Monstrum nostrum, 2021-2024.

The completion of a series begun in December 2021 under the title Histoire des monstres, based on fifteen plates from Ulyssis Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum Historia (Bononia 1642), which went through several variations and, finally, a change of title to Monstrum nostrum, echoing Pope Francis’ speech at the Rencontres méditérranéennes in Marseille, in September 2023 (please see links at bottom of page).

Seeing no further possible variations, with those that are my artistic tools, I put an end to the series. I will have produced 36 pieces on the subject, in addition to the six in the Les bêtes de Batz series.

I hope, in doing so, to have contributed to the current political debate: who are the monsters (the aliens, the foreigners, the intruders)?

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Histoire des monstres 02, Don’Ana-Andura Piscis, 2021, 24×42.
Here the link to the 2021 series.
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Nuovi mostri 04, Sète-Elephas Marinus, 2023, 30×40.
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Nuovi mostri 05, Mèze-Draco marinus, 2023, 30×40.
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HdM 16 bis, Maguelone-Monstrosus Cyprinus, 2023, 24×42.

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Histoire des monstres 20, Rosignano Solvay-Sus marinus, 24×42, 2024.
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Histoire des monstres 21, La Spezia Fincantieri-Niliaca parei, 2024, 24×42.
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Histoire des monstres 22, Marinella di Sarzana-Vituli marini, 2024, 24×42.
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Histoire des monstres 23, San Terenzio-Rosmarus bellua, 2024, 24×42.
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Histoire des monstres 24, Nisida-Orobonis Piscis, 2024, 24×42.
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Histoire des monstres 25, La Bufalara-Aper Marinus, 2024, 24×42.
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Histoire des monstres 27, Finistère-Orca Balaenam, 2024, 24×42.
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Histoire des monstres 31, Arles-Cetus capillatus, 2024,24×42.
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Histoire des monstres 32, Aigues Mortes-Monstrosus Cyprinus, 2024, 24×42.
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HdM 22 bis, Marinella di Sarzana-Aper Marinus, 2024, 24×42.
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Histoire des monstres 33, Mèze-humana facie, 2024, 26×42.
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Histoire des monstres 34, Marinella di Sarzana-Daemoniforme,2024, 26×42.

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“C’è un grido di dolore che più di tutti risuona e che sta tramutando il mare nostrum in mare mortuum; il Mediterraneo da culla della civiltà a tomba della dignità. È il grido soffocato dei fratelli e delle sorelle migranti”.

Dal discorso del papa alla sessione finale degli incontri del Mediterraneo, Palais du Pharo, Marsiglia, 23 settembre 2023.

Ici le texte intégral du discours du pape en français.

 

Histoire des monstres (2021).

C’est dans l’attente d’un endormissement qui ne venait pas, en feuilletant un livre illustré sur les Océans qui appartient à mon fils ainé, que je suis tombé, ou plutôt retombé, sur certaines gravures anciennes reproduisant des monstres de la mer.

Il faut dire que mon cerveau devait être dans une recherche subliminale d’images cauchemardesques, puisque les deux autres livres qui gisaient près du lit étaient Monstros du philosophe portugais José Gil (Lisboa 1994) et les Métamorphoses d’Emanuele Coccia (Paris 2020) .

J’ai donc recherché et repris en main les bestiaires de Ulisse Aldrovandi, médecin et philosophe bolognais (1522-1605), l’un des inventeurs de l’histoire naturelle. La source d’un nouveau travail était trouvée.

Pour reproduire les planches de la Monstrorum Historia j’ai utilisé un exemplaire qui, publié à Bologne en 1642, portait déjà en 1643 le cachet de la Chartreuse de Villeneuve lès Avignon. Cet exemplaire, sans doute à la suite des réquisitions révolutionnaires, se trouve aujourd’hui à la bibliothèque du Carré d’art de Nîmes.

Parmi toutes les créatures monstrueuses répertoriées par Aldrovandi (rarement par observation directe), j’ai choisi les animaux marins. Ils me paraissent plus appropriés à s’adapter aux habitats que je leur ai imposés de manière tyrannique.

Cette nouvelle série présentera par conséquent en toile de fond la reproduction d’une gravure d’Aldrovandi, sur laquelle une photographie de paysage sera posée en transparence. Il y aura un élément textuel aussi qui, sans avoir de relation directe avec l’une ou l’autre image, sera comme la couture qui reliera les deux autres couches : comme des marginalia adjoints dans le courant de la lecture. Il s’agira de citations des auteurs que j’ai lus en m’attablant à ce travail : je les transcrirai à l’encre de Chine.
(13 décembre 2021)

Histoire des monstres 00, Poggio Rota, 30×30, completed December 13.
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Histoire des monstres 01, Fiora, 24×42, completed December 15.
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Histoire des monstres 02, Lagos, 24×42, completed December 16.
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Histoire des monstres 03, Rofalco, 24×42, completed December 17.
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Histoire des monstres 04, Morgantina, 24×42, completed Decembre 19.
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Histoire des monstres 05, Castro, 24×42, completed December 20.
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Histoire des monstres 06, Brignogan-Plage, 24×42, completed December 22.
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Histoire des monstres 07, Fratenuti, 24×42, completed December 24.
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Histoire des monstres 08, Batz, 24×42, completed December 25.
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Histoire des monstres 09, Fosso bianco, 24×42, completed December 26.
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Histoire des monstres 10, Balena bianca, 24×42, completed December 27.
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Histoire des monstres 11, Camp de César, 24×42, completed December 28.
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Histoire des monstres 12, Ponte san Pietro, 24×42, completed December 29.
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History of the monsters

Waiting unsuccessfully to fall asleep one evening, I was leafing through an illustrated book on the oceans that belongs to my eldest son, when I encountered, or rather re-encountered, some old engravings depicting sea monsters.

I must say that my brain must have been engaged in a subliminal search for nightmarish images, since the two other books that were lying near the bed were Monstros by the Portuguese philosopher, José Gil (Lisbon, 1994) and Metamorphoses by Emanuele Coccia (Paris, 2020).

So I searched for and consulted the bestiaries of Ulisse Aldrovandi, a noted physician and philosopher from Bologna (1522-1605), who is considered one of the fathers of natural history studies. This became the source of a new artistic project.

To reproduce the plates of the Monstrorum Historia, I used a version that was published in Bologna in 1642, and bore the stamp of the Charterhouse of Villeneuve lès Avignon in 1643. This publication is now preserved in the library of the Carré d’art in Nîmes, probably as a result of requisitions undertaken during the French Revolution.

Among all the monstrous creatures listed by Aldrovandi (he rarely observed them directly), I chose marine animals because they seem to me best adapted to the habitats that I tyrannically imposed on them.

This new series will therefore feature a reproduction of an Aldrovandi engraving as a backdrop, on which a transparent landscape photograph will be placed. I will also add some texts which, without being directly related to either image, will serve as the thread connecting the other two layers: like marginal notes added while reading a text. They will be quotations, transcribed in Chinese ink, from the authors who have read while approaching this latest work.

(December 13 2021)

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I have used also:

J. Baltrusaitis, Le moyen âge fantastique, Paris 1955
G. Lascault, Le Monstre Dans l’Art Occidental, Paris 1973
C. Kappler, Monstres, démons et merveilles à la fin du Moyen Age, Paris 1980
M. Guédron, Les monstres, Paris 2018

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Wallflowers remix (Anni Settanta, uno).

Anni Settanta, triptych one.
32×32 cm apiece, lead frame, 2023.
(trichloroethylene transfer on glass, Fun and Fancy colors on glass, Istituto Geografico Militare map, pencils).

All’alba dei miei settant’anni, inizio un lavoro sugli anni Settanta, il decennio dei miei vent’anni. Penso che si svilupperà per trittici e spero di completarne tre o quattro.
Il primo trittico è una ripresa di un lavoro del 2010 che era a sua volta una ripresa della tematica dell’identificazione: Wallflowers remix.
Ho raschiato via la carta da parati che faceva da fondo, in allegoria del fondo quadrettato in uso nei commissariati di polizia, a certi ritratti della Buoncostume romana, abbandonati nella spazzatura di fronte alla Questura a fine 2007, ritrovati da un libraio-gallerista romano ed esposti neanche una giornata, prima che i Carabinieri mandati dalla Sovrintendenza non li sequestrassero insieme con tutto il materiale espositivo, cataloghi compresi.
Ho sostituito la carta da parati con carte militari dell’IGM ritagliate nel formato del quadro, 32×32 cm. Questi ritagli cartografano siti in cui, in pochi chilometri quadrati, sono accaduti avvenimenti marcanti del decennio 1970: il delitto di Castelporziano (10 agosto 1975), l’assassinio di Pier Paolo Pasolini (2 novembre 1975), il festival di poesia sulla spiaggia di Capocotta (28-30 giugno 1979), in cui vidi Allen Ginsberg, inascoltato da tutti i giovani proletari intenti a bombardare il palco con lattine di birra ripiene di sabbia, intonare all’organetto il suo Kaddish Father Death Blues.
Sulle carte ho apposto timbri inchiostrati di rosso, da me scavati nelle pietre saponarie riportate dalla Cina, oppure ordinati ad artigiani ambulanti di Canton in un soggiorno del 1990: segni senza senso, oppure scritture brevi, Wallflowers, Ashbox, Nequid nimis, o la mia firma trascritta in caratteri cinesi.
Ho anche copiato a mano frasi che mi girano nella testa ossessive da almeno un trentennio: non dicere ille secrita abboce (catacombe di Domitilla, VIIIe secolo), alexamenos sebetai theos (graffito sul Palatino a didascalia del disegno di un cristiano in atto di preghiera, la testa d’asino e le braccia aperte), perimeno, ananke, όχι Ιθάκη, όχι όλες οι περιπέτεa (no, Itaca no, non un’altra avventura, dalla  poesia ”Trasparenza” di Yannis Ritsos nel Pietre, Ripetizioni, Sbarre, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1978 che tanto leggevo).
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Anni Settanta 01, Idroscalo, 32×32, 2023.
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Anni Settanta 02, Castelporziano, 32×32, 2023.
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Anni Settanta 03, Capocotta, 32×32, 2023.
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At the dawn of my seventies, I am beginning a work on the 1970s, the decade of my twenties. I think it will develop in triptychs and I hope to complete three or four of them.
The first triptych is a reprise of a 2010 work that was itself a reprise of the theme of identification: Wallflowers remix.
I scraped off the wallpaper that served as the background, in allegory of the checkered background in use in police stations, to certain portraits of Roman Vice squad, abandoned in the trash in front of the Questura in late 2007, found by a Roman bookseller-gallerist and exhibited not even a day, before the Carabinieri sent by the Superintendence did not seize them together with all the exhibition material, including catalogs.
I replaced the wallpaper with IGM military maps cut out in the picture format, 32×32 cm. These cutouts map sites where, in a few square kilometers, marking events of the 1970s happened: the Castelporziano crime (August 10, 1975), the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini (November 2, 1975), the Capocotta beach poetry festival (June 28-30, 1979), in which I saw Allen Ginsberg, unheard by all the young proletarians intent on bombarding the stage with sand-filled beer cans, singing his Kaddish Father Death Blues on the harmonium.
On the papers I stuck red-inked stamps, either carved by me from soapstone brought back from China, or ordered from itinerant artisans in Canton during a 1990 stopover: nonsense signs, or short writings, Wallflowers, Ashbox, Nequid nimis, or my signature transcribed in Chinese characters.
I have also copied by hand phrases that have been running around in my head obsessively for at least thirty years: non dicere ille secrita abboce (Domitilla catacombs, 8th century), alexamenos sebetai theos (graffito on the Palatine captioning a drawing of a Christian in the act of prayer, donkey’s head and arms outstretched), perimeno, ananke, όχι στην Ιθάκη, όχι σε αυτές τις περιπέτειες (no to Ithaca, no to all these vicissitudes, from a poem by Yannis Ritsos in Pietre, Ripetizioni, Sbarre, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1978 that I used to read so much).
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Wallflowers remix 02, 32×32, 2010.
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Wallflowers remix 04, 32×32, 2010.
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Wallflowers remix 06, 32×32, 2010.
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À l’aube de mes soixante-dix ans, je commence un travail sur les années soixante-dix, la décennie de mes vingt ans. Je pense qu’il se développera en triptyques et j’espère en réaliser trois ou quatre.
Le premier triptyque est une reprise d’une œuvre de 2010 qui était elle-même une reprise du thème de l’identification : Wallflowers remix.
J’ai gratté le papier peint qui servait de fond (en allégorie du fond à carreaux utilisé dans les commissariats pour les portraits de la Brigade de Mœurs), portraits abandonnés dans les ordures devant la Questura fin 2007, retrouvés par un libraire-galeriste romain et exposés pendant à peine une journée, avant que les carabiniers envoyés par la Surintendance ne les saisissent avec tout le matériel de l’exposition, y compris les catalogues.
J’ai remplacé le papier peint par des cartes militaires IGM découpées au format de mon image, 32×32 cm. Ces découpages représentent les lieux où, sur quelques kilomètres carrés, se sont déroulés des événements marquants des années 1970 : le crime de Castelporziano (10 août 1975), l’assassinat de Pier Paolo Pasolini (2 novembre 1975), le festival de poésie de la plage de Capocotta (28-30 juin 1979), où j’ai vu Allen Ginsberg, ignoré de tous les jeunes prolétaires qui bombardaient la scène de canettes de bière remplies de sable, chanter son Kaddish Father Death Blues à l’accordéon.
Sur les cartes, j’ai apposé des tampons à l’encre rouge, soit sculptés par mes soins dans des pierres à savon ramenées de Chine, soit commandés à des artisans itinérants de Canton lors d’un séjour en 1990 : des signes sans signification, ou de courts écrits, Wallflowers, Ashbox, Nequid nimis, ou ma signature transcrite en caractères chinois.
J’ai également recopié à la main des phrases qui tournent dans ma tête de manière obsessionnelle depuis au moins trente ans : non dicere ille secrita abboce (catacombes de Domitilla, VIIIe siècle), alexamenos sebetai theos (graffito sur le Palatin légendant un dessin d’un chrétien en train de prier, tête d’âne et bras tendus), perimeno, ananke, όχι στην Ιθάκη, όχι σε αυτές τις περιπέτειες (non à Ithaque, non à toutes ces vicissitudes, d’après un poème de Yannis Ritsos dans Pietre, Ripetizioni, Sbarre, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1978 que je lisais beaucoup).

(Traduction automatique de l’italien : https://www.deepl.com/translator#it/fr/)

 

 

 

 

Laralia (Dale i Sunnfjord 1999)

This work is entitled Laralia. The dictionary tells us that, in ancient Roman times, the Lares were the ancestors’ spirits, whose images, made out of painted wood or cast wax, were collected and worshipped in a specially designated part of the mansion called the Laralia.
These pictures were periodically displayed in processions, and then set on fire. Pliny the Elder mentions them in the section of Naturalis Historia devoted to painting (Book, XXXV, 6-7): in his criticism of modern art then in vogue, he underlines the moral value of these portraits, which served not only to commemorate the deceased, but also to accompany the living, so that “when somebody died, the entire assembly of his departed relatives was also present”.
Ten pictures of local people, chosen at random among the ones conserved at the Fjaler Folkbibliotek, have undergone a multi-staged process of transformation: first, they are deformed in order to reveal their Anamorphosis, reminiscent of the long evening shadows; then, they are enlarged to life size; finally, their silhouettes are traced and cut out on boards of pine wood.

These black silhouettes were placed atop Dalsåsen Hill and then set on fire, in a brief ceremony.
On the other end, the three-meter high plates, from which the silhouettes had been carved out, were erected in the Øvstestølen Plateau, above Dale, in a spot visible from the Jøtelshaugen Peak. Painted in oxide red, these steles turn their backs to the west, so that, at the end of the day, around mid-August, the shadow of each top touches a stone, under which the original picture of the corresponding individual has been placed.
This work is mobile. During the day, in sunlight, the shadows on the ground change shape, cross each other and are, for a fleeting moment, similar to the original picture.
The instantaneous freezing of the photographic image documents a unique state of a person and is meant to be recognisable by the person’s relatives and the collective memory. In Laralia this image is subjected to multiple reproductions, which progressively distance the subject from its departure point.
The final stage of this process – the woodcut – is the opposite of the photographic image, in terms of the time and energy required for its execution; the slowness can be seen as a less tyrannical and intense way of recording the image.
The ten pictures, transformed into steles whose commemorative function is only vaguely related to the individuals they portray, will surrender to the action of time and nature, which will further modify them and ultimately lead to their decay.

This work is not intended to be a mere celebration of local history. Instead, it is an attempt to finding a sign or a “monogram”, of vanished individualities that could possibly remain after a progressive flattening of the recorded images. Perhaps this process mirrors the functioning of our memory, with its arbitrary choices, gaps and repetitions and constitutes an attempt to navigate between the opposing poles of amnesia and hypermnesia, forgetfulness and obsession.

laralia-01

laralia-02

laralia-032

laralia-04

laralia-05

 

(A short movie by Knut Nikolai Bergstrom, 3’32”)

laralia-06

 

Note: for a journal of this installation, see Diario Boreale, interrotto. And, also in Italian, a transcribed notebook: Taccuini scandinavi 1999-2000.

 

 

 

Der Reichstagssturm (2022)

A thesis on contemporary history.

I vuoti lasciati da un T-Rex dipinto di rosso fluorescente.
Gli Hostile Hopi che resistevano all’imperialismo americano, all’inizio del ventesimo secolo.
Un puzzle le cui tessere sono andate disperse. Un esperimento sull’andatura dei gibboni.
La presa del Reichstag da parte dell’Armata Rossa, in un ciclo pittorico celebrativo del Karlshorst Museum di Potsdam.

Les vides laissés par un T-Rex peint en rouge fluo.
Les Hostile Hopi qui résistent à l’impérialisme américain au début du 20e siècle.
Un puzzle dont les pièces ont été dispersées. Une expérience sur la démarche des gibbons.
La prise du Reichstag par l’Armée rouge, dans un cycle de peintures commémoratives au Karlshorst Museum de Potsdam.

The gaps left by a T-Rex painted in fluorescent red.
The Hostile Hopi resisting American imperialism, early 20th century.
A puzzle whose pieces have been scattered. An experiment on the gait of gibbons.
The taking of the Reichstag by the Red Army, in a commemorative painting cycle at the Karlshorst Museum in Potsdam.


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Der Reichstagssturm 01, 2022, 22,5×30.
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Der Reichstagssturm 02, 2022, 22,5×30.

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Bello! Opere nuove? C’è spiegone?
SC

Ah no, òpiri d’arti sunnu!
Lo spiegone è che la Storia è complessa e confusa.
Comunque il tirannosauro a pezzi è l’impero sovietico, o forse anche il puzzle.
Il tentativo di rimettere insieme i pezzi si urta alla resistenza degli Hopi, oppure a quelle dei gibboni, che non vogliono stare al gioco.
E la visione della storia è imbrogliata da ogni elemento successivo, come un’archeologia all’incontrario.
E alla fine non ci si capisce niente ma forse c’è un bell’effetto pirotecnico.
SP

Ponge

“Je puis me plaire à considérer Rome, ou Nîmes, comme le squelette épars, ici le tibia, là le crâne d’une ancienne ville vivante, d’un ancien vivant…”,
Francis Ponge, Le parti pris des choses, Paris 1942, p. 75.

2 janvier 2022. En ce début d’année, je débute aussi un nouveau travail. Avant-hier, 30 décembre, j’ai achevé la série Histoire des monstres,  d’après les gravures de Ulisse Aldrovandi et hier, dernier jour de l’année 2021, profitant d’une lumière de brume assez exceptionnelle dans cette partie de la France, je suis monté à bicyclette au Cimetière Protestant et j’en ai photographié les pourtours, sans y pénétrer.

Au retour à la maison j’ai repris le livre de Jean-Christophe Bailly sur ses voyages en France (Le dépaysement, Paris 2011) et je l’ai ouvert au chapitre 23. Castellum acquae : ” Nemausensis poeta, c’est ainsi que Francis Ponge aimait à s’annoncer…”

Depuis longtemps, depuis que je sais que Francis Ponge est enterré dans ce cimetière d’une insoutenable beauté, à quelques centaines de mètres de chez moi, que je pense aller visiter sa tombe, mais je ne l’ai jamais vraiment fait. Son patronyme ne figure pas parmi ceux des personnalités illustres, sur la carte accrochée à l’entre monumentale, et en flânant dans les allées mousseuses, en compagnie d’un chat errant ou de l’autre, je n’ai jamais posé les yeux sur son nom, ni ai-je voulu interroger les gardiens à son sujet.

Hier aussi, au lieu que rentrer, maintenant que je connaissais le sujet de mon travail nouveau, je suis resté aux abords des deux secteurs du cimetière, séparés par un cadereau canalisé et bétonné pour éviter les inondations. J’ai pris quelques photos de l’intérieur par les bouches d’évacuation des eaux, ayant la tête à la hauteur du terrain et des tombes.

PS : les scans utilisés en fond à mes photographies viennent de l’édition de 1979 de Francis Ponge, Le parti pris des choses, Paris 1942.
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Ponge 01, 24×42, 2022.
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Ponge 02, 24×42, 2022.
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Ponge 03, 24×42, 2022.
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Ponge 04, 24×42, 2022.
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Ponge 05, 24×42, 2022.
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Ponge 06, 24×42, 2022.
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2 January 2022. At the beginning of this year, I embarked upon a new project. The day before yesterday, 30 December, I completed the series Histoire des monstres, based on engravings by Ulisse Aldrovandi, and yesterday, the last day of 2021, taking advantage of foggy conditions that are quite unusual in this part of France, I cycled to the Protestant Cemetery located a few hundred meters from my home and photographed its perimeter, without entering it.

Upon returning home, I picked up Jean-Christophe Bailly’s book on his travels in France (Le dépaysement, Paris 2011) and turned to chapter 23, entitled Castellum acquae: “Nemausensis poeta, as Francis Ponge liked to refer to himself…”

For a long time, ever since I learned that Francis Ponge was buried in this unbearably beautiful cemetery, I had been thinking of visiting his grave, but somehow I never managed to do so. His name does not appear among the illustrious figures on the map posted at the monumental entrance, and while strolling through the mossy paths, in the company of a stray cat, I never found his name, nor did I want to ask the cemetery’s caretaker.

Yesterday, having decided on the subject of my new project, I returned but rather than entering the cemetery, I remained at the edge of its two divisions, separated by a concrete-paved ditch dug below the street level to avoid flooding. Looking through the ditch’s drainage holes situated at the ground level, I took some pictures of the cemetery’s interior and the tombs from this unusual viewpoint.

 

Notes :

Mais je ne suis pas loin de Nîmes. N’y puis-je rien y faire à ta place ? Au splendide jardin de la route d’Alès (1) (qui m’est si cher), n’aurez-vous pas à venir ? Ne puis-je rien préparer ?
Francis Ponge, Lettre à Jean Paulhan, 22 mars 1944, in  Correspondance 1923-1946, Paris 1986, p. 309.
La note (1) de l’éditeur récite : Il s’agît du cimetière protestant de Nîmes, où se trouve le monument funéraire de la famille Ponge-Fabre.

 

 

 

 

 

Jacques Derrida, To Save the Phenomena.

In 1989 the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, wrote an essay on my early artwork entitled “Sauver les phénomènes (Pour Salvatore Puglia)”. The essay was originally published in the French journal Contretemps in 1995.

I am pleased to announce that the Chicago University Press has recently published an English translation of this essay along with several other writings by Derrida in the collection Thinking Out of Sight, Writings on the Arts of the Visible.

For a preview of “To Save the Phenomena” click here.

Below are the nine works referred to in Derrida’s text (only Vie d’H.B. is reprinted in the translated text):


1987 Ashbox
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1986 Intus ubique
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1987 Als Schrift
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1985 Hors d’attente
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1984 Présages
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1986 Croce e delizia
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1983 Vie d’H.B.
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1985 Aurora
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1988 Orto petroso

Keams Canyon, May 1896 (2021)

Un recente impegno, in risposta alla sollecitazione di un mio amico che lavora nel campo dell’educazione e mi chiedeva un lavoro sulla scolarizzazione nel secolo XIX.

Eccoti la mia idea. Penso a una serie di sei-otto lavori (formati 30×40 e 30×30) sui bambini Hopi alla scuola industriale di Keams Canyon nel 1896.
Come avrai visto dal mio testo sul sito (Hostile Hopi, italiano) la scolarizzazione era una tappa importante per l’assimilazione degli indiani d’America. Andando a scuola, non potevano più parlare la loro lingua, dovevano cambiare nome, vestirsi all’occidentale e naturalmente seguire il catechismo. La scuola era lontana dai villaggi quindi tornavano raramente a casa.
Gli Hopi finirono per dividersi in due fazioni, gli Hostile, che volevano rimanere sulla Mesa e continuare le pratiche tradizionali e che rifiutavano di mandare i figli a scuola; e i Friendlies, che accettavano la scuola e anche di andare ad abitare nelle casette nuove in pianura.
Nella primavera del 1894 quasi tutti resistettero all’attribuzione di lotti individuali e chiesero ai “Washington Chiefs” di continuare a coltivare in modo comunitario. La loro petizione non ebbe mai risposta ma la lottizzazione non funzionò.
Nel novembre di quell’anno intervenne l’esercito degli US per mettere i bambini a scuola in modo forzato, e diciannove padri di famiglia renitenti vennero imprigionati e deportati ad Alcatraz per un anno.
Alla fine la scissione ci fu davvero, nel 1906, quando il villaggio di Oraibi si divise fisicamente in due. I Friendlies rimasero a Oraibi e gli Hostile fondarono un nuovo villaggio, Hotevilla.
Nella primavera del 1896 lo storico dell’arte tedesco Aby Warburg visitò il villaggio di Oraibi, oltre alla scuola industriale di Keam’s Canyon. A Oraibi assistette a una danza rituale, la Hemis Kachina, che non era quella che fu poi il soggetto della sua famosa conferenza di Kreuzlingen (“Il rituale del serpente”, pubblicato in italiano in aut aut del Gennaio-aprile 1984).
Durante i suoi soggiorni presso gli Hopi Warburg non pare avere avuto conoscenza degli avvenimenti degli anni precedenti; in ogni modo non li menziona e sulla questione dell’educazione occidentale ha una posizione ambigua, come si può evincere dagli ultimi paragrafi della sua conferenza. Altri hanno già interpretato e preso posizione al riguardo. Ma è evidente che la sua superficiale adesione alla luminosità dell’insegnamento occidentale contraddice il suo pessimismo “leopardiano” rispetto alle conseguenze del progresso importato dalla modernità.
Per questa mia nuova serie, lavoro a strati.
Un primo strato è trasparente ed è la riproduzione di una foto fatta da Aby Warburg al Keams Canyon. Un secondo strato è la riproduzione della petizione comunitaria del marzo 1894, rivolta ai “Washington Chiefs” e firmata da ognuno con il disegno del suo totem, e la relativa spiegazione. Il terzo strato è la mia ripresa, grossolana e profana, di alcune di queste “firme-totem”, a mo’ di tatuaggio rosso fluorescente.
Esistono due altre foto di Warburg, fatte nella stessa occasione. Una rappresenta Thomas Keam davanti casa, l’altra il Canyon dove si trovava la scuola. Keam era un ex militare irlandese stabilitosi in Arizona, dove aveva aperto un emporio e fungeva da mediatore fra gli Hopi e il governo americano. Ma non penso di intervenire su queste ultime immagini, che mi paiono « fuori tema ».
Apporrò al disotto dei miei lavori le didascalie del libro da cui ho tratto le foto di Warburg (B. Cestelli Guidi, N. Mann, Photographs at the Frontier.  Aby Warburg in America, 1895-1896, London 1998).
La questione che pone questa serie di lavori è certo speciale e non comparabile con quelle che voi educatori affrontate oggi. Dovevano i bambini Hopi essere mandati a scuola o dovevano essere lasciati alla loro comunità e alla loro cultura? Oppure era possibile una strada intermedia?
Apparentemente nell’America fra i due secoli questo non era possibile.

