A series of performances where generations intersect, communities converge, and different nations interact, all to the sound of a small, fifty-year-old car’s roaring engine
New York Drive
October 12 th , 2021. The journey begins in Cold Spring, New York. Guided by the meanderings of the Hudson, the Fiat 127 Special finds its way up to Long Island, traveling through urban and natural landscapes, through stories, through time, on what is the fiftieth anniversary of its creation. Italian artist, Cristian Chironi, is at the helm of this performance, a part of his series, New York Drive. Promoted by Magazzino Italian Art, a museum dedicated to Postwar and Contemporary Italian art in the Hudson Valley, five days of travels throughout the state of New York invite the public into Chironi’s 127; into becoming an integral part of his artwork. Dubbed ‘Chameleon’ for its transformative powers, the car changes colors at every stop, respecting the architectural polychrome of Swiss-French modernist architect Le Corbusier to render each leg of his tour a unique, site-specific experience.
For his performance, the artist draws on the life and work of twentieth-century Sardinian sculptor, muralist, and graphic designer, Constantino Nivola. Using their shared hometown, Orani, as a starting point, Chironi reconstructs a tale of the past into a contemporary expedition of today. «To learn, to find, to fall in love, to look outside at a different landscape, a different situation, to question yourself and interact with your surroundings in a new way,» expresses Chironi, is the purpose of New York Drive.
The story and intergenerational links
At the root of this project lies a conversation, passing the baton from Le Corbusier and Nivola to Chironi.
Taking a few steps back to 2010, Chironi may be found talking to Daniele Nivola, nephew of Constantino Nivola, in Orani. The two families are close, and this dialogue only serves to push Chironi further in the direction of Constantino and, as a result, also Le Corbusier.
In a bid to flee fascism, Nivola and his wife emigrated to the United States in 1939. Chancing to meet Le Corbusier in New York, the two artists strike up a strong friendship and mutualistic relationship, with the modernist architect becoming Nivola’s mentor. When the former gifts his mentee a project for a house, Nivola brings it back home to Sardinia and his family, hoping for the sketches to be realized in his hometown. As Daniele recounts to Chironi, these architectural plans were instead locked away in a drawer, misunderstood by a community that was used to building its own homes without an architect, without a surveyor.
A story which remains vivid in the mind of Chironi, he uses it as his muse, contacting the ‘Fondation Le Corbusier’ in Paris and asking to collaborate on a project where he may actively explore this divide between artwork and beneficiary, between client and creator, by living in the houses of Le Corbusier across the globe. These houses would become for the Italian artist «observation points on the world, windows from which you can see what happens in Berlin, Marseille, Paris, Chandigarh, La Plata, La Chaux-de-Fonds.» The project, My House is a Le Corbusier, and what it represents, then transmutes into his series Drive in 2018.
«A house is a machine for living in,» writes Le Corbusier in his manifesto, Vers Une Architecture. Chironi adopts this famous phrase and manipulates it. With ‘machine’ translating to ‘car’ in Italian, the contemporary artist drives through Bologna, Milan, Orani, Marseille, Bolzano, La Chaux-de-Fonds, and New York, using the car as a constantly shifting perspective through which to view the world.
Drive also remains closely intertwined to a separate story told during that conversation between Daniele Nivola and Chironi in 2010. This time, it is the end of the 1970s, and Daniele has received a letter from his ailing uncle in the United States requesting him to go to Dicomano in Tuscany, where he has a studio space, retrieve his belongings, and return them to Orani. Embarking from Golfo Aranci on the long, complex journey to Dicomano, Daniele eventually reaches his destination and picks up whatever he can find, including two Steinberg posters, some papers, a few of Constantino Nivola’s sculptures, and a Maria Lai carpet that refuses to be cramped into the trunk of his uncle’s small car. «What car was it? » Chironi asks, to which Daniele replies, «a Fiat 127». The absurdity of such an arduous trip completed in this old car amuses Chironi. Still, only years later, when the Nivola Museum in Orani invites him to do an exhibition, he feels it is the right moment to take the 127 and put it back on the road.
