppa with a set by Margherita Palli, is the true gem in this at times cacophonous edition. In an extremely realistic reconstruction of the corridor of the early 20th-century bourgeois house of Mr. Agosti, mystery lurks behind every door.

Entering and leaving the rooms, the curators invite us to reflect on the limits of knowledge. Up and down through the ages of history, the exhibition starts with a sketch of an anthropomorphised moon by Leonardo da Vinci and features paintings, books, drawings and a curious automaton with a devil’s head from the end of the 16th century which could move its head, eyes, grind its teeth, show its tongue and emit a sneer-like noise thanks to a mechanism that is still partially functioning.

The only possible exit from this labyrinth of masterfully organised surprises — where the spectator is left with no way out — can only be from an Etruscan tomb, while it remains unknown what lies behind the frosted glass door at the end of the long red corridor.

“Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries” is on view until 11 December, at Triennale Milano.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.