Ancient Egypt Gives a New Twist to Turin's Contemporary Art Week
TURIN, Italy — The art world is a paradoxical place. Artists, like everyone else, are trying to make sense of what is going on at the moment, yet their creative responses are often presented in contexts that owe their very existence to the forces their art seeks to question and challenge.
"Contemporary art is made possible by neoliberal capital, plus the internet, biennials, art fairs, parallel pop-up histories and growing income inequalities," Hito Steyerl, a Berlin-based filmmaker and writer, said in a recent interview in The Guardian. On Friday, Ms. Steyerl, who created one of the most talked-about contributions to this year's Skulptur Projekte Munster, was ranked as the most influential person in the art world in the Power 100 listing compiled each year by ArtReview magazine.
News of Ms. Steyerl's elevation (she was seventh last year) visibly lengthened the line of people waiting on Friday to see her video "Factory of the Sun" at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo here.
This disorientating video, which debuted in 2015 when it was included in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale, mashes documentary and news clips with video games and dance sequences to evoke the totalitarian nature of digital surveillance culture. Having recently been on show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Julia Stoschek Foundation in Düsseldorf, "Factory of the Sun" was being screened at the privately owned foundation of the Turin collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo as part of the exhibition "Come una Falena alla Fiamma" ("Like a Moth to a Flame").
Featuring more than 70 works by internationally renowned contemporary artists, the exhibition was mainly divided between the Rebaudengo Foundation and OGR Torino, a new multipurpose cultural center in a former train repair facility. The event opened on Nov. 3, a day after the preview of the 24th edition of the Artissima art fair in Turin. And then, among myriad other attractions, there was Carlos Garaicoa from Cuba at the Fondazione Merz, and the Egyptian-Canadian artist Anna Boghiguian at the Castello di Rivoli contemporary art museum just outside the city.
Look at just about any week in the jam-packed contemporary art world calendar, and similar combinations of private and public art foundations with a commercial fair can be found at a city somewhere on the planet. But Turin, the industrial city where Nietzsche went mad and where most of the artists in Italy's Arte Povera movement of the late 1960s and '70s were based, managed to give the churn of yet another week in this world a distinctive twist."The problem these days is that wherever the exhibition is, whether it's Beirut or Beijing, you see the same contemporary art again and again," said Tom Eccles, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at the Bard College, New York, one of the three international curators of "Like a Moth to a Flame." "Overproduction and overdistribution are an issue."
"We thought it important to root the exhibition in a place," added Mr. Eccles, who with his fellow curators aimed to create a portrait of Turin through objects that the city's residents have collected over the centuries. The guest organizers were particularly struck by how many locals visited Turin's Egyptian Museum, arguably the finest of its type in Europe.
The curators of "Like a Moth to a Flame" borrowed numerous pieces from the museum, creating dramatic juxtapositions of ancient and modern in OGR Torino's cavernous postindustrial spaces. Giddily asymmetrical mid-1970s "Bariesthesias" step sculptures by the Italian kinetic artist Gianni Colombo are memorably combined with a monumental second millennium BC black marble statue of the Egyptian lioness goddess Sekhmet.
"We wanted to include in the show pieces that people would recognize," said Mr. Eccles, referring to the statue. "The exhibition was aimed at the people of Turin rather than a global elite. We wanted to ask the question, What place does art have in our lives?"
And what place does a commercial art fair have?
Lasting four days, Artissima is generally regarded as Italy's destination art fair. That it coincides with Piedmont's truffle season always helps (though this year drought severely depleted supplies). This time round 206 galleries exhibited and 52,000 visitors attended, according to the organizers, slightly more than the slightly smaller rival MiArt fair held in Milan in April.Artissima "is always quite good and small. There is not the rush that we are so used to," said Fatima Maleki, a London-based collector. "We have always found something special at that fair."
Like most of the world's second-tier art fairs, Artissima emphasized its international credentials (62 percent of the exhibitors were non-Italian) and offered what it hoped would be an appealing mix of new art and neglected classics.
For those interested in the latter, the Milan dealer Galleria Tega, for example, was showing wall sculptures of the Rome-based conceptual artist Giuseppe Uncini (1929-2008), including two of his admired "Cementarmato" reliefs, combining concrete and rusted iron wire. One, dating from 1962, sold at the fair for 250,000 euros, or about $290,000; another from 1959, is still available at €280,000.
This was pretty much the maximum price level for sales at Artissima, most of the works being by living artists and priced at under €30,000.
The Lisbon dealer Galeria Madragoa priced the black-and-white photographs of the London-based Joanna Piotrowska, who will feature in the "Being: New Photography" show next year at MoMA in New York, at less than $3,500. In Ms. Piotrowska's recent "Frantic" series, the artist asked adult residents of Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro to construct "play houses" in their homes, with psychologically revealing and at times disturbing results.
Three of these photographs sold to collections that already follow the artist's work, according to Matteo Consonni, co-founder of Madragoa. "We had great curatorial response," added Mr. Consonni, "but a cold reaction from a buying public that I found very conservative, quite an uncommon thing for Artissima."
Maybe drought and the dearth of truffles was making the public in Turin less receptive. But the paradoxes of today's art world remain.
For many people, contemporary art fairs and the cerebrally curated exhibitions in postindustrial spaces that accompany them have become a different world. That world could do worse than reach beyond its captive audience of collectors and curators, to what Ms. Steyerl, the ArtReview Power 100's most influential person, describes as "art's larger communities."
Turin, at least, has given it a go.
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