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by Kristen Lorello
"In the last decade, the model for an art gallery has been, once again, that of a clean and neutral space, large and suitable for passive fruition. I do not believe in this presumed neutrality, and have the impression that it functions to legitimate rules and values; pretending to be just a frame, it functions as an enclosure." So wrote Italian artist Cesare Pietroiusti in 1992, invoking the historical avant-garde’s commitment to reintegrating art into everyday life by critically addressing art’s own institutional frame. Several recent exhibitions in Rome demonstrated a continuing preoccupation with such issues.

At Magazzino d’Arte Moderna on Via dei Prefetti, for instance, the Madrid-based artist Jorge Peris literally ripped apart the gallery walls to create Diamante," Apr. 19-July 7, 2007 a house-like 3D structure constructed from the gallery’s own interior surfaces. First, Magazzino’s interior entryway was covered with wet fiberglass and resin panels. Once the coating dried and bonded with the walls, the panels were stripped from the walls (a technique common to fresco making), pulling off varying densities of surface and sheetrock along with them.

Peris then assembled the resin panels into a room-like structure in a separate space at the gallery, lighting it from within with the gallery’s own electric lights, which dangled into the construction from above. The dialogue between the two spaces had an olfactory dimension as well, with the scent of fiberglass, plaster and paint lingering for some time.

This process also transformed the original gallery’s walls into a rough-hewn environmental abstraction. The informal marks of pulling and tearing transformed the neutral space of the wall, traditionally little more than a backdrop, into the work of art itself. What’s more, the process resulted in irregular holes in the walls, joining the gallery’s backstage of stored canvases, buckets and ladders with the exhibition display. Panels from two of these walls were installed at the gallery booth at Art 38 Basel.

Whereas Peris is concerned with literal structures, artist Giuseppe Pietroniro tends to focus on the structure of the household. The showroom Loto Design, which is located in the upper-crust Roman neighborhood of Parioli, features a selection of works from Pietroniro’s series "In-Stability," June 5-Sept. 15, 2007 (the works debuted in the fall of 2006 at the Fondazione Olivetti in Rome). Formally trained in set design and represented by Galleria Maze in Torino, Pietroniro has made a name for himself with installations that use video with household furnishings and everyday architectural structures to raise questions about bourgeois society.  

The selection at Lotto includes four life-sized items -- two doors, a wall and a throw rug -- but rather than combining these elements into a sensible domestic unit, Pietroniro has placed them separately atop rockers and installed them randomly in the space. Visitors were encouraged to play with the objects, setting a section of wallpapered wall and two doors swinging into motion or taking up a snowboarder’s stance on a kind of earth-bound magic-carpet.

This "renegotiation" of our physical relationship with the everyday structure of the house -- arguably the very foundation of bourgeois Italian life -- took place, ironically, inside a design showroom. At a time when gay marriage rights are becoming an issue -- actually, in Italy the concept of "civil unions" includes any two people living together for a certain period of time -- Pietroniro’s unstable house parts had definite political undertones.

In his solo show "Six Nations" at the Lorcan O’Neill Gallery in Rome’s Trastevere section, the artist Pietro Ruffo (who previously showed with the Pino Casagrande gallery in Rome) used three readymade formats -- the 2D flag and geopolitical map, and the 3D pyramid -- to structure his investigation of "hegemony, nationalism and conflict, commerce and interdependence," May 24-Sept. 27, 2007. The pyramid reached to the gallery ceiling and was especially imposing. Constructed of shipping boxes from China that Ruffo found and collected around Rome’s Termini train station, it recalled assemblages by Alberto Burri and Jannis Kounellis, and represents the facility with which commercial goods can be transported in the service of global economics. As the Italian writer Roberto Saviano has noted, merchandise moves around much more easily than people.

