Every winter the streets of Turin come alight with sophisticated electric installations by renowned artists – Joe Gartman investigates…
Photos by Patricia Gartman
Thomas Edison started it all, of course. Not content with inventing the light bulb, he strung dozens of coloured lamps around his laboratory for the 1880 holiday season. In 1882, his business partner, Edward H. Johnson, hand-wired 80 blue, red, and white bulbs together to decorate his Christmas tree. And when General Electric introduced pre-wired strands of decorative lights in 1903, the genie was out of the lamp for good. Soon, people’s holiday season trees sparkled, store fronts scintillated; and ever since, from Autumn through to the New Year, people have been Christmas shopping on the High Street or Main Street or Via Garibaldi beneath bright, shining and increasingly elaborate light displays.
In 2017 I passed the winter in two Italian cities, Rome and Turin. In Rome, I particularly enjoyed the displays around Piazza di Spagna. The lights on the Corso, seen from the terrace of the V-E II Monument – ignoring last year’s moribund municipal tree in Piazza Venezia – were also outstanding. But above the frosty streets of Turin I found, like Monty Python, something completely different.
Most civic holiday lights and decorations seem calculated merely to dazzle the eye and celebrate the season, with little intellectual pretence. In 1997, though, the city of Turin, supported by the local power company and several arts organisations and banks, invited “artists of international renown” to create installations above the city’s streets and public spaces, using light as the medium. The phrase “international renown” may be difficult to define in the modern art world, where reputations blaze and then blow out like early incandescent bulbs. Renowned or not, though, the artists seem to have caught the public fancy, because the 2017 holiday season marked the 20th edition of Turin’s Luci d’Artista – “Artist Lights”, with 25 different installations all around town.
I decided to visit only those in the central area of the city, most of them between Piazza Castello and the Porta Nuova railway station, though first I made a small detour from the castle area to Via Po, where hundreds of white neon planets, satellites, stars, globes, circles and crescent moons jostled for space above my head. At the end of the street, high above, a neon tightrope walker balanced on the edge of something vaguely like a glowing planetary map. The brochure I clasped in my frozen fingers said this work, Palomar by Giulio Paolini, was a “metaphor for man’s unstable balance between knowledge and the unknown”. (It reminded me that Edwin Hubble’s famous 1956 photographic survey of the night sky was conducted from an observatory on Mount Palomar near San Diego.)
A few blocks away, on Via Garibaldi, a flock of giant, glowing birds held a red, fluorescent strand in their electric beaks, suspending it in graceful loops all the way down the street; Volo su…, the brochure called it (“Flight over…”) by Francesco Casorati.
On Via Roma, en route to Piazza San Carlo, where I intended to stop at Café Torino for a hot chocolate, the major constellations were suspended over the street, picked out in blue and white against fields of stars, a work by Carmello Giammello called Planetario – “Planetarium”. I was still precariously balanced between knowledge and the unknown, so I only recognised Ursa Major.
At a table in the beautiful arcades of Piazza San Carlo, I held my steaming cup in a quaking grip, trying to properly admire the street lamps imaginatively reworked by an artist named Nicola di Maria. The lamps, re-coloured and fitted with globe-shaped cages of blue and green light, edged the whole square. Collectively, they were an art work called Regno dei fiori: nido cosmico di tutte le anime – “Kingdom of Flowers – Cosmic Nest of All Souls”.
Braving the cold
My soul sufficiently nested, I pried my fingers from the cup, and took a short walk east to Via Lagrange, where Luigi Mainolfi had suspended across the street, in multicoloured sentences, the complete text of a children’s book called Luì e l’arte di andare nel bosco – “Luì and the Art of Going into the Woods”, by a popular writer named Guido Quarzo. It seemed like a good story, but winter nights in Turin are bitterly cold, and to finish the book I would have had to walk the whole street. It was time to go home.
Still, I braved the cold again on subsequent nights. I found a glowing airborne sheet of red, blue, and white squares hovering over a small marketplace on Piazza Palazzo di Città: Daniel Buren’s Tappeto volante – “Flying Carpet”. Perhaps he meant to suggest a kind of cold-weather bazaar from the Arabian Nights. I took a night-ride on an open-air bus (no extra charge for frostbite) and got a few glimpses of the Church of Santa Maria dei Cappuccini bathed in blue lights and surrounded by floating blue neon circles that seemed to dissolve in the mist. Piccoli spiriti blu – “Little Blue Spirits”, it’s called, by Rebecca Horn. And I must not forget Il Volo dei numeri – “The Flight of the Numbers”, by Mario Merz: a column of red numbers climbing the cupola of the Mole Antonelliana in Fibonacci sequence – each number except the first and second being the sum of the previous two numbers. You can imagine the gigantic sums spiralling upward toward infinity!
I didn’t get to all the displays in 2017, but there’s always a next time. This year the artworks will be brightening the streets of Turin from 30 October until 12 January 2020. If you’d like to see them, head for Turin this winter; it’s a great town. But for heaven’s sake, bring some warm gloves!