Occasionally, the English language fails to capture certain aspects of the travel experience. A perfect example of this is the German word fernweh, which describes a somewhat inexplicable longing for far-off places. For Italian multimedia artist Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi, it’s a sentiment deeply intertwined in the pieces she creates. Over the past year, her love of culture, storytelling, and passionate activism carried both herself and her art to the farthest corners of the globe.
In a painting titled Kālī, Gabardi utilized fabric, resin, and sequins to evoke the Hindu goddess of time. While created far from the religion and place that inspired it, the piece currently lives at the Children’s Welfare Association in Calcutta, an orphanage dedicated to the welfare and education of young girls. The donation in March 2018 not only represented the realization of a years-long dream to exhibit in Asia, but also to promote the charity’s work and empower young women to take control of their fates.
While Gabardi has donated her artwork to charity auctions in the past, the journey of Kālī to Calcutta was truly the first step in her development as a globally minded “ARTivist.”
Gabardi’s artistic career began a decade ago with an exhibition of 30 of her pieces in Milan. What started as a hobby while she pursued a degree in political science from Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, quickly became a powerful mode of storytelling. Something the stories were personal, such as her love for New York City, of as with Kālī, to draw attention to issues in a way that spans culture, language, and location. She also wears several other hats as a journalist, film critic, filmmaker, screenwriter, and Professor of Phenomenology of Contemporary Arts in Milan.
The best way to describe Gabardi’s work is with another German term, which she’s lectured about in the past. Gesamtkunstwerk, coined by philosopher K. F. E. Trahndorff in 1827, is art that makes use of many forms to become ideal, universal, and all-encompassing.
This philosophy is true both in the range of materials she uses, and the ideas that inspire her pieces. Gabardi defines this synthesis in her paintings as “Material Puns.” For example, the composition of Kālī includes a pocket watch, a nod to the subject being a goddess of time. Going further, Kālī’s status as both a creator and destroyer played into Gabardi’s intention for the girls at the Children’s Welfare Association to know that they are the masters of their existence.
Hymn-alayas, a piece donated in August 2018 to the Honorary Consulate of Italy in Kathmandu, uses wordplay to evoke the mysticism and sounds of nature that permeate the famous mountain range. The piece also functioned as a sort of cultural exchange between Italy and Nepal, something Gabardi believes is fundamental for communities to grow and improve upon themselves. The materials in many of her pieces are also “up-cycled,” giving her body of work a physical connection to her environmental activism, which along with women’s rights, are the core movements that have inspired many of her recent works.
In October 2018, Gabardi journeyed to Austria to serve as a jury member at the Innsbruck Nature Film Festival. There, she united the two movements with a talk titled “Female Empowerment for a More Sustainable Future.” In addition to discussing how greater female participation in society, especially in developing countries, can help make the world a greener place, Gabardi touched on the history of female oppression and early matriarchal societies.
In conjunction with her talk, she exhibited a piece titled Break a Leg, which features a female mannequin leg surrounded by artificial clovers. Playing both with the theater idiom and the language of flowers, Gabardi evoked a message of both female empowerment, and the triumph of environmental sustainability.
In November 2018, the artist’s travels took her to Australia, where she was invited to cover Eco Fashion Week Australia in Port Douglas, Queensland. There, green-minded designers from all over the world met to exhibit their upcycled and sustainably-produced work on the runway.
Gabardi donated Ocean Robe, a piece made of used fabric, sand, salt, crystal resin, and tin waste to Mayor Julia Leu in homage to the town’s efforts to preserve their marine ecosystem, as well as in support of the designers in attendance. In addition to her artistic donation, Gabardi was also a featured speaker at Eco Seminars held at the Clink Theatre in Port Douglas and Notre Dame University of Fremantle.
In January 2019, Gabardi’s ARTivism took her to Serbia where she was invited to serve as a film critic at the Kürstendorf Film and Music Festival. The annual celebration of the arts is held in Drvengrad, an “ethno-village” founded by professor and filmmaker Emir Kusturica. There, Gabardi gifted him a piece titled Life is a Miracle, which takes the same name as one of his films. Her papier-mâché and crystal resin landscape pay homage both to the film’s idyllic triumph of love during war, as well as Kusturica’s artistic-humanitarian work to preserve local culture.
Gabardi rounded out her first year as an ARTivist in her own backyard at Milan Design Week 2019. At an exhibit titled “One Ocean’s Tales” at Dazi Arco della Pace, she showcased To Breathe or Not to Breathe? Heavily inspired by photographer Justin Hofman’s photo of a seahorse clinging to a cotton swab, the piece forces viewers to acknowledge the damage humanity has done to our oceans.
The title is also a nod to the famous question Hamlet poses to himself when at the crossroads of ending his journey, or deciding to act. Gabardi also donated To Breathe or Not to Breathe? to the One Ocean Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving marine environments.
Another of her pieces focused on the issue of ocean pollution, titled Make Waves, was donated to Alassio Wave Walking. The organization was founded by two women who encourage eco-friendly exercise and connecting with nature through the sport of “aqua walking.”
After a year of her art and activism taking her around the world, Gabardi had much time to reflect on how they merged with the travel experience. Art has the unique ability to trascend language and cross cultural borders much more easily than people can.
While the core of her work toys with words and visuals, Gabardi’s practice of pairing those playful qualites with references to global issues is how she attempts to channel her work towards a higher purpose. Travel can be so much more than checking foreign destinations off a list. It’s also a powerful foundation for the fruition of creativity and a platform to spark change. That, above all, is the journey of an ARTivist.