Not since January of 2011, when fifteen Italian Affilliated Fellows in the Arts presented their work in a show entitled ACCADEMIA° STANZE° PERSONE, have the public spaces of the McKim, Mead & White Building been as proudly made available to art, and to the city of Rome, as they were on the evening of Wednesday, January 30, when a series of five (actually six) installations was presented as Cinque Mostre. These installations were the result of an invitation sent to current Rome Prize Fellows in the fall of 2012 to propose shows that would, ideally, collaborate across disciplines. And the class of 2013 responded to this invitation with great imagination. During the three hours of the opening, a crowd estimated at five hundred percolated through the AAR; such a robust turnout might have been anticipated, though, given that the show had received advance features in both La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera.
The visual-arts Fellow Carl D’Alvia and the Italian curator Christian Caliandro together curated The Idea of Realism/L’idea del realismo, featuring work by D’Alvia, Pesce Khete, Jackie Saccoccio (2005 Fellow), Ward Shelley (2006 Fellow), Giuseppe Stampone, Gian Maria Tosatti, and current visual-arts Fellow Nari Ward. This show thus united European and American artists, focusing on various approaches toward contemporary realism in the visual arts, seeking to define what might be thought of as a “New Realism.” Indeed, The Idea of Realism in several cases presented American artists taking on Italian subjects and Italian artists engaging with American ones. The works on display in the first (outer) room of the AAR Art Gallery were mostly framed, as if to emphasize a kind of reading, or the boundaries of art’s reality, while the works in the inner room were unframed, perhaps suggesting experience, or a more porous boundary between art and life.
D’Alvia had recently discussed his sculpture in a shop talk, and his enigmatic 2012 work Happyday (a small furred creature sitting on its hind legs and apparently blowing its brains out with a pistol) had provided a single image by which the Idea of Realism show was known in the press. The energetic colors of Khete’s unframed works in oil stick and spray paint were accompanied by two large-scale portrait photographs (reminiscent of Gerhard Richter portraits), and shared the inner gallery room with Saccoccio’s striking oil and mica paintings. Anyone who ever doubted the ability of thinned oil paint to mimic closely the effect of human blood, running down a vertical surface, would have had those doubts removed by Saccoccio’s powerful painting in dark reds entitled Dying Roman (2013). Saccoccio’s remaining three works all bore the word Portrait in their titles; while the paintings remain abstract (“a void, a system dragging over emptiness”) with their dense webs and luxurious textures exploring painterly depth, they are also susceptible to being read as portraits of a particular mood or place.
Shelley contributed an intricate horizontal timeline (in oil color and toner on mylar) detailing the postwar history of Italian cinema and culture in bewildering detail; the effect of the text bubbles connected by lines reading left-to-right, all in various colors, was also highly organic, as if the breath of culture were being visibly expressed through the alveoli of a giant lung. Stampone’s Saluti Da L’Aquila/Quattro Anni Dopo (2013), like the works by Khete and Saccoccio, was on a grand scale. In this case, two large panels framed in plywood were made up of pages taken from the Italian penal code. On these, Stampone created a powerful meditation on the L’Aquila earthquake and its aftermath, both personal and political, with graphite portraits of men, women and children alternating with drawings of politicians, police, weapons, drugs, and block letters spelling out acrostics: EARTHQUAKE, SHAME, RULES and REDEMPTION; CRASH and AID; HELP and WALLS; GUILT and SHOTS; and FENCE and WRECK. Tosatti’s Neue York (2011–12) was more in the nature of miniatures, an intriguing series of Polaroid snapshot diptychs framed in lead, the left-hand shot in each case being of one or more smokestacks in the urban landscape, and the right-hand shot being the smoke-trace of those smokestacks in an otherwise blank field, “a continuous attempt to fasten onto and capture the fleeting and indefinable unease that affects us all.” Finally, prominent on the floor of the first gallery room was Ward’s beguiling and ingenious Milk Car, a perfect replica of a Fiat 500 as a paper cutout, with the windshield wipers, door handles, hubcaps, bumpers, and windshield gaskets of this playful vehicle accented with dappled brown-and-white-furred cowhide. In preparing this work, Ward had the assistance of Lexi Eberspacher, AAR programs associate, who both arranged to borrow a Fiat 500 from a local garage and paid a visit to the Centrale del Latte di Roma to pick up 250 empty milk cartons!
Visitors to AAR on Wednesday night first encountered two linked installations. In the Founders’ Atrium, the Dutch visual-arts Affiliated Fellow Leonid Tsvetkov’s Everyday Downfall consisted of a myriad of concrete pieces cast from familiar household packaging—water bottles, egg cartons, yogurt containers, etc.—and arranged so as to interact intricately with the geometrical shapes of basalt and travertine in the pavement of that space. Tsvetkov’s installation was inspired by Monte Testaccio, the ancient Romans’ dump for terra-cotta olive-oil amphorae. Its subtitle is a provocative tag from Horace about the Stoic response to the chaos of the world: si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae / If the world should break in pieces around him, the ruins would leave him undaunted (Odes 3.3.7-8). This tag, apparently suggesting a certain heroic fortitude, in fact has a more complicated political history, having been used as a Fascist motto for a new world order in the 1930s. Spectators were therefore invited to contemplate these “ruins” of their own material culture in the context of the ancient sculptural and architectural fragments that normally inhabit the Founders’ Atrium. Tsvetkov writes that the installation “explores the intersections of history, material culture and consumption as they impact social and physical landscapes from antiquity to today.”
