Nurturing contemporary art at grassroots level

By Nushin Elahi

This May I was delighted to be one of an international panel of judges for the Cramum Prize, an Italian contemporary art prize in Milan. Visiting the city and talking to the organisers, contestants and others in the arts, I found a vibrant drive to create a new landscape for art in Italy.

Cramum installation (6)

Artists and finalists gather at the Palazzo Isimbardi, one of Milan’s civic buildings, before the opening of the Cramum Prize. The winner from 2014, Paolo Peroni’s concrete art can be seen in the foreground.

Let’s face it, it isn’t easy being an artist. Perhaps it looks effortless when you are raking it in like Jeff Koons, but even he is apparently not too keen on looking back at his early works, where he was demonstrating Kama Sutra poses with his then porn star wife in the Made in Heaven series. In Milan, a city so filled with old and mainly religious art, and with hierarchical social structures almost set in stone, being a contemporary artist is a daunting task that takes particular courage and personal conviction.

In an attempt to encourage young artists, the Cramum Prize was set up four years ago for artists working in Milan, exhibiting their work alongside internationally established artists and offering the winner a solo show after two years. This year the judging panel for the prize, entitled Who Does Contemporary Art Speak To?, included Italian academics, British gallerists, and artists from across the globe whose work had been exhibited on the Venice Biennale, among them Szilárd Cseke, Lin Yilin and Urs Lüthi.

The Cramum Prize was devised by Sabino Maria Frassà and Andi Kacziba. The two founders are something of an odd pair; Frassà brings his passion for the arts and his business acumen, while Kacziba, a Hungarian who came to Milan as a fashion model, is herself now an artist.


Cramum winners 2016

Cramum Prize-winners 2016, with Frassa (right) and Kacziba (centre)

Frassà doesn’t do shows in conventional galleries, finding the restrictions they place on you in terms of curatorial intervention too onerous. The Cramum Prize exhibition is held at the Palazzo Isimbardi, one of Milan’s many civic buildings, and much of the work is displayed in the courtyard, partly because the indoor spaces of this grand old building may not be tampered with. It is an interesting concept, with very modern pieces viewed under some of the most sumptuous crystal chandeliers I have ever seen. It also means paintings have to be propped against the walls, and smaller sculptures displayed on tables.


 Paolo Peroni’s solo exhibition, with the site-specific installation on the right.

No surprise then, that the solo show of the 2014 winner, Paolo Peroni, was held in a converted church, just off the city’s chic shopping area, Via Torino. Now functioning as an art gallery, it demands some site specific work to populate the sometimes awkward spaces.

Each year, the Prize is encapsulated by one of a set of thematic questions planned by Frassà at the genesis of the project. In the first year, the show asked Does Art Represent Human Vanity? Following this, it posed other questions about contemporary art: what will remain of it, what it is, who it speaks to and what its limits and boundaries are. Each time both artists and judges are invited to consider these aspects in their submissions and the results each year are collected in a book, published by SKIRA.

Installation images of the Cramum Prize

To my mind, Frassà’s main achievement is not only giving young artists a space to be seen, but also in the mutual exchange of ideas he cultivates between those just starting out in their careers and more established artists, journalists and curators. “You don’t have to like everything you see,” he told me, “but I find it helps a lot in understanding what they are doing and why, if you talk to the artist.” Certainly the thing I have taken away from my brief visit is not so much the stunning modern art I saw, but how open these young Italians are to discussing it with you. If they couldn’t find the right words in English, a friend would help with the translation!

For example, Peroni told me about his fascination with mankind’s impact on the world and the cities he is creating, and where I had before seen only concrete pillars, I then understood that each represents in height and weight a person the artist knows. They are all variations on a pattern and his materials, concrete and tar, are the essential elements of any city. Concrete may be useful, but it is also one of the ugliest, most unforgiving materials. For me, only one work beautifully captured the anomalies of the venue, where short concrete blocks stood upended and the leather strips folded in-between gave the impression of a prayer book.

While facing the impossible task of choosing a winner, I kept wondering how the artist would scale up his single work to a whole exhibition, and in Peroni’s show, I found an unexpected answer. Two years is a lifetime to a young artist, and there is no saying that they will continue their theme for the duration. Peroni won the prize for a much more delicate work, where he transposed the image of a human cell onto an aerial image of a city in Siberia that exists only for diamond mining.


The musician interprets some of the artwork on display at the Cramum Prize

This year’s ten finalists couldn’t have been more varied. One of them was a musician, an accomplished brass player, who used her skills to re-interpret the artwork to the viewer – an idea that sounded ridiculous on paper, but in reality was extremely moving because she added another sensory layer to the experience.

Fato’s prize-winning piece (left) with work by one of the runners-up on the table

The winner, Matteo Fato, showed a three-piece work around the subject of the ear, while the two runners-up did some navel gazing on the bonds between mother and daughter, and contemplated the impossibility of creating a hole in water. There were some playful pieces on marionette theatre, a musing on the passage of time with Robinson Crusoe sticks, mechanised spinners that recorded the sound of rain, and experiments with paper and handmade dyes. A young Korean was more engaging verbally than visually, but his forms looked at man’s relationship to his body, while another artist looked at the inevitability of death using discarded metal. None of the artworks were particularly shocking or inspiring, but all of the artists were grappling with how they could most effectively portray an aspect of the human condition with an honesty and integrity I found remarkable.

Cramum installation (3)

Laura de Stantillana’s glass art with its glowing green in the courtyard of the Palazzo

Art needs that total experiential viewing, and there is some satisfaction when the reproduction only captures the tip of the iceberg. One such piece was by Laura de Stantillana, a Venetian glass artist, whose large creations only showed their differences on closer inspection and who told me that the lime green of one piece was made from plutonium in a factory in the Czech Republic, one of the few places in the world where this happened and then only four times a year. The colour glowed even more in its intensity with that knowledge.

Luigi Presecce image 2

From Luigi Presicce’s performance piece

The other work was my favourite of all. Created by the only artist who seemed unwilling to talk to anyone, it was a photograph of a performance that must have been quite thrilling to experience, if the image was anything to go by. It was a performance piece for a solo viewer. The artist is painting blindfolded, his naked muse, Venus, watching, while a faceless chorus look on mutely and a musician plays. His agent was much happier to explain the work and told me that it had played to audiences of around 200 a night, but that she thinks Luigi Presicce is ready for a bigger market now. This is the intangible excitement of art, the unique experience for every viewer, and in a world where auction houses are inflating prices of banalities more and more, I believe this will grow as its counterpoint. Yes, there may be a photograph to record the event, but the moment you the viewer experienced is yours alone. Combining various disciplines of art, it has more honesty than much of what is being traded as contemporary art. Luigi Presicce is certainly a name to watch.

The Cramum Prize is sponsored by the Giorgio Pardi Foundation and the Cramum Association, but the organisers’ work is largely unpaid and it is the passion for allowing art to make new connections that drives them. Frassà is a graduate of the Courtauld Institute in London and has a wider view of the art scene than many. A former finalist, Pietro Sganzerla, now working in Berlin told me what a boost it had been to his career to take part in the Cramum Prize, but I believe that as his final year as organiser approaches, Frassà would have loved this prize to have had a warmer appreciation than the Milanese have given it. It is not only for the sake of a few young artists that this type of endeavour should be encouraged. Let’s hope the Cramum Prize continues to nurture art at grassroots level for many years to come.




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