Let me say it straight off the bat and in feminist, matrixial celebration: I love Turin, and Piedmont as a whole. My mother was from Piedmont and studied philosophy at the University of Turin on Via Po, the same street where Arte Povera artist Giulio Paolini still has his studio today. An archaeologist, she taught me how to read the present by using the keys of the past in a layered sense of co-present temporalities, rather than any notion of linear time.
As it happens, Paolini was one of the first artists to participate in Luci d’Artista, a great Turin tradition that started in the 1990s. Each winter, to celebrate the holiday season, city officials ask artists to create light installations for the historic city center. In 1998 Paolini made a piece called Palomar, an homage to Italo Calvino’s 1983 novel, Mr. Palomar, about a character who observed himself observing from the outside all the complexity of the world, seeking fundamental truths about time and infinity.
A few months before the coronavirus broke out in Turin, the 2019 edition of Luci d’Artista featured Roberto Cuoghi’s piece M I R A C O L A, for which he periodically darkened an entire city square by having a computer control all the private and public lights in Piazza San Carlo. A clear case of the visionary potential of art, it was eerily prescient of the pandemic lockdown. It also spoke to the fragility of artificial intelligence in the future of our cities—how easy it might become for so-called “smart technology” to be hacked, resulting in a takeover of our lights, our heating, our entire lives.
Turin (or Torino, as we call it here) is the capital of the Piedmont (Piemonte) region—a flat plain al pié del monte, “at the foot of the hills.” The name “Torino” descends from the name of the original Neolithic Celtic-Ligurian Taurini people who inhabited the area thousands of years ago. Later on, in the 1st century BCE, it was colonized, and an ancient Roman town was established in the location; since that time, the Latin word “taurus” (bull) has become the symbol of the city. In the 11th century, the ruling House of Savoy moved through marriage from across the French Alps, making the area where the rivers Po and Dora meet the capital of their Duchy and, later, of their kingdom.
Turin, which became the first capital of modern Italy upon the country’s unification in 1861, is surrounded by an incredible natural landscape, a crescent of tall snow-capped Alps only 20 minutes away from forests and rivers that have provided hydroelectric power since the mid-20th century. But these snowy peaks will be white for only so many more years, as they are melting due to climate change. On clear days, from downtown Turin, we see these mountains, and they remind us of geological time, Big History, the power of nonhuman life, and the world all around us offline.
Any tour guide will remind you that for centuries Turin has had two complementary identities related to the mystical world of magic. Along with London and San Francisco, it forms the triangle of Black Magic; with Lyon and Prague, it also forms the triangle of White Magic. This esoteric quality of the city has created the perfect setting for a metaphysical approach to life, which may explain why Turin is home to the famous Shroud, a cloth relic supposedly imprinted with the sweat of the body of Christ. The esoteric quality of Turin may also explain why the Italian film industry started here in the early 1900s, since the immateriality of the filmic image was at the time associated with ideas of magic.
This may also be why Turin was Friedrich Nietzsche’s favorite city. Nietzsche loved Turin’s distinctive Baroque architecture, distant in spirit from the hustle and bustle of late 19th-century progress- and production-oriented modern European cities. He moved here in 1888, wrote Ecce Homo, went mad after seeing a horse being beaten in Piazza Carignano, and later retreated from the world to compose late romantic music and study the mating habits of eagles that soared over the mountains nearby.
The alchemical and magical nature of Turin also provided a fertile context for contemporary art to emerge in the mid-1960s, when Arte Povera developed in contrast with the modern industry of the so-called postwar miracolo italiano. Conceptual art in general and Arte Povera in particular owed much to an approach that defined art as a form of embodied philosophy. Arte Povera works celebrated transformation and organic processes of change in materials themselves, visualizing forms of otherwise invisible energy flowing through the world.
