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Open Sky

COS x Phillip K. Smith III

"The concept starts with the environment, the surroundings, the architecture, the sky, and the garden. When you walk into that centre space, it’s highly dynamic."

Artist Phillip K. Smith III is sipping espresso in a cavernous and echoing side room of Palazzo Isimbardi, the renaissance palace in Milan’s city centre. On the opposite side of drawn shades, crowds of cheerful locals and visitors lay draped atop the grass of the palazzo’s stately English garden; they’re enjoying the access Salone del Mobile grants to the otherwise forbidden gardens and courtyards that fill the city’s belly. It’s the first proper days of warm weather following a long, cold winter. The leaves have unfurled on the trees, and the sky is a bright, cloudless blue for the first time in months.

This is also the first time that COS has held their annual Salone del Mobile installation, now in its seventh edition, outdoors. It feels appropriate that they’ve chosen Palm Springs-based artist Phillip K. Smith III, as he’s been negotiating with the heavens for years. His installation — a massive mirrored sculpture, set within the palazzo’s courtyard, that curves around itself like a funnel cut in two — brings the celestial within arm’s reach. Standing in front of the sculpture’s angled glass, the clear, cerulean sky feels so close, as though you could fall into it, soar through it, and rollick within it.

Smith’s work relies on mirrored surfaces to rearrange and dismantle land and sky, shifting perspectives and breaking down sightlines to change the viewer’s understanding of a landscape. It’s an emotive and solitary practice, a reaction to the desert landscapes that were the backdrops of Smith’s youth. But presented amidst the busy urban fabric of Milan, his work takes on new meaning. We sat down with Smith to discuss the installation further.

Cereal: What was the starting point of this project?

PKS: The initial brief COS gave me was wide open. It stated who they are as a company and what their core values are. They gave me information on the venue, then said: “We look forward to meeting you again in four to six weeks to hear what you’re thinking.” What I presented at that meeting is essentially what you see out there today.

It helped that I spent my fourth year of architecture school in Rome. Our studios were in Palazzo Cenci, so I had walked through that palazzo’s courtyard every day for nine months. I was aware of that square of sky that’s framed up above. So when they told me about the venue, and that we’d be able to take advantage of both the courtyard and the garden, I immediately had a comfort level and a knowledge base associated with the space. When I visited this palazzo and saw it with my own eyes, that’s when I finessed the design and made it truly site-specific.

Cereal: Can you tell us about the concept behind the installation?

PKS: The concept starts with the environment, the surroundings, the architecture, the sky, and the garden. It’s akin to a live action collage. When you walk into that centre space, it’s highly dynamic. How the architecture and the sky shift, push, and pull is based on where you are within that space. So the idea — of dynamic collage, re-stitching, and re-collaging the environment — is at the forefront. There are also pieces in the garden that are smaller structures with faceted, mirrored surfaces. These are interspersed amongst the trees, and are very horizontal, very vertical pieces that deal with the above, the below, the left, the right, and the behind, taking samplings of that world and pushing them out on this continuous surface.

Cereal: This is your first installation in an urban setting. How has that experience been for you?

PKS: For me, the urban setting is what’s so exciting about this project. As an artist — given the kind of work that I do and wish to do — I want to be challenged by different sites. This allows me to constantly push myself as an artist. With each setting, I learn something new. There are factors, context, and ideas involved with each new site, which I could never fully recreate in my studio. The reality of doing something here in Milan around this renaissance architecture was inspiring from the get go.

Cereal: What were some of the challenges you encountered during the creation process?

PKS: In the past, my projects have been in vast, open spaces. In contrast, here in Milan, I am working with this tight, 50 foot x 50 foot x 50 foot cube of space. It was one of the most compressed spaces that I’ve ever worked with. However, I realised by working through it, that it was distilling the materiality down to two elements – sky and architecture. A lot of the research and testing also had to do with the scale of the piece, its angle, how far around it goes, and how we can integrate the public space of the courtyard into the whole experience.

Cereal: When you see all of these people here enjoying themselves, interacting with the piece – how does it feel?

PKS: When we opened the doors to the public, that’s when the piece came to life. Today, when I came back from lunch, I walked around the garden and simply observed everyone hanging out. There’s an expectation of visitors who come here, that they’re coming to look at a specific work. This may be what they think as they arrive at the installation, but in reality, as they leave, they walk away with a distinct experience that transcends the material work. It’s not about ‘that thing’ that they saw. It’s about the overall experience that they’ve had. And of course the work is a part of the experience, but it’s also equally about the sun, the garden, the trees, the sky, and the people.

Cereal: It’s lovely. There are people out there with picnic blankets, sunbathing.

PKS: Next thing you know, they’re going to bring coolers and barbecues. That would be the American way.

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