Journeying to the East (or West); to (or from) the past.
– Published on the occasion of the exhibition at Museum Archeological National Napoli. MANN, Italy (20 October 2013 – 6 January 2014)
– Text by Tony Godfrey
Journeying to the East (or West); to (or from) the past.
Why is Filippo Sciascia so interested in the classical past? Why make an exhibition on or with it? In my days as an English schoolboy the classical past was the most boring age imaginable: ancient Greece and Rome were seen through the boredom of Latin lessons, we pupils plodded through Virgil’s Aenead at a snail’s pace and then slowly marched through Gaul with Julius Caesar killing large numbers of barbarians as we went. Alternatively those times were seen through “toga” films about political power and warfare: Spartacus or Cleopatra. They portrayed a cold, official and formal world. Much better than these dour visions was that seen through comic parody – a favourite comedy series of my late childhood was the very camp Up Pompeii. Romans were, it was assumed, boring and best shown lampooned by outrageously effete slave. The roman centurion in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who wearily corrects Brian’s graffiti “Romans go home” epitomises how we saw the Romans – pedantic, tedious and wordy,
This distaste for Rome transferred to the sculptures of the antique – we saw them as dull – as things not worth thinking off. Fortunately they were the things the generation before me had finally managed to evict from the art school – there would be no more copying of the antique for us! The casts had disappeared form the art school (and later so did the life room).
But within my own lifetime the classical past has changed, indeed it has come back to life as something much more varied and strange. Perhaps most crucial has been the fascination with Nietzsche and his notion of another type of classical past, the Dionysian. A culture that was ecstatic not formal and boring, where there was more dancing than marching and where strange ideas and beliefs circulated: Mithraism, Petronius, the pre-socratic thinkers.
Perhaps not so paradoxically, when Sciascia first talked in Naples of making a circle of sculptures in the Archaeological Museum my first thought was not of classical art but of the sculptural work I grew up with in the West of England, Stonehenge – the very epitome of the barbaric. Vast stones arranged in concentric circles. Perhaps it is the most potent and the last remaining Sacred Glade – glades being supposed the forerunners of temple – and churches.
In the eighteenth century English milords would place classical sculptures in circles or semi-circles inside fake temples or outside in their elegant gardens (see Stowe and Stourhead for example). For them these were statements about grace, harmony and order – the Apollonian, in other words. Nothing could be further from what Sciascia has attempted. He has taken photographs of heads from classical sculptures and arranged them on plinths in a circle. However, firstly the circle will work differently here, and secondly he has both done strange things with them – in particular amalgamating them with other objects and images. They have, in effect, been re-sampled, much as a creative DJ will remake music from the past.
One’s first instinct on seeing these works is probably to try and recognise who these people all are, but though Sciascia began with choosing very specific people (Seneca etc.) this soon became unimportant to him. These works suggest at some deeper more arcane knowledge than any specific philosopher. The surprising unspecificity of the portraits is revealing: this is a world in some sort of creative flux.
A circle is of course often a symbol, of coherence or perfection, but it is also the course taken by many dances. Indeed, especially by those dances characterised by a tendency to disruption or excess. In England children dance in a circle to the chant of “ring a ring of roses…” but at the end they all fall down. Sufis and other dance in circles, attempting to whirl themselves into another state of consciousness or being.
The faces that surmount each plinth are each of them an individual, but each is also part of a crowd. (Crowds have been a persistent theme in Sciascia’s work.) They act simultaneously as actors and actresses, and as an audience for the eyes of us viewers. Or, you may say, they act as actors or actresses seeking to catch our eye, but once caught they become an audience and it is we who are actor or actress. Or dancers, for in this context it is important to also mention that these works require one to use one’s whole body to see and move around the sculptures, examine the faces and the strange things that have been done to them – the addition of seahorses, bells, night-skies, etc. If the circle of plinths is like a round dance frozen in time, each viewer must be like a solo dancer weaving in and out of the line.
The circle is both a dance through the museum and a disruption of it. As in many of his other works Sciascia is seeking ways to re-privilege the viewer. Consider the other images he has brought to the feast: trees, leaves, seahorses, bells, scales, rope, the moon, lightening, small black and white photographs of people, Javanese drums. These are all elements with rich associations but often ambiguous symbolic meanings: seahorses were seen as emblematic of Neptune and hence of strength to the Greeks and Romans but have more recently been seen as symbolic of faithfulness as they were supposed (inaccurately) to be monogamous. Jasper Johns has used them it has been suggested because unusually it the males who carry the eggs and nurture the young. In short, there are many possible meanings to this and the other images. As Sciascia insists these works are made intuitively, and should be experienced similarly.
