Aleksandra Mir

In the Aeolian Air, Art and Volcanic Fire

By Julia Chaplin, New York, September 2009

The elegant, 19th-century palazzo on the remote Italian island of Salina looked like any other dilapidated building on the promenade paved with slabs of volcanic stone. Water stains streaked down its weathered stone facade and a blackened, cast-iron balcony was crammed with rickety chairs.

But then the fortresslike wooden doors swung open and out walked a priest in white collar, a police chief in full Carabinieri regalia and several art collectors and curators in loose white linen and flip-flops, their hair still wet from a post-beach shower.

They mingled with artists, fishermen and curious passersby, sipping white wine while exploring the art in the palazzo’s rambling chambers before squeezing up the narrow stairs to the roof for views of the Tyrrhenian Sea and a distant volcano spouting fire and smoke into the warm evening air.

It was the opening reception for a Russian conceptual artist, Vadim Fishkin, held in August at the Amaneï Gallery, a four-year-old contemporary art space. The unlikely spectacle was nothing if not surreal, and that may explain why the island of Salina has become the center of an effervescent art scene.

Salina is part of the Aeolian Islands, a hard-to-reach volcanic archipelago that juts out of the Tyrrhenian Sea — a bizarre primordial mix of black lava beaches, hot thermal water bubbling up from middle earth and lunaresque rockscapes. The chain is named for Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in Greek mythology who mischievously blew Odysseus back to the islands’ craggy shores when he tried to return home.

Lately, though, the only people who seem to be washing up on the archipelago’s shores are artists. An alternative to the crowded and commoditized islands of Capri and Sardinia, the rugged Aeolians have recently been anointed by the contemporary art set as their seasonal stomping ground. Visitors now include well-known artists like Maurizio Cattelan, Robert Wilson, Anselm Kiefer, Paola Pivi, Rudolf Stingel and Aleksandra Mir — not to mention their prominent art dealers and collectors.

Situated in the hook of Italy, just north of Sicily, the archipelago is made up of seven inhabitable islands, of which the largest and most developed are Salina, Lipari and Vulcano. Of course, the artists prefer the more primitive and least quaint — Filicudi, Alicudi and Stromboli, where the chain’s only active volcano spits flaming lava into the sky with a King Kong roar every few minutes.

The exhausting journey adds to the mystique. There are no commercial flights to the islands, and most visitors arrive by hydrofoil, which takes about five hours from Naples and four hours from Palermo. The boats are no-frills, with seats no larger than an airplane’s, and the bumpy ride is not for the queasy. As Martin Creed, a British artist who has a house on Alicudi, put it: “From London, it’s easier and quicker to get to Australia.”

One popular ferry route goes to Stromboli. From the water, Stromboli looks like a small agricultural village but with a heavy dose of the offbeat. Hearty locals with potbellies and sideways caps clog the dock, offering tourists white-washed cottages for rent.

The island is a surprising contrast. One side is lush, with caper bushes, palm trees, cacti, bougainvillea and intensely colored wildflowers. But the other side, which the lava occasionally belches and sears, is black and dead.

The fashion designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who have a house there, must have been channeling that Gothic look for their new, lava-hued cosmetic line, which they call Stromboli.

It was hardly the first time the volcano has served as a muse. Artists are drawn to the weird conical shape and seem compelled to recreate it, document it or riff on its eerie intensity. “Artists like the Aeolians because it’s hard there,” said Marina Abramovic, a Serbian-born artist known for her dramatic performances. Five years ago, she bought a house in the Stromboli town of San Vincenzo, made famous in the 1950 film, Stromboli by the neorealist director Roberto Rossellini. (The film is a heady rumination on conformity, religion and nature’s wrath in the guise of a pelting volcano.)

“Stromboli” is also the name of Ms. Abramovic’s series of stark photographs, including one in which she is shown naked, carrying a rather full-figured and also naked villager up the steep, smoking crater. “It’s a place of intense power and energy,” she said. In fact, the island’s energy became “too much” for her, so she sold her house last year.

That’s not to say the island lacks a softer, tourist-friendly side. In San Vincenzo’s main stone square, visitors will find a gelato stand and a cafe serving espresso in the shadows of an ocher church from the 18th century. And around dusk every night, small gangs of wild-eyed climbers, amateur geologists and gonzo tourists gather, itching to disembark on the three-hour guided hikes to the 3,031-foot-high oozing crater.

But things do get less quaint on the other islands. (Unlike the journey from the mainland or Sicily, hopping among the Aeolians is relatively easy, with regularly scheduled hydrofoils chugging back and forth several times a day.) On the remote islands of Filicudi and Alicudi, the land is barren and there are few restaurants and hotels. Winter populations there are 200 to 400. Needless to say, there are not many gelato stands.

“The back of Alicudi looks like it’s been in a fight,” said Paola Pivi, a Milanese artist who has spent considerable time photographing the island’s fantastical landscape. “The earth is sort of missing. It’s very violent.”

Pulling into Filicudi’s raw-looking harbor, one immediately longs for shade and a comfortable couch. Rocks are strewn around a dormant volcano, with the sun forming hard shadows. On a recent visit, a few fisherman and construction workers were gathered under the outdoor awning of Da Nino sul Mare, the island’s sole cafe, shouting out to each other like extras from some black-and-white Italian movie.

Filicudi is far from postcard charming. That may be why artists, designers and architects gravitate to its harsh and serrated shores, said Sergio Casoli, an art dealer from Milan who summers at an old cottage on the island and invites artists like Maurizio Cattelan and Rudolf Stingel to stay.

It is also where Ettore Sottsass, the renowned Italian designer and architect and a founder of the 1980s Memphis Group movement, spent part of the years before he died in 2007 at age 90. Like the Hudson Valley’s untamed landscapes or Provence’s ethereal light, the island’s primitive and menacing beauty is a continual source of inspiration.

But not all of the Aeolian Islands are known for their hard natural splendor. The smallest island, Panarea, which is about three times the size of Central Park, is famous for its jet-set bacchanal. The island may be lined with fragrant olive trees and picturesque swimming coves, but come August, it’s wall-to-wall aristocrats and playboys, bold-faced names like Princess Caroline of Monaco, Prince William and the fashion designer Roberto Cavalli.

During the day, they may be taking dips off the deck of their giant yacht. At night they party in designer mini-dresses over at the Hotel Raya, a boho-chic hotel that was opened in the 1960s by two artists, Myriam Beltrami and Paolo Tilche. In a concession to the Aeolians’ laid-back vibe, the crowd forsakes stilettos and goes barefoot or in flip-flops.

To some eyes, the spectacle lends itself to satire — maybe even art. Aleksandra Mir, who rents a fisherman’s cottage on Panarea every summer, recalled a favorite moment when she witnessed a yacht run into a pile of volcanic rocks.

“It seemed to happen in slow motion,” she said, “as the high-tech navigational gear on the boat was overtaken by the slow force of the wave. Hearing and seeing white fiberglass being crushed by the silent volcano was like experiencing the most masterful of sculptures.”