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KC 01. Alunne Hopi con il loro insegnante, Mr. Neel, di fronte alla Moki (Hopi) Industrial School al Keam’s Canyon, Arizona, nel maggio 1896. Queste foto vennero scattate da Warburg al termine del suo soggiorno nel territorio Hopi.
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KC 02. Alunne Hopi e alunne occidentali nel Keam’s Canyon, Arizona, maggio 1896.
 Le alunne della Scuola industriale Moki (Hopi) stazionano su una roccia; il gruppo è composto da bambine indiane, ad eccezione di una bambina occidentale (facilmente riconoscibile dall’abito bianco).
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KC 03. Genitori Hopi che riportano i figli da scuola, Keam’s Canyon, Arizona, maggio 1896.
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KC 04. Allievi Hopi della Industrial School di Keam’s Canyon, Arizona, maggio 1896.
I bambini indiani venivano vestiti in abiti occidentali. Warburg aveva chiesto loro di illustrare una storia per vedere se il pensiero simbolico continuava a vivere in popoli che non erano pienamente « civilizzati » dal punto di vista della civiltà occidentale. Questi ritratti erano intesi come documentazione del suo esperimento, il che potrebbe spiegare la posa «antropometrica» di queste fotografie.
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K5 05. Allievo della Moki (Hopi) Industrial School a Keam’s Canyon, Arizona, maggio 1896. Per gli studenti della Industrial School, cappelli e vestiti erano parte dell’uniforme quotidiana: la scuola era in internato e si trovava a miglia di distanza dai loro villaggi.
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KC 06. Allievi della Moki (Hopi) Industrial School. In questo doppio ritratto, il più grande dei due sembra estremamente consapevole. La mano appoggiata ai fianchi e lo sguardo puntato sul fotografo rivelano una fierezza non intaccata dagli abiti che gli sono stati imposti.
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Below is my response to a request from my friend M., who asked to elaborate an art project on the subject of education in the 19th century. 

This is my proposal. Six works (30×40 cm and 30×30 cm) on Hopi children at the Keams Canyon Industrial School in 1896.
As you have noted in my recent text (Hostile Hopi, English), schooling was an important stage in the assimilation of Native Americans. On their way to school, they could no longer speak their language, they had to change their names, dress Western and of course follow the catechism. The school was far from the villages so they rarely returned home.
The Hopi ended up splitting into two factions, the “Hostiles, who wanted to remain on the Mesa and continue traditional practices and refused to send their children to school; and the “Friendlies », who accepted the school and even went to live in new houses on the plains.
In the spring of 1894 almost everyone resisted the attribution of individual plots and asked the “Washington Chiefs” to be allowed to cultivate them communally. Their petition was never answered, but for several reasons the government’s land allotment program did not work out.
In November of that year, the US army intervened to force the children into school, and nineteen defying fathers were imprisoned and deported to Alcatraz for one year.
In 1906, the split was exacerbated , when the village of Oraibi was divided into two. The “Friendlies”, remained in Oraibi while the “Hostiles” founded a new village, Hotevilla.
In the spring of 1896, German art historian Aby Warburg visited the village of Oraibi, as well as the industrial school at Keams Canyon. In Oraibi he attended a ritual dance, the Hemis Kachina, which was not the subject of his famous lecture in Kreuzlingen (“The Snake Dance”, published in Italian in aut aut, January-April 1984).
During his stays with the Hopi, Warburg does not appear to have been aware of the events of previous years; in any case he does not mention them, and on the question of Western education his position is ambiguous, as reflected in the final paragraphs of his conference. Others have examined this matter and taken position. But it is evident that his superficial adherence to the enlightened nature of Western teaching values contradicts his “Leopardian” pessimism regarding the consequences of any sort of progress resulting from modernity.
In my new series, I work in layers. A first layer is transparent and reproduces a photo taken by Aby Warburg at Keams Canyon. A second layer is a reproduction of the community petition of March 1894, addressed to the “Washington Chiefs” and signed by each member of the community with the design of his totem, and its explanation. The third layer is my crude imitation of some of these “totem-signatures”, resembling red fluorescent tattoos.

There are two other photos taken  by Warburg on the same occasion: one of Thomas Keam in front of his house, the other of the canyon where the school was located. Born in England, Keam served in the US army eventually settling in Arizona, where he operated a trading post and acted as a mediator between the Hopi and the US government. But I do not expect  to use these last two images, which I consider to be insufficiently relevant.
However, I will place underneath my artworks the captions published in the book containing Warburg’s photos (B. Cestelli Guidi, N. Mann, Photographs at the Frontier.  Aby Warburg in America, 1895-1896, London 1998).
The question posed by this series of works is quite particular and unlike those that educators, like yourself, face today. Should the Hopi children have be forced  to attend faraway schools or should they have to be left in their community in contact with their culture? Or was an intermediate solution possible?

Apparently in late-nineteenth century America, this was not an option.

 

See also: https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/07/hopi-petition-asks-government-to-allow-communal-land-owning-to-continue.html

https://books.google.fr/books?id=EHrML-IMEfIC&pg=PA114&dq=hopi+moqui+allotments&hl=en&sa=X&ei=xkHfUbbkIcazyQHFvoHoDQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=hopi%20moqui%20allotments&f=false

 

 

 

 

Hostile Hopi (English, 2021)

The following text is the premise of an art project I recently completed (May 2021; see Keams Canyon, May 1896) involving various photographs taken by Aby Warburg during the spring of 1896 in the northeastern sector of present-day Arizona (USA).

The Hopi are a Native American tribe established between the 8th and the 13th centuries in the desert territories bordering present-day New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Since 1934, the Hopi constitute a self-governing tribe occupying a reduced area within the larger Navajo reservation.

The Hopi’s first contact with Westerners dates back to 1540, when the conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado learned of their existence and carried out an initial census. Subsequently the Spanish conquerors attempted to convert them to Catholicism. In 1629, thirty Franciscan friars arrived in their territory.
The year 1680 saw the great revolt of the united Pueblo and Hopi, which took the Spanish twenty years to quell. At the end of the 17th century, the only village that the missionaries had succeeded in converting was Awatowi. In the winter of 1700-1701, groups from other Hopi villages attacked Awatowi. All the men were killed, while the women and children moved to other villages, and their houses were burned to the ground. The Spanish eventually gave up their attempts to colonize the Hopi, and their presence on Hopi land became sporadic.

The first contact with the new occupants, the United States of America, occurred in 1850 (two years after the end of the war in which the US incorporated 55% of Mexican territory).
In 1875 Loololma (also known as Lololomai), the head of the village of Oraibi (considered the most traditional of the Hopi settlements) was taken to Washington to meet with the President of the United States. He returned convinced of the need to build schools in order to provide access to American “civilization” and to produce larger quantities of maize, the Hopi’s staple food.

In 1887 the first school was built at Keams Canyon. This initiative represented a genuine attempt to convert the Hopi and, as a result of the passive resistance on the part of many members of the tribe, the few pupils attended the school (1). Eventually in 1890 US federal troops forced children to attend by threatening to arrest non-compliant parents.
In 1893 a new school opened in Oraibi. The following year, a group of parents refused to send their children there. The US army intervened, arresting nineteen fathers and eventually deporting them to Alcatraz prison, where they remained detained for several months (November 1894-September 1895) (2).
Finally, in 1906, as a result of inter-community conflicts related to education as well as land ownership issues, the village split into two factions: those who collaborated (the “Friendlies”) remained in Oraibi; while those who resisted (the “Hostiles”), under the leadership of Lomahongyoma, head of the Spider clan, established a new settlement, Hotevilla.

In the winter of 1895-1896,  after a stay in Washington where he conferred with ethnographers at the Smithsonian Institute, Aby Warburg visited several Native American villages in New Mexico and attended certain ceremonies (but not the Snake Dance). From Albuquerque he travelled to Laguna, then to Acoma; in San Ildefonso he observed a performance of the  Antelopes Dance. In late April 1896, after a stay in California, he returned to the Hopi territories. After a two-day trip in a buggy across the desert, he arrived at Keams Canyon and proceeded to Walpi and Oraibi, where he witnessed the humiskatcina dance.

Therefore, Warburg was in Oraibi some seven months after the release of the nineteen “Hostile” fathers from Alcatraz prison. Although in the account of his journey (as recounted in his well-known Kreuzlingen lecture of 25 April 1923) (3), Warburg does not mention this episode, it is highly unlikely that he was unaware of it. And, while his entire lecture revolves around the question of the conflict between the “Hopi soul” and Western culture and the subject of education is repeatedly referred to, Warburg does not seem to be familiar with the methods of forced education practiced by the US government. He only mentions difficulties that the head of the village of Acoma encountered in convincing reluctant Indianers to enter the church.

Figure 27 of the Kreuzlingen lecture shows a small group of school children “gracefully dressed and in aprons”, who no longer believe in to the “pagan demons”. But this observation, apparently ironic, is followed by a striking affirmation: “Children standing in front of a cave. Leading them to light, is the task not only of the American school, but of humanity in general”.

The first four photos that follow illustrate the different phases of the arrest and internment of the nineteen Hopi parents (among them, at the center, the head of the “Hostile” faction, Lomahongyoma). The next two photos were taken with Warburg’s Kodak camera: they show Neel, the teacher, with two Hopi girls and a group of children in front of a cave .

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(1) “The Keams Canyon School was organized to teach the Hopi youth the ways of European-American civilization. It forced them to use English and give up their traditional ways. The children were made to abandon their tribal identity and completely take on European-American culture. They received haircuts, new clothes, took on Anglo names, and learned English. The boys learned farming and carpentry skills, while the girls were taught ironing, sewing and “civilized” dining. The school also reinforced European-American religions.”
This quote, as well as the information above and most of the following, is taken from the wikipedia article “en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hopi”.

(2) For additional information on this deportation  and the four related photographs, see the website of the Alcatraz National Park: www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/hopi-prisoners-on-the-rock.htm.
See also: S. Rushfort, S. Upham, A Hopi social History, Austin, Texas, 1992; M. S. Gilbert, Education beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902-1929, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2010; H. C. James, Pages from Hopi History, Tucson, Arizona, 1974; Peter M. Whiteley, Deliberate Acts, Changing Hopi Culture Through the Oraibi Split, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1988.

(3) A. Warburg, “Il rituale del serpente”, aut aut, 199-200, January-April 1984, pp. 17-39; see also the fundamental B. Cestelli Guidi, N. Mann, Photographs at the Frontier. Aby Warburg in America, 1895-1896, London 1998. And without overlooking Aby M. Warburg, Images from the region of the Pueblo Indians of North America, Translated with an interpretive essay by Michael P. Steinberg, Ithaca and London, 1995, and David Freedberg, “Pathos at Oraibi: What Warburg did not see”, in Lo sguardo di Giano: Aby Warburg fra tempo e memoria, ed. C. Cieri Via e P. Montani, Torino 2004), pp. 569-611.

Note: this is a revised automatic translation from the Italian (see my Hostile Hopi 2017-2021).
(The images disappeared from this page. Please refer to the Italian version of this article.)
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The nineteen “Hostile” in Alcatraz.

Hopi and Western children at Keams Canyon, photo by Aby Warburg (1896). From B. Cestelli Guidi, N. Mann, Photographs at the Frontier. Aby Warburg in America, 1895-1896, London 1998.
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A page from the Hopi petition, March 1894.

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The religious chiefs symbols.

 

2021, Keams Canyon 00, 40×30.

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The final pages of the Kreuzlingen (1923) lecture, in “Il rituale del serpente”,  aut aut, Gennaio-aprile 1984.

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Anabasis. Mario Rigoni Stern landscapes. (2015-2021)

Mario Rigoni Stern (1921-2008) had two ‘anabasis experiences’ in his lifetime. The first one involved the retreat of the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia, in January 1943. Rigoni was one of the 60,000 ‘Alpini’ elite military corps that Mussolini sent to occupy the Soviet Union, and among the fortunate 20,000 that returned home safely. His second “anabasis” experience occurred two years later, during his escape from a German military concentration camp in April 1945. For ten days, Rigoni wandered through the Styria and Carinthia forests in Austria surviving on berries, bird eggs and snails before encountering an outpost of Italian partisans at an Alpine pass.

I regard Mario Rigoni Stern as one of my spiritual fathers along with Nuto Revelli (1919-2004) and Vittorio Foa (1910-2008). Among the three, it is Rigoni Stern who explored in greatest depth the relationship between humans and their natural environment. The theme of the forest, as a locus of nature, is central to Rigoni’s oeuvre. The pre-Alpine forest, which was completely destroyed by Austrian and Italian bombs between 1915 and 1918 and subsequently replanted, is an example of the blending of the artificial with the natural. By the time Stern’s work Uomini, boschi e api (Men, Woods and Bees,) was published in 1980, the Asiago plateau forest had reverted to a nature state.

The forest is a mirror of the world “as it should be”, a world where “siamo tutti compaesani”, (we all belong to the same village). In this ecosystem, we can all live together, humans and various animal species, once the carrying capacity of the environment is under control. But according to the writer, the ‘good’ forest is not the one that grows freely and spontaneously. Rather it is the one tamed by human labor, where humankind plays the role of the caring gardener.

At the beginning of his book Forests. The Shadows of Civilization, (Stanford 1992), Robert Pogue Harrison quotes the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico: “This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies…” (The New science, 1725). But Vico’s text continues as follows: “it is the nature of peoples to be first crude, afterward severe, then benign, later on delicate, eventually dissipate”.

Rigoni Stern considers Vico’s reflection, and assumes that the city (the last stage of human progress before academies, according to Vico) has become a place of “spiritual solitude”, where “barbarity dwells in the very heart of the humans” and states that the woods have become a “place of salvation” (Introduction to Boschi d’Italia, Rome 1993).

As I wandered around Rigoni’s homeland, I recorded some images of forests, which, upon closer inspection, reveal traces of the war: the collapsed trenches and the craters left by bombs. There I encountered a theme related to my Rupestrian series: these sites have also been reclaimed by nature, even if here the traces left behind are the result of humankind’s diabolical engineering rather than its creativity.

The works that bears the title Anabasis come from the superposition of these images and archive images: the Alpini retreating in the Russian snow, the trenches and the woodland of the Asiago plateau after an artillery battle.

 


Anabasis 03, 40×60, 2015.
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Anabasis 06 A and B, 30×30 each, 2015.
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Anabasis 09 B, 40×60, 2018.
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Anabasis 08 B, 40×60, 2020.
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Anabasis 05 B, 40×60, 2021 (2015).

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Rigoni Stern connut deux anabases, une grande et une petite. La première fut la retraite de Russie, en janvier 1943 ; Rigoni était l’un des 60.000 chasseurs alpins italiens partis pour occuper l’Union Soviétique, aux côtés des allemands, et il fut l’un des 20.000 qui en revinrent. La deuxième fut sa fuite solitaire du Stalag, en avril 1945 ; pendant une dizaine de jours il erra dans les forêts de Carinthie et de Styrie, se nourrissant de baies, d’œufs d’oiseaux et d’escargots, jusqu’au moment où il rencontra, sur la route des Alpes, un poste avancé de partisans italiens.

Mario Rigoni Stern (1921-2008), avec Nuto Revelli (1919-2004) et Vittorio Foa (1910-2008) est l’un de mes pères. Et, parmi mes pères, c’est celui qui a le plus investi la thématique du rapport de l’homme à la nature.

Le haut-plateau d’Asiago est le lieu des origines et des retours de Rigoni ; la forêt qui le couvre, cette même forêt annihilée par les bombes autrichiennes et italiennes entre 1915 et 1918 et ensuite « reconstruite » (exemple du naturel qui devient artificiel, pour redevenir naturel) est un sujet central dans son œuvre littéraire.

Le bois est, d’après Rigoni, « lieu de salut » (introduction à Boschi d’Italia, Rome 1993), tandis que la ville est devenue le lieu de la « solitude spirituelle », où « la barbarie se cache jusque dans le cœur des hommes ». L’écrivain de l’Altopiano reprend ici les arguments de Giambattista Vico (Principi di scienza nuova, 1725), tout en leur donnant une inflexion plus humaniste et, somme toute, réconciliante. Si l’homme veut survivre « avec » la nature, il doit être capable d’en prélever sa part, sans en entacher le capital.

Comme on le sait, Rigoni était un chasseur passionné ; on se demande si, finalement, ses raisonnements ne couvraient pas son désir de s’adonner à la chasse au coq de bruyère. Cela dit, le coq de bruyère n’est aucunement en danger et la forêt se porte bien en Europe, vu sa progression aux dépens des pâturages et des terres cultivables.

Aussi éloigné d’un sentiment de domination inspiré de la civilisation des Lumières que d’une approche nostalgique à la Sturm und Drang (1), Rigoni exprime plutôt un sobre panthéisme humaniste ; la « bonne » forêt n’est pas, d’après lui, celle qui pousse de manière spontanée et sauvage ; c’est celle qui est administrée et ordonnée par l’homme, en sage jardinier.

En errant, en touriste, sur l’Altopiano, j’ai enregistré quelques images de sites naturels où restent visibles les traces de la guerre : les tranchées écroulées, les cratères ouverts par les obus. Je retrouve, dans ces images, le motif de mon travail sur le rupestre : peut-on parler de sites « rupestres » même si ce n’est pas la créativité de l’homme qui a laissé ses empreintes, mais plutôt sa diabolique ingénierie ?

Les travaux qui ont pour titre Anabasis naissent de la superposition de ces photographies et d’images d’archives : la retraite des Alpini dans la neige de Russie et leur lutte pour s’ouvrir un passage ; les abris des fantassins et les bois de l’Altopiano éventrés par les batailles d’artillerie.

 

(1) Sur la confrontation-opposition entre ces deux courants de pensée voir Robert Pogue Harrison, Forêts : Essai sur l’imaginaire occidental, Paris 1994.

Raubtiere (2020)


As a follow-up to Zoology (2019), this new series, entitled Raubtiere (Predators), features red fluorescent paper markings applied to original 19th-century animal prints. These prints initially appeared in Naturgeschichte der Vögel für Schule und Haus (1887), a renowned study on ornithology published by G. H. von Schubert in 1887. I did somehow “respect” these magnificent images, not daring to paint directly over them; instead I superimposed  paper cut-outs painted in fluorescent red. These two layers are set under a glass plate on which I have printed reproductions of old engravings depicting real or imaginary islands such as Balnibarbi, Laputa or Cythera.
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Raubtiere 10, 30×40.

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Raubtiere 11, 32×42.

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Raubtiere 12, 32×42 (sold).

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Raubtiere 13, 32×42.

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Raubtiere 14, 32×42.

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Raubtiere 17, 32×42.

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Raubtiere 18, 32×42.

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Bordeaux, Troisième oeil gallery, March-April 2021.

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Conversation with Zoran Janic, 2019

01 Vie de HB 1983

I’ll start with the usual question

“How should you introduce yourself to the Serbian public? You are Salvatore Puglia, an Italian artist…or maybe a European artist or just an artist?”

Italian and European, I would say. I cannot conceive of art or an artist detached from any historical context, and the context of my artistic (and associated political) formation and commitment was Italy and, more generally, Europe in the 1970s.

As far as I can remember, my interest in art developed by reading the popular art history series entitled I Maestri del colore (published weekly by Fratelli Fabbri Editori from 1963 to 1967), which my father, a simple public clerk, bought every Sunday at the newspaper stand around the corner for the equivalent of 15 centimes of euros. The texts were written by most renowned international art historians. I was also inspired by all the encyclopaedias, sold door to door, that my father put on the shelves and never touched.

These were the ‘optimistic’ years, when families had extra money, housing was affordable and culture was relatively accessible.

“High” and “low” cultures have never been as close as in those years.

I also recall watching L’Odissea, the 1968 Italian-German-French-Yugoslavian primetime TV production starring Bekim Fehmiou, which was introduced by the greatest Italian poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti.


A few words about your political and artistic formation in that period. Were you politically active? Who were your artistic heroes back in those days? (L’Odissea was quite popular at the time, have you heard that great Yugoslavian actor Fehmiu wrote an excellent biographical book before he committed suicide in 2010?)

I didn’t know who Fehmiou was, before purchasing the Odyssey on DVD a few years ago to show to my children.

In 1967 (at the age of fourteen), I recall saying to my friends, out of school, that we need “order” (my father was an ex-paratrooper in the Salò Republic, and my mother a Mussolini fan, like Sophia Loren in Ettore Scola’s film Una giornata particolare).

In 1968, I took part in a street demonstration after Yan Palach’s suicide and against the Soviet Union invasion of Czechoslovakia. I remember having been a bit bothered by the far right students dressed in black, who were clearly manipulating the event.

As a young Catholic, I was active in my local parish, played soccer, and began mobilizing to combat leprosy in Africa. I remember making a big poster — not very different from the kind of images I create today with archive photographs — depicting a girl afflicted with leprosy, partially covered by red translucent paint, and underneath the caption: “She doesn’t use Kaloderma”.

Around the age of 16, I became influenced by the South American theology of liberation, and I linked it to the Guevarist myth. Within a few months, I became acquainted with leftist ideas at my high school.

However, at that time I had closer contacts with my right-wing colleagues, and one day, I returned home with a broken nose, and told my mother that it happened by running into a volleyball pole (and not from a karate chop). But, still, we were mostly using clenched fists and sometimes sticks against each other, not weapons.

I entered university with the intention of studying art history, with a specialisation in Etruscology, but as I was very involved in the student movement, and soon found such studies too aristocratic and not masculine enough. I never studied much, but eventually, I managed to graduate with a degree in social history.

In 1973, after the coup in Chile and following rumours of an attempted military uprising in Italy, I volunteered to undertake my military service, with the idea of convincing my comrades to offset the rumoured coup, which never took place. I was fortunate that my clandestine activities were never discovered.

Back from my fourteen months as a simple soldier, I was eager to start working immediately and found employment as a teacher in a primary school for one year. I soon realised that pedagogy was not my favourite field. I was too emotional for being an arbiter of knowledge for children. And, once again, I was too involved in political battles. By March 1977, it became impossible to go out in the streets without being squeezed between the opposite violence of the State and the more aggressive leftists, the “Autonomi”. I went back, with a few friends, to more humble everyday political activities in my area, trying to convince retired or marginal neighbours to reduce their telephone and electricity bills, and also organising a kind of direct meat market, against the monopolistic distribution of the traditional food supply chain. I did not meet with much success in those endeavours.

I subsequently worked in the historical field, in revues and with grants for practising archival research. Three months after securing a permanent position, I decided to quit and signed a resignation letter, leaving first to Barcelona, then to Paris. It was late 1985.

My artistic heroes? After an initial period in Paris, in 1979-1980: Twombly, Tàpies, Bram Van Velde. In June 1977 when in Bologna to complete my history studies, I saw performances by Hermann Nitsch and Marina Abramovic. The word itself “performance” came as a revelation to me.

Why is the word “performance” so special to you? Fehmiu, Abramovic… The name of two Yugoslavian artists appeared in this conversation in a short period of time. How did the violent break-up of Yugoslavia affect you as a European (Yugoslavia was a sort of precursor of todays unified EU) and a neighbour?

“Performance”: simply the idea that the beauty of a gesture could be comparable, and no less impressive, than the beauty of a painting. To release two rabbits in a gallery space, or to sit at a piano without knowing how to play piano, and still transmit an emotion. Or to invite passers by to brush your naked body, like Abramovic and Ulay did in Bologna. And the fact that what matters is that it “existed”, independently of the presence of the public.

To me, in those years, Yugoslavia was an Eastern European place where you could go relatively easily, as I did with my motorbike, when I was sixteen. During one summer I drove from Zadar to Dubrovnik to Mostar and Sarajevo (I haven’t been to Serbia) talking with anybody that could communicate in English or Italian, but I never felt that there was an “ethnic problem”. It is true that I was more interested in getting a hammer for pitching my tent, in seaside camping sites popular with British or Hungarian girls. In that sense, we were fully in Europe. And the breakup of Yugoslavia, in the early 1970s was yet to come.

Can you say more about your artistic beginnings? Your first exhibition?

One of the six roommates with whom I shared a large apartment in Rome brought home a young French man he had met while hitchhiking in Sardinia. This Frenchman was studying philosophy and went on to become a musician. We developed a friendship, and I eventually went to visit him in France. At that time I was undertaking research in the archives of Rome and the Vatican, and sometimes I would take home left-over papers or copies of documents that would be not be missed by other researchers. With these fragments of history, I made collages and small watercolours, and sent them to him, and other friends. He collected them in a folder and started visiting art galleries (as he told me only subsequently). Then one day he phoned, announcing that I was going to have a show at the ADEAS, the gallery affiliated with the Strasbourg School of Architecture. He had already fixed the dates, so there was no way to refuse. (01-02-03)

I took a night train bringing along other new and bigger works that were hastily made in the limited time available (maybe a month).

I arrived early in the morning in Strasbourg. He was waiting for me at the train station with another friend who spent the next few days framing my works and preparing the gallery space.

I remember that upon arrival, at six o`clock in the morning, they took me for breakfast to a coffee shop, which was already open: Café Italia. On the glass door there was a poster: my name and the title of the show, Falsapartenza, were written on it. This was in October 1985.

Great story! What appeared as a lost for the Vatican turned out to be of great benefit for the art! Have you, by chance, any photo of your work from that period? Visual artists usually started from the scratch, they are forced to stare at the blankness of the paper or the canvas, but you deal with the document from your early beginnings. Thus you’ve situated yourself firmly in History, right?

I think I never glanced at a wall or a canvas waiting for “inspiration”. I rather started with a piece, a fragment of something found somewhere. The challenge was how to create a new context for it, or to present an altered version of its original context. I graduated in history with a thesis on the revolutionary year, 1848, in a neighbourhood located in the centre of Rome. Thanks to the police and law court archives, I was able to examine everyday life in a relatively small community and its apparent harmony and underlying contradictions; and that revealed a sort of breach in time. Then, I noted that people split and took sides, but as a prolongation and amplification of existing relations.

Today, we are in a counterrevolutionary period, in which people dare and are emboldened to say what they might be ashamed to think (as an example, the rumours against foreigners and migrants and those who assist them).

