Hi, this is
Nicola Ricciardi

Alberto Garutti: the walls the city the sky and time

Mousse Publishing


Originally published on: Lorenzo Benedetti, Eva Fabbris, Letizia Ragaglia, Nicola Ricciardi, Marco Scotini, Here, Now and Elsewhere: Site-Specific and Thereabouts (Milan: Mousse Publishing / La Triennale, 2015), 20–38.


Over the past twenty years, public art has increasingly distanced itself from the heroic and masculine vision of the so-called Plop Art[1], deliberately moving towards a much more anti-monumental and anti-decorative dimension. Authoritarian and autonomous sculptural gestures have been replaced by social practices, by projects based on direct exchanges with the citizens, by artworks integrated into the urban environment. The site has become increasingly more specific. In Italy, this new[2] approach is embodied by one artist in particular, Alberto Garutti, whose intense research activities—materializing over the years in numerous, permanent interventions in cities and museums—is primarily based on the dialogue between the (public and private) space and the people inhabiting and living it. His works often originate within existing communities – but are likely to create new ones. This approach has been clear since the first and less explicitly “public” works by the artist—such as Orizzonti (Horizons) (1987-2015), a series of panes of glass, of different formats and sizes, half in white, half in black.They represent the symbolic axes of all Garutti’s professional and affective relationships: each individual work represents a line and it exists in virtue of the relationship with a patron or a collector (whose name is given to the work). Each time that the artist makes a new Orizzonte, it is as if the line leaves his studio, becoming public by entering into the collectors’ houses and connecting with the others to construct the ideal horizon of his life and career. From this symbolic gesture onwards, Garutti’s work has been constantly crossed by lines: [3] some coiled up, like the kilometers of nylon thread of the Matasse (Bundles) (1997-2002), others merely hypothetical, like the kilometers on foot of Tutti i passi che ho fatto nella mia vita mi hanno portato qui, ora (All the steps I have taken in my life have led me here, now) (2007-2015). His most recent work—to which this piece is dedicated—also originated with a line: the twisted neon scribble made by Lucio Fontana in 1951 on the occasion of the IX Milan Triennale.[4] Garutti’s work is one of the four site-specific interventions that are part of “Ennesima. Una mostra di sette mostre sull’arte italiana” (Ennesima. An Exhibition of Seven Exhibitions on Italian Art) and consists of a re-elaboration of the project Temporali (Storms) (2009-2015) [5], meant to be placed in the same space in which Fontana’s was situated. As often happens with Garutti’s works, the most accurate description is to be found in a caption: “In La Triennale’s main staircase and in the anteroom to the entrance to ‘Ennesima’ the lights vibrate when a lightning bolt falls in Italy during a storm. This work is dedicated to all those who, when passing by, think of the sky.” The installation is composed of a series of halogen lamps that light up (first burning with greater intensity and then gently dimming down again) whenever a lightening strikes somewhere in the Italian peninsula. To make the work the artist has relied on the consulting of CESI—Centro Elettrotecnico Sperimentale Italiano (Italian Center for Electrotechnical Experimentation)—, whose sensors detect all the lightning bolts that strike the national territory. It is the first time that, for this type of intervention, Garutti works on the lighting systems already present in the museum, thereby entering even more closely into a relationship with the architectural space. Furthermore, the new strip of light enters into an imaginary corridor that crosses the whole of Italy and unites various institutions in Rome, Turin[6] and Milan—ultimately projecting itself towards other possible contexts, towards other cities. That is, another line, amongst Garutti’s many lines. This short text traces yet some more, all hopefully useful in providing a framework for the artist’s latest endeavor. As a matter of fact, in order to construct a perspective, you always start by drawing some lines on a piece of paper.


Horizon line: from the Mediterranean to Texas

8838 kilometers divide La Triennale building from the centre of Austin, Texas. This figure has an exclusively statistical purpose (which Garutti would approve of) since what is of interest, in this case, is not the straight line of distance, or the two destinations, but the idea that this distance evokes in relation to a small but valuable little history of art that the artist himself recently told me:

“Our civilization was created smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, isolated on this extended peninsula along what was the highway of the times. Everyone passed along this stretch of sea, from the Turks to the Spaniards. The Medieval cities were created in an attempt to stem this continuous flow: they have a defensive heart, they are made of walls. And it was precisely as a consequence of these architectural conditions that art as we understand it today was born. It was the architecture of the time that invented painting, calling it up and saying: dear painting, come and break through these walls! And in order to respond to this request, painting took perspective with it. It is no coincidence that perspective drawing was born in Italy and not in Texas, where no walls existed.”

