Art that serves a public cause

Sicily – About 25 years ago, a Sicilian by the name of Antonio Presti embarked upon an ambitious project: the creation of monumental, open-air sculptures along an expanse of public land in the northern part of the island. His vision was that of an idealist – to break down the elitism of art and make it the property of everybody. His aim was also political: It was an act of open defiance against the monopolizing authority of the Mafia, an audacious statement that private initiative and work for the public good could be done without succumbing to corruption. For Presti, art had a political role, not just in Sicily but everywhere. He considered art a social good that should be integrated into people’s lives, making it more pleasant and meaningful. The sculpture park developed into what is known as the Fiumara d’Arte (fiumara are the dried out river areas found mainly in the southern regions of the country where much of the sculpture has been constructed) a huge, open sculpture park that stretches along some of the most beautiful sites in the Sicilian landscape. Every single venture that Presti has completed in his native land since then remains rooted in that same premise. His work to upgrade the downgraded district of Librino in the city of Catania through contemporary art projects, his collaboration with the schools of Palermo, the annual festivals that began in the village of Pettineo in the early 90s and, finally, the Atelier sul Mare – an eccentric art hotel which is also referred to as an open museum since most of the rooms are in themselves a complete work of art – are diverse manifestations of the same driving force that began with the continuing project of the Fiumara d’Arte. Earlier in the summer, people from the arts, international journalists and the local community gathered for a two-day fiesta held in a double celebration: for the inauguration of three new rooms at the Atelier sul Mare and the completion of the restoration of one of the public sculptures, the so-called «Window to the Sea,» a huge, geometric sculpture by Tano Festa which was erected on the beach of Villa Margi near the small town of Castel di Tusa, where the hotel is. From one perspective, the event marked a symbolic victory by Presti over the local authorities. According to a regional law which was passed last year, the Fiumara d’Arte has been recognized as a landscape museum and the state has been made responsible for the conservation of the sculptures. It is a symbolic reconciliation after years of intense conflict between Presti and the state which began in the early 1990s with the arrest of Presti and a legal battle that was to last for years. The 50-year-old Presti is no ordinary man. The son of an entrepreneur who was involved in the construction business in Sicily during the 1970s, Presti decided to spend his family fortune on a cause that combined art with the common good. His perseverance, his strong sense of a life’s objective and his concern for the public good has won him popularity and respect. The entire lobby of the Atelier sul Mare is covered with wallpaper made of a collage of all the press clippings that have been written about him. Presti loves publicity but he also loves sharing his dreams for art and culture with the public. Each is the flipside to a consistent life attitude. A patron for the arts is how many people think of Presti. Indeed, he is well-connected with the art world. He has invited well-known artists from all around the globe to turn 14 of the hotel’s 40 rooms into works of art (art also prevails in the «standard» rooms). The three new additions are «The Room of the Water Bearers» (a room which alludes to the preciousness of water) a collaboration between Danielle Mitterand, Cristina Bertelli, the artist Agnese Purgatorio and Antonio Presti, «Lunaria, Countryside without Name» (a room which resembles a dreamlike, night landscape), realized by Vincenzo Consolo, Ute Pyka and Umberto Leone and «Turkish Bath» (which is modeled on Ottoman architecture) designed by Sislej Xhafa. In each of the hotel’s so-called «artist’s rooms,» one has the feeling of residing within a work of art, not of being surrounded by art as in the usual art hotels. Spending some time at the Atelier is, for certain, a challenging experience but not always an easy one. The room designed by the Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz, for example, is a circular, tower-like space painted all black and with just a circular bed in the middle. There are no windows except for a trapdoor in the ceiling that opens electronically. The dark room can be taken to connote self-entrapment, and the ceiling opening the possibility for self-liberation. A place for introspection, the Atelier sul Mare possesses a bohemian, sophisticated kind of luxury. There are no spaces for lounging, no slick design and no private beaches. The town itself – the seashore part of Castel di Tusa – is a small place with no restaurants or bars catering to tourism. In a certain way, the Atelier sul Mare expresses a combination of elitist sophistication with a rougher, more down-to-earth quality. The same is true of Presti’s other projects. Among them, the one carried out in Librino – a district ravaged by violence and poverty – is one of the most challenging. Presti has set himself the goal of lifting the morale of Librino’s inhabitants, particularly of the young people. He plans to hire some of the world’s most famous photographers to take pictures of Librino’s youngsters and to project those images in huge banners along the exterior of the working-class dwellings of the area. His plans also include a museum of contemporary art. Currently, he is collaborating with the local schools. Projects with the schools of Palermo are also under way. Earlier in the summer, those happening to visit Sicily would have noticed hundreds of banners along the main road leading to Palermo. Mobilized by Presti, the children of Sicily’s capital made paintings on the theme of water in protest against the negligence of Palermo’s mayor in taking action to clean up the Oreto River from its present state as a rubbish dump. The project is yet one more expression of public art for a public cause. It proves that, away from the art market and the limited world of art galleries and museums, art can serve a broader and more collective function. Perhaps art cannot change the world. But it can hone people’s insight into themselves and others. Little by little, change will follow from there. Grounded in that belief, the life and action of Antonio Presti help to bring art and life closer together. His work illustrates that art and beauty can have an ethical dimension. Info at www.ateliersulmare and

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