I am currently working at a large installation, which I will probably call Millenovecento, and which focuses on the last century. But my most recent piece is a tote bag that I sold as a limited edition on the Internet. It bears a quote from a letter of an Italian political prisoner, seized by the Fascist police in the 1920s. The language this anarchist or communist worker from the village of Manziana employs is not quite grammatically correct but expressive: Noi altri compagni semo tutti isolati, aspettiamo il momento che ci venga rischiarata un pò di luce che ora vivemo nelle tenebre (We comrades are all isolated, we are waiting for the moment that some light will come to us because we now live in darkness.). (04-05-06)

We are witnesses that the Far Right is on the rise across the globe (USA, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, etc.) In Italy, Matteo Salvini, a rising star of the European far right, is unashamed about his enthusiasm about rehabilitating Benito Mussolini’s fascist legacy. An antifascist quote on a tote bag, could that be seen as sarcastic epitaph for the 20th century?

It is true that all the metaphors for the sun of the future, or the luminous spring, or the inevitable re-birth were used in political songs inspired by the Communist parties (in any case, by the left wing) started to become obsolete from 1989 onwards. What made me transcribe the letter of this political prisoner was the Messianic image of the light to come, but also this incipit: Noi altri compagni semo tutti isolati. By definition, a companion is with others, accompanies or is accompanied. And what struck me is the impossibility to say us. The old comrades from my politically-minded youth are still my fraternal friends, and they are still doing things, each one with his/her competences and possibilities, for a world where the idea of a with can survive. But still, like me, they paradoxically feel isolated amidst this wave “against the other” that is spreading around Europe (and other continents).

I dare say that we belong to an “enlightened” minority, fragmented and scattered, ideally linked by a few principles that come from our Catholic and Jacobin past: solidarity with the weaker, social justice, attraction to otherness.

Recently, I carried out an experiment. I had the tote bag quotation printed on a t-sheet and wore it around the Italian village were I live in summertime, and were most of the votes now go to the xenophobic parties (this village was a “red” one in the region until ten years ago): it is not that people were amused or surprised by my testimonial garment, they just didn’t care to read it. They were not interested in deciphering a text, which was just an image for them. (07)

Let’s get back to chronological order. After your first beginnings, in which directions did your art develop? Can we use the term “developing” as adequate in your specific case? Maybe “researching”, “finding new ways” is much better?

I think that the term “developing” can adequately refer to the initial stages of a creative journey, like a thread unraveling in unknown directions. But, again, the biographical element is essential. In those early years in Paris (where I moved when a girlfriend organized a show of my works in an apartment), the priority was to make a living, and then to “pay” for having fled my job, my fiancée, my friends and comrades in Italy. I found it normal that I would have to undergo a little suffering, and I accepted any kind of manual work in order to pay my rent and feed my loneliness. I also found time to go to free lectures at the Collège de France, but most of the intellectual figures I had known in my previous travels to Paris were no longer there (Barthes, Foucault). I often went to public libraries and I must say that my work, at that time, was an attempt to “translate” into visual the texts I was reading then (Hölderlin, Büchner, Derrida). Around 1989, thanks to a mutual friend Jacques Derrida became familiar with my work and wrote an essay on it, “Sauver les phénomènes”, which was published a few years later in a special issue of the revue Contretemps, with absolutely no comments or reactions from the world of contemporary art. (08-09-10-11-12)

In Paris, you broke all ties with your previous life. How long did you stay in France, and did you ever have any regrets?

The fact is that I cannot live in my native country without being politically and socially involved, and living abroad allowed me to devote myself exclusively to my work and to subsist on it. I was doomed to live from my work.

Moreover, I could no imagine going back to Italy saying, “I was wrong, actually I am not an historian, I am an artist”. And I was grateful to France for having given me the earliest feedback to my artistic activity; even if it originated from a group of friends, my first artistic endeavours in France nonetheless meant a recognition of my choice.

For almost twenty years, I used Paris as my home base: I had five or six different studios around the city; I undertook residencies in Nordic countries and the Netherlands; I had a studio in Brussels for several months, and beginning in 1990 I spent long time periods in Berlin, a city to which I was drawn owing to the presence of several good friends but also to the passion for “our” history that is instilled in me.

When my daughter was born in 2006, I moved to the South of France. Since then, my work has become less a research activity per se but rather a re-utilization of the documents I compiled over the years. Therefore in a certain sense, one could say that I am working on my own archives and my own history.

If we try to find distinguished markers of your art, which one should it be? In other words, can you help me map your art’s DNA? (From the top of my head, the most obvious markers would been history, ruins, memory, shadow…)

I recognize traces of my works in each of those markers, and I could maybe synthetize them with the word “melancholy”. I have always been influenced by short excerpts or quotations that I encountered while reading books. A short novel by the Romantic age Adelbert von Chamisso has guided me for many years: the story of Peter Schlemihl, who sells his shadow to the devil in exchange for whatever he could desire, but eventually cannot exist without his immaterial shadow. And a note from Kierkegaard on a “reflexive melancholy”: It is this thoughtful grief that I intend to evoke and, as much as possible, to illustrate with some examples. I call them shadows, to remind by this name that I borrows them from the dark side of life and because, like shadows, they are not spontaneously visible (Google translation).

But I am not a theorist and prefer to talk about my works through episodes and encounters.

In the spring of 1990, a few months after the fall of the “iron curtain”, I went to Berlin to visit friends and remember walking through the Tiergarten to the sound of hundreds of hammers hitting what was left of the Wall.

During that same trip, I came upon a large flea market in the district of Potsdamerplatz, which became a huge wasteland being bombed during the Second World War. It seemed as if all the inhabitants of East Germany were there to sell off their few goods and especially their own histories. One could buy Soviet memorabilia, old sewing machines and bicycles, but mostly paper documents and family photos. It was at this point that the course of my artistic work changed, and I started working on found images and documents.

My first major installation, Aschenglorie (13-14), comprised pieces collected in Potsdamerplatz, while the following (Vanitas (15-16), Über die Schädelnerven (17-18) did more intentionally use images from archives of psychiatrists or other types of doctors. I also used numerous x-rays plates in those years. I considered x-rays to be both a form of writing of the body and a translucent, negative screen through which the viewer can distinguish, and possibly decipher, the image.

We reached the year 1997, but we forgot to mention globally important event: the fall of the Berlin Wall. How did it affect you, politically and artistically?

As I mentioned previously in the anecdote regarding the Potsdamerplatz flea market, 1989 marked the return of History with a capital H in my work, along with the use of photography, which can be considered the principal witness of last events of the last century. Henceforth, Communism was a thing of the past.

Politically, it was the myth of Communism itself, apart from its much frequent totalitarian drifts, which was shattered. To see TV images of hordes of people fleeing their country, like today’s refugees, had a tremendous symbolic impact. The choice I made in 1977 to cease direct political involvement and do what I can do by myself and along with a group of friends was somehow confirmed. And I continue to view artistic commitment as a form of political action. In fact it is an esthetical engagement: if it is good, it is art, and it is political to the extent that it can influence and change in people’s thoughts and feelings.

In this conversation, we have reached the last decade of the XX century. Many millenarianists and catastrophy believers have proclaimed that the end of the world is near and, as it relates to the Balkans, it would they might be correct: the JNA’s bombardment of Dubrovnik, the siege of Sarajevo (the longest in the history of modern warfare), the genocide in Bosnia… What is your feeling about the doomsday of our civilization?

Indeed, in the 1990s, we saw a return of warfare in Europe. We felt hopeless, powerless. European politicians did not help much, Americans were perhaps more effective, for the best and the worst. A well-known Italian writer obtained a truck driver’s license and transported food to Bosnia. A friend of mine died in a plane crash in the Croatian mountains, during a humanitarian mission. I didn’t have their courage, even though I didn’t have a family at the time.

I reacted as I felt: artistically. In a show in Rome in 1999, I presented an installation featuring enlarged photographs of various Italian historic monuments taken during Second World War in 1940. It was entitled Protection of the national artistic heritage from wartime aerial attacks. My intention was to highlight works of art that were covered with sandbags and scaffolding and removed from the gaze of spectators for whose benefit they had been conceived. They appear to us in the limbo of an announced catastrophe. (19-20)

In 2000, participating in a group show in Copenhagen called Models of Resistance, I requested UNESCO, the UN agency dealing with culture, to protect my own personal monuments, in accordance with the Hague Convention of 1954 concerning the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. (21)

The same year, I presented another ‘political’ installation, a parachute asa sheltering space, where anyone could step in, get a glass of water or wine and find somebody to talk to. But as it was set up in the courtyard of an art institute, there was little likelihood that a “real” refugee would participate. (22-23)

A couple of years later I presented in my studio in Paris an installation entitled Four Theses on the Aesthetics of Fascism. There was L’art de la guerre (the work on the wrapped Roman monuments mentioned previously) but also pieces mentioning Albert Speer’s aesthetics of the ruins (the Ruinenwerttheorie) and others about the Balilla, the children from six to twelve years old who were inducted into the numerous paramilitary units under Italian fascism.

The New Millennium kicked off with a possible technological error related to our computers – the Millennium Bug. But the real problem was rather an Anthropological Error, built in our species – humankind was evidently going astray, lost on self-destroying path… What can artists do as times get hard?

I have three children and I feel the responsibility of the burden I am leaving them. They will face hard times or maybe only their grandchildren will go through such times. They will have to fight, and I have no doubt that they will do it, because already they don’t accept the idea that “there is no alternative”. I doubt that the alternative will be raising goats on a pristine mountain, even though that could also be possible. At the same time, I doubt that creating works of art represents a form of resistance to the world as it is. It is simply a matter of scale and audience. A work of art doesn’t reach a large enough public to move things. It is a form of witnessing, which is also necessary for me.

Works of art don’t save lives. Maybe I should have obtained a truck driver’s license.

Woke up this morning to the news that Peter Handke has won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year! Sir Salman Rushdie named Handke “Moron of the Year” in an article for The Guardian in 1999 for his “series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milosevic”. Your thoughts on official prizes and awards?

I too was surprised. Handke was a great writer in the 1970s, and then I don’t know what happened to him. Usually the literature Nobel prize is rather political and awards authors somehow in the opposition (like Dario Fo in Italy, when Berlusconi was prime minister). I don’t understand this recent decision. Next question please.

Let us know talk about the most recent period; when first encountered your work (via Internet). I remember, when I saw your photographs covered with X-ray images, I asked myself a question: “What would Hans Castorp, the main protagonist of the Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, say if he had found such an artifact in his wallet instead of Madame Chauchat X-ray photo? The X-ray image from the novel was coming from the realm of Death (i.e. Medicine), yours from  … What Source?”.

As I mentioned, I used X-rays images in my work as a language of the body itself and as a screen to blur vision. If we refer to bodies and signs, we mean anatomy; we speak of the body opening to allow the retrieval of signs. Therefore, such signs will make it possible to open up to the experience of other bodies and other things. Indeed, I positioned myself as an artist-anatomist.

My techniques (techniques are political) have always involved transpiercing the image, and I have been committed to “anamnestic responsibility”, which is neither an empty exaltation of memory, nor the evocation of pathos around historical horror.

My responsibility as an artist begins with the saturation of the image, in the contaminated field where the distinction between apology and denial, commemoration and refusal is unclear and undetermined. (24-29)

But one must mistrust the need to “say”; one should trust oneself and his own history and just continue doing what has to be done, with no intentions and little reflection. I hope that I have been succeeded in just doing that. (30)

(Thanks to Riccardo Lo Giudice for his linguistic skills)

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04 Mille novecento montage 2018-2019

Return to Cythera (2018-2019)

Return to Cythera PDF rough version.
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(Ruins in the island)

     The main concern of this writing is the relationship of a contemporary artist to Greek and Roman Antiquity. This relationship is viewed through the works of several poets, painters, architects, who have also dealt with antiques.
(01 Kithira google, see Images Chapter 1)

     To illustrate my point, a long digression on the subject of landscape will be necessary. I will survey those aspects of my work dealing with “historicized” nature and “naturalized” history. My work is necessarily photography-based, in which the photograph is always somehow “modest”, never spectacular. And this not only because I consider a photograph to be “just” a document, but also because I believe that such sobriety allows for further creative interventions and layering.

     You will also see that the images I use have the same function as the text, a kind of “performing” interpretation of History. This same interrelation between text and image is, in my mind, central not only to the last work I will mention, The Strife of Love in a Dream, but also to my visual translation of it.

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Chapter one: Gulliver versus Robinson.
(Images for Return to Cythera Chapter 1)
(02 Gulliver 01)

     My interest in landscapes resonates with my interest in intermediary spaces, which are not completely natural yet not yet fully “humanized”. The photographs for the series Gulliver in Lavéra were shot at dawn on a Sunday in winter, at the industrial site of Martigues, one of the largest petrochemical complexes in Europe, built in a once-idyllic spot on the Provence coast. Allow me to quote a passage from an article by Daniela Goeller, who describes it more eloquently than I can.

     “The landscape is a complex construction. It is way of looking at an environment and exists only through the eyes of the viewer. More than a reflection of the outside world and the surrounding countryside, the landscape constitutes an ideal space for projection and reflects different artistic and political visions and concepts imposed by our civilization on nature through the centuries.” (1).

     These images comprise different layers. In the foreground, a beach view fronting some industrial buildings. Then two layers: very diluted paint drippings that create a sort of cloud (or sun) upon drying; and printed on glass in the foreground — almost erased by the rudimentary method of transferring prints with trichloroethylene — are engravings from Gulliver’s Travels.

     The choice to re-use and “re-engrave” illustrations of Gulliver’s Travels, an allegorical and satirical work by Jonathan Swift, with other historical images, is significant. The work was written in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment characterized by faith in justice and progress, which are subtly mocked by Swift. It is also the century of Piranesi and the romantic fascination with ruins, which is possible only if they are considered as a nostalgic remnant and not a real possibility; such an “enlightened” vision allows ruins to be used for decorative purposes.

(03-04-05-06-07 Gulliver à Lavéra)

     The chemical plants that I imagine Gulliver finds on the shore instead of the Lilliputians, are not (yet) ruins. However it is worth mentioning that I conceived this work a few months before the Fukushima nuclear accident (March 2011), which demonstrates the enduring power of Nature and raises, once more, questions about where the Enlightenment Age is taking us. I did not want it to be an illustration of a contemporary event, and it took me long time before deciding to exhibit these pieces.

     Here you have, five years later, a more colourful version of the work.

     (08-09 Gulliver Montalto, Gulliver Aramon)

     As a complement to the previous series, some months later, I created a few works named after the fictional character of Robinson Crusoe: Robinson a Rosignano.

     (10 Robinson 04)

     It is well known that Jonathan Swift wrote his famous novel, Gulliver’s Travels, partially as a reaction to Defoe’s optimistic vision of the relation between nature and humankind. I may be mistaken, but it could be argued that Swift is on the side of a “hard primitivism”, which would be more closely linked to materialistic philosophies, according to Erwin Panofsky in his article on a Piero di Cosimo (1466-1521) cycle of paintings, “The early history of man” (2); while Defoe could be on the side of a “soft primitivism”, let’s say more idealistically and “Golden Age” oriented (3).

     (11-12 Piero di Cosimo)

     Note that this painting presents no hierarchy, or psychological difference, between men, beasts and hybrid creatures. This is a vision of the early days of humanity that are neither biblical nor neo-Platonic. Note the difference with this other hunting scene, painted about thirty years earlier, in 1470, by another Florentine, Paolo Uccello (1397-1475). We also know that Piero di Cosimo was familiar with this work. Here nature is so completely submitted to human action that it becomes a demonstration of geometry.

     (13 Paolo Uccello)

     But, returning to my subject: in the Tuscany coast town of Rosignano Marittimo, there exists a stretch of white sand beaches that resembles a Caribbean landscape.

     (14 Rosignano beach)

     Although these beaches may appear natural and are appreciated by tourists in the summer season, they were created by the waste of a sodium hydroxide factory, owned by the Belgian firm Solvay.

     (15 Rosignano Solvay)

     I visited to these beaches in wintertime (like many, I like seashores in winter) and photographed the site. Afterward, I combined these images with reproductions of traditional fishermen tools from Greenland, using red translucent paint, and engravings taken from various editions of Defoe’s book.

     I imagined translating the very moment in which Robinson, not believing his own eyes, found the traces of human feet in the sand.

     (16 Rosignano Winter, 17 Robinson 03, 18 Robinson 01, 19 Robinson 02 detail)

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Chapter two: Nella selva antica.
(Images for Return to Cythera Chapter 2)
(01 Nella selva 02)

     Four or five years ago, thanks to a friend’s advice, I discovered Robert Pogue Harrison’s essay on forests, published in 1992 (4). The concept that I took from it is that the forest is a human invention, a cultural contrivance. At that time, I was thinking about my literary models of a now-gone generation of intellectuals who experienced the Second World War in their youth: Nuto Revelli, Primo Levi and others. The last survivor was Mario Rigoni Stern (1921-2008). Born in the Asiago plateau, an area heavily damaged during World War I, Rigoni was influenced by nationalistic rhetoric and wanted to pursue a military career. However before long he became convinced of the injustice of the war, a conviction that was further strengthened during his service in the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia, in the disastrous retreat of January 1943. Rigoni was one of the 60,000 ‘Alpini’ elite military corps that Mussolini sent to occupy the Soviet Union, and among the fortunate 20,000 that returned home safely.

     A second “anabasis” experience occurred to him two years later, during his escape from a German military concentration camp in April 1945. For ten days, Rigoni wandered through the Styria and Carinthia forests in Austria surviving on berries, bird eggs and snails before encountering an outpost of Italian partisans at an Alpine pass.

     The theme of the forest, as that natural site completely destroyed by Austrian and Italian bombs between 1915 and 1918 and subsequently replanted, exemplifying the ‘artificial’ that laboriously reverts to a natural state, is central to Rigoni’s oeuvre.

     (02, 03 Monte Zebio, 04 after the bombing, 05 Asiago front, 06 replanting the forest)

     For Rigoni, the forest is a mirror of the world “as it should be”, a world where “siamo tutti compaesani” (we all belong to the same village). In this ecosystem, we can all live together, men and animals of various species, once the environmental carrying capacity is under control.

     (07, 08 Rigoni Stern)

     But, according to Rigoni, the “good” forest is not the one that grows spontaneously and wildly. Rather the “good” forest is the one tamed by human labour, where humankind plays the role of caring gardener.

     As I wandered, as a tourist, around Rigoni’s homeland I recorded some images of forests, which, upon closer inspection, reveal traces of the war: the collapsed trenches, the craters created by bombs. There I encountered a theme of my Rupestrian series: these sites are also taken back by nature, even if here the traces left behind are the result of humankind’s diabolical engineering rather than its creativity.

     And what do these photographs have to do with the verses Dante penned to describe his entry into earthly paradise, the “ancient forest”, at the summit of the Mount of Purgatory, and his encounter with the beautiful and spiritual Matelda, guardian of the Terrestrial Paradise, where flowers bloom without being sown? Qui fu innocente l’umana radice; qui primavera sempre e ogni frutto… (Here the root of Humanity was innocent: here is everlasting Spring, and every fruit…). (5)

      (09 Asiago 04, 10 Purgatorio XXVIII, 11 Nella selva 04)

     Dante was certainly the last visitor to the Garden of Eden. No forest, not even the ancient forest that covered the volcanic formations of the Tuscia region in central Italy, can be considered primeval forest. In the Selva del Lamone natural reserve, for instance, traces of human “civilization” can be found everywhere: dilapidated walls, the remains of road pavement, the furrows of the charcoal wagons, the heaps of stones that once constituted Etruscan walls, and today the strips of white and red paint on the network of trails.

     Today la Selva is a natural park, where the primeval has been reduced to reminiscences: trees, bushes, rocks covered by moss appear to me as Romantic artificial ruins.

     My photographs taken in the Selva are reproduced on transparent layers and superimposed on reproductions and personal variations of prehistoric petroglyphs; the images from Nevada dating back 10,000 years are the oldest discovered on the North American continent. They are the signs of an era when humankind was just beginning to appropriate nature. They are reproduced with red fluorescent acrylic paint, as a gesture of signage; the only difference with the petroglyphs being the technology used to reproduce the images. (12 Nella selva antica 06, 13 Nella selva antica 01)

     Here you see a variation on this same subject, a series entitled Eden. My intention was to emphasize the relation to the theme of ruins within nature, a subject I will come back to later.

     (14 Eden 04, 15 Eden 02)

     I added to my photograph a print taken from the plates of Georges-Louis Buffon Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (second half of the 18th century), depicting wild animals. In his lifelong enterprise of describing quadrupeds and birds, creating a classification dependent on their degree of “sympathy” towards humankind, Buffon liked to set up those animals in a kind of state of innocence”. I extracted these illustrations from their original background to draw them on a transparent sheet with red thread so as to place them in an unexpected context.

      (16 Buffon bull, 17 Vulci bat, 18 Land paintings 12)

      I would like to go back to the interspaces between nature and civilisation, like I dealt with in a series entitled New landscapes. These recent works describe – not without an ironic reference to romantic landscape paintings – places where the border between natural and artificial is indistinct and unrecognizable – except perhaps only to the expert glance of the geologist or the botanist.

      However it is certain that we do not know which of the two antagonists/ protagonists — humans or nature – precedes or follows the other. Nor do we know which will triumph in the end. But as the victory of one of them would mean the destruction of both, it would be preferable if they could be reconciled.

       (19 PN 01 Vallerosa)

     An abandoned travertine quarry, somewhere in central Italy. In the large cavity lined with white verticals walls, there developed a microclimate that gave rise to lush and varied plant life. Some say that, in spring, thirty varieties of wild orchids can be spotted. The site truly reverts to nature. It is even possible to encounter a large boar as you walk through the bush to reach the site. It happened to me, and I don’t who was more frightened: the boar darted in one direction, and I in the other.

    (20 PN 02 Valentano)

     A quarry of pozzolana (the red volcanic material used by ancient Romans to cover walls). As it evoked images of hell, it was used as the setting for some films depicting medieval times. After the quarry was abandoned, its terraces were replanted, but the young trees cannot conceal the regular patterns of the cuts in the hill. It is impossible to reach the site because a thick underbrush has overtaken the quarry’s floor.

     (21 PN 03 Alès)

     An artificial mountain, a terril, made of waste accumulated over years of exploitation of the coalmines, in the outskirts of the French city of Alès. It would have escaped everyone’s notice — except for the curious conic shape — had a forest fire in 2004 not burned all the vegetation leaving it bare. This fire, which is propagated through the roots of the pine trees planted to hide it, has reached the core of the hill, which continues to burn, slowly, impossible to extinguish.

         (22 PN 04 Laval-Pradel)

         An extensive open-air mine in the Cévennes region of France. It was exploited between the 1970s and the 1990s, and a historic road leading the Spanish pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela (the Chemin de Régordane) was diverted in order to accommodate the mining activities. After the mine was abandoned, three lakes formed (artificial or natural?) in the huge bulldozed spaces, and the national forestry authority is now replanting trees on site. The area is not accessible to the public and I entered the site illegally. The Alès municipality is considering transforming it into a recreation area. It would be a park for motorized sports such as quad, motocross, Jet Ski. In each of the three lakes a different species of fish would be introduced for the pleasure of fishermen. It will be another example of man-made nature.

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Chapter three: Land paintings.
(Images for Ruins in the island Chapter 3)
(01 Rupestri 00)

     To me, this series represents an open and unresolved reflection on nature seen as a historical phenomenon, that I would qualify as “rupestrian ”.

     Although the term rupestrian denotes an art form ‘executed on or with rocks’ (e.g. tombs, sanctuaries, cave paintings or inscriptions), it can also refer to the process by which human-made creations fade away and become part of their surroundings.

     In this sense, Rupestrian occurs at the meeting point of nature and history. In such instances, it is not only as if civilization and abandonment occurred in successive waves over the centuries; rather one was the pre-condition of the other. A natural site transformed into a “work” through human intervention is, in turn, retrieved by nature, which makes a “work” out of what remains of the initial human intervention. For me it is not so much about working horizontally in space (e.g. Land Art) as engaging vertically with time, which serves as a medium in a process of stratification ― a form of ‘reverse archaeology’.

     (02-03-04-05 Santa Maria di Sala a-b-c-d)

     In recent years, whenever I had the opportunity, I hiked around the Tuscia region, north of Rome, in a sparsely inhabited land full of prehistoric and archaeological sites, with a leaf, or a tongue, made out of latex dipped in red fluorescent pigment, leaving it on the ground, and then photographing it. During my hikes, I often stopped at the Etruscan tombs, which were used as medieval hermitages, then sheepfolds, then wartime shelters, and finally hideouts for lovers.

      (06-07-08-09-10-11 Land paintings a-b-c-d-e-f)

     I entitled this photographic body of work “land paintings” partly as a reference to the notion of “picturesque” so dear to several land artists active in the 1960s and 1970, and in opposition to the modernist vision of a work of art seen as a unique, timeless experience, to be grasped in a single glance. The title is also meant to evoke the idea of stepping on earth, looking for hidden and forgotten places. It expresses a questioning about my own presence within historical space. Here I introduced myself, at dawn, in a “musealized” space like the Garden of Monsters in Bomarzo, created in the 16th century:

      (12-13-14 Land paintings g-h-I, 15 Herbert List)

     In my previous work, the sign placed on the photograph was a means of preventing the fruition of the image in its entirety, of opening up a gap of time within it, by using a fluorescent colour that displaced the vision. This intrusive element is now a material one and becomes an artwork as soon as the photograph is taken. This is the reason I do not usually add other semantic levels to it. Also, in contrast to Land Art, I do not transform the site in which I intervene: I simply leave a sign.

     For a fleeting moment, I impose an artificial element to a “natural” landscape, like the footprint of a foreigner intruder. This sign left on the sites before photographing them constitutes a marker of my “I was there” but also a way of seizing the baton, in a relay race with the past. In my mother language the baton is called il testimone, which means “the witness”.

     Going back to Panofsky, the “hard primitivism” of Piero di Cosimo can be seen as one of the two historical lines in the relationship between humankind and nature. According to Robert Harrison, there is, on one hand, an “antagonistic” line, marked by the Enlightenment idea of human progress “against” and “in spite of” nature; and, on the other end, a nostalgic, romantic view of a “natural” state of human purity. According to the latter line, the early days of humankind were not the “primitive form of existence as a truly bestial state” described by di Cosimo, but rather Dante’s earthly Paradise.

     At the beginning of his book on forests, Harrison quote the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico:       “This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies…” (The New science, 1725). Vico goes on to write: “the nature of the peoples is such that first it is crude, afterward severe, then benign, later on delicate, eventually dissipate”.

     Following Vico’s thoughts, Rigoni Stern assumes that the city (the last stage of human progress before academies, if one believes Vico) has become a place of “spiritual solitude”, where “barbarity dwells in the very hearth of the humans” and states that the wood has become a place of salvation (“Ed ecco che il bosco è diventato luogo di salvamento”) (6).

     We can consider that Rigoni represents a form of “soft positivism” (i.e.: nature, in harmony with humans) will always triumph over the deadly enterprise that is war (and, I would even say, civilization). But in order to survive alongside nature, humans need to preserve the “environmental capital”, drawing only on the “interest”.

     Here, an example of a work inspired by Rigoni Stern’s books; the “return to the heights”: Anabasis.

     (16-17-18-19 Anabasis 03)

     I am revealing to you the different steps of my procedure, which is at the same time an ideological commitment: to constantly affirm the multiplicity of any image, as well as of any individuality.
(20 Anabasis 06)

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Chapter four: The call of the ruin.
(Images for Return to Cythera Chapter 4)
(01a, 01b, 01c Zeppelinfeld)

     Or: Die Ruinenwerttheorie. Here we go from the ruins of Nature to the ruins of History, and I will begin with a long quote from the writings of Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer:

     “In this context I should perhaps dedicate a few words to the so-called Theory of Ruin Value, which is not Hitler’s. It is my own theory!

