Contemporary Art in Historic Rome

Remembrance Masks

Detail of a work in progress from an open studio at the American Academy

One of the delights of spending time in the American Academy is having the chance to get to know artists – young, older, new to their craft, and famous – and to see their work through open studios, concerts, readings, and performances.

Rome, simply, continues to inspire.  And isn’t that what preservationists mean when we say that we need old places because they provide continuity, serve as part of our memory, enrich our individual and civic identity, and inspire creativity?

Candice and I have been privileged to get to know several of these creative and talented individuals who came to Rome to seek inspiration and to inspire others. The first people we met at the Academy four weeks ago were the talented graphic designer Michael Bierut and his wife Dorothy. Michael and I quickly reconnected, realizing that we had worked together on two projects through the years for the National Trust.  It was a treat to attend Michael’s lecture at MAXXI, where he spoke about his work based on his recent book How to use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look better, make people laugh, make people cry, and (every once in a while) change the world.

Any time we end up at a table with Michael and Dorothy, we know we’ll learn something, laugh a great deal, and come away enriched.

Chris Duncan

Chris Duncan at his open studio in Rome

Open studios are great opportunities to see works in progress and to hear first-hand from the artists about their works. Our first open studio here in Rome was for the theatrical set designer Heidi Ettinger, who showed the remembrance masks she had created while at the Academy.  Heidi and her husband Jonathan are a wonderful couple who joined us at the Easter Vigil at St. Paul’s Within the Walls.  Since then we have enjoyed meals and open studios with new friends Chris and Alice Smith Duncan, Joan Richmond and her husband – architect and preservationist Ken Richmond – and others.

Kara Walker, the incredibly talented artist “best known for exploring the raw intersection of race, gender, and sexuality through her iconic, silhouetted figures,” shared her work from seven weeks at the Academy in an open studio held last week.  We were deeply moved by this work and by a catalog from a 2015 London show Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First which she and her partner shared with us. The four of us had a brief conversation around the inspiration that can come to artists from the power of place, with both the good memories and difficult stories they may embody.

I Love You as Food Loves Salt

The dinner table, set for “I Love You as Food Loves Salt”

Contemporary art can also be performance art, and we had one such experience with food while at the Academy. Chef Chris Behr of the AAR’s Rome Sustainable Food Project joined together with two fellows from the French Academy in Rome to create an evening dinner entitled “I love you as food loves salt.” Based upon a Romanian folk tale involving a king, the youngest daughter he drove away when she told him that she loved him as much as salt, and the way she later won his apology after he learned that “the salt in food is more important than anything else.”  It was a mysterious and magical evening of food (flavored with salt!), wine, and good company.

At the Academy we have heard new works by contemporary composers.  We have seen traditional watercolors and abstract paper work. We have shared dinners, stories, discussions, and laughter with talented poets such as Bruce Smith, Jules Gibbs, and Neal Hall. And outside the walls, we were delighted to be able to see the work of a newly arrived resident fellow – South African William Kentridge – in his work in progress, Triumphs and Laments: A Project for the City of Rome

…a large-scale, 550 meter-long frieze, erased from the biological patina on the travertine embankment walls that line Rome’s urban waterfront. More than eighty figures, up to 10 meters high, will form a silhouetted procession on Piazza Tevere, between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. Triumphs and Laments will show a non-chronological history of Rome, looking at the laments which inevitably accompany any triumph.

Over dinner, William told us of the difficulties of gaining approval for the work, because some official did not approve of “contemporary art in a historic city.”  As regular readers know, I feel this is a short-sided approach. To paraphrase Tony Hiss from a different but related context, cities should embrace old and new to gain a since of the continuity that shakes us “out of the daydream that the present moment is disconnected from all the lives that preceded us and all the life around us.”

The premier is set for April 21st – after we leave – but Candice, Andrew, and I have all walked along the banks of the Tiber to marvel at this new work.  Here’s a very small sampling.

Triumphs and Laments

A section of Kentridge’s work “Triumphs and Laments”

 

Triumphs and Laments

From Triumphs and Laments

 

Kentridge's Triumphs and Laments

From William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments

 

Detail from Triumphs and Laments

Details from Triumphs and Laments

 

Public Art

Public Art

The black “paint” in the figures is actually the years of grime on the river walls, which was left as the area around the stencils were power-washed away.  William estimated that the entire piece will last 5-7 years, at which time the grime will have returned. One of the clear aims of this project is to help reactivate the Tiber River as a public space in the city of Rome. We loved our time along the river and found it a different type of urban space, yet very much of Rome in its essence.

Finally, one finds urban art throughout the city from a wide variety of residents.  One small example was this piece that Andrew and I stumbled on Monday as we were out “getting lost” in the central core of the city.  Andrew has a well-reasoned opinion about what the artist was trying to convey as a political statement, but I just thought it was clever.  We may both be right.

Just Do It.

Just Do It.

Writer and critic Robert Hughes has said that one of the vital things “that make a great city great is not mere raw size, but the amount of care, detail, observation, and love precipitated in its contents…”  He was talking, in large measure, about the historic city.  But I believe that historic cities should strive to be the continuous city – where “new buildings, new institutions, and new technologies don’t rip apart the old and wreck it….(instead) they accommodate, they act with respect, and they add vibrant new chapters to history without eradicating it.”

Clearly historic Rome is loved and continues to inspire.

More to come…

DJB

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