First Family

Bologna, Italy

Left: Artists Christian Jankowski and Rainer Ganahl, dealer Enrico Astuni, and curator Lorenzo Bruni. Right: “Art First” curator Julia Draganovic and curator Lorand Hegyi. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)

NEITHER RAIN NOR SNOW, Italian economic crisis nor Egyptian revolution, could stop Bologna’s Arte Fiera, the biggest and oldest art fair in Italy, from opening its thirty-fifth edition on the last Thursday of January. Clutches of elegantly dressed collectors chatted cheerfully in the expansive aisles of the city’s exhibition center, giving it the familial atmosphere of a reunion rather than a marketplace. Neapolitans seemed to have the majority, among them Aurelio De Laurentiis, nephew of film producer Dino and chairman of the SSC Napoli football team. A former resident offered a possible explanation for scheduling the fair in the cold of winter: “I hear it takes place early in the year because it is the perfect way to launder money just before tax season.” Young Roman collector Lorenzo Mancini added, “Exactly: You spend it on art, it becomes clean, and you get a blessing from the church.”

Artist Rainer Ganahl, whose video and bike were displayed at the RAM (Radio Arte Mobile) stand, was getting in on the action too: He begged his Bolognese gallery to give him cash so he could buy a Lucio Fontana—but alas, it was sold before he got back to the dealer. The healthy sales seemed to reflect Italy’s robust private wealth and cash economy, which in spite of its grave public debt proportions have so far saved it from the fate of Greece or Spain. Hence the bella figura reigns also in terms of the nation, if not in the antics of its prime minister.

Left: Vittorio Sgarbi, curator of the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (left). Right: Curator Lorenzo Bruni and artist Matteo Rubbi, winner of the Furla prize.

Every year after the evening preview there is the same scuffle of fairgoers over the rare taxi to get downtown. I hitched a ride to Spazio Carbonesi, in the gutted Palazzo Zambeccari, where an elegant box dinner was being served among the installations of “Svoboda,” an atmospheric exhibition of Russian artists both established and emerging. Standing next to Alexander Brodsky’s shadowy installation, confined behind a big chain-link fence, curator Daria Khan said, “It is about the irony that repression actually inspires creativity.” Curator Andrei Erofeev talked about his attempt to discuss censorship in Russia in the form of the 2007 exhibition “Forbidden Art,” at Moscow’s Sakharov Center, over which he lost his job and was hauled into court: “Even in communist times people did not get prosecuted for this sort of thing,” he complained. As if on cue, Vittorio Sgarbi, renowned ladies’ man and controversial curator of the Italian pavilion for the 2011 Venice Biennale, rushed breathlessly in the door. He had been fired from his position as Milan’s cultural advisor in 2008, not long after an irreverent exhibition he organized on “homosexual” art—“Vade retro” (Latin for “get thee behind”)—was shut down by the mayor the day after it opened.

Bologna is an architecturally introverted city, with rich interiors and courtyards concealed by plain facades and arcaded walkways. The yearly initiative “Art First,” curated by Julia Draganovic, pierces the staid exterior by inserting exhibitions and performances into various historic buildings and museums. The next morning I joined in on a tour with Draganovic, starting with Antony Gormley’s rusting cubist statue Feeling Material in a courtyard of the Archiginnasio Palace. “It looks like the Thing from the Fantastic Four,” artist Cristian Savini noted. It was oddly both that and a perfect meld of color and sentiment with the seemingly forgotten garden and its sixteenth-century fresco. Next we marched on to “In Search of . . . ,” an excellent show of Matthew Day Jackson’s work curated by Gianfranco Maraniello at the MAMbo. Death, destruction, and spirituality were major tropes, including portraits of the artist “dead” and the ingenious memento mori The Way We Were, a series of metal skulls that devolve gorgeously into their geometric abstraction and then finally a pyramid.

Left: Curator Andrei Erofeev, artist Christian Boltanski, and curator Laura Barreca. Right: Germano Celant (right) with family.

