For those with an interest in fashion history, springtime in New York City heralds the opening of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual summer Costume Institute exhibition. The Costume Institute show (this year’s is “Camp: Notes on Fashion”) and its glittery opening gala in early May inevitably attract a huge amount of press and public attention – so much that they threaten to overshadow other fashion exhibitions. But any museum visitor who wishes to understand more about how these exhibitions developed as a scholarly practice will be rewarded by a trip to the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT). MFIT – originally called the Design Laboratory and Galleries at FIT – opened in 1969. Since then, it has played host to over two hundred exhibitions, most organized by MFIT’s dedicated team of in-house curators. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the museum’s founding, earlier this year MFIT opened “Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT.” This show is a reminder of how fashion scholarship has developed over the past few decades, and the potential for even the most eye-catching garments to be pedagogical tools.
Réveillon Fédéral (1992): A building for a congress of speakers of multiple languages. It meets the ground plane on an upturned base, reminiscent of a ship’s bow and stern. The interplay of red glazed bays and white recessed spaces provide a kind of rhythm. All draw the eye to the top, where a paper half-tube with a marked grid suggesting a large glass arcade.
Aéromode (Aéroport Moderne) (1991): One of Kingelez’s infrastructural sculptures. Tuning fork-like ramps lead the eye towards a modernist tower wrapped in giant circles and half-circles. Colors and exaggerated, overscaled forms provide a noticeable sense of dynamism.
Kimbembele Ihunga (1994) (Detail): A handwritten inscription on paper identifies this sculpture as small village of Kimbembele-Ihunga, Kingelez’s birthplace. This is one of many instances where Kingelez’s visions are rooted in his own personal geographies.
Kimbembele Ihunga (1994) (Detail): A peek at Kingelez’s construction methods. Toothpaste and glue stick boxes provide this sculpture with form and polychromy.
Kimbembele Ihunga (1994) (Detail): Kingelez places “Stade Kingelez”, a stadium named after himself, inside his reimagined version of his birthplace.
Kimbebele Ihunga (1994) (Detail): The “Gare Meridion”, a transport hub with roof glazing arranged in geometric patterns.
All photographs by Enrique Ramirez, click to enlarge + read captions
By guest contributor Enrique Ramirez
There was a moment upon entering Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams, currently at MoMA until January 1, 2019, when I felt as if I had left something behind. It was momentary, as if a pulse of light blinded me and I needed a second to reorient, to re-adapt. The first thing I abandoned was any assumption about what an exhibition does or how it should be organized. There, by the entrance, was the wall text, predictably serviceable, telling me of Bodys Isek Kingelez, the Congolese artist, arriving on the art world scene in 1989 with his models, impeccably-designed constructions that oscillated between architecture and sculpture and bore the not-humble name “extrêmes maquettes” or “extreme models.” And below this text, something else: a link to a Spotify playlist. It was nothing like I had encountered before, for when I see people wandering through a museum with headphones, I assume that they are listening to the audio commentary to an exhibition, not music. My memory of the wall text description of the playlist may be fuzzy, but a quick glance at my phone reveals that it features West African pop music from the 60s onwards—a roster of musicians such as Les Bantous de la Capitale, Pepe Ndombe, Youlou Mabiala, and Papa Wembe—all comprising a sonic environment for Kingelez’s creativity. It is an apposite connection. One the one hand, the playlist strove for a kind of a kind of range matched only by the exhibition, the first ever comprehensive showing of Kingelez’s work. One the other hand, its breadth matched the works on display, also bursting with something like the upbeat polyrhythms, guitar acrobatics, and shimmering harmonies that characterize Afropop music. The models on display are not just an assortment of buildings and cities made of materials like cardboard food wrappers and bottle caps. If, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once quipped, “architecture is frozen music,” then these “extreme models” are not just physical embodiments of Afropop sounds and rhythms. Kingelez, who died of cancer in 2015, has instead left us with something that is uniquely his: a magpie geography born of a life marked by a singular, fertile, and generous imagination, one whose contours, conurbations, terrains, and buildings created a world that was at the same time universal and yet unmistakably personal.
I too would like to think that this is an essay about the universal and the personal. It is, ostensibly, an essay about Kingelez, about his show at MoMA, which you should see. Yet this essay is cloaked, maybe nestled momentarily, in the folds of another essay, one about things that you may give up or lose when entering a museum. It may veer between the two, sometimes at a moment’s notice, and as reader, you may experience a bit of disorientation. Did he just say that?Why is he talking about that now? As an incentive for you to keep on reading, I offer you this: it has a bittersweet ending. Now, about those things you may lose or give up. If it is winter, you may check in your coat, scarf, and gloves. If your bag is too big, you may have to check that in too, although you can probably get away by holding it close to your torso. A blockbuster show means that you will wait in line, and if you go to MoMA on a Friday afternoon, admission is free, so be prepared to wait in line then as well, which means that you will give up time. The crowds may be large, and this requires you to give up (or at least alter) your own idea of personal space. You may be looking at, say, a large Barnett Newman triptych and want to capture it with your phone. You back up so as to accommodate it within your phone’s limited picture frame and bump into someone behind you. Or, as is almost always the case, you wait for that moment when the space between you and the painting is empty. And as you tap on your phone’s screen to make sure that you are actually focusing on that Newman or that Bell-47D1 helicopter dangling precariously over the escalators, someone walks in front of you and becomes an unwilling study in what was supposed to be a quick but at least thoughtful document of your trip to this museum, on this day, at this very time. And sometimes you give up and surrender and let these people wander into your frame. You may even fancy yourself as some kind of cut-rate Thomas Struth documenting the life of a museum on that very day, that very time.
I did this last year. In one, I captured a young man and a woman shortly after an embrace in front of that very Barnett Newman. As soon as their embrace ended, the man took on a studied pose, arms crossed, one foot in front of the other, examining the painting. As for the woman, she retreated to her cell phone. And in my photograph, I just happened to frame her in the center panel of Newman’s triptych. In another, a man and woman hold each other as they peer through the large floor-height window into the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture garden. There is a thin strip of alloy that separates them from the window, so at least from my vantage point, they appear as if they are preventing each other from leaping into that void, into that garden. Later, when I was down in the sculpture garden, I spied two women and man sitting and laughing. They appeared to be comparing photographs taken on their phones. They were also speaking in French. In retrospect, I think these images did more than just capture people during unguarded moments. Perhaps they were a document of my own longing. It was an unseasonably hot September afternoon. I was far from home and wanting to unburden myself of the various bags I took with me from the airport. I gave up my carry-on at the coat check at the entrance on West 53rd street, but I think I gave up my heart as well. I may have been in love. It is hard to be objective about museums, after all.
