Rósa Gísladóttir at Traian’s Market in Rome

Angelus Novus vis-à-vis the Ruins of History

An essay written on the occasion of Rósa Gísladóttir’s exhibition at The National Museum of the Imperial Fora, Trajan’s Market in Rome, June-September 2012

It is not only a great honor for an Icelandic artist to be able to exhibit her work in the Museum of the Trajan’s Market on the imperial fora in Rome. The entire context of this exhibition shows her work in a new light, and at the same time the objects shed a new and interesting light on the venue.  Once the work of Rósa Gísladóttir has been placed within the context of Trajan’s Market and the imperial fora, it will no longer be viewed in isolation as an instance of late modern or minimalistic formalism. The discourse between the objects and the ruins on the imperial fora give them new meaning, making us consider their historical context.

Trajan’s forum was a turning point in the history of Roman architecture, in the sense that Trajan emphasized the public space, whereas, by contrast, the architecture of Nero, for example, had focused on the divine personality of the emperor. In an unprecedented way, Trajan was keen on creating an open space for the public, which would frame life in the city and emphasize its significance as the center of the empire and of civilization.

In the course of millennia, the preservation of the objects of the past is more or less coincidental; there is, however, no other city in the world which, despite all the upheavals of history, continues to a similar degree to “shape the desires and dreams of men”, as Italo Calvino said bout the city of Zenobia in his book, Invisible Cities. Like all the classical architecture of the imperial fora, Trajan’s Forum is characterized by strict geometry, where symmetry, the square and the circle, formally emphasizes the thought that the city is not only the center of the empire, but that it mirrors the geocentric view of the world, in which the Earth is the center of the universe and the celestial sphere with its planets is the everlasting roof. This was an invariable and eternal world picture, and it was not within human abilities to change it; the firm human habitat on Earth, with Rome as its center.

Wherever we look on the imperial fora in Rome, we encounter the geometry of the center and the symmetry: be it in the columns, the arches, or the vaults, be it in the basic organization of the fora, or in the ornaments decorating the architecture and emphasizing its significance. But how can we understand the meaning of the ruins of the imperial era in Rome in its entirety?

Here it is appropriate to quote Emanuele Severino:

In the tradition of the West, the city, the house, the temple, the theater, the stadium, the church, and the castle were not built to exist forever, and yet these structures reflect the Eternal Order of the World, and therefore they try to be as firm as possible, presenting themselves with a certain aura of timelessness. While they seek to reflect the Eternal World Order, they wish to be its symbol. Man finds shelter in these buildings, not because of a certain amount of comfort they provide, but because of this symbolic value of eternity inherent in them. Man feels at home in these houses because he has built them in such a way that they signify eternity.”

Severino proposes that the role of architecture in Western history, like that of philosophy, is to be a refuge for man from the anguish of the future, from the transiency of human existence, from pain and death. By exposing the divine and eternal Rule, dominating and directing all creation and destruction, the basic knowledge, episteme, saves man from the anguish caused by the thought about one’s own transiency and the transiency of the world. Severino says that all spatial design (Raumgestaltung) of the West is formed by this understanding, in the same way as the thought of transience and the eternal values appears in the philosophical and theological episteme (epistemology) of the Graeco-Roman tradition, where geometry and philosophy play a similar role. As is well known, knowledge of geometry was a condition for being admitted to Plato’s Academy in Athens.

The spaces which currently provide the venue for Rósa Gísladóttir’s exhibition were not only the frame of a particular view of the world; they were also the frame of a particular social idea and order, where human conduct was dictated by the rules of geometry, in contrast to the practice initiated by the utilitarianism of the Industrial Revolution, according to which form is expected to be dominated by functionality, providing the scene for the freedom of man in his endeavor to deal with and subjugate the forces of nature. Symmetry does not fit contemporary city life in this way, because it subsumes human life into a universal rule and a totalitarian form of government, dedicated to the absolute powers.


Rósa Gísladóttir: Icosahedron, Emperor Trian’s Market, Rome 2012

Although symmetry may not be fashionable in contemporary architecture or formal and spatial design, except where it appears with a reference to the past, or where it otherwise serves the function of the particular object which is formed independently of the whole, it has always characterized the formal design of Rósa Gísladóttir. In this regard her art is special, referring to tradition rather than innovation. Crucially, however, this does not mean that her work involves reconstruction or repetition; rather, it has never severed the ties with the classical tradition, even though the geometry which it is built on no longer has the function and meaning it had in the classical period. What, then, are the changes which geometry has undergone from classical times?

