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What can contemporary artists do for the ruins of Pompeii?

18 October 2017

The exhibition ‘Pompeii@Madre: Archaeological Material’ will open next month, the fruit of a collaboration between the site’s archaeological authorities and the regional contemporary art gallery in nearby Naples. Artefacts from Pompeii have long been on display in the Naples’s archaeological museum, but Pompeii@Madre, just round the corner in the refurbished 19th-century palazzo of the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina (Madre), offers a new take. Objects from the site will appear alongside exhibits on loan from museums and galleries around Europe, which chart the history of Pompeii’s influence over artists and intellectuals since its rediscovery in the 18th century. The idea, set out slightly ponderously on the gallery website, is to view Pompeii as a heritage site that ‘is, by its very nature, always contemporary’. Modern art and new artistic commissions will be displayed alongside rarely seen items from the site’s archaeological store rooms.

The juxtaposition of ancient and modern can be divisive; in the last few years there have been various installations in Rome’s sites, the effects of which I would describe as mixed; on the other hand, the display of ancient sculpture and mosaics in the decommissioned Beaux Arts power station at Montemartini (a ‘temporary’ exhibition put up in 1997 and still going strong) is a triumph. At its best, the contrast of old and new invites a viewer to interrogate the objects and their setting afresh. The variously shattered, patinated, encrusted and fire-damaged objects from Pompeii certainly have a striking visual power, heightened by the pathos of their silent testimony to the event that destroyed/preserved them and the city they came from. The poster object for ‘Pompeii @Madre’ is a cooking vessel coated in volcanic deposits such as vivid orange and green sugar crystals, suggesting a burst of intense, unsurvivable heat. Other artefacts from the site, having survived Vesuvius, were blown up by Allied bombing in 1943; two crates of these broken fragments will be put at the disposal of contemporary artists. Sharpened by display alongside or as part of contemporary artworks, objects like this could really sing.

Many of these items languish unseen in storerooms; Pompeii and its Campanian neighbours generate far more archaeological material than can ever be displayed. Pompeii@Madre offers a welcome public outing for objects that don’t make the cut as star exhibits in the archaeological museum. Visitors to the Madre will see them alongside works by contemporary artists, including Francesco Clemente and Mimmo Paladino, set in part in a ‘hypothetical contemporary’ imagining of a domus (a Pompeiian town house), over two of the museum’ floors. Many of Pompeii’s three million annual visitors would probably enjoy the chance to visit a straightforward reconstruction of an ancient domus, but for those with an interest in modern art this sounds appealing.

The exhibition is intended in part to celebrate the progress of the Great Pompeii Project, a €105m emergency conservation campaign led by the EU and /Italian government since 2011 – a response to a series of well-publicised collapses that highlighted the site’s physical fragility and mismanagement. The proposed exhibition is a welcome contribution, insofar it draws attention to the site’s huge heritage value and prompts visitors to look at some of its artefacts in a new way.