Arte Sella 2010
I first came to Arte Sella to make a work in 1994, an image of that work will be in the Tate’s 2011 calendar. Arte Sella is a site specific Art and Nature organisation in the beautiful high Sella valley just south of the Dolomites, close to the town of Borgo Valsugana in the Italian Alpes. It was the brain child of an art teacher, an architect and a young artist who were on a trip to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. While standing in front of the tomb of Tamerlane they had the idea to create the conditions for a site specific art aligned to their own particular region of the world.
The organisation has gone through several incarnations and has now grown into an incredibly successful site specific contemporary art and music venue dedicated to Art and Nature and attracting up to 100,000 visitors a year. The extraordinarily beautiful forested valley with its flower meadows surrounded by limestone mountains is what really strikes you first about the place, and when walking the trail it is nature that is the dominant feature and the art is almost incidental, for the ethos here is that the art should be a part of this nature. It does however attract a huge number of people and it has to be said that its current incarnation is entirely down to the vision and drive of that one young artist – Emanuele Montibeller, who while running this amazing institution, only gave up his day job of selling fabric in the local markets, as recently as 2007. Arte Sella, has not only transformed the valley but it has benefited the local economy to a considerable extent. To read more about the place visit: http://www.artesella.it/eng.
Back in 1994 about 8 international artists were invited to come to Arte Sella and make something in return for hospitality, good food and wine, a catalogue and a traveling show of images of the work made, throughout Italy the following year + our expenses and what amounted to pocket money. We all stayed in the same house, had fun and got to know each other. The works we made were all temporary and have long gone. From this small gathering and through the other artists, I was later invited to make projects in Japan, America and Germany and was also instrumental in inviting some those artists to Britain. Now in 2010, the story is very different and I am here on my own staying in the Malga Costa, and being paid a fair fee for a large and permanent work.
The work I made in 1994 paid tribute to the mountain which dominates the valley and which is often invisible because of the thick forest. In this work called Tree Mountain Shelter, you entered a mountain shaped structure from which there was a view out through a narrow slit window, through the trees to the mountain wall. At the end of the project Patrick Dougherty and I climbed that mountain. On the invitation of Emanuele, I returned in 2008 to think about a new work, but strangely my first instinct to pay tribute to the mountain was still strong even though the site was different. I searched the area around the Malga for a site within trees, but with a view of the mountain. The only site where all the criterion were met was a amongst some dark pine trees adjacent to Guilliano Mauri’s Tree Cathedral.
I knew for a fact the when Mauri first made this, his last great work that he didn’t want any other work within a mile of it. The thing about Arte Sella however is that large egos have no place, works have to play second fiddle to nature and must rub along with each other. The Tree Cathedral is amazing and I have seen whole coach loads of Italian Catholics stand close to it and sing. The Pope has even expressed a wish to visit. In time however its only human connection will be the four straight rows of planted Beech trees; all the outer wood construction, enclosing the young trees will fall away and be forgotten. By placing a stone structure close by I will reconnect this Cathedral of beech trees back to the human impulse to create. My stone beehive structure will be a kind of ante Chapel or Rondello to the trees. The group of trees surrounding the work are in themselves, dark and enclosing, shielding the stone structure from the cathedral. A group of four of these trees is remarkable as one of the Fir trees is old, huge and gnarled and the three conifers entwine themselves around a single oak which spreads its lighter green leaves in amongst the darker pine needles.
So the idea which slowly evolved over 2008 – 9 was to make a cloud chamber which by means of an aperture angled at the mountain would project an image inside, of the mountain and sky, upside down. In time of course the tops of the trees of the Cathedral will become part of the image. The work would be made from the same limestone as the mountain itself. I was in two minds about the shape of the building – one part of me felt that a chapel like oratory would fit, but another part of me wanted the more archaic and mysterious beehive which would seem to fit the dark space within the fir trees. When I arrived in mid May I still hadn’t made up my mind, but the weather at the time was crystal clear and for the first time, just 30 m. from the site, looking North west was a clear view of the Brenta Dolomites. Their jagged snow covered spires echoed the conical shape of the structure I had in mind – so beehive it was.
I had estimated 150 tons of stone and asked for a team of skilled dry-stone wallers who could build such a corbelled structure. In the event no such expertise existed in the area. The valleys grow fruit and vegetables and there is no need for field enclosures in the high pastures – so there are no stone walls. Building with modern materials has done for any of the old building skills. Arte Sella however is a strongly socialist organization, taking into account the needs of the people of the area. No one gets paid huge sums including the artists and it works because it makes good use of what is available in the area. Within the local commune their exists a system of giving people who are out of work and approaching retirement a job in return for a living wage. It is a social system, and four of these men have the job of renovating the sculptures, making fences and generally taking care of the area around the Malga. One of these men was astonishingly the only guy in the whole region who knows how to build with dry-stone. My own ethos is also always to use what is locally available in both materials, labor and expertise.
I had expected, aged 62 to have the roll of director of works, but in the event I was the only one who knew how to make a corbelled building, and what we had in this instance was a ground plan where a rectangular interior is surrounded a circular exterior, so as we built up, the square walls would need to become a circular ceiling and that is not easy. On top of this I was told that the health and safety regulations for people on the social scheme stated that they could not work above 2 meters – and the building was going to be nearly 5 meters tall. Reno, the expert in dry-stone walling and the self appointed foreman, got round this by building an ingenious system of wooden scaffolding that satisfied his need for safety – up to 4 meters anyway. Plus it was a long way for any health and safety officials to come and inspect! In order to understand the exact shape of the structure we were building, he insisted on building a wooden structure which gave us a clear indication of the angle of the walls as we went up. It also meant I had to make up my mind and give precise measurements from the word go. Usually I work by eye and feel, but I realized that with his system I would get what I intended. This was particularly important as no one spoke English and I have virtually no Italian, so all communication was in sign language and by example.
So five old guys made this considerably large building in 3 weeks, with a week spent on the interior. One of the other guys turned out to have an eye and an enthusiasm for stone, so three of us were building and the two who stayed on the ground passed up materials, mixed up limestone mortar where it was needed etc. When we reached their limit in height I continued working and standing on the building. Stone was lifted to us by a series of machines which Emanuele had wangled off the commune for free. At one point we had a huge JCB with driver supplied by the Civil Defense. Since there had been no earthquakes or natural disasters the driver had time on his hands. He even mucked in and helped build. Limestone mortar, mostly for the stucco walls inside was supplied by a local firm for free. The Romans invented it and this particular company were experts and supplied the building industry for most of the country.
Unless a tree falls on it, this work is going to be around for a very long time and thousands of people will see it, go inside and see the mysterious image of the inverted mountain. I have a suspicion that Emanuele has an eye on it as his tomb!