To Be Continua

San Gimignano, Italy

Left: Artist Nedko Solakov and dealer Maurizio Rigillo. Right: Artist Daniel Buren and Jérôme Sans, director of the UCCA. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

THE WEEKEND BEFORE LAST, a massive crowd of art-world denizens made the ascent to the Italian hill town of San Gimignano by plane, train, bus, and auto for the opening of five solo exhibitions at Galleria Continua: Berlinde De Bruyckere, Luca Pancrazzi, Arcangelo Sassolino, Nedko Solakov, and Chen Zhen. The tranquil Tuscan town, once a medieval Manhattan with one hundred towers signaling familial power, is the somewhat surreal site of the internationally prominent gallery. If you didn’t know it was there, you might pass right by its discreet door on the cobblestone street to enter the Museum of Torture
 and Medieval Criminology next door, mistaking it for one of the tourist shops that sell paintings of landscapes and sunflowers. The gallery’s three young directors, Mario Cristiani, Lorenzo Fiaschi, and Maurizio Rigillo, have been very effective in getting artizens to make the trip by having their mothers serve heaving buffets of Tuscan fare, often in and around installations, in the cavernous ex-cinema space.

Even so, European storms and strikes farther north prevented prominent curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Hou Hanru, Udo Kittelmann, and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev from attending a meeting of the “scientific committee” to discuss a future Chen Zhen catalogue raisonné, which took place that afternoon in the dollhouselike Teatro dei Leggieri. The panel included the ubiquitous Fiaschi; P.S. 1’s Tony Guerrero; Jérôme Sans, director of the UCCA in Beijing; Palais de Tokyo’s Olivier Kaeppelin; artist Daniel Buren; and Chen’s widow, Xu Min. (The intrepid Obrist—who rarely lets anything get in the way of traveling—participated as a ghostly apparition projected on a screen, until the technology broke down and he disappeared with a comically abrupt blip.) The rambling discussion, in French, went from debating the merits of realizing posthumous installations to Guerrero’s memories of the Chinese artist gathering cow dung in the French countryside as a mode of direct contact with the environment. “He used natural materials,” Xu emphasized.

“No pun intended,” the US Embassy’s Elizabeth Petrovski quipped as we left the theater, “but it was getting pretty deep.” Arriving at the gallery, we went straight into Pancrazzi’s all-white Temporundum Continuo, a maze of corridors full of clocks with faces obscured by broken glass (and sound installations by Steve Piccolo at each end). Halfway through, I found Julia Draganovic and Steven Music, founder of the Premio Celeste art prize, who blithely noted that the organizers “did well to get all of these people here for a conference on a book that does not exist!”

Left: Curator Lorenzo Bruni with artists Christian Jankowski and Jorinde Voigt. Right: Hauser & Wirth's Sara Harrison, Pinault Foundation curator Caroline Bourgeois, and dealer Lorenzo Fiaschi.

Emerging onto the balcony of the former theater, I looked down on Sassolino’s Aphasia 1 and jumped out of my skin as a glass bottle hit a steel plate at 900 kph. “At the Palais de Tokyo, it was the most democratizing experience to see the chichi fashionistas and punk rockers shit their pants all at once,” the artist’s Berlin dealer, Aaron Moulton, commented. I noticed some spectators below, including US cultural attaché David Mees, scampering away from the chain-link fence, and remarked on the fitting proximity of the neighboring medieval-torture museum. (One of the choice displays is a barrel that held excrement, in which the victim was to slowly rot.) “And here we have the metronome of terror,” Moulton added.

We set out for a quick breather and a drink on the piazza along with Pinault Collection curator Caroline Bourgeois and Guerrero, who reported that he was “on vacation.” By the time we returned to the gallery, the intoxicating perfume of wild-boar stew and warm Tuscan bread salad was emanating from the kitchen, and a mob was waiting to descend for dinner. People ate wherever they could around Sassolino’s shooting-bottle compound (now turned off), sitting either at tables or on the steps leading up to the stage. I, however, could not get my mind off the artist’s Aphasia 2, a sealed steel capsule onstage holding nitrogen pressurized to 250 bar, which I imagined could explode at any moment.

Left: Steve Piccolo, curator Oxana Maleeva, and artists Elena El Asmar and Luca Pancrazzi. Right: Delphine Randet at Teatro dei Leggieri.

As usual, Cristiani was one of the first on the dance floor, jumping up and down in his singular pogo dancing style. I noticed that the DJ stood right next to the ominously silent capsule, but nobody else seemed to care, many of them up onstage waving their hands in the air. Talking about the remarkable success the gallery has achieved from its base in the middle of nowhere, artist Arthur Duff, who resides in equally picturesque Venice, commented on the impossibility of reproducing such a model. We were standing at the wine table, in front of a large, breathing PVC lung by Sassolino that had stopped. Solakov mentioned that he is afraid of flying, so he had driven all the way from Sofia, which took two days and a night in Zagreb.

When we left, well after midnight, the streets were completely silent and all the shutters closed. We walked through a long covered passageway to look beyond the city walls, where only the muted chirping of birds could be heard, before making our way back to our rooms. The next day, we did not hit the streets to get our first coffee until noon. We asked the local barista whether he had heard the racket coming from the gallery the night before. He looked at us mirthfully: “You did well to stir up some action in this dead town.”

Cathryn Drake

Left: Dealer Mario Cristiani and artist Berlinde De Bruyckere. Right: Xu Min with P.S. 1's Tony Guerrero.

Left: CNAP director Richard Lagrange and Le Moulin's Mylène Ferrand. Right: Art adviser Francesca Ferrarini, artist Arcangelo Sassolino, dealer Massimo Minini.