The Ancient Greeks and Romans understood numbers as representing visible entities. Being invisible, zero, negative numbers and irrational numbers did not have a place within this way of thinking. The change happened when the numbers stopped referring to the visible entity and became the function or the relation of other numbers, which opened up the possibility of a mathematical interpretation of infinity and other invisible entities. The definitive confirmation of this change was instantiated by the scientism of Descartes.

Defining numbers in relation to visible phenomena means that they measure a world which is finite and places insurmountable boundaries around man. This changed when nature became the object of investigation, in particular on the basis of measurement founded up on abstract mathematics and quantity rather than physical quality. At this point a fundamental change occurred in the history of Western culture, namely that “nature was no longer the rule which man has to use as his frame of reference; rather, human knowledge became the rule which nature had to provide answers to,” as Umberto Galimberti put it in his book Psiche e tecne. Thus the geometrical rule stopped being the ideal and the precedent, becoming instead a tool to change space and create new space and a new reality on the basis of the new forms of measurement which people had acquired. Nowhere does this manifest itself better than in the baroque art of Rome, where the spatial design no longer aims at imitating the “proper” space of geometry, but has become a venue for creating new reality and new space by means of the new technology. This was what the revolution of Bernini and Borromini in Rome was about. Ever since this time, architecture has reflected a view of the world which is conditioned by man and his technology, but not by absolute cosmic laws of eternal and invariable entities. The baroque domes of Rome thus instantiate a typical virtual reality based on technical illusions, while the domes of classical Rome manifest a similarity to the cosmos which no human power could alter.

From the beginning of her carrier, Rósa Gísladóttir has been adhering strictly to the laws of symmetry in her art. The aim is not to glorify or revive the eternal and imperishable truth of a view of the world which has now disappeared; rather the aim is to make us aware of the genealogy of the forms and the change which their meaning has undergone in the course of history.

How can we understand the difference between the world of the classical forms characterizing the imperial fora in Rome and the forms created by Rósa Gísladóttir?

Observing the oversized golden icosahedron under the Roman vault of Trajan, we are not experiencing the revival or the elevation of tradition, but rather a kind of a short circuit of history, where we are made aware of the fact that the universal laws which the so-called Platonic polyhedra were based on are no longer so universal: they do not reflect the order of the Universe and the Elements anymore, as stated by the Platonic doctrine. The interaction of the polyhedron and its classical frame suddenly becomes filled with tension due to the loss of something vital: the polyhedron in fact only reflects itself in its own glory, while the reference to the absolute and eternal truth has evaporated.

The world of Rósa’s forms is thus not a direct imitation of ancient models, and it therefore no longer has the original meaning on which the geometry of the Roman fora was based: that world is long gone, and with it its particular view of the world has also disappeared. The rules of geometry no longer reflect an absolute truth and the insurmountable boundaries imposed on man by nature. On the contrary, with the advent of the technological revolution of the past hundred years or so, we have experienced the loss of those boundaries, and the work of Rósa Gísladóttir reflects our times and not the ancient world: it opens our eyes for the things which have disappeared rather for those which are perennial and eternal. They are an admonition of a lost world, like a memory of art as “the perceptible appearance of the Idea” in the sense of Hegel. Here the idea has vanished and the form alone remains, just like Hegel said in the early 19th century. According to this philosopher, the Idea no longer needs its perceptible appearance because it emerged already and was realized in the language of philosophy. But why does Rósa’s polyhedron not reveal to us the eternal and unchangeable truth which people had seen in this form all the way from Plato to Luca Paccioli and Leonardo?

There is no need to talk at length about the fact that modern astronomy and space science have established that the Universe is not a constant, but quite the opposite – there is an incessant change where everything is at a high speed. The celestial sphere is not an unbreakable crystal vault, but filthy atmosphere, full of holes, and the sun is not the primal emitter of light to all things, as people used to believe, but a gliding power plant which has a predictable end like all other existing objects. The rule of the polyhedron certainly continues to be self-consistent, but it does not involve the exocentric reference, as Plato and Leonardo thought. Here the idea of the absolute and eternal cosmic values has been separated from its appearance, but the image is nevertheless present in front of us in all its glory and does not refer to anything but itself – or does it?

