“There are things we should hold on to but forget. And historical memories, things that society should remember, that get forgotten.”
— William Kentridge (2016)
Rome’s biggest contemporary art work was unveiled on April 21st 2016 with great festivities and will be visible for years to come on the walls of the Tiber riverfront. Launched by the local non-profit organization Tevereterno Onlus, for which I served as Director from late 2012 until late 2016, the work was an extraordinary team effort with a list of credits to rival Hollywood productions.
The medium, selective cleaning of the river walls, had been tested years earlier by artist Kristin Jones who coined the term Tevereterno and its adopted riverfront public space, Piazza Tevere. William Kentridge invented the “Triumphs and Laments” project, interested in iconography from Rome’s long and ongoing history, specifically images recognizable as victory or defeat, triumphs or laments. Under the direction of art historian Lila Yawn, professor at the nearby John Cabot University, a team was organized to collect images for Kentridge to draw from, and eventually a selection which he would draw in his studio. Two databases (one for triumphs and one for laments) were quickly merged into one when it became clear that every victory represented another’s defeat, for every triumphal celebration someone else was mourning their losses.
Kentridge is remarkably humble for an artist of his stature. He listened with childlike fascination to explanations of images, to stories from Rome’s history. He learned, he made connections, but as a visual artist, not a historian, he gravitated to the images themselves independent of the story they told. An emaciated horse from the base of Trajan’s column, the Renault 4 with its hatch swung open to reveal the body of Aldo Moro, the war-worn prisoners carrying their treasures from the Arch of Titus, all were chosen for the emotions evoked, not for the specific message conveyed.
From the moment the 500-meter long frieze was completed it began to decay back into nature. This is inherent in the ephemeral nature of the technique, and one of the reasons there was a sense of urgency to shine the spotlight on the work while it was fresh. Ironically the same authorities who had voiced opposition to the project early on, and who we had attempted to assuage with assurances that it was just a temporary work, now bemoaned the figure’s impermanence. Once they realized that Rome had its own William Kentridge piece, they wanted it to be eternal, but Kentridge refused any suggestions of conserving it artificially. Rome, we pointed out, has a long tradition of ephemeral phenomena, from triumphal processions to Baroque processions to the Estate Romana festivals under cultural commissioner Renato Nicolini.
The ephemeral actually leaves a more lasting impression on the viewer, Claudio Strinati pointed out, because the memories are left unadulterated by later transformations. “L’opera svanirà ma farà parte della storia e rimarrà nella coscienza della persone.” (Strinati, 2014) What is certain is that anyone present 21-22 April, 2016 at the performances of Triumphs and Laments on Piazza Tevere will remember the experience for the rest of their lives.
Feel free to contact me for presentations or further information on this great place-making project in which I was fortunate to take part.