Saturday, January 31, 2015

Fear of the Fragment

Recently the Metropolitan Museum unveiled the newly restored 15th century sculpture of  Adam by Tullio Lombardo.  It has taken 12 years of research and conservation since that afternoon in 2002 when the plywood base beneath the marble sculpture buckled and Adam toppled onto the floor sending hundreds of pieces careening in all directions.  Almost immediately the decision was made to restore the sculpture as closely as possible to its pre-impact appearance.  After the major and innumerable minor fragments were re-assembled, pinned and glued, there were still areas where the marble had been pulverized upon impact.  These gaps were filled with an acrylic based bulking materials.  The sculpture was then cleaned of excess acrylic and centuries of grime. He was a wonder to behold, but also left me wondering.  Are we seeing a major shift in he goals of restoration?

Up until the renaissance people didnt seem concerned about the past except in passing.  With the humanist shift to the here and now from the previous focus on the after-life, the past became an object of inquiry.  Trade in antiquities boomed as collectors competed for new finds gouged from the earth. Disappointment with fragments was remedied through artful "restoration".  These often fanciful reconstructions would frequently knit together disparate pieces to form a new, more pleasing completed piece.  Many noted sculptors, including Bernini, would be enlisted to carve the missing pieces.  Forward a few centuries later and the architect and engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 - 1778) developed a different view.  He celebrated  the fragment as an embodiment of the past, whose reconstruction will always only be conjecture.  This notion was rapidly adopted by the Romantics a generation later with Friedrich Schlegel who postulated that the fragment was a gateway to the sublime.  We in the west have maintained that position...until now.  When the temple of Abu Simbel was rescued from the rising waters behind the Aswan Dam in 1968 and moved to higher ground, the seams from where the massive stone monument was cut could have been concealed when it was reassembled.  But they were not.  When Da Vinci's Last Supper was restored from 1978-1999 everything was removed that was not considered to be by the hand of Da Vinci, leaving only ghostly traces for contemporary viewers.

But has digital reconstruction imagery popularized by the History Channel shifted the way we want to see the past?  Has enhanced reality become more potent than the real?  Does the restoration of Tullio Lombardo's Adam and the ongoing reconstruction of the Parthenon, complete with filling of chipped sections of the column drums and lintels, re-carved missing sections all supported by modern materials signal the death of the Sublime?

Me?  I believe in the power of the fragment as interpretive memory.  I guess Im just Old Skool that way.

Christopher Pelley,  Piranesi  oil/canvas   75cm x 90cm

Christopher Pelley,  Antinoo (beloved)  oil/canvas  75cm x 90cm

Christopher Pelley,  Toga  oil/canvas  55cm x 50cm

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Learning from Lei Feng

Lei Feng (1940-1962) was a soldier in the Peoples Liberation Army, who, post-mortem, was singled out and promoted as a role model by no less than Mao Zedong himself.  His near mythic acts of selflessness (he darned his comrades' socks!  he sewed quilts for others!  he hauled heavy loads of manure!) earned him a feast day on the Chinese calendar.   March 5 is now known as Learn From Lei Feng Day.  The 5 months I was in Beijing, I learned that just about every one has a strong feeling about Lei Feng.  He is seen as either the uncomplaining young man who helped old ladies cross the street, or as a propaganda tool minted for the darkest times of recent Chinese history - the Cultural Revolution.  His cult has been revived in part to combat the excessive selfishness that has emerged with the get rich at any cost mentality.  Like any myth or legend, I believe he falls somewhere in between.

And like any myth or legend, there is an accumulation of imagery that is available to explore.  Inexplicably there are photos of Lei Feng worthy of a Hollywood studio.  High wattage light drenching the scene with hard cast shadows replaced earlier, humbler depictions of his actions.  But it is his cherubic face with his eyes gazing straight out that I zeroed in on.

The China of Lei Feng has changed beyond recognition; the analog has been superseded by the digital.  Thrift is ignored as consumerism is encouraged.  In the village of Shangyuan, about 30km  north of Beijing, I installed a hand painted lo-rez image of Lei Feng.  Each 'pixel' is a 4cm x 4cm square of painted paper. Confusing up close, Lei Feng is only seen from a distance.

Christopher Pelley,  Lei Feng From a Distance   2014

Everything is made in China and in quantities beyond comprehension, feeding the world's appetite for cheap goods and the domestic consumption of 1.4 billion people.  Who mends  a pair of socks today? This lo-rez image of Lei Feng was made from over 600 pairs.

Christopher Pelley,  He Darned His Comrades' Socks   2014
The propaganda department during the years of the Cultural Revolution wove the narrative of this fine young soldier's devotion to the welfare of others with his devotion to the words of Mao.  It was these years that saw the Great Leap Forward result in the deaths of millions of peasants as their farm implements were melted to satisfy iron production quotas set by the central government.  I began painting the image of Lei Feng on shovels.  When asked by a visiting guest if these works were political, I could only reply that all works and all decisions are in some way political.....

Christopher Pelley,  Shoveling Dung  2014

Every good hero dies at the end of the story.  Lei Feng was killed at age 22 when, while directing a fellow soldier backing up a truck, a telephone pole was struck and fell on our comrade.