Organized within the scope of Magazzino Italian Art’s exhibition, ‘Nivola: Sandscapes’, it is New York Drive which goes a step further in its relationship with Constantino Nivola, as the beach where the modernist first began experimenting with his sand-casting technique is integrated into the voyage made by Chironi. However, as the director of Magazzino, Vittorio Calabrese, explains, it is Chironi who deepened the museum team’s knowledge about Nivola. «I got to learn more things about Nivola through Chironi, not the other way around. He introduced us to what Orani is for him, and I experienced it with different eyes than Nivola’s nostalgia for his town. With our programming, especially when we invite young artists like Chironi, we can establish a healthy relationship with the masters of Italian art. There’s a level of freedom for artists like Chironi, and others who we work with, to make art that goes beyond that framework».
This is a tale of three generations. After Mario Delitala, painter from Orani, there comes Nivola. «I take the baton from Nivola, says Chironi, I explore it during my reflections on our generation’s problems, and I hope that in the future, I’ll pass the baton onto someone else from my town who can expand on this journey, which, in a way, is that of the history of art. At this moment, it tells of three artists: Delitala, Nivola, me, but in the middle, there are all the rest». Recognizing the significance of these other influences on his work, he lists Cindy Sherman, whose house in Springs he drove by the day before, Pascali, Ontani, Kounellis, Seghal, Ellis. He looks to and feels closest to them now; Le Corbusier, Nivola, Manzoni, designer of the 127, instead become his tools. «Although Le Corbusier is a pioneering artist, I don’t like to romanticize him; I don’t like to sanctify him as everyone else does. No, use him like a material you can mold, like plasticine, to say something else. Use the work of Le Corbusier, Nivola, and Manzoni to understand yourself and to understand the world in which you live, because, in this way, you continue to give force to their art».
The immediacy of Chironi’s art and the value of accessibility
«Art has always been in dialogue with nature,» asserts Chironi. Evident in the architecture of Le Corbusier, a terrace like the one above Unité d’Habitation in Marseille allows its inhabitants to have access to an open space, take a stroll, exchange a kiss or a conversation beneath the sunset. This symbiosis garners a renewed meaning in our contemporary world, according to Chironi. «‘Today, especially after the pandemic, having green spaces at hand is a privilege. You pay for nature. Le Corbusier says in his book that it’s included in the rent. If you have nature in your building, the rent is more expensive, the house is more expensive, and it isn’t right. It should be accessible to everyone, a fragment of nature where to feel at ease, present; walks in the countryside give us this sensation».
Art has the power to fill in some of those gaps left behind by societal injustice. With his Drive, Chironi establishes a point of contact between the human and the natural, which was lost for many during extensive lockdown periods. Although his series was ideated and ran from before the outset of Covid-19, Chironi believes in art’s powers of sensitivity. «At times, you feel as if the work you do foresees the future; it was like this for many artists. Art probably senses what is going to happen a bit in advance, and I believe that Drive maybe anticipated this need». Travelling to Switzerland in his 127 after another lockdown, Chironi confesses, «when I saw the Alps and nature open before me, I was deeply moved. Just like when I drove the car for the first time here in Manhattan».
As expressed by Calabrese, «it’s extraordinary» how the color palette chosen by Chironi for the 127 allows it to almost camouflage itself amongst the reds and oranges of Cold Spring’s autumnal landscape. As a result, it is not only the passengers looking out through the car windows who experience a heightened connection to nature, but also the bystanders, who, witnessing the vehicle’s harmonious merging with the colors of its surroundings, recognize a sense of peace in this unity.
