“La ville, le jardin, la mémoire”

From time immemorial, the Via Medici has been the site of the French Academy in Rome, and its year-long residencies attract artists from all over France. Although the academy hosts temporary shows, the Villa Medici has never been wholly open to the public; but now, the three-part exhibition project “La ville, le jardin, la mémoire,” will accomplish just that (the first of the three yearly, summer-long segments, “La ville,” ended its run this August). Curated by Laurence Bossé, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the exhibition boasted an international roster of artists including the pensionnaires (artists-in-residence), as well as architects, actors, directors, and so on.

La ville” gave the public an opportunity to roam both the villa’s rooms and its magnificent garden; the show was, in fact, themed around the relationship between the garden and the surrounding urban space. Architect Anne-Mie Depuydt replaced the entryway’s potted plants with pots of artichokes, a reference to the ancient custom of cultivating edible plants alongside decorative ones, and Olafur Eliasson constructed a mirror-enhanced kaleidoscopic well, providing vertiginous views of both the garden and the viewers’ own faces. At the exhibition’s opening, Lucius Burckhardt offered itineraries for a walking tour of Rome’s most quotidian, least touristic sites.

Inside the villa, one could see photographs by Cesare Viel, who contorts his body into positions meant to represent different states of mind; in another room, Peter Fischli and David Weiss projected superimposed images of plants and flowers. Cai Guo Qiang’s small oil paintings of the Villa Medici and of Rome, executed in a traditional, naive style, were accompanied by somewhat alarming videos of gunpowder and explosions.

Two of the most arresting pieces in the exhibition were by Kay Hassan and Bruna Esposito. Hassan, a South African artist, used slides and a sound track to reconstruct a Shebeen, a secret meeting place run by black women under apartheid. Esposito’s sensual installation highlighted the music of Stefano Maria Longobardi; bowls of fragrant essences treated listeners to a kind of aromatherapy.

Three artists’ exhibits stood out from the crowd. Michelangelo Pistoletto reworked his preexisting installation in the villa. He had filled a room overlooking the garden with large, black, geometric shapes and then piped in traffic noise. In the new version, the door to the room was closed, the installation visible only through a crack in the door made by the outstretched hand of a statue.

Annette Messager provided a sculptural grouping of the children of Niobe; the subjects’ flight (from the arrows of Apollo) was impeded by a subtle grid of black thread. This grid was connected by another, very long thread to a hilltop tempietto in the garden, so that the visitor was led to it, guided along the garden paths. The tempietto was fashioned as the meeting place of two lovers, and visitors could glimpse, half-hidden in hillside vegetation, letters that had been exchanged between them.

Eva Marisaldi occupied a frescoed room once used by Ferdinando de’ Medici for his amorous trysts. The walls and ceiling were covered with images of animals and flowers; the artist perfumed the room with pheromones and then released hundreds of real butterflies into it—a veritable erotic trap. Amid the butterflies’ inevitable dance of love, among oriental-style cushions and carpets, a video featured a man pursued, in open countryside, by computerized images of butterflies—a play on virtuality and reality echoing that of the frescoes and butterflies.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from the Italian Marguerite Shore.