American Academy in Rome
What remains when something is forgotten? The burial of a saint, the planning of a city, the moment captured within a photograph — each leaves traces. Bones, language, pixels. Untouchable relics. Structural artifacts that can be recombined and reused to conjure new meaning. In the tracing of a memory we change it and we’re released from the original image — we inscribe our own story. That’s what I’ve been investigating in Rome for six weeks and Memory palace is the result. It documents my work but it also stands separate from my process — it’s a container of artifacts for creating new images, for suggesting new stories. A meditative device, like a book of hours. It marks the end of my time in Rome but it’s very much a beginning. A presto!
My last week in the roman studio. This means that whatever it is I’m producing has to take shape soon. I know I resisted the urge to create more books when I first got here, and I went far off in other directions. That’s all good, because eventually I got back to where I need to be. I needed to make those things, which are really not my language, so I could return to the familiar and rediscover it.
So here’s my language — right now, this work is manifesting itself into a book. I want to finish it by Friday and look at it two ways — flattened out on the wall and as an object. I’m seeing the book as a container for memories (my past, Rome’s) — a non-space to store objects, associations and meaning. A memory palace to contain the artifacts: desire lines, relics and maps. It’s like a reliquary, housing both the remains of lost memory (clues to past experiences) as well as new material.
Recently I was trying to describe the feeling of disorientation I’ve experienced here in Rome, my struggle to feel fully connected to the past, present and future cities that exist simultaneously in this place. I’ve felt it profoundly and deeply throughout this trip and I think my work has been created out of this “feeling of derealization.” A friend here suggested that maybe I was trying too hard. I don’t think so; rather, I think it may be
“a disturbance of memory…which takes place in unconscious cities which suddenly displace the obtuse force of real cities. These two kinds of cities cannot be securely distinguished or neatly integrated, because each exists in relationship to the other. One’s experience of a city is, in other words, haunted by an unconscious counterpart: the (Rome) one has imagined, dreamed about, and planned to visit cannot be left at home. It comes along and constantly interferes with — and so organizes — the traveler’s experience. A distinct stratification separates unconscious expectations and associations, the scattered experiences of the city, and the memories that we will continue to revise for ourselves and others. Thus, when one visits (Rome) for the first time, disappointment or familiarity is inevitable, and even more severe feelings of déjà vu indicate a powerful confirmation of a long-held, unconscious idea. Such feelings could be compared to encountering a ghost — of oneself and of a city. In such moments of disorientation, one suddenly finds oneself on the streets of an unconscious city.”
Day 32. Three desire lines showing me three ways to explore the city. Each line of inquiry generates images, icons and relics. I’m using them to build a new language — linked associations that conjure meaning and feeling.
I see these images (Chain, Drain and Name) as plans (or maps) for a new memory palace. Reliquaries of meaning (“do this in memory of me”). I’ve placed icons and relics within each. It’s all pretty literal: resurrected photographs (12 million pixels down-sampled to 12 and then regenerated at 12,000) are a backdrop of impossible meaning for the placement of objects. The end images are a kind of acheiropoieta, a spontaneous appearance, ‘not handmade’ (anti-paintings). Trying to create a language here, a form-generating methodology I could use to build memory palaces anywhere.
All the hope and promise of producing something beautiful fuels me along and then collapses once I’ve made it. It’s exhausting and disappointing (I’m talking about creative process only here). Maybe it points to some kind of essential conflict — the impossibility of communicating pure experience and feeling.
I’ve had terrible difficulty locating myself in this place. A place that presents overwhelming evidence of meaning, value, history, relevance. Moments of connection (to the past, to other, unknowable times) are everywhere in Rome. There’s no escaping the past here. And yet I struggle to find myself — it’s the entanglement problem. What I’m left with are pictures documenting lines of inquiry. Nothing more, nothing less.
Do the images hold any value? They help me understand the structure of the place. Maybe they give me some control over my position, locating myself by tracing paths. I make sense of myself in the place by finding lines — structural guides that resonate and conjure meaning. I’ll call them desire lines.
- Tracing the neighborhood lines of 1744 (boundaries)
- Tracing the Tevere river, a geographical line (a cut)
- Tracing the St Peter story line (a story)
What do these desire lines have in common? Each one presents a tension — the crazy friction when time, geography and story rub up against each other. They don’t relate, except in how they’ve helped me understand Rome.
If I could say I’ve found anything in Rome as an artist/thinker/whatever, it’s these three concepts (entanglement, relic, anamnesis). S suggests I put everything into categories. So all morning I’ve been thinking about relic.
Ex indumentis (“from the clothing”) — second class relics of saints or blessed individuals. A cut-up piece of clothing worn by the saint. An intangible, supernatural idea that affects the object. Access to an uncanny, mysterious power (through faith only). Meaning is invested into a part, as a way to remember the origin. The essential story is carried within every piece.
