Moving into phase two

by Arturo Galansino, Ludovica Sebregondi, Riccardo Lami and Matthias Favarato

Eighty-four days separate Sunday 8 March, Palazzo Strozzi’s first lockdown day, from Monday 1 June, the day the Tomás Saraceno. Aria exhibition reopens. “Phase Two” in the era of COVID-19 is beginning for Palazzo Strozzi too, as we reassess and rethink our IN TOUCH online project to bring it into line with this new development.

IN TOUCH was an immediate, spontaneous response with a strong sense of urgency at a time of total uncertainty as to what was going to happen in ensuing weeks. We were determined from the outset to react to this crisis with a clear goal, which was to stay in touch with our visitors – to protect our bond of proximity at a time of deep insecurity for all of us, as our normal bearings came under severe strain in this new and utterly unprecedented situation. The Tomás Saraceno’s exhibition offered us the perfect starting point; in fact it was almost prophetic in its reflection on the fragility of our world. Comparison with a spider’s web to illustrate the environment we live in, a concept that plays a major role in Saraceno’s art, is well suited to define the network of relations that have kept us united at this time – a network linked to the online world on which all our daily activities, including our thirst for culture and beauty, have had of necessity to pivot during lockdown.

The video message by Tomás Saraceno

Our choice for the IN TOUCH project was to merge our website and social channels by creating new and original content taking a fresh look at certain moments in Palazzo Strozzi’s history, rather than simply taking a stroll down memory lane, in an effort to discover new values in them in the light of our present circumstances. This led us to address such eminently topical issues as interconnection, isolation, the sense of nationhood and community, the family and inclusiveness. To address as broad an audience as possible we hosted different viewpoints, as you can see from the authors of the essays (from both within and outside the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi), with whom we were eager not to look backwards into the past but always forwards at the present and into the future. A crucial role was played by the video messages sent in by artists wishing to testify their closeness with Palazzo Strozzi in consideration of their strong bond with us and with Italy as a whole. Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons and Tomás Saraceno all aired their support for us and their contributions proved hugely popular, with Marina’s message in particular attracting almost 1 million hits.

The video message by Marina Abramović

But there are other figures that can help us tell the story of this project too. On our IN TOUCH platform we published 24 essays read by almost 60,000 single users. On Facebook and Instagram we published over 100 posts, reaching over 1.5 million people and causing our online community to grow by 10% in a mere two months. In addition to which, the fact that our visitors spent longer than average on the pages of IN TOUCH is another extremely interesting development because it shows that people preferred to focus on exploring the content in depth rather than simply skimming over it; and this, despite the moment of frenzy everyone was experiencing in the consumption of online content. The top five most avidly read articles were We’re All in the Same Boat; The Shattered Embrace; Dining with Pontormo; Men, Apricots and Cows; and Heaven in a Room. Far from being a mere hit parade, however, this list perfectly mirrors the multi-faceted nature of our approach and the variety of our readers’ interests. A project that deserves a special mention here is the remote-educational project that we christened ART AT HOME for families with children and teens on their hands. The project was visited by almost 6,000 users, many of whom then sent us in the results of their various activities. And we also very much appreciated the affection and esteem displayed by those who have been following our initiatives for a long time, given that the newsletter was the tool most widely used for accessing IN TOUCH, thus highlighting our audience’s closeness even at a time of physical distancing.

A selection of articles of IN TOUCH from our website blog.

And now, as the exhibition gets set to reopen on 1 June, we are about to launch a new phase for IN TOUCH too, turning it into a fortnightly column. Like every cultural institution eager to talk about its own era, Palazzo Strozzi is committed to addressing the most relevant and topical issues of our time, so that every exhibition and activity we produce provides us with an opportunity to explore the world we live in an increasingly contemporary vein. Over the next few weeks we will be pursuing our IN TOUCH project by seeking inspiration in what Tomás Saraceno has called “visions of the future and of reality.” We will be discussing the exhibitions, activities and daily life of Palazzo Strozzi in an effort to keep open a space for parallel debate, a place for cross-contaminating and sharing different points of view.

Heaven in a Room

by Ludovica Sebregondi

While many of us may be experiencing our home right now as a place where the current emergency is forcing us to stay holed up, isolation can be a life choice for some people. In fact it was just that for centuries. Think of the hermits who used to shut themselves away in tight spaces or even had themselves walled in, or the monks and friars who sought and found a space for meditation and prayer in their narrow cells. Artists have revisited and reinterpreted these spaces both in the past and today, often depicting them as immaculate “perspective boxes” in which human individuality is enhanced in a meditative reflection.

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Andrea di Bartolo, St. Catherine of Siena with Four Blessed Dominican Nuns (detail), 1394-1398 circa, Museo Vetrario di Murano.

