European Union Policy Studies

A City of Beautiful Juxtapositions

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Firenze! The cradle of the Renaissance that continues to push boundaries of art in every sense. This push and pull of history and modernity is how I’ve come to know Florence’s historical center as a place of beautiful juxtapositions.

I somehow persuaded my roommate, who had recently sprained her ankle, to hike with me up to Forte di Belvedere in the closing weekend of Belgian artist Jan Fabre’s Spiritual Guards art installation. While neither of us expected the long hike to the top, it was well worth the effort. Pictures and videos did no justice to the beauty we found. Jan Fabre’s spiritual guards, overlooking Filippo Brunelleschi’s 15th century architectural marvel of the Duomo’s dome among the terracotta roofs, left even an art novice like myself awestruck.

While the artist’s holy dung beetles made their unusual appearance to signify the durability that comes with the adaptability of spirituality, ‘the man who measures the clouds’ and ‘the man who carries the cross’ were the two most striking pieces. Fabre gave meaning to his works in commenting that ‘Spiritual Guards reflects and encourages a life of heroism, be it in war or unarmed in defense of the imagination and of beauty.’ He tries to create a spiritual realm in which imagination and faith coexist within a largely secular space.

Holding a measuring stick to the sky, the man who measures the clouds symbolizes the power of imagination by attempting to do the impossible. In defending the historical beauty of Florence, the man who carries the cross reflects in his bronze surface the splendor that surrounds him; making an effect of new art reflecting, embracing, and creating beauty that is both contemporary and reminiscent of the past. In this way, Jan Fabre and Ai Weiwei have similar artistic styles.

Deeply rooted in history and tradition, Ai Weiwei’s work conveys a clash of irreverence for the past and the drive toward the future. As we modernize, continuing to innovate and construct, we begin to neglect our history. By repurposing things that have been destroyed and would otherwise be left to turn to dust, Ai Weiwei makes art installations using simple objects and old techniques.

He not only preserves the past through objects but through craftsmanship which is slowly being replaced by mass production and machinery. In doing so, he hopes to inspire the preservation of traditions and culture. In a more tangible way, Ai Weiwei reflects the past in the creation of his works through a style of art characterized by Marchel Duchamp’s readymade, works of art made from manufactured objects; repurposing wood from demolished temples to make intricate works of art that make the repurposed objects both visible and remembered.

The name of Ai Weiwei’s exhibition ‘Libero’ does not mean that the exhibition has free entrance (as I originally thought) but rather, ‘Libero only comes from the continuous fight for freedom.’ Coming from an oppressive past, Ai Weiwei has esteem for those who risk everything for freedom to better their own future or the future of their children. In effect, his major retrospective at Palazzo Strozzi focuses on the refugee crisis. The exterior of the palazzo is adorned with replicas of boats that asylum seekers would likely pay smugglers to flee atrocities at home.

He draws our attention to the refugee crisis, to ask us fundamental questions about human rights; causing us to think about what we value, why we value it, and what role we play in preserving human rights. Making the point that, ‘It’s a time for change. It’s a time for action. It is not only a battle on the frontline of these issues but also within our hearts and minds.’

Both Jan Fabre and Ai Weiwei encourage us to be heroic and defend intangible concepts; imagination, beauty, and humanity. Abstract ideas that require us to look into ourselves first and question what we think we know about our established ideas and prejudices. They accomplish through their installations in Florence what many artists aim to achieve through their art; a new perspective on the world in which we live.

Written by Anna Sullivan (M.A. Candidate 2017)

Published: Monday, October 31, 2016

Last Updated: Monday, October 31, 2016

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