Ancient Egypt Gives a New Twist to Turin’s Contemporary Art Week

“The problem these days is that wherever the exhibition is, whether it’s Beirut or Beijing, you see the same contemporary art again and again,” said Tom Eccles, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at the Bard College, New York, one of the three international curators of “Like a Moth to a Flame.” “Overproduction and overdistribution are an issue.”

“We thought it important to root the exhibition in a place,” added Mr. Eccles, who with his fellow curators aimed to create a portrait of Turin through objects that the city’s residents have collected over the centuries. The guest organizers were particularly struck by how many locals visited Turin’s Egyptian Museum, arguably the finest of its type in Europe.

The curators of “Like a Moth to a Flame” borrowed numerous pieces from the museum, creating dramatic juxtapositions of ancient and modern in OGR Torino’s cavernous postindustrial spaces. Giddily asymmetrical mid-1970s “Bariesthesias” step sculptures by the Italian kinetic artist Gianni Colombo are memorably combined with a monumental second millennium BC black marble statue of the Egyptian lioness goddess Sekhmet.


A “Cementarmato” relief by Giuseppe Uncini was exhibited by the Milan dealer Galleria Tega at the Artissima fair. Credit Galleria Tega

“We wanted to include in the show pieces that people would recognize,” said Mr. Eccles, referring to the statue. “The exhibition was aimed at the people of Turin rather than a global elite. We wanted to ask the question, What place does art have in our lives?”

And what place does a commercial art fair have?

Lasting four days, Artissima is generally regarded as Italy’s destination art fair. That it coincides with Piedmont’s truffle season always helps (though this year drought severely depleted supplies). This time round 206 galleries exhibited and 52,000 visitors attended, according to the organizers, slightly more than the slightly smaller rival MiArt fair held in Milan in April.

Artissima “is always quite good and small. There is not the rush that we are so used to,” said Fatima Maleki, a London-based collector. “We have always found something special at that fair.”

Like most of the world’s second-tier art fairs, Artissima emphasized its international credentials (62 percent of the exhibitors were non-Italian) and offered what it hoped would be an appealing mix of new art and neglected classics.

For those interested in the latter, the Milan dealer Galleria Tega, for example, was showing wall sculptures of the Rome-based conceptual artist Giuseppe Uncini (1929-2008), including two of his admired “Cementarmato” reliefs, combining concrete and rusted iron wire. One, dating from 1962, sold at the fair for 250,000 euros, or about $290,000; another from 1959, is still available at €280,000.


“Untitled,” a 2017 silver gelatin print by Joanna Piotrowska. The London-based artist will be featured in a major show of new photography at MoMA in New York in 2018. Credit Courtesy the artist and Madragoa, Lisbon

This was pretty much the maximum price level for sales at Artissima, most of the works being by living artists and priced at under €30,000.

The Lisbon dealer Galeria Madragoa priced the black-and-white photographs of the London-based Joanna Piotrowska, who will feature in the “Being: New Photography” show next year at MoMA in New York, at less than $3,500. In Ms. Piotrowska’s recent “Frantic” series, the artist asked adult residents of Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro to construct “play houses” in their homes, with psychologically revealing and at times disturbing results.

Three of these photographs sold to collections that already follow the artist’s work, according to Matteo Consonni, co-founder of Madragoa. “We had great curatorial response,” added Mr. Consonni, “but a cold reaction from a buying public that I found very conservative, quite an uncommon thing for Artissima.”

Maybe drought and the dearth of truffles was making the public in Turin less receptive. But the paradoxes of today’s art world remain.

For many people, contemporary art fairs and the cerebrally curated exhibitions in postindustrial spaces that accompany them have become a different world. That world could do worse than reach beyond its captive audience of collectors and curators, to what Ms. Steyerl, the ArtReview Power 100’s most influential person, describes as “art’s larger communities.”

Turin, at least, has given it a go.

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