     As a commentary to Speer’s remarks, it is perhaps interesting to remember that the Zeppelinfeld stadium “the world’s largest tribune,” which welcomed 100,000 members of his Party is – although it has been divested of the most evident marks of its original function such as the colonnades and giant eagle – today a recreational park where both car racing and open-air rock concerts take place.

     Indeed comparison, what interests me in Speer’s discourse is the relationship between ruin and monument. The monument always has a finger pointing somewhere; it always indicates a direction in time, even if it is there for remembering (Denkmal in German) or for admonishing (Mahnmal). As Leopardi already noted, in the middle of the Romantic period (in his Zibaldone di pensieri), one builds a monument to counter the idea of finitude.

     I find it interesting to reflect on how a regime at the height of its power can already be interested in the forms of its own demise. For my part, I am attracted to “unconscious” ruins. The images used for the work Antiquarium were mainly taken in two places: 1) in Rome, in the Antiquarium comunale of Celio, a veritable open cemetery for archaeological relics that – too fragmentary, dispersed or anonymous – didn’t even find a home in some museum warehouse; 2) in Bagnoli, near Naples, in the disaffected or soon to be demolished industrial buildings of the Italsider.

    (02 Antiquarium, 03 Thesis two, 04 Bagnoli, 05 Thesis two)

     These piles of rubble are supposedly the antithesis of what Hitler and Speer intended by “ruin value.” At the same time, I am not sure that what made me scale the fences surrounding these sites in order to photograph them was not a version, perhaps more conscious or more “de-constructed,” of a similar attraction for the ruin in and of itself. Of course, this was not the pathetic nostalgia for a Mediterranean world that took pride in an ancient history and a monumental past, a form of nostalgia that incited many European aristocrats to construct artificial ruins of painted wood and plaster in the parks of their castles.

     But this fascination for romantic ruins, quite obvious in Speer’s text, and which comes directly from the 18th century, is typical for rational beings who gamble their own persistence in future time. In short, Speer’s concept seems to me a perfect syncretism of Enlightenment and Romanticism.

     As I was born in Rome, I was familiar with the remains of Antiquity disseminated in the most usual places, public gardens and courtyards in the Renaissance buildings of the city centre.

     (06 From Orvieto, 07 Antiquarium postcards, 08 Antiquarium replay 09 In Tuscia 06)

     Then I went to Germany in my quest of artificial ruins, the Künstliche Ruine: I went to Potsdam, in the parks where the Kings of Prussia built their own form of identification with classical antiquity.

     When I photographed the Norman tower site in the Sanssouci park, with its “Roman” arcades and “Greek” temple (this was in 2003), I found it quite amusing that it was in the process of being restored to its “original fakeness.”

     (10 Normannischerturm, 11-12-13 Eine Künstlische Ruine)

     As an aside, I’d like to show you several images illustrating the aesthetics of the ruin. It seems to me that all of them, in their diversity, constitute ain a linear vision of time: these are “pre-Benjaminian” images. The fall is not yet the catastrophe, and there will be no caesura in time (I am thinking of Walter Benjamin’s famous text on a watercolour by Paul Klee entitled Angelus Novus. The angel of history is inexorably pushed into the future, while looking towards the past, where “the pile of debris before him grows to the sky” (to quote his ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History, written in early 1940).

     (13a Serlio) Frontispiece of Book V of the Architettura, by Sebastiano Serlio, dated 1544. The Latin text on the front page reads: “its own ruin demonstrates how great Rome was”.

     From the Renaissance a direct line leads us to Baroque and Enlightenment age:

     (14 Capriccio di rovine) Caprice of Ruins, Giovambattista Piranesi, 1756. Please note the size of the characters in relation to that of the piled-up vestiges.

     (15 Rovine di una galleria di statue nella Villa Adriana) Ruins in a Statue Gallery in Hadrian’s Villa, Piranesi, finished in 1770.

     (16) The Artist’s Despair before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins, Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1780.

     (17) View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins, Hubert Robert. This enlightened and learned artist, projects himself into the future while actively participating in the acquisitions and construction of the new Louvre Museum around 1795.

     (18) A Bird’s-eye View of the Bank of England, Joseph Michael Gandy, 1830. This watercolour represents an imaginary stage of the building designed by Sir Albert Soane and not yet finished; on the same time, it allows a vision of its interior as “both seemingly in ruins and under construction”.

         (19 Pfaueninsel map)

     I don’t know why islands and ruins often appear together in Romantic imaginary. Here are a few images of Pfaueninsel, the “Peacock Island” located in the outskirts of Berlin, which can be considered a complete “artificial ruin”.

     (20 tempio dorico)

     Pfaueninsel was acquired by Frederick William II of Prussia in 1793 and was initially used as a hunting reserve. Before the end of the 18th century, Brendel, the court carpenter, had already erected two buildings in the form of ruins: the castle, whose south-facing façade welcomed the visitors from Potsdam and Sanssouci residence; and a Gothic-style farm on the other side of the island.

            Let’s stroll through the well-rutted lanes, without smoking or trampling on the lawns, as the billboards say: “We ask you to stay on the paths and observe the smoking ban”. Let’s rather admire the geometric configuration of the buildings half-hidden by the leaves, veiled in the distance by the mists, but still visible from each vantage point: the Doric temple, the Alexandrian ruin, the Scottish castle and Schinkel Kavalierhaus, whose medieval tower was built from the remains of a Gothic house in Gdansk.

     (21 Cavalierhaus, 22 castle 23 ruin)

      (24 Pfaueninsel temple)

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Chapter five: Nerval’s Neverland.
(Images for Return to Cythera Chapter 5)

     And here, at last, we come to Greece (01 Chabas).

     This oil on canvas, executed by the French painter Maurice Chabas in 1896, about one hundred years after the creation of Pfaueninsel, represents a place that everybody knows, but that very few have visited: the Greek island of Cythera. What is surprising to me is not the somehow idealized and sentimental representation of the cult of Aphrodite, but the fact that it was created not long after the works of Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire, which demystified the Romantic image of the island.

     It is true that the times were ripe for a different representation of Aphrodite’s birthplace, and not necessarily for the best: here you have a linocut print by Louis Métivet, a well-known illustrator and cover artist for the magazine Le rire: this “Zurück von Kyhtera” was published in the German magazine Moderne Kunst around 1900. (02 Métivet)

            The “girls from Cythera” are represented in an unflattering manner. It was the time of the “Suffragettes” movement for women’s rights, and this image is clearly directed against them. It is evident as well that Métivet goddess’s kingdom is not the same as the one depicted by the Symbolist Chabas: to express it bluntly, it is a brothel.

     As you know, Cythera, considered to be Aphrodite’s homeland, was a mythical place, the subject of endless allegorical representations in literature and the arts. Born from the sea waves, and brought to the land, surfing a huge shell pushed by Zephyrus breath, Aphrodite was the worshipped goddess of lovers.

     But what did Baudelaire and Nerval write about Cythera?

     Baudelaire, in his poem “Voyage à Cythère”, published in 1855 in Les fleurs du mal:

     Free as a bird and joyfully my heart Soared up among the rigging, in and out; Under a cloudless sky the ship rolled on Like an angel drunk with brilliant sun. “That dark, grim island there—which would that be?” “Cythera,” we’re told, “the legendary isle Old bachelors tell stories of and smile. There’s really not much to it, you can see.” O place of many a mystic sacrament! Archaic Aphrodite’s splendid shade Lingers above your waters like a scent Infusing spirits with an amorous mood. Worshipped from of old by every nation, Myrtle-green isle, where each new bud discloses Sighs of souls in loving adoration Breathing like incense from a bank of roses Or like a dove roo-cooing endlessly . . . No; Cythera was a poor infertile rock, A stony desert harrowed by the shriek Of gulls. And yet there was something to see: This was no temple deep in flowers and trees With a young priestess moving to and fro, Her body heated by a secret glow, Her robe half-opening to every breeze; But coasting nearer, close enough to land To scatter flocks of birds as we passed by, We saw a tall cypress-shaped thing at hand— A triple gibbet black against the sky. Ferocious birds, each perched on its own meal, (…)

            Baudelaire’s images and metaphors are directly inspired (as he recognizes) by Gérard de Nerval Voyage en Orient, a series of articles collected and published in 1851.
In 1843, Nerval travelled extensively to the Middle East, spending months in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. The account of his experiences is truly poetic; it is a mixture of things witnessed first-hand, dreamlike descriptions, and plagiarizing texts by other authors.

         (03 steamer route)

         To reach Alexandria, he took a ship from the French port of Marseilles, but he claims to have sailed from Trieste on the Adriatic Sea. Surely, he was in Malta and from there to the Greek island of Syros. He might have actually seen Cythera. He describes the spectacular sighting of the island at dawn: I have seen it that way, I have seen it: my day began like a Homeric verse! It really was the rosy-fingered dawn that opened the gates to the Orient for me. He confesses that he was searching for ‘Watteau’s shepherds and shepherdesses, their garland-adorned boats approaching flowered banks. (04 Watteau Cythère)

         But he appears to be deeply disappointed (or, rather, he feigns great disappointment): Here is my dream… and here is my awakening! The sky and the sea are still present; every morning the Eastern sky and the Ionian Sea lovingly kiss; but the earth is dead, killed by the hands of humankind, and the gods have taken flight. (…)

               (05 Komponada beach)

            As we were sailing along the coast, before taking shelter at San Nicolò, I noticed a small monument, whose silhouette was barely perceptible from the blue sky …… and from its perch atop a rock resembled a still-standing statue of some tutelary deity. But as we approached, we were able to discern very clearly this landmark. It was a gibbet, with three arms, only one of which was adorned. The first genuine gibbet that I had ever seen; it was on Cythera, a British protectorate, that I was able to spot it!
Gérald de Nerval never set foot on Cythera, or Cerigo, as it was known under Venetian rule. It is likely that he skirted the island in his French postal steamship on route from Malta to Alexandria via Syros. But he never landed on the island, nor searched the remains of the Aphrodite temple, nor visited a necropolis or a grotto by the sea.

            Also the triple gibbet, that Nerval describes in order to stigmatize the British occupation of several Greek islands, is probably a literary invention. And his description of Cythera owes much to two travel guides: Voyage en Grèce by Dimo and Nicolo Stephanopoli, published in London the year 1800; and Antoine-Laurent Castellan’s Lettres sur la Morée, published in Paris in 1808 (7).
Nerval mentioned having seen, in a bucolic landscape near the Aplunori hill, a marble stele, which bore the words: “heart’s healing”. He was no doubt inspired by prints produced by Stephanopoli and Castellan (8).

         (06 Stephanopoli view, 07 Stephanopoli inscription, 08-09-10 Castellan views)

As he stated, Nerval had in mind two references, during his travels around the Mediterranean: a painting, Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera, and a literary work, Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, better known in French as Le songe de Poliphile and first translated in English under the title Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream.
Watteau’s painting was presented at the French Academy of Arts in 1717, earning him, by royal appointment, the creation of a new section in the establishment, the genre “fête galante”. Before him, the only category worthy of a prize was the genre known as “peinture d’histoire”. (10a Watteau detail)

        Nerval was an admirer of Watteau’s depiction of fleeting beauty and pleasure. In the novel, Sylvie, published in 1853, he sets a party scene in a park, near the village of Ermenonville in the northern outskirts of Paris. It reminded him of Watteau’s paintings depicting Cythera, and Jean Jacques Rousseau presence there (Rousseau’s ashes remained for some years in a tomb designed by Hubert Robert, in a small island in the middle of the park). Nerval mentions also the Temple of Philosophy (which was unfinished, according to the wishes of its creator, the Marquis de Girardin). This is another example of 18th-century “imitation ruins”, its model being the Temple of the Sybil in Tivoli. René Louis de Girardin, Rousseau’s close friend and sponsor, was the author of a remarkable treatise De la composition des paysages, (The composition of landscapes) published in 1777.

(11, 12 Temple philosophie)
Now we come to the second work that served to guide the French poet in his travels to never-never land Cythera.

     (13 Hypneroto gardens)

     Le songe de Poliphile is an extremely learned and obscure compendium of the Renaissance view of antiquity. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the work was rather influential, among poets, painters, architects and garden designers. The recent bestselling novel, The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, as well as the installations of some contemporary artists (Nicolas Buffe, Sophie Dupont, Paolo Bottarelli), take inspiration from Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia.

         Presumably completed in 1467 and published in Venice in December 1499 by the great printer Aldo Manuzio, it was written in an inventive language, consisting of spoken Italian mixed with Latin and Greek with Arabic and Hebrew inclusions. It is very likely that the Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti assisted in its conception. Its complete title in English would read: The Sleep-Love-Fight of Polifilo, in Which it is Shown that all Human Things are but a Dream, and Many Other Things Worthy of Knowledge and Memory.

       (13a Incipit)

      The love story between Poliphilo and Polia, conceived as a series of intertwined dreams, serves as a pretext (only one tenth of the book’s 234 pages are devoted to this narrative plot) to a kind of encyclopaedia of the period’s knowledge of antiquity as concerns rituals, costumes and accessories, as well as architecture, botany, gardening, landscape architecture.
Much of the action described in the book takes place on the island of Cythera. It is there that the two protagonists celebrate their wedding, and Aphrodite appears to them. It is also on Cythera that magnificent and intricate gardens are described, along with ancient ruins and monuments and ceremonials.

        The book is illustrated with 172 magnificent woodcuts by an unknown artist. But it is not known which Francesco Colonna is the author: the learned friar from Treviso, or the Lord of Palestrina? Some experts have even proposed that Colonna might be a pseudonym for Leon Battista Alberti himself (9). Surely, the text cannot be read without the help of the images, and the images cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the text.

         (14 Hypnerotomachia acrostic, 15 wolf, 16 torture, 17 triumph)

      The subject of the archaeological, classical ruin is quite present in this book. It corresponds to a zeitgeist, particularly present in the Venice area, as Andrea Mantegna’s activity bears witness to. Some experts credit this painter as the creator of Poliphilo’s woodcuts. Here are a couple of details from his Saint Sebastian, painted around 1480.

          (18 San Sebastiano Mantegna, 19 San Sebastiano detail)

          (20 Hypnerotomachia fountain)

          Come Polia et lui andorono allo littore aspectare Cupidine, ove era uno tempio destructo. Nel quale Polia suade a Poliphilo el vadi intro a mirare le cose antiche. Et quivi vide molti epitaphii, uno inferno depincto di musaico. Como per spavento de qui se partì et vene da Polia. Et quivi stanti vene Cupidine cum la navicula da sei Nymphe remigata. Nella quale ambo intrati, Amor fece vela cum le sue ale. Et quivi dagli Dii marini et Dee, et Nymphe et monstri li fu facto honore a Cupidine, giunseron all’insula Cytherea, la quale Poliphilo distincto in boschetti, prati, horti, et fiumi, et fonti plenamente la descrive, et li presenti fu fatti a Cupidine et lo accepto dalle Nymphe, et come sopra uno carro triumphante andorono ad uno mirando theatro tuto descripto. In mezo del’insula. Nel mezo dil quale è il fonte venereo di sete columne pretiose, et tutto che ivi fu facto, et venendo Marte d’indi se partirono et andorono al fonte, ove era la sepultura di Adone.

      I imagine that this work served as a leading example for all the “artificial ruins” up to the 20th century, with its notion of a fleeting past to be renewed, where decay is not regarded as a catastrophe, but as an appealing example of the impermanence of things. I believe that such re-enactments of Antiquity, like La Villa d’Este and Bomarzo, Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci, Pfaueninsel, Ermenonville and le Désert de Retz (to mention only a few renowned European gardens), and perhaps even Albert Speer’s concept of a “ruin value” derive directly from Poliphilo’s dream on Aphrodite’s island.

          (21 Hypnerotomachia ruin)

          What I would like to say in conclusion is that the künstlische Ruine is always Romantic, but at the same time it bears witness to a progressive concept of History, which is typically “Enlightenment”. And the origin of this idea of the ruin as a constant renewal comes from the Renaissance period and, more specifically, from the Renaissance vision of the classical age.

            Perhaps, you are waiting to see my own interpretation of the voyage to Cythera. Like all the artists and authors previously mentioned, I have never been to the island. If I were to create works devoted this theme, I would probably superimpose prints from The Strife of Love in a Dream on satellite images of this real island or, rather, to images of any archaeological site close to my house.

            But why am I eventually interested in Cythera? Because it is a sort of paradigm of the gap between a real place and the images of it created and transmitted by past cultures. And this is a fertile gap.

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SP, April 2018, reviewed February 2019

(Thanks to Riccardo Lo Giudice for his revision and advice)

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     Notes :

     (1) http://www.tk – 21.com/Gulliver -a- Lavera.

     (2) Journal of the Warburg Institute, vol. I, n. 1, July 1937.

     (3) I owe, among other findings, the discovery of this cycle to Gilles Tiberghien’s Art, nature paysage,   Arles 2001.

     (4) Forests. The Shadows of Civilization, Stanford 1992.

     (5) Purgatorio, XXVIII, 142-143.

     (6) Introduction to Boschi d’Italia, Roma 1993.

     (7) Aki Taguchi, Nerval. Recherche de l’autre et conquête de soi, Bern 2010. Another possible source for Nerval’s vision of contemporary Cythera: F. Poqueville, Travels in the Morea, London 1813.

     (8) I would like to recommend an excellent site for the southern European iconographical research: http://travelogues.gr, published by the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation.

            (9) Among the recent articles on the Hypnerotomachia I recommend “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili – an object of Material Culture”, published in Bern, Switzerland, in October 2014 (http://www.2xd.ch/2014/10/hypnerotomachia-poliphili-an-object-of-material-culture/). See also Esteban Alejandro Cruz digital reconstructions of Poliphilo’s gardens and monuments: Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: An Architectural Vision from the First Renaissance, 2011, in two volumes, and Word & Image A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, Volume 31, 2015 – Issue 2: Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Revisited.
A facsimile of the book, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-books/HP/hyp000.htm.

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From Morgantina (2018)

An archaeological site in Sicily: Morgantina, city of the Sicels. Enlightenment Age prints of Cythera, the Greek island, superimposed on photographs taken by me. Scattered in the landscape: a whitehaired man, a girl, a stray dog.
The last piece of this little suite depicts a ritual: an offering to a statue of Aphrodite, from the sketch of a sarcophagi in Cythera*. Through the print, the remains of the entrance to a house is visible, in Morgantina: on the pavement a word ‘EYEXEI’ (‘you are welcome’) appears in mosaics.

2018 From Morgantina 01 20x30

2018 From Morgantina 02 20x30

2018 From Morgantina 03 20x30

Spuglia From Morgantina 04

 

* STEPHANOPOLI, Dimo and Nicolo. Voyage de Dimo et Nicolo Stephanopoli en Grèce, pendant les années 1797 et 1798, D’après deux missions, dont l’un du Gouvernement français, et l’autre du général en chef Buonaparte. Rédigé par un des professeurs du Prytanée. Avec figures, plans et vues levés sur les lieux, vol. Ι, London, 1800

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From Cythera series C (2018)

Six woodcuts from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice, 1499) are superimposed on photographs of actual places. Although these places are situated in a classical archaeological universe, they cannot be found on the Greek island of Cythera. Instead, they constitute my own  Cythera.

Spuglia FCC 01
FCC 01. The Ruins of Polyandrion.

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Spuglia FCC 02
FCC 02. The Triumph of Semele.

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Spuglia FCC 03
FCC 03. The Bath of Venus.

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Spuglia FCC 04
FCC 04. The Garden of Cythera.

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Spuglia FCC 05
FCC 05. The Encounter with the Wolf.

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Spuglia FCC 06
FCC 06. The Three Doors of queen Telosia.

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         Comme maints auteurs avant moi, je n’ai jamais mis les pieds dans l’île de Cythère, qui reste éminemment un lieu de l’imaginaire.

            Gérard de Nerval, qui a restitué à l’île grecque un statut de lieu réel, la décrit dans ses Voyages en Orient avec une précision due simplement au plagiat d’autres récits de voyage (Castellan, Stéphanopoli). Et la célèbre image du gibet à trois branches sur le rocher, reprise de manière si réaliste par Charles Baudelaire, est probablement une pure invention littéraire.

            J’ai à mon tour repris certaines gravures de la Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venise 1499), connue en français comme Le songe de Poliphile, que Nerval a utilisé comme un guide. L’essentiel de l’histoire de Poliphile et de son amoureuse Polia se passe dans Cythère, l’île de Aphrodite. Les images sont indispensables à la compréhension du texte et en sont presque le prétexte. Il s’agît de xylographies d’auteur anonyme, de milieu vénitien. Elles ont eu une énorme influence dans les siècles successifs et notamment au XVIIIe, auprès d’architectes, peintres, concepteurs de jardins.

            En reprenant à mon compte ces planches j’ai d’abord songé à me rendre sur les lieux, en un défi posthume à Nerval. Finalement, je me suis décidé à commettre un faux historique.

            Les xylographies de l’Hypnerotomachia sont superposées à des photographies de lieux réels, qu’elles sont censées décrire. Mais ces lieux, tout en se situant dans l’univers archéologique classique, ne se trouvent pas sur l’île grecque de Kythira. Ils sont ma propre Cythère.

            Il se trouve que j’habite une ville de l’ancienne Provence romaine, et que pas loin de chez moi se trouvent des jardins bâtis au XVIIIe siècle autour d’une source sacrée et de bâtiments rituels païens.

            C’est là où, en quinze minutes et dans 200 mètres carrés, j’ai repéré et photographié mes avatars du songe de Poliphile.

              (Mars 2019)

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From Cythera series A (2018)

            Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, first translated in English under the title Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream, is an extremely learned and obscure compendium of the Renaissance view of antiquity. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the work was rather influential, among poets, painters, architects and garden designers.

            Presumably completed in 1467 and published in Venice in December 1499 by the great printer Aldo Manuzio, it was written in an inventive language, consisting of spoken Italian mixed with Latin and Greek with Arabic and Hebrew inclusions. It is very likely that the Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti assisted in its conception. Its complete title in English would read: The Sleep-Love-Fight of Polifilo, in Which it is Shown that all Human Things are but a Dream, and Many Other Things Worthy of Knowledge and Memory.

            Much of the action described in the book takes place on the island of Cythera. It is there that the two protagonists celebrate their wedding, and Aphrodite appears to them. It is also on Cythera that magnificent and intricate gardens are described, along with ancient ruins and monuments and ceremonials.

            I have never been to the island of Cythera. If I were to create works devoted this theme, I would  superimpose prints from The Strife of Love in a Dream on satellite images of this real island or, rather, to images of any archaeological site close to my house.

            But why am I eventually interested in Cythera? Because it is a sort of paradigm of the gap between a real place and the images of it created and transmitted by past cultures. And this is a fertile gap.

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From Cythera 01. The ruins of Polyandrion.

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From Cythera 02. The triumph of Semele.

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From Cythera 04. The gardens.

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From Cythera 05. The encounter with the wolf.

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From Cythera 06. The three doors of queen Telosia.

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A text which accompanies this work in progress: see chapter five of Return to Cythera.

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Zu einer Übersetzung von Petrarca (2016)

Brief ohne Antwort

Au conservateur du Musée-bibliothèque François Pétrarque
Fontaine de Vaucluse

Au conservateur du Musée du Petit Palais
Avignon

Seit nunmehr einiger Zeit bewegt sich meine Kunst zwischen der Skylla literarischer Texte und der Charybdis der Malerei. Ich lebe seit einigen Jahren in Südfrankreich in der Nähe von Avignon und Petrarcas Vaucluse, die ich, ebenso wie den Papstpalast und das Kloster von Villeneuve-lès-Avignon mit den letzten bekannten Fresken von Matteo Giovannetti mehrfach aufgesucht habe.

Folgendes Projekt möchte ich umsetzen:

Ausgehend von einem einzelnen Sonett von Petrarca (Nummer XIX der Liedersammlung „Gelobet sei der Tag“) würde ich gerne den Originaltext sowie verschiedene spätere Übersetzungen ins Französische und ins Deutsche in einer Installation verarbeiten.[1] Hierzu möchte ich die deutsche Übersetzung von Oskar Pastior sowie die Übersetzung ins Französische, die ein Kollektiv verschiedener Schriftsteller 1990 in Royaumont ausgehend von Pastiors Übersetzung anfertigte, heranziehen (Siehe Zeitschrift Détail, Paris, n. ¾, hiver 1991).

Das ergibt sechs Texte (meine Übersetzung ins Italienische ausgehend von der deutschen Version von Pastior miteingeschlossen). Die Texte werden auf Glasplatten in der Größe 32×32 cm. abgedruckt. Schriftart Courier, fortlaufend wie ein Telexdokument. Es ist interessant, zu sehen, ob nach der letzten Übersetzung der Ausgangstext noch wiederzuerkennen ist – ob wenigstens eine Spur der ursprünglichen Poesie Petrarcas erhalten bleibt.

Die bedruckten Glasscheiben werden mit von mir angefertigten Fotografien der Fresken von Matteo Giovannetti da Viterbo (Anfang 1300-1369?) in Avignon und in Villeneuve lès Avignon unterlegt. Wie bereits bekannt, oblag Giovannetti die Leitung der von den Päpsten in Auftrag gegebenen Arbeiten. Es ist durchaus wahrscheinlich, dass Petrarca und Giovannetti sich kannten und insbesondere zwischen 1343 und 1353 in Kontakt zu einander standen. In dieser Zeit übernahm Petrarca diverse Aufträge in Rom. Bei den Fotografien handelt es sich um Detailaufnahmen – abstrakte Formen – von im Laufe der Jahrhunderte zerfallenen Fresken. Diese sollen als Hintergrund für die Texte Petrarcas und deren Übersetzungen nicht nur das Überleben einer bestimmten Zeit symbolisieren. Vielmehr sollen Fotografien und Texte durch das Übereinanderlegen einander gegenseitig durchdringen: Somit ist es unmöglich, den Text unabhängig vom Hintergrund wahrzunehmen, wodurch es, wie ich hoffe, zu einer Aufeinanderfolge von Blickverschiebungen beim Beobachter kommt.

Die endgültige Installation wird aus sechs kleinen Platten mit ebenso vielen, gut lesbaren Texten auf dem bereits erwähnten Hintergrund bestehen.

