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Historically, Great Khan became a type of imperial rank, which was attributed to those who occupied the position of emperor in ancient Mongolian and Turkish culture. Italo Calvino uses this same figure in his book The Invisible Cities where in echoes of Marco Polo’s Book of Marvels, he creates a story in nine chapters. Using his combinatory literary style, Calvino creates a story in which the Venetian traveller explains to the Tartar emperor, Kublai Khan, what the cities of his empire are like. The appeal of the book is the imaginative capacity of Marco Polo who invents and fantasises about all the details and scenes that only exist within his own imagination. Alluding to the act of writing and the narrative potential of the story, Calvino emphasises the way in which we can create worlds, project our own desires and wishes through the simple act of narration.
This exhibition (open until 23 June), currently on show at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome in collaboration with the Spanish Royal Academy in Rome also presents itself as an alternative travel story. It is a journey that takes place in several directions, setting out from different elements.
Avelino Sala and Pelayo Varela, both from Asturias, together with Emilio Chapela, from Mexico, propose that art is always a kind of journey, towards the other and towards itself and in turn each of the projects creates a dialogue with works by Italian artists from the Renaissance to the 19th century.
The exhibition, and once again that hermeneutical capacity of the project, revolves around three main lines. Each of them is situated in a different city: Venice, Florence and Rome. The three artists set out in the full sense of the experience based on the historical periegesis, from cities that have been the challenge for travellers of the Grand Tour but also cities that in history have been the scenes of events that underpin the 20th and 21st centuries.
Avelino Sala presents the work Poética de la fuga (Poetics of flight): a video that situates us just outside Rome, from where Ezra Pound escaped from the resistance. In the video, the musician Noemí de Haro plays the military piece, March on Rome backwards. This action throws up questions marks about history and its contradictions, about Pound’s anti-Semitism and about his escape. The title of the video suggests, not un-poetically, the non-implicit qualities: flight, journey, escape: words that describe how people can be dragged along by events. Sala’s piece creates a dialogue with La Trasteverina uccisa da una bomba (1850), by Gerolamo Induno. This female image points us to the video and something more besides.
Pelayo Varela uses the painting Tranquillo Cremona Marco Polo davanti al Gran Khan dei Tartari (1863), for the capacity for invention that we referred to at the beginning, although it could also be interpreted that this inventive capacity can be read as a lack of truth, or even as a manipulation of the facts. Varela places himself on the outskirts of Florence for an action that indicates art but also the contemporary typology of the obligatory journey. In the video, which is entitled Fake! we are witnesses to a series of actions carried out by Chinese immigrants. The artist gets them to use the type of stencils that children use to write their names, to draw the names of some of the most well-known contemporary artists. In doing so Varela reverses the role and allows this Renaissance city to be questioned while playing with the category of falseness.
Finally, Esteban Chapela places himself in Venice to make a reflection on mass tourism, something that couldn’t be more appropriate at this time of year. With the millions of visitors, who will leave their mark on the city of canals during the Biennale, adding to an already saturated Venice. Chapela uses the work Squeri a San Baseggio (1886) by Pietro Fragiacomo and investigates the image generated by the city. On this occasion the idea of a journey linked to tourism is flagged up, but from there he alludes to the destruction of auratic space, to the emptiness of a subject that burns up history without understanding a place. A place understood to be a location that is capable of telling stories if we allow it the necessary space.
All together, this is a kind of journey about the journey in and out of art, art practice, art history and contemporariness.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)