‘OPUS & LIGHT’ is a project by Franco Troiani (STUDIO A’87) established in 1997 which uses the chapel of the Madonna del Pozzo, Spoleto, filled with unique fifteenth-century frescoes, as a museum and gallery (coined the smallest museum of Umbria). The project invites international and local artists, writers and curators to create and exhibit artistic interventions responding to this culturally rich space and location. In July 2021, Irish artists Joe and Pat Walker (who have been working together as Walker and Walker since 1989) were invited to be part of the project. Their exhibition Threshold, curated by Gertrude Gibbons, ran from 3-30 July 2021.
A RESPONSE TO WALKER AND WALKER'S THRESHOLD AT THE MADONNA DEL POZZO, SPOLETO, ITALY
The word 'threshold' indicates a place of entry; a starting point, or a point at which something begins to happen or change. At the glass door of Walker and Walker's installation Threshold at the Madonna del Pozzo in Spoleto, there is a white shape, curved on one side like a waxing crescent. Its curve appears to frame or point towards something within the chapel, inviting a passer-by to look through the transparent place of entry. This shape is like a word on the tip of the tongue: it seems familiar, recognisable, but you cannot quite reach it, and so it slides away. In fact, this shape is encountered on a daily basis in the written English language. It is the space between the letters 'o' and 'r'; it is the unnoticed centre of the word 'or'. The making of this invisible space into an independent object might recall the French poet Arthur Rimbaud's claim to have 'written silences', introducing the installation's poetic sensibility [i]. This sense of silence and invisibility is emphasised by the linguistic play on 'or' being translated as the singular vowel 'o' in Italian, which can be compared to the numerical 0. At this point of entry, the spectator is invited into the familiar made unfamiliar, brought forward, a silent centre space made visible and presented on the transparent glass. Passing through the door, the spectator enters the space between letters; the midpoint of the word of alternation 'or'. The use of 'or' indicates a duality or an offer of choice, perhaps differentiating the spaces on either side of this door; the quiet one within, and the bustling one outside. This bustle is because the chapel is located at the old gate of the city, bordering the road of the Via Flaminia, the significant ancient route between Rome and Rimini: the chapel is itself located at an edge, the threshold of Spoleto.
Inside the chapel, a hawthorn tree (Threshold) stands. Its dark green leaves cast rugged shadows across one corner of the chapel and, with hands out in offering, Saint Francis, patron saint of ecology, appears to step out from the wall to give the tree to the spectator. The hawthorn tree is a mysterious and mystical thing. Its stories appear endless, interwoven across culture and era, and its associations seem to push and pull on each other. It signifies both life and death: an emblem of beginnings, birth and spring, as well as bearing connotations of fear, danger and the underworld. The luminous white flowers of the hawthorn are also hermaphrodite, emphasising its nature as a symbol of united opposites. A thing of doubles and contradictions, of darkness and light, this tree is the symbol of a borderland, a gateway between worlds. In some traditions, these trees have been planted by holy wells (like that of this chapel) to protect them as part of healing rituals. Yet, with the fear of being dragged by fairies to the underworld, this tree is also avoided; to this day in Ireland, inhabitants will not touch or dig up a tree that gets in the way for fear of the consequences. Moreover, the flowers release the same chemical as rotting flesh, and are consequently connected to death and disease. These trees are markers; they declare a space significant. One story from Wales says that a trail of hawthorn petals left by the goddess Olwen while she inhabited an empty universe became the milky way. The tree therefore gave light, punctuating the dark cloaks of the night sky with its contrasting white.
