San Gimignano

Arte all'Arte 9

Associazione Arte Continua

One of the best contemporary art galleries in Italy is in a most unlikely place, the Tuscan town of San Gimignano. Easily missed on a main thoroughfare teeming with tourists, Galleria Continua might seem emblematic of a country too steeped in its impressive past to cultivate an internationally relevant contemporary art scene. But for the past decade the Associazione Arte Continua has turned the issue on its head by commissioning important international and Italian artists to create installations that recycle, enliven, and interact with historic sites in six Tuscan towns. Some of the artworks from each annual Arte all’Arte—including this year’s “La forma delle nuvole: arte architettura paesaggio” (“The Shape of the Clouds: Art Architecture Landscape”)—remain as part of an ever-growing itinerary of contemporary art interrelating with the region’s historic architecture, landscape, and gastronomy. It is refreshing to encounter thought-provoking contemporary works in these quaint settings—for example, Mimmo Paladino’s The Sleepers, 2000, a group of bronze humans and crocodiles lying in the bottom of the thirteenth-century Fountain of the Fairies in the town of Poggibonsi. With the installation this year of Joseph Kosuth’s The Chair in Front of the Door, 1999, the total was brought to twenty permanent works.

Massimo Bartolini added a surreal aspect to an olive grove below San Gimignano’s Montestaffoli fortress: a wave, yellowish with mud, sloshed back and forth in a bright blue rectangular pool with a sapling in the center. In contrast to the violent movement of the water—perhaps the fury of time passing—the slender tree remained still and seemingly detached, existing at its own tempo. At the very bottom of the town’s steep hill, in an arched medieval fountain, lay Luisa Rabbia’s Il reposo del tempo (The Rest of Time), 2004, a mosaic of a reclining Father Time surrounded by moss that continues to grow on the wall of the dark chamber.

In the wine-producing town of Montalcino, Norwegian artist Per Barclay filled the deconsecrated church of San Francesco with a giant transparent tube flowing with red wine. The simple industrial materials were oddly harmonious with the decadent, white, Baroque interior, in which only a few ruined paintings remain. The tube rose up to the ceiling in an arch that framed a large wooden crucifix, then fell to form an enormous coil filling the center of the floor. The gurgling of the wine, heard with the ear flush against the tube, powerfully evoked blood coursing through a vein. Wine collected at the entrance in a wooden barrel—a sort of “baptismal font,” as Achille Bonita Oliva put it in his catalogue essay.

In Lucy Orta’s sequence of installations in Buonconvento, the past inspired utopian visions. Connector Body Architecture, 2004—two chains of colorful hooded garments printed with words like exchange and collective—referred to the interdependence of the community, echoing the traditional Tuscan banners that signal social bonds among neighborhood associations. In the town’s museum of sacred art, the artist’s delicate crystal forms, placed in a steel cradle in front of a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation and inserted into black steel silhouettes of iconic Tuscan buildings, suggested the infinite architectural possibilities inherent in the most fundamental architectural form, the biological cell. Also in the museum, Orta’s Tower of Dreams, 2004, comprises steel shelves supporting human forms in sleeping bags; visitors were invited to write their dreams of utopia on small strips of paper, insert them into glass tubes, and place them on the mirrored bottom of the structure to be reflected in multiple. Thus this ninth edition of the exhibition, curated by Bonito Oliva with the British Museum’s James Putnam, brought the historical continuum beyond the present and into the future.

Cathryn Drake