by Irene Balzani
Art feeds on relations, and every artist chooses how to connect with those who are going to look at his or her work. Tomás Saraceno, for instance, does this by “trapping” us in installations that involve our senses and highlight the thin threads that bind us to the other beings that inhabit the earth with us. We are all now starting to realise just how tough it can be when those threads break and when the simple acts of going out and meeting other people disappear from our daily agenda, as our lives are basically played out in the confines of our rooms.
In our work at Palazzo Strozzi we often reflect on the concepts of “openness” and “accessibility” because we are aware of those terms’ complexity, and we try to ensure that our exhibitions can welcome the largest possible number of visitors. Over the years, expanding on our experiments and taking different approaches on board, we have developed a considerable number of accessibility schemes designed to promote the inclusion of people who risk social exclusion, and during this lockdown period we are trying to keep the threads of our relationship with them alive “by remote” through direct contact and proposals. We are talking about the boys and girls with autistic spectrum disorders in our Nuances scheme, the Parkinson’s Disease patients in our Free flowing scheme or the many participants in our Connections scheme for people with mental disabilities and psychological issues.
With Many Voices during the Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition (10 March – 23 July 2017)
Photo: Simone Mastrelli
The first accessibility scheme that the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi developed was With Many Voices for people who live with Alzheimer’s and their carers (whether family members or professionals). To tie in with the Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition in 2017, we reflected on the meaning of “staying shut away” and of “going out” in the company of the artist Cristina Pancini with a project called Caterina, which took its cue from the observation of two works of art on display in Palazzo Strozzi: a video installation by Bill Viola entitled Catherine’s Room and the predella of a 14th century altarpiece by Andrea di Bartolo showing St. Catherine of Siena with Blessed Dominican Nuns, both of which focused on the theme of isolation and people’s relationship with the outside world.
Certain moments during the Caterina project
Photo: Simone Mastrelli
The Caterina project was spawned by a reflection on the opportunities available to people with Alzheimer’s for experiencing their relationship with the world. As dementia deepens its hold, the mind gradually ceases to be a tidy, well-ordered room and becomes an unknown space. In parallel, the outside world becomes increasingly difficult to grasp and going out becomes more and more difficult. Relations with others can be reassuring, a source of wonderment or a threat, but less and less a source of mutual identification. Yet we need others, we need the world as it goes about its business outside our own selves, and this lockdown situation is bringing that fact home to us very forcefully. At the same time, “staying shut away” is not just a physical condition, it is also an attitude that can prompt us to remain locked away inside our own minds. We can all feel like Caterina/Catherine at certain times in our lives.
A moment during the Caterina project
Photo: Simone Mastrelli
The emergency that we are experiencing has catapulted us into an “interior” whose perimeter we can clearly perceive: our own home is our space for action, our daily horizon today. In the course of the project developed with Cristina Pancini, a room in Palazzo Strozzi was transformed into a space for a journey, a pathway for discovering its corners, its ceilings, the objects it contained, in fact anything and everything that can inhabit a space, including our own selves. It was a journey played out as a couple, each elderly participant being accompanied by his or her carer: a journey made of stories and listening, a pathway to knowledge that we might want to repeat today to rediscover our own homes, observing a room to discover its endless panoramas or looking out of the window and telling each other what we see or what we imagine is likely to be out there.
Caterina, the book
Photo: Martino Margheri
The Caterina project took concrete form in the shape of a specific question asked of participants: what can you tell a person who has been “shut away” for a long time? What is worth looking at or doing after a long period of separation from the world? “I’m asking you this question because I know you have far more experience than me,” said the letter accompanying the notebooks in which each participation could then jot his or her advice. Here are a some of the replies: “find a good sister,” “smell the perfume of a rose,” “never lose sight of the sky and the sea,” “eat a nice ice cream because it’s good for you and delicious. Eat it in the street,” “I’d advise you to turn to the person you like best and look at them with love,” “go away, move, never stop.”
This precious advice was collected, along with the story of the project as a whole, in a book published by Boîte Editions and available on line on the Palazzo Strozzi website (page in Italian).