Andrea di Bartolo (Siena, recorded 1389–1429), for example, in the predella for his panel painting of St. Catherine of Siena with Four Blessed Dominican Nuns, dated c. 1394–8 and now in the Museo Vetrario in Murano, shows the religious in four scenes of daily life in the cells in which, as Salvatore Settis writes, the narrative imparts “a meaning and an intensity” to solitude “designed to prompt the observer to identify with that visible example of piety” through an “intense relationship with the divine with which the narrative is infused.”

The painting was shown at Palazzo Strozzi’s Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition in 2017, when the video artist’s work was displayed alongside the old master works that had been his source of inspiration, accompanying the development of his artistic style.

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Bill Viola, Catherine’s Room, 2001. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio.

Andrea di Bartolo’s polyptych inspired the video entitled Catherine’s Room (2001). Five colour videos arranged horizontally, like the panels of a predella, frame the room of a woman going about her daily chores throughout the day, always alone. Each screen shows a different moment of the day: morning, afternoon, sunset, evening and night. On the wall of the room there is a small window through which we catch a glimpse of the branches of a tree portrayed, in each screen, at a different moment in its yearly cycle, from when it blossoms in spring until it has shed all its leaves at the end of the year. Thus the videos do not only show us a full day with the changing light, they also show us the course of a year through the different phases of vegetation and the course of human life from waking up (signifying birth) to going to sleep (representing death).

Settis explains: “In Bill Viola’s installation, Catherine is not the saint of that name; this predella neither accompanies nor presupposes a religious icon. It is the tale of a woman’s actions captured in the intimacy of a solitary life, to some extent involving a sanctification of the daily routine as suggested by the implicit, yet strong, reference to the predella format and to the religious and narrative tradition that this entails. Thus the leading lady’s flowing gestures are transposed onto an almost ritual plane, thereby drawing our attention to her individuality. Catherine’s ego is expressively indicated through her body language, a solitary presence in a space built to resemble the stage of a theatre: always the same yet ever changing according to the way it is furnished. Alone with herself, as indeed is each one of us as we observe her, Catherine deserves our gaze for that very reason. Her solitude resembles us, her room is ours.”

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Marina Abramović, The House with the Ocean View, 2002-2018
New York, Abramović LLC, Courtesy of Marina Abramović Archives e Sean Kelly, New York, MAC/2017/072. Credit: Ph. Attilio Maranzano

That same solitude was also doggedly sought by Marina Abramović in The House with the Ocean View dated 2002, a performance that the artist herself tells us was spawned “by my wish to understand whether it is possible to use a simple daily routine with its rules and restrictions in order to purify myself.” The artist lived in three suspended interiors for twelve days without eating or speaking, before an audience in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. Marina writes in Walk Through Walls: A Memoir: Becoming Marina Abramovic: “It was shortly after 11 September, people were in a receptive frame of mind and crowds of spectators came along, remaining seated on the ground for a long time, observing and reflecting on the experiment in which they were immersed. The visitors and I intensely felt each others’ presence. There was a shared energy in the room, and the heavy silence was broken only by the ticking of the metronome that I kept on the table […] I did everything – sitting, standing, drinking, filling the glass, having a pee, having a shower – with a sluggishness and an awareness that bordered on a trance.”

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Left: Andrea di Bartolo, Caterina da Siena fra beate domenicane (detail), 1394-1398 circa.
Center: Bill Viola, Catherine’s Room (detail), 2001.
Right: Marina Abramović, The House with the Ocean View, reperformance Tiina Pauliina Lehtimaki, 4-16 December 2018 Palazzo Strozzi.

The House with the Ocean View was re-performed in Italy for the first time by the performer Tiina Pauliina Lehtimaki in Palazzo Strozzi from 4 to 6 December 2018. Tiina, like Marina back in 2002, lived in silence for twelve days in three small rooms suspended inside the Marina Abramović. The Cleaner exhibition. Each one of the rooms appeared to echo the “perspective boxes” in Andrea di Bartolo’s predella, but also the scenes in Bill Viola’s Catherine’s Room. “Purification,” the effort of isolation and the practice of asceticism that we see in them appear to forge a direct, echoing link among the three works. What emerges from all of them is an attempt to imbue daily life with a sacred quality and to rethink our actions, even our most humdrum actions, by imparting new value to them: a reflection on strength of will and on the possibility of imparting new meaning to our lives in a new perspective.

Marina Abramović: my heart is with you

Italy, I love you. And my heart is with you”. With these words Marina Abramović greets the Italian people in an exclusive video for Palazzo Strozzi, sent as a personal contribution to the project IN TOUCH. The Serbian artist joins Ai Weiwei and Tomás Saraceno by sending a message of solidarity and encouragement emphasizing how Italians are demonstrating “great courage and great feeling of community and humanity” and that the COVID-19 crisis represents an emergency now global that must serve us as an opportunity to rethink our relationship with the planet: “human consciousness must change, our approach to the world and the planet must change”.