It is also hard to be objective about Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams. I had to give up my own pretensions as an architectural historian and engage Kingelez on his own terms. This is not to say, however, that I was not finding some kind of lifeline in my academic training. Architectural history is teeming with examples of cities summoned as if from mid air, of audacious plans and bold schemes, surprising glimpses at futures never realized. “Somewhere I have never travelled,” wrote e.e. cummings, words that come close to that sense of slackjawed incredulity when encountering, say, the glinting peaks and faceted surfaces of Bruno Taut’s crystalline Alpine Architecture, the relentless field of cruciform towers obliterating Paris in Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and Ville Radieuse, the pastoral functionalism of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, or even the machine-like infrastructures and ziggurat terminals of Antonio Sant’Elia’s Citta Nuova. These schemes point to something that momentarily sets the realm of architectural history apart from other disciplines, for ours is a field that does enliven the power of the counterfactual as a tool for writing history; which is to say that we look to the unbuilt and fantastical as a way to gauge a particular designer’s engagement with the world.
Placing City Dreams in such company seems apposite, for Kingelez’s models of buildings and cities can be thought of a larger scheme, one where the artist envisioned a world coming to terms with itself after independence from European colonial powers. As whimsical as these buildings may seem, they are, to repeat that old saw from architectural modernism, functional. They “work.” In City Dreams we see schools, hospitals, stadiums, restaurants, airports, train stations—evidence of a world organized for the sake of a real, growing, and vibrant population. Yet these expressive forms will resonate with contemporary architectural audiences as well for the exact opposite reason, for they seem to refer to themselves and themselves only. Take a glance at projects coming out of well-heeled architectural programs and you too will see something similar. Building facades and site plans in high-saturated pastels; an emphasis on surface effects; a general aesthetic that privileges the hard edge of a cartoon or the communicative imprimatur of a supergraphic: this is architecture that appears to suspend everything in favor of a kind of ecstatic imageability. Now this seems appropriate for our current time, one where Instagram becomes the primary conduit for ideas about architecture. And in those instances where I try to be the dutiful architectural historian and critic, a set of instincts fall into a kind of reflexive lockstep and I find myself accessing Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Charles Jencks, and especially Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, names we associate with polemical statements about the image-ability of architecture, a symptom of a condition that we diagnose using the woefully inappropriate yet established term Postmodernism. Call it a surrender, one where architecture culture has finally admitted a complete yielding to an ecology of images. But has not this always been the case? Is it better to say that architecture culture has reached what the late philosopher Vilém Flusser observed as the “dominance of technical images” over text in our world?
U.N. (1995): A sculpture combining elements from a gridded, modernist skyscraper with one of scalloped half-circular forms prevalent in Kingelez’s work. A hybrid of the kind only Kingelez could conjure.
Place de la Ville (1993): Another glazed cylindrical form dominates this sculpture, which features miniaturized versions of the Zairean flag.
Dorothe (2007): A bold, dynamic building mounted on a ellipsoidal plinth. The glazing on the facade is momentarily disorienting, alluding to multiple perspectival points.
Nippon Tower (2005): Here, Kingelez’s use of transparent materials and fine linework gives this sculpture an architectural verisimilitude. As with his other projects, pieces of advertisements and images cut out from a Cata brand energy saving bulb box gives this sculpture its definite form.
Sports Internationaux (1997): Here, two glazed modules extend from a tower comprised out of aluminum soda and beer cans.
Ville Fantôme (1996) (Detail): At the edge of Kingelez’s international city is a building comprised of a glazed, circular tower flanked by two butterfly wing-like extrusions. To quote Vladimir Nabokov, “I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things…”
Thoughts of Afrofuturisms were inescapable as well. Mark Dery coined the term in 1993 to describe a body of “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and address African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and prosthetically enhanced future.” As with any field, scholars and authors have been mapping Afrofutrisms’s origins and effects from the past and into the future, creating a divergent body of literature that covers everything from slave narratives, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Sun-Ra’s Space Is The Place, as well as the N.K. Jemison’s environmentally-themed science fiction novels. More recently, novelist Deji Bryce Olukuton imagined a solar catastrophe decimating infrastructures in the developed world and leaving the Nigerian space program the only organization capable of rescuing a stranded cosmonaut. The spacecraft to be launched from Abuja first appears as a bronze sculpture, which Olukton describes as “festooned with black-painted ziggurats and Gelede masks peering into new realms of time, the cultural heritage of Nigeria forged into a colossal sculptural vision of the future.”
This all speaks of this inchoate idea called “utopia”, one that seems to be on the lips and fingers of many a critic who distill Kingelez’s work into a kind of coherent project. Even the exhibition’s title conjures it, this notion of a dream city, this alternative to the present. Is it possible, then, that we do this work a disservice by labeling it as a “utopia”? For what are we thinking of when we conjure alternative schemes in distant futures, of realms and environments that are supposed to provide a balm of sorts for what ails us? I think of the late Denis Johnson, who wrote in Jesus’ Son, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” Utopia is for people like us, a vessel for our thoughts and aspirations, and perhaps just that. It is a dead letter sent forward in time, never addressed, and never to be returned.
I wonder about other things left and given up at museums, never to be returned. I can come with lists of things I have forgotten at galleries and exhibitions: tote bags, headphones, my wallet, lunch. But there is something else, something fleeting that may gnaw at you the way it does at me. You realize that you left it when you recognize it as forgotten—which is a roundabout way of saying that you have actually remembered it. There are names and terms for this, yet these words fail to give it adequate contours and volumes. Something neither perceptible nor detectable persists and lingers about. Perhaps it is a feeling. Perhaps it is closer to synesthesia, the “colored hearing” Vladimir Nabokov once wrote about in Speak, Memory, when “the color sensations seem to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline.” Is this feeling one where your sense of space is mapped out in time? I can make it from one corner to the room in twelve heartbeats … Eight have passed, you may think to yourself. I do sometimes. I also think of Svetlana Boym, who described nostalgia as an operation that “charts space in time and time and space,” which sounds as if she was reading the craggy peaks and irregular valleys of an electroencephalogram chart with the eye of a person reading tea leaves—which is to say with an affinity for patterns and coincidences. And perhaps that is what happens when you enter a museum, for instead of patterns and coincidences, that itch you feel is not so much a longing as it is a recognition that you have found something you did not know was lost and is now being returned to you.
