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Friday, April 29, 2016

William Kentridge's "Triumphs and Laments": A Spell-Binding, Ephemeral Work on Rome's Tevere River

One of the two processions along the Tevere in front of Kentridge's wall drawings, with enormous projections of iconic Rome figures of history - and of triumph and lamentation - against those drawings.  The "puppeteers" were colorfully dressed and highlighted as well, giving a sense of the making of the performance (see close-up below).
A must stop on anyone's visit to Rome from now (April 2016) until about 4 years from now must be William Kentridge's artwork on the right bank (Trastevere side) of the Tevere between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini.  What can we say besides just don't miss it?  Head down to the river level at one of the stairways and walk the 500 meters slowly, drinking in the great work South African artist Kentridge created on these massive river bank walls.

If there is a repeat of the performance that opened the artwork on Rome's 2,769th birthday, April 21, 2016, don't miss that either.  The music and "projections" were spell-binding.

The theme of "triumphs" and "laments" is presented by Kentridge in his main mode:  the drawing of people and animals in black and white.  We were fortunate to see a few of Kentridge's videos, in this same style, in the path-breaking 2015 video exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo). Here in Rome, the marrying of Kentridge's style with the subject matter of 2700 year-old Rome and the blackened 57-foot high walls of the Tevere (Tiber River) are quite frankly a thing of beauty.

Rome's lupa or she-wolf... here, instead of the infant twins Romulus
and Remus, Kentridge presents amphorae, or water jugs.
Kentridge draws on themes familiar to Romans - from the lupa (she-wolf) who suckled Rome's founders, Remus and Romulus - to the deaths of Rome martyrs such as Giordano Bruno (the "heretic" monk, burned at the stake by the Church in 1600), Aldo Moro (moderate politician murdered in 1978 by radical leftists) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (filmmaker and artist killed mysteriously in 1975 in the Rome seaside town of Ostia). He also uses iconic Italian objects like the Vespa, the moka coffee pot, the Necchi sewing machine, and the bicycle (from DeSica's neorealist film, The Bicycle Thief).  He also brings the successes and tragedies to the present, with references to the migrants landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa.  Persecution and migration is a strong theme in this set of drawings.
Kentridge's interpretation of La Dolce Vita.
Marcello Mastroanni and Anita Ekberg
are in a bathtub, under a shower, in place of the
Trevi Fountain.  Kentridge also makes heavy use
of carts and wheels (as here), perhaps signifying
travel through time.

 A 10-Euro booklet provides a guide to the 1/3-mile wall of art, as well as explains the techniques for making these enormous figures.  If that isn't available, hopefully some of this explanation will be online. Even without it, the work is tremendously powerful.

The iconic Vespa is at the center of this procession.
As we watched one of the opening performances on the left bank, looking across at Kentridge's drawings, we were captivated by the music of triumph and lamentation and the enormous puppetry or projections. The large shadows moving across the great walls, with the colorfully dressed puppet masters (if we can call them that) also visible, was mesmerizing.
Giordano Bruno, represented by Kentridge
through his statue in Campo de' Fiori

The music for these opening performances, composed by Philip Miller, used a variety of music types, from liturgical songs of the late Renaissance to West African slave songs, to ancient Southern Italian songs.  Frankly, the 4 of us (we and 2 of our good Roman friends) could not truly "understand" the music, and I'm not sure we were supposed to, but we did pick out the religious music, the African music, and the Italian folk music - we knew there was a confluence of musical types.  The sounds of triumph and lamentation were superimposed on each other.  It's an experience one was immersed in, rather than must or should have comprehended in its entirety at the time.

Hopefully the music too will be available in some form in the future.  Meanwhile, we will leave you with a link to our video of 30 seconds of the April 22 performance.

The making of the wall art, if we can use such simple words to describe it, is fascinating as well. We were in Rome in 2005 when Kristin Jones first presented her "lupa" - actually several "lupe" on the walls of the Tevere in this spot. She created them by erasing the background to produce the white, leaving the dirty walls to provide the figures themselves.  This same technique was used by Kentridge, who was inspired by, coached by, and encouraged by Jones, who is billed as the Artistic Director of the project.  We also need to give a shout-out to "Tevereterno", the non-profit organization that presented this as well as Jones's work in 2005, and has been working hard and long to reclaim the Tevere, under the direction of architect Tom Rankin.

Because the work depends on the erasure of dirt from the walls, the walls will in time become dirty again, and the black figures will appear to fade into the darkening walls.  That's the reason we suggest you might have only about 4 years from now to see this magnificent, ephemeral, work.

Joggers using the Tevere's bike and walking path, with Kentridge's
art as a backdrop.
Will "Trimphs and Laments" be received as great art?  We have yet to hear from establishment art critics in that regard. We do know the crowd on April 22 was wildly enthusiastic, cheering, whistling, and clapping for the performers and the art.


Some of the hundreds of observers of the April 22, 2016 performance, from the left bank of the Tevere.

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