Villa Reale, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan
November 11 – December 14, 2008
Influenced by his background in economics and contemporary dance, Tino Sehgal does not produce objects, but rather confronts viewers with peculiar, surreal situations staged by dancers, actors, and even museum guards.
For his project with the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi at Villa Reale in Milan — home to Milan’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna, with its collection of 19th- and 20th-century masterpieces by figures such as Antonio Canova, Andrea Appiani and Medardo Rosso — the artist presents a unique selection of his human sculptures, showing new pieces alongside preexisting ones. This is the most comprehensive exhibition of Tino Sehgal’s work to date, and unfolds through a sequence of tableaux vivants hidden among the lavish decorations of the villa, the 19th-century artworks, and even the museum guards and visitors, in which the melodramatic gestures of the historic paintings seem to interact with Sehgal’s choreographies.
In This Is New (2003), the crude reality of everyday life invades the museum setting, enacted by a guard who recites the day’s headlines. In This Is So Contemporary (2004), other museum guards, seemingly possessed, draw visitors into a joyful, unsettling dance. Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000) is an anthology of the most famous segments by master video artists Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham, transformed into a hypnotically slow dance. In the same room as Francesco Hayez’s Maddalena (1834) and Pompeo Marchesi’s voluptuous Venere (1855), Tino Sehgal’s dancer writhes on the floor, simulating sublime ecstasy.
This Occupation (2005) is a story of malaise, a different look at our economic system and the world of work, in which a person describes his life on the fringes of society: a piece about how time is employed and transformed. In This Is Propaganda (2002), one of the museum guards breaks out into an aria whose haunting, melancholy notes seem to be a live commentary on the large painting that is shownin the room: Il Quarto Stato (1901) by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo.
All of Tino Sehgal’s work dialogues with history, while offering a unique opportunity to encounter art as a social experience, in which viewers and performers constantly exchange roles. In Villa Reale’s sumptuous ballroom, amid mirrors and crystal chandeliers, the two dancers in Kiss (2002) roll around on the ground and re-enact some of the most famous kisses in the history of art—from Antonio Canova, who happens to be featured in the Villa Reale collection, all the way to Jeff Koons, August Rodin and Gustav Klimt. In Selling Out (2002), art bares all: a dancer mimes a striptease that takes on a shade of irony in the context of Villa Reale, hinting at many new ways of thinking about art history and the power of the gaze.
Tino Sehgal’s work is also a reflection on the value and space assigned to art. Sehgal has chosen to forgo all documentation and reproduction of his pieces, concentrating—like an obsessive exercise in self-discipline—on the unique nature of art as a direct, physical experience: his work exists as a form of oral tradition, a legend, a tale that must be passed down and cannot be photographed, illustrated, or translated into images. Tino Sehgal’s choreographed situations even produce their own antibodies: in This Is Critique (2008), a new piece that winds up the exhibit, the artist calls himself into question, stimulating an animated philosophical discussion between the guards and visitors about his own approach.
Originally known as Villa Belgiojoso, Villa Reale is one of the most outstanding examples of Neoclassical architecture in Milan. Designed by Leopoldo Pollack—who studied under Giuseppe Piermarini, the architect responsible for Teatro della Scala—it was built between 1790 and 1796. Over the years, the villa was always linked to distinguished names and pivotal figures in Italian history. The “villa of delights”—as this form of architecture used to be called—was home to the French general and King of Naples Joachim Murat and his wife Caroline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister. Named President of the Italian Republic in 1802 and crowned King in 1805, Napoleon received the villa as a gift from the Italian state in 1802, spending time there with his wife Josephine de Beauharnais and receiving guests such as Princess Paolina Borghese. In the second half of the 19th century, Villa Reale became the residence of Austrian general Joseph Franz Radetzky. Seriously damaged during World War II, the villa lost its 18th-century stables, on whose foundations the contemporary art pavilion (PAC) was later built. Since 1921, it has been home to Milan’s Galleria d’Arte Moderna.
Tino Sehgal was born in London in 1976, and lives and works in Berlin. He studied economics and trained with dancers Xavier Le Roy and Jéröme Bel. The youngest artist ever invited to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale (in 2005, for the 51st International Art Exhibition), he has also had solo exhibitions at museums such as the Guggenheim in New York (2010), the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco (2009), the Kunsthaus Zürich and Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich (2009), Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall (2008), the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London—where he had three solo shows in 2007, 2006 and 2005—the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt (2007), the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (2007), the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (2006), the Kunsthaus Bregenz (2006), the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg (2005), and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (2004). Pieces by Tino Sehgal have also been featured at prestigious festivals such as the Yokohama Triennale (2008 and 2005), the 9th Biennale de Lyon (2007), the 4th berlin biennale (2006), the Tate Triennial at Tate Britain in London (2006), the 1st Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (2005), the Venice Biennale’s 50th International Art Exhibition (2003) and Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt (2002).
