Monday, December 21, 2009
We welcome the solstice today—the shortest light of the year; sun turning round, to come back and spin our days. My plants in New York visibly respond to the change and I eagerly await here in Roma. My room has had the light move from in front of the bed round 180 degrees above my head and beyond. After today it will begin the return trip. The Italian word for room—camera—makes immediate sense. Like the “shoebox cameras” we make for students—a pinhole at either the long end (telephoto) or short side (wide-angle)—the room functions as “a box for the sun”.
Yesterday was haunting— we visited Etruscan tombs, the tumuli (from which our word “tomb” comes). An hour out of the city, bordering on Tuscany, marvelous blue sky, chilly and we are walking in and out of large, sometimes 50/60 feet diameter hummocks. They are built of tufa, volcanic rock (like one’s bath pumice stone), carved with iron and bronze tools, carved smooth, 10-20 feet high, sometimes 40-50 feet down. One large one has 4 entrances; the interiors: carved arches, modeled beams, decorated beds with stone ‘pillows’ and stone legs. The attempt was to make a house, to carve an imitation of wood and arches. The pumice arches are cantilevered, a far cry from what will come but here—sere, huge, somehow traumatic. And all these hummocks so close, like a growth of mushrooms, outsize, alien and yet very very human. One is polychrome with fading red and black decoration, another a glass wall and inside as it was before being raided in antiquity. We spy helmets above every ‘bed/throne”, rope even, tools, vessels and decorated worlds. In the museum in nearby town we see pottery and perhaps most touching, a double statue of a man sitting up, legs outstretched, his body muscled, holding onto a woman, also sitting up, legs outstretched, tender, happy. The faces are not so finely modeled, but in one of the photographs of the statue, if not of the statue itself, there is molto expression. The town and tombs are in Cerveteri.
We leave and go to the sea—it is 2 or 3 miles away—you see it shining in the distance and we spontaneously dance on the beach, picking up shells---long used beach—not so beautiful as Sperlonga perhaps but the water in the distance such a good prophecy of happiness. When my Dad was alive every holiday we drove to the water; I always think of it as a return to origin—not to my dad perhaps, who was so absent in our lives (working 6 days a week/2 nights) but to the beginning of life. Here waves are slight—we are on the Thyrrenian sea—mild except in storms.
Then we (Giovanna and I) drive on up to Ceri a medieval ‘borgo’, a tiny village settled on a tufaceous spur of volcanic origin. You drive up and up alongside embattled walls to look down on this natural defensive spot— walls pouring dropping 100 feet steeply. It is a tiny square and we talk to a bed and breakfast owner who invites us to see his splendid garden looking out into the distance over the decline (somewhat…. a canyon moat) onto further hills topped with well tended grape vines, scaffolding for the grapes bare now, neat rows, golden, harvest— sea beyond. Built into his tufa, since the owner is originally an architect , is an apt for rent. Americans he says are coming for new year. Very romantic.
We have stopped for food at a country inn, where one family is celebrating a birthday and the owner is dark, covered in gold—miming the Etruscans who were here before her. We eat a fixe prix meal—too much meat for me, but tasty, local, fresh.
It is an emotional journey because the tombs haunt and because it is the first anniversary of Emma Bee Bernstein’s death. I have thought of her recently in many aspects. One of my interns whom I found courtesy of the Keats-Shelley museum is lovely, small, with curly dark hair and grayish eyes and is to take the Guggenheim museum job in Venice in April. She had heard of the “brilliant American artist” who preceded her. These conjunctions these hauntings. In Barcelona last March I saw an Emma at 12, young holding tight to her mother—the same open look, same dusting of freckles writing innocence across her face. Emma perhaps not so innocent? I remember Emma sometime round that age at Fetterman’s apt in the low French housing of NYU mews in an impossibly short bright pink skirt and I internally smiling at youth and my own memory of impossibly short dresses from the 60s. Nothing is lost. If we remember.
Skipping —last Tuesday I went with my architect-studying intern to Andrea Pozzo’s baroque room near the Chiesa de Jesu—a tromp l'oeil 60x20 feet rectangle with irregular end, which the filmmaker Jon Jost urged me to see. Yes the cgi guys in California need eat their hearts out. There is a stretched 2 foot face on the left side that pulls back into ‘reality’ (?) as you move away— amazing and the "capitals" range from a foot to two feet as they move from you. At dinner that night, two Fellows (one prior/one current) were brilliant about it (not having seen yet) asking if it were completed after Galileo [yes 1580; Galileo 1532 approx] and the resultant sense of de-prioritizing a single point of view. There is an eye/planet in the floor inlaid from which the room looks ‘normal’; when you leave the spot however, the room reveals itself as a series of distortions. the work so extreme, self-aware, comic, indulgent, a tour de force— that it is /must be underlining the irony/error of the single point of view that it espouses (officially). Lovely philosophical discussion here at our dinner table. Reasserting (as if it needs this?) that art has at its seed a kind of perceptive ethic/ science-philosophy-cum vision embodiment. At its best at best (at least?)
Thursday —the Christmas play for children of fellows and staff, and I had been asked to do two short videos: a preview of my film on Shelley with a new voiceover text: “in a world without love, one man stands alone: charming, seductive, ruthless…”etc. Read by the inimitable Jonathan C., it was very funny. But perhaps the hit was a short video playing with airplane safety instructions, combining an architect’s comic drawing of the inside of a plane with one of the Fellow’s dressed as stewardess. I had thunder so I shook the drawing as I filmed it, opening the fstop overexposing to make lightening and editing a couple of ‘takes’ together, adding nutcracker suite overture to begin and sugarplum dance throughout. Big hit!
Ahhh I got more positive feedback for this populist trick than for my fabulous art. We live in a world of philistines or just gonna have fun folk I guess. It was an endearing play in any case and Chiara—our Italian fellow is indeed a sparkle-plenty princess!. She was actually malelfo—the bad elf. She has lovely energy, big blue eyes, bleached blonde hair and a darling boyfriend a few inches taller than her. The kids loved the production complete with set design, media (yes), props and gifts at end (certo).
Saturday I went to a party with Giovanna, parties bookending my visit to the dead I guess---food for the soul? Saturday’s was to a Count’s house—filled with l6th century paintings (often bad) and chandeliers (fabulous over the top). Quite a beautiful space, redone with white walls—full of light—bad hor d'oeuvres, great desserts, wealthy Romans. Last night’s (Sunday’s) parties more art-centered: one with delicious food and another at the apt. of the assistant to the Maxxi (the fantastic new museum of XXI century art designed by the Iranian architect Zaha Hadid). Nice people at both places. Some good contacts---and an invite to another dinner party on the 27th.
Giovanna works for the state as an art guide, had attended my show here at the Academy and loved the work—‘got it”— knew right away it was contemporary art. She is writing about it for her master’s thesis—which hopefully will be published. We have bonded on energy and interests. She has two children, separated from her husband, three sisters, a mother, and great intelligence.
Tonight we help decorate the gingerbread house that the architects here have designed—have we become Santa’s workshop?! Thursday D. comes to celebrate Xmas and New Year’s with me. I so look forward to the energy and love and friendship he will bring. Wishing you all a blessed solstice and creative New Year!