Connecting with history

An appointment with Mario Cristiani, co-founder of Galleria Continua
© CdT/Archivio
Tommy Cappellini
Tommy Cappellini
24.06.2022 06:00

Reclining in front of the large window overlooking the lake is a clay sculpture of a man curled up on himself. It is an iconic and beautiful sculpture by Antony Gormley, a leading living artist. At the same time, the sculpture is a condensed idea of art: the clay is a cross-reference to nature and the earth, and the subject recalls a dimension of contemporaneous humanism. It is an idea of art in which Mario Cristiani fully embodies himself. Cristiani is a major gallerist. He founded Galleria Continua together with Maurizio Rigillo and Lorenzo Fiaschi back in 1990, a venture that from the small San Gimignano projected itself worldwide, successively opening venues in Beijing (2004: the first gallery to focus on China), Les Moulins in the countryside just outside Paris (2007), Havana (2015), Rome and São Paulo (2020), and finally in Paris and Dubai (2021). A cultured corporation that has chosen the path of globalization away from predetermined norms. Some years ago Cristiani moved with his family to Lugano, to his home-studio that is populated, as well as by Gormley, with works by Kiki Smith, Carsten Höller, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Berlinde de Bruyckere, and Qiu Zhijie. This cross-section of limitless art co-exists with the discernible signs of their Tuscan roots: the accents of their speech are revealing (although Cristiani is a native of Calitri, in the province of Avellino), as well as the carefully stored bottles of wine & dessert delights in the fridge. When the three friends opened the gallery in 1990, they immediately opted to work alongside a non-profit association, Associazione Arte Continua, of which Cristiani is now president. «The mission is to launch public art projects to combine research on the most interesting parts of our time with that which is the history of art within which we live».

A global perspective and a local grounding are dimensions that feed each other: the artists called upon with their works to populate towns such as Poggibonsi, San Gimignano, Colle Val d’Elsa or even others, are in many cases genuine international stars. The artworks, cast within such dense contexts of the past, want to hold history in the open, to demonstrate that art is something that «continues», as suggested by the name that links gallery and association. «Art is akin to plants: it is experience that must take root to create long-term well-being», explains Cristiani. «For artists to measure themselves and put into dialogue against the past is a formative experience, which also compels one to be humble and to contain the ego. As a gallery owner, my own responsibility is to suggest only the best things, so that the potential of art breaks through and becomes something that is transmissible from the people of today to the people who will come. Therefore it is a responsibility that is not trivial, which obliges one to make a difficult selection every time». As a gallery owner, it may be the case that Cristiani has to remain connected half the night with Beijing to prepare for the inauguration of an important exhibition like the one he is working on with Tobias Rehberger, affected by the new lockdown. But the minute the dialogue begins, it is other subjects and priorities he is anxious to bring to the table. In his vocabulary, the terms that most often occur - community, accountability, or democracy - are still the vivid mark of past political experience as a member of the Green Pary. 

Likewise, the name he most often refers to and is inspired by is not that of an artist or perhaps a curator on a high note, but that of an cultured and groundbreaking entrepreneur: Adriano Olivetti. «A man who was capable of transforming the spaces where one works, where one goes to school and where one lives, involving in these processes great intellectuals and architects. He worked to beautify spaces for ordinary people. It is a situation which, as an Italian, I am proud of». It is no accident, then, that this year at the Venice Biennale, through the proposal of Luca Massimo Barbero, the project’s curator, Cristiani requested and was granted by Fai the space of the Olivetti store, a jewel designed by Carlo Scarpa overlooking Piazza San Marco, for the exhibit/installation where Antony Gormley enters into dialogue with Lucio Fontana. He is like Olivetti in the idea that «culture should be accessible to everyone, as was the case in Renaissance Tuscany». Cristiani has in mind an example which still fires him with enthusiasm: «It is the case of the pharmacist of the Staggia Senese who around 1460 had commissioned an altarpiece with Mary Magdalene from Pollaiolo. One only had to enter the little church to see and appreciate it. It was unifying and created a sense of community. It was also accessible and so corresponded to a democratic notion of culture. In 1989 in Paris, in front of the Louvre Pyramid, the idea of attempting to offer some grafting of contemporary art into our historical contexts as well was triggered. It was not intended to be an aesthetical operation, nor a challenge. We wanted to mobilize people’s sensibility with art and put time back on a line that is open to the future». Today there are dozens of works, which populate historic surroundings here, all of them donated to public administration by the Arte Continua Association. «The very presence of art is a factor of social growth», Cristiani explains with momentum. «Art carries the game further, it opens to a broader dimension of community, projected to global horizons». But one should not assume that to be global it is enough to connect San Gimignano and Poggibonsi with Beijing or Havana. «Great works are placed on a cosmic horizon. It is through this energy that art can initiate changes in everyone’s life and hold true to its intended public function. Under one condition: one cannot ignore the works, their concreteness.

Joseph Beuys was a great leading figure of the second century, although I do not think that, as he argued, it is sufficient to introduce any new attitudes or theories. It’s the presence of the work that can engender change in a context». It is a prospect to which the contemporary art system does not seem to be overly sensitive. The logic of the market rules, even at the media level... «This is not to say that the market should not be reckoned with. Without the market, it would not be possible to bring to life all those public operations started by Arte Continua in the last 30 years. What we tried to do by establishing the non-profit structure was to seek a balance point and a clear alliance between the dynamism of the private sector and the guarantee provided by the public sector. Rather, there is one other aspect to which I would pay attention: the kind of nihilistic tendency that defines certain art today. I believe that the responsibility of the artist, and thus also of the gallerist for the function they hold, is to be a generator of long-term well-being. A work of art’s nature is to relate to the past, to address the present and to project into the future, connecting with generations to come». The encroaching light from the lake leads inescapably to a question about his choice to establish himself in Ticino. «I came here because I wanted to reunite with family (Cristiani has three daughters, ed.) which I have somewhat disregarded in many years of traveling the world». Are there even plans to have Continua actually land here in Ticino? «I have collaborated as artistic director with a few friends from Ticino and Graubünden on the Rossarte Project, and with the Arte Continua Association we’re considering to develop a project in Biasca in partnership with the public administration and a few private individuals but everything is still premature. Besides, I don’t decide alone. We are three partners, or rather three friends».