MAXXI gallery and the future of contemporary art in rome
What is the purpose of an art gallery in 2014? That is the question being asked by Hou Hanru, the man tasked with reinventing Rome’s first contemporary art gallery.
At the corner of Via Guido Reni in Flaminio, a residential quarter in the North of Rome, a deep reverberation can be heard. Much louder than the roar of Ferrari engines, chinked wine glasses and the cat-calling of the central municipi, the rumble echoes from the bowels of Zaha Hadid's convoluted, concrete structure. As you approach the MAXXI gallery it stares back at you with suspicion. Like a prize-winning cow in a jewellery shop: wide-eyed, unwieldy and totally at odds with the palazzos that surround it.
The low rumble outside is amplified as you step in to what is still one of Europe's most unique, beautiful and impractical buildings. In the main hall comes the recorded sound of the ancient Roman aqueduct system by Bill Fontana; drips bouncing between the raised avenues that carry visitors into a series of rooms across the gallery's three, vast floors. These contain more sounds: cars rolling down a busy main road by Jean-Baptiste Ganne; the mysterious minor key piano solos of Philippe Rahm and the chanting crowds by Cevdet Erek. What Hou Hanru has created with his first major show since joining the gallery as Artistic Director in 2013, is something akin to an amphitheatre or club. The same excitable crowds piling in to talk and move to the distinctive rhythms of each room, in a carefully curated tour which Hanru has titled, Open Museum Open City. Indicating that there is no definitive barrier between the two and that visitors are invited to roam back and forth between rooms.
"Sound allows us to consider questions about the status and the essence of art," Hanru explains. "Contemporary art is booming and there are a lot of new museums, fairs and biennales but it has become so much about production. I wanted to know whether we could go back to the immaterial, which has very strong social and political significance.
"Often in art galleries you will see very impressive installations, but each person wants to have his or her own little space in which to stand and look at it. Sound penetrates everywhere and in this exhibition there is nothing to see besides other people. We are forced to look at each other and experience the sounds collectively."
On paper, the idea of sound art can seem niche and exclusive. Yet the show's popularity would indicate the very opposite. At the time of my visit it had received more visitors than any other in the gallery's short history.
"Anyone can enjoy this show." Hanru adds. "You don't need to understand art history or read lots of explanation to be able to experience and fully participate, and you don't need to patronise your audience either. That is something we want to change. The public are not stupid and they are not passive. Great art doesn't have to be difficult. We want people to be a part of the gallery, and we are changing the relationship between it and the people."
Hanru, a Chinese-American curator, who previously served as Director of Exhibitions at San Francisco Art Institute, has been compiling a programme of events for the past year, and it differs wildly from most other public galleries. No single artist retrospectives. No essay-long wall plaques. All themed shows follow the MAXXI's precedent for being fixed firmly in the Now. A show dedicated entirely to food and food consumer habits will kick off next year's season, while the gallery will of course continue to promote the work of Italy's best emerging artists. But the gallery's function doesn't end at the straightforward 'show and tell'.
"Interdependent is a series I am organising where we invite two or three organisations from Italy to work together in taking over the space. From that we generate an online map of Italian organisations. Because this country is very decentralised - we do not have an historical capital equivalent to London or Paris - and so we wanted to promote inter-organisational visibility. We are in the age of globalisation or whatever you call it and we have to rethink the map."
Then there's Immigrant Songs. Schengen might be desperately trying to adapt its policies to abet immigration, but as Hanru put it, "This is the future of Europe."
The series will reflect this by showcasing work by emerging artists from countries with a large Diaspora and high proportion of displaced people. This begins with a show dedicated to Iran in December and will move on to Turkey and Beirut in 2015.
"We want to dispel this patronising attitude towards the migrant, which exclusively centres on their sad plight, to look directly at contemporary culture and provide a platform for that to be exhibited."
What role within the community should a contemporary gallery play, Hanru seems to ask, especially when so many of us are hard up and over worked? Should public funds be siphoned into blockbuster shows that we attend for the sake of wielding in conversations like status symbols of a new, Time Out yuppiedom? Or, as Hanru argues, should galleries and exhibitions actually serve some wider, social purpose?
MAXXI wasn't immediately popular. First built in 2010, during the throes of the Italian recession - not to mention the disruption it presents to the uniform antiquity of the city - it quickly provoked controversy. Since then it has struggled to assert its place in the domestic landscape as well as on the international art scene. No other gallery has been forced to interrogate its value and purpose to the same extent as MAXXI; and under Hanru's direction, no other is as well adapted to reflecting and serving our present needs.
Walking through Rome you realise that sound alone has the ability to indicate the presence, or absence of life. Without it the Colosseum is reduced to a ruin in the background of loved-up selfies taken on extendable sticks. Without the march of a thousand Roman worshipers, the Pantheon becomes a forecourt for selling plastic Ray Bans and fake flowers. Sound is the mark of participation, and for that reason, in silence, artworks take on a sense historical gravity and reduce viewers to little more than gawping onlookers.
Which, given that we spend most of our lives as gawping onlookers to a constant stream of digital information, seems at best unhelpful. Open City Open Museum has kicked off what is set to be an exciting episode in MAXXI's history, one of public participation and communal gathering. It's a huge triumph for Hanru and a call for the rest of the world to listen up and follow suit.
Text Nathalie Olah
Images courtesy MAXXI Gallery Rome.