Accessibility is central to Chironi’s work. Access to nature, to affordable housing, to art, to conversation. A generation born in a historical context of economic precarity, where many struggle to own homes, Chironi highlights this contemporary issue through My House is a Le Corbusier. A project built to «overcome these economic difficulties and take back the liberty to live in the houses of the best, or rather the houses of Le Corbusier, the best modernist architect,» Chironi defies the system, addressing it directly: «Through art, I go beyond the limits you impose, I surpass you. I am a key that opens the door to also welcome others inside».
The value of inviting people inside the artwork itself continues in Drive, where the audience become passengers of the Fiat 127, co-pilots to Chironi. Officially invited through an open call, publicized with posters hung across town, Magazzino Italian Art ensured that the whole of the community was encouraged to participate. Rendering art accessible to all is an ideal which the museum upholds, foregrounded through a series of biennial performances which aim to bring art beyond the bounds of Magazzino’s gallery walls, beginning with Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Walking Sculpture in 2017, Marinella Senatore, and The School of Narrative Dance in 2019, and Chironi’s New York Drive in 2021. Calabrese emphasizes that «when we decided to invite Chironi, we wanted to frame his performance and his body of work within the practice of other artists who develop work concerning social issues and community. Community comes first».
Speaking of Senatore’s initiative, the director of Magazzino shares how «many people still feel so connected to us throughout that time, and in our case, it was music, it was a dance of course.» The interdisciplinary plays a central part in attracting all facets of a community to shared space. To go beyond the visual arts is equally embraced by Chironi, as My sound is a Le Corbusier becomes the soundtrack to his road trip across New York. A collection of recordings created throughout periods of experimentation with sound in the houses of Le Corbusier, Chironi collaborates on the pieces with Francesco Brasini, Radio France Choir, Alessandro Bosetti, Massimo Carozzi, Daniela Cattivelli, Dominique Vaccaro, Henrik Svedlund, Stefano Pilia, and Sophie Vitelli. «The music, the engine, the fifty-year-old car, some stories,» pronounces Chironi, overlap and intersect, creating a synesthetic experience. An experience that will extend into Magazzino’s architectural space, the car will remain in the museum after the performances, gaining new life as a sound installation until January.
New York Drive embraces duality. It is a give and take
Chironi lends a space of communal exchange to his passengers and curious onlookers through his performance. While the artist explains that Drive «always had this tone even before Covid, of staying together, being close, in tune with each other, it’s obvious that after the pandemic, it acquired even more value because we were distanced for so long.» With tickets selling out in only twenty-four hours, it is clear to Calabrese how much people yearned for human interaction. Despite Covid, he shares, «I had no issues getting people jumping on a car with a stranger,» many even stopped Chironi on the streets declaring, «I want to buy your car», or asking him, «Oh, so you’re an artist?». For the director, «having conversations like that is the New York that we know. The city is fully back and stronger than ever».
With the elections coming up for Cold Spring in early November, Calabrese underscores how «there are many people who want to talk, and they have opinions on how the Hudson Valley has changed. Magazzino opened here five years ago, and the process of gentrification of this area, or evolution, suddenly erupted». While some look for ways to slow down the rapid change, others embrace it as creative progress. «It’s an interesting time for us here – continues the director – because we are seeing two different sides of a community clashing, and that’s necessary to move forward productively».
The other side of the coin is the ‘take’
As the 127 becomes a journal of exchanged stories and opinions, Chironi collects new ideas, new perspectives, and a learning experience necessary to move forward. «Yesterday, I received some great gifts,» confesses Chironi, referring to his opening performance. «My first copilot was Amy Oppenheim, wife of Dennis Oppenheim. With Drive, I passed by the places where Oppenheim would go on walks with his wife, all the while talking about his art and our vision of the world, as his colleague was sitting just behind me. It was an invaluable gift». The 127 also witnessed a passenger turned pilot, as Chironi welcomed Jess Frost, in East Hampton, to take the wheel. Discovering that Frost owns a Fiat herself, the two switch places. «For her, it was a great emotion to take charge of this analog car from 1971», perceives Chironi.
