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At once sublimely evanescent and maddeningly dysfunctional, Rome remains suspended between a venerable past and a chaotic present, bewildering even to its oldest habitues. In this labyrinthine metropolis, contemporary art suffers the same fate as everything else, emerging from this ancient maze only to disappear into its tangled arteries. Initiatives for exhibitions, even at the highest level, are almost exclusively the product of iron-willed individuals who somehow manage to function in the absence of an adequate infrastructure for support of the arts. Navigating the logistical complexities of mounting exhibitions in Rome is a task that often seems daunting, even to those who ought to know how to slip through secret alleys.

The Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna is the only state museum dedicated to contemporary art in Italy. Its new director, Sandra Pinto, has sought to revive the institution, moving to update the collection, which, incredibly, ends with the late '60s, and filling some of the many gaps in programming by establishing a series of exhibitions showcasing the work of recent generations. At least ten years behind its European counterparts, the GNAM has acquired under Pinto's stewardship one work by each of the best-known transavanguardia artists - Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Francesco Clemente, Mimmo Paladino, and Nicola De Maria. Acquisitions of sculptures by Luigi Ontani, Maurizio Mochetti, and Nunzio are planned. Many are hoping these forays into Italian contemporary art will establish a curatorial standard worthy of a national museum, despite the serious lack of funds and of tax incentives for donors (a situation Walter Veltroni, the current minister of culture and a powerful deputy leader of the reformed Communist Party, has promised to remedy). Another innovative project proposed by staff curator Anna Mattirolo, "Partito Preso" (Taking sides), enables the institution to acquire and exhibit the work of emerging Italian artists. Each artist is accorded a specific gallery space, and the works remain on loan for five years, after which they will be purchased for prices based on the average of their current market value and their estimated worth at the end of that period. Among the artists chosen are Liliana Moro, who fills traditional earthenware pots with plasticine animals, and Luisa Lambri, whose quasi-metaphysical photographs depict interiors. There are also plans for a similar exhibition with a more international flavor, in the spirit of much larger surveys like the Venice Biennale's "Aperto." This spring, the GNAM also held a large show of the last works of one of arte povera's most celebrated figures, Alighiero e Boetti, who met with an untimely death three years ago. It consisted of four extremely large installation pieces executed between 1993 and 1994, including: Oeuvre postale (Mail piece), a series of 500 envelopes and stamps, and Alternando da uno a cento e viceversa (Alternating from one to a hundred and vice versa), fifty kilims, fabricated by Boetti in Peshawar, India, whose black-and-white-checked designs are generated by a numerical system capable of infinite compositional variations.

The Palazzo delle Esposizioni, a sort of monumental gallery and multipurpose cultural center administered by the city of Rome, has also successfully organized a few exhibitions of contemporary art, though, unfortunately, this is not its sole or primary focus: there is no overarching curatorial program. Last year chief curator M. Grazia Tolomeo and freelance curator Carolyn Christov Bakargiev put together a retrospective of sculptor Alberto Burri's work, which traveled to the Lenbachhaus in Munich and is scheduled to open at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels on June 5. To celebrate the anniversary of Rome's founding, the same team, joined by Ludovico Pratesi, mounted an exhibition that explores the relationships between nature and culture, the rural and the urban, through existing works and site-specific pieces by more than twenty contemporary artists. "Citta Natura" (City nature) includes pieces by Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, and Wolfgang Laib. In keeping with the project's theme, the exhibition's scope extends to various sites beyond the Palazzo's walls. Haim Steinbach's wooden structure, set inside a greenhouse filled with a shipment of palm trees that had been confiscated by the Italian government, is located in Rome's botanical gardens, a site itself symptomatic of the often-strained relation between nature and culture. Steinbach covered the outer wall of the wooden structure in posters advertising both political and cultural events; the space between the wall and the glass of the greenhouse was transformed into a giant Habitrail filled with more than forty hamsters. Giving the show unexpected attention (and more than a little bite), an animal-rights group protested the use of hamsters in public art and the furry creatures had to be removed two days after the opening. Villa Mazzanti, the public park on Monte Mario, was selected as the site for projects by Rodney Graham, Ettore Spalletti, Dan Graham, and Gillian Wearing, among others, that, unfortunately, address the relationship between nature and culture in only the broadest possible sense. More successful was Jannis Kounellis' installation in Trajan's Market, perhaps the oldest enclosed market in the West. A row of old wardrobes coated in lead, Kounellis' piece returns to an essential element of his artistic vocabulary which, because it is an everyday object used for storage, also echoes, however unintentionally, the history, of the site in which it is installed. Next fall, the Palazzo will host the "Art and Film" exhibition organized by LA MOCA.

The Palazzo is also home to a periodic survey of the Italian art scene, "Quadriennale," that is organized independently of the museum, and was reinstated last year after a ten-year hiatus. This time the selection committee, headed by critic Lorenza Trucchi, chose 175 artists, all of whom had had their first solo show after 1977. The result was somewhat chaotic and the quality of the work decidedly uneven, in part because of the excessive number of participants. First prize went to young Milanese artist Stefano Arienti who presented a series of photographic portraits, their surfaces scratched prior to printing. Cristiano Pintaldi, an emerging Roman artist, whose paintings duplicate the pixelated quality of the television images they depict, received an honorable mention.