Gallery visitors could wedge their way into the pyramid’s claustrophobic interior to view an accompanying video. Entitled Das Chinesische Reich la Merce ha in sé tutti i diritti di spostamento che nessun essere umano potrà mai avere (Roberto Saviano), the vid showed a voyage along pixelated and insurmountable mountainscapes, as if designed symbolically to convey the hopeful but tired struggle of an immigrant’s passage.

The installation is accompanied by drawings and paintings in which Ruffo shows off his facility in both technique and imagination. He morphs detailed watercolor images of skulls with the U.S. and British flags, for instance, suggesting with glib assurance the mausoleums that underlie nationalist structures.

The independent filmmaker Carola Spadoni showed her recent video, Ossi d’Echo / Echo’s Bones, as part of "Artist’s Corner" series organized by Anna Cestelli Guidi and Carla Subrizi at the Renzo Piano-designed Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome’s Flaminio neighborhood. Spadoni’s video begins with a series of views of Alberto Burri’s infamous Cretto di Gibellina, a massive concrete structure on a hillside in Sicily that commemorates the victims of a 1968 earthquake. The pale concrete expanse, set among bristling branches, blue skies and a whistling wind, is seen as impenetrable, an effect that is intensified by Spadoni’s use of an uncertain horizon line and variegated, incoherent vantage points.

The scene then shifts as the camera follows the path of a walker circling the exterior of an abandoned dance club in Sardinia called Kill Time. Spadoni uses camera movement and sound to create the allusion of a crime scene while contemplating different interpretations of the expression "Kill Time" -- both in terms of violence (time for murder), passivity (time to waste while waiting) and a more ontological activity (the destruction of time as a concept). The camera abruptly returns the viewer to reality when a junkyard dog barks and a military police car drives past, concluding the dreamy allusion to a committed crime.

While the footage of Spadoni’s video was shot outside of the Roman setting, her concern with structure and abandonment has a firm place within the local context.

One literal example of this kind of architecture-in-limbo can be found just down the street from the Auditorium on via Guido Reni, where stands Zaha Hadid’s so-far-uncompleted MAXXI National Museum of the 21st Century Arts. The Italian government’s commitment to finishing the museum, designed by Hadid as a "passing through space" and promising to transform a former military barracks into a futuristic center for contemporary culture, has been held hostage to the flippant commitment of an assortment of politicians, whose constipated approach to funding construction has left the project in a half-occupied, half-abandoned state. In the interim, construction costs have soared from an original estimate of around €60 million to well over €100 million (according to a report in L’Espresso, Nov. 2, 2006), and the museum’s opening date has been pushed back to sometime around 2009.

While the MAXXI building site seems to make physical what is a socioeconomic and cultural problem, the theme of the unfulfilled structure, however problematic, has nonetheless served as bait for institutional critique. This most clearly surfaces in the several art spaces in Rome that have opened in abandoned buildings.

Some historical examples of such spaces include the former pasta factory located in the San Lorenzo district, Pastificio Cerere, from which emerged such artists as Nunzio and Marco Tirelli of the Gruppo San Lorenzo. The Pastificio Cerere became a foundation in 2004 and currently hosts a full exhibition program and residency opportunities for young artists.

Another space, Sala 1, directed by Mary Angela Schroth, is located inside none other than Vatican territory itself, that is, in an abandoned basilica constructed in the 1930s within the complex of the Pontifical Sanctuary of the Holy Steps. In 1970, the artist and ordained priest Tito Amodei came upon the empty basilica, which is located across the street from San Giovanni in Laterano. According to Schroth, when Amodei initially found the space, "it had no roof, floors, windows, electricity, water, but little by little with volunteers he recuperated the entire complex for contemporary art." Amodei still maintains a studio in another part of the complex.

Though she admits having occasionally to edit works from exhibitions in order to not blatantly offend the ideology of her hosts (i.e., the Vatican), Schroth’s aggressive fundraising and resonant enthusiasm has helped to bring to Sala 1 such exhibitions as "Affinities" (which debuted the work of William Kentridge in Rome in 1993), a 1996 retrospective of Orlan and the recent exhibition "Art Mama" by the Fluxus artist Tatsumi Orimoto.