These are the things returned to me as I write, fragments of a visit to Kingelez’s work at MoMA: a wall text; a brief explanation of the artist and his work; episodes of a life spent in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and then Kinshasa; Kingelez the school teacher turning his life to scissors, blades, and glue; models of buildings and cities constructed of cardboard, soda and beer cans; turquoise, magenta, palettes for a technicolor fantasy; imaginary places with French names, Réveillon Fédéral, Étoile Rouge, Aeromode; Magiciens de la Terre, a 1989 show at the Centre Pompidou, the first ever to feature his work; of worlds as cities, worlds as infrastructure; papier maché oceans; a box of “Special”, a toothpaste brand from elsewhere; buildings shaped like gossamer-winged butterflies, an accordion’s bellows, a shoe polisher, a shark’s fin (or an upturned fang); the Ville fântome, a city where citizens move between different zones along a “bridge of death”; Stade Kingelez, a soccer stadium; fields of greenery with scalloped edges; a container of Smint and a box of Bic ballpoints; a silhouette of a country priest, shushing, an image I remember as a squadron insignia from one of the World Wars, now pasted on the facade of one of Kingelez’s models; a woman standing on her toes in the corner holding her phone in the air, trying to capture the contents of the exhibit in one take; an elderly man squatting at eye level with one of the models, as if trying to have a conversation with it; security guards checking their email; buildings named after countries; the United Nations building reimagined as a giant conch shell; chatter hanging in the air above; an agricultural village transformed into skyscrapers; a city in the 31st century comprised of real and imaginary buildings from the 20th and 21st; a line for a pair of VR goggles at the end of the exhibit; that Kingelez was born in 1948; that he studied economics; that he died of cancer in 2015. It continues …
… and it all begs an important question, perhaps the one central to this essay: what do we recognize as lost when we enter a museum, when we encounter an exhibition like City Dreams, when we find ourselves in the midst of something so different, so thrilling? One thing we lose is a sense of space and time. Not “our” sense, but “a” sense of space and time, and by this I mean the space and time of Kingelez and his work. Any attempt to express what was going on in Kingelez’s inner and outer worlds is just that—an attempt. My ability to locate his work in space and time is born of the habits and practices I learned while studying and writing about architectural history, and one of these is telepresence. I can write, for example, that while Kingelez viewed his works as evidence of his stature as a “small god”, that his vibrant designs showed an initial affection for Mobuto Sese Seko Kutu’s doctrine of authenticité. I can write that he named one of his earliest sculptures after the day that Mobutu became President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (soon to be renamed Zaire). I know these things as facts culled from what others before me have written. Texts are my modes of transport, my conveyances to a space and time that will be forever unknown to me. An exhibition, then, only amplifies a similar sense of spatial and temporal dislocation—an eternal removal, so to speak. The only difference is that the “extreme models” on display, dutiful arranged by teams of curators, conservators, and exhibition designers, are “messages from a lost past,” as T.J. Clark once put it. They are emissaries from a world we will never be able to access.
Ville de Sète 3009 is one of the very last objects you will encounter. Completed while in residence at the Musée International des Arts Modestes in Southern France in 2000, it was one of Kingelez’s last large-scale works. It shares many of the characteristics of his earlier “extreme models.” There is, for instance, the same color palette, the same vivid ultramarines and oversaturated carmines. The buildings here are versions of the ones he likely saw while in residence there. Yet something else is happening here, for these buildings, on another glance, begin to look familiar. One, for instance, repeats butterfly- and sail-like shapes from earlier works. Another is comprised of two cylinders, and when viewed in plan, looks like a figure eight. Like his other cities, Ville de Sète 3009 is also surrounded by a moat. Rooftops appear to be connected by aerial walkways. There is also a more decided emphasis on pure geometries. And if you take a closer look, some of the buildings begin to look familiar. One is an echo of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong. Another appears like a version of the Empire State Building, taller, narrower, conjured from transparent yellow plexiglas. There are even smaller, ziggurat-like structures that appear to reference Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin’s unbuilt Maison à gradins from 1914. These are signs that Kingelez is folding utopias into his own immediate world.
Ville de Sète 3009 (2000): One of Kingelez’s most ambitious sculptures representing an inventory of all the forms used in his prior works.
There are three ways to view this model. There nothing unusual about the first, for it is really the way everyone views larger-scale works or sculptures in a gallery. You approach one of Kingelez’s model and then you bend down to take a photograph, keeping yourself at eye-level. And when you stand up, you now see Ville de Sète 3009 from above, which means that yours is the bird’s-eye view, le regard surplombant, a vantage point affording you a glimpse at the world, a planner or an architect’s totalizing eye, the purview of modernity. The second is unusual because it requires you to look at the ceiling, something you almost would never do in one of MoMA’s galleries. Mounted directly above Ville de Sète 3009 is a large mirror that reflects the image of the city back at you. I imagine that this may be the point of view of an astronaut falling head first, coming down to Earth and peering up into Sète moments before splashing into the water, and like Bruegel’s Icarus, feet barely peering above the whitecaps. Or, is this peering at something on the ceiling a substitute for the artist’s point of view? And then there is the third, which requires you to wait in line for a pair of VR goggles and fly through a three-dimensional rendering of Ville de Sète 3009. In that virtual space, Sète becomes an image of an image of a city. Kingelez’s city has transformed from a cardboard city to a digitized realm rendered from protocols, software, grids, ones, zeroes, machine languages, and mouse clicks.
To fly in this version of Kingelez’s Sète is thrilling. I even felt a bit of momentary dislocation and an acute, yet fleeting, motion sickness that made me giddy. These were symptoms of my own recursion, flying in a digitized version of a city that existed in Kingelez’s world. And I thought of another recursion. Specifically, it was a passage from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, a description of a balloon flight over Cartagena de Indias. And though I have read that novel several times, I remember the passage because it was blockquoted in a review written by Thomas Pynchon in 1988. In that piece, which I still think is one of the most astounding pieces of writing one can read, Pynchon declares that Garcia Márquez did nothing short of creating art, and that art like Love in the Time of Cholera gives us something we only realize we wanted when faced with it. Pynchon uses a beautiful term for this: “works that can even return our worn souls to us.” And perhaps that is what happened on that October afternoon. I gave myself to Kingelez’s world, and my own worn soul was given back to me.