Ich hoffe, dass mein Projekt Ihre Zustimmung findet.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen
SP

März 2012

(Ubersetzung aus dem italienischen: Piero Houtermans)

[1] Dies sind die „klassischen“ Übersetzungen, die ich verarbeiten werde: Fernand Brisset ins Französische (1933 von der Académie Française ausgezeichnet) und Leo Graf Lanckoronski (Universal-Bibliothek Reclam, 1956)

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Etruscan Places, Intruders (2016)

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When I was a boy Antiquity was an amphora mouth on a sandy seabed not deeper than three meters. I would approach it with a trident in my hand and, at the top of it, a white tissue. Octopuses are attracted by white things and get out of their favorite burrow to attack the piece of fabric; this is the moment for harpooning them. It is a simple and fruitful submarine hunting technique.
I must have been fifteen or sixteen. The waters were those of Porto Clementino, on the shore of Tarquinia. I had not yet seen the painted tombs.
Once I took up a big cephalopod still grasping its terracotta dwelling and, when somebody told me that a guy was ready to pay up to twenty thousand liras for an intact Roman amphora, I moved further away. In front of Pian di Spille military camp, I found, at a depth of about six meters, several vases of the type Dressel 1A or 1B. With a rudimentary winch, made out of a line and a rubber roll, I could recover them by myself.
The following winter I hired a motorcross bike and together with a friend I would ride on Sundays through the abrupt countryside around Blera exploring Etruscan tombs. We were never the first ones to enter although this did not prevent us from finding fragments of a black bucchero or of a painted vase.
In February 1971 an earthquake struck the little city of Tuscania. With three friends we went to give a hand having taken a shovel to help digging.
We would sleep in army tents and warm up in the evening with the 50° weird alcohol the soldiers would generously give us. During the day we would dig out the old borgo obstructed streets; occasionally we would enter an abandoned apartment: family photographs spilled out of shoe boxes, knickknacks, doilies and lace covered with dust and rubble.
I then saw Etruscan sarcophagi lined up around the walls of the city hall square along with their decapitated statues: it was the work of the tombaroli. I also saw the mutilated apse of the most beautiful church in the world, the Romanesque basilica of San Pietro (I wonder now whether that is a real memory or the result of various condensed images since I visited the destroyed churches also in Irpinia, also affected by an earthquake in 1980).
Later on during my university years, I had chosen a degree in Etruscology, which came to an end with the requirement that I pass a German language test. These were also the times of the student movement; its assemblies looked rather like a boxing match: on one side there were me and my fellow students who belonged to the friends of the “revisionist” newspaper Il Manifesto, and on the other the “Sturmtruppen” of the Autonomia Organizzata.
After the university period, I moved on to other things but I always went back to the tombs of Tarquinia. I could say that I visit them more than my parents (hoping they won’t detest me for that). I went there when they were all accessible (open) to the public; then, when they were opened only on an annual rotation (the breathing of the tourists and the variations in humidity and temperature being very damaging for the paintings) and eventually now that they are visible behind the double glass that seals off their entrance.
And I must here admit that, whenever I am back in Tuscia, I tend to leave my wife and children in the car while I rush out only for a few minutes in order to see one or two of them.
The British writer D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) visited maybe two dozen Etruscan sepulchers of the Monterozzi necropolis during two days in April 1927. He describes visiting fifteen of them (see Etruscan Places, posthumously published in 1932). It is on that occasion that he points out the idea of a Etruscan joyousness and hedonism opposed to the Roman austerity and militarism; an interpretation that would support his polemics against Mussolini’s regime, which saw itself as the heir of the powerful Romanitas.

I will here describe a few of these painted tombs in my own way.

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Tarquinia B 01.
On the threshold of the Hunting and Fishing cubicle an Inuit poet gives rhythm to his duel song with the sealskin drum, while the two Ayakutok co-wives laugh before the William Thalbitzer photo camera, at Ammassalik, in Summer 1903. A young Etruscan hunts birds with a sling, another one jumps from a rock into the sea. “Here is the real Etruscan liveliness and naturalness”, Lawrence would say.

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Tarquinia B 02.  The two multicolored Charun that watch the underworld door have found companions: a few Ainu, members of the ethnic minority that dwells on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The wise anthropologist who measured them in 1929 (later author of the useful booklet How to recognize and explain the Jew?) ended up shot by the French Resistance and surely finds himself in the circle of the collaborators.

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Tarquinia B 03. Inside the Lionesses crypt a party is noisily taking place: people orgiastically dance, play the double flute, drink stirring beverages. Dolphins dive into a grey sea, while a Greenlander hunter stands beside the hole he dug into the ice. Soon a seal will approach to take a breath. On the right wall of the sepulcher a bleached blonde reclining man “holds up the egg of resurrection”.

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Tarquinia B 04. In the chamber of the Lotus flower Hopi warriors perform their traditional dances before Aby Warburg, in New Mexico in 1895. On the opposite side of the Americas a Ona youngster from Patagonia fixes up his headdress before accomplishing the phallic ritual before the missionary and photographer Martin Gusinde, somewhere in the early Twenties. The bare wall presents a proper backdrop.

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Tarquinia B 05. The tomb of the Hunter is decorated like a hunting lodge; a row of lions, bulls, deers, dogs and riders tread on its walls. In such a space several types of Chinese are gathered. They show their faces and profiles, but are not so recognizable: the squared pattern of the ceiling and the colored dots on the sides mix up their outlines. After all: aren’t we all equal, down there, humans and animals alike?

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Tarquinia B 06. In the tomb of the Jugglers a girl holds upon her head a candelabra, while a young man is trying to pile up on it some little discs or plates; the deceased is sitting on the right-hand side and is observing them. Two upstanding Kwakiutl men are posing in their ceremonial dresses, in summer 1904. They are preparing the potlatch ritual, where they will break copper shields and distribute English blankets and plates, without waiting for a payback.

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Tarquinia B 00. A little squeezed under the low roof of the tomb 3713, Franz Boas is miming, for the puppet builders of the National Museum of Natural History, the hamatsa ceremony, the so-called cannibal dance of the British Columbia Kwakiutl. A little uneasy in their purple dresses washed out with time and oblivion Etruscan dancers from the IV Century b. C. accompany him with cithara and tambourine.

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Anabasis. Man-made nature (2016)

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  1. On the Plateau.

Mario Rigoni Stern (1921-2008) had two ‘anabasis experiences’ (1) in his lifetime. The first one involved the retreat of the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia, in January 1943. Rigoni was one of the 60,000 ‘Alpini’ elite military corps that Mussolini sent to occupy the Soviet Union, and among the fortunate 20,000 that returned home safely. His second “anabasis” experience occurred two years later, during his escape from a German military concentration camp in April 1945. For ten days, Rigoni wandered through the Styria and Carinthia forests in Austria surviving on berries, bird eggs and snails before encountering an outpost of Italian partisans at an Alpine pass.

I regard Mario Rigoni Stern as one of my spiritual fathers along with Nuto Revelli (1919-2004) and Vittorio Foa (1910-2008). Among the three, it is Rigoni Stern who explored in greatest depth the relationship between humans and their natural environment. The theme of the forest, as a locus of nature, is central to Rigoni’s oeuvre. The pre-Alpine forest, which was completely destroyed by Austrian and Italian bombs between 1915 and 1918 and subsequently replanted, is an example of the blending of the artificial with the natural. By the time Stern’s work Uomini, boschi e api (Men, Woods and Bees,) was published in 1980, the Asiago plateau forest had reverted to a nature state.

The forest is a mirror of the world “as it should be”, a world where “siamo tutti compaesani”, (we all belong to the same village). In this ecosystem, we can all live together, humans and various animal species, once the carrying capacity of the environment is under control. But according to the writer, the ‘good’ forest is not the one that grows freely and spontaneously. Rather it is the one tamed by human labor, where humankind plays the role of the caring gardener.

At the beginning of his book Forests. The Shadows of Civilization, (Stanford 1992), Robert Pogue Harrison quotes the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico: “This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies…” (The New science, 1725). But Vico’s text continues as follows: “it is the nature of peoples to be first crude, afterward severe, then benign, later on delicate, eventually dissipate”.

Rigoni Stern considers Vico’s reflection, and assumes that the city (the last stage of human progress before academies, according to Vico) has become a place of “spiritual solitude”, where “barbarity dwells in the very heart of the humans” and states that the woods have become a “place of salvation” (Introduction to Boschi d’Italia, Rome 1993).

As I wandered around Rigoni’s homeland, I recorded some images of forests, which, upon closer inspection, reveal traces of the war: the collapsed trenches and the craters left by bombs. There I encountered a theme related to my Rupestrian series: these sites have also been reclaimed by nature, even if here the traces left behind are the result of humankind’s diabolical engineering rather than its creativity.

The works that bears the title Anabasis come from the superposition of these images and archive images: the Alpini retreating in the Russian snow, the trenches and the woodland of the Asiago plateau after an artillery battle.

 

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2. New landscapes

I have given the title “new landscapes” to these recent works. They describe – not without an ironical reference to romantic landscape paintings – places where the border between natural and artificial is indistinct and unrecognizable – except perhaps only to the expert glance of the geologist or the botanist.
However it is certain that we do not know which of the two antagonists/protagonists — humans or nature – precedes or follows the other. Nor do we know which will triumph in the end. But as the victory of one of them would mean the destruction of both, it would be preferable if they could be reconciled.

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PN 01 Vallerosa (Latium, Italy).
An abandoned travertine quarry. In the large cavity lined with white verticals walls, there developed a microclimate that gave rise to lush and varied plant life. Some say that, in spring, thirty varieties of wild orchids can be spotted. The site truly reverts to nature. It is even possible to encounter a large boar as you walk through the bush to reach the site. It happened to me and I don’t who was more frightened: the boar darted in one direction, and I in the other.

Spuglia PN 02 ValentanoPN 02 Valentano (Latium, Italy).
A quarry of pozzolana (the red volcanic material used by ancient Romans to cover the walls). As it evoked images of hell, it was used as the setting for some films depicting medieval times. After the quarry was abandoned, its terraces were replanted, but the young trees cannot conceal the regular patterns of the cuts in the hill. It is impossible to reach the site because a thick underbrush has overtaken the quarry’s floor.

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PN 03 Alès (Gard, France).
An artificial mountain, a terril, made of waste accumulated over years of exploitation of the coalmines, in the outskirts of the French city of Alès. It would have escaped everyone’s notice — except for the curious conic shape — had a forest fire in 2004 not burned all the vegetation leaving it bare. This fire, which is propagated through the roots of the pine trees planted to hide it, has reached the core of the hill, which continues to burn, slowly, impossible to extinguish.

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PN 04 Laval-Pradel (Gard, France).
An extensive open-air mine in the Cévennes region of France. It was exploited between the 1970s and the 1990s, and a historic road leading the Spanish pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela (the Chemin de Régordane) was diverted in order to accommodate the mining activities. After the mine was abandoned, three lakes formed (artificial or natural?) in the huge bulldozed spaces, and the national forestry authority is now replanting trees on site. The area is not accessible to the public and I entered the site illegally. The Alès municipality is considering transforming it into a recreation area. It would be a park for motorized sports such as quad, motocross, Jet Ski. In each of the three lakes a different species of fish would be introduced for the pleasure of fishermen. It will be another example of man-made nature.

(1) The term “anabasis” means a “back home” journey in reference to the eponymous literary account (also known in English as The March Up Country) of the hapless Persian military expedition by the 4th-century BC Greek professional soldier and writer Xenophon.

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In Tuscia, land paintings (English version) 2016

A series of visual interventions in a « historicised » natural setting: a folder comprising a text and six digital prints giclée on offset paper 350 gr., sized 20×15 cm.  A limited edition of 99, numbered and signed.

 

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In Tuscia, land paintings

Rupestrian, 2011-2013
Although the term rupestrian denotes an art form ‘executed on or with rocks’ (e.g. tombs, sanctuaries, cave paintings or inscriptions), it can also refer to the process by which human-made creations fade away and become part of their surroundings.
In this sense, Rupestrian occurs at the meeting point of nature and history. In such instances, it is not only as if civilization and abandonment occurred in successive waves over the centuries; rather one was the pre-condition of the other. A natural site transformed into a “work” through human intervention is, in turn, retrieved by nature, which makes a “work” out of what remains of the initial human intervention. For me it is not so much about working horizontally in space (e.g. Land Art) as engaging vertically with time, which serves as a medium in a process of stratification ― a form of a ‘reverse archaeology’. Several of these works present the silhouette of a wild animal, either sewed on the plastic or transferred on the glass. They are taken from a Portuguese popularization booklet, found in a flea market, and are meant to symbolize the inevitable return of the wilderness (if we take further our Enlightenment drive).

Romitorio, 2011-2016
If you hike in the Fiora valley, in the Latium region just South of Tuscany, and go up and down on banks collapsed after recent floods, and you enter woodlands tangled like jungles, you can reach a couple of romitori, or hermits places, which survived the centuries, thanks to their isolation and to the little interest they have aroused in succeeding generations.
Here is Poggio Conte: past a waterfall that provided drinking water to the monks, you can see the remains of two tiny cells, to which lead arduous steps carved into the tufa, and a Cistercian-inspired rupestrian church. Its interior – in spite of the oculus carved into the facade – is completely dark: if you make photographs, it will be at random, and only the film development will reveal the surviving fragments of the paintings that decorated the vaults. You will discover that this hermit from end of XIII or beginning of XIV Century (perhaps a monk of French origin?) painted the walls with decorative motifs decisively prosaic, reminding more of an interior design than of an exercise of meditation or veneration.
Nature is slowly retaking its rights; mosses and lichens cover lily flowers, red griffins and phallic shapes. Slowly fades away the work of the solitary men who spent years in shaping and covering with colors this dark cavern, being aware that very few people would ever look at them. Over my intrusive flash photos I superimposed, as a weave backlit readable, a sonnet taken from the Canzoniere of Petrarch. It speaks, in beautiful metaphors, of priceless sufferings of love. I transcribed it in a continuum, like a telex.
I don’t know if there is anything in common between this text and these paintings, apart from the fact that both poet and painter belonged to the same half a Century.

Land paintings, 2013-2014
I call these photographic works Land paintings. They are an attempt to respond to a question about my own presence within historical space. I have tried to define this location through the concept of “rupestrian”.
In recent years, whenever I could, I hiked around the Tuscia region, in a sparsely inhabited land full of prehistoric and archaeological sites, with a leaf, or a tongue, made out of latex dipped in red fluorescent pigment, leaving it on the ground, and then shooting it. The Etruscan tombs, which become medieval hermitages, then sheepfolds, then wartime shelters, finally lovers hideouts, are the usual stops of my wanderings.
I decided to entitle this body of work “land paintings” partly as a reference to the notion of “picturesque” so dear to several land artists active in the 1960s and 1970, and in opposition to the modernist vision of a work of art seen as a unique, timeless experience, to be grasped in one single glance. The title is also meant to evoke the idea of stepping on earth, looking for hidden and forgotten places.
In my previous work, the sign placed on the photograph was a means of preventing the fruition of the image in its entirety, of opening up a gap of time within it, by using a fluorescent color that displaced the vision. This intrusive element is now a material one and becomes an artwork as soon as the photograph is taken. This is the reason I don’t usually add other semantic levels to it. Also, in contrast to Land art, I don’t transform the site into which I introduce myself; I just leave a sign.
This sign left on the sites before photographing them constitutes a marker of my “I have been there” but also a way of seizing the baton, in a relay race with the past. I would simply like to recall that, in Italian, the baton is called il testimone, “the witness”.

 

Nella selva antica, 2014
And what do these photographs have to do with the verses Dante penned to describe his entry into the “ancient forest”, at the summit of the Mount of Purgatory, and his encounter with the beautiful and spiritual Matelda, guardian of the Terrestrial Paradise, where flowers bloom without being sown? “Qui fu innocente l’umana radice; qui primavera sempre e ogni frutto…”, Here the root of Humanity was innocent: here is everlasting Spring, and every fruit… (Purgatorio, XXVIII, 142-143) (45-47)
Dante was certainly the last visitor to the Garden of Eden. No forest, not even the ancient forest that covered the volcanic formations of the Tuscia region in central Italy, can be considered primeval forest; even the conservation is an artificial fact. In the Selva del Lamone natural reserve, for instance, everywhere traces of human “civilization” can be found: dilapidated walls, the remains of road pavement, the furrows of the charcoal wagons, the heaps of stones that once constituted Etruscan walls, and today the strips of white and red paint on the network of trails.
This is all but the nature depicted by Leopardi in his Operette morali, a powerful and cruel nature that, in its manifestations, doesn’t even bother to know what happens to mankind (Dialogo della natura e di un islandese, 1824). This is a today European natural “park”, where the primeval is doomed to be just reminiscence: trees, bushes, rocks covered by moss look at my eyes like Romantic Age fake ruins.
My photographs taken in the Selva are reproduced on transparent layers and superimposed on reproductions and personal variations of prehistoric petroglyphs; those in Nevada date to ten thousand years ago and are the oldest discovered on the North American continent. They are the signs of an era when humankind was just beginning to appropriate nature. They are reproduced with red fluorescent acrylic paint, as a gesture of signage, the difference with the petroglyphs being only the technology of the reproduction.

Eden, 2014-2016
Here you find a variation on this same subject; I just emphasize the relation to the theme of ruins into nature. This series means for me an open and unresolved reflection on nature seen as a historical phenomenon.

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Four Theses on the Aesthetics of Fascism (2003-2015)

Note: for the correspondant images please refer to: Slideshow Four Thesis.
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Thesis #1: The Solitude of Monuments

“I monumenti debbono giganteggiare nella loro necessaria solitudine”

“Monuments must dominate by means of their necessary solitude” (Mussolini, 1936)

These photographic images represent important monuments and works of art that were housed during the Second World War in temporary architectural constructions in Italy. Similar photographs exist for all the other countries involved in the conflict, which leads us to imagine what the urban landscape of Europe looked like during those years.

These wrappings of brick, sandbags and mattresses, poor protection in the case of a direct bombardment nevertheless preserved the frescos and sculptures from the potential effects of an explosion that might occur nearby.

In the documentation of the services of the Italian national patrimony (Direzione Generale delle Arti, La protezione del patrimonio artistico nazionale dalle offese della Guerra aerea [Protection of the national artistic heritage from wartime aerial attacks] these works that were imprisoned and removed from the gaze of spectators for whose benefit they had been conceived, appear to us in the limbo of a catastrophe that, for having been announced, is already present, and sometimes takes the form of the devastation that will make of these beautiful churches a pile of anti-esthetic debris.

The quote from Mussolini that is my epigraph constitutes a manifesto, it seems to me, capable of being taken word by word as an announcement of the catastrophe to come: “monument,” “dominate,” “necessary,” solitude.” It is on the basis of such an ideology that the ancient buildings of Rome, during the 20 years of fascism, were “cleansed,” liberated from all historical stratification and superposition: entire residential neighborhoods (as well as one or two hills) were razed around these monuments in order to render them more visible, in order to give them the status of a symbolic icon, from which one could draw one’s resources.

A reasonably representative example of this thinking is the tabula rasa produced around the Mausoleum of Augustus, which remains as an open wound in the middle of the city, inflicted upon it in the name of an equation between the Roman and Fascist empires. Yet it was a monument where the struggle still took place between, on one side, modernism and post-futurism (somewhat supported by Mussolini, who saw in it the realization of his “new man”), and on the other, a neo-imperial classicism supported by most of the Gerarchi [Fascist hierarchy] of the regime. Such a struggle, which became public and explicit around 1934, was temporarily resolved by the evident compromise of the Italian pavilion of the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris. But towards the end of the decade rationalist architects were obliged to bow before the demands of monumental representation, and a cultural politics that was subordinated to that of Nazi Germany.

During the same years in Germany, there was an absence of veritable esthetic conflicts, but one can point to a cohabitation between a “Dorian” official line – linear, monumental, fiercely opposed to bourgeois and individualist fantasy and experiment – and a strong and sentimental nostalgia for a lost age. The coexistence of these two sentiments might lead us to say that fascism is kitsch. And that is because kitsch, the voluntarist representation of harmony, “is a degraded form of myth” (Saul Friedländer, Reflections of Nazism, New York 1984).

But is there not a striking similarity between the temporary carapaces that I asm showing here, and the architectural realizations of these two regimes? And why do we experience, let’s admit it, a fascination for these formless forms?

Thesis #2 Die Ruinenwerttheorie/The Theory of Ruin Value

“In this context I should perhaps dedicate a few words to the so-called Theory of Ruin Value, which is not Hitler’s. It is my own theory!

I had occasion to see how the rubble from renewing the tramway system in Nuremberg, made of iron and cement, were spread all around it. What an unpleasant impression that pile of trash produced! Seeing it, I told myself that we should not construct our most important edifices with reinforced concrete but, on the contrary, draw on the construction techniques of the Ancients, so as to render such structures agreeable to sight, even if in ruins. Following that, I tried to go deeper into my ideas concerning this, and I realized a large drawing, unfortunately lost, of the Nuremberg Zeppelinfeld. It looked like a ruin covered in ivy. When I submitted my design to Hitler some of his collaborators were there, and they considered it a sacrilege to imagine that Hitler’s Reich might last less than for all eternity.

But Hitler considered that how long his monuments might last was a discussion worth having. He knew to what extent Mussolini’s fascism was upheld by the presence of the imperial buildings of Rome, icons of, or memorials to a bygone era from which one sought to draw one’s resources.

No doubt it was because of the enormous costs of such construction techniques that only a few select buildings – of Hitler’s choosing – were to be constructed according to that theory: the Nuremberg Stadium, for example, the military parade ground, and, in Berlin, the Soldatenhalle and the grand assembly hall, Hitler’s palace and perhaps also the Victory Arch.” (Albert Speer, Technik und Macht, Esslingen 1979)

As an introduction to these remarks it is perhaps interesting to remember that Speer’s Zeppelinfeld, “the world’s largest tribune,” which welcomed 100,000 members of his Party is – although it has been divested of the most evident marks of its original function such as the colonnades and giant eagle – today a recreational park where both car racing and open air rock concerts take place.

Indeed, what interests me in Speer’s discourse is the equivalence that he draws between a ruin and a monument. The monument always has a finger pointing somewhere; it always indicates a direction in time, even if it is there for remembering (Denkmal in German) or for admonishing (Mahnmal). As Leopardi already noted, in the middle of the romantic period (in his Zibaldone di pensieri), one builds a monument to counter the idea of finitude.

I find it interesting to reflect on how a regime at the height of its power can already be interested in the forms of its own demise. For my part, I am interested in “unconscious” ruins. The images used for this work were taken in three places: 1) in Rome, in the Antiquarium comunale of Celio, a veritable open cemetery for archeological relics that – too fragmentary, dispersed or anonymous – didn’t even find a home in some museum warehouse; 2) in Bagnoli, near Naples, in the disaffected or soon to be demolished industrial buildings of the Italsider; and 3) in Potsdam, in the parks where the Kings of Prussia built their own form of identification with classical antiquity during the romantic period.

These piles of rubble are supposedly the antithesis of what Hitler and Speer intended by “ruin value.” At the same time, I am not sure that what made me jump over the fences of these sites in order to photograph them was not a version, perhaps more conscious or more “de-constructed,” of a similar attraction for the ruin in and of itself. Of course, this was not the pathetic nostalgia for a Mediterranean world that took pride in an ancient history and a monumental past, a nostalgia that pushed many German aristocrats to construct artificial ruins [Künstliche Ruine] of painted wood and plaster in the parks of their chateaux. But this fascination for romantic ruins, quite obvious in Speer’s text, and which comes to him directly from the 18th century, is typical for rational beings who gamble their own persistence in future time.

When I photographed the Norman tower site, with its “Roman” arcades and “Greek” temple (this was in 2003), I found it quite amusing that it was in the process of being restored to its “original fakeness.”

I’d like to show here, in parentheses, several images illustrating an esthetic of the ruin. It seems to me that all of them bare witness, in their diversity, to the function of the ruin as a hinge in the linear continuity of time: these are “pre-Benjaminian” images. The fall is not yet the catastrophe.

Capriccio di rovine (Caprice of Ruins) by Giovambattista Piranesi, 1756. Please note the size of the characters in relation to that of the piled up vestiges.

Rovine di una galleria di statue nella Villa Adriana (Ruins in a statue gallery in Hadrian’s Villa), Piranesi, finished in 1770.

The Artist’s Despair before the grandeur of ancient ruins, Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1780.

View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins, Hubert Robert. This enlightened and learned artist, projects himself into the future while actively participating in the acquisitions and construction of the new Louvre Museum around 1795.

Thesis #3: Sentimentalisierung ist Verbrechen / Sentimentalizing is a crime

“Art does not find is basis in time, but only in peoples” (Adolf Hitler, 1937

“The artist who thinks he must paint for his time or to serve the taste of time has not understood the Führer. The stakes are for all eternity! To create the eternal on the basis of the temporal, that is the sense of all human enterprise” (Baldur von Schirach, 1941)

The Balilla (named for a young Genoan who, by throwing the first stone, gave the signal for the insurrection against the Austrian occupier in 1746) were children aged from six to twelve who were incorporated into the numerous paramilitary units under Italian fascism (between 3 and 6 one was a son of the wolf /Figlio della Lupa; between 13 and 18, Avanguardista; from 18 on, Giovane Italiano)

In the photographic pose (of course every photograph isolates and “iconizes” its subject) the child is “promised,” consigned by the adults responsible for him to the regime, which will guarantee for him the future into which he is inscribed. That is what is shown in the three variants on this theme that I am proposing in this documentation: a child in uniform giving the fascist salute; a child in uniform with a club; a child in uniform with a portrait of Il Duce. The logical consequence of those images is found here: the stamp on the postcard bears the date June 1941, year 19 of the fascist era. The US hadn’t yet entered the war.

The tenderness implied in placing the young child in front of the photographic lens, the same tenderness as when we take photos of our own children, also carries a threat: this child, who is already a soldier, will be in the camp of the conquerors. His uniform protects him already, while at the same time giving him the symbolic and ideological points of reference for his adult life. At the same time, we know that this father, with all the pride in the world, having lead his son to the corner photographic studio, is an Abraham who is using the lens in the place of the sacrificial knife: “This child is dying,” Chris Fynsk would say (Infant Figures, Stanford UP, 2000).

Indeed, the infans, the speechless child, cannot say by which end he would like to end. These children, subject to photographic surgery – wasn’t I also put in front of a large black apparatus in the back room of a studio that smelled of mold and Odradek, after being dressed up as a little Bersagliere/infantryman, on my head a strange round and stiff hat decorated with rooster feathers? – these children inevitably make me think of those animals that were still being used even recently for scientific experiments.

What finally attracts us in the iconography of these experiences is the fact that its subject is alienated from its individual multiplicity in order to extract the signs of a single one of its attributes. As a result it is known to us as a reified sign. In the same way we observe and interpret that gestures of a loved one, his or her breathing even, as signs that are addressed to us, without seeing that that being is far from us and from our own fascism, that is to say far from the will to coopt the other within our system.

Thesis #4. Colpi proibiti/Forbidden Blows

“Because, for the fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, or has value, outside of the State” (Enciclopedia italiana, vol. XIV (1932), entry on “Fascism,” chapter “Doctrine,” signed Benito Mussolini, but written by the philosopher Giovanni Gentile)

But what does fascism and its esthetics have to do with this work, entitled Forbidden Blows? In fact it is nothing other than the simple reproduction of two plates from the Enciclopedia italiana, illustrations for the article on Pugilato/Boxing, showing defensive blows as well as forbidden ones (which are also listed and included, it goes without saying, in order to be sanctioned).

When we look at these images with a minimum of attention we see how these brave boxers have been placed against a background inspired by classicism. It is probably the Fascist Academy of Physical Education, built between 1926 and 1932, based on the designs of that most official architect Del Debbio, and completed by the time the article appeared in volume 38 of the Encyclopedia (published in 1935).

In fact, as the Encyclopedia article reminds us, boxers, whether amateur or professional, were integrated into the Italian Pugilist Federation, which was attached to the Italian National Olympic Committee, which depended in turn on the National Fascist Party. Only Germany had a similar organization, whereas “in the other European nations federations were social entities without any investment by the constituted powers.”