Other examples of the takeover of abandoned spaces in the name of contemporary art have resulted from rather more aggressive guerrilla tactics by young curators. Commonly referred to as "occupazioni" -- which can be translated into English as "squats" -- such actions embody an implicit criticism of Roman art institutions, which apparently are failing to provide exhibition space for emerging artists or jobs for young curators. Perhaps more importantly, these spaces present contemporary art to a diverse public, and as such represent something of an effort to escape from the avant-garde’s ivory tower.

One former squat turned cultural association, Rialto Sant’Ambrogio, began as an occupation of the Rialto cinema on via IV Novembre (close to the Quirinale, the official residence of Italy’s president) by a self-managed group of "invisibili" (invisibles) in 1999. Students, the unemployed, political refugees and other "invisibles," once they had seized their space, immediately opened negotiations with the city of Rome in order to secure their right to remain inside the space. By March of 2000, the city had agreed to provide space at another location, in the Complex of Sant’Ambrogio della Massima on via di Sant’Ambrogio in the former Jewish ghetto.

According to Rialto’s Maria Luisa Severi, the success was aided by the occupation’s curriculum of activities as well as support from several high-profile intellectuals. Formerly a nautical school and then a technical school for nutrition professionals, the Rialto’s building also provides a home to an order of priests and the complex’s superintendent. The classrooms of the former school now function as settings for theater, live sets, live music, video art screenings and contemporary art installations.

During this past season, a regular Saturday night event called "Blueroom," for example, included independent curator Lorenzo Benedetti’s project, 3500m2, in which posters created each week by artists such as Carla Accardi, Elisabetta Benassi and Mario Garcia-Torres (courtesy of Nero Magazine) were distributed gratis to the party’s attendees. This event also featured Open Video Projects, a weekly video art screening the co-curator of which, Sarra Brill, succeeded in bringing a group of high-profile artist-residents from the American Academy in Rome into Rialto to create a multi-disciplinary "spatial occupation" event.

Conceived by composer Ken Ueno and visual artist Jose Parral, this event used utilized guest participation to spark for a series of sonic and audio-visual interventions. Resident artist Joshua Mosley, whose video was recently featured by Robert Storr in the Italian pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale, was the night’s designated video jockey. Mosley’s live animations were projected within the main auditorium of the Rialto and ceiling panels from the bar area were removed to reveal projections installed from above. The installation also featured landscape architect Willett Moss’ habitable environment made of discarded cardboard, video works by John Kelly and Patricia Cronin, and architecture fellow Thomas Tsang’s poster, "21 Pieces: Toy Theater," which transformed the viewer into a "constructer" who could cut-out and re-assemble the 21 pieces printed on the poster into a three-dimensional model of the evening’s event.

Francesco Stocchi’s contemporary art program at the ex-boarding school in Rome’s Monti district, Angelo Mai, was another site for guerrilla art projects. Stocchi’s program began on the first floor of the complex alongside an active program of theater, music and dance events that was set up after the Comitato Popolare di Lotta per la Casa, a populist political group, occupied the second floor of the building with 30 families in need of emergency housing on Nov. 17, 2004.

Logistically, the Angelo Mai art program was formulated as a series of one-night events designed to introduce contemporary art into an informal social setting. The aim was to dissolve the distance that the architectural boundary of a gallery often places between contemporary art and the general public.

(This goal, also visible in the Rialto Sant’Ambrogio cultural association, echoes the philosophies of other local centers, including the studio Jartrakor, a cultural association that in its early stages provided shelter for artists such as Anna Homberg and Cesare Pietroiusti, and that in the 1980s drew the interest of curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Founded by Sergio Lombardo in 1977, the studio’s research was based on the psychology of art as a non-reproducible and non-commersial singular event.)

