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Maxxi-mum Exposure

Is Rome’s newest museum an ornament, or not?

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By JAMES GARDNER
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Even visitors who know Rome well are unlikely to venture north along the Via Flaminia, beyond the Aurelian Walls that encircle most of the city. Compared with what lies inside the walls, and with a few exceptions beyond, there is little to see in this clean and barren part of town. Though the streets are graced with names like Via Sandro Botticelli and Via Guido Reni—this is still Italy, after all—most of the drab building stock evokes the postwar years, and there is little or no street life.


The Maxxi, interior

AFP / Getty

But recently a new kind of creature has been spotted in these parts. Male or female, it is clearly foreign—usually German or French or American—and is arrayed in such varied plumage as you might see in Chelsea, on London’s Cork Street, or at the sundry art fairs of Basel and Brazil. And each time you encounter such creatures in these parts, you know exactly where they are going or where they have just come from: the new Maxxi museum, which opened last summer. Its full title is Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo, or National Museum of the Arts of the 21st Century.

Though Rome has hardly been without artists in recent years, the remoter past weighs so heavily upon its living citizenry, as well as upon visitors, that few people associate it with any important contemporary developments, as they might Venice or Milan. And even with the much-publicized opening of Maxxi, one has the vivid sense that most tourists, having come to Rome for the Pantheon and Colosseum, will not make it this far north along the Via Flaminia. Let it also be said that, on a recent visit to the museum, I do not believe that I saw a single Roman.

And yet, someone apparently felt that Rome needed a contemporary art museum, and not just any, but one designed by Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, winner of the Pritzker Prize and, by general consent, the most “advanced” architect of the moment. Before we go any further, however, let us delve a little more deeply into that word, “advanced.” In the semiotical context that Hadid favors, it surely qualifies as a “floating signifier.” That is, it is essentially, crucially voided of any real meaning beyond its being an honorific term roughly equivalent to “good.” As such, the “most advanced” architect is synonymous with the “best”—even if the criteria by which that assumed excellence is ascertained are never spelled out or understood. Certainly the attribution of vanguardism (or whatever you want to call advanced-ness these days) no longer has to do with any formal system or program, as was the case with Modernism. Rather, it has to do with a vague attitude of relevance, of cutting edges, of contemporaneity.

That the Maxxi should be consecrated to contemporary art was probably a bad idea to begin with. For one thing, its collection is not very good or interesting or even representative of the generality of artistic practice at the present time. It consists of the usual, if somewhat arbitrarily selected, stars of the international art scene (Anish Kapoor, William Kentridge, Gilbert and George, etc.) and many more Italians who are apt to be unknown beyond, or even within, the borders of the Bel Paese. As for the building itself, both in its huge dimensions and pretentious massing, it seems altogether too established, too solid and permanent, for a movement as decentralized and anarchic as contemporary art is supposed to be. The smaller, humbler scale of the recently completed New Museum on the Bowery in Manhattan seems far more appropriate to that museum’s equally contemporary mission. By comparison, the Maxxi feels about as antiestablishment as the Pentagon, and leaves no doubt as to where the power, muscle, and sheer monetary heft of contemporary culture reside.

Nor does it help that the first two major exhibitions staged at Maxxi are devoted to dead cultural figures, one a fairly mediocre painter and installation artist named Gino De Dominicis, the other Luigi Moretti, an accomplished architect, to be sure, but a Modernist, rather than a contemporary, who died almost 40 years ago. (His most famous project, by the way, was the Watergate complex in Washington.)

As attested in this latest project, as well as in many earlier ones, the dominant aesthetic of Hadid’s architecture consists in transposing the aesthetic of mid-20th-century infrastructure—highways, garages, airports, and the like—to postindustrial buildings of all sorts. The Maxxi alludes, perhaps inadvertently, to such antecedents as Pier Luigi Nervi’s railway station in Naples, as well as his bus terminal under the George Washington Bridge in Upper Manhattan. There is also a bit of Paul Rudolph thrown in for good measure. But while Nervi and Rudolph were Modernists who generally respected symmetry and the laws of gravity, Hadid is a deconstructivist who seeks, through the metaphors of form, to convey the flux and instability that she and many others find in the modern world.

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