Enrique Ramirez is a Brooklyn-based writer, architectural historian, musician, and critic. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of the History of Art and Design at Pratt Institute. You can follow him on Instagram at @riqueramirez
As I walk through the rain toward the neon sign reading BOOKS, I am aching for some guidance—or what might otherwise be called “theory”—in the likeness of a known name. Having just left the David Wojnarowicz exhibit at the Whitney, I find myself unable to simply return home.
“I’m looking for Susan Sontag,” I tell the man at the bookstore.
“She’s in a graveyard somewhere,” he responds flatly. “She told me once this was her favorite bookstore.”
Affirming at once Sontag’s mortality and her fame, the bookseller answered a question I hadn’t asked in a tone I didn’t expect. It should have been obvious, I thought, that the work of the author existed, while the author herself had ceased to be.
But perhaps the bookseller had a point. I had gone in search of someone, a voice to guide me. And in truth she was nowhere—only words on a page.
Two nights later, alone in my New York apartment, sleep eludes me. I have been reading Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knivesin the dim light of street lamps through the window. I think perhaps something will be revealed to me this way, attuning myself to the artist’s hallucinatory rambles. He was meant to be a writer, after all, a secret they say was deeply buried in him for years.
I think of the friend who helped to bury him and then took a photograph—for posterity.
I think of everyone we have buried, most lacking the privilege of a wall text, of a frame.
I realize I have come in the wrong way of the exhibit, beginning at the end. It is no gentle transition into skeletons, this way, but death first: full-frontal. In the final gallery, the desperate attempt to say it all—to get it all out. One must work, ironically, to take it all in. And I do, walking slowly from one image to the next, deciphering. The final image, hung along the wall between the end and the beginning, is fittingly that of a child. His toothy grin and earnest features belying a framing of destruction.
Throughout, the black and white invectives deconstruct the framing. Not only the cause of his destruction (his naked body on the naked body of another boy) but the effect (He will be subject to loss).
There is word and there is flesh but not always where you would expect it. There is black and white, but then there is color and there is whiteness.
I pause to consider the falling buffalo, the burial ground, the reference to a “Native American boy”—scattered through the rest of the room as though part of the same history. I wonder about the ramifications of this reproduction, the taking of something already taken, believing this calculation ends in some kind of double negative. Not the negation of death, per se, but of its pre-invention.
I have my camera in hand, in the spirit of must-not-forgetting, but I find I cannot pull the trigger. Not on the skeletons. But also not on the face, the hands, the feet of Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s dead “brother,” “father,” “emotional link to this world.”
In the Donna Gottschalk exhibit, the next day, I think I will begin at the beginning for once. There is no double entrance this time, only the one. I follow the progression laid out for me—from young to old. I experience aging, this way, as a foregone conclusion. I follow the black and white portraits along the wall as though dragging my fingers along fenceposts, touching the faces of ones more familiar, less obscured.
A woman naked, in the eyes of her lover, stepping into a bathtub; naked bodies, sleeping, packed like sardines onto a mattress on the floor; the smiling portrait of two lovers on a journey to the coast; a woman’s face half-obscured by the face of her child.
And there is, I think, a not unnoticeable sense of relief. The Man has no place here, no crosshairs aimed. By halfway through I think maybe they have escaped him.
A lesbian is the rage of all women
condensed to the point of explosion. – W.I.W.
It is said that Wojnarowicz skipped town the day he found out he had made it. He left his apartment and headed West. I do not know the reasons, only that his journey felt familiar. The writing on the wall: Young man, disillusioned, goes West in search of Something. A rough translation of the actual wall text that reads: “his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explored American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence.”
In the other museum, in a room as small as one of his eleven galleries, the wall text speaks not of Gottschalk’s rightful place, but of her invisibility. Not of an iconoclast, but of a woman “protective of the lives and trust of those who had revealed themselves to her camera.”
There is the question of preservation. Whom to preserve, and how.
Halfway through his eleven rooms, I study the four elements, beginning with fire and ending with earth. There is the dream, and behind it the reality, and behind that the fear. Not of destruction, I realize, but of nothing. As I trace the red chord out of the baby’s head, through the window, into the hands of the soldier, I notice that something is missing. Not color, or the lack of it, but a sense of its creation. Amidst a succession of childhoods, I realize, there are no mothers, only Gods.
With Gottschalk, there is no shortage of mothers: dead center in a world without men. The story is cleaved in two—youth, age, but in between: an exuberant, collective becoming. Not only the “woman-identified-woman” but her children. And in the center of that center, the whiteness of her body—a Madonna of the lesbian agenda—eyes half-closed as though she hadn’t taken the time to see where she was going. A prophecy not of destruction, but of cleavage: of a movement cleaved by color, or the lack of it.
At the end (the beginning) of his art is darkness. A cage of black walls surrounding a papier-maché globe, a burning face. I am told that Wojnarowicz’s series of disembodied heads means something, politically speaking. The outsider. War. Corruption. Perhaps, I think, the blackness is meant to put the other colors in relief—the brightness, an endeavor to prove difference. To prove that he is not-one-of-them.
And it’s not that I don’t believe him or want to. It’s not a matter of believing, really, but of attunement. The hallucinatory rambles have led me somewhere, after all. Not the haunting I was expecting, given the ending of things. But a young man, poised on the brink of his life, playing with masks.
I was wrong about the ending, or lack of it. The assumption being that if the artist lived—survived the work, like Gottschalk—the aching could be for something else. Not guidance, but transmission—the continuation of the known into the unknown.
I was wrong to think that death belonged only to the dead, as I watched first Gottschalk’s friend Marlene, and then her sister Myla disappear in snapshots, becoming a “Xerox” of their former selves, as Wojnarowicz would say of himself in the dying years. Her brother, her sister, her “emotional link to this world”—ravaged, all the same.
At the beginning of the beginning (the end of the end) is not darkness, not light, but illumination. The past by the present. A role reversal in line with all the others.
I have come out, into the light, and they are not who I thought they were. He, the “angel of history,” she, the “brave beautiful outlaw”—both of them catapulted into fame, into tragedy. Neither of them, dead or alive, able to escape the gaze of the present on their past.
I think, perhaps, it was not the repetition of history that kept the artist awake at night.
“Brave, Beautiful Outlaws” is open at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art until March 17th, 2019. There will be a special opening reception featuring the artist on September 29th.
Hannah Leffingwell is a doctoral candidate at New York University. Her research interrogates the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class in contemporary French feminism. More of her work can be found on publicseminar.org.
