Contemporary artists cut down to size at delectable Villa Medici

Le Jardin 2000 | <i>Villa Medici, Rome</i>
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The Independent Online

Rome: the centre of the universe and the toughest test to face contemporary art. Toughest, because there is so much history around, and if there's one thing curators of contemporary art tend to find troublesome, it's the question of how well the works they are promoting will stand the test of time. Which is what Rome has done so well.

Rome: the centre of the universe and the toughest test to face contemporary art. Toughest, because there is so much history around, and if there's one thing curators of contemporary art tend to find troublesome, it's the question of how well the works they are promoting will stand the test of time. Which is what Rome has done so well.

"Le Jardin 2000", an exhibition of the work of 50 artists from around the world - some established names, others recent entrants to the scene - is set in the grounds of the delectable Villa Medici, standing high on the Pincian hill overlooking the Italian capital. The location is also the inspiration for the exhibition. The Villa, its exterior recently restored to its original whitened brilliance, is somewhere most people have heard of, but have rarely seen inside, but its history is renowned. Home to the French Academy in Rome since 1803, the Villa Medici has seen students of the calibre of Ingres, Debussy, and Berlioz pass through its gates. The painter Balthus, director of the Academy during the 1960s and 1970s, decorated the walls of the dining rooms with patient brushstrokes of terracotta and ochre and arranged the atmospheric groupings of incomplete statues around the gardens. The rear façade of the Villa displays a superb collection of classical friezes fixed into the stucco by Renaissance craftsmen according to a design laid down, it is said, by Michelangelo himself.

In the 16th century, the gardens were home to the splendid sculpture collection (now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence) amassed by Ferdinando De' Medici, who also housed his pets lions there. Some 1,600 years before the Medici, the fabled gardens of Lucullus, the first-century BC horticulturalist, occupied the same site. The dissolute emperor Nero was buried here in 68AD, while the ghosts of both Berlioz and the adulterous empress Messalina, strangled on the orders of her husband Claudius, are said to haunt the woods south of the garden. At the Villa Medici, history feeds the ground itself.

The idea behind the exhibition - the last in a series of three exhibitions that have taken place at the Villa (following "La Ville 1998" and "La Memoire 1999") - is, according to curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, to assert the role of the garden as a fitting subject for contemporary art. That this needs asserting is perhaps surprising, since gardens have clearly both inspired and been the locus for art for at least 2,000 years, but when you think how dependent much of contemporary art is upon the gritty, grainy backdrop of the modern urban scene for its chic contextualisation, you might think he has a point.

This said, the success of the notion rests in its realisation, and a wander through the grounds of Villa Medici reveals a variable quality of response to the immediate context and the wider issue of what place horticulture has in contemporary art. Gardens occupy a special place in the imagination, and are associated with romance, leisure, playful madness, freedom and escape - themes which some of the works displayed have touched upon. As you leave the cool loggia at the rear of the Villa, you confront Bertrand Lavier's ersatz water-spouting sculpture made out of multi-coloured hosepipes bent up and around an existing stone fountain. Behind it squats a huge work by Daniel Buren, consisting of a quadrangle of high mirrored walls punctuated by four doorways, which encase another, larger fountain (commissioned by the Medici). Reflections further abound inside this mirrored room, but while water features have played a special public role in Rome for centuries (remember La Dolce Vita), the overall sensation is one of aggressive claustrophobia rather than the lightness and jollity that characterise so many of the city's fountains.

Follies are traditional features in large gardens, and this theme has been taken up by Italian architects Stalker, whose plastic-covered tunnel, perhaps originally inspired by a truncated worm-hole from Star Trek but now resembling a giant floppy condom with air-filled chairs inside, was meant to encourage you to chill out and ponder the enormity of their proposition: that gardens are places where you can fantasise. Not much fun to be had here, then. Nearby, A12's greenhouse-cum-folly houses computers, filing cabinets and sound devices which enable you to access data on other garden projects by contemporary artists outside Rome. But while the subject of information access is fast becoming a fashionable intellectual shorthand for many contemporary artists - "so much data, so many lists" - I do feel that the issue of beauty, particularly in a context like the Villa Medici, should be addressed by a delight in texture, materials and placement, all of which are lacking here. Dunne & Raby's Germoline-coloured garden furniture failed to move me, and there was a general naivety to much of the student work on display. Furthermore, the catalogue's dense and often meaningless text serves as an unnecessary linguistic briarwood the visitor is obliged to negotiate.

Which is why it was such a pleasure to stumble upon Maurizio Cattelan's sensitive memorial to his dog, Piumino, buried under the shade of the celebrated pine trees which have appeared in countless paintings of the Villa. Further on, Cerith Wyn Evans's delightful and knowing piece -entitled So To Speak - was found only after climbing the steep steps of a Renaissance folly to the tempietto on top, turning around inside and seeing the tiny pair of inverted commas in neon flanking the small doorway that frames a fabulous view of the garden and the hills beyond. It is a tacit admission - but a brilliant one at that - of how difficult it is for a contemporary artist to deal with the enormity of Rome and its culture. Everywhere you look in the city is worthy of a picture.

Other work of note includes Zaha Hadid's Meshworks, a dynamic coursing of red nylon-coated wire strands zig-zagging across one of the rectangular segments of the formal garden. Hadid's piece finds previously invisible lines of tension between tree, rock, bush and earth as the gathered strands establish an architectonic embrace between these separate elements. Maria Eichhorn's project to re-introduce red squirrels into the site (her name means "squirrel" in German) is both amusing and earnest and draws its inspiration from the original painted menagerie on the ceiling of one of the Medici follies in the garden, while Dan Graham's curious brushed steel and glass edifice - half a Miesian structure, half a showcase - located inside the Villa itself scored high marks for its quality of construction and sheer note of contrast with the decaying interior. Alfredo Pirri's raised white concrete path through a forest of giant cane bamboo was both magical and sensitive in its articulation of the differences of scale between the human figure and nature.

In all, the show proves that while some able minds can cope with the demands of a site redolent with historic precedent such as the Villa Medici, the inevitable comparison such a context invites between the past and the present tends to cut ambitious curators and too many contemporary artists down to size. In such a contest, Rome will always win.

'Le Jardin 2000': Villa Medici, Rome (00 39 06 67 61 320/ 291), to 24 September