• Essay

  • February 4th, 2019 02.04.2019

    Paul Thorel: Passaggio Della Vittoria and Naples’ Battle for Contemporary Art


    Courtesy Fondazione Donnaregina per le arti contemporanee, Napoli. Foto © Amedeo Benestante.

    Before the Museo MADRE opened in 2005, there was no dedicated museum for contemporary art in Naples. Temporary exhibitions were staged in dialogue with classical art or archology at museums such as the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli and public programs were initiated—contemporary art was incorporated into the architecture of metro stations and annual installations were erected in the Piazza del Plebiscito, but these did little to establish contemporary art vividly within the city’s DNA. When the institution opened, along with several site-specific, permanent installations by artists such as Richard Serra, Robert Morris, Francesco Clemente, Jeff Koons, and Rebecca Horn, the core of the Museo MADRE’s permanent collection was made up of works that were on indefinite loan rather than being owned outright. This neglect in fostering its permanent collection was, in essence, a case of trying to run before being able to walk, and, as a result, following a well-publicized scandal about the financial aspects of its 2009 exhibition Barock, led to the majority of the pieces being revoked and the Museo MADRE facing imminent closure.

    Since the appointment of Andrea Viliani as director in 2012, the institutional mission has been to right this, instead developing the museum’s permanent collection through the implementation of an experimental program, entitled Per_formare una collezione (2013-). Through this platform, invited artists are asked to specifically create or donate exhibited artwork to the permanent collection through temporary exhibitions, special projects, and commissions. In this way, Museo MADRE looks to address where and how contemporary art fits into the socio-cultural landscape of Naples—as both a home and as a tourist destination—as well as to where its position lies within the broader scope of the ever-evolving international art industry.

    This brings us to the latest chapter of the program, Passaggio della Vittoria (2018), by Paul Thorel, a mosaic located in the central courtyard that stands as a symbol of the program’s success so far. The piece also heralds an underlying sea-change in the city’s embracement of contemporary art that the Museo MADRE has been the catalyst for.

    Named after and inspired by the mosaic-lined tunnel that connects east and west Naples, it consists of 1,832,400 small tiles that line the walls of the passageway in the central courtyard, which bridges the area where temporary exhibitions take place with the area that houses the original site-specific, permanent installations. By siting the mosaic here, as a permanent installation, Thorel’s work draws physical attention to the Museo MADRE’s ongoing transformation; the artist activates the space between its past and its present by granting visibility and providing a reason for audiences to explore beyond the temporary exhibitions and the site-specific, permanent installations.

    Set atop a white background, the mosaic depicts a series of interlocking lines that weave, evolve, and disappear into one another like the strands on a piece of thread, in various shades of grey and accentuated by lines of reds, blues, yellows, and purples. These lines exist in a grey area between abstraction and representation. While at first the image is not entirely clear, what you are looking at is the result of Thorel superimposing photographs of seascapes that he slightly rotates each time, over and over again, until they become so distorted that they are on the cusp of embodying something new entirely. With ability to move freely around the passageway, the work envelops and rewards the skill of the craftsmanship and labor needed to transform the source image into a physical mosaic that fits the space. Viewing the work from the walkway that runs across the middle of the passageway, you are only able to see one side or the other clearly at a given time—in this way, the true extent of the work’s slow-revealing power is experienced.

    The question arises: why has it been assigned to the Museo MADRE to spearhead this shift in attitude? The primary reason is the unique position it finds itself in. As the first and only museum in Naples dedicated to contemporary art, there is a unique degree of visibility and audience engagement that allows for public opinion and interest to be perked and sustained, both nationally and internationally, that was not available before. Second, the commercial-side of the art industry in the city lacks the robustness and cultural cache that galleries such as Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, or White Cube, for example, provide to cities like London or New York. Nevertheless, Naples has been quietly buoyant within the international art market since the early 1970s—this does not look like it will change any time soon. Yet, audiences have proven to be an obstacle; Naples is a city entrenched in its own ancient history and there has been, and still is to a far lesser degree, an irreverence towards contemporary art that is somewhat unique to the collective thinking of Neapolitans.

    Detail of Paul Thorel’s Passaggio della Vittoria. Courtesy Fondazione Donnaregina per le arti contemporanee, Napoli. Foto © Amedeo Benestante

    In 1995, for example, keen to establish the city in a new lease of life by capitalizing on a political and municipal renaissance, Mimmo Paladino was commissioned as the first artist in an annual program that saw public artworks take center stage in the Piazza del Plebiscito. The result, La Montagna di Sale, which consisted of a mountain of salt with resin horses jutting out of it, was lauded by critics internationally but its existence was scorned by locals, who took to mocking it by adding their own salt and oblivious tourists would take a piece home, thinking it was a token of good luck. In 2002, Rebecca Horn placed 333 metal skulls in the piazza, some of which were stolen but immediately replaced and when Sol LeWitt installed Concrete Walls in Progressions there in 2005, the walls were soon found to be filled with rubbish. But Thorel is confident that this is mostly a thing of the past. “Contemporary art has become necessary,” he says. “The Museo MADRE is an integral part of the city and has overcome the vicissitudes of the past too often linked to politics and now it has solid roots in his city.”

    From the walkway, the shadows formed by the vaulted ceiling, which allow daylight to subtly transform the luminosity of the tile’s reflective surfaces depending on the time of day and type of light, are made more prominent and more abstract in your field of vision. This gives the passageway a sudden sense of animation and the work begins to reframe itself as a metaphor for Viliani’s vision. The lines become fluid, like cresting waves or horizon lines shimmering in the distance, snaking around and under you, inducing a false sense of vertigo that, combined with the flashes of color that flicker in the corners of your eyes, keep you constantly turning on the balls of your feet.

    A strange tension is created between the two experiences of the work. It is the same tension that exists in Thorel’s photographic work that is only perceptible within a certain distance from the photograph; too close to it and it seems merely abstract, too far away from it and it seems to be only representational. Here, as you find yourself oscillating between this ethereal environment and the known architecture of the space’s entrance and exit, viewers are caught in world that exists between abstraction and figuration; it is intoxicating.

    William Davie is a writer based in London who regularly contributes to Ambit Magazine, American Suburb X, and The Brooklyn Rail and served as editor at This is Tomorrow.