In the foreground: Christian Lacroix. Wedding ensemble, autumn/winter 2009-2010 haute couture. In the background: Thierry Mugler, evening dress, autumn/winter 1984-85. Photo: Cynthia Houng
By Contributing Writer Sarah Pickman
In his seminal work Fashion & Anti-Fashion: Exploring Adornment and Dress from an Anthropological Perspective, anthropologist Ted Polhemus delineates two broad styles of dress: fashion, characterized by constant – if often cyclical – change, and anti-fashion, characterized by deference to tradition and the status quo. For Polhemus, one of the quintessential kinds of anti-fashion is the garb worn by the members of particular religious sects or clergy: their garments, instantly recognizable and changing minimally over time, “state not only that ‘we’ exist, but they also express symbolically what kind of group it is that ‘we’ are.” It is perhaps not surprising then that the exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, would tackle the intersections of fashion and anti-fashion through the use of religious garments and symbols as inspiration for secular, fashionable clothing. The exhibition – which is staged across both the Museum’s main building and The Cloisters, the Met’s satellite branch devoted to the art of Medieval Europe – probes the relationship between Catholic images, symbolism, and narratives and the work of a select group of fashion designers, many of whom were raised in the Roman Catholic faith. Unlike many previous Costume Institute exhibitions, “Heavenly Bodies” situates designer garments amongst objects from the Museum’s permanent collections, inviting comparisons between the religious imagery that suffuses European Medieval art and the twentieth- and twenty-first century garments that call on this tradition.
Haute couture dresses installed in the Met Fifth Avenue’s Medieval Galleries. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The central part of the exhibition is staged in the Museum’s Medieval galleries, where the work of designers such as John Galliano, Dolce & Gabbana, A. F. Vandevorst and others is interspersed amongst the permanent displays of tapestries, triptychs, and architectural embellishments from churches. While each ensemble is show-stopping in its own way, the connections between some of the garments and Catholicism seem a bit speculative; the curatorial labels relying more on an implied equation between Catholicism and opulence. (A flowing silk red Valentino gown, viewers learn from a label, “implies” the cappa magna robe worn by cardinals and bishops, but it might just as easily be, well, a flowing red silk gown.) The exhibition is more successful when it groups ensembles together to make clear the designers’ inspiration, as well invite comparison between how different designers interpret the same source of inspiration. This includes a row of feminine black garments that evoke the habits of Dominican nuns, and a second row of outfits inspired by the characteristic black cassock worn by male members of the Catholic clergy.
Designs inspired by clerical clothing worn by priests and other male members of the Catholic clergy. Photo: Cynthia Houng
The curatorial choice to stage this part of “Heavenly Bodies” in the permanent galleries – interspersing the designer garments with already-installed Medieval artwork – is ambitious, but it hits a few logistical snags. The Costume Institute’s special exhibitions are always popular, and the galleries feel visually crowded with so much of the open space now taken up with the fashion ensembles (and physically crowded when the extra visitors pour in). Certain components of the exhibition seem lost amidst all of the things on display. For example, several of the labels reference the satirical “ecclesiastical fashion show” scene in Federico Fellini’s 1972 film Roma, but the television monitor that shows this scene is tucked in an easily overlooked corner.
New temporary labels on some of the Medieval artworks discuss how Catholic vestments have changed or remained continuous over time, referencing depictions of the clergy in these works from the Middle Ages and their connections to the designer fashions nearby. However, as a historian and non-Catholic I wanted a more central text panel or panels with an overview of how some characteristic Catholic vestments arrived at their modern forms, becoming so standardized that they could serve as inspiration for couturiers. However, this historical context is discussed in greater detail in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue. (More historical context would have also been helpful for emphasizing that the exhibition focuses on the Roman Catholic tradition, especially since some of the designer garments are displayed in adjacent galleries devoted to Byzantine art and Eastern Orthodox religious objects.) Two of the most breathtaking outfits in this section of the exhibit do evoke a sense of movement over time, even though they were never intended for human wear: stunning ensembles designed by Yves Saint-Laurent and Ricardo Tisci for statues of the Madonna in churches in France and Italy, respectively. Saint-Laurent and Tisci’s gowns and headdresses are recent iterations of the longstanding tradition of dressing statues of Mary in luxurious clothes, modern couture additions to a centuries-old Catholic practice.
In the foreground: Riccardo Tisci, the Poor Benedettine Cassinesi Nuns of Lecce Statuary Vestment for the Madonna Delle Grazie, 2015 (original design, 1950). In the background: Yves Saint Laurent, statuary vestment for the Virgin of El Rocío, c. 1985. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Detail of the Virgin of El Rocío’s headdress. Photo: Cynthia Houng
Some of the exhibition’s greatest highlights are not in these galleries on the Museum’s main floor, but downstairs in the Anna Wintour Costume Center galleries, where “Heavenly Bodies” continues. Here, visitors have the chance to see vestments and accessories on loan from the Sistine Chapel sacristy in Rome, some of which have never been on display outside of the Vatican. An introductory panel for these galleries makes explicit some of the exhibition’s overall themes. A quotation from Andrew Greeley’s The Catholic Imagination instructs us that Catholics live in an “enchanted world” of beautiful objects, each one a revelation of and reminder of the divine, while the words of noted Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar tell the viewer that Catholics “first perceive the mystery of God through beauty, not truth.” Such a sense of beauty and majesty is evoked in these galleries by a parade of dazzling ecclesiastical garments, most dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each exquisitely embroidered and most embellished with gold and silver thread. One particularly beautiful cope (a long clerical cloak, open in the front and secured with a brooch) features Biblical scenes embroidered in such an extraordinarily lifelike way that another visitor asked me if the images had been painted on the ground textile. One side room is filled with a series of clerical accessories, including miters, scepters, and brooches, each covered in a stunning array of precious gemstones that sparkle in the low light of the gallery.
Installation view, Anna Wintour Costume Center galleries. Photograph courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dalmatic (front) of Pius IX (r. 1846–78), 1845–61. Italian. Courtesy of the Collection of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Tiara of Pius IX (r. 1846–78), 1854. German and Spanish. Courtesy of the Collection of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, Papal Sacristy, Vatican City. Digital composite scan by Katerina Jebb. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The labels in this section of the exhibition indicate that almost all of the loan pieces were originally gifts to the Vatican from various clerical orders or European monarchs. As someone not raised in the Catholic tradition, I was awed by the beauty and opulence of these objects. Seeing them up in person and up close, even behind glass, I understood how they evoked the splendor of God and his creation, and the glory that might await the believer in the afterlife. I also felt I understood how five centuries ago, such lavish gifts would have helped convince Martin Luther and other reformers of the Church’s decadence and its need for reform.
