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Interview: Stefano Arienti on “Ailanthus” Outdoor Art at Gardner Museum

Museum buildings nowadays are as much a work of art as the masterpieces they preserve. This is true for the new wing of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, too, as Italian architect Renzo Piano has proved time and again that he values the aesthetic presentation of a building just as much as its functionality.

But the new wing at the Gardner has introduced an element that the old palace lacked: a permanent outdoor exhibit. Part of the building’s main façade is in fact dedicated to showcasing a tall canvas — a work of art that will battle wind, rain and snow without the zealous oversight Gardner employees have for the treasures within the museum walls.

The first work on display is “Ailanthus,” a 34-foot-high by 16-foot-wide installation by Italian artist Stefano Arienti. We had a chance to speak to the 50-year-old Milanese artist, as he presented his latest work in Boston.

Tell us about what “Ailanthus” is and what it symbolizes.
Ailanthus is the scientific name for a type of bush that is quite common, especially in cities. It’s originally from the Far East, but its invasive nature and ability to resist in very difficult conditions has given it an advantage over other plants. It’s a very beautiful plant and from its leaves you can produce a special type of silk. For this reason it was imported to Italy many years ago, but it never quite worked out from a business point of view. Nevertheless, it is a plant that does very well in an urban context, just like the new wing of the museum.”

How did this project start?

“I was contacted by Renzo Piano himself, who I didn’t know before. We spoke a lot about how art and architecture interact, and he wanted to challenge artists to think about their art in relationship with the outdoors. I was given very strict parameters for the work, which had to be vertical and of a certain size. I preferred not to see the museum while it was being built and never actually came to Boston to look at the construction area, although I had been here for quite some time in 2004, when I was artist-in-residence at the Gardner Museum. I remembered the park area in front of the new wing, and I imagined it in the winter, covered in snow. That is why I chose to present the plant in a bright red. It stands out in a special way.”

What techniques were used for “Ailanthus”?

“Originally, it was a photograph I had taken of the plant. Many times I can pictures of various subjects and I occasionally like to work with photography. The original image was digitally processed in my studio in Milan and then printed here in Boston on a special canvas that can maintain itself for a long time outdoors. We’ll see how it does through the winter, but I’m already thinking about a different proposal for the summer, but I’m still working on it.”

You’ve also created an interactive work that is kept inside the new wing’s Richard E. Floor Living Room…

"Libro Azzurro" by Stefano Arienti (photo courtesy of Boston Globe)

“Yes, it is called “Libro Azzurro.” (Blue Book) It is a big book with many blank pages interspersed with pages where I painted and designed different works. In a way, it’s the museum’s guest book but it is also a work of art in progress, on which people visiting the museum will be free to leave their own thoughts and inspirations. It mixes well with the general idea of the building designed by Piano, where visitors and the museum are in constant communication.”

About Nicola Orichuia

Nicola is an Italian journalist and media enthusiast living in the United States. He keeps an eye on the Italian-American communities across the country and is always looking for positive stories to highlight.