49 UGO RONDINONE: SACRED SPACE
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