Centro Balneare Romano - Via Ampère 20, Milano
September 12–October 16, 2022
Press preview and opening: September 12, 2022 Every day from 12pm to 7pm Free admission
curated by Massimiliano Gioni
From September 12 to October 16, 2022, Fondazione Nicola Trussardi presents a new project created especially for the city of Milan: Gilded Darkness by American artist Nari Ward (b. St. Andrew, Jamaica, 1963; lives and works in New York). In the outdoor and indoor spaces of the Centro Balneare Romano, in the Città Studi neighborhood, Ward’s exhibition will bring together new works created specifically for the occasion, alongside some of his most renowned installations and environmental interventions.
The exhibition Gilded Darkness by the American artist Nari Ward (St. Andrew, Jamaica, 1963; lives and works in New York) is a new project by the Nicola Trussardi Foundation especially conceived for the city of Milan. Staged in the exterior and interior spaces of the Centro Balneare Romano, in the Città Studi neighborhood, the exhibition features new works created specifically for the occasion, alongside some of Ward’s most renowned installations and environmental interventions.
The exhibition is part of a series of major art projects carried out by the Nicola Trussardi Foundation, under the presidency of Beatrice Trussardi and the artistic directorship of Massimiliano Gioni. The Nicola Trussardi Foundation is a private nonprofit that, like a nomadic museum, rediscovers forgotten places and symbolic spaces throughout Milan. The institution invites leading artists from the international scene to reinvent the city and conceive new uses for palazzos, squares, churches, monuments, and other emblematic buildings. Since 2003, the Nicola Trussardi Foundation has produced public artworks, temporary exhibitions, incursions, performances, and pop-up interventions by renowned international artists, including Paweł Althamer, Allora & Calzadilla, Maurizio Cattelan, Tacita Dean, Jeremy Deller, Elmgreen & Dragset, Urs Fischer, Fischli & Weiss, Gelitin, Ragnar Kjartansson, Sarah Lucas, Ibrahim Mahama, Paul McCarthy, Paola Pivi, Pipilotti Rist, Anri Sala, Tino Sehgal, and Stan VanDerBeek. It has also presented major thematic exhibitions at Milan’s Palazzo Reale and at the Triennale.
Known for his sculptures and installations often made with recycled materials, Nari Ward has contributed to turning contemporary art and culture into global, polyphonic experiences since the early 1990s. His works are held in the most prestigious American museums and institutions, and the artist has participated in countless international art exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, the Whitney Biennial, and Documenta.
Of Jamaican descent, Ward moved to New York with his family at a young age, and after studying art at Hunter College and Brooklyn College, he settled in Harlem, the largely African American neighborhood of Manhattan. Struck by the proliferation of abandoned objects on the streets of Harlem, Ward began collecting those with a strong symbolic value. His manipulation of these materials—including children’s strollers, shopping carts, umbrellas, shoelaces, as well as other items and urban waste—gave rise to monumental installations, introducing immersive, theatrical experiences that have since become a characteristic of the art of the new millennium. In his work, Ward re-contextualizes the waste materials by creating complex scenic machines that draw viewers’ attention to the scars of the objects. The pieces bring to the fore social and political issues central to our time: from racism to growing social inequality, poverty to consumer culture, and migration to social marginalization and issues of identity.
The exhibition at the Centro Balneare Romano opens with one of his best-known works, Amazing Grace (1993), produced during his residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem and then presented on numerous other occasions throughout the United States and Europe. For this large-scale installation, Ward collected more than three hundred abandoned baby strollers, which he then arranged in the form of a ship’s hull. The installation is accompanied by the voice of gospel singer and African American civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson, who sings “Amazing Grace”—a song with a rich, complex history intertwined with both the abolitionist and civil rights movements, as well as the peace demonstrations of the 1960s.
The soundtrack underlines the elegiac tone of the installation: the empty strollers evoke the lives of not only the children who once occupied them but also the unhoused who appropriated them to transport their belongings. The shape of the installation is reminiscent of the ships carrying enslaved men and women in chains across the Atlantic to the US and elicits other stories of migration and exile that sadly still resonate with current events, both in Italy and abroad. In the 1990s, the work was frequently read as a tribute to the victims of the AIDS pandemic, and today, its precarious appearance recalls the countless street memorials that mourn the victims of murders of African Americans by police.
Installed in the rarely accessible spaces of the old locker rooms at the Romano Pool, the work is endowed with further meanings: it is not only an anti-monument, referencing recent images of strollers left at stations on the Ukrainian border to help refugees fleeing the conflict, but also embraces and envelops viewers in a melancholy, poignant atmosphere. Traces and memories of the many lives that, for decades, passed through the now-abandoned building are captured in the installation.
Alongside Amazing Grace, Ward presents a series of works focusing on many of the themes underpinning his research. These include: the dialogue between cultures, art as a space of encounter and exchange, shaping identities at the crossroads between different languages and traditions, and, in particular, reflecting on the function of monuments at a time marked by the continual revision of history and the numerous collapses and repeated crises defining these past few years.
By the old ticket office, Stroller Sprouts (2013)—another fragile monument, which resembles a street altar—more explicitly recalls the tradition of “bottle trees”: a widespread custom in the southern United States and Caribbean, according to which evil spirits are trapped in empty glass bottles to keep them away from the living.
The video self-portrait, Sweater (2011), reflects on the role of the artist, divided between conceptual work and physical exertion. The beads of sweat that flow like tears over the artist’s forehead allude to both fatigue and heat: concepts charged with multiple meanings, especially in the context of Caribbean and African American culture. The work inevitably references the history of slavery and countless mournings that still affect Black communities.