While many visitors may not want to make the extra trip to northern Manhattan to The Cloisters to see the third segment of “Heavenly Bodies,” the effort is well worth it. Here, the exhibition returns to designer fashion, staged again amidst a permanent collection of Medieval European artwork and architecture. At The Cloisters, the galleries are arranged thematically around particular artistic periods or architectural components, and the garments are likewise grouped to be in dialogue with each other and with each room, an approach I’d wished had been more prevalent in the Metropolitan’s main building. For example, the Fuentidueña Chapel, a transported Spanish Romanesque church apse, holds a series of dresses that evoke clothing worn for particular sacraments such as marriage and first communion. Nearby, the reinstalled Pontaut Chapter House, originally a daily meeting place for Aquitanian Benedictine monks, hosts a row of dresses designed by Valentino, Geoffrey Beene and Claire McCardell that in color and construction evoke the habits of certain monastic orders. Because of its location, The Cloisters is almost always less crowded than the main Metropolitan Museum building, allowing visitors the chance to view this section of “Heavenly Bodies” and its successful thematic groupings in a more unhurried manner.
Installation view of an ensemble by Cristóbal Balenciaga for House of Balenciaga, wedding ensemble, 1967. Installed in the Fuentidueña Chapel, The Cloisters. Photograph courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and clothing has many intriguing facets to explore: the evolution of ecclesiastical dress as part of a Catholic visual lexicon, the transgressions of erotic designer couture inspired by sacred symbols, the tension between clerical vows of poverty and opulent garb that evokes God’s beauty and majesty. If any museum has the collection, space, and financial resources (not to mention the clout to negotiate loans with the Vatican) to pull off an exhibit on this topic, it’s the Metropolitan Museum. And yet the subject itself is so vast and rich it’s difficult to probe all of these questions and provide deep historical context in a completely satisfying way, especially within the logistical limits of label panels and floor space. The involvement of the Church also likely hushed opportunities for critique: as another reviewer noted, many of the vestments are the result of hundreds of thousands of hours of handwork by nuns, whose exhaustive and essential labor for the Church in this capacity goes unquestioned. Overall, though, “Heavenly Bodies” is an ambitious and beautiful exhibit that speaks to the intriguing tensions between the fashion of elite modern designers and the anti-fashion of a millennia-old faith tradition.
“Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” is on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fifth Avenue building and The Cloisters through October 8.
Sarah Pickman is a Ph.D. student in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her research centers on American and British exploration, anthropology, and natural history museums in the long nineteenth century, with a focus on the material culture of expeditions, particularly in the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctica. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center of Bard College.
In Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is nearly unavoidable. Walk down the center of the Piazza S. Pietro and look up. All along the great curving wings of the Piazza’s colonnades stand Bernini’s saints–carved and executed by other sculptors, but envisioned by Bernini. There he is in Piazza Navona, with the Fontana dei Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Those are his angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo. That playful little elephant bearing an obelisk in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva? That belongs to him, too. Only by leaving the historic city center can one escape him. Much like Michelangelo, another sculptor turned architect and impresario, Bernini transformed himself from a maker of precious objects to a maestro whose vision re-shaped the city. If Bernini is synonymous with the Baroque, it is due to his success working on this grand scale, shaping and molding the fabric of Rome to suit the dreams and needs of the Church and its princes.
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In the fall of 2017, a monographic exhibition on Bernini opened at the Galleria Borghese, curated by Anna Coliva (also director of the Borghese) and Andrea Bacchi (director of the Fondazione Federico Zeri in Bologna). By the curators’ own admission, there has been no shortage of Bernini-related exhibitions in the past decade. So why mount another one? Their rationale is deceptively simple: “We have attempted for the first time to cover Bernini’s whole career,” with the exception, of course, of those site-specific works (fountains, altars, the baldachin in St. Peter’s) that cannot be moved. What this means, in reality, is that the curators have collected an extraordinary range of freestanding works by Bernini and his workshop. The exhibition also includes Bernini’s paintings (seldom exhibited en masse), sculptures by Bernini’s father, Pietro, and preparatory works for monumental commissions like the Four Rivers Fountain.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, Galleria Borghese. All photographs by Cynthia Houng
So much has been written on Bernini in recent years that it seems impossible to propose anything new. But the experience of encountering Bernini’s work is always new. Each encounter is a dance, a performance that requires the beholder’s participation. There are no passive audiences here. Bernini’s orchestration of the pilgrim’s approach to St. Peter’s exemplifies the performative, relational nature of his work. As a series of impressions leading the pilgrim out of the quotidian world and into another world altogether, the work is, to use the language of another time, site specific and performative, requiring activation by a participant in order to be complete. The power of the encounter, and the effect of the performance on the participant-beholder–Bernini’s partner, really, in the work–is ecstatic. In Rudolf Wittkower’s evocative description, the performance of approaching St. Peter’s cathedral via the Piazza transports the viewer “beyond the narrow limits of his own existence and be entranced with the causality of an enchanted world.” In St. Peter’s, “the beholder finds himself in a world which he shares with saints and angels, and he is therefore submitted to an extraordinarily powerful experience. A mystery has been given visual shape, and its comprehension rests on an act of emotional participation rather than one of rational interpretation.”
“The challenge that Bernini set himself in his religious architecture,” Fabio Barry argued, “was always to create visions whose credibility depended upon them being experientially fleeting but permanent in the mind. God had created a heaven, but because its unveiling at the end of time was eternally distant yet perpetually imminent, Bernini must create a heaven just for us.” And who wouldn’t want to experience heaven again and again, each time anew? And so both scholars and laypersons find themselves drawn back to Bernini, each return an attempt to parse their own experiences of Bernini’s art.
The Borghese show makes full use of the relational, performative aspects of Bernini’s work. It is an object-oriented show in the fullest sense, all of its arguments and propositions originate in the objects gathered for the exhibition, in the relationships formed between them, and in the possibilities of close observation and comparison. It invites the visitor to participate in a hermeneutics of looking.
