At the end of May, Executive Director of Pallant House Gallery and Founder of Outside In, Marc Steene, attended the European Outsider Art Association’s annual conference – this year in Palermo and focusing on outsider art environments. Here, he reflects on the conference and what it means for the future of these visionary sites.
The Heterotopias International European Outsider Art Association’s conference in Sicily last month was always going to be an intriguing event. It was the first conference of its kind to focus solely on Outsider Art environments, bringing together academics and museum professionals from across Europe to explore the territory and discuss the many challenges involved. During the conference there were fascinating discussions around the principles of recognising and protecting Outsider Art environments, their conservation or otherwise.
The first day consisted of presentations in a beautifully restored church in the centre of Palermo, one presenter in particular stood out for me. Marco Botlan had been the General Curator of French Artistic Heritage and Monuments. In his role he had overseen the listing of buildings and sites of historic significance in France and of the 44,236 monuments listed in 2012 only eight could be described as being Outsider Art environments; 0.002% of the total. This fact surprised me given that France seemingly places this work in high regard and that it is of international significance with famous examples such as Picassiette created by Raymond Isidore and the Palais Ideal by Ferdinand Cheval. What became clear through the debates and conference was that it is a considerable challenge to protect and look after an Outsider Art environment unless it has a wider significance beyond its creator. The most successful projects have been where the building and the creator have become a part of their community and locale, where the building or site has a wider resonance.
On our second day we visited the sanctuary created by Isravele on the top of a remote cliff top overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It took the delegates the best part of three hours to walk to the sanctuary, past an abandoned housing development built on Mafia dirty money and now covered in street art and eerily empty. Isravele abandoned his family nearly thirty years ago when he was called by God, who led him to the nineteenth century Bourbon tower which the sanctuary occupies. He is a squatter, miles from the nearest habitation, but cared for by his local community who provide him with food and materials. The site is covered in the most detailed mosaics and filled with a deep sense of spirituality; his living spaces are both humble and touching. He has an altar at which he eats his meals and a small Ciborium in which he stores his wine. There was some reflection from the delegates on Isravele’s decision to leave his family and the inevitable impact this must have had on his wife and children, an unexplored story of the lives of outsider artists. The other discussion revolved aroundwhat will happen to the building when he dies, will the state reclaim it? Will it be possible to maintain the site? If so, who will fund it? And is it viable as a cultural asset? Isravele, I am sure, does not concern himself with these questions, he believes he is destined for sainthood and he has created a remarkable environment and I feel privileged to have seen it and met him.
As Minna Harveri from ETA in Finland said during her presentation at the conference, ‘an environment is the coming together of the space, the art and the artist’; they are all mutually dependant. If you take the artist out of the equation the environment is no longer the same and we need to consider carefully looking after these spaces beyond the lives of the artist who created them. Memories can be captured and the environments documented, but the ongoing costs of conserving and protecting an environment are considerable and need careful consideration. There was a fascinating presentation by Norbert Grote who had overseen the conservation of the amazing Junkerhaus, created by Karl Junker in Lemgo, Germany. The conservation was fastidious and highlighted the initial and ongoing cost of looking after an artist’s environment properly. The Junkerhaus plays an important role in engaging local schools and working with its community, providing a rationale beyond its creation. The costs of maintenance are considerable, but the local government consider it worthwhile and have built a separate museum to complement the house.
A further visit was organised for the delegates to the partially destroyed house created by Giovanni Cammarata in Messina. This house provided a further illustration of the challenges and questions posed at the conference. Cammarata had built his house as an act of defiance against the greed of a local developer. He occupied a small piece of land and built a house, decorated mostly in cast concrete and which he painted in bright colours. Sadly after his death the battle was lost and the majority of his house was knocked down and a supermarket parking lot built in its place. All that remains is the part of the house that occupied the pavement which the developers could not destroy. This act of vandalism clearly illustrates the threat posed to these unique environments. There has been a growing body of support for Cammarata locally and a movement to preserve what is left. I feel that this is important, even if just serves as an example of the power of art and the individual in the face of seemingly insurmountable forces.
The conference organisers, Osservatario Outsider Art, have worked hard here and elsewhere in Sicily to lobby for and protect these environments and much praise should go to Eva De Stefano for all her work in this area. The conference posed many questions, but few answers, it is an important area of work that will continue to develop and I look forward to the next stages and an evolving understanding of the value of Outsider Art environments to our society and culture.
Outside In is a member of the European Association of Outsider Art, and Marc Steene is a committee member.