For the faithful, the logic should carry through to anything meaningful, regardless of what it is. So, an idea:
Book as reliquary
Cut up one of my images into pieces. An image that has meaning for me, something that I struggle to explain (like the 3,000 x 4,000 pixel St. Peter’s image, above). Each piece becomes a new image, a relic that carries over the meaning of the original. How many pieces? Maybe the pixel is the smallest piece. So from that — create a 12 million-page book, each page filled with the color of a single pixel. Inspiration. Pixels as relics of an original view, a fragment of an unknowable moment. Solid color as the carrier of pure meaning. For the faithful, the book becomes a reliquary of meaning. A reliquary of lost meaning (the impossibility of accessing anything through a photograph — be it the saint, the basilica, the old man’s bones beneath the floor of the basilica, the importance of this place to Rome, to faith, etc.) and an explosion of new meaning (color, story and experiential documentation). I love this.
A study of the names and symbols of the original rioni (regions), the 14 ancient neighborhoods that form the core of Rome.
Some of the 220 marble plaques installed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1744 are still to be found at the borders between the 14 districts — one from each is documented. The names are still in use and meaningful (Trastevere, Monti, Ponte, etc.) — the symbols less so. Marking an edge, each name and picture and number draw invisible lines through the city and point us to a specific moment, a need to establish meaning and place, boundaries and local character.
I’m interested in the faded pictograms, mostly rubbed out of the old marble, disappearing into history against a different backdrop. The texture of the place barely holds the images anymore. Taken as a new collection they link us to unknown, irrelevant stories, speaking a kind of half-discovered language that sits in the street and cues us to a ghost city. A place that both exists and no longer exists. I considered re-drawing the symbols but the pure verbal language, in a 3-way translation (image to word, Italian to English, and then to typography), resonates against the modern city texture in a totally unexpected way. And it signals a fourth translation too: past to present. Some kind of poetry is floating in front of me here, new words and images like titles to a film that will never exist.
Because my set-up is less familiar now (less agency, more beaux-arts), I’m forced into pre-digital processes again, and I’m loving it. Lettering, tracing, sketching, painting, scribbling, gathering, taping, pinning. Reminds me of how I used to work ages ago and how glued to the computer screen I’ve become during the last 15 years.
But back to the computer: I’d like to work with a single typeface, something that comes out of this place, this project. If only to see how a word resonates with an image. I quickly tried a few faces (things I already have) and nothing was right, so I’m creating something. A typeface based on the “DIVIETO D’AFFISSIONE” letterforms in this gorgeous old plaque. These “posting ban” signs are all over Rome and most of them are vintage, so I’m guessing this is late 19th century or very early 20th?
Visiting artist Judith Geichman has been here for the last two weeks and I offered her a wall in my space for an informal open studio this afternoon, before she leaves Rome tomorrow morning. And after dinner several of us came back upstairs to continue the art party. The 28 scene-shapes she’s created on paper are like a gorgeous alphabet of roman colors and associations, and I was lucky to spend time with her (and her work).
If I could make a magazine right now it would be this one. Download PDF of #25 (including among many wonderful things @AmAcadRome fellow Fritz Haeg’s mid-life-crisis wiki-diary). And check out the artists’ lists, page 113.
Working in Rome is difficult. Two weeks in: I’m enjoying it immensely but it’s a kind of challenge that I barely get to experience back home. That’s a very good thing: it’s the reason I’m here. It’s about directing a path, and being open to how the path directs me. It requires a kind of “loose focus.” Does that make sense? It’s about understanding what’s not important, and remaining completely open within a limited zone of attention.
So I’m trying to listen to cues and clues that reveal themselves to me as I explore the city. One experience leads to another, and I’m reacting with thoughts, images and posts here. Artifacts. I guess these posts are becoming the work, really.
The geometry of the Pantheon (security of place) brought me to St Peter’s bones (impossibility of place), and then to his chains and Freud’s cinematic musings, and now I find myself staring at these. Symbols representing the 22 Rioni (regions) of Rome (14, under Augustus).
In 1744 “Count Bernardino Bernardini was given the task of regularizing the neighborhood borders by Pope Benedict XIV Lambertini.” (Good analysis here. The symbols are actually keyed into the borders of the Nolli plan.) Bernardini ordered 220 plaques placed along the borders or the districts. The locations of the marble plaques are documented in a plan produced by Nolli’s son, Carlo, right here in the Academy’s library, as well as the twelve folded leaves of plates that comprise the 1748 “Nuova typografia di Roma.” Thrilling to think that these historic artifacts are across the street, available to me 24/7.
Districts defined by borders, borders marked by names and symbols. Semiotic traces that inscribe deep into the history of this place: dragon, pine cone, moon, sword, lion, bridge, griffin, amphorae, angel, wheel, hill, column, etc. Time to go look for these plaques.
Study at San Pietro in Vincoli