Rie Nakajima in Florence

Last night at Le Murate I witnessed what might be the first breath of contemporary things to come in Florence. The performance by Rie Nakajima inaugurates the use of the space that is to become the SUC, a contemporary art space in the ex-jail that is Le Murate.

It was raining cats and dogs, which is why no more than 40 people showed up to an event that ought to be of international proportions. (For anyone arriving from Piazza San Marco, the #31 bus stops rather nearby, though I admit I got soaked anyway.) After a glass of free wine or water as part of the final night of Aperto alle Murate, we moved into the adjacent room for the performance.

Japanese artist Rie Nakajima is, as many of her culture are, slight and shy, and incredibly modest for someone who… performs. The room had been set up with desk lamps and chairs, and I wondered how this arrangement would be made to look beautiful. No costume, no effects… just the artist (in jeans and a dark top), a silent crowd…

And then she started to add objects to the space, objects that made funny little noises. White static from a radio, nails on a string occasionally disturbed by an arm attached to a motor, a music box, tin foil. Did she time how long she waited before each addition, subtraction, adjustment? The beauty in the room came when I closed my eyes, just briefly because I didn’t want to miss anything; a discrete sound, but constant… until Nakajima removed just one element, and I realized how much noise it really made. You get a sense of this in the video I shot:

Much contemporary art is shocking; this is the complete opposite. It is discreet, intimate, surprising.

Speaking with the artist before the performance, I asked her about her stay in Florence and she said that her accommodation near the Duomo was a bit noisy. What must life be like to be so attuned to single sounds and rhythms?

Things to come?

Is the forthcoming SUC at Le Murate the answer to my hopes and dreams?

I’m not an expert in contemporary art. Up to a few years ago I can say that I didn’t much like it. But I do understand the need to promote it in order to make a city live and breathe a cultural atmosphere. While we anxiously await news of what will happen next at Le Murate (and I’ll let you know as soon as I hear), I’ve been reflecting on what has changed in the world of contemporary art in Florence in the past year, and what we have in store for us this Fall.

Truth be told, I haven’t noticed a miraculous appearance of great contemporary visual artists in the city since the start of the reign of Renzi. But we have to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. I asked Giuliano da Empoli, culture superintendant, what Berlin has that we don’t (there’s more contemporary art in Berlin in a square meter than Italy has in a country) and he mentioned the lower rent. In fact, one of the most concentrated gallery areas in Berlin is full of ex-warehouses; I’ve seen a similar industrial area transform into artists’ studios, lofts, and galleries in my hometown of Toronto. Florence leaves little room for expansion, though the mayor’s latest plans for the city involve recuperating 100 spaces, hopefully in part for the arts. And Le Murate is one of them. I also don’t see why art centers can’t be opened in areas like Isolotto or Sesto Fiorentino, where rent is lower, although I think it’s harder to draw anything but a local crowd to these areas (something I’ve noticed at the Ex3).

Simon Roberts (c) Ex3

New spaces also grow; I’ve written both here and on Tuscany Arts about Ex3 in Gavinana and the Strozzina. This Fall I’m looking forward to the solo show by Simon Roberts, a 36-year-old English artist whose photographs “Motherland/Homeland” explore his (and our) relationship to countries, territories – a theme I’m seeing frequently in photography these days, but it’s good enough to go around (opening October 9th 2010 at Ex3). Last season the Strozzina brought in some remarkable young international artists at ASAP; opening October 1st, Portraits of Power promises to combine works from artists of different generations for a good exploration of the theme. In the courtyard of the Strozzi we’ll all get to stop in to admire an installation by the ubiquitous Michelangelo Pistoletto who also has a solo exhibit coming up in San Gimignano at the Galleria Continua (worth a day trip!).

Maybe the first step towards this growth is the infusion of good examples from abroad – like Rie Nakajima – and from the rest of Italy – like Pistoletto. They don’t have to be home grown Florentines, that will come in time. Now only if there were more places in which to put them. To make a mark, these artists need to have a longer presence in the city, a show of international appeal that is on for 2-3 months at least. (Performance is an exception – but Rie is staying in Florence for a month!) Florence, don’t rest on your laurels. Italians are willing to drive to Rovereto for a dose of contemporary art. Let’s bring it home.

Sign up here to receive future blog posts in your inbox