Pluses and Minuses


Left: Curator Francesco Bonami. Right: Collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and curator Ludovico Pratesi. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

STILL LINED with ominous black hooks that once carried meat carcasses, the gargantuan Roman ex-slaughterhouse that hosts MACRO Future seemed almost cozy on December 17, the opening day of “Plus Ultra,” a selection of works from Turin’s Sandretto Re Rebaudengo collection curated by Francesco Bonami. “There has been a mistake—we are in Moscow, not Rome!” collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo sighed, clutching at her snappy red coat as she exited the press preview. But things haven’t seemed too normal in Rome lately: Violent demonstrations against Prime Minister Berlusconi had destroyed the city center a few days earlier, with unusually frigid weather only adding further cause for complaint in the beleaguered country.

After entering the main gate, visitors to “Plus Ultra” can choose to go left or right, into one of the two cavernous spaces; I chose the dark side. Immediately on the left, I found Paweł Althamer’s sickly Self-Portrait, mortality detailed gruesomely in organic materials, next to Charles Ray’s paranoid Viral Research, a table full of interconnecting laboratory beakers flowing with black liquid. Camped out in the middle of the hall, Jon Kessler’s black-tented Kessler’s Circus used various screens to depict terror trumped up as entertainment and the viewers, in turn, as victims of our own invasive surveillance. There was no respite: At the far end, past a Robert Kusmirowski environment showing an enclosed, obsolete recording studio, was Damien Hirst’s The Acquired Inability to Escape, Inverted and Divided—evoking the crystalline claustrophobia of the modernist glass box. There I cornered Bonami and asked him what was with all the bleakness. He reassured me that levity was to be found in the opposite space, explaining, “It is about black and white, light and dark, with pieces we can’t show normally and some new ones.”

Left: Artists Maura Biavia and Helidon Gjergji. Right: Critic Alessandra Mammi and MACRO director Luca Massimo Barbero.

Meanwhile the Romans were enjoying an unusual whiteness outside. As I exited the exhibition, a steady snowfall was coating the street, workmen were stopping to take photos, and horse carriages were galloping past toward the slaughterhouse to take cover in the stables. That evening was the opening party, as the inclement weather changed from white to wet. Romans generally do not go out in the rain, so the crowd resembled an exclusive event for local curators, critics, collectors, and dealers along with a few dedicated artists who made the trek down the hill and across the river from the American Academy. The only artist in the exhibition to show up was João Onofre, who had come in from Lisbon. “There is no such thing as bad weather for good art!” Albanian artist Helidon Gjergji said, somewhat facetiously.

We gathered in the other exhibition space, the right side, which was certainly more vivid and whimsical—like a scary fairy tale. “The exhibition is made of rich pieces that are impoverished by the horrific spaces,” architect Francesco Garofalo groused. The venue does tend to dwarf most anything, but here it seemed like a match made in heaven, or maybe hell: a space too big to fill and installations too big to show most anywhere else. Just inside the entrance hung Sarah Lucas’s monster-size Egg, painted with a man, reclining in a chair, whose face is obscured uninvitingly by his shoe sole; Tobias Rehberger’s fifteen glass flower vases, actually portraits of other artists, marched single file down the middle of the gallery; and at the far end was Angela Bulloch’s Superstructure with Satellites, a gigantic brightly colored sofa.

Left: MAXXI curator Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, dealer Mauro Nicoletti, and Venice Biennale architect Manuela Lucà-Dazio. Right: Artists Fritz Haeg and Gilles Rotzetter.

The blown-out-of-scale artworks, many of them reminiscent of common domestic items, made the show seem like a household gone haywire. When I mentioned this idea to MACRO director Luca Massimo Barbero, he looked around and said, “Yeah, we need a bathtub!” He was standing in front of Piotr Uklański’s Untitled (Monster), which looks like a granny’s knitting basket as perceived by a paranoid schizophrenic. Enough of my hallucinations: Whatever the conceit of the exhibition was, it did not much matter. “This is the best show I’ve ever seen here; it interacts well with the space,” curator Cristiana Perrella said. The nicely paced installations, only thirty-eight between the two pavilions, conversed well both visually and thematically, and had room to breathe on their own.

Cocktails were served under the garish lights of the former pig-peeling facility, along with snacks adapted to tiny little translucent boxes that made sweet and salty impossible to differentiate until tasted. “What a collection! It's hard to believe that a private individual can possess that level of art,” Sala Uno director Mary Angela Schroth raved. Indeed, what the show really highlights is that Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is arguably the best collector in Italy, not only because of what she chooses, an original mix of Italian and international artists both famous and emerging, but because of how valiantly she strives to get it all out there, taking up the slack in the public funding gap with such initiatives as the recently established FACE, a cooperative of five European nonprofits that are pooling their resources for joint exhibitions. (Rome’s other public contemporary art institution, MAXXI, is making up for the lack of a collection equal to the grandeur of its new building with donations from private collectors.) As I spoke with Emilio Re Rebaudengo, a well-dressed woman came by and said, “Good-bye, lucky boy!” Maybe she’d seen his Astroturf football court, which mixes well with the art installations at the family’s home in Turin.

Cathryn Drake