The ‘Serial Classic’ exhibition
The ‘Serial Classic’ exhibition

Italy, unrivalled site of Old Master pilgrimage, came late to modern art and even later to embracing the contemporary. Peggy Guggenheim’s collection, on view in Venice since 1951, is the exception; the country has no equivalent of Tate Modern or MoMA or the Pompidou, and exhibitions at Maxxi and Macro, Rome’s 21st-century museums inaugurated in 2010, have disappointed. But the most glaring absence of the cutting edge has been in fashion and design capital Milan. Can the Prada Foundation, launched on Saturday in the industrial zone of Largo Isarco, become the contemporary international destination that Italy has been waiting for?

Yes and more than yes: Prada’s venture gloriously defies the homogeneity of the global arts institution to play both on Italy’s classical heritage and on the eclectic, cerebral taste of collectors Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli. In a wasteland between railway tracks and tower blocks in Milan’s southern fringes, they have commissioned from architect Rem Koolhaas a 19,000 sq metre campus of buildings old — the warehouses and brewery silo of a 1910s former distillery — and new that speaks insistently of contradiction, improvisation, instability, unease.

Some of the original buildings are raw, untouched, others are reconfigured. A tall, narrow one, named the Haunted House and containing Robert Gober’s surreal sculptures, has been rubbed all over with gold leaf in Renaissance technique. It glows softly over a stunning new glass-walled gallery whose inaugural exhibition, Serial Classic, focuses on antique sculpture.

From here, incongruously, marble gods and goddesses look out on to medieval remnants and layers of industrial modernity: cobbled courtyards; the shiny mirrored façade of a new cinema; a 1950s Formica and jukebox café. Beyond them rises a cavernous edifice called the Cisterna: once containing the enormous cisterns used to produce distillates, this is currently the vaulted home for “Lost Love”, Damien Hirst’s memento mori aquarium of live tropical fish, medical and surgical equipment, pearl necklace, shoes and handbag.

Every work of art here suffers a sea-change thanks to Koolhaas’s clever disharmonies. Far from the single-statement architecture of Zaha Hadid’s curvaceous Maxxi or Frank Gehry’s boat-shaped creation for the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris (2014), Koolhaas’s fragments do not cohere, nor are they meant to. His sober linearity and piled up cultural references turn the Prada Foundation into something like a miniature metropolis. Built for function and to last, its free-flowing, multiple structures nevertheless express in glass and stone an early 21st-century sensibility: how we perceive the world, actual or virtual, only in broken pieces — clips and close-ups, zoom-ins and split-screens, copies and pastiches.

The gold leaf-covered Haunted House
The gold leaf-covered Haunted House

Among seven launch exhibitions, a pair of interlinked ones are outstanding. For In Part, Nicholas Cullinan has selected works from Prada’s collection to explore the idea of the fragment as modernism’s and postmodernism’s way to represent the body. These range from the quietly subversive and existential — David Hockney’s “Great Pyramid at Giza with Broken Head” — to the provocative: the image of Leigh Bowery, heavily made up and cheeks pierced with metal as he lip-syncs to Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look” in Charles Atlas’s 1998 video portrait “Teach”.

Many of Cullinan’s choices — Man Ray’s bondage torso “Vénus restaurée” — playfully echo the forms in Serial Classic. This is scholar Salvatore Settis’s radical rereading of ancient art as a story not of individual inventiveness but of appropriation, adaptation, repetition. Borrowed from leading museums — the Louvre, the Vatican, the Getty, the Uffizi — and arranged in a ground-level display without plinths, 70 iconic sculptures stand face to face with us on low, transparent acrylic bases. It looks terrific in the open, day-bright galleries with views across the gritty cityscape, and as stunning floodlit at night.

“Discobolus”, the rippling, muscly nude about to hurl a discus, greets us at the door. Sculpted by Myron in the 5th century BC, his perfect proportions and poise, embodying classical rhythm, harmony and balance, give us, said art historian Kenneth Clark, “the enduring pattern of athletic energy.”

But Myron’s work did not survive, and we only know his athlete through Roman reproductions. So the starting point for this show, says Settis, “is what is missing”: the Greek originals, represented here only by fragments — the torso of “Penelope”, lent in a rare gesture by the National Museum of Iran — and copies: six Roman “Penelope”s, nine Roman versions of “Discobolus”.

There are serial productions by the Greeks, too — terracotta busts from Medma which repeat the same figure while altering hairstyles, ornaments, narrative details such as flowers held in the hand. Likeness matters, and so does democratic intent: the energy that emanates from originals and copies alike, Settis argues, “can be defined as the collective choral strength of the Greek polis, the ethical and political tension that is imbued in the figurative arts”.

Reality, copy, imitation, fantasy: down a sinister staircase under the cinema, a heavy door opens on a single permanent installation, Thomas Demand’s “Processo Grottesco”, first shown by Prada in Venice in 2007. Demand creates huge complex environments in cardboard, photographs them and then destroys the models: the digital image is the art work. But for this piece Prada persuaded him to keep the 36 tonnes of grey cardboard in 900,000 sections representing a grotto on the island of Mallorca, which spill out here, robust, excessive, whimsical.

There is something decadent about a grotto, a piece of artifice nostalgically reimagining rusticity and ruin. So Demand’s photographs are imitations of his imitation of an imitation of nature, and parallel the games which Koolhaas’s buildings play with our sense of history and modernity, authenticity and reconstruction. Welcome to Conceptual City: mind-bending, risk-taking, and a landmark for contemporary art in Italy.

Photographs: Attilio Maranzano; Bas Princen

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