Architecture Art Feature

Columns of Cultures by Giaime Meloni

Acanthus is delighted to announce the new exhibition Columns of Cultures by our author Giaime Meloni on show at Ritmo art space in Catania, Sicily opening on March 25th, 2017. On this occasion Acanthus highlights a selection of Melonis photographs with a text by Enrico Pias.


The New Zealander. A dialectical landscape

Looking at the series of images that Giaime Meloni has realized for Columns of cultures, one could feel as if looking at a familiar scenario, a setting with some constant elements: landscapes, architectures, concrete, vegetation. We don’t know exactly where these images come from, but we can figure out quite easily thanks to certain plants, lights, symbols.

One of these is the first that Giaime started investigating: the palm plant, intended as a visual thread connecting various different countries of the Mediterranean. The series later moved on more complex and articulated subjects, mainly architectural, but this first element shaped the direction of the work, connecting very different experiences and visual samples included in this visual essay. Personally speaking, we felt Giaime’s work and understanding of the landscape as a romantic overview of southern Europe, as images depicted by a ruin gazer from the early XIX century.
It was at the beginning of the XIX century that Europe began witnessing the arising of some very new approaches to the field of vision and aesthetics: Romantic age brought some very new means of addressing vision, both in the way the viewer [subject] was considered and in the way the object was seen. New aesthetic categories, like Kant’s conception of the sublime, were spreading throughout the visual culture of the time, shaping a new model for representation of landscapes. This subject in particular started being used as a mean for addressing historical and identitarian issues, aiming to gather a new understanding of national cultures of the states which at that particular moment were beginning to take their actual geopolitical shape.

As we said, the gazer was taking a new role, it started being under question, and the same was for the landscape, which began to leave its classical, Arcadian aspect to start splitting between the sublime and the picturesque, two visual and conceptual models responding to very different aesthetic instances.
The sublime speaks of an “object” which exists in itself, that we can’t get full access to, but only perceive as something transcendent and overwhelming; it is indeed our limited condition that still can perceive, feel, the unlimited, so to generate that “negative pleasure” which is traditionally considered the outcome of the sublime experience.

The picturesque, on the other side, was a way of looking at nature (and at entropic phenomena of the landscape and architecture) from an, at least partially, humanistic perspective. This is especially clear in the design of the English gardens of XVII-XVIII centuries, a vision of land works conceived as a mixture of both planned and spontaneous designs aimed to generate a scenario which is neither cultural or natural, it is a synthetic image. That was the beginning of what Robert Smithson later defined as the “dialectical landscape”.
This idea of landscape exists as a manifold of relations, not as a “thing in itself” which precedes and excludes the viewer, but as “a thing for us”. “Nature for the dialectician” Smithson says “is indifferent to any formal ideal”.

Gustave Doré, The New Zealander, 1872 (detail)

The sublime and the picturesque both deal with a new passion of their time: the fascination for ruins and their symbolic and identitarian value. Beginning with Piranesi, Hubert Robert, Sir John Soane, we can see how ruins are taking the role of a scenario for the new gazer, a new subject which addresses something overwhelming and beyond its understanding in either spatial and temporal orders.

Ruins are commonly leftovers of catastrophic events, or more often of the slow decay caused by the effects of time on a building. Their status or condition is that of a paralysis between past and future: a broken column is a fragment, a ghost containing its own loss; the eye, in front of a ruin, is wondering between the present and what was before, temporal layers overlap, time is activated in a process which entangles the subject and the object as a whole.
But ruins also speak of civilizations and their processes, cycles of rising and falling, commercial knots, wars, invasions, conquers, cultural entanglements, life and death. This organic understanding of civilization is perfectly summed up in Gustave Doré’s etching The New Zealander, where a mysterious, exotic gazer is contemplating the ruins of London in an undefined moment in the future. This image predicts what, not many years after this etching was realized, Oswald Spengler will be writing in his Decline of the west, an essay in which his conception of history and geopolitical events will reconnect to this vision by Doré, that of an invader gazing through the symbols of a west in ruins, a society that has made its time and is rotten and ruined.

Since the time of ancient Egypt palms have been symbolically used in both architecture and religion, shaping Egyptian capitals as well as Roman athletic rituals, but most of all they are associated, because of their tall, clean trunk, to columns.
Nowadays in Europe, that of the palm plant is a problematic kind of image, especially after the tragic invasion of the red palm weevil, a parasite beetle which caused the death of thousands of palm plants all over the Mediterranean during the last years. Originally from tropical Asia, the red palm weevil has moved through Africa and Europe since the 80’s. After its diffusion there has been a collapse of palms all over Southern Europe, a sort of natural ruin of organic material. Sardinian, Sicilian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Tunisian, Egyptian, Lybian coasts are filled with broken palms resembling ruined Columns from classical buildings; palms are in ruin and the Mediterranean is on fire.

Looking at Giaime’s photographic images we can ask ourselves what kind of gazers we are, if we are looking at the ruins of something we belong to or not, if there’s any (and what kind of, eventually) distance between us and this scenario; a distance that can be spatial, chronological, or sentimental.

We’ve imagined that Giaime was working like Doré’s New Zealander, depicting the ruins of Southern Europe and writing a story of decline, decay, failed utopias. There is, anyway, a fundamental point in his depiction of this scenario: historical, identitarian narratives seem to be troubled notions, the resulting, overarching image, is that of an imaginary land, a dialectic between reality and fiction, past and future, created by the author for his own aesthetic, visual purpose to answer some radical questions. Is there an ideal origin shared by the Mediterranean countries? A visual identity? A mythical past to uncover? An aesthetic of sorts?
The last seems to be the most possible of the hypothesis, and the overall narrative created by Giaime with his photographic tour summarizes this Mediterranean aesthetic: an exotic, brutal, tropical, picturesque image of a non existing country in ruins.

Photographs by Giaime Meloni

Text by Enrico Pias, Montecristo Project

Columns of cultures
Ritmo art space
Opening: March 25, 2017 at 7 PM
via Grotte Bianche 62
Catania, Italy