City as Installation
Olivo Barbieri at the MAXXI

Site Specific is the title Olivo Barbieri gave to his series for which he photographed more than 40 cities around the world. This term is normally used to describe artworks conceived for a specific place. Indeed, his aerial shots of Las Vegas, Istanbul, and Brasilia, always taken from a helicopter, do not seem to show real cities. Thanks to a special lens and digital postproduction, they look strangely artificial instead, recalling miniature models. “I try to look at the world like an installation,” explains the photo artist, who was born in Carpi near Modena in 1954. Whether he shows incredible collections of skyscrapers in Shanghai or collapsed buildings in Detroit, Site Specific shows the 21st-century city as a constantly changing construct, as an “avatar of itself,” as Barbieri put it.

Although his works have been on view at the Venice Biennale, at the MoMA, and at Tate Modern, Barbieri is only now being honored with a large retrospective in his home country. Exhibiting more than 100 photographs and films, the MAXXI in Rome is documenting his entire artistic career. Color photographs of Italian provincial towns and landscapes he took at the beginning of the 1980s were included in Viaggio in Italy in 1984. With this now legendary exhibition, the photographer and curator Luigi Ghirri has opened up a new chapter in Italian photographic history. It presents a completely new picture of the “Bel Paese” beyond any folkloristic clichés.

Among the highlights of the current show at the MAXXI are works from Barbieri’s series Artificial Illuminations (1982 – 2014), with which he is also represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection Rome. In these night shots, streets, landscapes, and tourist attractions such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa look just as unreal as the cities in Site Specific. But the bright colors and the mysterious atmosphere of these pictures are solely the result of extremely long exposure times: street lights and the headlights of cars driving past submerge the Colosseum in a bright light, which makes the amphitheater look like a movie set, while the lonely figure seen from the back in the foreground recalls Romantic landscape painting. “I have never been interested in photography. I’m interested in images,” Barbieri once said. The fantastic exhibition at the MAXXI demonstrates what he means.

May 29, 2015 – November 15, 2015