Guild Hall’s Museum Director, Christina Strassfield, was an exceptionally insightful guest for Drive’s artist, enriching Chironi’s journeying through her knowledge of the area. «She used the 127 like a travel journal, immediately recognizing the geographical importance of our crossing». For Magazzino, mapping a specific itinerary that foregrounds this layering of geography and history was a vital aspect of the organizational process that led up to New York Drive. The Springs General Store, chosen as the starting point for Chironi’s performances, exemplifies this. As recounted by Calabrese, «it was the only store there was in Springs at the time, where Jackson Pollock and everyone else was hanging out, buying groceries,» a location which is meaningful in the way it represents that community of artists who developed abstract expressionism.
Encounters and conversations that overlooked the arts altogether allowed Chironi to have some fun with Springs residents. He stresses that «the passengers are great co-pilots, whether they come from the curatorial world, the creative world, architecture, design, fashion, journalism, writing or are ‘everyday people’ like you and me.»
Travel and Return
The world is Chironi’s stage, and his work is the compass. Raised in a town of approximately 3000 inhabitants, the artist felt the need to travel as soon as he got the chance, to confront himself «with others, with the city, with architecture, the urban landscape, and to grow.» Although home would in time come to mean a perspectival framework, the feeling of being at ease with yourself and with others, Orani remains for him «the epicenter of the world.»
Comparing himself to a yoyo, Chironi feels a continuous urge to move away, only to eventually return to the town he grew up in. «I bring back an experience, unload it, and leave again. Marco Polo? Robinson Crusoe? I am an islander, a present-day navigator, and explorer who drives a 127 ‘Chameleon’ that changes color every time I use it», he says, laughing.
The diversity he seeks through his travels, he also becomes a magnet for through his art. To Magazzino’s director, an unexpected incident on Chironi’s third day of New York Drive is proof of this. «The peak of the performance was not the driving; it was when the car broke down.» Calabrese paints the picture: «Everyone tried to help. From the Upper East Side mom to the Consul General to the finance broker passing by. We were using a jack to lift the car up, with a Sardinian car shop on the phone and a trendy group of car collectors on the spot trying to fix it. It was this kind of cross-cultural experience on Park Avenue. That’s what the project is about. It goes beyond just driving; it’s a building of communities, in this case around a beautiful design object that has so much meaning behind it. It embodies the identity of a generation of Italians and those who follow. I think everyone in Italy had an aunt, or uncle, or a parent with a 127».
This is the work the founders of Magazzino Italian Art and its director promote, hoping to become «a little frontier» for Italian art in the United States. Not a colony, but an embassy, «a place where we can foster what is the quintessential aspect of Italian heritage: curiosity. There are generations of Ulysses who left Italy searching for the American Dream, more freedom, more possibilities. It is that curiosity, that ability to preserve their roots and their identity, while also embracing diversity and becoming part of an idea of a nation, which is what’s quintessentially Italian for us». Values that transpire in the art of Chironi, this voyage has also been for him the realization of a dream.
«The dream is that this small car designed by Manzoni arrives here in New York thanks to the efforts of Magazzino Italian Art, thanks to Giorgio Spanu, Nancy Olnick, Vittorio Calabrese, Eve, Chiara, and all the staff who are supporting this colossal project. We compared it to Herzog’s documentary, an attempt to move a piano across to the other side of a mountain. It requires a lot of effort; even driving here in Manhattan, the traffic, the urban landscape; but it also excites us, it renders us strong and determined, so we are happy».
Italian artist born in Nuoro, growing up between Orani and Ottana, in Sardinia. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna. He uses different languages, including, performance, photography, video, drawing, often creating a sort of interaction amongst them. He worked on site-specific performances and installations, always looking to interact with their surrounding context, be it human (public) or environmental (space). His research aims to relate image and imagination, fact and fiction, memory and modernity, conflict and integration, material and immaterial. He has exhibited in different spaces dedicated to the arts both in Italy and abroad.