Letter from Rome

This report appeared in the February issue of Art Monthly:

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Valerio Nicolai, Captain Strawberry, 2020

Roman Holiday this was not, although I could not resist sticking my hand inside the Bocca della Verità, which my Roman friend and I had all to ourselves, as tourists keen to relive the famous scene from the 1953 American classic starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were for once in short supply. I made it to Rome just in time to catch some of the shows and visit a couple of museums, even as their imminent closure was announced by the Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities. Many of the art events due to take place during the opening days of the Art Quadriennale were scaled down or postponed until better times, leaving one plenty of time to drift around aimlessly and take the pulse of the Eternal City on the eve of a lockdown.

That the Art Quadriennale – a Roman institution, now in its 17th edition – opened at all in such difficult circumstances was something of a miracle. Various measures had been put in place to ensure everyone’s safety, from precisely timed individual visits to floor markings and limited visitor numbers for certain rooms; thankfully, these did not ruin the whole experience. To be sure, participatory works, such as the remake of Roman artist Cloti Riccardi’s Respiro, 1968, that is intended to turn a room draped in white diaphanous fabric into a living, breathing entity by letting visitors pull on it, or Valerio Nicolai’s enormous papier maché strawberry that should have held, nested inside it, a performer in pirate guise, could not be activated. Having visited the Quadriennale during the daytime, I missed Norma Jeane’s site-specific artwork, which aligned the lighting within the external archway of the monumental Palazzo delle Esposizioni, which housed the exhibition, with the artist’s own breathing patterns. Ironically, for an exhibition titled ‘FUORI’, meaning ‘outside’, this may be the only piece on display for a while, given that the Quadriennale had to be temporarily closed within a week of its unveiling.

Eschewing an overarching thematic approach, despite the presence of some loose and not entirely convincing thematic strands, this edition of the Quadriennale privileged feminist as well as queer voices, and put both well-known and lesser-known female artists centre stage. The main axis of the lofty Palazzo delle Esposizioni was given over to women, starting with a space dedicated to the late Cinzia Ruggeri (1945–2019), whose theatrical works playing with scale gently poke fun at the ‘made in Italy’ brand – an astute choice for a group exhibition designed to showcase Italian art. Another set of works defying the monumentality of the exhibition venue were giant lilies hovering above one of the twin marble staircases, and posies of flowers recalling those that the Berlin-based artist duo (and partners in life) Petrit Halilaj & Alvaro Urbano had exchanged as love tokens during the months of confinement.

The opening of Katharina Grosse’s first solo show with Gagosian in Rome, located around the corner from the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, was timed to coincide with the Quadriennale’s opening weekend. The show owes its rather forbidding title, ‘Separatrix’, to Gottfried Leibniz’s eponymous theory of intermediary structures – orderly and anarchic in equal measure. Illustrated by means of watercolours that Grosse first experimented with in her studio in New Zealand, these same artistic gestures have been transferred onto large-scale canvases displayed vertically around the main oval gallery space. The resulting clash of vibrant colour fields, drip lines and brush strokes, melding into each other like cells, was firmly on the side of chaos.

Equally anarchic but with more of an underground feel to it, the small group show at the neighbouring La Fondazione, which has been around for a year, made its feminist sensibilities known from the get-go with Marinella Senatore’s red-tinged documentary Sisterhood, 2020, which was projected onto a wall directly above steps that lead to a polished concrete oval space – the negative double of the one at Gagosian. Mounted onto beams beneath the ceiling at each end of the room, Claire Fontaine’s stark blue and red LED signs spelled out ‘Women are the moon that moves the tides’ or ‘Men = CO2’ in capital letters. The exhibition’s appeal rested in the unlikely pairing of the artist duo and Senatore, who between them covered a variety of media, with the work of the modernist painter known as Pasquarosa (1896–1973), whose work was regularly featured at the Quadriennale from 1931 until 1966. Presented in this setting, against the grey concrete backdrop, her vivid painted portraits and still-lifes stole the show.

Prior to my visit, the organisers had warned me that the bulk of events scheduled as part of the 24-hour marathon ‘Il Pianeta come Festival XL’ at MACRO had been postponed until next spring. This did not, however, affect Tim Morton’s online lecture ‘Lockdown is Reopening, Reopening is Lockdown’, streamed live from Houston, Texas, nor Finnish artist Jenna Sutela’s contribution: a billboard and sound installation conceived for the museum terrace, both equally abstruse and impenetrable almost by design – after all, they were intended to conjure machine-generated snippets of Martian-cum-bacterial language. Not averse to a bit of jargon himself, Morton was inexhaustible, especially in the Q&A session following the breathless delivery of his anaphoric ‘Imagine there’s no…’ credo, riffing on John Lennon’s song.

Olu Ogunnaike, From one space to an/other, 2020, installation view

The most intriguing show I got to see over the long weekend, one that engaged with the city and its very fabric, was ‘MEMORY GAME’ at the outlying Villa Lontana – well worth the schlep to get there. Featuring works by Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer, Tauba Auerbach, John Latham and Cyprien Gaillard amongst others, ‘MEMORY GAME’ was built around a 19th-century chest of drawers containing over 500 coloured marble samples hailing from all across the Roman Empire. This curiosity was displayed in a concrete garage space accessed directly from the street, amid offerings by a well-judged selection of contemporary artists invited to respond to it in their respective media. Andrés Saenz de Sicilia and his collaborator Emiddio Vasquez thus made a dubplate with brief compositions using frequencies derived from the raw material of the marble samples for their Sedimenta, 2020, sound piece, while Olu Ogunnaike contributed delicate layered sculptural works made up of compressed wood offcuts, some of which came from trees growing in the garden of Villa Lontana.

Of the three finalists in the running for the Bulgari Prize – Giulia Cenci, Tomaso de Luca and Renato Leotta – whose work was on view at MAXXI that week, Leotta’s whimsical video installation Roma, 2020, showing cats amid the Largo di Torre Argentina ruins won my vote. The prizewinner is yet to be announced because some of the jury members were not able to travel to Rome in time to see the works. Even before the governmental decree suspending all exhibitions came into effect, the date of MAXXI L’Aquila’s inauguration – originally planned for the weekend following the Quadriennale’s opening – had been pushed back. Now that the Abruzzo region has been designated a high-risk zone, the launch of the National Museum of 21st Century Arts’ sister venue, ‘intended to be a tool for the relaunching of an area damaged by the earthquake’ – in the words of MAXXI’s president Giovanna Melandri – is, for the time being, stuck in limbo.