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

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