Monday, 27 June 2011

Caesars, Borgias, and the Altar of Peace


I've been meaning to write a little ode to the Ara Pacis for some time, but a recent reading of a fine book about the life of Lucrezia Borgia - given to me by a friend a few years ago for Christmas, and shamefully taken off the shelf only a few weeks ago - rekindled my love of all things Roman following a bit of a post-PhD come down.  Equally amusing was the realisation that Italy has changed very little in some respects. I mean the Borgias were quite something, but no less cunning or manipulative than Berlusconi, and no less fierce, brutal, or ambitious than Augustus.

I mean, if you read Livy's Ab Urbe Condita, or History of Rome (my comedy sketch summarising this book is legendary amongst those who frequented the Edinburgh University Classics library in 2004-5...), it's pretty much non-stop war from 753 BC until Augustus defeated Marc Antony at Actium in 31 BC.  Sure, the Borgias were Spanish, but there's no institution as Italian as the Pope, and the Borgias were as violent and unscrupulous as the many an Italian ruler before them.

Lucrezia Borgia was married of three times, each time at the whim of her father - Rodrigo Borgia or Pope Alexander VI - or brother - Cesare Borgia - to forge a political alliance or bring in much-needed cash. I was amazed that so little should have changed in fifteen centuries of Italian history. As a means of cementing the alliance between the Second Triumvirate of Mark Antony and Octavian, later Augustus (the third party in the triumvirate was Aemilius Lepidus), Octavian offered his sister Octavia to Mark Antony (as his fourth wife! but hey, they died young back then).  Of course, we all know the history: Antony and Octavian had a massive falling out, Antony divorced Octavia, and high tailed it back to Cleopatra in Egypt,  Octavian defeated Antony and from 27 BC onwards, Augustus ruled the newly reinstated "Republic" with an iron fist masquerading as a velvet glove.  Augustus became emperor in name, but his control over the Senate derived from the fact that he was head honcho of most of Rome's twenty five legions.  All things considered, it was a miracle, given the seven hundred years of blood-lusty history prior, that the Pax Romana lasted as long as it did - nearly two centuries - throughout the Med.


All of which finally brings me to the Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace.  While Augustus probably concocted the plans for the altar's construction himself, in his Res Gestae (like any politician, concerned with his image, Augustus wrote what was essentially the first political memoir rehashing all of the totally amazing feats he carried out throughout his lifetime. He instructed the Senate to create inscriptions of the text and the originals were engraved on bronze pillars and placed in front of his mausoleum.  Being on bronze and smack in the middle of Rome, it's unsurprising that these have not survived, but other copies of the text have been found elsewhere throughout the empire, most famously the original Latin side by side with a Greek translation on a temple to Augustus in Ancyra in Turkey.) he writes that the Senate resolved to build an altar near the Campus Martius in honour of his safe return from Hispania and Gaul.  Augustus was obsessed with the customs of the old-school, farm-dwelling, porridge-eating Romans who were stoic and pious and didn't indulge Trimalchio style in 12-hour feasts or festoon themselves with loads of Egyptian gold or marry their daughters off for political advantage... and part of the plan with the Ara Pacis was to make a song and dance about the return of these simpler, more honourable customs.

Augustus' Res Gestae, now inscribed on the side of
Meier's museum
Marcello walks past the
Res Gestae in an early scene of Il Conformista, one of my fav flicks.

For much of his tenure as emperor, Augustus tried to reinstate the religious piety and strict work ethic and moral way of living from the good old days, whenever that was, they were always going on about the good old days of the Roman Republic during the early Empire, but if they read their Livy, they'd have known that there wasn't really anything too good about the good old days given that these Romans were always waging war.  How did Augustus think Rome acquired so much territory?  It's hardly surprising that after Augustus took power and stopped waging war on everyone - because they'd all been conquered and assimilated into Rome - the famous Pax Augustana resulted in the people of Rome becoming rich, spoiled, complacent, licentious, indulgent and lazy.

Anyway, the whole point of this altar was to act as a focal point for Augustus' ramming home of the importance of religious piety for the well-being of the Roman Empire: keep the gods happy, keep Augustus happy, and everything will be just fine. Also, obviously, the whole thing was one big celebratory howdy doo dah in honour of good old Augustus for bringing about peace and prosperity via one seriously kick-ass military.

They only used this thing once a year. ONCE A YEAR. It's like spending four years and 50 million pounds building an incredibly ornate and ridiculous metal scaffold masquerading as a sculpture thing on the Olympic site that people will only be able to use one day per year. At least people will be able to go on our silly red orbital accelerator more than just on one day a year.

What isn't immediately evident from the pictures - apart from pictures with people in the frame - is just how enormous the thing is.  When you stand at the top of the steps leading up to the internal altar, your head barely reaches the top of the bottom set of panels. The thing was built to inspire and to intimidate, and I have to say, it still fulfils both functions incredibly well even today.



