OPEN AT NIGHT – Festival of Lights

Originated by Muriel Mayette-Holtz | Curated by Chiara Parisi

Since her appointment as director of the Villa Medici, Muriel Mayette-Holtz has been intent on establishing a core role there for light and its creative variations. The task was entrusted to light sculptor Yann Kersalé, who has responded with an unobtrusively spellbinding system of illumination perfectly attuned to the palace’s character and heritage. As Muriel Mayette-Holtz puts it, “Implemented with artist Yann Kersalé, this impressive project reveals, colors, illuminates and heightens the Villa Medici’s treasures.”

In the wake of this project the director of the French Academy in Rome – Villa Medici is initiating a new one, in the form of temporary installations: “Thanks to curator Chiara Parisi we’re now launching the first of a series of light shows in the Villa gardens.”

The Festival of Lights, then, represents a brand-new exhibition format designed specifically for this garden setting. Titled Open at Night, its first edition will be open to the public from 16 December 2017 through 28 January 2018, every Friday through Sunday. The aim is an experimental vision of the gardens, a nocturne in the form of a labyrinth of open-air installations by internationally renowned contemporary artists:

Rosa Barba, Camille Blatrix, Christian Boltanski, Nina Canell & Robin Watkins, Maurizio Cattelan, Trisha Donnelly, Jimmie Durham, Elmgreen & Dragset, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Douglas Gordon, Joan Jonas, Hassan Khan, Lee Mingwei, François Morellet and Otobong Nkanga.

The Villa Medici gardens are a maze of greenery divided up by hedges into 16 squares. Here our 17 artists are creating an atmosphere of wonderment, composing new legendsas they blur the site’s strict geometry.

For curator Chiara Parisi, “The idea is to return to the grand theatrical space the Villa Medici represents in the collective imagination, while at the same time exploiting light’s capacity for disembodiment, intangibility and splendid obscurity. Open at Night is a reference to Ouvert la nuit, a collection of short stories by French writer Paul Morand, in which each story takes place in a different place on a different night. Here, in an uncertain twilight, the visitor enters as the artworks play out before him: this is a mysterious, nocturnal project shaped by different generations of artists, to be discovered in the same spirit of boundless freedom they have brought to it. For each artist, the gardens have been a haven for inventing or elaborating on remarkable works.”

With this Festival of Lights, the Villa Medici has daringly opted for a celebration of light – and night – that does not trivialize their beauty. This inaugural edition lures visitors into the gardens with its promise of emotion, poetry and magic, inviting them to discover its singular ambience as they move from square to square and encounter artworks whose primary element is light. In this nocturnal setting the exhibition is also intended as a musing on darkness and how it is perceived through light – but also through sound, climate and so much more.

The artworks and the exhibition trail

Crossing the monumental threshold, visitors are welcomed under falling snow. Sculpture and narrative invite them to experience the sensation of being shut inside the idealized space of the Villa Medici gardens. Calling on the theatrical mechanisms they both know so well, Christian Boltanski (born 1944 in Paris, where he lives) and light artist Jean Kalman (born 1945 in Paris, where he lives) have come up with a sensory itinerary revealing all the magic of the gardens. Equipped with headlamps, visitors are summoned to face the darkness, moving through a spectral space of smoke, snow and fireflies, different voices and presences, in quest of their personal phantoms.

The gardens are first presented the Loggia di Cleopatra through “Untitled” (America) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (born Guáimaro, Cuba, in 1957, deceased Miami, 1996), with the strings of lightbulbs he once set up in museums, galleries and streets. A work full of vitality that cuts both ways: a kind of improvised fiesta shot through with nostalgia.

In one of the first squares, Rosa Barba (born 1972 in Agrigento, Sicily, lives in Berlin) addresses the Roman sky with her White Museum installation, in which a 70-mm film projector reflected in a mirror “films” the parasol pines. Opposite is another work by the same artist: neon handwriting unfolding like a poem floating in space.