In Turin, living alongside artists of the Arte Povera generation such as Paolini, Giuseppe Penone, Giovanni Anselmo, Gilberto Zorio, and Michelangelo Pistoletto is like living alongside the titans of a long-ago mythological era whom you might literally meet at the coffee shop, if you’re lucky. An internationally driven group, when at home in Turin, they are discreet but curious about what emerging artists are doing now.
There are plenty of opportunities for a new generation to create art in Turin, a city that today feels like a cross between Paris and Detroit: stately but with an industrial edge and, most important for artists, affordable living. Like Paris, Turin is beautiful and old, with 18th-century Baroque palaces in its city center and small restaurants with great food grown locally and revered according to the principles of Slow Food, a movement founded in Piedmont by Carlo Petrini in the ’80s near the vineyards in Langhe. There are theaters, concert halls, galleries, and museums, including the first museum of Italian contemporary art, Castello di Rivoli, which was founded here in 1984 and which I have had the pleasure of directing since 2016; and the Museo Egizio, the world’s most renowned museum of Egyptian art outside of Cairo. Other important art spaces include the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, dedicated to international contemporary art, and the Fondazione Merz, which organizes important exhibitions of Arte Povera artists as well as younger international peers. Major private collectors coexist here, some of whom are public facing, like Patrizia Sandretto, and others who prefer anonymity. Lavazza, the international coffee company whose headquarters are in downtown Turin, recently opened a new space called Nuvola for exhibitions, conferences, and great food. In 2017, in a former train car repair factory near Porta Susa station, the OGR (Officine Grandi Riparazioni) opened with spaces for concerts and exhibitions, as well as office space for high-tech industries.
Like Detroit, Turin used to be a world center of auto manufacturing, with FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) churning out cars from the 1950s until the 1980s, when the firm moved its factories out of Italy after a period of great social unrest and union clashes. Like Detroit, too, the city declined in population, contracting from 1.2 million to about 850,000 people today.
Owing to this, what most tourists and art enthusiasts see when they come to Turin is a city surrounded by a huge belt of former factories and abandoned industrial spaces, as well as former residential areas for workers that provide low-cost rentals for artists to live in and studio spaces that are almost free. This explains why artists like Elena Mazzi and Cally Spooner are moving here, and why young artists like Renato Leotta, Alice Visentin, Irene Dionisio, Ramona Ponzini, and Guglielmo Castelli stay. Torinos enjoy a high standard of living coupled with a low cost of living.
Also like Detroit, Turin has a vibrant underground experimental music scene with people like Sergio Ricciardone and his Club to Club festival that organizes music events. The crossover between music and art is ever present. This Paris-Detroit hybrid nature accounts for innovations like Combo, a pilot project that debuted in 2019 and mixes high design with communal living at hostel-like prices.
For a time, the pandemic put a halt to all of this. Italy was the second country to be overwhelmed by Covid-19, after China, and strangely enough, when it hit, we at the Castello di Rivoli were opening an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art from the Uli Sigg collection, organized in collaboration with the M+ Museum in Hong Kong and curated by Castello’s chief curator, Marcella Beccaria. I remember thinking that the virus’s spread created a sense of different temporalities between different places, as we experienced things two weeks before London and one month before New York. This meant experimenting every day, trying to adapt and be relevant to our local community more than ever before.
The year before had been a major turning point for the Castello di Rivoli. We opened our third building, the Cerruti Villa, adjacent to the Castello, and became the first contemporary art museum to incorporate an encyclopedic collection—the priceless holdings of Francesco Federico Cerruti, with works ranging from the trecento to the late 20th century—which was entrusted to us in 2017, two years after he died. It has been poignant this lockdown year to look at the paintings by Giorgio de Chirico in the empty villa; the inspiration for these eerie, timeless paintings of empty urban space was the city of Turin itself.
The villa is integral to a project I had already started developing—together with philosophers and artists at our Castello di Rivoli Research Institute—called the Slow Museum, in which art is not shown in abstract white-cube spaces or defined by a universal, single art-historical narrative. It is not kept separate from the social context of its provenance—who collected it and why. It is an attempt to shift the modern museum toward a more intimate dimension of the meaning and experience of art. All museums contain historical art that belonged to a specific individual at some specific time, with specific memories, desires, preconceptions, and visions.
