Spring in Milan means design. Every year in April, the Salone del Mobile -- the internationally renowned design and furniture fair -- attracts an audience like no other cultural event organized in the glossy, fashionable city.
In between glam parties and ultra-stylish aperitivos in buzzy showrooms packed with chic and cultured crowds, Milan's art galleries also mounted some high-end shows of premier contemporary artworks that had some relation -- greater or lesser -- to notions of art and design. The artists range from better-known talents like Tobias Rehberger, Vik Muniz, and Eleanor Antin to newer names like Chiara Dynys and Christiane Löhr.
The long-established Milan contemporary art gallery Gió Marconi got most into the spirit of the Salone, perhaps, with an installation of several architectural installations by Tobias Rehberger, the young (b. 1966) Berlin-based environmental designer who puts new allegorical energy into the conventions of dcor. Indeed, his "design pieces" reveal an anti-functional artistic attitude.
His pair of elaborate huts, made of plywood and colored plastic, bear lyrical and somewhat ironic titles -- Jesus of Hideaways for the Refugees Trying to Leave Africa and Start a New Life in the Very South of Spain (2005) and Jesus of Open Housing in a Completely Corporate Surrounding Where the Only Private Space is in Public Place (2005). With prices of 65,000 and 95,000, respectively, these inventive architectural constructions are not really for refugees.
Similarly, Rehberger's Studio Room is a beautiful abstraction made of multicolored panes of plastic installed in an opening between adjoining galleries -- a work that in fact functions as a door. Gallery-goers can pick one up for 25,000 and leave the Milanese design fair with a super-chic art piece that is also a practical design object.
Elsewhere, hanging from the ceiling is a work by Rehrberger from 2005 titled Reus, a moody installation of 47 colored plastic cylinder lamps that turns itself on when a visitor approaches, casting color shadows on the walls of the room. In another gallery, there is Applications, Rehrberger's new series of Popish digital abstractions. The prices are 65,000 for Reus and 4,000-10,000 for the Applications.
Another exhibition combining art and interior design can be found at Monica De Cardenas, where the Italian artist Chiara Dynys presents a room-sized installation of small lenticular boxes, a group of colored lanterns in another gallery and a suite of precious marble chessboards. Dynys' work mixes artificial with natural light and high-tech with exotic materials as well as a neo-Conceptual interest in words and cognitive concepts.
Scattered on the walls around the room is her Speranza/Hope (2005, 38,000), a series of lenticular boxes, each illuminated with diodes spelling out the word "hope" in different languages. Similarly, Senza Titolo (2005, 20,000 euros) is a gridded checkerboard of white Carrara and black Belgian marble, in which the squares function as a literal binary of inscribed words for hate and love -- an esthetic 3D representation of the invisible frameworks of emotional experience.
Galleria Cardi offers a show of photographs by the Brazil-born New York artist Vik Muniz, including works from his "Pictures of Magazines" series, in which images are composed from a colorful flurry of small cuttings from magazine pages. With Irises, after Van Gogh (2004. 26,000) and the large horizontal triptych Water Lilies, after Monet (2005, 70,000), Muniz clearly had fun recreating well-known Impressionist masterpieces in his own trademark style. Exquisitely crafted, these works are re-workings of our art-historical consciousness that, it could be argued, are even better than the real thing.
The stunningly decorative Cottingley Fairies (2004, 20,000) is from Muniz's "Rebus" series, presenting a pastiche of the famous World War I-era English "spirit pictures," here recreated using a mass of tiny plastic toys. Other works are appropriate to the Italian context -- for instance, an image of David (after Bernini) (2003, 25,000) done in chocolate syrup.
A different sense of dcor -- or perhaps, in this artist's case, indecorousness -- is on view at Marella Arte Contemporanea, where the much admired U.S. artist Eleanor Antin is exhibiting works from her 2004 series, "Roman Allegories," a group of impressively large and elaborately staged color photographs. While Muniz uses inanimate materials in his fabrications, Antin employs living people to produce her photographic tableaux vivants. Sensual in its appeal, At the Edge of Night ($18,000, in an edition of four), is only one of the beautiful images through which Antin re-imagines the Greco-Roman world.
The performances that allow for the production of Antin's photographic narratives follow the basic rules and methods of filmmaking -- the artist directs a multitude of actors in order to construct a story that, in this specific case, deals with both theatricality and the celebration of history.
Last but not least, the German sculptor Christiane Löhr, in her show at Galleria Ala, presents us with a number of complex and vulnerable organic sculptures reflecting a close relationship with nature. Dandelions, dried berries, horse-hair and ivy seeds are just some of the components the artist uses to manufacture delicate compositions that occupy a realm between the real and the imaginary.
Löhr's Piccola Coppa di Crine (2005, 13,000) is a graceful construction made of horse-hair, carefully tied together. Through an almost compulsive assembly of organic elements, and by creating objects that convey the fragility of nature and the majesty of architecture, Löhr broadens our understanding of the processes pertaining to the natural world.