The context of these images, as well as the information provided by the editor of the Encyclopedia, tell us that we are looking at fascist boxers. But my question is: can a boxer be fascist? Or, to put it another way, can there be fascist and non-fascist boxing? And what would democratic boxing look like? Like me, you have no answer to that question. For one can be boxer and democratic, but not a democratic boxer.

In the same way one might ask; can a child be fascist? And an artist?

All the particulars of fascist esthetics mentioned here (a-contextuality, a-temporality, cooptation, dependence) are not unknown to me. And my own artistic practice is not exempt from the kitsch implied by all of these procedures (de-contextualization, change of scale, reproduction ad libitum, repetitiveness in multiplying images).

What is it then that explains my own fascination for these subjects (the esthetics of Evil accompanied by nomenclatures, classifications, incantatory enumerations, and scientific experiment for which the human is the subject, all these anthropologies and anthropometries that assuredly resemble a theatre of sadism)? What is my own relation to these Balilla photographed, these boxers boxing in the void, and these builders of nothingness?

SP, 2003-2015

Translated from French by David Wills

(Find here the related images: Quatre thèses…)

 

Identifications and their shadows (2013-2015)

History, photography, evidences

The starting point of my interest in the medium of photography is a direct inquiry into its nature as a truth-bearer. I am interested in photography, first of all, as testimony, understanding that a testimony, if not false, is at least able to be interpreted in multiple ways.
In regard to the photograph’s subject matter, I consider photography to be a ready-made; it affords a certain freedom of manipulation, which, in my case, implies almost always a slight displacement of the subject. In such a displacement I recognize my work as the work of a translator.
From this perspective, there is no difference between the found image and the created one; photography is merely a document. It’s a matter of taking the image and removing it from itself, in order to open it up to other, possible interpretations, in order to encourage its movement.
I will show you two sets of images: the first set concerns several recent works based on archival materials; the second set documents a few site installations I created in Norway, France, and Italy.

La Buoncostume, suite (mixed media, 2009)  (01)
In January 2008, in a dumpster near the police headquarters in Rome, a bin man found two large garbage bags full of photographs: eight thousand images (identification, monitoring, evidences), “no longer relevant to the investigations,” which the police threw away instead of bestowing them to the State Archives. The found images were acquired by an antiquarian bookshop, Il Museo del Louvre; an exhibition was organized and the information was communicated to the newspapers. But the same day of the opening, the Civil Guard, sent by the Authority of the Cultural Heritage, entered the gallery and seized all the material presented, including the exhibition catalogs. However, a gallery assistant managed to hide one of the catalogs, which I used to choose and modify six images: they surely come from the “vice squad” of the police and, judging by the clothes of the suspects, would date from the late sixties. Working on them, I tried to keep the idea of a series, superimposing these photographs, which have a certain statuary elegance, over texts drawn from an Italian grammar book. There is no relationship between images and text, except perhaps the fact that these texts establish rules, which are linguistic rules.   (02-05)

Leçons d’anthropométrie (mixed media, 2009-2010)   (06)
The series Leçons d’anthropométrie derives from my researches in the archives of the department of Gard (southern France). It is well known that any nomadic or itinerant had to carry an “anthropometric book,” which was stamped at every entrance or exit of a French village. This book was in effect from 1912 to 1969. It contained, in addition to personal data and characteristics of the carrier, his photograph (face and profile) and the fingerprints of all ten fingers, following the instructions dictated by the world famous criminologist Alphonse Bertillon. I chose six photographs of anonymous members of the same family (taken in the twenties), and reproduced them on glass. I transcribed with a marker, on the cardboard backdrop, some articles of the law ruling the movements of the nomads. I painted red and white geometric shapes over it that could recall the Russian Constructivists or the Bauhaus designers. To confuse the identification process, I overlaid the frontal image of a person with his profile, or with a picture of a relative.   (07-09)

Phantombilder (mixed media, 2010)   (10)
My last example of the difficult relation between truth and image is also the most paradoxical. I refer to the so-called photo fits of the German police (and, perhaps, of other national police departments), which one can find easily on the Internet. In a technical sense, photo fits are photographs, that is, photographic reproductions. But, at the same time, they do not reproduce anything. They are merely pieces of fixed memory, artificially reconstructed. What they reproduce does not exist, even though they are images as credible as “true” photographs.
We are here before a kind of icon of a face, which seems strangely flat to us, and which bears something doubly uncanny – to borrow Freud’s term -, something like a double death: the first one produced by the photographic process itself, the second one by the montage procedure. This results from the effect of the death mask which—as Alfred Döblin observes in 1929 in his introduction to August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit, Visage of time—is proper to photography (Döblin was surely referring to the then famous wax mask of L’Inconnue de la Seine, and wax or plaster casting can be seen as a double of photography, since both are deadly in their capacity to freeze time and to condemn a subject like the Unknown of the Seine to be young and smiling forever).   (11-12)
To return to the German Phantombilder, what is lacking in them is the asymmetry that characterizes each individual, that is, the irregularity or the accident: the history of a face and a person. What remains is an icon, a logo, which nobody will ever recognize, but which will be useful in defining an individual.
How have I treated these phantom-images? I have made them transparent, reproducing them on glass. I have placed them in simple square frames. I have superimposed them on contemporary wallpapers, in an attempt to give them an “uncanny familiarity.”  (13-14)
Lingering on allegories taken from Freud’s texts, I could refer to his famous article on the Wunderblock (A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad, 1925); my work, indeed, is a work of stratification. But, if I do add layer upon layer, this is not in order to liberate the past or to make it more legible, whether in the first or the last instance. On the contrary, in a kind of “reverse archaeology”, I create a blurred image that perhaps could lead to the intuition of “something else”, that I don’t know and that I can’t anticipate.
The following slides document my attempt to follow a single process that re-takes the existing image and translates it in another language. Sometimes only a slight shift is needed.
Mirror (dripped) 01  (15)
Teatrino (dripped) 01 and 02   (16-17)
Pontormo-LG   (18-19)
These works must be taken – among others – as a criticism of the eugenic attempt not only to define human “types” but also to find the “truth” of an individual through the examination of facial signs. I have used the illustrations from La nouvelle iconographie de la Salpétrière, the photographic revue published in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century by Professor Charcot and his assistant Albert Londe.
I would just note that, in my effort to resist the mimetic “swallowing-up” of the photographic image, I have made it vulnerable to other agents; for instance, the red fluorescent signs and the drippings are a dramatic element whose function is to remove the photograph from its own saturation: here it is not possible to read an image without the eye being forced to encounter the above-mentioned “something else”, a something else that displaces the image and moves it into a different context.

Laralia. A transient monument.   (20)
This work, made in Norway in 1999, was entitled Laralia. The dictionary tells us that, in ancient Roman times, the Lares were the ancestors’ spirits, whose images, made out of painted wood or cast wax, were collected and worshipped in a specially designated part of the home called the Laralia.
These pictures were periodically displayed in processions, and then set on fire. Pliny the Elder mentions them in the section of Naturalis Historia devoted to painting (Book, XXXV, 6-7): in his criticism of modern art then in vogue, he underlines the moral value of these portraits, which served not only to commemorate the deceased, but also to accompany the living, so that “when somebody died, the entire assembly of his departed relatives was also present.”
Ten pictures of local people, chosen at random among the ones conserved at the Fjaler Folkbibliotek in Dale, underwent a multi-staged process of transformation: first, they were deformed in order to reveal their Anamorphosis, reminiscent of the long evening shadows; then, they were enlarged to life size; finally, their silhouettes were traced and cut out on boards of pine wood. (21)
These black silhouettes were placed atop a hill and then set on fire, in a brief ceremony. On the other end, the three-meter-high wooden boards, from which the silhouettes were carved, were erected upon a plateau, above the village of Dale. During the day, in sunlight, the shadows on the ground change shape, cross each other, and are, for a fleeting moment, similar to the original picture.
The instantaneous freezing of the photographic image documents a unique state of a person and is meant to be recognisable by the person’s relatives and the collective memory. In this installation the image is subjected to multiple reproductions, which progressively distance the subject from its departure point.
The final stage of this process – the woodcut – is the opposite of the photographic image, in terms of the time and energy required for its execution; the slowness can be seen as a less tyrannical and more intense way of recording the image. The ten pictures, transformed into steles whose commemorative function is only vaguely related to the individuals they portray, will surrender to the action of time and nature, which will further modify them and ultimately lead to their decay.   (22-28)

The cares of a family man   (29)
The title of the next work is The cares of a family man. I don’t know why I named it after Franz Kafka’s novel, Die Sorge des Hausvaters, where the main character is a shapeless and changing creature made out of left-overs and living in the most obscure parts of a mansion. I think that unconsciously I identify Odradek with the beast that dwells in each of our homes, the beast of identification and of the measurement of the other, the same beast that today, in the streets of France, expresses itself with the slogan “ici on est chez nous!”, “here it’s our home”.   (30)
This same beast forbids August Sander, in the mid-thirties of last Century, to publish his portraits, because of his unwelcome “Enlightenment” aesthetics and because of the Socialist Workers Party involvement of his son Erich. After this, he was doomed to realize gorgeous landscape photographs of hilltops in the Cologne region; he also composed a couple of strange visual cut ups, made out of facial details belonging to diverse individuals. The two surviving panels bear the title Studies: Mankind, while the subjects of his previous work were always identified, at least with the mention of their profession.  (31)  I think that these “dissections” demonstrate a giving up of the principle of identification, as well as the “second death” of the subject to which I referred at the beginning of my talk.
I would also remark that, in Sander’s images, the face is only a component of the recorded signs: the posture, the clothing, all seem to have as much importance, as in this photographic portrait, dated 1938, whose title is National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture (copyright Die Photographische Sammlung, August Sander Archiv, Cologne).   (32)
You surely know that in the late Thirties Sander made several clandestine portraits that bear the title Victim of persecution  (33)  , and also some photographs of political prisoners, including his own son Erich. This one was taken in 1943  (34)  and this one in 1944   (35). Erich Sander, who was also a photographer, died in March 1944 after ten years in prison.
Why did I mix Sander’s images with the other sources I used for my work, which come mostly from the “beastly” side of photography? It is because the digital stretching of the images makes them anonymous and ghostly like the Etruscan “sunset shadows”?  (36)
In the same years in which Sander was completing his Antilitzt der Zeit atlas, several scientists were realizing monumental photographic bodies, following the myths of the archetypical, the whole, the pure. Professor Montandon from France went to the Hokkaido islands, North Japan, to document the entirety of a Caucasian minority: his The Ainu civilization was published in 1937.  (37-38)
This professor, back in the Paris occupied by the Nazis and where the extermination program was being set up, published a useful booklet in 1940: How to recognize and explain the Jew. In 1941 he helped to organise the propaganda show Le Juif et la France (please note the use of the singular “the” Jew).  (39)
On his side, Professor Genna, director of the anthropological institute of the University of Rome, went to Palestine, where presumably the only Semitic community that hadn’t ethnically mix from biblical times, the Samaritans, were living. Along with the usual body measurements, he took pictures (face, side and three quarters) of each one of the three hundred villagers. (40-41)  In 1938, one of 180 scientists, he signed the Manifesto for the Race which opened the way to the Italian anti-Semitic laws.
I don’t know the particular myth that led the Swedish fellows from the Uppsala University in their quest for Nordic, Baltic and Lapp “purity”, but in 1936 the excessively zealous head of the State Institute for Racial Biology, Herman Lundborg, was replaced (still, this institute was, under another name, the main actor of a program of forced sterilization which ended only in 1975).  (42)
In contradiction with the heaviness of this subject, I chose to reproduce the stretched images on a silk fabric, which is very light and flies with the least breeze. It makes a row of banners or flags, whose movements have a festive side. But I prefer to show them at night and under artificial lighting. I wanted these frail pieces to signify the immanence of the past and our responsibility before it: hic est historia.   (43-45)

“Memory and immigration”   (46)
In the wake of the presidential elections in France, in May 2012, during which the right-wing Front National party, known for its xenophobic views, captured one-third of the votes in rural areas, a group of teachers from a high school in the Camargue region near the city of Nîmes applied to the regional school district to set up an artist-in-residence program devoted to the theme of “memory and immigration.”
Once I installed my studio in an empty classroom and began discussing with the students, I realized that only four out of twenty-eight of them had no foreign origins (which means, just as an afterthought, that several of their parents of foreign origins voted for a xenophobic party). I asked the students to find family pictures, or to take photographs of relatives or neighbors who had been or were immigrants. Each student, then, had his or her picture enlarged and mounted on a good frame, the same for everyone. Each one intervened on the image as he or she wished.
From my side, I used their work for a simple installation made out of enlarged photocopies. The documents that the students brought were superimposed on the pictures I took of them, in a photo studio setting. Once in the studio, each one was asked to keep a white cardboard oval before his face. Mounted in the school hall, these images changed depending on the place from which they were viewed: outside (where the sunlight was intense) or indoors, where this same light created a light shadow behind the foregrounded subject. Sometimes an ancestor’s or a foreigner’s portrait could replace the cut-out face of the young person. My aim was easily understandable: to make the subject (which was also the bject) say: “I also could be the other”…   (47-56)

Fifty righteous  (57)
To close my review, I wish to mention a work I realised in another high school in France. I was invited to intervene, along with the history teacher, on the matter of “the Righteous,” the persons who, during the Second World War, accepted to shelter or protect persecuted Jews. Their names (about four thousands for all of France) are listed in the Yad Vashem garden of the Righteous among the Nations, in Jerusalem, and in the related database accessible on the Internet (www.yadvashem.org).
Starting from the simple consideration that, if questioned, these persons would answer that they “would have had no other choice,” and lingering around the idea of a “banality of the goodness,” I decided to transform the found portraits of the southern French “Justs” into flags, public signs that would be at the same time festive, enigmatic, and transparent. You will notice how the stencil technics I applied doesn’t go without recalling the most iconic image of the hero, Che Guevara. (58-65)

SP, 2013-2015

01-phantombilder-01

03-inconnue

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22-peeping-jules

23-pontormo-suite-01

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25-laralia-spuglia

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30-laralia-spuglia

35-lares-spuglia

41-manduel-spuglia

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In the Underbrush / Nella selva antica (2010-2015)

The following is a survey of the sides of my work dealing with “historicized” nature and “naturalized” history.

Gulliver in Lavera, 2010
My interest in landscapes resonates with my interest in faces to the extent that both involve the same type of approach to the photographic medium. Both subjets also correspond to my interest in intermediary spaces, which are not completely natural yet not yet fully “humanized”. The photographs in this series were shot at dawn on a winter Sunday, at the industrial site of Lavera, one of the largest petrochemical complexes in Europe, built in a once-idyllic spot on the Provence coast. I will quote a passage from an article by Daniela Goeller, who speaks more eloquently than I can.
“The landscape is a complex construction. It is way of looking at an environment and exists only through the eyes of the viewer. More than a reflection of the outside world and the surrounding countryside, the landscape constitutes an ideal space for projection and reflects different artistic and political visions and concepts imposed by our civilization on nature through the centuries.” ( http://www.tk – 21.com/Gulliver -a- Lavera ).
These images comprise different layers. In the foreground, a beach view fronting some industrial buildings. Then two layers: very diluted paint drippings that creates a sort of cloud (or sun) upon drying; and printed on glass in the foreground — almost erased by the rudimentary method of transferring trichlorethylene — are engravings from Gulliver’s Travels.
The choice to re-use and “re-engrave” illustrations of Gulliver’s Travels, an allegorical and satirical work by Jonathan Swift, with other historical images, is significant: the work was written in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment characterized by faith in justice and progress, which are subtly mocked by Swift. It is also the century of Piranesi and the romantic fascination with ruins, which is possible only if they are considered as a nostalgic remnant and not a real possibility (Speer exercise I was talking yesterday was actually an “excercise of style”; such a vision allows ruins to be used for decorative purposes.

As a “pendant” to the previous series, I realized a few Months later a few pieces named after Robinson’s figure; you know that Swift wrote his Gulliver, among other, as a reaction to Defoe vision of a primeval natural state of humankind. On the coast of Tuscany you find a site of white sand beaches; they look like Caribbean islands, but they are created by the waste of a sodium hydroxide factory, the Belgian Solvay. These beaches are very praised by tourists in Summertime. I imagined to translate the very moment in which Robinson, not believing his own eyes, found the trace of a human feet on the sand. In my piece, though, the remnants of industrial civilisation are quite visible.  (04-07)

Drum songs, 2010-2011
Somewhere in a Nordic country, urbanscapes set side by side with landscapes, the former accompanied by transcriptions from the East Greenland drum contests (the poetic duels the Inuit used to perform to resolve conflicts, to avoid killing each other), the latter accompanied by reproductions of objects retreived from the harbour, presented like scientific plates.

Marmo, 2011-2012.
In the autumn of 2011 I returned to Italy to photograph the subject of nature exploited by humans. I wanted to compile a stock of images to work on during the winter months. But I found humans submerged by natural phenomena. I encountered days of heavy rainfall and flooding in Tuscany, and the trip was unsuccessful.
I did however manage to take four acceptable photographs, in the marble quarries of the cloud-covered mountains of Cararra. On the long trip home, avoiding the highways and taking side roads, I stopped where I knew of abandoned churches, and I photographed the second image incorporated into each of these pieces: a detail of artifacts made out of perennial marble; medieval churches are among the most striking symbols of Western civilization.
So this series depicts both concavity (the quarried mountain from which the marble is extracted) and convexity (the sculpted marble of the cathedral).

Romitorio, 2011
If you hike the Fiora valley, in the Latium region just South of Tuscany, and go up and down on banks collapsed after recent floods, and you enter woodlands tangled like jungles, you can reach a couple of romitori, or hermits places, which survived the centuries, thanks to their isolation and to the little interest they have aroused in succeeding generations. Here is Poggio Conte: past a waterfall that provided drinking water to the monks, you can see the remains of two tiny cells, to which lead arduous steps carved into the tufa, and a Cistercian-inspired rupestrian church. Its interior – in spite of the oculus carved into the facade – is completely dark: if you make photographs, it will be at random, and only the film development will reveal the surviving fragments of the paintings that decorated the vaults. You will discover that this hermit from end of XIII or beginning of XIV Century (perhaps a monk of French origin?) painted the walls with decorative motifs decisively prosaic, reminding more of an interior design than of an exercise of meditation or veneration.
Nature is slowly retaking its rights; mosses and lichens cover lily flowers, red griffins and phallic shapes. Slowly disappears the work of the solitary men who spent years in shaping and covering with colors this dark cavern, being aware that very few people would ever look at them. Over my intrusive flash photos I superimposed, as a weave backlit readable, a sonnet taken from the Canzoniere of Petrarch. It speaks, in beautiful metaphors, of priceless sufferings of love. I transcribed it in a continuum, like a telex.
I don’t know if there is anything in common between this text and these paintings, apart from the fact that both poet and painter belonged to the same half a Century.

In Tuscia, 2012
The San Pietro Bridge near Farnese, after flooding; the Etruscan site of Rofalco, after archeological excavation; the tangled forest known as la Selva del Lamone, where a trail has been blazed.
These images have been reproduced on glass and superimposed on white paintings with a fluorescent shape, which creates a shift in the surfaces, endowing the work with what I consider a trace of modernity that was otherwise missing.

Rupestrian, 2012-2013
Although the term rupestrian denotes an art form ‘executed on or with rocks’ (e.g. tombs, sanctuaries, cave paintings or inscriptions), it can also refer to the process by which human-made creations fade away and become part of their surroundings.
In this sense, Rupestrian occurs at the meeting point of nature and history. In such instances, it is not only as if civilization and abandonment occurred in successive waves over the centuries; rather one was the pre-condition of the other. A natural site transformed into a “work” through human intervention is, in turn, retrieved by nature, which makes a “work” out of what remains of the initial human intervention. For me it is not so much about working horizontally in space (e.g. Land Art) as engaging vertically with time, which serves as a medium in a process of stratification ― a form of ‘reverse archaeology’.

Land paintings, 2013
I call these photographic works Land paintings. They are an attempt to respond to a question about my own presence within historical space. I have tried to define this location through the concept of “rupestrian”.
In recent years, whenever I could, I hiked around the Tuscia region, north of Rome, in a sparsely inhabited land full of prehistoric and archaeological sites, with a leaf, or a tongue, made out of latex dipped in red fluorescent pigment, leaving it on the ground, and then photographing it. The Etruscan tombs, which become medieval hermitages, then sheepfolds, then wartime shelters, finally lovers hideouts, are the usual stops of my wanderings.
In my previous work, the sign placed on the photograph was a means of preventing the fruition of the image in its entirety, of opening up a gap of time within it, using a fluorescent color that displaced the vision. This intrusive element is now a material one and becomes an art work when the photograph is taken. This is the reason why I don’t usually add other semantic levels to it.
This sign left on the sites before photographing them constitutes the landmark of my “I have been there” but also a way of seizing the baton, in a relay race with the past. And here I would simply like to recall that, in Italian, the baton is called il testimone, “the witness”.
Sometimes, though, when I was at the presence of a human construction more or less preserved, I felt the need of superimposing layers of writings and colors on the images. This series is titled Horror vacui.

Nella selva antica, 2014

a. On the Plateau.  Last year a friend told me that my series of works entitled “Rupestrian” reminded her of Robert Pogue Harrison’s essay on forests (Forests. The Shadows of Civilisation, Stanford 1992). I found that book and read it but set it aside for a long time. The concept that I took from it is that the forest is a human invention, a cultural contrivance. At that time, I was thinking about my literary models of a now-gone generation who experienced the Second World War in their youth: Nuto Revelli, Primo Levi and others. The last survivor was Mario Rigoni Stern (1921-2008). Born in the Asiago plateau, an area heavily damaged during World War I, Rigoni was influenced by the nationalistic rhetoric and wanted to pursue a military career. However before long he became convinced of the injustice of the war, a conviction that was further strenghtened during his service in the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia, in the disastrous retreat of January 1943, and subsequently in his years of internment in a German military concentration camp.
The theme of the forest, that forest annihilated by Austrian and Italian bombs between 1915 and 1918 and subsequently replanted, exemplifying the ‘artificial’that laboriously reverts to a natural state, is central to Rigoni’s oeuvre.
As I wandered, as a tourist, around Rigoni’s homeland I recorded some images of forests, which, upon closer inspection, reveal traces of the war: the collapsed trenches, the craters created by bombs. There I encountered a theme of subject of my Rupestrian series: these sites are also taken back by nature, even if here the traces left behind are the result of humankind’s diabolical engineering rather than its creativity.
And what do these photographs have to do with the verses Dante penned to describe his entry into earthly paradise, the “ancient forest”, at the summit of the Mount of Purgatory, and his encounter with Matelda, guardian of the Terrestrial Paradise, which is free of original sin?

b. In the Lamone. Dante was certainly the last visitor to the Garden of Eden. No forest, not even the ancient forest that covered the volcanic formations of the Tuscia region in central Italy, can be considered primeval forest; even the conservation is an artificial fact. In the Selva del Lamone natural reserve, for instance, everywhere traces of human “civilization” can be found: dilapidated walls, the remains of road pavement, the furrows of the charcoal wagons, the heaps of stones that once constituted Etruscan walls, and today the strips of white and red paint on the network of trails.
My photographs are reproduced on transparent layers and superimposed on reproductions of prehistoric petroglyphs (those in Nevada are the oldest discovered on the North American continent) are the signs of an era when humankind was just beginning to appropriate nature. They are reproduced with red fluorescent acrylic paint, as a gesture of signage reminiscent of the petroglyphs used ten thousand years ago, the only difference being the technology of the reproduction.
Here you find a variation on this same subject, a serie named Eden; I just emphasized here the relation to the theme of ruins, which we were discussing previously.

c. Ferula lamonis. Ferula communis (Giant fennel) has been known by humankind since mythological times. Prometheus is said to have brought fire to humans in a fennel stalk. Moreover, a ferula stick crowned with a pinecone and decorated with vine leaves was carried by the Maenads who followed Dionysus’ cortege. Whereas its cousin, Foeniculum vulgare, is healthful, ferula is a toxic and invasive plant. Known as narthex – ‘scourge’ – in Greek, it grows in the deciduous forests of the arid coastal plains of Sardinia, Greece and the Maremma. However, unlike the ferula in Dionysian rituals, it is infertile in this environment, making it appear as a mere intruder.
Here you see some variations on the theme.

And, finally, what I find a more accomplished work on Rigoni Stern books and places, the “return to the heights”: Anabasis. I show you the different steps of my procedure, which is at a same time an ideological commitment: to constantly affirm the multiplicity of any image, as well as of any individuality.

SP, 2014-2015

Artworks 2010

Antiquarium, replay, 1997-2010
Photographs of a place that no longer exists, the Antiquarium of Mount Celio in Rome where, until recently, the debris of sculptures from antiquity that did not find shelter in the galleries or storerooms of museums were scattered outdoors like old cars in a junkyard. Drippings of boat resin, mixed with fluorescent pigment, anachronistic signs of fragmented time.

antiquarium-replay

Reprints, 1997-2010
Like vampires, natural latex is sensitive to daylight. Exposure to ultraviolet rays causes drying, darkening and makes the latex sticky until it eventually falls into shreds. This organic material is so light sensitive that it is the last material one would use for reproducing photographic images.
It is therefore through a process of redundancy that the traces of its own attempt at conservation leave their imprint. More specifically, this series features two superimposed images: the details of an industrial site that I visited before it was demolished; and the remains of archaeological excavations that are not considered worthy of being displayed in a museum. An exercise in imitation: Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione.

reprints

Ex voto Remix, 2009-2010
Etruscan votive images gleaned from catalogues or post cards. These specimens — reminders of health problems or broken hearts taken out of their funerary context – displayed in museums, on coloured carpets and classified by category. Reused here, reproduced on glass, superimposed on paintings by SP, marked by Chinese stamps, without concern for their relatedness. Will we become play things once again?

ex-voto-remix-02-03

Phantombilder, 2010

After completing a project on identification photos of the last century (1920-1970), I began researching new subjects linked to the question of posing and portraiture. The mug shots that I reworked depicted people who did not wished to be photographed. But willing or not, they were actual subjects in the flesh who expressed something more than that for which they were photographed. It is that “something” that I attempted to capture.

The facial composites used by German police today, easily accessible via Internet, are photomontages. They depict no existing subject; they only depict a stage of memory. Though, they are photographs. The Unheimlichkeit (“eeriness”) of the photographic image seems to be two-fold here.

Despite the formal resemblance, these portraits lack the spark of life and the imperfection and asymmetry that distinguishes every human face. These figures seem to be cadavers with wide open eyes, cadavers twice. What could I make them say?

phantombilder

A variant to the Ishihara “pseudo- isochromatic” test (2005)

1 .
In 1917 , Professor Shibaru Ishihara ( 1879-1963 ) , a military doctor and future dean of the Imperial University of Tokyo , who had been a pupil of Stock in Jena, Axenfeld in Freiburg in Breisgau – and von Hess in Munich before being forced to return to his homeland following the outbreak of the First World War , developed a detection system of the daltonisme which is still practiced today , as remembered by all those who have made their “three days” for military service .
This test is made of several colored discs with different inks ( up to nine) , consisting of points of variable size and tone , which make indistinct , except for the color type , a certain sign that is hidden among this set. For example, a colorblind deutan will not easily distinguish a red sign on a predominantly green background .
The ” pseudo- isochromatic ” test called Ishihara – the full version consists of 38 tables – is particularly efficient (98% ) in the individuation of hereditary dyschromatopsias of protan and deutan kind .
Tables 1-25 present Arabic numerals . The numbers are signs whose reading is common to both Western and Eastern , and this is why – presumably – they were used in the international version of the test . Neither the letters of the Latin alphabet, or Chinese pictograms or Egyptian hieroglyphics would – in effect – was readable.
Tables that are 26 to 38 are designed for illiterate children : thery present sinuous traces: the examinee must follow them with a pencil or his own finger .

