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The Museum Threshold, 2011

Text by Maria Vittoria Marini Clarelli for Steps, GNAM, Rome 2011

The Museum Threshold

Each museum, in its own unique way, is a microcosm. As Adalgisa Lugli puts it: “As we enter, the threshold we cross represents a boundary. What exists on the other side is a kind of reverse image world.”1 All those who are involved in museum work have had experience with these limes or boundaries which, from the viewpoint of the collection, coincide with the dividing line between the aspects of daily life outside the museum and the objects on show inside. From the viewpoint of the public it marks the change in atmosphere that the visitor feels on entering the space. Certain museums emphasize the approach to the threshold by locating it at the end of a defined route (a stairway, a pronaos, an approach walkway), while others minimize the effect by making the crossing over almost unnoticeable. For example, this is the first difference a visitor perceives between entering the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which Arthur Danto compared, linking the theme of access to that of the accentuation or dispersion of the aura.2
The entrance to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna is also accessed by an imposing staircase, but over time, the act of crossing the threshold was reduced to transit through bureaucratic barriers of ticket desks and metal detectors. We decided to recover this sense of boundary in 2011 for the centenary of the building designed by Cesare Bazzani, when the permanent exhibition area of the museum was rearranged and renovated. The reason for the change was not an anachronistic return to the model of the museum as a temple, although it reflects the architectural features, but rather the need to announce immediately to visitors that this was a different space: a device or artifice in a positive sense but which formed a separation from the external daily existence all the same. In addition it was necessary to make the dual nature of the Gallery immediately obvious at the entrance, showing its modern contemporary character and its strongly intrinsic Italian identity.
For this reason we searched for a site-specific work that would represent all these aspects, creating a link with the architecture of Bazzani in the most characteristic space – the entrance hall, which was originally called a ceremonial entrance, separated from the atrium and the central exhibition space respectively by two colonnades, and whose side windows overlook two courtyards designed as sculpture gardens. And in fact, the poetics of Alfredo Pirri create a constant dialogue with the surrounding architecture. “The relationship with physical space is identical to the relationship with imaginary space,” he commented in 2008. “What interests me is not the image of the space in itself so much as the story that it tells. I am interested in discovering something meaningful in the space which in that specific moment coincides with some suggestive aspect of the work so that together both the work of art and the space contribute to the narrative I mentioned.”3 With his work Steps, the artist also incorporated the architectural aspect directly connected with the concept of the threshold. He used the concept of flooring which he had previously worked on for his finalist project for the MAXXI atrium, converting it from a temporary exhibition piece to a permanent structure, by changing the action of shattering the mirrors as performance art, to fractured mirrors created through thermal shock in a laboratory.
The mirror is an ambivalent symbol, as often shown in the two contrasting allegories in traditional iconography representing both Vanitas and Veritas (vanity and truth). In this case, ambivalence also exists in the symbol of the fractured mirror, which has a traditionally negative connotation in that the subject is shattered together with the reflected image, while acquiring a positive significance by facing and overcoming superstition. Mirrors have always been key symbols in art down the centuries, including contemporary and Italian art, but the mirrors that Pirri has shattered on the threshold of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna assume the intrinsic quality of the metaphor which, quoting Aristotle, Danto describes as “connecting two ordinary things in an extraordinary manner”.4
It is hard to determine whether it is admiration, superstition or the patently obvious metaphor (or perhaps the combination of all three) that draws visitors (some more than others) to the brink of this threshold, which Pirri explains on an illustrative panel: “Crossing the threshold is a ceremony that accentuates the perception of an illusory dimensional and temporal space but which is also radically and intimately physical at the same time. With this work I wish to give visitors the impression that moving within this space they are able to change their vision through the simultaneous dual action of demolishing and rebuilding the image.”
It is similar to walking on the waters that mythical legend places as a separation between sky and earth (firmament), or the boundary between our world and the underworld (Lake Avernus); waters that have solidified but that already show the cracks created by steps before our own. Others who have crossed this surface before us and seem to have shattered the nineteenth-century statues, tumbled from their pedestals, which Pirri chose from the Gallery’s vast selection of late nineteenth-century works and spread over the mirrored surface. The visitor share their space but his experience is totally personal and individual – as described by the artist: “It makes him feel that he has become the subject of the work, and in seeing his own reflection upside-down he is able to feel the infinitesimal space like a second skin which links and separates him from his own image, leading him to naturally become a part in the same way he is part of the world around him.”
In the second stage of the lengthy design project, Pirri had proposed extending Steps 2011 out through the French windows leading to the Roman and Saturnalian courtyards with two covered walkways like enclosed boxes, to permit a transition without temperature change. This would have connected the interior with the exterior and the sculptures in both areas, magnificent examples of Italian nineteenth-century sculpture. The project was not completed for financial reasons, but has not been permanently excluded.
On the evening of the inauguration of the Museum restructure, Steps 2011 was complemented with a soundtrack created by Paolo Modugno composed of recordings of glass being shattered under thermal shock. We debated whether to maintain the short-lived effect transmitted during the initial Steps exhibition, where the mirrors were shattered underfoot by visitors as they crossed the surface, or to consider the recorded soundtrack as an optional accompaniment, similar to the rotated positioning of Canova’s Hercules which provides an exceptional opportunity to view the group statue from a wide variety of angles. We decided on the second solution, not only for practical reasons, but also because of the dual significance of the new name of the space where the work is on show: both the normal individual entrance into the museum as well as the threshold for group events during special celebrations. One of these occasions will be the presentation of this volume.

Maria Vittoria Marini Clarelli

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