To mark the opening of the installation in the Madonna del Pozzo, Walker and Walker sent a zero into space. This is a mysterious, intangible event where, via radio technology, a message is sent into Deep Space and its distance from Earth recorded. Indeed, this zero which initiated the exhibition (recorded in the work Void) is now an incomprehensibly extreme measurement from Earth, moving towards an unknown destination beyond the night sky. While the zero travels outwards, beginning on the ground or at the threshold, there is simultaneously a look inwards, an inspection of detail. A tiny pearl, central to the vast stone altar of the Madonna del Pozzo, sits in a transparent vitrine like a relic. The pearl echoes the fresco on the ceiling where a God-figure holds a peal-like globe, such that there is a mirroring between forms of the intangible; the search inside the tiny pearl reflecting the vastness of the planet, impossible to hold. It has been bored into, hollowed out, as though reaching for its centre, perhaps its most pure point within its already beautiful form. The title reveals the inevitable contradiction of the process of this search: ‘In an effort to uncover its origin and/or in the process compromising it’. This might recall the French theorist Maurice Blanchot's tale of 'Orpheus' Gaze' where Orpheus (epitome of the 'poet figure') makes the impossible journey to the underworld to recover Eurydice ("the furthest that art can reach") and bring her into the light of day [ii]. But as soon as Orpheus looks back at Eurydice at the moment she crosses the threshold between worlds (a metaphor for the shadowy idea coming into being via the poet's voice), she vanishes; as soon as the poet looks directly at her, holds her in his grasp, she disappears.
The double movement inwards and outwards perhaps resembles an idea frequently utilised in depictions of the Madonna, the figure to whom this chapel is dedicated. These depictions often have one eye which looks inwards to the soul, and another gazing outwards to the world, and the Madonna above the altar here looks inwards and to the ground. Another work here looking outwards (towards Space) is Echo, its title again evocative of mythology and an atmosphere of shadows, is a sound work giving something intangible a material form: it is a recording of the sound of the Big Bang created by John G. Cramer, formed by converting energy frequencies from a space telescope into audible sound. It is an ungraspable concept that it has been multiplied by 1026 so that we can hear it, and that this small recording represents sound over a stretch of hundreds of thousands of years. As with the other works in this installation, this plays with impossibility and the intangibility of reaching for an idea of origin. Finally, interrupting a sweeping gaze through the chapel's interior, and making a striking contrast with the black centre of the well, a pile of marble stones appear to glow from the ground. These are sculpted big toes which pay homage to George Bataille: they reference the distinction between man and ape, gesturing towards a search for the origin of man's consciousness. The artists quote a passage from Bataille that the toe represents man walking the ground rather than grasping branches and climbing trees. Man frees himself from clinging and instead walks upright on Earth. There is also a trace of reference in these toes to Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, where the marble big toe of the saint is given prominence as the thing closest to the spectator, at the level of their gaze, the rest of the sculpture is raised above our direct sight.
The works thread together connotations and stories, reflecting and responding with each other and the space. They work in the manner of a poetic language, where Blanchot writes of poetic language being the language of thought, and the poet's concern being for the pure idea: "[the language] whose very glory is to evoke, in its own absence, the absence of everything. This language of the unreal, this fictive language which delivers us to fiction, comes from silence and returns to silence" [iii]. Threshold works to suspend for an instant the moment between silences, to make manifest the impossible search for origin. The door, seen from reverse, from the inside, marks the spectator within the chapel in a mirrored space: they have stepped through the glass, through the mirror into the shadows. If they look back like Orpheus, perhaps it is they who will vanish, disappearing through the centre of this threshold space, this o.
NOTE AND CREDITS
Text Gertrude Gibbons
Images Cornelius and Gertrude Gibbons
Walker and Walker list of works in order of appearance in text:
BETWEEN O AND R, 2021
Vinyl on glass door
IN AN EFFORT TO UNCOVER ITS ORIGIN AND/OR IN THE PROCESS COMPROMISING IT, 2019
11mm pearl, vitrine
Audio CD. Sound: © 2013 by John G. Cramer, University of Washington
THE BIG TOE (AFTER GEORGES BATAILLE), 2021
Italian marble, dimensions variable
[i] Arthur Rimbaud, 'Délires II: Alchimie du Verbe', Une Saison en Enfers, 1873.
[ii] Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, translated by Ann Smock, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, p. 171.
[iii] ibid., p. 39.