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SIENA, Italy — At the bottom of a small grotto that could easily pass for something from the medieval era there stands a small, shadowy, and delicate Carrera marble fountain that kneels in a shallow pool of water. It’s reminiscent of the shrines of some medieval saints, like St. Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia, where visitors descend metal ladders to visit the underground prisons of tormented figures who would go on to sainthood. The wall furthest from the sculpture is pitch black, and the darkness is disorienting, even if the wall is only a few feet away. The work, which looks like a fragment from a forgotten myth, transports the viewer to another era even though it’s situated on the estate of Castello di Ama, the vineyard in the heart of Tuscany renowned for its Chianti Classico.
The work is Louise Bourgeois’s “Topiary” (2009), and it’s part of a growing collection of site-specific works on the estate, which hosted the “Expedition” symposium of the Siena Art Institute this past weekend. During the opening remarks of the symposium, Marco Pallanti, the co-proprietor of Castello di Ama, explained that he sees the commissions throughout the estate as springing from the terroir, much in the same way his vintages are formed from the Tuscan hills. It’s hard to argue with Pallanti’s assessment since works like Bourgeois’s seems not only to have sprung from the earth but been molded from the stones, soil, and secret corners of this place.
In 2000, Lorenza Sebasti and Marco Pallanti began to seek out some of the leading contemporary artists in the world to create works that would complement the estate. They started with Michelangelo Pistoletto, commissioning him to fill a niche once inhabited by a large tree and the result was Pistoletto’s “L’albero di Ama. Divisione e moltiplicazione dello specchio” (2000). Since that initial experiment, Sebasti and Pallanti have continued to invite and seek out artists of all types.
One of the most powerful works at Castello di Ama is undoubtedly Daniel Buren’s “Sulle vigne: punti di vista” (2001), a large mirrored wall on one side punctuated by square windows finished with black and white stripes of marble. Unlike Buren’s other works, which often feel like they interrupt space, this reflects the landscape and transforms the viewer’s experience of the already stunning estate into something — unbelievably — more beautiful. The powerful impact of “Sulle vigne: punti di vista” is reflected in the way that many of the other artists seem to respond to it, whether directly or indirectly. Buren’s work has a lot in common with earthworks in its ability to amplify and transform your experience of the landscape.
Ilya & Emilia Kabakov’s “The Observer” (2010) is a two-part installation that invites the viewer to peer through a telescope lodged in an observation post towards a tableau: people and angels at a table that we see only through the window of a small, nondescript house hundreds of meters away. The work seems to consciously invert Buren’s wall, by placing the action in the window and by pushing the sense of absence into the distance rather than in the foreground. Buren’s wall all but disappears visually as our attention turns to ourselves and the world reflected on its mirrored surface. In “The Observer” an empty chair in the foreground of the tableaux invites the viewer visually into a scene that we can never visit. If during the day Buren’s work dominates everything around it, at night the mirrored wall feels more subdued, while the Kabakovs’ work comes alive as a light in the room of the tableaux illuminates just how bizarre the concocted scene truly is.
Carlos Garaicoa’s “Yo no quire ver mas a mis vecinos” (2006) and Cristina Iglesias’s “Toward the Ground” (2008) also directly respond to Buren’s work — the former by mediating on the idea of the wall and creating a garden of security barriers from around the world, including the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the Israeli West Bank Barrier, and Hadrian’s Wall; the other, placed at a point where a secluded courtyard changes slowly into the landscape, by offering a different type of reflection as water runs across an angled bronze resin carpet of branches.
Even Anish Kapoor’s “Aima” (2004), which isn’t even visible from “Sulle vigne: punti di vista,” appears to be in dialogue with Buren in many respects. “Aima” transforms a small historic chapel by cutting a glowing red cavity cut into its floor that resembles the warm glow of a communal fire. Kapoor’s work is saturated with ego, focusing our attention and dominating the historic structure, in contrast to Buren’s sculpture, which seems largely egoless by turning our gaze everywhere else.
Like Bourgeois and Kapoor, other artists have chosen rooms to separate their work from the stunning landscape all around and to create a place for contemplation. Giulio Paolini’s “Paradigma” (2002) sits in a simple room like a ruin, while Marcella Vanzo’s “Ama” (2005), the only video work on display, shuts out the outside world but focuses on the name of the estate, which means “love” in Italian, through the relationship of a mother and daughter.
To see contemporary art in this pastoral context feels magical. During my visit to Tuscany I heard a number of local artists talking about the heavy weight of history in this province where the heritage of the Renaissance looms large, but at Castello di Ama that history is a foundation on which the contemporary is firmly planted.
After leaving the place, Bourgeois’s work lingered in my imagination. What “Topiary” does is feed our curiosity about this particular place where every building seems planted atop an Etruscan tomb, Roman building, or medieval structure at the very least. The renowned sculptor bypasses history to transport us to a hidden corner that is mythic, timeless, and undecipherable. She clearly reimagines the ancient and medieval through the contemporary in a way that a vineyard like Castello di Ama does every year with its vintages. Lorenza Sebasti and Marco Pallanti’s passion as collectors is evident in this contemporary collection that makes Tuscany feel new.
Editor’s note: This trip was funded in part by the Siena Art Institute.