Burden of History

Sarah Thornton around Milan


Left: Artist Vanessa Beecroft. Right: Flavio Del Monte, artist Paola Pivi, and curator Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

“We have no museum of contemporary art!” was the refrain of my recent trip to Milan, which began with espresso at the Trussardi Alla Scala Café, a well-air-conditioned bar that acts as a second office for curator Massimiliano Gioni and artists who are working on exhibitions commissioned by the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, such as Paola Pivi. When I asked them how Milan’s art world is different from other art worlds, Pivi responded laterally: “That’s like asking: How is my mother different from other
women?” But Gioni had a theory. A complete lack of public support had resulted in fashion companies opening foundations. “In Italy, we suffer from gerontocrazia—‘government of the old’—so many people are out of date. The word curatore is not recognized by Italian spell-checkers. As an act of modesty, we curators should recognize that our job is new and probably just a fad.”

As I left the cafe, I ran into four impossibly tall, wafer-thin girls and enjoyed a Fellini-esque moment; the models, here to audition for the fashion-week catwalks, looked like circus freaks. Galleria Francesca Kaufmann was a short walk away. In Milan, the rivalry between art and fashion is a delicate subject and most dealers are cagey, but Kaufmann spoke her mind: “Fashion is a secondary art, even though I respect it. Shoes are not going to change your vision of the world.” As if on cue, in teetered Mariuccia Casadio, the art consultant of Vogue Italia, who chose to highlight continuities: “The maximum level of luxury is art. . . . Both are wonderful glossy ghettos.”

Later, I met couturier-friendly dealer Giò Marconi at his gallery in a three-story building that he shares with the fondazione of his father, Giorgio. We talked about the difficulties of exporting work by local artists. The Castello di Rivoli in Turin is a prestigious “bridge to abroad,” but without organizations like the Goethe Institut and the British Council, Italian artists are disadvantaged. Importing foreign art is a different matter because Italians “are travelers, like Christopher Columbus. They’re curious; they buy early.”

Left: Dealers Giorgio and Giò Marconi. Right: Critic Mariuccia Casadio and dealer Francesca Kaufmann.

Milan’s galleries are inconveniently spread out but wonderfully diverse. Set in the back of an eighteenth-century barracks (where Maurizio Cattelan still keeps an apartment), Galleria Emi Fontana was difficult to find. An African guy in a crimson fedora, loitering like an extra in a blaxploitation flick, gave me accurate directions, and I eventually encountered S&M artists John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone installing their show. I admired the couple’s sculptural performance props (which included their carefully crafted pecs) and was treated to a short lecture on their genealogical relationship to Antonin Artaud, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

The following day, Friday, was bound to be frenetico because some thirty galleries were opening shows as part of a cooperative effort called “Start.” Claudio Guenzani was showing Stefano Arienti, a well-respected Italian artist who teaches at academies in Bergamo and Venice. I sat down with Guenzani, and we settled into the topic of Los Angeles. Just as Hollywood dominates LA culture, so even Milanese slobs are highly fashion literate. Unlike LA, however, the art schools here are not validating gatekeepers, and Guenzani looked aghast when I asked him whether dealers in Milan attend degree shows.

I was running late, so the good dealer offered to drop me off at the kitschy Diana Majestic hotel, where I was scheduled to meet artist Francesco Vezzoli. Guenzani handed me a helmet, and, moments later, I was on the back of his motorino, living out a Roman Holiday fantasy.

Left: Artist Chris Burden. Right: Artist Francesco Vezzoli.

Vezzoli looked unexpectedly wholesome, particularly given that he’d just flown in from New York. He let slip that he was about to start work on a documentary funded by Miuccia Prada. “Just imagine me as a slimmer, more glamorous Michael Moore. I want to do a visually over-alluring Kinsey Report—a scientific survey of contemporary sexuality, a film with nail-me-to-the-wall politics and nail-me-to-the-couch images.” After that, we talked about the relevance of the art press, and the famously flattering Vezzoli delivered this gem: “In terms of the way the art world functions today, ‘Scene & Herd’ is the new October.”

My next stop was Vanessa Beecroft’s “South Sudan” show of photographs in which the figures assume classic Christian poses at Galleria Lia Rumma. When I introduced myself, Beecroft immediately took me aside. “My dealer in the US refuses to show this work!” she said stridently. I confirmed that she was referring to Larry Gagosian, then she continued: “Images of black people are too loaded in the US, but this work is based on a true story. I went to the Sudan and nursed three newborn babies in the orphanage. They were malnourished, and I fed them. They thought I was their mother. But my husband said there was no way we could adopt them . . . so I am thinking of leaving him!”

I welcomed the long taxi ride out to the industrial suburbs of Lambrate. Once back on foot, I hooked up with Flavio Del Monte (press officer for the Trussardi Foundation and all-around promoter of art in Milan), then whizzed through a makeshift complex of artists’ projects called Lambretto and a series of good-looking galleries before taking a deep breath in Paolo Zani’s Galleria Zero, a small but special space with wraparound windows and a roof terrace, which featured Jeppe Hein’s uplifting fountain works.

Left: Artists John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone. Right: Artist Jeppe Hein.

Next door, Massimo De Carlo’s bright and airy converted coffee-machine factory offered three solo shows, one of which was the reason I’d flown to Milan: Chris Burden’s first performance-related work in thirty years. Neck-high in water and wearing swimming goggles, there was Burden in a tight close-up, his face six feet wide, reciting a paranoid rant in schoolboy French about the threat of “des chiens sauvages.” Funny and scary, the two-minute video loop was part of a four-room show, which included six of Burden’s famous “LAPD uniforms” from 1993. While standing among the blue suits, Burden explained that the works here didn’t bear the original guns because Italian customs refused to believe, despite much written evidence on museum letterhead, that they were art.

It was time to make our way to an unassuming restaurant called Piero e Pia, where De Carlo was hosting his three-artist dinner for Burden, London-based Ryan Gander, and local star Roberto Cuoghi. De Carlo is a well-known gourmand, and the Italians at my table were excited that it was porcini season. As the night unraveled, Gander talked about “faux conceptual art,” curator Andrea Viliani entertained us with his theory of “the Peter Pan syndrome of the post-Cattelan generation of Italian artists,” and thirty-three-year-old Cuoghi protested, “I'm more like the sick grandfather of Peter Pan!” By the time we stumbled out of the restaurant, I’d concluded that the Milan art world may be small but is actually less provincial than New York or London, not only because everyone is always traveling but because no one is under the illusion that they occupy the center.

Left: Artist Ryan Gander. Right: Dealer Massimo De Carlo, Roberto Cuoghi, and Ludovica Barbieri.

Left: Dealer Claudio Guenzani. Right: Collectors Paolo and Cicci Consolandi.

Left: Curator Andrea Viliani and designer Alessandra Ricotti. Right: Curator Alessandro Rabottini, MART Communications director Flavia Fossa Margutti, and Galleria Zero owner Paolo Zani.

Left: Critic Francesco Stocchi and artist Elisabetta Benassi Bettagol. Right: Architect Tiziano Vudafieri and Pucci CEO Catherine Vautrin.