a brave new world
A train ride from Munich to Bologna, three days after my birthday. The trip to Munich was to see Van Gogh’s sunflowers, that is four out five I have seen now. The last remaining one, in Philadelphia. Now off to Bologna to see Giorgio Morandi’s house. And then to Nonna’s cabin, up in the Appeninnes.
A family polemic means that my mood is dark when I go and see Morandi’s paintings and ceramics at the Museo d'Arte Moderna where they have been moved from his villa and studio, to protect them. I am impatient with and unmoved by his still lifes - vase after vase in monochrome browns - they seem to me, hanging discreetly and quietly on the walls - how I had hurried through the sculptures and installations to get to them - so dull, so safe and static - boring - as his life must have been, I suddenly cruelly think, stuck in that villa with his sisters (which we cannot visit, although we have come all this way just to see because it is not open on this day), and I am suddenly taken by the juxtaposition of his still art with the modern, bristling, installations which years, months, weeks, days ago, I would have mocked, finding them impenetrable, ridiculous - I still remember my first encounter with modern art at the Tate Gallery in London in the early 90’s - how can these stones, crushed cans scattered on the gallery floor, cow dung, possibly be art? - but now I am suddenly moved by them… struck, in particular, by a three-screen video installation, the somber soundtrack of one overlaying the absurd scenes of another.
I think I have been unwittingly tutoring myself. I have gone from immersion in the Dutch Golden Age of still lifes, to Van Gogh’s expressive sunflowers to… this new world.
At Nonna’s place I begin reading on sculpture, books I have brought from the markets in Geneva and the bookshop in the old town. Louise Nevelson and then Barbara Hepworth and the language of form and rhythm, light and shadows and space, calls out to me, stirs something deep in my consciousness, recognizes some yearning. I find myself underlining whole swathes of passages. I am beginning to see things in a new way.
And I think perhaps there might be something there for me. For I have run out of words. In another post I have written about the thousands of word I’ve written, deep in the archives, unseen, unpublished; I wrote too that the painter’s work is seen, there it is on the canvas for eyes to fall on, whether in a studio on an easel or on the floor, leaning against a wall or on a gallery wall - but for a writer those words must be bound in a book, published, bought, then read. I have been working to this point. The seeing of my words, through sculpture. What this means, I do not know, yet. In the height of the pandemic I longed to use my hands - to bake, to sew, to make - and is this where my hands may create, mold and fashion… and perhaps it is the weeks up there in the mountains with nature that suddenly I see sculpture, its possibility everywhere.
We drive down to Aquila, to the recently opened L'Aquila MAXXI in the newly renovated 16th century baroque Palazzo Ardinghelli in Piazza S. Maria Paganica. Aquila is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2009; our walk up to the palazzo led us through cobbled streets, brackets and scaffoldings holding back the appartmenti on either side, keeping them from collapsing, but here in this elegant building there is a sense of calm and beauty, the marbled spaces given to sculpture and installations that take me out of myself to the elsewhere.
Weeks later, I enroll at a sculpture course, using unconventional material… in collaboration with the instructor students will learn different ways to represent what they want to say… which appeals to me after my immersion in Nevelson’s world of found wooden pieces… But, I am fearful. What if…. I am not good at all. What if I don’t have that sensibility that can make the intangible into something… physical… But then, I remember Andy Warhols’s words. Let them decide what is good art or bad, just make it. I will brave this new land, this infinite universe… I have run out of words… but the words that I have made will become universes fashioned by my hands. Students must bring materials to the first class.
At Nonna’s place, we went down the path and found abandoned signs from a clearing in the forest - a building project ( a playground! a parking site! a barbecue site!) which, in the Italian way, had started and never been completed. The signs were full of Do Not Enter and Covid Protocols and they were wet with mud and they felt to me, lying there like pieces of sculpture, that they were pieces of sculpure, that you could lift them up and place them ‘in situ’ in a gallery, a museum - they seemed to me say something profound and as installation that profundity would be enhanced, the signs caught up in meshing on a gallery floor, or hanging against a pristine white wall. Art opens the heart.
On the Swiss Air flight to New York the air stewardess is lovely and she gives me a bag of the plastic wine bottles (in another life, her boyfriend was a writer, so she understands the lunacy of writers, artists) and she lets me take the plastic containers that had the desert and salads in…
I have no idea what/how I will use them them for… but something stirs in me when she leans over and gives me, in a plastic Swiss Air bag… all the empty wine bottles (red and white) she has collected from the passengers… could it be, is it… the beginning of something… just as yesterday while looking at Henry Moore’s statue opposite the Geneva Art Museum.
Fabio mentioned all the Fresh Direct bags we collected during the height of the pandemic in New York when we discovered the world of groceries delivered at your doorstep, contact less (bag after bag which you could not return because of the pandemic, the virus that might be lurking in there), and something in me leapt and soared, there is something in there, something, a tower of …. is this how Warhol felt when he saw those Campbell tins… there is something, something… something wonderful there.
A tower of Fresh Direct bags… neatly folded like how Fabio does, put in place with an elastic band… a tower of Fresh Direct bags… leading to…
I went to bed with this thought, sentence, in my head and variations of…
We ran out of body bags but we still had fresh food.
