Naples. The art of men dying on view at Madre

The exhibition “Pompei@Madre” pairs Pompeii’s archaeological finds with modern and contemporary artworks and creates a surprising dialogue on the passage of time and the transience of life.

“Pompei@Madre. Materia Archeologica”. Daniel Buren and finds from a Pompeian domusa. Foto Amedeo Benestante

A seemingly undecipherable feeling accompanies visitors amidst the works and objects on view at “Pompei@Madre” (an exhibition dedicated to the dialogue between archaeological finds from Pompeii and modern and contemporary artworks).

The choices and pairings this exhibition proposes makes visitors constantly shift between what Freud calls the “uncanny” – a thing that terrorises us but at the same time has something unexplainably familiar to it – and the sublime, intended as that romantic perception of the infinite immensity of nature. In paraphrasing Wilhelm Jensen in the Gradiva and as visitors continue along the itinerary, it’s as if there’s a feeling that death begins to speak, “though in a way unintelligible to the human ear”.

Francesco Clemente and a selection of furnishings and objects of the ancient domus
Top: Daniel Buren and archaeological finds of a Pompeian domus. Above: Francesco Clemente and a selection of furnishings and objects of the ancient domus

Divided into two sections, the exhibition pairs, on the one hand, Pompeii’s “archaeological matter” (which is also a subtitle of the section, open until March) with works that in some way are similar, while, on the other hand, it creates a direct relationship with the works found in the permanent collection of the Madre (instead, this second section, subtitled “Materia Archeologica: The Collections”, will be on view until September).

The third floor opens with a room hosting the enigmatic, yet evocative, work by Adrian Villar Rojas, Rinascimento, composed of fragments and remains of organic and non-organic material, surrounded by work tools, baskets and a photo relief of Pompeii from 1944. Here begins that uncanny feeling still hidden under the heavy layers of what psychoanalysis would perhaps call repression.

A little further ahead, facing the intense work by Roman Ondák in which the artist adds himself to views of the erupting Vesuvius – his back to the audience as he observes the scene – we catch sight of the sublime that will appear again in the pre-Romantic painting by Pierre-Jacques, Volaire, but also in Vesuvius peep show in the dense room dedicated to the work of Mark Dion. In this tangle of thoughts, perhaps not all conscious, an important part is played by our relationship with time, the time that stood still at the eruption in 79 AD that destroyed Pompeii, as well as past time, which has left traces on the objects that remain. Both take shape in the finds and the ruins.

A work by Goshka Macuga. Courtesy Fondazione Donnaregina per le arti contemporanee, Napoli
A work by Goshka Macuga. Courtesy Fondazione Donnaregina per le arti contemporanee, Napoli

The moment of destruction is frozen here before our eyes through the display cases containing the remains of the life buried at Pompeii, like the pomegranates and shells from the archaeological site. Instead, the passage of time is evoked by the ruins. There are also views by Jakob Wilhelm Hüber, photos taken at Pompeii by Nan Goldin and Mimmo Jodice, but also fragments of original domuses and sketches by Le Corbusier of Pompeii’s houses. Among the finds there are real ones, like the ceramic jars, incense burners or frescoes. Then there are others simulated by the contemporary works, which in some way are perhaps the remains of today, like the vases/portraits by Goshka Macuga or the fossilized office by Jimmie Durham.

As Marc Augé wrote, “contemplating ruins is not the same as taking a journey into history, but rather experiencing time, pure time. Ruins exist through the gaze resting upon them. But among their multiple pasts and their lost functionality, what we can perceive of them is a sort of time outside of the history to which the individual contemplating them is sensitive, as if it helps him to understand the duration that flows within himself.” A time that does not end and which may transform matter, for example, allowing seeds – planted in the project-garden by Maria Thereza Alves – to sprout.

In the foreground, the work by Maria Thereza Alves. Courtesy Fondazione Donnaregina per le arti contemporanee, Napoli
In the foreground, the work by Maria Thereza Alves. Courtesy Fondazione Donnaregina per le arti contemporanee, Napoli

In itself, the passage of time also implies coming to terms with the transience of life, as we are reminded of by Roberto Cuoghi and his decaying animals. Regarding humans, Freud once wrote: “Now as in the past our subconscious refuses to grasp the idea of its own mortality”. So the fact of finding ourselves faced with a shelf full of human bones found at Pompeii during a dig in the 1800s means having to acknowledge reality without an intermediary. It is at this point in the exhibition that the uncanny comes out into the open, since it can no longer hide itself. From here onwards, we will recognize it every time it peers through. It will do so arrogantly, for example, in the room that hosts the site-specific work by Mimmo Paladino – the plaster cast (made according to a technique fine-tuned by the archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli right at Pompeii) of a father holding his child in their final moments before being buried by the eruption.

In the foreground, air-conditioned showcase with taxonomy of organic materials from Pompeii, on the wall the work by Goshka Macuga and plants part of the project by Maria Thereza Alves
In the foreground, air-conditioned showcase with taxonomy of organic materials from Pompeii, on the wall the work by Goshka Macuga and plants part of the project by Maria Thereza Alves

This unsettling feeling reaches its climax in the room where some anthropomorphic memorial stones from Pompeii weave an intimate and stunning rapport with the permanent installation by Rebecca Horn, where round mirrors slowly move in front of cast iron skulls and light bulbs on walls, thus creating reflections of great emotional impact emphasised by the sound of a voice that evokes, in this specific context, a quasi-spiritual melody. Enraptured by this hypnotic display, we might realise that even the human ear is able to get the message.

Exhibition title:
Pompei@Madre. Materia Archeologica
Opening dates:
19 November 2017 – 30 April 2018
Curators:
Massimo Osanna, Andrea Viliani
Venue:
Madre. museo d’arte contemporanea Donnaregina
Address:
via Settembrini 79, Naples

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