Postcard from Naples: Shows Exploring the City's Layered History

From Glenn Ligon’s first solo exhibition in Italy, at Thomas Dane Gallery, to a unique project in an ancient Roman aqueduct

Enclosed by a golden frame, the small ‘window with a view’ created for the exhibition ‘Carta Bianca. Capodimonte Imaginaire’ (Carte Blanche. Imaginary Capodimonte) at the Capodimonte Museum, could be mistaken for a painting from a different century. Seen from a woody hilltop, the vista across to Mount Vesuvius and the blue horizon of the Gulf of Naples evokes the charms of the Grand Tour: a picture-perfect image that superimposes itself upon more dystopic versions of the city seen, for example, in the popular TV series Gomorrah (2014). Around the window, to enhance the trompe l’oeil effect, are 18th- and 19th-century paintings of idyllic forests selected by the contemporary landscape architect Paolo Pejrone, who is one of the ten ‘ideal visitors’ invited by the Capodimonte’s director, Sylvain Bellenger, and Andrea Viliani, the director of the local contemporary art museum, MADRE, to freely interpret the Capodimonte’s extraordinary historical collection of painting, sculpture and decorative art. A personal favourite is the room curated by the neurologist and science historian Laura Bossi Régnier. She framed her choices around the question ‘What makes us human?’ and included works such as Agostino Carracci’s mocking portrait Hairy Harry, Mad Peter and Tiny Amon (1598) displayed next to a porcelain statue by Filippo Tagliolini, Allegory of Painting (c.1880), in which mimesis is embodied by a pensive monkey in front of a canvas.

web_2018_05_gl_tdg-naples_ph.f.jpg

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (Siete Ospiti) (You Are Guests), 2018, installation view, Thomas Dane Gallery, Naples. Courtesy: Thomas Dane Gallery, Naples

With last year’s Documenta in Athens and this year’s Manifesta in Palermo, it would seem that Grand Tourism – and mining historical legacies – in the European South is on the rise. At Thomas Dane’s Neapolitan outpost in the elegant area of Chiaia, Glenn Ligon’s first solo exhibition in Italy, ‘Tutto poteva, nella poesia, avere una soluzione – In poetry, a solution to everything’ (a quote from a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini), looks at heritage as something embodied by language. The show includes a selection of Ligon’s paintings made from oil stick and coal dust, some neons, as well as a new series of monumental silkscreen and ink marker paintings, ‘Debris Field’ (2018). All of these works are in the artist’s signature black and white, with a notable exception: a blue neon, the colour of which echoes the view of the sparkling sea. The words its spells out, though, are less inviting: Untitled (Siete Ospiti) (You Are Guests, 2018) is a local, subtly threatening, football chant. Contemporary politics are in the air: Italy has transitioned from a nation whose history has been shaped by emigration, to a country where migrants and refugees are perceived as a threat and where racism is on the rise. Ligon is a master at investigating racial stereotypes and the ambiguity of written and spoken languages. Notes for a Poem on the Third World (Chapter One) (2018), is a black, painted neon in the shape of two hands raised in a gesture of surrender or protest. Its title is a reference to Pasolini’s eponymous project for a non-narrative film divided in five ‘Notes’ on India, the Middle East, Latin America, ‘black ghettoes’ in the US and sub-Saharan Africa, that for him symbolized ‘the coloured culture, i.e. an archaic, popular, preindustrial and pre-bourgeois culture’. In a famous scene from the film Notes for an African Oresteia (1970), Pasolini screens some of the footage he had filmed in Uganda and Tanzania to a group of African students at Rome University. A young Ethiopian man stands up and explains to the director that Africa is not a nation, but a continent, hence laying bare Pasolini’s colonialist perspective.

web_03-acquedotto-3_foto-antonio-picascia.jpg

Site of 'Underneath the Arches' contemporary art programme, Borgo Vergini-Sanità area, Naples, 2018. Courtesy: Underneath the Arches; photograph: Antonio Picascia

Ligon’s series of five of oil stick and coal dust on paper ‘Sole Nero’ (Black Sun, 2018) is part of the series ‘Negro Sunshine’ (2005–ongoing), which is titled after an expression the artist came across in Gertrude Stein’s story ‘Melanctha’ from Three Lives (1909). It alludes to another problematic Pasolinian reference: La negra luce (The Black Light), which is the chapter of a script for the unrealized movie Padre Selvaggio (Savage Father,) that Pasolini wanted to shoot in an African country in the immediate aftermath of independence; its main characters were to represent the fight between ‘enlightenment’ and ‘savagery’. Italy’s distorted perception of blackness is still shaped by the Fascist era, when the creation of the fictional myth of Italian ‘whiteness’ severed links with the pan-Mediterranean identity the country had experienced for centuries.

Another response to the city’s layered history is provided by ‘Underneath the Arches’, a project in an archaeological site. Curators Chiara Pirozzi and Alessandra Troncone invite artists to engage with an underground section of the ancient Augusteo del Serino aqueduct that was discovered in 2011 in the heart of the vibrant Rione Sanità area. Blind Horizon (2018) by the Mexican artist Arturo Hernández Alcázar is an installation that includes recordings he made across Naples and its peripheries. Immersed in the cold, dark, subterranean space, the flux of sounds emerge from a set of old megaphones, held in place by makeshift aggregates of stones, tubes and wires. To see the city, you need to close your eyes, listen and imagine.

Main image: Glenn Ligon, Notes for a Poem on the Third World (Chapter One), 2018, installation view, Thomas Dane Gallery, Naples. Courtesy: Thomas Dane Gallery, Naples

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator living in Milan, Italy.

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018