Rome’s Maxxi art museum aims to build creativity out of crisis

Two months ago the Maxxi museum in Rome was emptied entirely of its contents and its cavernous curved gallery spaces filled not with physical, permanent art but with intangible sound installations evoking the ancient city around it.
It was done purely for the purposes of a brief and quite radical exhibition, but it also proved a symbolic move for a modern art institution that has suffered considerable growing pains since it opened four years ago.
Just over a year and a half ago the Maxxi seemed doomed. The contemporary art gallery, designed by London-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, took 10 years to build and was saddled with a huge funding deficit almost from the moment it opened. , with The culture ministry reduced its initial funding for the building from €7m (£5.5m) in 2010 to €4m in 2011 – a 43% drop. In 2012 it was accused by the government of having a €800,000 gap in its budget.
In a city where the echoes of past architectural and cultural splendour are still dominant, the Maxxi has also struggled to establish a voice and presence of its own in Rome. Yet, for the first time, its fortunes are – contrary to the expectations of its many vocal critics – beginning to shift. This week, four new and ambitious exhibitions opened at the Maxxi, each unlike anything that has been staged there before and signalling a new beginning for this formerly precarious institution.
The driving force behind Maxxi’s rebirth is Chinese curator Hou Hanru, who last year took over as artistic director when the gallery was in the direst of straits. As a non-Italian director of a partially state funded art gallery, to many he seemed an unusual choice. Hanru defines it himself as an “unexpected encounter”.
But, in Italy’s insular world of cultural politics, it appears an outsider may have been exactly what was needed. He was under no illusions about the Maxxi’s parlous position, yet was drawn to the project by an interest in “taking charge of a new institution still in the process of becoming, still in the process of looking for an identity – and in the meantime going through a certain kind of crisis. I saw it as an opportunity to gain certain freedoms out of this urgency, to view this crisis as an opportunity.”
Hanru’s vision has not been simply as a showcase for Italian contemporary art but rather a space with a global perspective. That vision has become fully realised in the four exhibitions that have just opened, including a showcase of Korean video and new media art since the 1970s and an exhibition of the monumental sculptures of Chinese avant-garde artist Huang Yong Ping – both of which opened on Friday – as well as another major show of Iranian art from the 1960s, which opened last week.

“Yes, it’s true it was a big challenge to take on,” said Hanru. “The general belief when I got here was that there was no money and nobody was going to the museum. So I just said, well maybe one has to look at that in a more dynamic manner and to see that there were a lot of reasons this had happened and therefore a possibility to change things. There are so many wonderful artworks created in history in the mostdifficult situations, when artists did not even have anything to eat, so I thought, why can’t it be the same thing for the Maxxi – to be given a new life born out of difficulty. This difficulty has pushed us to think outside the box, to create a museum unlike anywhere else and that can contribute a very different kind of intellectual and cultural content to life and to society.”
He added: “It is a global vision I had for the Maxxi. This country actually is a very young nation and it is a very decentralised community, with a huge multiplicity of cultural identities. And also this is traditionally a country of emigration- you have Italian diasporas around the world- but is also a country that is at the frontier of Europe, facing an influx of people from African, Asian and Mediterranean nations, so it has always been a transitional place. So the challenge for me was how to somehow create a relevant, cultural, artistic platform for this transition?”
One of the most outward looking exhibitions on Hanru’s newly opened programme is The Future is Now, the first comprehensive show of pioneering Korean video and digital art ever held in Europe. Divided into four parts, it examines everything from the relationship between art, technology and the spiritual, to the impact of technology on modern psychology and even as a political platform for messages about social change and gentrification.
Particularly powerful pieces on show include a 2004 work by Jeong Jeong-ju, titled Seodaemun Prison, which combines black and white footage behind the bars of a prison with a scaled-down physical model of the place which has become a symbol of Japanese cruelty and oppression during their colonial rule of Korea from 1910 until 1945.
Another piece of video art, titled New Ghost Town, by artist Minouk Lim, shows young people driving through a Korean town rapping on the back of a truck, in a comment on gentrification, while the exhibition’s most eye-catching piece is an installation by artists Bang and Lee, titled Transparente Studio, which confronts the viewer with a clash of analogue and digital, and east and west art and politics, through various screens, televisions and neon signs of both biblical and consumerist slogans.
Next year the gallery will host a show examining the relationship between the urban and visual arts in Istanbul and the year after, an exhibition focused on Beirut and the Lebanese art scene. A show on food security around the world is scheduled.
However, it has been far from an easy transition for the Maxxi’s new artistic director and Hanru admits it has been a struggle to win round the Italian public, particularly when the country is facing a severe economic crisis and art has been pushed to the bottom of the national agenda. Yet, as the public opinion of Maxxi has over the past year become more positive, the culture ministry and other funders have followed suit with their support. The government gives Maxxi a grant of €6m, enough to “keep the lights on”, and it operates on a 58:42 ratio of public to private and sponsorship funding – an improvement on the 72:28 ratio two years ago. Each of the four newly opened exhibitions had private sponsors, patrons or co-productions in the forms of other international galleries. It aims to have an equal split of public-private finance in three years.
Another fundamental problem was the gallery space itself. The curvaceous geometry and snaking galleries of Hadid’s design, while praised as impressive architecture, were criticised for being an impractical and even reductive space for hanging and displaying art. Yet Hanru has wholeheartedly embraced its eccentricities. “This building is based on a very clear vision of neo-liberal capitalism – it’s all steel and concrete and glass; it could easily be an airport building, or a shopping mall,” said Hanru. “Of course this is a very strange building but if there’s no challenge then it’s not interesting. I’m not interested in making a comfortable gallery, something that is just the consumption of art.” I don’t think it is a competition between the building and the art, I think it just forces an engagement. If you want to create a new society based upon a given society, you think about the vision of the revolution but you also have to go through a long process of engaging with the given reality and come up with different manners of occupation. So that’s how I approach it with the gallery space and the art I want to put in that space.”
Indeed, it is undeniably a space that lends itself almost perfectly to the sculptures of Yong Ping, in particular the namesake piece of his exhibition, Baton Serpent, a monumental 30-metre long aluminium skeleton of the serpent, inspired by Chinese and pagan mythology as well as the serpent that emerges from Moses’ staff in the Bible. The giant silver snake hangs, elevated high within the curved gallery, as if it was designed especially for the twisting fluid space. With other works in Yong Ping’s exhibition grappling with highly current themes of religion and cultural conflict in his characteristically provocative sculptures, it once again illustrates Hanru’s determination to make sure the Maxxi’s programme is relevant not just in the Italian contemporary art scene but on the global stage.
“Slowly we are saying who we are, an open platform for creativity and an open platform for research,” said Melandri.
“Hanru brought a very global perspective and a very open perspective … his vision is a very participatory and radical vision and I think that’s what’s working. We’ve overcome our challenges, this is not to be doubted or discussed any more.”

Hannah Ellis-Petersen
Rome’s Maxxi art museum aims to build creativity out of crisis
19 December 2014