DURING ANY GIVEN SOJOURN in Turin, someone offhandedly remarks that the city, which sits at the confluence of two major rivers and forms an axis of two occult triangles, is the center of magic in Europe. The rumor is so widespread, the enchantment so palpable, it never seems worth questioning. The clatter of streetcars down long avenues lined with maples creamed and burned by autumn, the play of dark and light in the central piazza (a metaphysical chiaroscuro that inspired de Chirico) give the city an aura of noir. All of this juxtaposed sharply with my reason for being there: The pale pink ARTISSIMA signs punctuated the landscape like Chupa Chups lollipops.
Taxis and cars with VIPs seemed to arrive somewhere else. But the writer’s approach to the Oval Lingotto that hosts the fair emerges from the subway and runs past big empty modern buildings and through dark service-y passages and beyond. The Oval—after too many turns and more pink signs with suggestive arrows—finally comes into view, a spaceship of clear glass that, though it lacks the overhead sunshine of Paris’s Grand Palais, gives a sense of outdoors and soigné style that one expects from Italians (though not from the Swiss, with their fairgrounds built for sunless watch conventions).
The front doors discharge the crowd past info stations shaped like giant pink eggs and into the Present Future booths, one of many programs with snappy but oblique titles that can befuddle neophytes. A gang of young curators culled from far-flung places invite young artists (and of course their galleries) to give solo presentations. One of those elected twenty artists receives a prize, provided by Illy, which used to be 10,000 smackers but was this year promoted (or demoted, maybe, if one prefers the money) to a solo show at the Castello di Rivoli.
Or it was supposed to be a solo show. Composed of a distinguished array of institutional directors—the red-lipsticked and black-clad Beatrix Ruf of Kunsthalle Zurich; the droll Gregor Muir of the London ICA; Beatriz Merz, the bespectacled director of the Castello; and one youngish writer chosen to replace Matthew Higgs, who had stayed in New York for posthurricane recovery—the judges, all curators, decided to act, well you know, curatorially, and they changed the rules. Instead of a solo, they curated a small group show opting for a trio of winners, Santo Tolone of Limoncello, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa of Proyectos Ultravioleta, and Vanessa Safavi of Jennifer Chert Gallery.
After a march for hours through the vernissage, a swathe of the Artissima openers and all the judges joined Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo at her well-appointed manse a taxi drive away. Cindy Shermans peeked from one wall. Blue Rudolf Stingel polka dots danced to the left. Was that a Matthew Barney (or two or three)? Muir measured the treasures adorning the house, pausing in front of a Piotr Janas painting and waxing ecstatic on the Polish artist, who, in his opinion, is sorely underrated. Francesco Bonami passed, and Muir noted the excellence of the collection aloud. “I should think so,” Bonami riposted. “I live here.”
Tucked somewhere in the evening’s itinerary was a visit to La Drogheria on Piazza Vittorio Veneto, about as comfortable a bar as I’ve ever been to, with works by Piero Golia and Donald Urquhart pocketed in the narrow rooms. Another taxicab led to a ballroom for the official opening party of the fair, a ticket that, it was repeated four times, should definitely not be lost because that was it there was no list and forget about getting another one. The ballroom, designed by Carlo Mollino, was Mollino at his best, like some erotic bedchamber for chattering space zebras. Italian movie producer Luca Legnani whispered in my ear that it’s even hard to find photos of this treasure. The party was slightly less sybaritic, the bar quickly running out of everything gratis but syrupy spritzes.
Crawling out of bed in your clothes after the first day of the fair with a mouth like a casino ashtray is not an auspicious sign, especially if one is slated to give a public talk in the middle of said day. But later that afternoon, with an Italian guide by my side, the fair came alive in ways that might have easily escaped the lackadaisical glance-over. (The “glance-over” is the official gesture of all art-fairs, one that casts a specific apathetic spell of lethargy, sore feet, and early afternoon vino bianchi at the upstairs lounge.) Down in the Back to the Future section (just behind the emergers up front), galleries presented exhibitions of historical artists. P420 of Bologna had an array of works by Franco Vaccari that included bits of his 1972 Venice Biennale project—a photo booth in the Giardini—which documented an attractive, early-1970s Italian public (not so distant from the attractive Italian public of 2012 surging through the aisles). In the main section, Piktogram/BLA displayed work by Polish artist Knaf and his various associations, collectives, and ephemera like beautiful broken shards of the Polish underground punk scene of the 1980s.
That rainy night all of Turin ended up at a party at Elisa Sighicelli’s studio. Her husband, collector Ruben Levi, ran by, arms overloaded with a collection of champagne bottles for art folk with wet coats and dry mouths. I climbed up past the smoky terrace where half the party huddled, away from the chilly storm, then back down the stairs and into the streets, which were soaked and empty except for taxis ferrying stragglers back to hotels. Turin is a magical city—at Sighicelli’s a white magic, the following morning a black one. It all depends on which side of the night you find yourself on, the great divide being that moment, senza un centesimo for a cab, that you make the long walk home in the cold fall rain.