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An aban­do­ned Har­lem chur­ch is born again in the ca­pa­ble hands of a Swis­sborn ar­ti­st. A ho­me-stu­dio emer­ges af­ter two years of work. Be­nea­th lo­vin­gly re­sto­red 19th-cen­tu­ry vaul­ts and ar­ches, young ar­tists crea­te, clo­wns hang out and a pet ze­bra chills.

La­st April du­ring Frie­ze New York, the in­ter­na­tio­nal con­tem­po­ra­ry art show, the ar­ti­st Ugo Rondinone ope­ned to the pu­blic his in­cre­di­ble ho­me-stu­dio in Har­lem to sho­w­ca­se the work of a young ar­ti­st. Art con­nois­seurs and nei­gh­bours rub­bed el­bo­ws un­der the ar­ches and vaul­ts of the con­ver­ted la­te 19th-cen­tu­ry chur­ch. «I was ve­ry luc­ky», ad­mit­ted the ar­ti­st, who was born in Swi­tzer­land to Ita­lian pa­ren­ts. «It was 2011. I was li­ving in the Ea­st Vil­la­ge when I saw that the chur­ch was up for sa­le. I bought it wi­thout he­si­ta­ting. Re­sto­ring the chur­ch and tran­sfor­ming it in­to a ho­me took two years». The im­pres­si­ve si­ze is a re­flec­tion on his own art­work: bold and con­tem­pla­ti­ve at the sa­me ti­me. In fact, Rondinone is the mae­stro of mas­si­ve art­works fea­tu­ring sym­bo­lic and pri­mor­dial fi­gu­res. Su­ch as the co­los­sal fi­gu­res ma­de of blue­sto­ne that we­re ma­neu­ve­red in­to New York’s Roc­ke­fel­ler Cen­ter in the midd­le of the night in spring 2013. The ni­ne gian­ts we­re part of an in­stal­la­tion cal­led Hu­man Na­tu­re. Or the neon-pain­ted sto­ne to­tems ti­tled Se­ven Ma­gic Moun­tains. The si­te-spe­ci­fic work of stac­ked boul­ders in blin­ding co­lours will light up the Ne­va­da de­sert un­til May 2018 and has al­rea­dy en­te­red in­to the col­lec­ti­ve ima­gi­na­tion of not on­ly Ame­ri­cans. A pho­to­gra­ph of the art­work gra­ces the co­ver of Ita­lian sin­ger-song­w­ri­ter Va­sco Bron­di’s la­te­st al­bum. For Rondinone, space is in­di­spen­sa­ble. Broo­klyn ar­chi­tect Ali­cia Ba­loc­co, who spe­cia­li­zes in pe­riod ho­me re­sto­ra­tions, wor­ked wi­th Rondinone. To­ge­ther they we­re able to pre­ser­ve the an­cient chur­ch’s va­st vo­lu­mes whi­le re­pur­po­sing them to crea­te spa­ces for wor­king, li­ving and ga­the­ring. On the building’s ground floor, fi­ve stu­dios ha­ve been tur­ned over to young Har­lem ar­tists. They don’t pay rent, on­ly

their elec­tri­ci­ty bills. The fir­st floor is en­ti­re­ly oc­cu­pied by Rondinone’s stu­dio. Pain­ted a pu­re whi­te wi­th gol­den rib vaul­ts, the space is so im­men­se that the ar­ti­st can mount his mas­si­ve art­works in­si­de. For exam­ple, the stu­dio was ho­me to the li­fe-si­ze me­lan­cho­ly clo­wns in Rondinone’s show Vo­ca­bu­la­ry of So­li­tu­de be­fo­re they we­re trans­por­ted to Ro­me’s MA­CRO museum. «De­ci­ding on the si­ze of an art­work is the real chal­len­ge», Rondinone said, «be­cau­se the­re are no li­mi­ts. You ne­ver know how far you should go. And eve­ry si­ze has its own ener­gy and con­tem­pla­ti­ve feel». The ar­ti­st’s apart­ment is lo­ca­ted on the top floor un­der the dou­ble-pit­ched roof. A bright, open plan, the ma­je­stic li­ving-di­ning area has lar­ge ar­ca­des lea­ding in­to the be­droom and the kit­chen. A soft light fil­ters th­rou­gh the soa­ring, flo­we­red stai­ned­glass win­do­ws, ad­ding a de­li­ca­te glow to Rondinone’s va­st art­work col­lec­tion. He has hun­dreds of pie­ces, «so­me pur­cha­sed, others ex­chan­ged for one of my works. I lo­ve the ener­gy that they gi­ve off». An iro­nic, pink pla­stic phal­lus by ar­ti­st Sa­rah Lu­cas stands in the cen­ter of the li­ving room, whi­le a ce­ra­mic ze­bra si­ts com­for­ta­bly on the floor. On a wall hangs a Pe­ter Hal­ley work re­pre­sen­ting a pri­son cell’s wal­led-up win­dow and near­by An­drew Lord’s con­tor­ted, rou­gh-hewn ce­ra­mics ex­tol im­per­fec­tion’s sen­sua­li­ty. Ea­ch work is ar­ran­ged ac­cor­ding to a ma­gi­cal ba­lan­ce of for­ces, a sort of feng shui for art. «I al­ways try to keep my li­ving space in or­der. The­re’s al­rea­dy enou­gh di­sor­der in my head! I ha­ve a rou­ti­ne even in my day­to-day li­fe. For exam­ple, I see my com­pa­nion eve­ry two days. We ea­ch ha­ve our own hou­se. We’re bo­th ar­tists and need to con­cen­tra­te», ex­plai­ned Rondinone, re­fer­ring to his li­fe part­ner, the poet and per­for­mer John Gior­no. Rondinone will de­di­ca­te to Gior­no one of the sum­mer’s mo­st hi­ghly an­ti­ci­pa­ted sho­ws. Ti­tled Ugo Rondinone: I Lo­ve John Gior­no, the eclec­tic group show will ta­ke pla­ce in se­ven dif­fe­rent spo­ts scat­te­red around New York and in­vol­ve ma­ny ar­tists, in­clu­ding ex-REM front­man Mi­chael Sti­pe. Rondinone is hi­ghly pro­li­fic the­se days. «In ge­ne­ral, sin­ce mo­ving to New York in 1998, I’ve been bles­sed wi­th good kar­ma. I im­me­dia­te­ly met John and I’ve wor­ked a lot. And then the­re’s al­so Har­lem, whi­ch is a spe­cial pla­ce. It’s chan­ging ra­di­cal­ly but the­re’s still an au­then­tic feel to the nei­gh­bou­rhood. On the street, peo­ple re­co­gni­ze and greet you. But I mu­st con­fess that at 53 I’m not a big fan of going out. At ho­me I ha­ve eve­ry­thing that I need». Be­fo­re Mt. Mo­riah Chur­ch was aban­do­ned, go­spel sin­ging and fe­ve­red pray­ing rang out he­re. It seems on­ly fit­ting that this sa­cred spot has been born again th­rou­gh the crea­ti­ve ener­gy of an ar­ti­stic re­bel li­ke Ugo Rondinone.

Swiss-born ar­ti­st Ugo Rondinone tran­sforms a old chur­ch in Har­lem, New York, in­to an art­ful ho­me-stu­dio

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