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Review of “Cinque Mostre 2019: Δx Displacement”

March 4, 2019
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By Claudia Trezza.

Photographs of ancient ruins. A Sicilian “Moor’s Head” shoots a laser out of its cyborg eye. A painting of a ship dotted in watermelon halves. A puppet show reenacting the beheading of Saint Cecilia.

Exhibits, installations and performances across a wide variety of disciplines and media drew over 800 people, including prominent guests like the United States Ambassador to Italy, scholarly celebrities like Mary Beard, and up-and-coming writers and actors, to the American Academy in Rome on February 20 for the 2019 edition of Cinque Mostre. The annual exhibit, curated for the fourth time in a row by Ilaria Gianni, once again proved to be a highlight of the academic and artistic season for both Romans and Americans.

The crowds gathered in the Academy’s courtyard, rooms and gardens to view works by Rome Prize Fellows, Italian Fellows, and invited Italian artists exploring this year’s theme of Displacement. They questioned how moving from one physical space to another can affect one’s sense of belonging and distort conventional relationships.

In a play on traditional Italian arts, puppeteer Fellow Basil Twist and writer Fellow Kirstin Valdez Quade's The Song of Cecilia turns the story of the patron saint of music, traditionally one of martyrdom and submission to God, into a humoristic and playful puppet show. With the collaboration of dancer and actor Kenneth Ard, they depict what they call “tensions between private and ceremonial faith, ecstasy and spirituality, salvation and suffering.” The show was staged in the cryptic-like basement of the Casa Rustica in the Academy’s garden where more than four hundred years ago Galileo Galilei introduced his new invention of the telescope.  

Back in the main building, Italian Fellow Francesco Zorzi’s bright multicolored pattern stretched across a window in the Gallery evokes a stained glass that crawls onto the wall, while its distorted mirror image lies on a rug on the floor to evoke the visual hallucinations experienced by those suffering from eye degenerative diseases. Hanging from the ceiling in the Academy’s basement, Fellows Michelle Lou and Marcel Sanchez Prieto, and collaborator Adriana Cuéllar’s conelike sound chambers echo with gurgling water sounds, a reference to the old Roman aqueduct lying beneath the floors of the Academy.

With a black vessel painted on a white canvas, Houston-based artist and Fellow Michael Ray Charles, ruminated on the current migratory crisis in the Mediterranean by evoking the African American slave ships that crossed the oceans. The sails are composed of desperate faces and interspersed with watermelon halves, historically a racist trope to insult African Americans.

Drawing on the same themes, Italian Fellows Invernomuto (Simone Bertuzzi and Simone Trabucchi) played on the folkloric Sicilian head vases. Said to date back one thousand years to the end of Arab rule of the island, the vases are based on the legend of a jilted local girl who, upon discovering her Saracen lover has a family back home, cuts off his head and grows basil in it. The artists plant in its left eye a laser that beams across a fog-filled corridor. The work, like many others on display at the Academy until March 31, is meant to disrupt and decenter conventional ideas, memories and perceptions of physical spaces, objects, and stories.

The strength of the annual Cinque Mostre exhibition, and of the American Academy as a whole, is to enhance collaborations across the diverse fields of its artists and scholars. This strength was on display through numerous works.

Fellow Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong and collaborator Judy Chung’s black and white photos of the interiors of Italian churches, office spaces, and museums are accompanied by a text written by Fellows, Residents, and other Academy members. The effect is a patchwork photo diary of current, old, and ancient Italy, reinterpreted in the words of the members of these two artists’ community, a testament once again to the dynamic partnerships and the vibrant network that is being formed at the Academy this year.

On a shelf along one wall are a series of unguentaria, perfume bottles used as Roman funerary gifts, reinterpreted in various materials by conservator Fellow Joannie Bottkol along with ancient studies Fellow Allison Emmerson, landscape architecture Fellow Zaneta Hong, and visual arts Fellow Karyn Olivier, as gifts to Fellows and fellow travellers. Joannie Bottkol was also involved in the work that lies adjacent to these. Together with visual arts Fellow Helen O’Leary they exhibited Safe, a collection of disassembled structures made of wood, linen and other materials, where both Fellows’ focus come to life, Bottkol bringing her experience of preservation and restoration, O’Leary contributing her interest in the act of disassembly and precision aimed at protection and resilience. In the artists’ words their work is meant to evoke “a shelter, where the precariousness of life is temporarily held down.”

Composer and performer Fellow Jessie Marino partnered with designer Michael Leighton Beaman to create This house is made up of talk, an “experimental mini-drama” where sounds, lights, and vapors transported viewers into a unique sensory dimension. Italian Fellow Ila Bêka and collaborator Louise Lemoine’s video featuring the daily life of regular people making their way through urban spaces exposes the “emotional geography” of seven cities across the world.

The exhibit was also a display of innovative uses of materials, with Carola Bonfili’s sculptural environments made of cement, resin, marble dust, and pigment, outlining possible hiding spaces; Italian Fellow Renato Leotta’s two works made of materials from the very landscape he illustrates; and Gabriele Silli’s massive multilayered sculpture composed of deconstructed and transformed organic and plastic elements.

All these works and more made for a successful show which the Academy’s President Mark Robbins, in Rome for the event, lauded. The eleven works, along with the Academy’s other attributes, its cuisine and cooperative climate of Fellows, curators, and staff members, exemplified the interdisciplinary ethos, cultural cross-reading, and constant dialogue between old and new which allow the Academy to occupy a unique and vibrant space in the city’s cultural landscape.