The altar is absolutely stunning; the quality of the stone carving is wonderful, of course, but the power of its iconographic symbolism is second to none. The Romans, but Augustus in particular, were excellent at iconography. If you're interested in this sort of thing, (ancient or modern political iconography) there's a wonderful book by Paul Zanker (which every Classics postgrad has read and loathed/loved) called The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus.

No idea what in the hell this is, but it's cool

Scholars are - of course - not entirely in agreement as to the identities of every figure on every panel, but most are agreed that Augustus himself, along with his right hand man Agrippa, and other members of the fam, including the eventual heir to the Julio-Claudian throne, Tiberius make an appearance on the south frieze.

What's left of Augustus' Mausoleum, adjacent to the Ara Pacis

Amusingly, the Ara Pacis was saved and brought back to life by yet another of Italy's more fiery figures: Mussolini, who reinstated the excavation of the remaining pieces of the altar to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.  Unsurprisingly, the Fascists loved the Roman Empire (and many a doctoral thesis has been written to prove it...) and capitalised on the luck of having so many potent monuments in their midst. In 1938, Mussolini moved the Ara Pacis to a new spot near Augustus' Mausoleum - where it still stands today - as part of a grand plan to create an ancient Roman theme park, presumably to inspire a new generation of Romans.

Richard Meier's Ara Pacis museum

In 2006, a new protective building for the Altar was unveiled. Built by Richard Meier, it was immediately declared to be a complete catastrophe, but I visited in 2007 and found it to be quite satisfactory. Sure, it's no looker from the outside, but it's lovely and light-filled on the inside and makes for a spectacular environment in which one can spend time with Augustus' marvellous structure.

But perhaps best of all, and something I never tire of investigating, is the total disconnect between what we see and think we know of classical art and the reality of what it actually once was. Even though I know what the statues and the monuments probably looked like back in the day, I've been conditioned to look at an ancient marble statue and see nothing but pure, pristine, cold, beautiful, white, white, white marble.  Oh no, the Ara Pacis was subject to the same garish paint job as all the rest of the white marble that sits in countless museums.  It makes sense, though, that the monuments and sculptures should be brightly coloured. I mean, purple was the imperial colour after all. Colour meant wealth. Decoration meant wealth. There's no way in hell that a rich Roman would have left a statue of solid marble plain old white. He'd want it as ostentatious as possible to show off how stonkingly rich he was.


The museum has recently staged a brilliant reconstruction of the crazy, colourful paint job that they reckon the Ara Pacis would have had - taken from paint samples lifted off in the 1930s - but instead of mocking up a sample model, they've recreated the paint with an utterly ingenious light projection.  It looks ridiculous, of course, but that's history for you.  The real thing is never quite what we imagine.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Plinths, Residencies & Art Fairs


I often find myself, surrounded by cardboard boxes masquerading as contemporary art, thinking that perhaps artists have privileged process to the point where the physical objects presented matter less than the text explaining the thought process behind the work printed alongside.

Having said that, I recently read a splendid blog post by Karl England (@karlengland) explaining the ingenious idea behind his Reside Residency:
So far during the Reside Residency I have materially done or acted in no way other than I normally would if I wasn't on the residency (It's a highly charged political point - if you want it to be).

Shortly into my residency I happened across The Ledge Project. It seemed to chime with my residency. I submitted a show to The Ledge Project, I said "the abject nature of my residency seems to mirror the understated nature of the ledge". I did not receive a reply.
There's something incredibly charming about a low-fi DIY residency in which the artist simply goes about his work as he has always done. I'd also never come across The Ledge Project before and was totally taken in by the idea: a window ledge as an exhibition space. Brilliant! 

The next bit of the story is even better.

Karl decided that he should display a/the work which was created during the Reside Residency, so he ordered some wood to make a plinth. But instead of ordering in centimeters he accidentally ordered in millimeters. 130cm became 13cm and "to save face in front of the bemused wood cutters [he] brazened [his] way out by insisting [he] could use the tiny plinth anyway."

Karl made up the tiny plinth and gave it to a friend (@mark_pete) as a present. Instead of feeling dejected, ridiculous or making a Friday-evening's joke of the whole thing, they teamed up with another friend (@tedaitch), and did what all good artists do: they turned it into a project. Low and behold, @MorphPlinth was born.


They instigated a twitter-only competition to exhibit teeny tiny works on Morph Plinth, which they then showcase in a PV somewhere that looks suspiciously like a pub... The winner of the inaugural competition was Corinna Spencer (@Corr_) with her piece, "Immature-Miniatures presents: The Victorian male's hope for the future. Cert 18".