The exhibition Gilded Darkness continues in the outdoor spaces of the Centro Balneare Romano, occupying them with both physical and immaterial traces. Designed by architect Luigi Secchi (designer of the famous Cozzi Pool, also in Milan) and inaugurated in 1929, the Center preserves its imposing original architecture, which revolves around the rectangular pool of some four thousand square meters.
The history of the Centro Balneare Romano—built during the Fascist period and dedicated to the memory of the young Olympic champion Guido Romano, who died at the front during World War I—tells of ideals of victory and greatness, war and athleticism, as well as nationalism and imperialism. These are concepts to which Ward responds with precarious monuments and objects that embody stories of small, everyday heroism, episodes of collective joy, as well as images of the defeat and downfall of the triumphant myths that shaped the twentieth century.
At the heart of the exhibition is a series of new productions, commissioned by the Nicola Trussardi Foundation. In the small park that connects the old changing rooms with the swimming pool, Ward has installed a cart inspired by the street vendors of Harlem. Instead of selling ice cream or juice, Ward’s cart—entitled Radiant Smiles (2022)—collects and sells smiles. Spectators are invited to smile inside tin cans that can then be purchased. The tins are inspired by artist Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit), who, in Milan in the 1960s, canned feces to offer one of the most caustic commentaries on emerging postwar consumer society.
The most majestic and simultaneously most fragile piece is Emergence Pool (2022): an intervention on the swimming pool itself (which is almost as big as a soccer pitch). The pool is transformed into a sprawling golden expanse with a large, precarious raft of thousands of floating thermal blankets. Emergence Pool is another unstable monument commemorating the dead among the immigrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, it underlines the dramatic contrast between light and opacity, between gold and poor materials—a recurring element in Ward’s work (as the exhibition title reminds us).
Not far away, an assemblage of white flags (Backstroke Flag, 2022) hoisted up by a crane evokes images of nationalism, violence, surrender, and defeat. And from the loudspeakers of Battleground Beacon (2021)—a turret used by US police to watch over predominantly African American neighborhoods, transformed here by Ward into a musical platform—sounds and musical compositions are broadcast, created in collaboration with various groups and individuals living in Milan. These soundscapes, collected by the artist in partnership with various voluntary associations that help migrants arriving in the country, tell the story of a city rich in multiple cultures and languages. The dense fabric of sounds mixes music from Syria, voices from China, rap compositions from Algeria, hymns from Ukraine and Nigeria, Arab fairy tales, and conversations in Spanish, among many other voices.
The works in the changing rooms and the installations placed in the park and alongside the Centro Balneare Romano swimming pool imagine the city as a great open-air construction site, one where monuments, values, and ideals are in a constant state of flux. In a precarious yet perfect balance, they are in a condition of constant nomadism and transformation that Ward views as fundamental to the construction of a new, global, joyfully polyphonic identity.
Gilded Darkness, a video produced by Sky Arte, Media Partner of the exhibition.
Born in St. Andrew, Jamaica, in 1963, Nari Ward is one of the best-known contemporary artists of his generation.
Since the 1990s, his work has been exhibited at major international festivals—from the Venice Biennale (1993) and the Whitney Biennial in New York (1995) to Documenta XI in Kassel (2002)—and may be found in the collections of major international institutions, including: the Studio Museum in Harlem; Brooklyn Museum; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art; New York Public Library; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; ICA Boston; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; GAM, Turin; and the Istanbul Modern.
He has also received numerous awards and honors, including a United States Artists Fellowship (Chicago, 2020); the Vilcek Prize, Vilcek Foundation (New York, 2017); the Joyce Award, Joyce Foundation (Chicago, 2015); the Rome Prize, American Academy in Rome (2012); as well as awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1998), the Pollock-Krasner Foundation (1996), and the National Endowment for the Arts (1994). Furthermore, he has received various prestigious commissions from the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
Centro Balneare Romano
The Centro Balneare Romano—also commonly known as the Piscina Romano or Piscina Ponzio—is an outdoor sports facility that opened on July 28, 1929, in the Città Studi neighborhood to the east of Milan’s historic center. It is named after the Italian gymnast Guido Romano, who won the gold medal for Italy at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games.
Built between January and July 1929, following the designs of engineer and architect Luigi Lorenzo Secchi (1899–1992), its construction cost around a million lire at the time. The center was part of a larger program that foresaw the construction of two other city swimming pools, one for the summer and one for the winter—the Piscina Cozzi, the first entirely indoor pool in Italy, was inaugurated on May 3, 1934, and also designed by Secchi.
The Romano complex originally consisted of an elegant central building (which no longer belongs to the center), providing the original entrance to the facility on Via Ponzio, two symmetrical lateral constructions with gabled facades, decorated with cornices and pilasters and housing the changing rooms, and the swimming pool itself.
The pool was built in a rectangular shape—a hundred meters long and forty meters wide—and designed to accommodate 1,500 people at a time. The rectangle was considered best suited to exploit the space, and the corners were rounded to avoid spots where water might stagnate. The depth ranged from fifty centimeters (19 1/2 inches) to three meters (1 1/2 feet), and water was drawn directly from the ground beneath it, where four wells were drilled.
The central building currently houses the local police station of the Città Studi area. The two lateral pavilions continue to be part of the Centro Balneare Romano and are now used as showers and bathrooms.
The entrance is currently in a building erected in 1934 in the rationalist architectural style and used as changing rooms—the main facade of which looks onto Via Ampère. It provides access to the public park as well as the huge rectangular pool.
The Centro Balneare Romano is managed by Milanosport since 2003; in 2019 it has been reopened after major renovations.