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When Art Invents a Piece of City

Interview by Teresa Macrì, published in ‘Il Manifesto’, 31st July 2011, Rome

Piazza is the title of the Alfredo Pirri’s site-specific work inaugurated recently at the new Museo Archeologico della Magna Grecia in Reggio Calabria. It is a sophisticatedly discreet piece which he has designed ad hoc for the new internal courtyard of the Museum, and it is a work which fits perfectly within the structure of the Palazzo Piacentini and which ‘melts’ exemplarily into the solutions adopted by Studio ABDR (Arlotti, Baccu, Desideri, Raimondi) for the restoration and enlargement of the building – a restoration which began in 2009 and which (unbelievably, given the lengthy processes which tend to take place in Italy) is due to open in September 2011.
This ambitious project, the vastest and most prestigious to have taken place in Southern Italy this far, owes its smooth realisation to the strong collaboration which occurred between the Studio, the artist, the area and its Regional Administration, notably thanks to the director, architect Francesco Prosperetti. The project forms part of the programme for the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Italian Unification.

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Let’s start with the name of the permanent piece you have made for the Museum, Piazza: what inspirations and meanings lie behind the title?

The title reflects the aims of the work I’ve just completed for the New Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria: it reflects the spirit I wanted to underline. With this title, I want to perform a foundational, civic operation, in the widest sense of these words. The piece, which is in conversation with the architecture of the building as well as with the urban space outside, creates a new piazza, a piece of city which wasn’t there before. A space which is open to everybody, so it’s much more than the courtyard of a building used for exhibition and conservation, which is all it was before. The idea was to gift the community with a spatiality and a luminosity achieved through art and architecture, and as such to also donate a breath which wasn’t there. This new place is at the same time a square and a stage – you can walk around, or you can stay still, or you can watch and, sometimes, you may be able to ‘catch the show’, and see three curtains which almost miraculously are lifted up to reveal, as if it were a theatre, the true protagonists of this mise en scène, the three ‘jewels’ held by the museum: the two sculptures known affectionately as the Riace Bronzes and the Head of a Philosopher.

How is the site-specific work Piazza in conversation with the original Palazzo Piacentino and with Studio ABDR’s restoration project?

Right from the beginning of the project I never saw my work as something which would be superimposed onto the architecture, but as something which is in dialogue with the architecture, so I attempted an integration between the two to the point of mimesis, in the most radical and authentic meaning of the term: something which manifests itself in ‘continuity’, which lives in harmony with the subject is relates to. It’s a mutual harmony, in which the subject (the piece) and its context (the architecture) are combined non-hierarchically. I’d like to point out how such an intimate dialogue between art and architecture was possible here thanks to an architecture (the designs by ABDR) which isn’t interested in imitating art and an art (my piece) which isn’t interested in playing the role of architecture but which, instead, looks to architecture as an allegory of a wide and perfect world whose dream it can play out. My piece came from the urgency to imagine a monumental work which, although monumental, wasn’t divorced from its context, didn’t relegate the context to the role of background upon which ‘the work of art’ would dominate. This monument was made to trust its context and to give into it, it was to distance itself from its context by way of caressing it – with this slight distance, this slight breath, I wanted to create a small, delicate imbalance.

What kind of openings does it push towards, a piece of contemporary art like yours exhibited in an Italian archeological museum?

As I was saying earlier, the piece blurs into its contextual space and becomes a part of it, almost as if it was underlining something, as you do with a pen if you want to highlight something that moves you in an image, or a sentence in a book. Indeed the succession of shapes exhibited in the space looks like a series of bits of sentences, letters of the alphabet, interrupted stories, or intentions to tell a story. In a sense, what I want to do with this work is what many readers do everyday with books, whether it’s novels, botanical treaties, sacred texts: reading, learning, interpreting and translating into a new form, even if it’s only a detail, a single word, a single punctuating sign. I confronted the walls of the Piacentini/ABDR space the way you might confront a book: a classic, which narrates an equally classical kind of story. With Piazza I attempted to sum up, in a single form, three spatialities, three characters, three chapters, three reasons which are at the heart of the very concept of museum: the Piazza, the Theatre, the Book. After all, what is an archeological museum if not a place which hosts the parts of a whole which is no more, where pieces are carefully conserved, cleaned up and ordered so as to give a sense of unity to time, amongst the chaos of history?

Tell me about the experience of working with the architects, with the staff, with the institutions.

