Whitehot MAY 2008 - by Iggy Cortez



For Progetto per l'Ara Pacis to eclipse, however briefly, the interminable chatter over Gagosian Gallery's presence in the Italian capital has been no small feat. The Ara Pacis Museum, a sleek modernist building recently designed by Richard Meier, is known primarily as the site for Emperor Augustus' first century AD altar of peace, but its ample spaces make it an ideal venue for many future projects. The institution has wisely enlisted the legendary Italian curator Achille Bonito Oliva, alongside James Putnam and Federica Pirani, for their first foray into contemporary art that reunites the Italian sculptor Mimmo Palladino and the British musician, composer and sound-artist Brian Eno after 1999's I Dormienti, their first collaborative project in London. Palladino may not possess as high an international profile as some of his compatriot contemporaries, but his status in Italy is canonical. Brian Eno, on the contrary, is renowned for an international career that has successfully married avant-garde experimentation with mainstream rock appeal. For sheer press release impact, no trinity could be more perfect: Palladino drawing loyalists of Italian art, Eno adding international luster and crossover celebrity and Oliva bestowing intellectual authority and curatorial pedigree.

But for all its publicity savvy, so often a harbinger for overstated, mediocre spectacles, the Eno-Palladino collaboration is a surprisingly high-minded, serious and enjoyable affair. The artists deliberately aim to transform this exhibit of different mediums into an ecstatic space outside of normalcy, set apart from the first century altar of peace in the museum's sunlit atrium. A series of arresting, if sober, installations are mounted in the shadowy, underground spaces of the museum, where Eno's eerie score, pierced by looping cries and nature sounds from stereos set against the wall, enhance the space's sepulchral air. The disjunction with the museum's central space where the altar for peace is encased is loaded with symbolism: as one descends to see the exhibit, they leave an air of celebration and rhetorical peace to enter one of mourning for twenty-first century warfare. From the epitome of the ancient and monumental we move to the contemporary obsession with the unmonumental.

Eno's suggestive, otherworldly music seems to stretch time, as Palladino's enigmatic installations destabilise our sense of space and orientation. Like Alices in Wonderland, we are placed in a foreign land in which our increasing sense of unease is matched only by our growing curiosity to explore and to attempt to decipher the "foreign tongue" of artworks presented with no labels or context, but whose sense of foreboding and sorrow is unequivocal.

On closer inspection, the bronze sculptures tacked on the breadth of one wall reveal themselves to be wooden shoes pecked by metallic birds, introducing a trope that recurs throughout the exhibit: abandoned objects that indicate their proprietors' absence but are mute on their fate. A metallic top hat wedged between the thin twigs of a branch stretching inexplicably from a white wall was the most sinister, yet memorable, instance of evoking humanity through its absence: will its owner return to claim it? Or does it portend sinister things to come?

The branch emerges from a little house at the centre of the exhibition space, its entrance painted in constructivist-style geometric red patterns that play with the idea of painted negative space - what would otherwise be a generic cliché in another context, is here put to effective use. As our mind plays the age-old game of wondering whether the red is framing the white or vice versa, we are not so subtly reminded about the appearance of things in this underworld not being as they seem. Inside the inner cell, another branch stretches from a faceless humanoid figure - the barren twigs seductively extending from the space of the sculpture to that inhabited by real people, leading to a final room where a mysterious portrait of the back of a woman's head, painted around an ageing geometric ruler, is centered inside an eccentric grid of speakers like a sort of large-scale Joseph Cornell.

An installation called Treno dominates most of the exhibit, a long grid of steel shelves and scaffolding displaying sculptures and fragments: random numbers, shards of broken terracotta pots, clay hands, death-masks and faux archaeological finds. Most disturbingly, human figures in agonised fetal positions lay in random order on the shelves. The figures bring to mind the human plaster casts that can be seen in Pompeii, but in this post-modern sculpture of allusions to Italian history, ancient and contemporary, they are a gesture towards a universal sense of victimhood, as the title of the piece seems to allude to the train of history, built on the blood and destruction of the vanquished, and more literally, a train that brought Jews to concentration camps.

Reading about Eno's musical project before seeing the show rendered the musician's intentions more interesting than the outcome. Each stereo set against the wall played a different soundtrack of noises set to "random play" so that the permutations of sounds - at turns evoking nature, at turns mechanical groans - was never repeated. Other sounds were emitted by eccentric speakers throughout the exhibit - spindle-thin trumpet-shaped flowers sprouting from the ground or Malevich-like squares suspended from the ceiling. But while the droning ambience of Eno's composition was certainly ideal for Palladino's bleak sculptures - particularly those of backless humanoid relics, leaning on one wall of the museum, like men in mourning or prayer - it was ultimately in the vein of the generic electronica in countless contemporary art exhibits: hardly fodder to build a collaboration around.

Nonetheless, Eno's soundscape created an atmosphere appropriate for installations that are disquieting, enigmatic yet strangely playful. Ironically for a collaborative piece, the show was not a revealing showcase of Eno's career, but it beautifully distilled how Palladino's works are both deeply Italian and International in outlook and influence. They play on phenomelogical experience, as we are impelled to experience them in space, reminding us of how our sense of gravity and weight determines our perception - a conception of sculpture that emerges from the predominantly American minimalist and post-minimalist traditions. But the installations are also theatrical, fantastical, otherworldly - a sensibility that runs throughout the long history of Italian art. They bring to mind an abandoned set for a surrealist film or a network of rebuses and vague allusions that beg to be deciphered so they may correspond to the real-world context outside the narrative. The Ara Pacis' decision to follow their lavish, eminently enjoyable Valentino retrospective with an accessible show that still acknowledges the bleak times we are living in is audacious and laudable, showing that different forms of cultural enjoyment - from the extravagant to the political and contemplative - are not only possible but warranted in a city that is rapidly waking up to contemporary art.