The show is both ambitious and ravishing. It makes full use of the Villa Borghese’s fabulous setting, occupying both the ground floor galleries (where Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne has resided since its creation), and the smaller, more intimate rooms on the second floor. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition, “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay,” was a marvel, but the show was installed in the antiseptic Lehman wing. The Met did not have the benefit of the Borghese’s setting, with its sumptuous ornamentation and rich installations of Old Master paintings and Classical sculptures. Though the Borghese was largely redone in the eighteenth century (by the architect Antonio Asprucci, under the patronage of Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV), it had always served as a site for the display of art. These eighteenth-century renovations codified the building’s role as a site for the display of art. In her study of Asprucci’s renovation of the Galleria Borghese, Carole Paul noted that “Asprucci coordinated the decoration of each room to form a sumptuous ensemble unified in form and content, including the statuary.” Asprucci took everything–from the marble floors to the carved cornices–into consideration, creating new juxtapositions between the paintings, sculptures, and their environments. He also shifted Bernini’s statues, David (1623) and Apollo and Daphne (1622-25), from their original seventeenth-century locations. Today, neither sculpture can be viewed as Bernini intended. Though one can no longer see Bernini’s sculptures in their seventeenth-century settings, the richness and intensity of the Borghese’s environment is closer to how these works were meant to be seen than the clean, white galleries of the modern museum. More importantly, the placement of Bernini’s sculptures in the Borghese maintains their connection to the painting of his time, a connection that is particularly important to the argument of the Borghese’s “Bernini” show, which dedicated an entire section to Bernini’s own practice of painting.
Due to its constraints, “Bernini” is more heavily weighted towards the artist’s production for private patrons. However, Bernini’s greatest patron was the Church. As Wittkower noted in his 1955 study of Bernini (the first English-language study of Bernini intended for a broad audience): “it was Bernini’s tremendous achievement in the area of the Vatican that secured his reputation as the first artist of Europe.”
Appropriately, for our secular age, the major patrons of the Bernini exhibition at Villa Borghese were a bank and a fashion house–Intesa Sanpaolo and Fendi. And this is no accident. If, in Bernini’s time, the Church was the greatest orchestrator of spectacle, then commerce must be the Church’s contemporary analogue. We have grown comfortable with the imbrication of aesthetics and capital. We have even come to expect it. When I saw that Fendi sponsored the Borghese’s Bernini show, my first reaction was, “Of course.” Fendi has been funding various cultural initiatives around Rome, where the house has its headquarters, as part of the house’s mandate to invest in the city’s cultural capital. (Fendi also sponsored the restoration of the Trevi Fountain.) My second reaction was to note the exceptionally spectacular quality of the exhibition’s presentation–the display cases, the lighting, the installations, the quality of the fixtures–which matched the quality and finish of those intended for luxury boutiques.
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Installation View, Sculptures by Gian Lorenzo and Pietro Bernini, Galleria Borghese
The Borghese’s “Bernini” exhibition presents a narrative weighted towards the earlier stages of Bernini’s long career. This emphasis was dictated, in part, by the show’s constraints: it could rely only on freestanding, movable works to make its arguments, and much of Bernini’s later output can be characterized as site-specific installation work, literally inseparable from its architectural setting. (The Cornaro Chapel is not going anywhere.) Walking through the show, visitors witness how Bernini became Bernini. The show presents some of his earliest works–including collaborations with his father, Pietro as well as early independent works. Pietro Bernini’s sculptures are also part of the Borghese presentation, and through the younger Bernini’s sculptures we witness Gian Lorenzo’s talent unfurling.
Model for the Four Rivers Fountain, Galleria Borghese
Installation view of bozzetti and modelli, Galleria Borghese
More interesting–and startling–is the development of Bernini’s aesthetic, the emergence of a strong and powerful stylistic vision, though again the show references Bernini’s mature works largely through proxies–through sketches and models for large-scale projects such as the Four Rivers Fountain, Cathedra Petri, and Ponte Sant’Angelo. And for almost all of Bernini’s works–even the bozzetti and modelli–there is always the question of authorship, of hands and facture. (The Met show addressed this problem of the “hands” in remarkable, technical detail.) The Borghese show is less interested in these questions. The curators take it as givens that Bernini operated a large workshop, and that he often outsourced work to other sculptors. As Bacchi and Colivo note in the introductory essay, the show aimed for “a direct dialogue with the works,” and many of the objects are on display together for the first time. The two monumental crucifixes have never been gathered in the same space before.
The show also invites viewers to consider different facets of Bernini’s practice in relation to each other. At the Borghese, visitors can view Bernini’s early putti in relation to his classically-inspired sculpture, The Goat Amalthea (an early work dated before 1615, probably made when Bernini was about 16), in relation to his restoration of ancient Roman sculptures–such as his restoration work on the famous Hermaphrodite sculpture, and to the angels and putti that he imagined for the Ponte Sant’Angelo and the Baldachin and Cathedra Petri projects in St. Peter’s cathedral.
A room full of bozzetti, Galleria Borghese
Installation View, Portrait busts and paintings, Galleria Borghese
The portrait busts and paintings, displayed together in one long gallery, form an interesting dialogue. Bernini is not often thought of as a painter. The paintings gathered for this exhibition will probably not elevate him to the pantheon of great painters, but they are very interesting as windows into his creative practice. They also provide us with clues to his relationship with the painting of his time. And the Borghese, with its impressive collection of Old Master paintings–though several of the Borghese’s most important Caravaggio paintings were on loan to the Getty during this show–provided an apt location to think about Bernini’s style and aesthetic in relation to the painting of his time.
Tightly focused on Bernini, this show was both an investigation and a celebration. It is a testament to Bernini’s magnetism as a subject that the wider world seems to pull in and collapse around him. The Roman Baroque narrows down to the Age of Bernini. The show is both spectacular and ravishing, and it reminds us of how far we can go–how much we can do–with an intense focus on the works themselves. It is their world that we wish to enter. And once there, we linger in pleasure.
At the same time, the Borghese show does not present the full breadth of Bernini, the man, or Bernini, the artist. It is a highly specific vision, one that presents him as a great genius, on par with the other “giants” of Italian sculpture named by the show’s curators in their introduction: Donatello, Michelangelo, Canova. Bernini had another side, one not revealed in this show. As Alexander Nagel once pointed out, “Just about everyone who knew him hated him.” He was domineering, violent, and ruthless. He slashed his mistress’s face in anger. One didn’t have to have to know Bernini to loathe him. In his biography of Bernini, Franco Mormando quotes anonymous pasquinades directed at Bernini, critiques affixed by unhappy Romans to the statue of Pasquino in the Piazza di Parione. The expensive transformation of the Piazza Navona by the Pamphilj family–which included the construction of Bernini’s spectacular Four Rivers Fountain (completed in 1651)–elicited such pasquinades as “Dic ut lapides isti panes fiant [Turn these stones into bread]!” Ordinary Romans, tired of poverty and hunger, railed against the Church’s immense expenditures on projects that did not benefit the populace.