The piece was realised thanks to a long integration process, made possible by a Reggio Calabria-based association for cultural mediation called Eventoarea. This process involved a series of workshops aimed at the workforce, at the city, at children from primary schools etc… And which also made possible the presence of numerous musicians who played live, either integrating their practice or isolating themselves from the noise of the building site; a film was also made, by two young Sicilian artists, Andrea Coppola and Maria Helene Bertino. Because of all of this the ‘piazza’ became a piazza before it even came into being, and everybody involved in building it was able to actively and consciously watch it grow and give the project the best of their technical expertise. The institutions also took part in the vitality of this ‘humanised’ building site, in which the ‘technical’ questions were fused with the ‘poetic’ ones, creating a tension which was continuously renewed.

So the experience of Reggio Calabria, a socio-culturally difficult city, confirms that the old stereotypes can be replaced by new, different, creative energies and synergies…

I don’t think you can (or that you should) distinguish like that between cities, all cities have the same difficulties and the same privileges, and thinking of a Southern city as difficult is a way of adhering to a stereotype in itself. Reggio Calabria is going to host one of the most extraordinary museum buildings in Europe. It’s a building which is terribly modern and ancient at the same time, and whose collection is going to be extremely beautiful. The kind of creative energy which has gone into the project from everyone, architects, institutions, businesses as well as from myself, would be radical and shocking in any context or geographical area. I’d even go as far as saying that this experience, which has taken place in a city normally considered marginal in terms of national culture, should serve as an example to projects which I hope can happen elsewhere in Italy as well.

Text by Gabriele Simongini published in ‘Il Tempo’, 28th July 2013.

Riace Bronzes homeward bound, Pirri finishes his Piazza, the museum reveals its treasures

Since 2009, when the restoration work began on the National Archeological Musuem in Reggio Calabria, the two Riace Bronzes have been lying on their backs in the Regional Council of Calabria, at Palazzo Campanella. Amidst the debates which have arisen around various delays and lengthy bureaucracy, the Minister for Culture has recently guaranteed the acceleration of the restoration works and a symbolic opening of the museum to be held in August, which will feature an exhibition of works confiscated from the illegal economy.
By January 31st 2013, a partial opening of the Bronzes’ room should take place, when the two Warriors will finally come home. Towards the end of next April, the museum proper should finally open. Meanwhile, one of its most emblematic parts is already completed: the Piazza project by artist Alfredo Pirri: “Reggio Calabria is about to host one of the most extraordinary museum buildings in Europe – says Pirri – It’s worth the wait: the result will be exemplary”.
Piazza is a site-specific piece which aims to be a venue, a hang out, a space for dialogue between citizens, an Italian square with a metaphysical feel which also acts as ‘theatre’, the stage of which will showcase the three great actors, who will be visible through three window-openings: the Riace Bronzes and the Head of a Philosopher. “I have attempted to execute a civic operation, in widest sense of the word – is the way the Calabrian Rome-based artist put it – here is a square, a piece of city which wasn’t there before, open to everybody, a place you can come into from the street. It’s also a stage, upon which people will be able to move, to stay still, to watch and, sometimes, to witness the miracle of the three curtains which are lifted to reveal the three jewels hosted by the museum”. Pirri’s work is mimetic, chameleontic: it operates a sort of maieutic of the architectural space, highlighting some of the lines and the structures in the Palazzo Piacentini as it has been restored by Studio ABDR. “What we’ve created – explains Pirri – is a mutual harmony, in which the subject (the work of art) and its context (the architecture) are combined without hierarchy. The result is a modernist alphabet: the Piazza is composed of elements lifted from the design of the building and superimposed onto the building itself, creating a score of fragments whose origin is declaredly that of the same space it exists in. These elements sketch out something akin to the wings of a theatre, which protrude slightly compared to the actual walls of the building. These wings are made from frames installed at a 45° angle from the walls, and which are painted red so as to create a reverberation between the frames and the walls behind them, a sort of coloured halflight. It’s a fragmented surface which has been only slightly recomposed, so that the result is slightly ghostly and at the same time slightly structural”.
The light comes in from above, through a large glass ceiling upon which it’ll be possible to walk, creating a visual dialogue between architecture, art and nature (the sea and the sky). “The piece blurs into its contextual space and becomes a part of it, almost as if it was underlining something, as you do with a pen if you want to highlight something that moves you in an image, or a sentence in a book – the artist, again, comments – attempted to sum up, in a single form, three reasons which are at the heart of the very concept of museum: the Piazza, the Theatre, the Book.” In a corner of the Piazza ‘s a vertical, composite element, woven in red reflexes: a piece which is the matrix, the prototype of Pirri’s piece, but which could also be seen as the projection of the artist himself, with its towering height and solitary position. “Yes, – Pirri smiles, enigmatically – if the body of the artist moves into the body of the work, then the artist disappears”. And from the 31stJanuary, if the Minister keeps its promises, the Bronzes will reappear.

to see the images of the project click here

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