We ran out of body bags but we still baked bread.
We ran out of body bags but our orange juice still tasted good.
We ran out of body bags but we still clapped.
We ran out of PPE but we still used the plastic to make beautiful contact-less shopping bags (use bags to make PPE?)
The juxtaposition of fresh direct with the the deathness of COVID - the existence of these two truths in the the same time and space - the cruelty and poignancy of it, the absurdity, is the essence of the sculpture. You live. I die. That is that.
I think of COVID and isolation and quiet and death and the hospital, sirens and the Empire State flashing red like a siren…. I think of walks and masks and protocols and groceries which became like death and disease and washing washing washing…and JFK so desolate, footsteps sounding, shops closed… and death. Javits centre…vaccination card… life… perhaps… I think of my mermaid in Inside (unpublished) who has lost her tail and how she might find her way in this sculpture of towers of Fresh Direct bags, plastic bottles of Mythique airline wine…. or Nyadela in Dreamscapes of the Virgins (unpublished), my Spirit woman, causing death and destruction wherever she goes with a smile on her lips…I thought of death and…
What shall I make of this? What Art will arise?
A visit to MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and I am held in thrall at two sculptures of Louise Nevelon’s hanging from the ceiling. Ever since I chanced upon her biography I have been enchanted by her sculptures of found pieces of wood arranged with her artist’s sensibility - form-light-shadow-space-rhythm - to become the elsewhere, and when I finally see her work in real life, my heart sings, opens - for I am not seeing scraps of found objects that she has picked up in the streets of New York - or I am seeing them - but they are now transformed - no longer the sole thing - but this symphonic work of beauty and serenity - which slowly turns in space - a totemic pole.
And I know that with my fresh direct bags and other found objects I long to make something like this - something that will open the heart, the soul, that will be a thing of unexpected beauty and contemplation.
At the Vintage Thrift Shop my eyes alight on two fish… not real, live fish, but old tin moulds (jelly? cake? pudding'?) …and something about them, something something… my mermaid comes alive… and so I leave with them (five dollars each). Art is everywhere.
A tour of Louise Bourgeois’ stark house and studio on W20th street between 8th and 9th Avenue in Chelsea stirs up a mix of emotions. Here is where she worked, the room full of found objects she turned into sculptures, shelves of instruments, paints and thinners, works in progress, a sewing machine for her cloth sculptures, a printing press and other heavy machinery. The room is small and yet colossal at the same time. One can imagine her lugging in the dog cast she found in the street and working on it, adding two massive, drooping breasts on it, uncompleted, and I am full of the questions of what is art, how does it begin, manifest itself, and that separation between what is art and craft haunts me as I walk in the narrow spaces of her home - the guide remarks that you can tell which works she personally sewed because of her rough stitching, the rest she used a skilled seamstress whose stitching practically disappears. I am charmed by her salon, the room crammed with chairs and a sofa where every Sunday afternoon art students would drop by with a work of art to be critiqued by her, sometimes mercilessly so. On the walls in the adjourning brownstone which has been turned into a gallery space and archive center there are framed pages from her diaries which she began when she was a young girl (she was 98 when she died), and for many years she stopped working while she was undergoing psychoanalysis and her diaries are full of the analytic work she did on herself then - that was her art. Art comes from a deep fundamental need. It cannot be denied. I think of her famous ‘cell’ art works, and there is a moment when I gasp when I make a comment about a wire mesh sliding door and the guide says that her cells were made of the same material. In the cells she created artworks that provoke and are full of poetry, movement in their stillness. Standing outside in a small patch of green looking at her famous spider statue, one of the ‘Mamans’, I am agitated again. The statue is beautiful, immense and powerful, slightly threatening too, this spider couple cast in bronze. I am with a group and I long to be here alone, to breathe, to feel. This is the only place where pictures can be taken and as cell phones are raised and the guide jokes about a group photograph under the spider I retreat into the room, drawn back to the diary pages on the walls. Am I too shallow, superficial, to create a sculpture that is art? Does the fact that I ask this, answer enough? While waiting for the tour to begin someone asked me what my found material for the course was going to be. I started on about my Fresh Direct bags and then tried to explain about the pandemic and the juxtaposition between life and death they seemed to represent and then my voice trailed off because I sensed befuddlement from my interlocutor. What is your found object? I hurriedly asked, in turn. Oh, the flotsam and jetsam from my walks on the beach. This was, to me, the traditional, conventional, safe kind of found object, mainly pebbles and driftwood, as she said, and I felt both elated that I was working with something different, peculiar, and scared too, what if I walked into the class with my bag full of my found objects and was thought ridiculous, and why should that matter- a real artist wouldn’t care would they because self belief was everything. Do I have something to say, or not? And, there is this too: it is not the found object per se that counts, but what the artist does with it, what ‘aliveness’ the artist’s sensibility brings to the objects, and so my smugness about my originality was a flaw, perhaps a fatal one. The path, it seems to me, is fraught with danger and missteps. Leaving, I have this one thought, brace yourself. Courage!