One could also imagine this circle of faces and motifs and forms as a symposium. The symposium, one could argue, is a form of drama. Reading the Socratic dialogues is not unlike listening to drama. Speakers act to an audience, use rhetoric, interact with other speakers. But the academic symposium often dis-privileges a viewer: if they are there they are normally bound to silence or are merely allowed to take minutes. Greek Drama, with its on-stage chorus that comments periodically on the play’s narrative is closer to reality – it is an art of comment and affirmation that we have lost. In the past the crowd was, in effect, an actor too – now the viewers sit passively in the cinema, or else, wholly denuded of “crowdfulness” sit isolated and separate in a million sitting rooms or at their computer screens. Sciascia’s work is about a more active engagement.
If there is a model here it is Raphael’s The School of Athens in the Vatican – though perhaps filtered through Cy Twombly’s much more gestural, messy, subversive version. That version and Sciascia’s are much more, we may surmise, Dionysian. Where Raphael placed Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Heraclitus etc. descending the stairs or lounging on them, Twombly animates an equivalent space with blobs, smears, scribbles and crossings out. Sciascia presents an intellectual carnival.
In his symposium as presented here it is not just people that gather but objects that have passed through time, accruing often a patina of wear tear and smaller objects. It is a symposium of the imagination.
There is also a strange echo of such painted Homages as Fantin-Latour’s to Delacroix and Manet, or Maurice Denis’ to Cezanne. They are more curious paintings than a homage should be for they present not just a “homage” to a man but also a manifesto for a new revolutionary type of art. Fantin-Latour also, we should remember, made bizarre and not wholly successful painting of scenes from Wagner – they were an attempt at going beyond painting;s normal range, of creating works that were synaesthetic like Wagner’s operas – appealing to all senses at once. The desire to create an equivalent complexity or richness of effect has led Sciascia beyond painting to installation.
As an installation this work, which is best understood as either a dance or a symposium, exists primarily in space. But it also exists in time. We all as intelligent people brought up in culture live both in the past and the present – that past may be that of childhood or history, a time re-imagined. The past is always with us. Sciascia invites us through his installation to re-enter the classical past as more active participants.
It also exists in space in a different way. For it speaks not just of the Greco-Roman world, but of Bali. Many of us today live in two places: Filippo between Bali and Italy (and even then between the very different cultures of Sicily and Milan); myself between England and South East Asia – but even within South East Asia I am move between the very different worlds of Jogjakarta, the bohemian centre of Indonesia, hyper modern Singapore and Manila, over-crowded capital of the most catholic country in the world.
Bali is far more than a holiday island with good beaches, surf and nighclubs. Tourism can be sophisticated or vulgar. At its most vulgar and offensive it forms a fit subject for Ashley Bickerton’s contempt and spleen. Not just artists but intelligent or sympathetic tourists, from Italy, South America, Java etc, come to Bali seeking something either wilder or more profound. What do they seek? Bali is where things collide. (And these tourists and artists of course themselves change what they enter to see.) Bali is not static but always moving on – it is the ceremonies, customs not the objects that matter – and the landscape. In some ways Balinese culture is signal in its adaptability, in others how it has preserved a strange syncretic mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism.
Importantly it is where nature and culture come together and merge. Bali is represented in this work both by natural materials and objects with a ceremonial or cultural purpose: bells, sea horses, tree-trunks, incense, leaves, paintings, small stone temples or shrines. Indicatively, he has not cleaned these shrines but left all the vegetation that grew on them intact. Nature and culture are separate categories but they constantly interact.
Having taught in an international college for many years I am aware of that new growing nation of people, born of parents of different races, brought up and educated in another place altogether, highly intelligent, informed, at home in all places, fluent in more than one language. They are like Sciascia’s own son, part Italian, part Javanese, brought up in Bali to speak Italian, Bahasa Indonesian and the lingua franca of today English.
Paradoxically, I feel I have become more English, more aware of what that means as I merge in with a Filipino background. Like James Joyce and his understanding of the Ireland he had exiled himself from my memories and Sciascia’s of Western art are very intense. Bali gives him and I not exoticism but distance. We are in a state of “in betweeness.”
Effectively he is in self-chosen exile, though an exile that is increasingly relieved by returning trips to Italy. In a way, just as James Joyce went to Italy (Trieste) to think more clearly about Ireland and writing in English, Sciascia has gone ten thousand kilometres to Bali to look back more clearly at Italy, European painting and culture. Paradoxically, or not, he is both very European and Asian. Bali and Indonesia and more generally South East Asia are not just other places: they are other cultures, ones seeking to establish themselves in relation both to the dominance of western or global culture and to their own multifarious artistic pasts. Filippo Sciascia belongs in this complex, unfolding discourse too.
It is an apparent paradox: by becoming part of Asia he has become more European – or more self aware of being European – or an intrinsic part of European culture. It is a unique quality of his work that his understanding of these traditions is in no way historicist or archaic, but rather rooted in contemporary technologies and a very contemporary consciousness.
© Tony Godfrey 2013
 My brother and I played on it as children. Now of course it is fenced off for security and visitors can only walk round it, never getting closer then twenty metres.