Sicily, Art and Love
Antonio Presti's sculptures
by Agnese Oliveri | 25 November 2020
‘Utopia is not what is unrealisable, but it is what the system doesn’t want realised’.
This suggestive sentence lies on the floor surrounded by walls filled with newspaper scrapes. These newspapers all write of the same man, in dozens of languages: Antonio Presti. Words and words describe exactly Presti’s strive for his personal utopia, a land filled with art and hope. Born in Messina, Sicily, in 1957 from a wealthy family, his future was already written for him: he was to be in charge of the family industry, become an engineer, marry a beautiful and wealthy girl from the city and, simply, carry on with the conventionality of a life written for him. However, Antonio did not respect a step of this journey and bravely made a path for himself. Everything started when, in his twenties, he inherited the family fortune due to the early departure of his father. Presti then asked Pietro Consagra, one of the most influential artists of the Sicilian modernist panorama, to build an impressive cement sculpture (the material provided by Presti’s construction industry) in a dry riverbed. This was Presti’s gift to his father, and to his land. The sculpture is bichrome, with its two elements huddled together, one white and the other black. The two opposites are meant to symbolise the struggle between all binaries: life and death, good and evil, right and wrong… The tension of these dialectics summarises the tension that a twenty-year old (or anyone actually) faces when trying to process the death of his parent, baffled by the enormity of opposites, confused by their ambiguities and lost in their polarisation. The choice of location also represents this tension evocatively; dry riverbeds dominate much of the Sicilian landscape and display the dryness of the land, as well as acting as a shadow of the long-gone fertility of the river. Before the riverbed dried forever, it alternated between the winter and summer, desertic in the first season, and full of water and life in the second. This location emphasises even more the torment of dyads replicated in Consagra’s: La Materia Poteva Non Esserci - Matter Could Not Be. A certain softness transpires in the title, as well as in the curvilinear shapes of the sculpture, which one can wonder into and then gaze upwards, towards the 18-meter height of its lines and above, to the clear azure Sicilian sky.
Presti did not stop here, once the municipality opposed his gift to the land (as no formal permissions had been requested to build), his fame grew and so did his will to do more for Sicily and its landscapes. A marvellous adventure hence started, leading up to a totality of twelve monumental sculptures spread over a significant fraction of territory, from the town of Tusa, to Castel di Lucio, from Motta d’Affermo to Santo Stefano di Camastra. The complex of land art is labelled by Presti ‘Fiumara d’Arte’ (Torrent of Art) each work showcasing a different artist and celebrating a different natural frame. The road to reach them is difficult, resembling the process of a pilgrimage and climaxing once one arrives at the destination. For example, Il Labirinto di Arianna (Arianna’s Labyrinth), created by Italo Lanfredini, emerges in its grandeur amongst the mountains, hugged by the sky and greeted by the sea, protruding in the horizon. If this sight was not enough, the experience continues as one enters its majestic door, runs through it, climbs on its walls, eventually arriving to its fulcrum, where a single tiny olive tree awaits. The entrance is a clear evocation of woman’s genitalia, and one’s passing through it at the moment of life’s beginning. The labyrinth is a symbolic journey through life, culminating in the facing of the olive tree, emblem of knowledge and prosperity for Mediterranean cultures. Every sculpture is available for free, twenty-four seven, for everyone to enjoy and in proximity to a forgotten corner of Sicily where the small towns seem to be crystallised in time.
It was in 1990 that Presti acquired a run-down hotel, facing the beach of Tusa and he entrusted each room to a different artist. There are twenty-one of the so called ‘art rooms’ where the vision of the artist in charge is materialised in these surreal spaces. When I went there, I had booked for the ‘Hammam’, a room that gives tribute to the Arabic culture in Sicily, filled with beautiful geometric ornament, punctured windows and a star of David shaped bath in the middle. When I told Antonio where I was staying, he said to me, ‘I know a room you would like more’, and directed me towards the ‘Torre di Sigismondo’, made by Raúl Ruiz. Upon entering you are enclosed by a corridor with black walls, gazing above, small windows, in a dark copper colour where scraped words of Arabic scarcely let light in from outside. It is only once you pass this corridor that you are met with a tiny door within a circular wall, opening into a spacious circular room with the biggest round bed I have ever seen. The raison d’etre of this room is discovered with a switch: the large disc-shaped roof suddenly splits into two and opens up, letting the warm rays of sun take over, reflecting and bouncing off the dark walls. The Torre di Sigismondo is meant to replicate the experience of a prison at first, in the claustrophobic dark corridor and the scraped words in the small windows, it is then in the actual tower room that the incarcerated occupant is liberated by the light, elevated towards the sky, instead of being stuck on the horizontal plane. If this room sounds special, that is because it was, though the others do not disappoint. Some give center stage to the beautiful sea of Tusa, with large windows that steal the show, others honour Sicilian history, like the puppet room, where a plethora of Sicilian puppets are displayed. One of the most enchanting is the one dedicated to Pier Paolo Pasolini: ‘La Stanza del Profeta’ (The Prophet’s Room), created by Antonio Presti, Adele Cambria and Dario Bellezza. You enter by quite literally lowering the door, like a medieval drawbridge, on which Pasolini’s words are painted. As you step over them, you find an emotionally charged room where the spirit of Pasolini resides. The cost of the hotel is democratic, 70 euros per person, a competitive price for the most unique hotel I have ever seen. Another testament to Presti’s unwavering love for his land, which is far more important than economic wealth. It is in this space that we find so much of Presti, apart from the rooms he collaborated in realising (like Pasolini’s), the elevator has his poetry written on its walls, and the entrance is plastered with the newspaper articles mentioned above. It is here that the sentence that prefaces this article struck me. Presti struggled in a battle against the institutions and even the mafia to realise his utopia. He gave his fortune to his land, the hotel profits surely do not cover the maintenance and construction of the monumental art park, and Presti gives even more by creating projects for a run-down area in Catania. In Librino, he involved the local mothers and children to create art collectively, giving new life and identity to the ‘Vinti’ (the ones society defeated), as Verga would say, of Catania. When I visited the Fiumara and Atelier this summer, fresh from my dissertation research, I kept thinking of art historical ideas such as affect, theatricality and so on and so forth… after all he did achieve autonomy and independence for his art, rejecting all institutions and just doing things his way. However, what struck me the most was a very organic and spontaneous appropriation of such concepts, whose conclusions had been reached not through books, but through pure sensibility and love. After all, Presti did all of this for love, the melancholic love that every Sicilian experiences, for a beautiful land that has received so many beatings in its history and is still spoiled today. Presti decided to make that love a gift for everyone to savour.
For more images of Il Labirinto di Arianna (Arianna's Labyrinth): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lnsb-PvOTI
Il Labirinto di Arianna (Arianna's Labyrinth), Italo Lanfredini 1990
Image credits: Agnese Oliveri
La Torre di Sigismondo (Sigismondo's Tower), Raul Rúiz, 1993
La Stanza del Profeta (The Prophet's Room) Antonio Presti, Adele Cambria, Dario Bellezza,1995
Image credits: 'La Stanza D'Autore'