Culture

Bird calls echoing among the mosaics

BEIRUT: A few years ago, the curator of the Istanbul Biennial had contemporary art scattered about conventional and less-conventional spaces around the city and beyond. On the Princes’ Islands, in the Sea of Marmara, works were lodged in gorgeously derelict clapboard structures that stank with history.

Immature writers were ecstatic from the fumes of past narrative rising from these sites, an enthusiasm that threatened to contaminate their reviews. “Ja ja,” veteran critics could be heard tut-tutting the youngsters, “but how do you sink zis vork vould vork visout alle zis ... decor?”

Decor might not occur to people visiting “Classic Reloaded. Mediterranea.” The public, looking for eye candy while enjoying the venue’s air conditioning, probably doesn’t give much thought to why “the white cube” has become the delivery system of choice for contemporary art.

Exhibitors’ fondness for showing work in galleries with off-white walls and nothing else (save essay-length decal installations explaining what you’re looking at) seems to reflect a fear that the public won’t be able to discern where the venue ends and the work begins, that decor will infect the art – like careless cops soiling a crime scene with their DNA.

Elevating the decor’s status is what “Classic Reloaded. Mediterranea” is all about.

“CR.M” comprises 20 contemporary artworks by 13 Italian artists, all belonging to Rome’s MAXXI museum. Among Italy’s most respected contemporary art institutions, MAXXI is well-known locally for having hosted “Home Beirut,” a six-month exhibition of Lebanese contemporary art in 2017-18.

“CR.M” abstracts these works from the clean lines of MAXXI’s galleries and re-places them in the Villa Audi’s Mosaic Museum – which is about as far from a white cube-style space as you can imagine.

Housed in one of Sursock’s historic private residences, Villa Audi’s museum boasts a collection of mosaics that is surprising for its number of quality pieces – some figurative, others in decorative patterns. These works might be Byzantine, Roman, possibly Hellenistic but, as they aren’t accompanied by museum-style exhibit tags (with data about the place and date of provenance), they speak for themselves – not unlike decor.

“CR.M” is curated by MAXXI Director Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and the museum’s press literature informs us that the show “proposes the rereading and revitalization of a shared heritage of identity, a cultural and artistic base from which it is possible to reprise a dialogue, to facilitate that comprehension between peoples that today is especially necessary, a true antidote to all forms of fundamentalism.”

Like past (and future) cultural initiatives, “CR.M” presses art into the service of politics – a most benign and ecumenical expression of politics.

The cultural goals of “CR.M,” as depicted by MAXXI’s local collaborators at the Sursock Museum, is to carry “out a rigorous, albeit inchoative and unthorough analysis of the close link between classical tradition and the artistic research conducted by some leading exponents of contemporary Italian art.” Who could say no to “rigorous, inchoative and unthorough analysis?”

Eyeballing the way “CR.M” deploys its work about the museum, a more empirically minded visitor may sense an implied dialogue between MAXXI’s contemporary works and the Villa Audi’s antique pieces – as if the pairing might bring resonance to the works that a white cube wouldn’t.

If so, the show’s success is hit and miss. The work that benefits most from the venue’s Greco-Roman accents is Liliana Moro’s “Fischio 3/2018,” a piece of sound art that, true to its title, comprises a human whistle. The artist (or her fabricator) doesn’t blow any discernible tune, though at times the piece seems to be seeking to reproduce a “greatest hits” of bird calls.

The incongruity of “Fischio” was at its greatest during the opening of “CR.M,” when its meandering, disembodied warbling deflated any pretense of gravitas during the speeches. Since then, echoing though a less-populated space, the piping lends the show an ironic musical score.

For the objects and photographs in “CR.M,” the Mosaic Museum is a more challenging – if not hostile – environment. Pietromarchi’s curatorial strategy appears to favor pieces that either engage with classical art or speak to contemporary political realities.

In the former vein, two black-and-white portrait prints by Mimmo Jodice have been suspended from a length of decorative mosaic.

“Il compagno di Ulisse, Baia” (The companion of Ulysses, Baia) 1992, captures a classical statue whose face has been sheared away.

While the time-scored facial stump has reverted back to its mineral appearance, the polished marble of the statue’s neck and shoulders remain eerily lifelike.

Complementing it, Jodice’s 1994 “Nettuno, Cartagine” (Neptune, Carthage) frames a fragment of an exquisite mosaic, said to depict the face of the Greco-Roman sea god.

These eloquent expressions of the photographer’s expert eye would be powerful regardless where they were hung. The location is irrelevant.

The same can’t be said of Luigi Ontani’s 2015-2016 “Lapsus Lupus” (Wolf Slip). This circular mosaic revisits a familiar theme from ancient Roman history – the frequently depicted myth of the city’s founding fathers, Romulus and Remus, as infants, being suckled by a she-wolf.

Here the artist depicts a pair of toddlers of different races (in the exhibition catalogue, the artist writes they’re meant to be African and Latin American) sheltered beneath a blue-tinted male figure draped in a wolf skin.

Whether Ontani’s multicultural redux of Romulus and Remus is effective in its own terms or not, the way it’s shown in Villa Audi – framed by a floor-sized mosaic, facing a wall-mounted mosaic fragment of a big cat attacking human figures – undermines the winking irony that would buoy the work were it shown in a contemporary setting.

Some pieces hold their own.

Take Flavio Favelli’s 2017 work “Fiori Persiani” (Persian Flowers), from a series of pieces that stitch together lengths of Persian throw rug to form a single carpet of composite patterns – in this case a half a dozen or more separate pieces.

At once decorative and modern, in that “fragments shored against my ruins” sort of way, Favelli’s work is busy enough to compete with the cacophony of ornament about it, while its materiality (and the fence that’s been erected around it) sets it off from the Audi’s collection.

Titled “il secco e l’umido” (“the dry and the damp,” among other translations), Luca Trevisani’s 2016 work comprises stockings printed with floral patterns, which are draped from bamboo poles or animal antlers.

These don’t fare so well among the mosaics.

The location’s Greco-Roman accents tend to multiply any air of incongruity that “CR.M” would have in a white cube-style space.

While some works survive the abundance of decor in the host space, it undermines the ironic language of others.

The merits of some pieces seem to stand out despite the location, while it makes one or two of the more delicate works seem sillier than they otherwise might.

“Classic Reloaded. Mediterranea” is up at Villa Audi’s Mosaic Museum until Sept. 2.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 31, 2018, on page 16.

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