Mormando quotes an impressive kaleidoscope of criticisms, describing Bernini as selfish and avaricious, and accusing him of robbing the papal treasury to enrich himself. Mormando cites an avviso from August 30, 1670, blasting Bernini as “the one who instigates popes into useless expenditures in these calamitous times.” By this time, Bernini was a wealthy man. (Pietro da Cortona was one of his few contemporaries who achieved comparable levels of wealth, and Cortona was, by all measures, also not a very nice man.) The construction of the Piazza San Pietro, with its colonnades and statues, cost 1 million scudi, roughly half of the Church’s yearly revenue. For Bernini’s critics, whether or not ordinary Romans enjoyed the aesthetic experiences of encountering the Four Rivers Fountain or progressing through the Piazza San Pietro was beside the point. Aesthetic pleasure provided no relief from poverty: “We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want!”
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In 2017, Fendi initiated a three-year partnership with the Galleria Borghese, providing support for the establishment of a Caravaggio Research Institute. This description of the partnership between Fendi and the Borghese comes from the press release for the “Caravaggio” exhibition at the Getty Museum: “The partnership between the Galleria Borghese and FENDI is part of a patronage begun by the luxury goods House in 2015, and is based on the company’s belief that beauty must be shared and spread, and that the incomparable richness of the Galleria Borghese, a reflection of the Eternal City, is a powerful, cosmopolitan pathway to promote a refined cultural sensitivity, both contemporary and universal, in the same way that FENDI pursues in its collections a true example of aesthetic research and the absolute sign of ‘Made in Italy.’”
In our time, commerce has replaced the church as art’s great patron. Private sponsorship of public patrimony raises difficult questions–of appropriation, commodification, profit, and control. It pulls the public patrimony into a process where values inherent in the cultural ‘patrimony’ or ‘heritage’–sometimes called ‘heritage values’–are captured, accumulated, and commodified by private entities. The process is widespread enough to merit its own neologism,“heritagization.” And it is almost always twinned with commodification. Salvatore Settis has written and lectured extensively–and passionately–on this subject, arguing that the transformation of cities rich in cultural heritage–such as Venice and Rome–is almost always accompanied by ossification and decline, as the city ceases to be a city for the living and transforms into a museum city, a set piece for the delectation and consumption of tourists. And yet the profits from the heritagization process flow, not to the public, but to the private entities who sponsored–capitalized, really–the process. As Pablo Alonso Gonzalez noted in his study of the heritagization process in Maragateria, Spain, the process can alienate the community from its heritage or patrimony, eliciting resistance and even fury from community members.
The relationship of the past to the present is always tricky, but perhaps exceptionally so in a place like Italy, where the past is all pervasive, where there is so much value to be extracted from the past (via industries like tourism), and where the past weighs heavily upon the present. History can feel, at times, like a straitjacket upon the present, as the city ossifies into an open-air museum. There is the Rome for the past–but where is the Rome for the living?
Fendi is not the only Italian luxury house to invest in Italy’s cultural heritage, in order to capture and accumulate “heritage values.” Tod’s sponsored the restoration of the Colosseum. Bulgari chose to restore the Spanish Steps. Telecom Italia (also known as TIM) is sponsoring the “re-launch” (the verb employed in the press release announcing the project) of the Augustus Mausoleum through its Fondazione TIM. But investment in Italian cultural heritage is not limited to Italian entities. In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, the minister of culture, Dario Franceschini, said, “Our doors are wide open for all the philanthropists and donors who want to tie their name to an Italian monument. We have a long list, as our heritage offers endless options, from small countryside churches to the Colosseum. Just pick.”
Sponsorship isn’t the only mode of privatization. In a 2007 article, Roland Benedikter noted that a set of laws, introduced in 2002, allowed the Italian government to sell objects and monuments “to international investment firms and private investors for amounts that many Italian experts consider well below the median market price.” Benedikter noted that, since 2002, the privatization of Italian cultural heritage has been “the subject of heated public debate [for it] concerns the limits of privatisation, and could lead to a broad new anti‐capitalism movement.” Settis, too, frames his argument in terms of opposition not only to commodification but also to neoliberalism.
One might argue that Bernini would have understood this process–that, perhaps, he would have encouraged and embraced it. After all, only a hair’s breadth separates the tourist from the pilgrim, and Rome made a mint off pilgrims. (Rome continues to make a mint off pilgrims. The 2000 Jubilee drew 35 million visitors to Rome.) But one might also argue that we live in different times, with different ethics and ideals–and the society we wish to live in looks nothing like the one Bernini knew.
Our wishes, though, are not always consonant with our realities. Neoliberalism, globalization, and capitalism have all incited resistance and fury from the people of Rome. I am no expert on the intricacies of Roman or Italian politics, but it would not be an exaggeration to say, given the recent elections, that Italy is in a difficult place. And– Bernini would also have been familiar with this–the fury of the people is neither predictable nor easily channeled. We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want.
Or perhaps more pointedly: We don’t want to live among the patrimony of the past. Nor do we want to alienate our heritage to enrich certain select private coffers (does this sound familiar, again?). We want to be able to create a patrimony that we can call our own.
Bernini was on view at the Galleria Borghese in Rome from Nov. 1, 2017 – Feb. 4, 2018. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue (available in Italian or English).
The music on this podcast was recorded by Paul Bowles in Morocco in the late 1950s.
Today, we remember Bowles as the author of The Sheltering Sky, but he was also a composer with an interest in ethnomusicology. That interest, coupled with his belief that Moroccan musical traditions were threatened by post-Independence modernization efforts, led Bowles to propose, in 1957, that the Library of Congress sponsor a project to record Moroccan music in all of its breadth. The project was, in Bowles’s words, “a fight against time.” In 1959, with the support of the Library of Congress and a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles criss-crossed Morocco, setting up recording sessions in towns all over the country. He would make three more trips between 1959 and 1961. Bowles had no formal training in ethnomusicology, and his choices were guided by the contingencies of geography and travel–and by his own aesthetics.
In that sense, Bowles shares something with early modern travel writers and cartographers. They made forms of knowledge that bear some resemblance to modern-day academic disciplines, but belong, properly, to their own times. Bowles once told an interviewer, “I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”