In recent years the new municipal government has also supported projects initiated by private cultural associations that were realized in various locations throughout the city and in buildings often used for other purposes or long abandoned. In "Projected Artists/Obiettivo Roma" (Projected artists/Lens: Rome) artists used the facades of historic buildings as screens for slide shows of site-specific work. The list of participants was as varied as the venues: Nancy Spero chose the Piazza del Pantheon; Yoko Ono, the Piazza Navona; Maurizio Pellegrin, the Trastevere; and Paolo Canevari, the facade of the Palazzo Braschi along the centrally located Corso Vittorio. Canevari, one of Rome's most interesting emerging artists, constructs large anthropomorphic or biomorphic shapes from industrial materials - old tires, inner tubes, or discarded socks - that, like Robert Morris' felt pieces, are sexually suggestive. Another interesting project was "Riciclart" (Recycleart), an exhibition by independent curators Giuliana Stella and Micol Vellet based on the theme of transforming everyday materials into art that was installed in the narrow aisles of the somewhat sinister former slaughterhouse in the Testaccio section. One of the participants, Mark Bodwitch, hooked up an electrical device to the metal hooks of a conveyor belt, from which animal carcasses once hung, to make them ring like bells as they struck one another. Pino Modica "recycled" the scaffolding used to restore Piazza di Spagna, presenting and emphasizing the graffiti left by passersby.

Foreign academies and cultural institutes are also quite active, not only housing fellows working in various disciplines but also regularly organizing exhibitions and conferences of and about their compatriots. At the historic French Academy in the Villa Medici, whose past directors have included Ingres and Balthus, Jean Pierre Angremy, who was just named head of Paris' new Bibliotheque Nationale, recently organized several important solo exhibitions, alternating between Italian and French artists, including Christian Boltanski, Chia, Ange Leccia, and Giulio Paolini. Also embracing encounters between artists from Italy and other countries, the Hungarian Academy's "Interactus" series, curated by Lorand Hegyi, director of the Museum fur Moderne Kunst in Vienna, features artists of Hungarian and Austrian extraction alongside Romans such as Gianni Dessi, Giuseppe Gallo, and, currently, Piero Pizzi Carnnella. The British School in Rome offers residencies to artists and archaeologists from the UK, often exhibiting cutting-edge work from England. Former curator Marina Engel's projects included installations by Rachel Whiteread and Mona Hatoum created specifically for the school's exhibition spaces. The new curator, Alison Jacques, made an auspicious debut in February with the exhibition "False Impressions," organized around the contemporary approach to the classical genre of portraiture and featuring the work of eight young British artists, including Lucy Gunning, Cerith Wyn Evans, and Catherine Yass. In addition to such ventures, the British School also sponsors exhibitions of Italian artists, recently featuring a site-specific piece by Massimo Bartolini in which he raised the floor of the gallery so that viewers had to duck to avoid the ceiling lamps. This month Fiona Rae's large-scale paintings are on view.

Recently Rome has seen a number of noteworthy independent initiatives, including one to save the art deco Ambra-Jovinelli theater from decay or even demolition. Famous until the '50s for its variety shows, the theater is being transformed into a multipurpose center for the arts. To combat the authorities' indifference to the building's state of disrepair, theater director Marcello Cava coordinated a series of plays, performances, and video screenings, as well as an exhibition in which every participating artist was accorded one of the now-decrepit dressing-rooms. In a similar spirit, "Fuoricentro" (Outside the center) was the brainchild of theater impresario Ulisse Benedetti, painter Gianni Dessi, and critic Daniela Lancioni. Installed in a space made available by the municipality in the dilapidated, working-class neighborhood of Tor Bella Monaca on the outskirts of Rome, it was an attempt to bring culture to less affluent areas of Rome - those outside the cultural circuit in the city's historic center. The curators invited twenty young artists from throughout Italy, including the Romans Valentina Coccetti, Marina Paris, and Maurizio Savini.

While the local market is quite sluggish, numerous commercial galleries remain active. Along with "historic" venues such as Sperone and Primo Piano, which often favor American artists (the former mounted shows by Peter Halley and Frank Moore; the latter, exhibitions of Lawrence Weiner and John Baldessari), galleries such as Bonomo or S.A.L.E.S. show emerging Italian artists alongside internationally established figures. Bonomo, in addition to continuing to work with artists like Richard Tuttle, represents young sculptors, including Tristano di Robilant and Giacinto Cerone. S.A.L.E.S., which recently mounted an interesting solo exhibition of Alberto Di Fabio's paintings - microscopic views of DNA strands and geological strata - just gave Wolfgang Tillmans his first Italian exhibition and is currently showing Cy Twombly's photographs. Sargentini, another "historic" gallery and one of the first to show the work of Pascali and Kounellis, has been presenting a series of group shows promoting young artists from each of the principal Italian cities. The exhibition highlighting Roman artists included the work of Paolo Canevari, Marco Colazzo, and Massimo Orsi. Orsi, as if taking his cue from Francesco Clemente, presented a mosaic of thirty-six small canvases in which characters form the word OK, often by assuming sexual positions.

One holds onto the hope that the situation in Rome will continue to improve. Maybe the members of the next local government (elections are scheduled for November) will finally do what is a matter of course in every other European metropolis: coordinate a coherent program for the support of contemporary art.

Mario Codognato is a frequent contributor to Artforum.
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Title Annotation:promoting contemporary art in Rome, Italy
Author:Codognato, Mario
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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