Along with the successes of the Reside Residency and the Morph Plinth has come a desire for more success, and so it was that Karl recently announced his new project: The Sluice Artfair. It's all a little bit under wraps at the moment, but the general idea is to run an art fair (@sluiceartfair) during Frieze week in October which showcases emerging artist- and curator-run galleries in a snazzy space on South Molton Lane.  Since it's only just been announced they're still looking for artists, curators, and sponsors to get involved, and I, for one, am totally on board. 



Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Art on the Outskirts

The New Gallery

It is to my eternal consternation that I don't get to South London quite as often as I'd like to.  So when the kind folks over at Spoonfed and Art Licks invited me on a tour of the art hot spots in Peckham, I couldn't refuse.

I've been a big fan of Holly and Art Licks since they launched last year. Even though I consider myself as a lover of all things general, there's something great about a niche that really hits the spot. Art Licks is a nifty little website where you can find out what's happening in the world of non-commercial, curator and artist-run art spaces in London. It's organised by openings and days of the week, so if you've got a gap in your Tuesday-night schedule, you can have a quick look at Art Licks to see if there's anything interesting happening.

A group of 15 or so met up at New Gallery on Peckham Road, just across the street from the South London Gallery. I'd been wanting to go to the New Gallery since Practice Architecture (of Frank's Cafe fame) completed a makeover of the ground floor space last year.  The art, clips of old films all spliced together to make an art-student movie montage, wasn't really to my taste but it was nice to finally have a look around, and the relaxed gallery/cafe vibe was top notch. Wish we had more of this in north/east London.


We motored over to Peckham Space to see David Cotterrell's Slipstream, a piece that reminded me a lot of Fugitive Image's photos of residents on the Haggerston Estate from a couple of years ago. Really, there aren't actually that many similarities between the finished work, but there's something very samey (not necessarily in a bad way) about the work of artists who interact with local residents.  David's video is an attempt to map the changes in Peckham's urban landscape over the last 30 years, with a particular focus on the estates of North Peckham. It's a very clever piece, well executed and again, I'd never been to Peckham Space before so it was a good opportunity to meet the people who run the space and their experiences in making community-focused art in Peckham.

In the Bun House pub

I then got slightly confused as I followed the group into The Bun House pub on Peckham High Street. Um, I thought we were looking at art, not going for drinks. It turned out that after a festival a few years ago to match local businesses with arts groups, the collaboration between Field, an artist run collective, and the proprietor of The Bun House was so successful that they've been putting on exhibitions in a small room at the back of the pub ever since.  They put on an exhibition a month in the pub and are taking a show to the Folkestone Triennial. Very impressive.

PhotobucketGuy and Tom from SON

Post Bunhouse, we headed over to the Copeland Industrial Park, and I thought, oh no, not the Hannah Barry Gallery. But I needn't have feared, for it turns out that SON Gallery occupy a space in the same yard as HB.  Another stop on the tour, another great space, this time a small commercial gallery run by artist Tom Saunderson and curator Guy Robertson. Of all the stops on our tour, I was probably most impressed by SON: it's a seriously slick operation, but I also had a good chat with Tom about how one runs a successful commercial space while still keeping hold of artistic integrity.  Also, I reckon they can't be much older than me, and it's bloody refreshing to see young artists and curators just totally going for it. I got this from a most of the places we went to on the tour. These are young artists and curators, frustrated by the lack of opportunity, but turning that frustration into action and opening spaces left, right and centre.  They're showing that you don't need to have a ton of money or an influential uncle or a huge space; you only need a tiny room in the back of a pub, or a small but perfectly formed gallery in an industrial park in Peckham to make an impact.

I hate to jump on the bandwagon and add to the hype, but there really are too many interesting arty things are happening in Peckham right now. Go, go, go! Holly runs tours all the time, so there's no excuse. Check out Art Licks for details. And, if you want to know what's happening at the galleries, Spoonfed is pretty good at keeping tabs.  You can check them out here.

Wednesday, 20 April 1853

Came home with Grzymala; we talked of Chopin. He said that Chopin's improvisations were far more daring than his finished compositions. They probably take the place of the sketch for a picture compared with the finished work. No! One does not spoil a painting by finishing! Perhaps there may be less scope for imagination once the work has been sketched out. You receive a different impression from a building under construction where the details are not yet shown, than from the same building when it has received its full complement of ornamentation and finish. It is the same with ruins, which appear all the more impressive because of the missing portions; their details are worn away or defaced and, as with buildings under construction, you see only rudiments and vague suggestions of mouldings and ornamentation. A finished building encloses the imagination within a circle and prevents it from straying beyond its limits.  Perhaps the only reason why the sketch for a work gives so much pleasure is that each beholder can finish it as he chooses... Thus an artist does not spoil a picture by finishing it, but when he abandons the vagueness of the sketch he reveals his personality more fully, thereby displaying the full scope of his talent, but also its limitations.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Cliché-ridden claptrap

If you haven't seen it already, my review of the 2011 Venice Biennale is up over on FAD's website.

If you can't be bothered to read the piece, the post title provides a pretty good summary...