In this highly personalized synopsis of the invention of perspective—pronounced in front of a cup of coffee at La Triennale’s bar, one month before the inauguration of “Ennesima”—it can be assumed that the reference to Texas was purely casual. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note how, ironically enough, those days the American political debate was animated precisely by the possibility or not of building a wall along the borders of Texas, to mark out the dividing line between the United States and Mexico.[7] It is not hard to imagine that this hypothetical barrier would not please Garutti (rather the contrary: walls interest the artist for their implicit possibility of being crossed, of being made permeable by the actions of art). His dearest references are to the frescos by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te in Mantova,[8] or Andrea Pozzo’s Apotheosis of St. Ignatius.[9] Also, presumably, Piero della Francesca and the Legend of the True Cross (as Berenson says, “it is only in architecture that Piero displays lyrical feeling” [10]) or The Resurrection in Sansepolcro, where the relationship between art and architecture becomes even carnal (Longhi’s words come to mind when he talks about the “architectural grooves of Christ’s surroundings” [11]). These examples demonstrate to what degree visual art is a direct descendent of architecture­—at least for us, offspring of the Mediterranean. For Garutti, it has been like this since the beginning of time: “Where do you think that prehistoric men drew”, he asks me rhetorically, “if not in a primordial form of architecture such as the cave?” If art’s function is truly that of breaking down walls, it is, nonetheless, legitimate to ask oneself: what’s on the outside?


Land lines: from the museum to the city

“Is there still a city out there?”[12] Francesco Guccini asked himself at the dawn of the Nineties. Garutti would be asking himself a similar question just a few years later when breaking down the walls of an institution for the first time (not through painting like his highly illustrious predecessors—even if there is still something profoundly pictorial in his works). It was 1994; the year of his first public commission on the invitation of Antonella Soldaini for the exhibition “Arte a Peccioli” (Art in Peccioli). The work consisted of the philological reconstruction of a small theatre in the Tuscan town and—as a stone plaque still visible at the theatre’s entrance recites—it was “Dedicated to the boys and girls who fell in love in this small theatre”. The work was considered to be a manifesto of Garutti’s poetry and politics[13] and marked the start of a continuous dialogue with the populations of various cities: from Colle Val d’Elsa, where another important restructuring took place,[14] through to Bolzano where he created his seminal Piccolo Museion (Small Museion).[15] It was precisely during the inauguration of the latter that he recalled how “important the dimension of coming together is within the work of art, both in its most classic form (museum) and the contemporary form operating in the urban and social world (post-museum).” [16] It is worth noting how, even if on a more conceptual level, the work made for “Ennesima” also balances on the relationship between museum and post-museum: Temporali converses with the institution’s architecture but also with the city that hosts it. In talking to me about his work, Garutti used these words: “The intervention is synchronized with this box, this container of life and culture [La Triennale] and it then, in turn, radiates outwards, towards Milan. It’s as if, through Temporali, the architecture gains the capacity of becoming an urban sign.” A sign of light provided by the fusion of the atmospheric events and the workings of the light bulbs. When lightening falls on Milan, there is a direct connection: it is as if Fontana’s neon has been stretched to become a lead wire, stretching between the heart of the museum and the sky above it.