According to Stocchi, Angelo Mai tended to avoid adopting specific or antagonistic political positions, and as a result was able to attract a broad audience, including an avid contemporary art following.

Angelo Mai programming included exhibitions of work by the artist Elisabetta Benassi (represented by Magazzino d’Arte Moderna) and Olaf Nicolai (a visual artist resident of the German Academy in Rome) as well as an eight-part series called "Angelo, Mai!" (in English, "Angel, Never!"), in which young independent curators such as Marianna Vecellio and Luca Lo Pinto (of Nero Magazine) were invited to present a one- or two-person show in the space.

Events at Angelo Mai came to an end in October 2006, after the city forced the artists to evacuate the space (and the program’s workers went from employed to unemployed).

Even the threat of forced eviction served as inspiration for artistic production, however. The original eviction deadline of May 1, 2006, given by the city of Rome, was marked by Pietroiusti’s performance in which he tried to excavate a way out through Angelo Mai’s underground passageways. The artists’ group now hopes to re-open this fall in the Baths of Caracalla, once the new space is ready.

Creating exhibitions free from the pressures of corporate or political sponsorship, however, is also met with a sense of instability bred by the ephemeral nature of one-night events and the lingering threat of eviction.

Curators are now taking action to resolve these issues by creating platforms that unify artists in disparate areas of the Roman art panorama. These initiatives find housing in the form of websites, magazines or storefront spaces.

The product of one collective, Nero Magazine, dedicates four pages per issue to an emerging talent and has generated new works by artists like João Onofre and Piero Golia. Golia’s recent project found in this month’s copy of Nero features mock advertisements for blue-chip galleries that create the semblance that Nero has succeeded in securing the business of advertisers like Marian Goodman, Bruno Bischofberger and Anthony d’Offay. The group has recently re-launched the magazine in an English version after a three-year run in Italian.

The pseudo-nonprofit, tongue-in-cheek internet site (in English, "Adopt an Artist"), pioneered by artist Stefania Galegati, collects a group of works by a range of artists based primarily in Rome under a single webpage.

A ten-minute metro ride from the Piazza di Spagna, in Rome’s Furio Camillo district, can be found 1:1 Projects (pronounced "one to one"), established by a collective of nine contemporary art curators based in Rome, Paris and London. The storefront space offers a platform for discussions, performances, lectures and other events.

The seasoned curator Cecilia Canziani, who has joined forces with Adrienne Drake and Athena Panni (both formerly of Magazzino d’Arte Moderna) and six others, maintains that the idea for the space began as a discussion between people who felt the need for a group that "would discuss contemporary art in a way that would provide a real meeting point" in Rome.

"A lot of galleries open in Rome and disappear after three or four months of programming," Drake says. "I want people to see the bigger picture. We’re doing artist talks, brunches, screenings, we’re trying to make something, to provide a foundation and a context for contemporary art."

One success at 1:1 has been the organization of a multimedia archive, designed to unite the fragmented panorama of artists in Rome under a single roof. To date the archive holds material on 47 artists, including the recent New York prize recipient Rossella Biscotti, goldiechiari and Wolfgang Berkowski. Unlike Care of, an archive of Italian-only artists based in Milan, the 1:1 archive places Italian artists in a dialogue with an international range of artists selected by the collective. A portion of the archive is also searchable on the 1:1 website.

Launched in October 2006, 1:1 is registered as a cultural association and is at the present moment entirely self-funded. For the series, "I’ll be your mirror," 1:1 invites an artist to make an installation or otherwise transform the space’s storefront windows, thereby offering the community an unobstructed view onto a unique work. So far, the project has generated Marco Raparelli’s new animation video, Ristorante Italia. The next commission to be showcased this fall will be a sound installation by Rome-based duo PH-ON.

KRISTEN LORELLO is a 2006-7 Fulbright Fellow to Italy.