Public Art

Susan Mc Ateer

After cycling about 20km in 30 degree heat in Italian wine country you get the feeling that you deserve a glass of wine, or 50. That the bikes were E-bikes - irrelevant - that it was red wine country and not white in that heat - unfortunate, but I’m a trooper. After wine tastings where you don’t avail of the spittoon, the last thing you would expect on your cycle out of La Morra (a beautiful village perched at the highest point of the Piemonte region) is a chapel so brightly painted that it stands out like a toy house amongst vast miles of vineyards. It wasn’t a surprise for me as I have a tendency to look up what’s happenin’ in the arts wherever I go, but when I caught the first glimpse of the Brunate Chapel I had to double take that it wasn’t a Barolo mirage (Barolo is a pretty big deal in red wine, said with the certainty that I knew that before my visit).

Brunate Chapel, Barolo Italy. Exterior designed by Sol LeWitt

Brunate Chapel, Barolo Italy. Exterior designed by Sol LeWitt

The Brunate Chapel was built in 1914 but was never consecrated, so instead it provided shelter from the weather for farmers or passersby. When wine estate Ceretto purchased 6 hectares of vineyards in Brunate in 1976, they inherited this chapel which had fallen into disrepair. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the estate decided to revive this building after an encounter with English artist, David Tremlett (b.1945). Tremlett was immediately taken with the idea and recruited his buddy Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), a giant in conceptual and minimalist art, to take part in the project.

Brunate Chapel interior designed by David Tremlett

Brunate Chapel interior designed by David Tremlett

The result of this collaboration is an explosion of colour in satisfying, measured harmony in the hilly Piemonte landscape. The exterior was designed by LeWitt and echoes his wall drawings which were a pivotal part of his artistic practise from the 1960s onwards. LeWitt began with monochrome wall drawings, and by 1975 he introduced colour to his bold graphic designs. Tremlett also creates large scale wall drawings and has been commissioned on various other occasions to adorn public buildings with his harmonious patterns. His public works are informed by the context of their location, including the British Council building in Nairobi and the British Embassy in Berlin.

Art intervenes with public places all the time. The confines of gallery walls have been challenged throughout the 20th and 21st century, and Brunate chapel is just one example of an art intervention in a seemingly unlikely context. Similar to the chapel which fell into disrepair, an aquatics building which was formerly part of a military base at Rockaway in Queens, New York, has been transformed by German artist Katharina Grosse (b.1961). Encroaching onto the beach, this building is a hollow shell which fell into steady decay following hurricane Sandy in 2012. This year MOMA P.S 1 (a contemporary exhibition space affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art New York) commissioned Grosse to transform the building. The artist spray painted the interior and exterior with vibrant reds and stark whites which transition and blend to reflect the hues of the Rockaway sunset. The building is due to be demolished later this year as it is structurally unsound, so it feels as though it has been granted one final hoorah to contribute to the Rockaway landscape. The temporary nature of this work, simply titled ‘Rockaway!’, allows a reflection on the transient and changing setting of Rockaway, and while it was a natural intervention that caused the initial change in this building, it will be human intervention that sees its final end.

Prada Marfa  2005, Elmgreen & Dragset. Image via Nan Palermo 

Prada Marfa 2005, Elmgreen & Dragset. Image via Nan Palermo 

While some artists are commissioned to work with existing structures, others create them from scratch. If you had too much time on your hands in the mid 2000s like my undergraduate self, you may have also followed the exploits of over privileged teens ruling the upper east side while dodging the rumour mill known as Gossip Girl. In between questioning whether all the romantic permutations had been exhausted yet, you might have noticed that in Lily Bass’s penthouse there was a clean stark image on the wall saying ‘Prada Marfa’ with an arrow (I think I’m going to have to look at Lily’s art another time, and we need to talk about how she posed for Robert Mapplethorpe). This poster refers to a work by German artist duo Elmgreen (b.1961) and Dragstat (b.1969) who erected a simple building in the Texan desert near Marfa and, with permission from the fashion house, decorated it as a mock Prada shop complete with shoes (just the left ones) and bags. The pair wanted to take luxury and consumerism and drop it in a desolate, empty, unexpected place. The idea was to leave the ‘shop’ unattended so that it would become a decrepit relic of capitalism, but unfortunately vandals appeared three days after its opening and the work was robbed and graffitied. If you came across somebody toting a Prada bag with spray paint cans hanging out, hobbling on one heel then IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE VANDALS AND YOU CRACKED THE CASE. But oddly nobody reported this. The original plan to let the building fall into disrepair changed and now the building is maintained in its original state.

Prada Marfa has crossed various boundaries between art, fashion and pop culture, and while this wasn’t the original intention, the artists hope that it sparks an interest in contemporary art; which is the real power of art in unexpected public contexts. Art galleries can feel like intimidating spaces, so by diffusing into people’s everyday lives, opportunities are created to pause, question, discuss and figure out what the fuck a Prada shop is doing in the desert or why a chapel in the Italian countryside looks like it’s on an acid trip!

Postscript - I am familiar with the work of Sol LeWitt but knew very little about David Tremlett before I encountered the Brunate Chapel. From my research I found out that David and I share the same birthday. Holla at my fellow aquarius.