In the Cortile at the top of the stairs from the Founders’ Atrium, visitors were confronted by a long table apparently set for dinner, with linen and crystal, silver and china. This was the installation Dinner Conversation: what did you talk about in your last meal?, a collaboration between the design Fellow Erik Adigard (whose stylish graphics and poster design greatly benefited the whole show) and landscape-architecture Fellow Ross Altheimer, with Tsvetkov. The installation was inspired by the Rome Sustainable Food Project. Guests at the opening were invited to break at least one social taboo by writing in colored Magic Markers on the plates, the crystal, or the tablecloth itself, and as the evening progressed, all of the surfaces became crowded with the texts and drawings of an impromptu conversation which was filmed as it evolved. “Mountain lions killed my father,” wrote one passerby, to which another responded “Sorry about that. I was hungry and he was so delicious…. I ate his liver, with some fava beans and a nice Chianti,” and to which a third person, recognizing an allusion in that second text to William Carlos Williams’s short poem pretending to be a note left on the refrigerator door concerning devoured plums, responded in turn with the title of that poem: “This is just to say….” Adigard and Altheimer commented that “Dinner Conversation is a participatory installation that aims to restage an everyday ritual and reveal its temporal, spatial and conversational dynamics…. [T]he installation will investigate table space as a medium for creation and cultural exchange.”
In the Cryptoporticus, a series of nine free-standing light boxes, assembled by the AAR’s tireless and resourceful installer Stefano Silvia, presented diptychs of projects by the architecture Fellow William O’Brien Jr. These nine boxes, which made a bright tunnel of images in the basement space, were matched by nine short piano pieces by the composer Wang Lu in a project entitled Nine Parts of Two, the intention being to reveal new interpretations of each of the works through the addition of the other medium, architecture giving visual possibilities to music and music providing voice to otherwise silent architecture. The common terms between the two artistic media were understood to be “atmosphere,” “figure,” and “ornamentation.” Wang Lu herself performed her beautiful cycle on a Steinway grand piano three times during the period of the opening.
Adigard teamed up again, this time with the composer Fellow Jesse Jones, and staked out the staircase leading from the second to the third floor of the McKim, Mead & White Building to create ScalaCupola. This installation involved an eight-minute video loop of images from the Sistine Chapel by Adigard, projected on the staircase ceiling, while two iPods provided sound loops by Jones, the first (at the foot of the staircase) a recording of voices inside the Pantheon, and the second (midway up) a brief composition for solo violin. These two loops overlapped and interacted with each other at random temporal intervals, creating the “pulse” for a new and artificial sacred space, as the beam of light projected upward from the foot of the stairwell onto the ceiling took on an almost physical heft and glow, thanks to a working fog machine. The disorientation experienced by anyone mounting the right angles of the staircase around its sound-filled well, as the Sistine images wheeled above and the circular staircase to the roof gradually came into view, was equivalent to a kind of exaltation. In a city of dazzling ceilings, domes and cupolas, ScalaCupola explored the relationships between notions of architecture, planning, iconography, human crowds, and gravity, in their motion toward a celestial realm and away from the earth.
The modern Italian studies Fellow Beth Saunders was faced with an initial challenge, given the evening hour of the show opening, in presenting her installation Camera Obscura, a working replica of the protophotographic device, which of course depends for its effect on the focusing of a beam of daylight through a pinhole in the wall of a darkened space. A visitor who stepped inside Saunders’s pavilion at midday was rewarded with a full-color view of Rome (McKim, Mead & White Building balcony pilasters included) thrown upside down onto a blank wall: the ordinary miracle of optics and physics was nonetheless striking. For the evening, bright lights outside the pavilion allowed shadows, at least, to be cast on the wall inside, and in any case the third-floor balcony was a social hotspot on a clear winter evening. As Saunders pointed out in an accompanying note, Giovanni Battista della Porta described the use of the camera obscura as long ago as 1558, and so for an Italian audience, the dawn of the era of photography was inextricably linked with “centuries of artistic and scientific achievement including the development of linear perspective during the Renaissance.” Saunders’s own Rome Prize project concerns the emerging art of photography and its relation to Italian history and national identity during the Risorgimento (1839–55), and atop the historically charged Janiculum, she did create a new interaction with the city of Rome, an optical and also somehow a theatrical experience. But then, interaction, whether between AAR and Rome, or between scholars and artists, or between creators and spectators, was what this memorable evening was all about.