In the square of the sculpture of Maddalena, Joan Jonas (born 1936 in New York, where she lives) conjures up nature’s fragility with a marvelously poetic light sculpture.

In the kitchen garden, Elmgreen & Dragset (born respectively 1961 in Copenhagen/1968 in Trondheim, Norway; live in Berlin) have set up a light sculpture mingling subversive humor and voyeurism. 

In the square of the Niobides, Nina Canell & Robin Watkins (born respectively 1979 in Växjö, Sweden/1980 in Stockholm; live in Berlin) offer a project created at the North Pole: light to be heard, not seen. The Luminiferous Aether is a truly astonishing recording: the Aurora Borealis transmuted into sound.

Track it down on the trunk of a parasol pine: Jesus is not enough by Douglas Gordon (born 1966 in Glasgow, lives in Berlin). A sculpture the size of a hand in which our collective memory mingles with the artist’s more personal version.

In the Agrumeto, Lee Mingwei (born 1964 in Taiwan, lives between Paris and New York) has installed Small Conversation, a soundscape of insect noises from the artist’s native island. As he sees it, these are endangered sounds, not only because of today’s environmental changes, but also because we no longer take the time to listen to them during the hours of darkness.

Christian Boltanski spellbinding lighting effects are the keynote in the square of Neviera, where the Japanese Bells installations and the artist’s Woman Dancer – a hazy silhouette, an elusive human presence – transports us onwards to other square with his famous Lightbulbs installation.

Further along, on the statue of Dea Roma, we come to Lamentable by François Morellet (born 1926 in Cholet, France, deceased in 2016): blue neon segments that point up the impossibility of creating a circle because of the simple fact that the pieces are not where they should be. In these ultra-organized gardens Morellet’s piece constitutes an exercise in Minimalist disorder and a reminder of his oeuvre’s rationale: “The marriage of order and disorder, whether one is producing the other or the other is producing or disrupting the one.”

The gardens have also inspired artists like Camille Blatrix and Hassan Khan to broaden their boundaries and move beyond their squares into the space as a whole.

To ensure that visitors remain prisoners of these nocturnal gardens, Camille Blatrix (born 1984 in Paris, where he lives) has opted for exploring the labyrinth – both real and metaphorical – via little nightlight in the square of Vigneto for a shape of birds. Inspired by Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Cosmos, they are passed from hand to hand by the security staff.

Hassan Khan (born 1975 in London, lives in Cairo) scatters luminous word-sculptures through the dark night of the gardens (Sentences for a New Order).

In the Square of the Columns, Otobong Nkanga (born 1974 in Kano, Nigeria, lives in Antwerp) is presenting an “archeological site”: illuminated glasses set in the ground, on which visitors can read poems or discover drawings by the artist. 

Mixing excess with enhancement of the context, Trisha Donnelly and Jimmie Durham provide other installations and presentations that reflect their intention of transforming this idyllic setting.

The project by Trisha Donnelly (born 1974 in San Francisco, lives in New York) is based on an art of perception, stress and desire that offers the receptive visitor the possibility of fresh experiences with a sound installation in the square of Narcissus.

Jimmie Durham (born 1940 in Arkansas, Texas, lives between Naples and Berlin) is marking this event with a ceremonial aromatic wood fire of the kind he used to make with his brother and cousins when he was small. The ashes on the little burned plot in the Verger will remain for the duration of the exhibition and provide fertilizer for plantings to come.

For this night-time winter experiment Maurizio Cattelan (born 1960 in Padua, lives between New York and Milan) brings mischievous conviction to Made in Catteland, a football-style Villa Medici supporter’s scarf you can buy on your way in as protection from the cold. This is a project about solidarity, identification and passionate attachment to place.  

For Muriel Mayette-Holtz the event is “a nocturnal stroll, an illuminated, illuminating tour of contemporary creativity, a project we will come back to every year and which, each time, will help us discover a new facet of the Villa Medici gardens.”

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