As I posted the other day on social media – N.B. you can follow my Twitter or Instagram accounts at @wbdnewton – you know you’ve been rather naughty when you go to confession, and the priest orders you to start blogging again. Father’s speculation that I was “choking myself” by not writing, while perhaps somewhat extreme, is not completely inaccurate. In fact, I have been so remiss of late, that one of my very kind subscribers sent me a note last evening asking whether I was going to be writing any more. Ouch.
Fortunately, with various familial and other events now safely out of the way, and with the onset of cold weather at last, the mind turns more easily to thoughts of wordplay. I am therefore glad that you, gentle reader, have decided to play along. And I am particularly grateful that, during the interim, you did not pick up your toys and go home.
The word play in which we will engage today has to do with the word, “disaster”. Now, we are all very much aware that disaster can be a comparative term, depending on the circumstances under which a perceived problem has arisen. Getting a coffee stain on your suit on a Tuesday at the end of the work day, for example, is almost certainly not a disaster, at least not in the way that it would be, should the coffee be spilled on your get-up the morning of your wedding day. Yet disasters can often be qualified by exactly what sort of disaster is taking place.
We are all familiar with the term “natural disaster”. This is an event which occurs when the planet or the universe does its thing, such as when the plates of the Earth’s crust jostle about for room and bring about earthquakes, or when the Moon goes swinging by and causes tides and flooding. Allegedly, such disasters are also caused by people like Bono or Leonardo DiCaprio taking private jets to parties, but be that as it may.
There is also the “artistic disaster”, in which an artist – real or imagined – creates a work that gives rise to the exact opposite of the thoughts or emotions which the artist had intended to evoke. A personal favorite is Botticelli’s “Cestello Annunication” now in the Uffizi which, as Leonardo da Vinci himself described, appears to show the Blessed Mother jumping out of a window to try to escape from the Angel Gabriel, who himself appears to be scuttling along the floor. One could also include much of the work of the Italian modernist Lucio Fontana, who liked to slash paintings for fun and profit. One of his “slash paintings” just sold for $24.7 million at Sotheby’s last week, proving P.T. Barnum right yet again.
Occasionally however, one is confronted with what I will term the “artistic natural disaster”, in which an artist – either sua sponte or on commission – creates one disaster in order to commemorate another. Such is the case with “Grande Cretto”, a work by the late Italian artist Alberto Burri, inaugurated this weekend on the site of the former town of Gibellina, Sicily. The town was destroyed in an earthquake in 1968, which killed hundreds of people and injured many more. A new town was rebuilt some distance away, while the ruins of the old town were turned over to several artists and architects, including Burri, for the construction of a quasi-monument to those who had died in the disaster.
While Burri himself died before his work could be completed, the now fully-realized work spreads out across the hillside where the town stood, like an assemblage of poorly-cut brie that has been left sitting in the pantry for too long, and dried out. Burri’s concrete shapes trace the contours of the former streets of the town, with the earlier blocks he constructed now a weathered gray, and the newer still a glistening white. Eventually, these newer blocks, too, will take on the appearance of a 1960’s reinforced concrete parking garage with no discernible entrance.
The end result of this project is a waste of space, materials, and more importantly the opportunity to mark the tragedy that occurred. The piece’s banality and absurdity scars the Sicilian countryside for future generations in a way far worse than had the local officials simply allowed the ruins of the town to speak for themselves, as they crumbled into dust. It is, in effect, one disaster commemorating another.
In a more pious age, the site might have been cleared, and a beautiful memorial church or monastery built to commemorate those who had died – something which no doubt the dead, themselves, as Catholic country folk, would have approved. Obviously the reader does not need to be told that we live in a decidedly impious, self-obsessed age. Yet here we can see further evidence, as if it were needed, that the contemporary art world is often more interested in worshiping doubt and celebrating the self, rather than in expressions of faith and selflessness. For in the end, this piece is all about Burri, rather than about those who died in the disaster: and what an utter disaster it is.