What is the role of art and artists in community life? Is it spiritual, aesthetic or intellectual ? Or is it an undefinable union of passion and thought, a complex ballet that bears no name but subtly makes the world go ‘round. These and countless other unanswerable questions were the subtext to Friday evening’s gathering at the new Oxo Gallery in Barga’s Centro Storico.
Located on Via del Borgo in the premises of the former Marzocco antique emporium, the gallery’s inaugural was billed as an event, rather than an exhibition. It vividly recalled the celebrated “Happenings” that were hallmark conjunctions of painting, sculpture, music and theatrical performance in the 1960s. Under the direction of the gallery founders, Cathy Biasetti and Walter Tognocchi, the occasion showcased many of the Province of Lucca’s most creative residents.
From beginning to end, the undertaking was ambitiously experimental, and it alternately bewildered, thrilled, provoked, moved, informed and entertained a large crowd of Barghigiani and visitors who awaited their turn to enter the gallery’s doors. Between 6 pm and 9 pm, they were admitted for 10-15 minutes, in seven groups restricted to 15 people. No two groups encountered the same experience. Every admission, in effect, was to a completely different “event,” choreographed in different rooms by different painters, sculptors or potters, and set to different excerpts from the musical legacy of the Armenian philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff and his collaborator, Russian composer Thomas De Hartmann. They were played on a dazzling baby grand by the brilliant local pianist Massimo Salotti.
“Choreographed” is the operative term. In the manner of performance art, what these seven events most resembled was a dance. The spectators were tacitly dancers, swaying with Salotti’s music from room to room, sometimes on personal impulse and sometimes at the direction of the featured artist. The videographer Gio Brega circled through the crowd in a remarkable dance of his own, a soloist amidst the corps du ballet, recording everything with graceful movements that seemed to trace a slim border between spiritual trance and erotic haze.
In one of the evening’s most compelling episodes, Roberto Giansanti presided over a de facto communion service. In a cluster of Giansanti’s breathtaking ceramics — pedestals topped by elegantly carved Chinese sampans and votive candlebra — each participant was asked to carry a handful of sand or spoonful of liquid to one of two sacramental bowls. The ritual was carried out in moot, reverent silence, a mesmerising expression of art as communal rather than individual experience, art as spiritual bond rather than a commodity.
These were the event’s cohesive themes. The gallery doors opened to Fabrizio Da Prato’s forceful expressionist paintings, dizzyingly rich in color and unrestrained emotion, projected on the wall behind Salotti as he interpreted a “Prayer to Gratitude.” A “Kurd Shepherd Melody” accompanied Group Five’s encounter with a suggestively mystical woodland sculpture carved from a single tree root by Luigi Paolini. Their successors paused at an installation by Keane that studied the play of light, shadow and reflection on a circular panel set over an open barrel of wine to the background of a “Sayyid Chant and Dance” and a “Hindu Melody.” When group seven made its entrance, “An Easter Hymn and Procession in the Holy Night” filled the rooms, as Fabio Maestrelli etched interlocked geometric forms into a white surface. Like his complex brass sculptures, which stood nearby, and an enigmatic black cube closely resembling the Kaaba in Mecca — the most revered monument in the Islamic world — the etchings were studies in the inexplicable nature of infinity.
Although not on the list of groups, intense interest was shown to the circular work by Nicola Salotti, a hypnotic and mesmerising combination of painted and slow almost animal like moving projected image.
Another high point was Giorgia Madiai’s intimate and imaginative exploration of the flimsy, transparent barriers that attempt but fail to separate the act of creation from its collective audience. Three curtains of plastic sheeting were hung between the gallery’s outer and inner rooms. Behind them, nakedly mysterious — and again, with the rhythmic motions of dance — Madiai treated the plastic sheets as canvases, painting ephemeral images on them that floated ghostlike behind each of her brush strokes.
As Group Two arrived, a powerful self-portrait of photographer Stefano Tommasi as the tortured Christ filled the gallery’s entire rear wall. It was set to a Dervish song and a “Chant from a Holy Book.” Equally powerful, at the end of the evening, was the Tommasi image’s juxtaposition with panels of Arabic calligraphy, their translations rendered in Italian on the panels’ reverse face. They were deeply philosophical verses in the Sufic manner, written by the young Barga poet Karim Younsy.
All the articles from the 8 times Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist/ best selling author and barganews staff reporter Frank Viviano can be seen here
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).