2 .
The series of works that I propose , modestly , is a cultural variant of the Ishihara test. It is applicable to both illiterate and literate people of any race or color : it is only necessary that the examiner and the examinee  agree on the names to be given to things.
To develop my humble suggestion , I adapted a test for visually impaired children , which is used today in the ophthalmological services of French hospitals : the optometric testing R. Rossano and J -B . Weiss- Inserm , which provides for the identification of some familiar icons of our childhood : car, pram, dog, chicken , flower, and so on.
And it is not without a hint of pride that I propose my test for color deficiency. As a painter and – of course – a specialist in perception , vision and – consequently – the color , I could not not speak with empathy to the 8% of the population that does not perceive – as it should be – the full range of the world around us, and I am confident that this simple synthesis Ishihara – Rossano -Weiss -Inserm -Puglia will help to better realize what they are missing.

(Google translation from French, redirected)

testishiharadaltonisme

Ishihara test

test-rossano-weiss

Rossano-Weiss test



A-museum (2001)

“Could it be that technical means from a distant period, when used at the present time to recreate certain events, touch us even more than the awareness of the events themselves?” (1)
This is the last sentence of Philippe Poirier’s introduction to his performance Leaving Pictures. It points at what is at stake for me in the few reflections that I am going to submit to you. Is it possible to deal with the past “truly” and also “aesthetically”? Is there an ethical necessity, for the researchers and the artists that we are, to be fairly unfaithful to “our” past, beyond being the witnesses and the representatives of a history that is, as such, “our own”? Is there an aesthetical approach which, going beyond the due witnessing, and being both surgical and lyrical, could take us to a fertile destruction of the past, far away from the aesthetisation of memory?
Or should we pay respect to our ancestors –be they victims, persecutors or spectators – and to their feelings and deeds, committing ourselves to the collection and the preservation of what has been left to us? Should we, again, build museums and museums of museums, or should we erect warning memorials and sensible pieces of art? Should we, perhaps, produce monuments out of monuments, like parodies of these protected works of art during the last war?

1.
I already mentioned in a previous talk that last year I was asked to organise an event in Naples, that was to be housed in the building of the ex Asylum for the Poor and that was meant to celebrate the first “Day of the Memory” of the Holocaust. The call that came to me was based on a linguistic misunderstanding and on an incorrect translation. The person who invited me did not register that, when they said “find us an artist”, the people who were running the ex Asylum meant –as  is common by the older generations and in Southern Italy- a performing artist, a man of the scene, an actor, a theatre director. Only after accepting the job did I realise that I was possibly not the man they were looking for, a fact which led to several discussions and confrontations and eventually to indispensable compromises, because we all had to give up our respective aesthetical radicalities. A performative part remained in the final event, but this was limited to the opening and I tried to make it as meaningless as possible. Voices recorded in the streets and arbitrary tableaux vivants were the main elements of this evening.
The permanent exhibition was set up, instead, in a less noisy environment. We didn’t make up the spaces, we didn’t paint a walls and didn’t drive a nails into them. As furniture, we used what was left in the same building from its previous functions. The place stayed  as it was; bare, naked, transparent through history. We arranged a collection: gathering and displaying documents, films, books, internet connections, data bases – with the result that many visitors complained that there was nothing “to see”, while a few came almost every other day.
I do not suggest that this setting wasn’t an aesthetic choice -we always deal aesthetically with the past, if we are not just observers of it-. But our choice was anti-representational. Place and documents, context and text, should speak for themselves, once put into the conditions of speaking. Our assignment was the one of establishing these conditions, being aware that they were precisely determined by the encounter of a particular container with a specific material, where both would be transformed.
Our task wasn’t one of pointing at ethical models -let’s say erecting a monument- nor one of showing evidences and proofs –let’s say building a museum. We weren’t putting together an archive either: while a museum is a place intended to put on view original traces of the past, an archive is an accumulation of original traces kept for a possible upcoming use, with the aspiration to be comprehensive. What was collected in the spaces of the Asylum were representational items, second-degree objects that dealt with the definite subject of the Shoah. Within this process of choosing, gathering and making available, these objects were seen as tools of a potential intellectual engagement. What was being presented was an installation, or a mechanics of documents, or a projection of history.
The aim of this installation was not to “preserve” memory – I still believe that preservation has a strong relation with falsity and therefore is a practice of kitsch – and I still take kitsch to refer to any kind of bad art. Neither did this installation aim at “touching” emotionally –even though there is nothing bad in wanting to “touch”, in art as well as in historiography-. This installed collection offered equipments for thought: rather than proposing aims, it was providing means.

2.
I still ask myself why an artist was needed, to animate the commemoration of a specific historical event like the Holocaust. The answer that I give myself is that to such an emotionally overwhelming and rationally non-understandable occurrence people feel like being able to oppose only the emotional and non-understandable fact of artistic creation. This is the reason why people commit monuments to artists.
Monuments are things that point in some direction with their fingers, they express ultimately the confidence that something can be pointed at, that there are lessons to give and teachings to take, and historical examples to condemn or emulate. They assume that the social body can be moulded by the call to remembrance. Monuments, like museums, are nationalistic inventions. A monument, like Leopardi said, is always optimistic, always addresses itself to a future that is taken for granted, that is embodied in the icon of a collective identity, and inevitably states for its sake a positive message. A monument is always “to” something. A monument that would be “with” something would be either self-erasing or withdrawn; this is the kind of monument that I would like to see. I wonder if it is this being “with” that engages me before Poirier’s performance, not only for its use of the original materials and devices, but for such a use that, while destroying them, creates and projects in the air a new sound which is made of their ghosts. That would be a fruitful betrayal, if it could allow us to touch the past, beyond memory and beyond evidence. Or would this be another idealistic wish?
But what would these non-assertive, these non-identitarian monuments look like?
Having asked myself this question, I made an experiment last year, when I was invited to take part in the Models of Resistance show in Copenhagen. As this city had been, a few years ago, the theatre of a personal experience, I went out overnight and marked the locations of this past experience with the symbol of the monuments protected by the United Nations. Roaming the town in order to find again the places where I had been, I somehow placed the landmarks of a biographical anamnesis that was no more noteworthy than any other.
Rather than as a piece of art, I consider what I made as an exercise, and not only because it was not taking place in an environment devoted to art. These UNESCO signs were mixed up with all the signs that in an urban topography indicate locations, zones, functions, memories; they would hopefully provoke the questioning of some passer-by. What was being applied was an outsider attitude, the appropriation of a procedure and a signalisation that one was not entitled to. At the opposite of the Avant-Garde gesture that raises to the status of art what is originally not art, this spreading the traces of a passage was a rhetorical call to the democratisation of recollection. Instead of an iconic, significant, sublimating sculpture, a fragmentary, mobile, non-systematic tracing out.

3.
“There is no kitsch that ends with a question. All kitsch ends with a statement.” (2)

I agree with Saul Friedländer’s statement, but I also think that one shouldn’t be afraid of kitsch. For instance it could be taken and used as one element of a work, among others; just as successive reproductions can lead so far away from their model as to create another original matter. And I could imagine, as well, a work so absolutely kitschy that it would become a pure art piece, a mere questioning in process.
Very few museums today are built in such a way that the circulation inside their spaces arouses thought and also lays down ambiguities: ambiguity is a good detonator for a process of interpretation. Most historical museums are either mere places of conservation, perhaps with an educational section, or sites for cultural entertainment, where the last thing that should happen to a visitor should be to induce him into boredom. For instance, the young stewards of the new Jewish Museum in Berlin are instructed to say “enjoy” when they check your ticket, and actually once inside you find a number of drawers to open and buttons to push. At the end of the visit you know what you knew already, so to say, that German Jews were also Germans. This is what Friedländer would call “to end with a statement”.
Either conservative or entertaining, a museum that would not be discursive could not be of interest. The only acceptable museum is the one that preserves what doesn’t exist yet, the one that preserves the imaginary of the viewer, the one which really takes its visitor as “a historical subject” (3), the one which would eventually take itself as a historically determined object and would accept its own disintegration.

I wonder why I like to use this adjective “kitschy” in regard to most museums. Is it because they stand for a linear, derivative vision of the historical facts, and mostly portray a narrative which is the one that justifies their own existence? Or simply because of the “inauthentic” relation between the objects and their unoriginal background, and the interrupted prolongation of these objects into time? Archives, actually, cannot be kitschy; they are the “natural” place for dead documents. They do not represent, they stay. Why  can’t we show them as they are? Not only because they wouldn’t be readable, but because there is nothing to stage with a storage room. That would look like a piece of art à la Boltansky or à la Kabakov, but not like something to be used for anything else than aesthetical appreciation or nostalgic longing.

The storage room, perhaps, can be presented as a museum. Anyhow every museum is a fiction. What makes the difference is the degree of intellectual freedom that is allowed to the viewer, the degree, so to say, of democracy within the museum.
Places where everything means something are unbearable (by the way, it is the same with people and with books). This is probably the reason why, being a historian and feeling embodied myself in history, I grew tired of a historiography practised as a demonstrative explanation of signs. The intensity of my relation to history, also in connection with my personal biography, forced me to leave my fellow historians and become something else, as well. What was to be given up was the attempt of making sense of our past, of looking for more or less linear consequences and causes, of trying to renew an “objective” approach to what has been. I would, instead, understand history without understanding. I would instead become an artist.

The last work I would like to mention here is a two-days museum, a recent installation at the Society of the Industrials of Sainte Marie aux Mines, in France. This building housed an interesting collection of naturalistic and archaeological items, put together, at the turn of the 19th Century, during the golden and positivistic age of textile manufacturing. Yet with the decline of this industry and the disappearance of its main figures most of the collections ended up in cellars and attics, where we found them. I decided to make a collection out of the storage room and to present it like a Kunstkabinett: as you know, things in a curiosity cabinet are displayed without any inner hierarchy and with no evolutionary method or respect for the differences between the genres and the fields of knowledge.
In French, the Latin word “museum” can only mean a museum of natural history. This is why I named my installation “Museum of Industrial History”: as a promise that had to be disillusioned -because there was no industrial history to be seen in those spaces-, but also as an allegory of what the heritage of a past life had become. An ever too readable sign of this becoming was a circle of stuffed animals set in the only space still in use, the meeting room. On the walls of the opposite room I hung framed photographs of the meeting room as it was just before my dislocations, and in the middle of the space I “reanimated” an encounter of the ex-members of the Society. I was trying somehow to mix up the times, present tense with past tense with future tense: a conference setting in the demolition site, a ghostly reunion in the depot, old preys in the meeting room. I also combined pieces from my own past work with the leftover collections: would somebody be patient enough to try to recognise what was ”true” and what was not?
I wasn’t fully aware of what I was factually undertaking, I was moving things from one place to another with haste and improvisation. Like in Poirier’s performance in Rome, I was displacing and recomposing original matters “from a distant period”. I knew that I was arranging signs that were not meant for any explanation. I think that I acted like the invited foreigner that I was, as I had been in Naples and Copenhagen: a stranger to a local tradition and largely unaware of its rules, I felt free to misunderstand them. Not having status nor symbol to preserve, I had no discourse to give, but I had the liberty of being one pole of a discourse, as I am here today.

2001

(1)  “Poirier’s Sampling“, in S. Puglia ed., Leaving Pictures. Towards an Art of History, Salerno 1999, p. 65.

(2)  Saul Friedlander, Reflections on Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, New York 1984, p. 97.

(3)  Michael Fehr, “A Museum and its Memory: the Art of Recovering History”, in S. A. Crane Ed., Museums and Memory, Stanford 2000, p. 59.

Asylum (2001)

During World War II Naples suffered for only twenty days from the Nazi occupation, before a popular uprising and the advance of the Allies pushed the German Army out of the city. There was therefore no time for the organization of a systematic persecution of the Jewish population and  “only” fourteen Neapolitan Jews died as a consequence of racial persecution, having been apprehended in other regions of Italy.
To work on the issue of Shoah in Naples means, though, to appeal to a universal, hopefully common, consciousness, rather than to recall a shared historical experience.
With regard to that, and to the peculiar surroundings in which I have been asked to work, the situation of Naples is far too particular to be taken as an example of a historiographic and museographic installation. It can be proposed, then, as a story.

The event took place in the Albergo dei poveri (or the “Poor’s Hostel”). Its construction began around 1750 on the instruction of the Bourbon king Charles III and was meant to emulate similar initiatives in Europe of that age. These buildings are of the type Foucault describes as the models both of the penitentiary and the factory. They express an authoritarian utopia that represents one of the many sides of the Enlightenment epoch. Such places were meant as a tool for the cleaning up of the nation: beggars, invalids, orphans, prostitutes, elderly or disabled people were taken out of the street and concentrated in such places, either to be just segregated from the public life or to be put to work.
The Neapolitan Albergo dei poveri was supposed to host up to eight thousand inmates (the whole of the estimated marginal layer of the population), but its conception was so megalomaniacal that it was never finished and only three of the original five wings were completed (although, this building remains one of the biggest in Europe). At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century its construction was eventually stalled, and since then it presents the aspect of a huge ruin, half inhabited and half abandoned. It housed, though, up to four thousand people before being progressively emptied. In 1980 an earthquake finally caused the death of eleven elderly residents and this de facto was the end of its use as an asylum. In the following years the palace was looted of almost all the remaining furniture and only in recent years has a project of renovation started. In the meantime social workers took possession of a wing of the Albergo, which as a whole is the property of Naples Municipality.

This then was the site of the proposed event that related to the Holocaust. There is, then, the question of the time period in which such an event could take place.
We have witnessed three phases in the historical recognition of the Shoah. The first one, extending from the end of the War to the mid-Seventies, is characterized by a relative silence about the persecution of the Jews; there have been, though, moments of debate and polemics (in particular around the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem) and the publication of some capital books (Wiesel, Levi, Hilberg). A second phase saw a wide enlargement of the knowledge of what happened, and also the revisionist phenomenon, along with a visual production that reached a large public, like the television series Holocaust (it is interesting to see how the widely accepted denominations for the extermination of the European Jews came from fiction –or documentary- films: today it is considered more correct to employ the term Shoah, that is still the title of a movie). A third phase, which we are living through today, sees the institutionalization and a sort of saturation of memory, where there are rising voices that Jews are “doing too much” (See the foreword to the new edition of Nicole Lapierre, Le silence de la mémoire, Paris 2000).

In January 2000 forty-five States sent their representatives to a conference in Stockholm, where it was decided to hold, in every country, a day of the memory. Such a day should be the 27th of January, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp. Among the national institutions that complied with the indications of the Stockholm conference, was the Italian Parliament. In July 2000 a law declared the institution of the Day of Memory.
The social workers of the Albergo dei poveri, active for thirty years now with hundreds of boys from the slums that surround the building, hearing on news of the law, found that theirs was the “ideal” place to celebrate such a date. The Albergo, in fact, had been for Centuries a place of suffering, and the traces of such suffering were somehow still visible on its damaged walls and its decaying architecture. A more pertinent place to remember suffering and confinement could not be found. The children themselves could be involved, playing the role of the deported Jews in a sort of mimetic performance.
As you can see, then, a place that is just itself meets a time of remembering that is not in itself necessarily a moment of kitsch. But the two things together, through a procedure that, moving from compassion, creates identification, can easily originate a highly kitschy event. The problem, for somebody called to create an event in such a place and about such a subject, was: how, recognizing some historical analogies (the hygienic and paranoiac relation to the marginal and the different, the choice of their concentration in a separated space), to avoid a mimetic, sentimental approach without limiting oneself to a mere presentation of documents that have been seen hundreds of times.
I confess that I was more interested in the place than the subject. At that moment I was making works about the concept of shelter, refuge, hospitality and, after having built –last May, in Maastricht- a “parachute” that was meant as an exercise of unconditional hosting, I was wondering how to put the question of a shelter that would not be at the same time a prison. On the other hand, I did not want to make art “on” such an extreme subject. Such an event should be left, I thought, to its historicity and not be dealt with in terms of “art”. A form of aesthetic approach to an historical event is, though, unavoidable; even if you call it “design” or “installation”, there is a problem of setting a frame, of giving a shape to the re-presentation of catastrophe.

I came to Naples, then, with a couple of references in my head. First, an article by Gianni Vattimo called “L’impossible oubli” and published in the acts of the Royaumont symposium on Usages de l’oubli, “Usages of the oblivion” (Paris 1988). Starting from an early Nietzsche text on “the utility and damage of the history”, Vattimo points out how, in a time period that sees a “historical fever” and an excess of memory, one should recognize and extremisize such an excess, instead of taking refuge in the oblivion through religion or art as a ”unique, instantaneous, classical” work. The idea of a forgetful creation is, in fact, dependant on a “aesthetic of utopia”, which cannot be proposed anymore.
The second was a recent article by Régine Robin, “La mémoire saturée” (“The saturated memory”), published in L’inactuel in September 1998. Régine Robin is a French scholar who has been working extensively on the relationship between memory and fiction; in the text I am mentioning, for example, she states how at the liberation of the camps, some photographs were staged, as was the famous one of the US marines planting a flag on the mount Suribachi in the Iwo-Jima island. Robin’s position is that in facing the representation of the Shoah one should set spaces of meditation, rather than trying to re-create a trauma. What blocks the transmission in such official institutions as the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum, “is the excess of images and explanations”. One should rather open a third space, a “spectral” one, that could allow both the heritage and the transmission.
Finally, a third text containing perhaps the most famous lines on the possibility of art after the Holocaust, that I will, after all, quote: “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch”, “After Auschwitz to write a poem is barbarian… Through the aesthetic principle of stylization… an unimaginable fate still seems as if it had some meaning; it becomes transfigured, with something of the horror removed”; this statement, already expressed in 1949 (“Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft”) was reaffirmed by T. W. Adorno in a 1962 radio broadcast, to be published in Frankfurt in 1965 (“Engagement”, Note zur Litteratur, 2). I am not going to linger on that issue (I would rather refer you to John Felstiner’s “Translating Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’: Rhythm and Repetion as Metaphor” in Saul Friedlander, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution”, Cambridge Mass. 1992, pp. 240-258), but I would like to cite a possible update of Adorno’s famous lines: in one of his last texts, the German philosopher states: «After Auschwitz… there is no word … not even a theological one, that has any right unless it underwent a transformation» (Negative Dialectics, New York 1983, p. 367). I would like to say that I took a credit from this correction, if it is one, to draw the lines of the Naples installation.

I decided that I would not build anything that would express an empathetic or emotional approach, precisely because this is the most common approach that is undertaken in dealing, in art or in educational programs, with the Shoah. And what is Kitsch, if not a form of representation that remains subordinated, forever linked, to its subject, and does not reach an autonomous form? And wasn’t the Hostel for the Poor, in its actual state of overwhelming and beautiful decadence, precisely the “ideal” place for another kitschification of the historical event of the Jewish extermination?
I decided, therefore, to leave the place in the state of abandonment in which I found it in, and to make it live again for a few hours, with sounds and short actions that, instead of just filling the space, would displace the visitor, who would find himself –if I may say so- in the presence of “absence”, faced with the recognition of loss and the fragility of the trace. An allegorical approach had to be defined, avoiding, though, the absolute distanciation that allegory can present. People should still feel that a poiesis was taking a place.
On the other hand, I thought that instead of proposing again the consolatory lullaby of the duty of memory, we should give a structure to the anamnesic work. Along with some local youngsters we entered the emptied alleys of the Albergo, where tons of archive papers, that did not appeal to the looters, laid on the floor, and found shelves and tables that we transported to the exhibition rooms and summarily repaired. We did not paint the walls but left them like they were. We just cleaned the floor and installed computers, printers, scanners, video projectors and bookshelves.
The principle of the exhibition, apart from the performances, which took place on the evening of the 27th, was a relational one. There was nothing to see, if people did not want to (most of the visitors were actually disappointed, precisely because there was, instead of a show of Holocaust art, “nothing to see”); but if people so wished, they could take and read a book, take and watch a movie, or use the computers to navigate the Internet sites devoted to the Shoah. We would offer research and educational tools instead of emotional recognition. The subject of the exhibition would not be the Jewish genocide as such, but rather the different forms of its representation in literature, music, performing arts, documentary and fiction cinema. We would set therefore the question of representability without proposing a solution, but rather present all the material that had been produced in Italy from 1945 to 2000 and leave the visitors the freedom of envisaging and utilizing this material. We were confident that the framework of the exhibition itself, whose principles seemed rather transparent, would be taken as a form of interpretation. Instead of crying to the scandal of history, we would take into account all the deposits, stratifications and works that history has presented us with.
Instead of “showing’ or “representing”, we would “project” history.

Naples 2001

Displaced Translations (2000)

The brief text that follows should be read in conjunction with the images of two works, one of which has been made (The Blue Shield, also titled Personal Monuments) and one that has been imagined but never realized (The Lifetube).
It should be taken, rather than simply a comment, as an allegorical writing referring to my activity at the Jan Van Eyck Academie and related places during the last year. This activity has been moving around the concepts of translation and transparency, their multiple relations, and the image of the artist as a translator.

I

The Blue Shield
(displaced symbols)

The language of symbols should be understood by everybody—it is assumed by the illiterate as well as the one who speaks a foreign language. This is why road signals and naval ones have been invented, along with symbolic tools, among which I am most interested in the ones that indicate the individuals or the objects that, following international conventions, should consider themselves protected.
This is the case with the Red Cross, that is universally recognized as the symbol under whose protection find place field hospitals, ambulances, stretchers, doctors and nurses.
It is a given that such places and individuals should not be involved in war—since we are supposed to have a shared respect for the wounded and to their possibility of care and recovery.

Since 1954, an analogous symbol exists for artistic monuments and the cultural patrimony in general: the Blue Shield. In 1954, a list of sites to be protected was compiled at the Hague Convention, and then improved in a second protocol in May 1999. Such a list also comprehends, beyond works of art, libraries, archives, churches, and mosques.
The most famous example of a cultural site protected by UNESCO is the old city of Dubrovnik, which was copiously bombed by the Serbs during the war in ex-Yugoslavia. It is said that Serbs were particularly interested in destroying the cultural symbols of their adversaries; on the other hand, it is also said that the Croatian army sheltered its weapons and ammunitions in the sites marked by the Blue Shield.
Consequently, the 1999 protocol corrected that of 1954, establishing the conditions under which “imperative military necessities” could justify attacks against cultural sites, regulating the behaviour of the occupying troops, and foreseeing extradition for the most serious crimes committed against the monuments.

.
The issue of the protection of monuments has always interested me. I have wanted to study the way in which, during moments of fascism (and, to be sure, under every regime that makes monuments into the icons of nationality) historical monuments are taken out of their urban context, polished up from every successive side, and made integrally visible, –since, according to Mussolini, they were meant to “gigantify in their necessary solitude.”
As we know, the war came and with it the necessity of hiding monuments from view and from the risks of bombing; they were hidden under scaffoldings, concrete and brick walls, sand bags and stuffed mattresses. For five years, from 1940 to 1945, the Italian landscape was disseminated with such mysterious and incongruous forms; the art was there, but not to be seen.
From this point of view, the 1954 Hague Convention has led to significant progress: instead of sandbags—after all, a poor means of protecting monuments from modern armaments—a simple shield painted in white and blue.

.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

In May 2000, I was in Copenhagen, the capital of one of those northern nations in which protection is a kind of ideology; social protection, the protection of infancy, of the natural environment, of young artists. The protective role of the State there appears like the realization of the socialist ideals of the beginning of the Century, but can be so overwhelming that some artists—maybe because of their own dependence on their relationship with the institutions—wonder how such a system could be resisted (whereas in a country like Italy, where family networks and good relations occupy the role that, in the northern countries, belongs to the State, the more valid forms of resistance are—to my mind—the ones that are practised inside institutions, because those are the places of chaos).
But, as I was saying, I was in Copenhagen, having been invited to participate in a show on the theme: Models of resistance.
To put in practice my solidarity and participation I took part in the setting up of the show, transporting heavy glass plates and painting the walls of the stands. But, more than simply a labourer, which I am not, I found myself more useful –like the Italian that I am—as a cook. It was more useful for the real workers to be fed properly and to abdicate, at least for a couple of days, their frankfurters in favour of a good hot dish.

However, before the show opened, I also wanted to do my part for art. I had already spent a short period in Copenhagen five years earlier; I had lived there a brief and intense personal story. Therefore, I reproduced on adhesive plastics the symbol of the aforementioned UNESCO program, the Blue Shield, and one morning at dawn I went out, in the still deserted city, in search of the places where I had lived some events. Among these places were the Royal Theatre Opera, an antiquarian bookstore, a coffee shop, a hot-dog kiosk, a bridge, a filthy hotel. I applied twelve of these symbols on the façades or walls of these personal “places of memory.”
Once I had compiled an inventory of such work of marking and accompanied it with adequate photographic documentation, I showed it at the Overgaden gallery. A copy of the dossier, with an enclosed letter, was sent to Icomos, the international organization based in Paris that manages the Blue Shield program.
In this letter I explained how, believing that historical memory is made of an endless sum of individual knowledges and memories, I wished to add to this sum at least a part of mine, and I asked, correctly, I believe, that my memories be considered a cultural patrimony of humanity and—in case of war or any other natural catastrophe—would be protected by the Hague Convention.
I also asked about the question of “hierarchisation” in the concept of cultural heritage. Why, I asked, should the medieval cathedral be protected more than the Souvenir Shop that stands in front of it? Why, if it is true that the Souvenir Shop could not exist without the cathedral, should it be true that the cathedral would survive without its postcards? Not longing for a critical-philosophical discussion, I did not dwell further (but I would have been able to) on the matters of the original and the copy, of real art and kitsch, or popular and elite culture, et cetera.

I did not receive any answer from Icomos. On the contrary, the inhabitants of Copenhagen seem to have been more understanding. Of the twelve symbols placed alongside my personal monuments, only a few of them have been removed. It happened also that one of them was displaced and put again at a little distance, because the wall on which it stayed had to be repainted. My supposition is that they have taken the symbol for a sign of the gas pipeline, which would demonstrate the imperfection of the international system of signs.
But it would demonstrate also the creative side of the misunderstanding. In a system of signalisation—like this one experimented in the Danish capital—one that is neither logical nor systematic, the symbol is presented as a sign, but it is not the evidence of its possible prolongation: it does not have a recognizable relationship with the symbolized object, it does not indicate anything reducible to an original and reconstructible path. It rather points out an autonomous track, with, if one wishes, references to be interpreted, or, if one prefers, just read.
This would be a form of displaced translation.  Such a translation is permitted by an originary vulnerability of its subject. Generally speaking, translation is permitted by an originary transparency that carries in itself its own possibilities of translation.
Transparency goes only to one direction. One cannot make transparent something that originally is opaque, but one can multiply and open further a transparency which is already in the original object.
Transparency is perhaps the first quality of a work of art; such a work is a work of translation. If the kitsch (like we will see further on) -in its lack of distance from its object- only allows a movement between A and B and back from B to A and so on, transparency is what allows to translation its successive passages from A to B and from B to C and so on.
Such a movement of passage is doomed -clearly- to be interrupted somewhere. In the following chapter I will try to explain how one cannot give a supplementary transparency to something that has already undergone a radical transformation.