The Castello was the first museum in the West to shut down, and in May we became the first to experiment with reopening. The experience of opening the Cerruti Villa offered an important and immediate lesson in how to create a secure and open museum for limited numbers of visitors. We put together programs that underlined the importance of physical, sensorial, phenomenological, and local experience in the production of knowledge, like our outdoor program “La Risalita,” for which artists create artworks for a former public escalator connecting the township of Rivoli to the Castello above, and our cinema beach program, “Pestifera” (“Infectious”), which explored pandemics in film since Otto Rippert’s Die Pest im Florenz (1919), made during the Spanish influenza pandemic.
In December, our beloved chairman Fiorenzo Alfieri died of Covid-19, and our museum soon after began plans to support Italy’s national vaccination plan by offering our galleries as a space for administering the vaccine. Art has always helped, healed, and cured, and our museum has enough space for safe, physically distanced interactions and friendly guides who are trained in monitoring the public. As I write this, artist Claudia Comte, whose murals cover the 10,000-square-foot third floor of the Castello, is preparing a soundtrack to play in these spaces while the vaccinations are given. Cultura Italiae, a group of Italian cultural leaders, was inspired by our initiative and proposed a national campaign to reopen the nation’s shuttered cultural spaces as vaccination centers.
Beyond our activities in the public health sphere, we are committed to creating an accessible, pluralistic space to serve our community. I predict the Castello will have a mainly local focus until 2023, although plans for Nigerian-born, Antwerp-based Otobong Nkanga’s solo exhibition are well underway for later this year. (A former student of Penone in Paris, Nkanga’s connections with Arte Povera run deep, and in 2017 our museum commissioned her artwork Kolanut Tales: Slow Stain, now in our permanent collection.)
What comes next? Throughout history, expressionism in art tends to emerge in parallel with things like pandemics, wars, and social unrest—which themselves arise as part of the dark underbelly of progress. This spring, we plan to open “Espressioni. The Proposition,” an exhibition that investigates how expressionism emerges in tandem with scientific and technological inventions. Caravaggio’s Narcissus (ca. 1597–99)—a work in the exhibition in which a young Narcissus gazes into murky water and sees not so much his reflection but his own dead body—feels relevant to the narcissism of the digital age and to the art of Anne Imhof, whose solo show here coincides with “Espressioni.”
We are, after all, at the crossroads of the digital revolution, on the one hand, and post-humanism, on the other—a period in which the autonomy and agency of human beings is required constantly, even as it is questioned, and even derided. Our bodies—their fragility and their inability to be healthy and perform better than any AI—have become the focus of so many artists who are attuned to our bodies’ boundlessness and entangled-ness with other species, and who celebrate our bodies’ effectiveness as sensorial verifiers of our being alive. I see evidence of this in the performance work of artist and actress Silvia Calderoni, whose radical intersectional work is often presented in Turin. She is extremely expressive and performs with an androgynous, multispecies vitality, reminding us of the essence of being alive even as most of us live in the virtual worlds of our phones.
Artist and documentary filmmaker Irene Dionisio recently said to me of being in Turin, “Everything is immobile and still here; to be free here, you need to pull back and withdraw.” Some of Turin’s best artists, like Carol Rama and architect Carlo Mollino, made their work withdrawn from society. Up on a hill outside of town, the museum—also in a sense withdrawn—is free to experiment. Dionisio is working on germ theory now, as well as on Tiepolo’s Mondo Nuovo (1791), and will create a film and video installation about our contemporary obsession with the idea of a new Garden of Eden that is technologically and ecologically sound. She worries about the “doubling of space with digital space, thus reducing life space” and the “retreat of public space, the increase of hygienic, secure, and controlled spaces, which is what people actually want now.”
As she says, “Things happen in Turin first, then they happen everywhere in Italy.”