One of the more peripatetic Italian artists of the time, Gilardi traveled extensively throughout Europe to gather information about experimental art and artists, and to help organize shows of their works in Italy. He is widely credited with introducing Italian viewers to the work of, among others, Richard Long, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Jan Dibbets and, perhaps most notably, Joseph Beuys, whom he met in Düsseldorf. Gilardi advocated artists’ autonomy within the art system and resisted the commercialization of the Arte Povera movement. Feeling increasing pressure from dealers to produce more of the ever-in-demand Nature-carpets, he tried to expand the scope of his work. Gilardi created a costume resembling tree branches and a series of folksy bricolage pieces, such as a wheelbarrow and sandals made of found materials, as well as polyurethane foam sculptures of logs and tree stumps that serve as seats and benches, all in keeping with the initially self-effacing tone of Arte Povera. After one of his principal dealers, Ileana Sonnabend, rejected these pieces for a 1968 solo show in Paris, demanding instead another series of Nature-carpets, Gilardi decided to call it quits. He continued to organize exhibitions, but by 1969 his differences had grown with Europe’s new curatorial elite, including Celant and Harald Szeemann, who, he felt, were allowing commercial interests to infiltrate too far into the exhibition process. Gilardi withdrew his support and assistance for a number of exhibitions when corporate sponsors like Philip Morris were allowed to dictate details of museum shows, and collectors and dealers, such as Leo Castelli, to buy out entire gallery exhibitions prior to public openings.3 He felt that the revolutionary spirit and idealistic purpose of Arte Povera were fast being diffused and diluted. So began Gilardi’s long self-imposed exile from Italy and the art world.
Gilardi drew on his “real world” experiences of the previous 10 years when he re-launched his art career in the early 1980s. He favored collaborative art projects aimed toward stimulating community involvement. Working with scientists and engineers, he developed elaborate installations incorporating virtual reality, interactive video and other electronic devices to stress the importance of technological research in raising environmental awareness. He has also revisited the Nature-carpets, and continues to produce increasingly elaborate and fanciful compositions in that series. The recent pieces are typically shown as wall reliefs of varying sizes encased in Plexiglas boxes. “Ruscello nella neve”(Stream in the Snow), a 2006 installation, features 10 circular Nature-carpets, some hung on the wall, others placed on the floor. Counter to the artist’s initial aims, the works no longer have an interactive element, since one cannot walk or lie on them. Presented as rarefied art objects, they continue to be the works for which the artist is best known. Gilardi bluntly admits to feeding the marketplace with the Nature-carpets by fulfilling collectors’ demands. Although to some degree compromising his youthful ideals, he directs the proceeds from the Nature-carpets toward his less marketable but more challenging new-media pieces, Bio-art experiments and other endeavors.
He also continues to be engaged to a certain extent with writing (particularly for PAV’s growing series of publications), performing and street theater. He presents a new theater piece in Turin each May Day and sometimes on other special occasions. Last year’s May 1 presentation, for example, addressed the worldwide banking crisis. Several performers on bicycles weaving through the May Day rally wore artist-designed animal costumes. According to Gilardi, the savvy Turin audience grasped the point that the costumes in the form of crocodiles, wolves and snakes referred to local banks and multinational financial institutions.
After several years of negotiations, the Turin government in 2004 accepted Gilardi’s proposal for an art and education facility and a recreational area accessible to the surrounding working-class community. It occupies abandoned industrial park, and is financed through a combination of local government funding and private donations. Working with a team of conservationists, landscape designers and curators, Gilardi commissioned for the park an expansive site-specific earthwork, Trèfle (2006), by French artist and landscape architect Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. The first work completed for the park and still the most prominent of the half-dozen outdoor installations at PAV, Trèfle features an enormous clover-leaf-shaped earth-and-stone mound several feet high. Gonzalez-Foerster based her overall design for the PAV installation on the floor plan of a medieval Coptic church in the holy city of Lalibela in Ethiopia. Covered with grass and bordered by tall, meticulously manicured wall-like hedges, the artist’s quiet green enclosure is accessible by means of two stone paths on opposite sides of the mound. One passage leads from the park’s ground level, while the other meanders alongside the mound, gently sloping for part of the way some 12 feet into the ground. A meditative stroll along this path is enhanced by the cascades of vines, flowering shrubs and other vegetation that have been carefully planted on the mound’s steep sides. The piece’s title (“three-leaved” in French) refers, in part, to the three elevations at which one can experience the work.
A more recently completed earthwork, Scavo (2009) by Spanish-born, Rotterdam-based artist Lara Almarcegui, is similarly engrossing. The work, a large (approximately 250-square-foot) trench, appears to be remnants of an archeological dig. The artist, who specializes in urban excavations, painstakingly removed layers of soil to investigate the various strata, and to analyze the natural and social history they reveal. In the process, she uncovered in successive layers of earth the ruined foundations of an early 20th-century factory, a 19th-century brick fountain, a medieval well, fragments of an ancient Roman wall and evidence of a Neolithic settlement. Finally, Almarcegui reached a level of “natural terrain” some 15 feet below the surface that is uncontaminated by human-made debris. As suggested in press material, visitors are to make their way down gradually into the pit to view the earth’s Ice Age stratum as part of a metaphoric exploration of memory and the unconscious.
Echoing these earthworks, the largest structure at PAV, the Bioma building, is surrounded by berms, making it appear to be a subterranean structure. Designed by Gilardi with architect Gianluca Cosmacini and interior designer Massimo Venegoni, the 9,500-square-foot facility features a 17-foot-high entrance hall off the main parking lot. The earthen berms are planted with grass and other vegetation so that, from a distance and certain angles, the structure completely melds with the landscape. Earthworks are planned for the structure’s grassy rooftop, and a large central courtyard is to be used for performances during the spring and summer. Tall windows on two sides fill most of the interior with natural light. But one area of the building contains Gilardi’s
“Bioma”(in the artist’s translation, “hybrid”), which is installed in an interconnected series of six small darkened galleries. Visitors part heavy black curtains to move from one intimate chamber to the next, each containing a large video screen built into one wall and, in the center of the room, a cluster of miscellaneous objects and electronic equipment. After the gritty ambience of the works outside, the interactive experience Gilardi offers here seems otherworldly. A sign above the entrance to “Bioma” invites visitors to “Please Touch.” At times, “Bioma”recalls the zany museum of curiosities assembled by the eccentric science professor Martial Canterel, the protagonist of Raymond Roussel’s 1914 novel Locus Solus. Each of five segments of Gilardi’s multifaceted installation, developed in collaboration with software designer Riccardo Colella, is devoted to one of the senses: Vegetal Mutation (sight), Odor Essences (smell), Nature Reliefs (touch), Mutable Sounds (hearing) and Waterplay (taste); a sixth display, Invisible Energies, imaginatively addresses the workings of the brain and extrasensory perception.