This past summer, three contemporary artists -- Sarah Charlesworth, Ken Lum and Michel Zumpf -- were invited to come live in Tuscany as part of an experiment designed to promote new models of art-making as a public process. Their housing and living expenses were arranged by the Santa Maria della Scala, a Sienese charity that broadly defines itself as "a locus of spiritual repair" for the "small villages long since left behind in our post-industrial time." The program was devised by the art historian and curator Cornelia Lauf, who was inspired by the success of her two-year-old, one-room exhibition space -- a "micro-museum" called Camera Oscura -- in the town square of San Casciano dei Bagni, a village in the Tuscan hills.
During the month of August, these artists rooted themselves in the local cultures of three different Tuscan villages, with the understanding that they would produce art during their stays in summer paradise. Rather than fostering the kind of "plop art" that so often passes as public art commissions, the program encouraged a different investment of time and focus, both by the artists and by their new communities.
Charlesworth produced a set of six postcards using photographs she shot in and around the village of Cuna, where she stayed. Her images are steeped in local history, and include iconic pictures of a white bull, a "roll" of wheat produced on Cuna's outlying farms, and a carved stone placard of the emblem of Santa Maria della Scala. Another of her photographs shows the building in which she and her family lived during their visit -- an imposing brick granary, surrounded by a field of grape vines, that at one time supplied grain to the Santa Maria della Scala hospital complex.
Charlesworth's postcard format, with its suggestion of tourism and advertising, neatly refers to her role as a temporary visitor, while touching upon one of the motives -- promoting the local tourist industry -- behind Santa Maria della Scala's sponsorship of the residencies. In a final act of generosity, Charlesworth gave village citizens a print of their choice from her inventory of local images.
Lum, an artist who is based in Vancouver and who shows at Andrea Rosen in New York, conceived a do-it-yourself monument to the people of Serre di Rapolano, his host city. He had a marble bench fabricated and arranged for it to be placed along a pedestrian passageway with a mirror hung on the opposite wall. Once the work is finally installed, people from the neighborhood are invited to insert their own photos in the mirror's frame, and to rest while viewing snapshots of others. In New York last year, his show of mirrors with snapshots seemed oddly cozy for the urban gallery context, but in this venue is suggestive of donor portraiture in Renaissance altarpieces.
The third project, a digital video by Michel Zumpf, is not quite completed, but it has set into motion a string of events that will benefit the townspeople of Montisi. Soon after his arrival, Zumpf discovered a local theatrical troupe that had been displaced from its theater many years before. He set about making an allegorical video about this situation, written and improvised in Tuscan rhyme by the actors themselves. The artist's choice
of this real-life subject had the effect of catalyzing the townspeople into making plans to restore the theater to its original function.
In all, the project was a success, a result of unique social contracts between the artists and their villages. And somehow it's fitting that the enterprise flowered in Italy, with its deep appreciation for art as an integral part of everyday life.