Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Celebrates Installation by Maurizio Cannavacciuolo

'A Lecture on Martian History' uses science fiction to communicate a message about race today.

Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Grey clouds may have slightly marred the unveiling of a new mural at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum yesterday, but thankfully the new installation on the building’s façade, by Italian artist Maurizio Cannavacciuolo, was bright enough to make up for it. The mural depicts a futuristic Martian colonization of earth in eye-popping primary colors. There’s a five-armed, green, human-Martian hybrid and five vignettes from the colonization laid on a dual background inspired by Japanese Edo textiles and Cuban tiles from Havana.

But Cannavacciuolo isn’t going to be too upset if you’re not aware of the piece’s multicultural inspirations. “At least you can say, ‘Oh, nice colors,’ which is good to me,” the artist says.

In honor of the unveiling, he wore an outfit displaying very similar bright colors—so similar, that they are in fact, the same. The museum sent a test-printing of the mural his way, so, unsure of what else to do with the material, Cannavacciuolo constructed a suit. “I like to recycle everything, especially ideas,” he jokes.

These bold colors aren’t just to catch the attention of speedy motorists or to create an avant-garde suit, though: they are also intended to appeal to kids. “The curator started by telling me ‘Maurizio, please don’t use sex. Don’t be too politically incorrect, because we have kids flocking in, schools and such,’” Cannavacciuolo shares, acknowledging his tendency to sometimes depict raunchy subjects. The concept for the mural stemmed from that piece of advice: “I wanted to do something especially dedicated to kids, but not in an evident way. So I thought, we can mix something which is appealing, like primary colors, strong colors, comic strips, with a reflection about a theoretical past, present, future.”

Martians met these aims, with their quickly recognizable green skin and childlike appeal and potential for an underlying deeper message. “I need something that can be in everyone’s mind without being real. Everyone can converge in an idea which is fake or false or empty,” Cannavacciuolo says. “The serious reflection is about skin color…I hope that no one will shoot the banner because there is a green man.” He laughs, before going on to admit, “That was a bad joke. I’m sorry.”

Cannavacciuolo uses the Martian-human tensions as an allegory for race-relations today, one of the greatest contemporary issues in his opinion—”the clash of the ethnic groups, this strange, absurd word that spells ‘race.'” He critiques the idea that “We live in peace, happily ever after. That’s not true.”

However, the artist doesn’t paint an entirely bleak portrait of Martian/human relationships. Rather, the installation gains its beauty from the complexity. From the beginning, although Martians are colonizing the earth, they are interested in connecting with humans. In fact, they become quite obsessed with one of our inventions: flickering televisions. “They started to use the TV sets as a totem, as something fantastic, making this strange situation in which the invader is invaded by the idea of the invaded,” Cannavacciuolo explained.

The artist said he remains hopeful for more racial harmony and believes that we will take similar steps of peaceful cultural exchange and interconnectedness: “We have to mix all of these different impulses and try to make something good in our mind.” He is beginning to take those steps in his own artwork, as he mixes diverse, multicultural influence in what he called “alchemic jazz improvisation.” He especially hoped that children might absorb this message, because they are the future. “If I can make just a splinter in one’s mind, I will be more than happy.”

The Gardner made him even more hopeful. “This is a beautiful piece of paradise,” he said of the museum.