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by Joe La Placa
Walking towards the snow-covered entrance of the Le Corbusier-designed LíEsprit Nouveau Hall at Arte Fiera Art First 2006 in Bologna, an outdoor sculpture by Jimmie Durham, Beneath the mountain small people have constructed clever iron work (2006), seems to say it all.

A massive block of marble has been dropped on an Italian Fiat Bravo, flattening the roof and shattering all its windows.

Long gone are the days of the 1980s, when international collectors scrambled to buy paintings of the Italian Transavantguardia. Since then, Italian collectors have shifted to speculating on international artists rather than supporting the local talent. Has the market for Italian Modern and Contemporary art gone flat?

Open from January 27Ė30, 2006, and celebrating its 30th anniversary, Arte Fiera featured over 200 galleries, magazines and publications, all predominantly Italian.

With attendance in excess of 40,000 visitors, it is considered the first major modern and contemporary fair of the season, hence the tag line: "If you love art, everything comes later."

At Galleria Cardi, Bertozzi & Casoniís wonderful ceramic trompe líoeil trays of gruesome leftovers served as a fun poke at Arte Povera, but were sadly eclipsed by the Ď80s masterworks of Julian Schnabel, Peter Halle, Richard Long and Donald Baechler. Another piece by this duo, Avanzi (2005), a tray of discarded half eaten lizard parts, sold at Sperone Westwater for €14,000. Can I have more please, sir?

"This is the first time Iíve seen so many international collectors in Bologna," said an exuberant Paolo Curti. Along with his partner, Annamaria Gambuzzi, his gallery sold 12 works. Among the notable, Saint Clair Ceminís Lo Scoglio Rosso (2005), a ceramic, 65 x 55 x 85 cm biomorphic sculpture, its arms like woven branches of fire coral, which was purchased for €15,000.

American photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders gave us little shivers with a double leatherette saint/sinner naked portrait of porn star Tawny Roberts (2003), one of 30 subjects from his "XXX Porn†Stars" series. In a country where porn stars become senators, it flew straight off the wall for $35,000!

"The art market looks the same as the NASDQ in 1999," cautioned the former five-star Morningstar rated fund manager gone gallerist Giampaolo Abbondio of Galleria Pack. "And the drug of choice for the art market is money!"

Pack featured a room of tough works by Italian born artist Franko B. Stop Pissing on Me (2003) is an Art Brut-like self-portrait collage made from canvas stained with artistís blood during a performance, on offer for €14,400.

Among the best craftsmen in the world, Italians can make art out of anything. Erica Borghiís Venus is a makeover of the goddess of love in gaudily coloured fake fingernails. It sold for €8,000 at Studio díArte Raffaelli.

Nicola Bolla, both an artist and a medical doctor, featured at Claudio Poleschi Arte Contemporanea, works entirely in beaded Swarovsky crystal. Killing Diamonds (2006), a bling-bling pun on a girlís best friend, sold for €17,000.

In Vanitas (2005) -- part of Fabrizio Corneliís innovative series of sculptures portraying Hollywood celebrities -- a light projected through a copper comb creates a shadow of Liz Taylor. Found at Studio Trisorio, itís a steal at €6,000.

Speaking of unusual mediums, Wim Delvoyeís Tattooed Pigs (2000), two stuffed and tattooed porkers named Katharina and Christopher, were on offer for €120,000. They made the perfect foreground for Marble Floor (1999) a 115 x 120 cm photograph of an elaborate church floor made entirely of cold cuts, yours for €16,000. "This is not the time for Italian artists," lamented Alessandra Passera of Corsoveneziaotto. "They are too isolated."

Maybe, but this didnít prevent the gallery Pascali and Sprovieri from selling eight works by Italian artists such as Mario Cannavacciuolo, Jannis Kounellis and Piero Manzoni. Mario Dellavedovaís Lucio dellíAnima, Luce dello Spirito (2003), a chandelier dispensing bottles of spirits, sold to a Roman collector for €18,000. "There is the growing perception among many Italian collectors today that art produced outside Italy is good and Italian art is bad. Weíre working to change that," said Nicola Sprovieri, encouragingly.

