Last May, I went on a walk in the woods around a Tuscan castle built in 998. It was warm, but not too hot yet, and the path wound down among small-leaved trees through which the sun was shining.
I stopped at an old concrete trough set under a water pipe. There was a small snake in the disintegrating leaves underneath the water. When I peered in it hid, though after a while he nosed up to the surface again. He was a grass snake, a natrice dal collare as Google later informed me, named after the white and black band around his neck.
“A snake came to my water-trough / On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat, / To drink there” is the enjoyably prissy opening to D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “The Snake”, written when Lawrence was staying in Taormina, Sicily, in 1923. The poet has gone to fill his pitcher from the stone trough in the garden and has to wait for a golden snake to finish up.
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone troughAnd rested his throat upon the stone bottom,And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,He sipped with his straight mouth,Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,Silently.
Watching, his feelings filtered through this strange, sexy and sexless register – it’s hard to picture anything drinking “softly” through “straight gums” – the poet is overcome with an abortive longing and fear as the snake begins retreating into a gap in the stone wall. The poet throws a clumsy stick at him; the snake contorts, unappealingly; the poet is filled with regret. He has acted as though the snake is out of place, and in the end, he feels he is – that he has usurped this gentle snake’s territory and at the crucial moment found himself unable to share. The power of the poem comes from this complicated arrangement of feelings, the fascination, fear and shame, which all derive from the pure unpredictability of the encounter; finding something where you did not expect it to be.
I was in Italy to mark the second year of MITICO, the art programme developed by the luxury hospitality group Belmond and the contemporary art gallery Galleria Continua to install site-specific art installations in the hotel group’s outposts. This year, seven prominent artists have installed work at La Residencia, Mallorca; Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire; Copacabana Palace, Rio de Janeiro; Villa Sant’Andrea, Taormina Mare, as well as returning to Grand Hotel Timeo, Taormina; Villa San Michele, Florence; and Castello di Casole, Tuscany.
Castello di Casole was where I saw the snake, on a site that dates architecturally to the 10th century, though the site has been inhabited since the Etruscans lived here over 2,000 years ago. The hotel sits on a 4,200-acre estate in the middle of a panorama of golden hills. The light is authentically Renaissance and astonishing. Villages sit on top of distant peaks; the surrounding woods emit a wall of cicada calls. A dusty rose garden extends out front, its blowsy flowers beginning to lose their petals onto the gravel paths. Swifts are nesting in the eaves; the family name, Apodidae, is derived from the Greek ἄπους (ápous), meaning “footless”, because the birds don’t land at all except to raise young in the spring.
At Castello, American artist Nari Ward has installed Stallers, consisting of huge strollers set among the grounds. The name is a play on stroller, but also a nod to the oversized, static nature of these buggies. A luxury setting is both very adult – as in, hardly appealing to children, with its air of quiet deportment – but also, somehow, childish, in the sense that the guest is cared and catered for, the edges smoothed off ordinary experience. This is not incidental, but integral to the function of the art itself. “Context is part of the work,” says Ward in the restored chapel on the hotel grounds. “Wherever it would be would change it.” This setting has a trick to play, as Ward explains: “Against the backdrop, they become baby strollers again.” The name “staller” also suggests a sense of blockage, or of arrest – the moment of uneasy equilibrium between over and undersize, a disorientation induced by work and landscape that allows for a less mediated observation of environment.
Ward first exhibited strollers with Amazing Grace in 1993, consisting of 250 baby strollers that Ward had found abandoned on the streets of New York City and then arranged around a corridor of flattened fire hoses: a monument to the city’s dilapidation and civic abandonment, as well as a ghostly conjuring of the stroller’s original users, the city’s children. Stallers doesn’t use ready-mades, however, but strollers built from reinforced steel bars, hammock rope and concrete wheels. They carry a similar half-sweet, half-wistful message, though – we can remember childhood, but it is ultimately irrecuperable. It’s hard to be too wistful, though, when you’re sitting in a big baby buggy. It’s the levelling effect of humour, says Ward, that sees Stallers “as much at home in a luxury hotel as in a homeless encampment”.
High in the hills above Florence at the restored 16th-century monastery Villa San Michele, artist duo Sun Yuan & Peng Yu have fitted the hotel with new inhabitants, well-dressed human figures with enormous rocks for heads. One sits out front in mute welcome and three perch along a sofa in the drawing room. The woman’s hands are clasped on her knee as if she is waiting for someone to invite her to join a conversation. On an oxblood-leather chaise longue, a young woman reclines before a young man, leaning lightly against the chaise’s curved back.
Wealth is on display, expressed in the figures’ clothing and jewellery, and also perhaps in their great petrified heads. These sculptures, entitled Teenager, Teenager, were originally displayed in 2011 at Seoul’s Arario Gallery accompanied by performances, which included a troupe of schoolchildren playing football and a cardboard box with rectangular cut-outs sitting in the middle of the gallery. This luxury setting, in providing a more appropriate feeling home for the figures, also amplifies their surreality. They are much more like the hotel’s patrons, making the blunt massive heads all the more unsettling; they lose a degree of their obvious status as artwork.
Sun Yuan & Peng Yu are perhaps best known for Can’t Help Myself, a 2016 installation consisting of a giant robotic arm that continually strives to contain a pool of blood-like liquid with an adapted shovel-hand. The installation more recently kicked off debate on TikTok as to its meaning, with one video racking up 900 million views. The official Guggenheim description states that the work addresses the ongoing brutality of authoritarianism, “the violence that results from surveilling and guarding border zones”, though the artists have not publicly commented. Teenager, Teenager showcases the same easy willingness to hand the work’s meaning to the viewer: the images of the original installation on the artists’ website are blurred, like shots taken on a digital camera at a party, and show children running through the gallery, people bunched around the figures as if waiting for them to get up, a group crowded onto the street outside. Teenager, Teenager at San Michele feels like another sly intervention into space, with the guests responsible for what they make of it. I like the aura of enforced coexistence, and what it demonstrates of the artists’ wiliness.
Environment, as Ward says, “tests the limits of the work”. Installing contemporary art in two of the world’s most beautiful hotels requires asking what kind of space the hotel is. Half-domestic, half-professional, the hotel charges the trappings of the home with animation, the sense that people are working – even if invisible – and available to produce such an atmosphere of calm and abundance. At Castello di Casole, the strollers provide, in Ward’s words, “points of entry” to a mediation with the landscape. At Villa San Michele, the silent observing statues make this relationship more evident, being so passively on display: waiters move around them to lay out their trays of glasses in preparation for the launch of the MITICO programme; the sun sets majestically behind the beautiful lawn.
Art makes the hotel’s broad institutional agency much more explicit. This is not the neutral cube of the gallery but a hotel, where people work and stay; still, the art turns the space into something like a vast gallery, embossing every element with a renewed capacity for observation. At Castello di Casole, I stood and watched the snake go about his business, trying to work out what he was looking for in the water – he couldn’t have been drinking – with the close attention of the gallery visitor. As Ward’s huge strollers indicate, everything’s always growing. The distribution of art through this environment charges the whole site with the sense of ripe potentiality that comes from finding something you did not expect it to be. Art, in this setting, expands. ◉