Vertical line: from the visitor to the sky

“We’ve all tried it once in our lives” Garutti confesses while we climb the La Triennale’s grand staircase, “to be lying on the ground looking at the sky and imagining there is no force of gravity: imagine how great it would be to fall upwards.” You can’t see the sky from where we’re standing in the musuem but, when Temporali will be working one would perceive it: it will be a bit closer. In the artist’s intentions the light vibrations metaphorically tear open the ceiling, establishing a close weave of correspondence between the spectator and the vault of the sky, between all of us and the enigma that hangs above our heads. It is no coincidence that Garutti has often tackled the subject of the sacred. It is sufficient to cite two examples that involve Christian iconography. The first work, as its very title implies, is Dedicata agli abitanti di Buonconvento e a tutti coloro che, anche da molto lontano, vorranno passare di qui solo con un pensiero (Dedicated to the inhabitants of Buonconvento and to all those who, even from very far away, wish to pass through here even just in their thoughts) (2005), and consists of a system of about one hundred light bulbs installed in the Chiesa SS. Pietro e Paolo in Buonconvento, in the province of Siena. Anyone can ask for a bulb to be turned on by calling a telephone number. The cost of the phone call is then donated for the construction of water purification plants in Sri Lanka. “I reflected on the latent need for spirituality that is already present in many collective forms”, the artist commented, “on the need for artistry and how cities without churches, mosques, synagogues and every other sort of sacred place are unthinkable.” The second work is entitled Madonna: it consists of a copy in white ceramic of a nineteenth century statue inside which passes an electrical element that keeps it at a temperature of 36.7 degrees centigrade, the temperature of the human body. The gesture of the worshipper who touches the statue of the Madonna is thus loaded with an experiential component, generating a virtual short circuit between the earth and the divine. Both works talk about the church as a vehicle for art. Garutti tackles the same question when talking to me about Temporali: “The Church has been the greatest commissioner in history, and the greatest imposer of limitations: you had to keep to the rules if you wanted to draw a cross, evangelical stories had to be painted in a particular way, etcetera… Italy produced very high quality art precisely because of these limitations: the great artists, when faced with such difficulties, had to find alternative roads and paths. Even the layman’s architecture of La Triennale is a limitation—but if there weren’t any limits there wouldn’t be any art.”


Temporal lines: from tomorrow to yesterday and back

It is no surprise that a person who has dedicated the greater part of his life to teaching[17] should return so often to the reenactment of the history of art—and Italian art history in particular. “Temporali is also a highly classical and pictorial work” Garutti tells me as we walked under the vaulted ceiling that would contain his work one month hence, “just as Ai Nati Oggi (To Those Born Today)[18], which tackled the most classical of themes, that of nativity. We cannot and must not free ourselves from the Classical: we live in a world where the present has never been so present but which, at the same time, contains all the past and all the future at one and the same time.” Possibly unwittingly, his words echo those of J. G. Ballard who had claimed at lenght, many years before, that the future does not exist. Back in 1974, in an interview with Carol Orr, the British writer stated: “The present is throwing up so many options, so many alternatives, that it contains the possibilities of any future right now. You can have tomorrow today.”[19] In a play of coincidences that would have pleased both Ballard and Garutti, the first work of art by the latter is also dated 1974 and its very title—Credo di ricordare (I think I remember)—demonstrates the importance of time and memory for him. The work consists of a series of black and white photographs that depict the body of the artist in his own room and in relation with the objects of his everyday use: a mattress on the floor, cigarettes, pillows, shoes—objects/subjects of a poetic dimension. A very private portrait but also the prelude to a vision of art that is profoundly public. There is no contradiction here—just the opposite. As perceptively observed by Paola Nicolin, the curator of the most complete monograph on Garutti’s work to date, “rereading more than thirty years of his work from a safe distance, it is evident that each piece of work was chemically constructed by means of a combining process so that each work is the child of the preceding one and contains within it the seed of the subsequent work which is still waiting to be formed.”[20] For example, there is evidently a link of intimacy in the connections of body and objects in Credo di ricordare and that of the, equally intimate, relationship between the inhabitants of the village of Trivero and their dogs, immortalized in one of Garutti’s sweetest and most delicate works: Il cane qui ritratto appartiene a una delle famiglie di Trivero. Quest’opera è dedicata a loro e alle persone che sedendosi qui ne parleranno, (The dog pictured belongs to a one of the families in Trivero. This work is dedicated to them and to the people who by sitting here will talk about them), 2009.[21]Paraphrasing the title of an essay by Letizia Ragaglia,[22] one would like to say that public art is no longer a hero on a horse but has become a dog on a bench—admittedly in cement but equipped with extreme lightness, suspended in the air by the infinite love of memory. “I hope and imagine that the dogs’ owners talk to each other” the artist explained at the time, “I hope that people’s stories will spread slowly through the area spontaneously, building a new landscape.” In other words, building a new Orizzonte. And here the circle closes, again because of a line. The game of drawing lines is potentially inexhaustible. What this text wanted to do was to set some up, drawn in free hand, to design a perspective projection that could be used as a framework for these new Temporali. But its aim was also that of demonstrating the heterogeneity of the lines that cross Garutti’s works: not exclusively horizontal lines—selective territorial figures, confines—nor purely vertical—barriers, forms of hierarchy—but a collection of parallel and tangential lines, of finite roads and infinite rails, all ordered according to an entropic logic that ensures that they don’t look like a grid but rather like the initial set up of a game of Shanghai—in which, given the artist’s nature, it is easy to imagine that we have all been invited to play.