Spuglia BLUE SHIELD 03

II

The Lifetube
(displaced people)

During the entirety of the summer of 2000, as it had happened for all of 1999, thousands of illegal immigrants continued to disembark on the Italian coasts. They came mainly from the Albanian harbours, just a few hours of navigation away. They came in large inflatable boats driven by cynical sailors, who did not hesitate to throw their human load off board, if they felt sighted or pursued by the Italian coast guard.
The image of these boats and rafts could be seen everyday in the television news. Maybe these images inspired a new attitude of the demonstrators against the detention centres where the illegal immigrants were kept. Beginning in January 2000, the policemen found themselves facing crowds that demonstrated before such centres, clamouring for them to be closed down, and whose components were dressed in the following way: three or four layers of heavy sweaters, life vests, foam stuffings fixed to the shoulders with package ribbon, football pads to protect the legs, plastic helmets or pasta drippers to protect the head. Besides, the first lines of the demonstrators pushed a strange supply before them: a kind of big snake made of truck tubes bent together two by two, packed in plastic sheets and fixed to polystyrene panels, against which the clubs and the tear gas candles bounced. The name of the utensil emerged almost spontaneously: the Big Rubber (Il Gommone). (1)
Many demonstrators advanced toward the police with their arms lifted in a sign of peace. “Nobody must get hurt” was their intention. They cried out for both the right to occupy the public space and to protect themselves. They did not manifest violence, but they opposed to the violence a claim of legitimate defence.
They wore, to the letter, a life belt; the supply meant to save the life of whoever would fall into the sea became at the same time a symbolic image and tool of defence. With this simple opposition of the body, protected by an individual and a collective stuffing, the right of resistance was identified with the right to existence.
I find that this invention has a great iconic strength: an elastic matter, a rubber wall on which the kicks of the rifle can bounce and behind which bodies take refuge.
In those first occasions, the police, unprepared for this new tactic, gave up and the demonstrators, after many hours of confrontation, were admitted inside the centres of detention which they wanted to see close (namely: Milan, January 29). It is no surprise that, for the following demonstration, the police officers arrived armed with cutters.

What I will say here is perhaps a banality: a protection understood as “resistance” goes along with a recognition of brittleness and inadequacy. A total and absolute protection is not only impossible but would coincide with the suffocation of the same resistance and of its dialectics. An allegorical side is always necessary to the action of resistance, to keep such an action from both an undesirable literacy and the affirmation of a dull antagonism.
The use of the big truck tubes by the demonstrators was born by a significant image and bore a semantic shift: the device that transports the clandestine immigration becomes the symbol (and the defence tool) of whoever works against the understanding of this immigration as a crime (it should be said as well that, on an institutional level, the Italian detention centres are illegal, since immigration is not a crime contemplated by the penal code).

I think that the Big Rubber is both an art’s work and a work of art. I see such qualities not just in its practice of re-appropriation, but also in its affirmation of autonomy and of a kind of disinvestment toward its source.
If I instead lingered on the idea of making art out of the Big Rubber (or, as well, out of the immigrants’ inflatable boats), I would seriously risk falling into kitsch. My work would probably just remain a description, an allusion or an illustration. And kitsch always remains interested, involved; it always stays subordinate to its model: to the call to an original function, if it is an object; or to the intention, if it intends to be a work of art. When the intention remains translucent in the work, then the work fails. When the original is so determined in its significance, it should be left to itself.
If I would make art out of the image of this “life tube”, I would apply what, according to Gillo Dorfles (2), is the distinctive sign of the kitsch mentality, and that is the simple shift, in scale or of context, of the original work (for instance: the Eiffel tower transformed into a knickknack and standing on a television set; a Roman amphora used as a lamp; but also, I would add, the effect of an easy association: the sticker, with the name of a restaurant that casually is that of a friend, that we leave on his fridge). It is certain that -in a way or in the other- kitsch, in its work of de-contextualisation and transformation, has to do with mechanical or digital reproduction.
Does it, then, also have to do with translation? Partly, and up to a certain point. My attempt to make a work of art out of the Big Rubber would be an attempt of translation, a movement toward translation, but not a finished translation. Mine would be just an illustration, because it would not create any semantic estrangement. If it did not practise a deep alteration of the original language itself and if, together with the estrangement, it did not introduce a radical difference, the translation would be the supreme form of kitsch. (3)

It remains, however, the awareness of a contiguity between translation and kitsch. In other words: in its dependence on an original (however real or ideal that would be), in its quality of prolongation (with all the inevitable denaturalisations and misunderstandings), in its inevitable imitative character, and also in its certain monstrous character, kitsch appears like an aborted form of translation. That we practise it all day long, in a more or less wide measure and in a more or less aware way, only confirms its multi- and incomplete- form of the translation.
While kitsch represents, translation re-presents; this is why the Big Rubber is both a translation and a work of art. The forms of the translation are multiple, and they sometimes take the quality of art. This happens when, of a subject already alienated, already displaced and stolen from its world, already “kitschified”, a subject is created again—as autonomous, as a “pure sign of itself” (Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus). The loss of an acquired originality becomes, in this translation, an other originality, an other possible. This “resumption” would be the displacement of a displacement, the unveiling of a hidden originality that does not have to wait the de-kitschifying effect of the time that passes or of historical catastrophes.
I think of an other possible rescue of kitsch, one that comes from its very historical de-contextualisation; this is the case of some works that remain as testimonies of an ancient art: those that probably were provincial and imitative episodes, which a contemporary critic would have certainly considered “kitsch,” like the mural paintings of Pompei or the funeral portraits of El Fayum, and which are seen by us as mere works of art (4). The action of time has conferred on them a singularity that they did not possess and a quality that has become absolute.
It is the time that—in these cases—operates the semantic transformation of an object that becomes, according to a worn-out expression, “other from itself”; that becomes therefore projected into the world of difference, the same world that kitsch tends to ignore.

It would be difficult to deny that first postmodernism in architecture and then the artistic practices of the Eighties have led to a conceptual revaluation of kitsch, and precisely in those aspects that, in the years around World War II, were still considered to be at the best expression of aesthetic insensibility (see: Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” written in 1939) and at the worst of ethical evil (Hermann Broch, “Notes on the problem of kitsch,” lecture delivered at Yale university in 1950): the inspiration, the impression, the imitation, the reproduction, the call to the tradition.
And if there is a “sin” of kitsch, it is precisely that of supposing that a tradition exists, that there are references and models to be faithful to, that forms are endlessly multipliable, that there is a possibility of aesthetic reassurance and emotional protection.
Kitsch, which in his substitutive practice represents a continuous affirmation of loss, never lingers in mourning; even less does it mourn what is stranger. Inside it, apparently, there is space only for the familiar and the identifiable.
To mourn the stranger, to regret the one whom we will never meet, this is the opposite of kitsch: it means to perform an act of recognition and to go beyond the recognition, to perform an act of memory and to go beyond the memory, to depart from the tradition without adopting a borrowed one, to remain in the kingdom of the possible.

From the other “sin” of kitsch, the one stigmatised by Broch and recalled in the Eighties by authors like Lyotard and Vattimo (5) -that is, the tension toward the beautiful- contemporary art has somehow saved us. To tell to an artist that his work is beautiful is today a way of insulting him. And the reason for this is the fact that today’s art does not intend to make “work” but, rather, “to make world” (6).
And here is where the Big Rubber returns, and the fact that it is a matter of art, an “art’s work”. This status is given to it precisely by the abdication of the art to its iconicity and to its uniqueness. Art is not a gesture, but rather a repeated gesture. And the repetition, as Aristotle once said, “gives birth to a nature.”

gommone-tutebianche

(1) For an accurate description of this demonstrative tool  see: Ludovic Prieur, Brigitte Tijou, ”Il Gommone. Un dispositif de désobéissance civile”, Vacarme, n. 12,

(2) See his introduction to: Kitsch. An Anthology of Bad Taste, New York, 1969.

(3)   “The translator is a writer of a rare singularity, precisely where he seems not to claim any. He is the secret master of the difference of languages, not to abolish it, but to use it…” Maurice Blanchot  “Sulla traduzione”, Aut Aut, n. 189-190, Milano 1982, pp. 98-101 (Originally: “Reprises”, Nouvelle Revue Française, n. 93, Paris 1960).

(4)   I find this example in Hermann Broch, “Das Böse im Wertsystem der Kunst”, Schriften zur Literatur, vol. II, Frankfurt am Main 1975 (first published in Die Neue Rundschau, August 1933), p. 155.

(5)   “.. that to make beautiful art today is to make kitsch; that even authenticity is precluded… “, Jean-François Lyotard, Heidegger and “the jews”, Minneapolis-London 1997 (Paris 1988), p. 45.

(6)  See Gianni Vattimo, “L’impossible oubli”, in Usages de l’oubli, Paris 1988, pp. 77-89.

Digressions of the Resistance (2000)

1.
At this moment I am in the vanguard.
The letters that had to be written have been written, the housework is done, I have only to concentrate on my subject. I have only one aim and it is before me: I‘ve got to start and reach the conclusion of a text on the notion of resistance.
The field is clear, unobstructed; only the open landscape is before me. I am the vanguard of myself.
I am followed at the distance of a few centimetres –twenty, maybe- by the rearguard of myself. I cannot go without it. Only a thickness of flesh separates that part of me which is in an advanced position from what simply follows. These few centimetres make a significant difference.
I remember that, in the war-stories that I read as a teenager, being shot in the back was the greatest dishonour: it meant that one was fleeing the enemy. Similarly the traitor was condemned to be shot in the back. And in fascist propaganda, the partisan was represented in the gesture of stabbing in the darkness and in the back.
But the opposing rethorics of collaboration and resistance1 as well as those of vanguard and rearguard seem today emptied of their original meaning. This is precisely because the signs of a frontal opposition aren’t visible anymore. It is the very thinness of the sheet, its third dimension between recto and verso that seems enormously enlarged. It remains, though, only conceptually visible.
If resistance looks today like an almost decayed notion, this is because we experience a fragmentation and dispersion of social rules; we all work, in the western societies, a similar matter, we mould the same clay. How can you resist the one who pays you? How can an artist resist those who grant him his living?
But, without comparing welfare societies to the Nazi invader (what Paul Virilio does, in relation to technological progress)2, it’s unavoidable to see how the space between collaboration and resistance is at the same time conceptually enormous and physically thin, like a line that we cross ten times a day.
The reason is partially in the very notion of resistance. Resistance –here the example of World War II, if extreme, is also eloquent- is to move by definition in the same space as the adversary, to share the same physical space and similar symbolic weapons (“taken from the enemy”)3. “All resistance is ambiguous, as its name indicates”4; it implies participation in an imposed system, an understanding of the adversary’s mentality, a constant sequence of compromises, a guerrilla war where there are no frontal attacks or defences but instead displacements, deviations, encirclings, ambushes.
In this regard resistance appears to be a disturbance activity, comparable to that of a guard that operates in the rear to slow the enemy’s advance. The meaning of rearguard lies in this après-coup: in action that follows observation and reflection, in reaction to a stimulation or an attack (or an excitation like the Freudian Reiz). This is where rearguard seems to be in a more interesting position than vanguard; to be in the vanguard is –for an artist- pure creation, advancing in an unexplored land, researching new formal fields. But technology will always be faster than any artistic avant-garde; to rush after it doesn’t make much sense. Maybe today’s artistic avant-garde are the creators of computer programs, and the artists who use such programs are a mere para-avant-garde.
I find it more interesting to linger in the space of the “just passed” than to run after a passing fashion, or to be a fashion. This attitude of attention and reflection defines the rearguard. To this attitude corresponds a predilection for those moments in history just after the event: a stasis in time that prefigures the knowledge that nothing will be the same as “before”, even as we are still present in the echo of this very “before”.

2.
Slowing down and disturbing the enemy’s action are duties common to rearguard and resistance. If we wish to consider the artist as a resister, we need to indicate his enemy. Once the artist was a client of a noble man or a confraternity; then he became an entrepreneur in a world of entrepreneurs; he is today an application-form filler and a grant-dependent; such grants are given by institutions. Is the institution the artist’s enemy?
Artists exist to disturb; this is their most widely accepted function5; this is why the relationship between artist and institution can only be based on misunderstanding; constant misunderstanding, mutual exploitation, space sharing, interchangeability of roles: there is no alternative to such an intercourse when we see how even art which has institutional critique at its core is re-absorbed in the institution. The interlacing is such, actually, that every artist is as institutional as a museum director, and every museum director as oppositional as an artist6. This is a relatively recent phenomenon; a post-68 effect, I would say.
The institution needs its opposite: in its constant work of self-legitimisation it needs people who disturb; it needs, particularly, to select and protect those who disturb with aesthetic, not aimless or chaotic means. In this regard art is a form of re-composition; it is not by chance that we have art-therapy, along with horse-therapy; it is not by chance that graffiti and rap music are preferable to riots and broken-in shop windows, and find, therefore, broad ways of distribution and support, both institutional and commercial7.
But to see things from another point of view, how does one loosen the contradiction of carrying on resistance towards what one materially depends on: ministries of culture, foundations, academies, collectors, galleries, museums?
Most artists resolve it by competing in the same space and under the same conditions, that are given to the artistic scene: which means making war to each other. Why not? Why not make, also, war with each other; why not make contacts and create a network of relations and alliances and seek protection? But the error would be, I think, to lose one’s autonomy, to identify oneself as a participant in a “scene”, moving one’s pawns on a chessboard already sketched.
The only form of artistic resistance I can imagine today is this one of dis-institutionalising it, taking part in other spaces of discourse and relation that cannot be defined as art specific. Like political utopia, resistance no longer has its traditional place; it must constantly occupy new places.

3.
I will remain in an allegorical mode, recalling my personal experience of heterotopia. It was around the first months of 1977 in Italy. The era of the post-68 “institutional” leftist groups was over, but it wasn’t yet the moment when the groups organised in the Autonomia8 would kidnap a mass movement that still existed, still searched for new forms of presence. Already, in the winter of 1976-1977, there were those who broke into expensive shops to “expropriate” not bread but smoked salmon and caviar, demonstrating their subordination to the clichés of bourgeois luxury. Meanwhile there was still a great desire for a new conviviality in new spaces. In these months many condemned buildings in the city centres were occupied by groups of young leftists or low-income families.
At that time people also went out to demonstrate for cheaper cinema tickets. In retrospect this seems a ridiculous demand; it is ridiculous to think of invading public squares and streets just to pay a few liras less to see a Hollywood movie in a cinema hall belonging to a multinational, in the almost complete lack of alternative spaces. But the alternative space, in those days, were the same streets and squares; you would arrange an appointment with a few individuals, you would go there some days later. Finding yourself surrounded by dozens, you would start walking and would have ten thousand behind you. We would go from one movie theatre to the next; a delegation would go in, turn the lights on, make a short speech to the audience, go back to the waiting crowd, move on.
All that did not, strictly speaking, make any sense. Or, rather, the sense of all that was: I) to constitute a community, absolutely imaginary, utopian if you wish, lacking its own office and its own scene, doomed to appropriate only momentarily a set of public spaces meant for a different use: the squares, the streets, the movie theatres; II) through a pretentious and oblique objective (nobody was really interested, not even for free, in watching an Italian B-movie or an American comedy) to show the existence of a public authority and a resistance to this authority, and to do it in ways that were not necessarily those of a confrontation between workers and capitalist in the factory. It showed that resistance can inhere in claiming a simple pleasure, a simple right to choose that has been taken away.
The aim was not directly to change society or to express an individual right. It was to claim as “public” the entertainment spaces; to take entertainment out of its private sphere and confound the boundaries between entertainment, pleasure and public right. To claim a right to the spectacle without really caring about the spectacle, was a way of widening the boundaries of the political itself; it was a way of demonstrating the existence of a collective presence that, by avoiding being targeted as an organic “political” counterpart, also eluded politics as a matter of professionalism and seriousness. In such a situation you are not there “as” an artist or “as” a worker, you are not representing yourself if not in the part of yourself which, in that particular moment, is claiming a particular collective right, temporarily occupying and transforming a public space.
This is why I can only believe in necessarily temporary and provisional places, places that would be made “other”, places of exchange, encounter and exposition. Places that would be designated as such and that are by definition open, but not outside the relation. I was once in a squat in Rome when somebody who wasn’t known to us arrived, asking for hospitality: “All right, but let us know each other”, he was told.
Was that a new form of public space? I think it was, precisely because of its being a temporary place. In fact those occupied houses were somebody’s property, and sooner or later the police would come to evacuate them (like it happens today to the Centri sociali in Italy). A space that would be both public and alternative can only be temporary. It is in its being “possible” and “passed” at the same time that it finds its meaning: container of an imaginary community and receptacle of a community that would have been possible; of a community that exists only in the tension toward it, only in the longing for what it could have been but has not and cannot be.
Reinventing places; re-naming them, catching sight of other, hypothetical uses of a space; practising a diverting of signs; confounding one’s artistic gesture with the scattered gestures of urban communication; diluting, dissipating, spreading the gesture; leaving signs that may or may not be seen, that may or may not be “artistic”9; eluding but not refusing the official sites of communication and exposition: maybe, they are possible models of resistance. I will linger on that further on.
Another way of resisting could be to renounce a constant artist’s attitude, a wishful being always and everywhere an artist. I think of a paradigmatic situation: two painters who were living in the same city occupied by the enemy in wartime; one, Picasso, doesn’t stop painting and receiving visitors in his studio; the other, van Velde, who survives thanks to the charity canteen, doesn’t touch the paintbrush for five years. When asked about the reason of his inactivity he can only answer that one cannot work when such things happen around him 10. This seems to me an implicit criticism of “engaged” art: when such things happen you might rather stop underlining them with your artistic signature, wishing to be “helpful”, and simply take a practical form of commitment to the state of emergency you are living in. You will maybe help to create a time, later on, for the “peinture d’histoire”, or art of history, which politicises art.11

4.
Let us go back to the resistance. I think after this digression that it could be defined as a movement of reaction, response and retaliation that shares the physical and linguistic space of its adversary; meanwhile it creates, in this same space, its own places and idioms. It creates a space of the rear, a maquis which has a scale and forms of diffusion different from the dominant ones. I think of all the graphic media, more or less skilful, more or less improvised but always necessarily autonomous, invented by the Resistance: fake documents, leaflets, newsletters, hand-printed newspapers, graffiti12; they can be compared, in another context, to the fanzines, the privately printed poems, and the photocopied magazines of the pre-internet era (it would be interesting to compile a collection of such means of communication, from Mexican Calaveras to Russian “Music on bones”13).
In retrospect it is evident that the “privately printed” was anything but a mere expression of a private sphere; since it was dependent on manual technique and materials, it implied a sequence of personal interconnections that the internet eludes, and was grounded in a “hand to hand” distribution; there was though, in this limitation of scale, the idea of a circulation both hazardous and personal, but always locally, topographically rooted. The one who today has a website speaks to everybody and to nobody; he stays finally in the representation of himself. This form of communication is often without any object other than the communication itself; in that sense it creates an illusory community. Distances are not abolished by the internet because nothing can replace physical presence, contact and touch (saying that, I do not fail to recognise the role the internet and mobile phones have played in organising resistance to Haider’s party in Austria).
If the internet seems to be above all an open and common space, this is because resisters, dominators and collaborators all navigate it and this is where the roles are most easily and rapidly interchangeable. This is the syntopia we live in. In such a context we can say that every resister is part collaborator and every collaborator part resister. In that sense our turn of the century cannot be compared to World War II. But I cannot resist trying a last allegory.
If an “above” and an “under” on the power ladder still exist, the variations and intersections of it are infinite, even in the most oppressive situations.
In reading Robert Antelme’s work on deportation14, we follow the multiple variations of signs that progressively differentiate the prisoners’ body, differentiating them from top to bottom in relationship to those who exercise over them the power of life and death. This articulation is both an instrument of domination and an affirmation of singularities that escape this domination.15
In such a differentiation new dominators and new resisters were created; in the multiplication of levels of power originated a chaos that was above all a further form of oppression to which the resisters opposed a struggle for legality.
Force is something that has variable and diverse intensities; the colour of force is also subject to variability; the mastering of language for example is a force whose colour varies. Several times in the only book he wrote, Antelme analyses the crucial role of translation16. The translator’s power can in such extreme situations either contribute to growing chaos or to affirming legality. Legality seen in such situation, is situated in the diversion of law17; the one who defends it doesn’t hear, hears badly, “turns a deaf ear”, cultivates the misunderstanding in the vertical transmission of control. In translating in “his own way” the translator has the power to enlarge or to narrow the spaces for communication and survival. His work of resistance is, therefore, an “art’s work”.
In an infinitely less oppressive reality like our western societies, the power of translation is that of a re-appropriation of official language, and of its misappropriation which consists in differently pointing out the places of social exchange. Resistance could be simply in a different name: an unused building becomes a “Squat”; a photocopied paper is a “Journal”; a private collection is made a “Museum”.
Resistance for an artist might be in dis-identifying with prevailing notions of artistic identity; in refusing for example to be “professional”. I am aware that such a position can be considered a residual “avant-gardism” or a form of voluntarism; but I doubt that models of resistance can be indicated without such voluntarism.

5.
Before World War II, when it wasn’t taken as a physical quality of matters, by resistance one understood only “resistance to authority”, punished by article 337 of the Italian penal code and equivalent to the crime of “public violence” (art. 336). According to the law, only a private person could be guilty of such a crime: in opposing representatives of the State he would place himself outside the law and the public sphere.
With the war and the consequent opposition to German occupation in Europe (and Nazi domination in Germany) there was both an enlargement and a diversion of this notion. Those who “resisted” opposed a different concept of legality and a different idea of public representation. This is why fascists had to find another signifier that would symbolically exclude them: partisans could be named, on the radio and in the newspapers, only as “bandits” (etymologically: banished, exiled, outlaws).
These fluctuations in the meaning of words are paradigmatic: in the second half of the XIX century a resister was somebody who, by definition, was against progress; in the second half of the XX century a State like the Italian republic finds its legitimacy in the Resistance as a constitutive value.18
This is why today nobody would refuse to call himself a “resister”. Maybe the most difficult thing remains to indicate what, in every different situation, we intend to resist.

Spring 2000

Thanks to Robert Garnett and Vania Del Borgo

Emergency of the Proxenos (2000)

1.Asylum
On the 21st of April 753 BC. Romulus drew with a plough the furrow that would delimit and ground the city of Rome. The walls of the town were raised along the lines of the furrow. The line demarcated an inviolable space; Remus, Romulus’ twin brother, jumped over it as a challenge and was immediately killed.
In the places where Romulus had lifted the plough -interrupting the continuity of the line- the doors of the city were set; through these openings things -both pure and impure- were allowed to pass. Once this rite was accomplished Romulus declared: “Mundus patet”: the world is open.
This happened on the Palatine hill. Under the same circumstances, an asylum was created in a holy thicket by the Capitol. Ancient historians say that this area was created in order to gather all those isolated and disbanded men who could contribute to the demographic growth of Rome.
But the presence of such a safe haven -where pursued criminals, fugitive slaves, outlaws of every kind could find shelter without being questioned about their origin or past- was a common fact in ancient times. It is documented by the Greeks, the Jews, the Germans.
The asylum was a holy place, within whose borders dogs did not hunt their prey and wolves lived in peace and good harmony with deer. At the origin of such a belief was the conviction that the sanctity of a place (or an object) would be communicated by contact.
Whoever would have put his hands on a fugitive inside such a space would have committed a sacrilegious gesture. It is told how, in 7th or 6th Century Athens, the survivors of Cylon’s conspiracy found shelter in Athena’s temple. Eventually deciding to leave the shelter they unrolled a thread that kept them in contact with the goddess’s statue; but the thread -by accident or malignity, we don’t know- broke and the conspirators were slaughtered.
The right of asylum’s main function seems to have been the mitigating of such a bloody revenge. This institution offered -to the murderer who flew from his victim’s relatives or to the slave who escaped his master’s mistreatments- a reconsideration of his case, or at least a delayed punishment.

2. Hospitium

By hospitium (for the Greeks: xenia) Latin meant the ensemble of rituals that ruled the relations between two foreigners who would make a pact. Such relations of mutual obligation and courtesy drew, before the foundation of stronger state-controlled institutions, a generalised net of alliances. Those who would participate in them were all of a similarly superior social status. The Oxford Classical Dictionary states that ”Throughout antiquity, such people lent each other powerful support, often at the expenses of their inferiors, so frequently that ritualised friendship may justly be regarded as a tool for perpetuating class distinction”.
Among the hospites, obligations were those of mutual reception and assistance, as well as of standing godfather to each other’s sons.
An object, the symbolon, indicated the effectiveness of such a friendship. Made out of bronze or clay, bearing a few words written on it, it was often a plaque broken into two correspondent parts. It functioned also as an identification that would protect the traveller in foreign territories.
There was an institution -particularly in Greece- that introduced this private pact between strangers into the public domain: proxeny.
Proxenia was a contract between a State and the citizen of a polis. The latter, chosen among the most influential and wealthy personalities of his city, was a sort of godfather of a foreign State and its citizens. He would welcome, at his own expense, the travellers or the ambassadors who would arrive from the other country; he would sponsor them and represent them in the circumstances of religious ceremonies and commercial intercourses. In exchange, he would benefit of honours and privileges, mostly symbolical, from the nation with which he would have signed the pact. Being a citizen of the State in which he served, and not of the State he represented, more than an official he was considered a benefactor.
The title of proxenos (pro-xenos: the one who receives the stranger) was lifelong and hereditary, as was the private relation between the xenoi we mentioned before.
As a “public host” -and surely because of his proved capacities of mediation- the proxenos was often called to arbitrate in conflicts between rival cities or parties.

3. Proxenia

From these brief notes, we can see how large the difference between asylum and hospitium is. If we intend to respect the meaning of these words in their use today, we should not speak indifferently of shelter and hospitality. Because, if the latter is a fact of alliances and expresses relations of power (the politics), the first is designed by forms of sovereignty which decide matters of life and death (the political).
There is a sort of asylia, though, whose borders overlap with the practice of hospitality: this is the privilege given to individuals rather than to places. The stranger who would have been declared asylos could consider himself safe from hostility or vexations, even in a state of war with the country to which he belonged. Ambassadors -for instance- were protected by the asylia, as were athletes going to Olympia and some categories of workers. We would like today’s refugees to be considered messengers -which they are- and to be sheltered because of this.
We would like, on the other end, to take a figure of hospitium and move it into the field of asylum. Why couldn’t it be a guarantor and representative of the State of the fugitives and supplicants? Why couldn’t it be somebody who -without being an official- would be implicitly recognised by both sides as a mediator?
In regard to the right of asylum the State is not an arbitrator but a party, precisely because refugees are foreigners. In some sense, it is not its task to welcome the stranger; this is the task of the citizens, either in association or as individuals. A more formal recognition of such figures of mediation and tutelage would not bring about any harm.

2000