In the Italian Modernist section of the fair, the flight of the Italian collector has had dire consequences, leaving it grossly overlooked and undervalued. How else can one explain a museum-quality painting like Mario Sironiís oil-on-canvas Motociclista (1924-5) at Galleria Farsetti, going unsold at a relatively cheap†€700,000 -- the price of a Damien Hirst spot painting!

At Marescalchi, La Notte di Re Salomne (1930), a work by the lesser-known brother of Giorgio de Chirico (and the better artist), Alberto Savino, an enchanted candy-colored landscape that is a rare masterpiece of Italian metaphysical painting, went unsold at €1.2 million.

Galleria Gio Marconi mounted an impressive mini-retrospective of Italian artist Mario Schifano, a suite of paintings and drawings from the early 60s, the fruits of his fatherís collaboration with the Sonnabend Gallery of New York. Tutta Propaganda (1963), a transitional work into Pop Art, was offer for €280,000. Using a projected image of a traced landscape, Schifano paints it in with masses of vigorous white and sap green brushstrokes, destroying the illusion of space, bringing the image up to the surface.

Giuseppe Gallo, the Nouva Scuola Romana encaustic master from the 1980s, gives us an iconoclastís version of Parole Liberta (Words in Liberty). Athene (2006) shatters image and words into fragments. Against the striated ground, they take on the appearance of musical notes, and were on offer to the tune of €40,000 at Galleria dello Scudo.

And, oh no, is that yet another work by Enzo Cucchi, whose production can be found at no less than six galleries? And is that yet another Francesco Clemente self-portrait? And could those embarrassingly ugly painted tabletops be by Sandro Chia, the same artist who so gloriously painted a musical fart in the 1980s?

"Italians are so bored by the Transavantguardia at this point," said one Italian dealer. "The artists seem to be stuck in their own former glory!"

Some of the Young International Galleries made impressive debuts at Arte Fiera. The delightful Magda Danysz unleashed her stable of phantasmagorical artists with great success. Miss Vanís provocative acrylic-on-canvas nymph Untitled (2005) sold for €11,000. Dalekís installation of space-age constructivist compositions sold out for prices between €1,500-€3,000.

"I like keeping prices generally around that range," said Danysz, "so people have a chance to buy and I can keep bringing in new artists." Now thatís the spirit!

Christopher Taylor and Matthew Dipple of Museum 52, one of Londonís most talked about East End galleries, also made a splash. Pierre Ardouvinís Ma Tante (2005), an eerie floor sculpture of the artistís stuffed dead dog surrounded by jewels, was indisputably the most photographed piece of the fair. As gesture of support to his countryman, dealer Max Wigram bought an installation of Tom Gallant filigree cut-outs of images taken from pornographic magazines for €18,000. Christieís Contemporary expert Katherine Burton purchased a small gem, chevrolet tahoe It 5,31 auto (2003), a Socialist Realist-inspired painting of a car abandoned in a bleak landscape by the hot Russian artist Kerim Ragimov for £1,600.

Francesco Annarumma of 404 Arte Contemporanea continues the Neapolitan tradition of imports. Meteor (2005) by Dutch artist Willem Weismann is a painting of a boy in girl in a pink room sitting amidst a mountain of debris. It immediately sold for €8,500. A favourite of collector Charles Saatchi, the artist will have a solo show at 404 in March.

At last yearís Frieze Fair, many Italians told me they preferred buying in London rather than Milan, Turin or Bologna. Many dealers I spoke to at ArteFiera believe the current trend of Italian collectors buying outside Italy has seriously effected the nurturing of emerging Italian artists and their market.

Launched with incendiary violence in 1909, the Futurist Manifesto was F.T. Marinettiís clarion call to Italyís young artists to liberate themselves from the cultural stagnation caused by the weight of Italyís heritage.

Today, it seems, a third Futurist manifesto needs to be written. Italian collectors need to wake up and stop speculating so much on the International contemporary market. They need to look at the abundance of under-funded talents in Italy today -- the artists and dealers struggling in their very own back yard -- and start supporting them.

JOE LA PLACA is Artnetís London representative.