Villa Reale is one of Milan’s best-kept secrets, a little gem of a building where art history unfurls all the way from the restrained gestures of Antonio Canova’s sculptures to Futurism’s maelstroms of energy. With its succession of rooms and marbles on the ground floor and its sumptuous halls on the piano nobile above, the story of Villa Reale is deeply rooted in Milan’s Napoleonic period, and it is now the prestigious home of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, with a collection of 19th- and 20th-century masterpieces.
Originally known as Villa Belgiojoso, Villa Reale is one of the most outstanding examples of Neoclassical architecture in Milan. Designed by architect Leopoldo Pollack—who studied under architect Giuseppe Piermarini—it was built between 1790 and 1796 over the remains of the San Dionigi and Carcanine monasteries as a residence for Count Lodovico Barbiano di Belgiojoso, with an overall decorative scheme conceived by Enlightenment poet and intellectual Giuseppe Parini.
Upon Count Lodovico’s death, the villa passed through a succession of owners, though it was always linked to distinguished names and pivotal figures in Italian history. The villa of delights—as it was then known—was home to the French general and than King of Naples Joachim Murat and his wife Caroline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister. Named President of the Italian Republic in 1802 and crowned king in 1805, Napoleon received the villa as a gift from the Republic in 1802. He and his wife Josephine de Beauharnais also spent considerable time at Villa Reale, and famous aristocrat Paolina Borghese was a guest there in the same period. In the second half of the 19th century, Villa Reale became the residence of Austrian general Joseph Franz Radetzky.
The villa also includes a lush English garden stretching out behind the building. Designed like a small grove, it houses a rich variety of rare plants and trees and is known as the Giardino dei Bambini, since adults are admitted only if accompanied by children.
Inside, Villa Reale houses a significant collection of 19th-century art, including the last fresco by Andrea Appiani, whom Napoleon called “the leading painter in Italy”: Parnassus, with the Muses gathered around the god Apollo. One of the most important works of Italian Neoclassicism, Appiani’s fresco is located on the piano nobile, while on the ground floor, visitors can admire cartoons for the cycle of frescoes that the artist painted in the ancient sanctuary of Santa Maria presso San Celso, depicting the four Doctors of the Church and the four Evangelists.
The history of the museum at Villa Reale is inextricably tied to that of the city. As early as 1877, the municipal council began discussing the need to find a suitable home for its art collection. Built up through bequests from some of the most prominent families in Milan—Guasconi, Marchesi, Taverna, De Cristoforis—the city’s collection was installed at the villa with the aim of offering an educational tool to the public, and remained there until 1903, when it was moved to Castello Sforzesco.
During the First World War, the collection was transferred to Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome to escape the barbarities of the conflict, and when it returned to Milan, it was allocated to Villa Reale, which finally became the permanent home of the Museo dell’Ottocento.
From Antonio Canova’s suspended gestures to Rudolf Schadow’s classical poses, the sculptures in the collection stand alongside mythological compositions by Andrea Appiani and Gaspare Landi. Aristocratic life in the 19th century is portrayed by Francesco Hayez and Giovanni Carnevali (“il Piccio”) while just further on, Medardo Rosso turns space into a new sculptural vision. From the lofty simplicity and serene grandeur of Neoclassicism, by way of arcadian visions, bourgeois portraits, Romantic landscapes, sentimental atmospheres and complex theatrical devices, a visit to Villa Reale is a stroll through art history, but it is also a journey through Italian mannerisms, poses, and expressions: this is the land of melodrama.
The section of the villa dedicated to the collection of industrial magnate Carlo Grassi, on the second floor, preserves some of the best-known work by Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, alongside masterpieces by Giorgio Morandi and a series of rare gems by Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Edouard Manet.
Like many historic buildings in the city, Villa Reale was seriously damaged in the Second World War, losing, for example, the 18th-century stables over whose foundations the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea (PAC) was built. Only recently, through a complete restoration, did Villa Reale return to its original splendour, and the spaces of this ancient residence can now be visited in all their extraordinary charm.