That evening the soaring ballroom of Palazzo Pepoli was packed with a boisterous crowd toasting the Furla Prize. The exhibition of young Italian contenders snaked through various elegant rooms and included deconstructed furniture by Francesco Arena. I caught the artist Matteo Rubbi in a Herculean struggle to move a detached wall into a seemingly random position, the action more important than the result, before he went downstairs to claim first prize. “He forced me to perform with him once,” artist Helidon Gjergji said. “I had to play Jack in a reenactment of an episode of Lost.” I ran into jury member Christian Boltanski, who was just back from Australia; everything that happens in his studio for the rest of his life is being transmitted by video to Tasmania’s recently unveiled Museum of Old and New Art, “even when I am picking my nose or not there,” he said. “They are paying me a monthly fee for that.” A posse followed curator Lorenzo Bruni to Bolognese dealer Enrico Astuni’s house and continued the revelry with a feast. Then those with energy to spare went on to Cassero club, where the scene was hallucinogenic: Everybody was dressed as a Super Mario Bros. character, jumping around and bouncing off the walls.

The next day, after perhaps an hour of trawling the fair’s three massive pavilions, exhaustion from sensory overload set in: “We only have two hundred more galleries to go,” my companion said wearily. In the first pavilion, featuring both modern and contemporary art, a crowd dressed in formal black was cooing tenderly over Patricia Piccinini’s Litter, an installation of tender piglike babies, at Verona’s FaMa gallery: “Madonna mia, they are sleeping!” exclaimed one man. On the other side of a long hallway and the VIP lounge, we stopped at Neapolitan Alfonso Artiaco’s stand, devoted entirely to Gilbert & George’s “Postcards” of London sights or escort services dizzyingly “arranged to form an angulated version of the sign of the urethra”—basically a square instead of a circle around a single dot. “Genius!” a man exclaimed as he walked past the dealer. The best place to have a stand seemed to be at the end near the champagne bar, where Athens gallery Kalfayan moved this year. “Cultivating our relationship with Italian collectors has made it completely different,” Arsen Kalfayan reported. “We placed works by Antonis Donef, Hrair Sarkissian, and young artist Rania Bellou with important Italian collectors.” Indeed, Bologna is the place where Italians buy, so if you can talk the talk—lots of it—you are in like Flynn. On the way out we were perked up by an uncanny Berlusconi figure peering out of a can, a sculpture by Jota Castro displayed at Massimo Minini. “It looks too natural to be Mister B—he has no makeup on!” Lorenzo Mancini exclaimed.

Left: Dealer Memmo Grilli and artist Sissi. Right: Dealer Ferran Cano and artist José Cobo.

Another palace, another party: After lunch the crowd grew beyond critical mass, and it was nearly impossible to walk, so we fled to get sustenance at the annual open house hosted by collectors Marino and Paola Golinelli. We found what we needed to fortify ourselves: every possible form of chocolate, to be eaten either under a Sissi nest sculpture or next to an unsettling depiction of hell by Entang Wiharso. A Jeff Koons ceramic Puppy peered down reassuringly from the top of a wall opposite. By the time we got our fill it was nearly impossible to move, as the crowds we had escaped at the art fair seemed to have moved en masse to the party. We forced our way outside, where a Berlusconi rally had all of ten people. They were either brave or crazy to be supporting the prime minister in Bologna, a socialist bastion in Italy’s red zone, complete with a left-leaning tower. It was by far the strangest performance of the weekend.

Cathryn Drake

Left: Dealers Maurizio Rigillo and Mario Cristiani. Right: Collector Alain Servais.

Left: Dealer Anita Beckers and curator Claudia Löffelholz. Right: Dealer Edward Cutler and Ed Spurr of Matthew Marks.

Left: Curator Manon Slome and artist Maria José Arjona. Right: Artists Fritz Haeg and Marco Raparelli.