This is my message to Italy and to the people of Italy which I love deeply. I know this is a moment of crisis and the virus is everywhere but at the same time from the disasters we have to learn a lesson. And the Italian people are showing great courage, great feeling for community and humanity. We are going to fight this together. It is something is going to pass but what is really left is a very valuable experience that human consciousness should change, our approach to our world and our planet should change. This is the lesson that we have to learn. Italy, I love you. And my heart is with you.

Marina Abramović represents one of the most famous and influential figures of contemporary art world. With her works, in over 50 years of career, she has has revolutionised the very idea of performance art, putting her body to the test to probe her outer limits and her potential for expression. Marina Abramović. The Cleaner exhibition in 2018 represented a unique moment in the history of Palazzo Strozzi for its ability to engage people and to reflect on concepts such as vulnerability, empathy and trust, which today resonate strongly and take on a new value of inspiration and reflection.

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Photo Alessandro Moggi

We’re all in the same boat

by Riccardo Lami and Ludovica Sebregondi

“We’re all in the same boat” Marina Abramović wrote on the poster that she designed for the Barcolana regatta in Trieste in October 2018 and which was also displayed on the façade of Palazzo Strozzi for the duration of its exhibition entitled Marina Abramovic. The Cleaner, reflecting on the fact that “we are all on the same planet: those who love the sea love the land, and those who love the land love our future.” That slogan, originally coined in an environment-related context, is now taking on a broader significance in 2020: a message of mutual trust and hope together with a reflection on the need to forge a common front at such a difficult time. It has been quoted on countless occasions in recent weeks, first and foremost in the social media. On a wall in the popular Sant’Ambrogio market in Florence, it even appeared on a poster signed with explicit acknowledgement of its origin: “D’après Marina Abramović”, with the “B” of the Barcolana being replaced by the “C” of Covid-19.

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Left: Marina Abramović, We’re All in the Same Boat, manifesto per Barcolana 50, 2018.
Right:
Michela Carlotta Tumiati, Lima, 2020.

Reflecting on her life and on the world in which she lives, Marina has always shone the spotlight on crucial aspects of the human condition, succeeding in communicating with the present better than any other artist, interpreting its inconsistencies and its urgencies. Faith in the community and opening up to others are goals that Marina reached over time, from her initial performances in which she probed her capacity for individual resistance, via the performances that she created with Ulay. One of those that appears to us today to be particularly strong and relevant to the present moment is Rest Energy (1980), an extreme portrayal of trust, in which Marina’s life was in Ulay’s hands for four minutes and twenty seconds, creating an unforgettable image of tension, a metaphor or our relationship with others. “I held a large bow and Ulay pulled back its string, his fingers holding the base of an arrow pointing straight at my chest. We were both in a state of constant tension, each of us pulling in their direction, with the risk that, if Ulay had loosened his grip, I could have ended up with an arrow in my heart. In the meantime, a small microphone was fixed to our chest so that the audience could hear our amplified heartbeat. And our hearts beat faster and faster.” (from Walk Through Walls: A Memoir, 2016).

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Ulay/Marina Abramović, Rest Energy, 1980, Amsterdam, LIMA Foundation.
Courtesy of Marina Abramović Archives e LIMA, MAC/2017/034

Over time, the flow of energy, the deep exchange that previously existed between her and Ulay embraced a growing number of people searching for “total vulnerability and openness to the audience.” Her manifesto symbolising this is The Artist is Present, a performance held at the MoMA in New York in 2010, in which over 1,675 people took turns to sit opposite the motionless and silent Serbian artist and to stare at her for as long as they wanted. On that occasion Marina perceived people’s “immense need to have even just a contact.” In March 2020 her words reflecting on our relationship with others are more topical than ever.

“Towards the end of The Artist is Present I felt a mental and physical tiredness that I had never felt before. Also, my point of view, everything that had seemed important to me before – daily life, the things I liked and the things I didn’t like – had completely changed.” Just as she has done throughout her artistic career, Marina reflects on deprivation in order to assign fresh importance to the essential things in life. Isolation, silence, the disappearance of a direct relationship with others help us to grasp the importance of staying in touch and of valuing the gaze and the presence of the people we have before us.

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Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2010, New York, Abramović LLC.
Photo Marco Anelli. Courtesy of Marina Abramović Archives e Sean Kelly, New York, MAC/2017/071

“Are we so alienated from one another? How has society managed to make us so distant from one another? We send each other text messages without ever meeting, even though we live just around the corner from one another. That is how people’s solitude is formed. That chair didn’t stay empty for a single second. Visitors in the queue slept outside the museum, waiting for hours and hours, even to be able to come back again. What was happening? I look at you, I feel you, you’re being photographed and everyone else is looking at you, they’re scrutinising you and you don’t know where to look, other than inside yourself. And just when you’re really inside yourself, that’s the very moment when all your feelings and emotions rise to the surface and overwhelm you. That is why people start crying: it’s an all-pervading experience. That doesn’t happen in the privacy of our own homes because we’re no longer in touch with ourselves. But on the stage that I created for the purpose, something really did happen, something different that I’d never done before.” (Marina Abramović)