[1] A pejorative slang term for public art. It refers to usually large, abstract, modernist or contemporary sculpture made for government or corporate plazas, spaces in front of office buildings, skyscraper atriums, parks, and other public venues. The term connotes that the work is unattractive or inappropriate to its surroundings – that is, it has been thoughtlessly “plopped” where it lies.

[2] Further reading on the subject: Alessandra Pioselli, L’arte nello spazio urbano:L’esperienza italiana dal 1968 a oggi, Johan & Levi Editore, 2015

[3] The artist himself has repeatedly stated that the line is important to him because “it contains the idea of design, and the design, as the first formalization of an idea, contains the idea of the project.” From an interview with Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, Flash Art 307 Dic-Gen 2013

[4]Lucio Fontana, Luce spaziale, 1951 [currently at Museo del Novecento, Milan].

[5]Initially presented in the former Church of Gianelline at the Fondazione Remotti in Camogli, near Genoa, the work has found its largest formalization to date at MAXXI in Rome as part of “Dialoghi con la città“ curated by Laura Cherubini

[6]After MAXXI, the work was subsequently installed at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, in the form of a chandelier made of over a thousand light bulbs.

[7] See the speech with which, in June 2015, the American tycoon Donald Trump announced

announced his candidacy for President of the United States in the 2016 election: “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.”

[8] As Garutti said about the frescos during our brief meeting: “There is not a single centimeter that hasn’t been painted. Gelatin, water, and pigments: it’s a mix that undermines the static nature [of the building]. A terrific combination! ”

[9] “Where painting covers the architecture entirely, virtually denying its main feature: stability”[Ibid., Flash Art, # 307]

[10]Bernard Berenson, Piero della Francesca. O dell’arte non eloquente, Electa editrice, 1950

[11]Roberto Longhi, Breve ma veridica storia della pittura italiana, Sansoni, 1980

[12]Francesco Guccini, Canzone delle domande consuete, 1990

[13] For me, the priority was to make a work that would not be rejecting by the townspeople, a work with minimum environmental impact, that would shift the linguistic level to avoid populist demagogy. All this meant, as it does today, working on the method in a political way, rather than making a political work. In public projects I have glimpsed the danger of the self-referential nature of the art system. So I have understood that it was necessary to ‘go toward’… and, in the end, what is a work if not an encounter? To ‘go toward’ contains a political idea; and in this sense my work is political, precisely because it aims at establishing a plot of relationships with the city” [Achille Bonito Oliva, “Alberto Garutti”, in Enciclopedia della parola. Dialoghi d’artista. 1968-2008, Skira Editore, Milano, 2008

[14] That of Corale Vincenzo Bellini (2000), a sixteenth-century building, home to a choral group of the Tuscan town.

[15] A cubical pavilion in concrete and glass located in the area of the playground of the Don Bosco neighborhood in Bolzano. The structure is used to display, in a three-month cycle, one work from the collection of the Museion – Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bolzano – in a marginal context

[16] As Letizia Regaglia said: “There is therefore no conflict between art displayed in institutional settings and art in public spaces–it is more a question of integration and complementarity: just as artists are interested in investigating the viewer/artwork relationship outside of the museum setting, so museum curators have come to view art in public spaces as an extension and enrichment of what takes place inside the exhibition venue”. [AAVV, Piccolo Museion/Cubo Garutti, Mousse Publishing, 2015]

[17] Until 2013 Garutti was until Professor of Painting at Accademia di Belle Art di Brera in Milan; he still teaches arts and design at the IUAV in Venice and architecture at the Politecnico in Milan.


[18] In the work Ai nati oggi the streetlights of a given place in the city (a street, a square, a bridge) get brighter every time a child is born. The maternity ward in a hospital in the city is equipped with a button that can be pushed by the staff at each new birth; the button makes the streetlight system gradually increase the intensity of the light, a surge that then subsides back to normal in about thirty seconds.

[19]J.G. Ballard, Extreme Metaphors. Collected interviews, Eds. Simon Sellars, Dan O’hara, Fourth Estate 2014

[20]Alberto Garutti, Didascalia, Mousse Publishing, 2012

[21] The work, commissioned by Fondazione Zegna as part of “All’aperto” project, curated by Andrea Zegna and Barbara Casavecchia, consists of a series of benches, distributed in various places of Trivero (BI), on which are located concrete sculptures faithfully depicting dogs belonging to the families of the city.

[22]Ibid, Piccolo Museion/Cubo Garutti


Link to publication: click here.