In his multifaceted lecture on the remnants of art, Jean-Luc Nancy has discussed this problem, which Hegel defined as the end of art, the latter being, as already mentioned, “the perceptible appearance of the Idea.” Among the things Nancy has to say about these prophetic words of Hegel is the following:

To the extent that art perceives its limits, in regard to its realization and/or its end, in spite of still being understood as the ‘perceptible appearance of the Idea,’ it stops and is immobilized like the last glow of the Idea in its pure but darkened sediment. At the limits only the idea of art itself lives, like a pure virtual act, locked in itself. But such residue still functions as an Idea, even as a pure idea of the pure sense, or as an exalted visibility with no other content than the light itself: like a darkened core of absolute reference to itself.”

According to this statement, Nancy is of the opinion that Hegel was right in this respect: art stopped being the manifestation of unchangeable and everlasting truth very early on, even before the time of Christianity. Nancy, however, claims that this does not mean the end of art as such, and that Hegel did not think of it like that; rather, it bodes a new role for art in the process leading to the emergence of truth, in accordance with Hegel’s view that truth is a dialectic process in constant motion, and that there is not only one absolute truth, established once and for all. Nancy revisits Hegel’s brilliant metaphor of the dried and cut-off fruit of art which the heir of the Muses brings as an offering to the gods: these cut-off fruit are certainly disconnected from the tree that bore them, the soil that nourished them, and the moral climate which brought them to maturity, but nevertheless the heir of the Muses manages to give us a premonition of all of this, as if in a flash of vision, where the offering becomes a testimony of the things of the past, like the footprints from a journey where art has been the companion of religion and the imperishable values, without ever adhering to them, but only following their beaten track.

It is quite natural to regard the forms which Rósa Gísladóttir has created as such cut off-fruit of the trees, the soil and the climate which gave rise to the absolute geometry of the universe. As such they are above all a testimony to themselves, but beyond the radiance which mirrors their own surface and not the universe, we nevertheless perceive the view of the world which the ruins of the imperial fora attest to. We perceive this in the journey of history and time which connects these two worlds in a single work. Thus, Rósa’s forms appear as footprints in the sand, a testimony to the journey of history all the way to our time.

Emperor Constantin the Great (4th Century A.D.) and Rósa Gísladóttir’s Column of plastic bottles, 2012

In addition to the large symmetrical forms, in this exhibition we also encounter works which are made of contemporary plastic wrappings; these wrappings have their own history of formal symmetry and perfect form, but in the modern consumer society they have the function of preserving consumer goods rather than ideas. The plastic bottle is “a visible appearance of the consumer society” and not the ideas, and as such it has also become the image of the threat inherent in today’s consumer habits against the ecology of our planet. The plastic wrappings of the consumer society are thus in stark contrast to the appearance of the eternal values and the unshakeable view of the world manifested by the ruins of the imperial fora. Formally, these plastic wrappings preserve in themselves the durability of symmetry, but while their durability can no longer give man any protection, it presents a tangible threat to our ecology. Rósa emphasizes the genealogy of the forms we find in these plastic wrappings by using them to create radiantly beautiful installations where the column and the circle form play a key role. Esthetically, these works shine in their own colorful brightness like the billboards of the consumer society; as soon as we realize the context, however, viz. the genealogy, on the one hand, and the loss of the Idea, on the other, we realize the tragic aspect of history described by Walter Benjamin in his Angelus novus:

There is a painting by Klee which is entitled Angelus Novus. In it an angel appears to be about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide open, as is his mouth, and his wings are stretched out. The angel of history must look like this. His face is refers to the past. Since a chain of events seems to be unfolding, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and piles it up at his feet. He would like to stay, awaken the dead, and put the fragments of the ruins in order. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, affecting his wingspan with such force that he cannot flap his wings. This storm inevitably drives him into the future, to which his back is turned, while ruins pile up to the sky right before his eyes. This storm is what we call progress.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation Thorhallur Eythorsson

AB_0095

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rósa Gísladótti’s works at the entrance of The National Museum at The Imperial Forum in Rome 2012

 

Rósa Gísladóttir: Displacement – Rome / Reykjavík 2013

Displacement – Rome/Reykjavík

Rósa Gísladóttir‘s exhibition at Harpa Music and Conferance Center in Reykjavík July-August 2013

The exhibition “Come l‘acqua, come l‘oro…”, installed by Rósa  Gísladóttir in the ruins of Trajan’s Market at the historic site of the Roman Imperial Fora in the summer of 2012, was a dialogue between the present and the past, where the surroundings themselves mattered just as much as the works on display. The dialogue focused on the history of the forms and how their content and meaning has undergone changes in the past two thousand years, in particular since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The architecture and the art works which have been preserved in the Imperial Fora were the source of the forms developed in oversize by Rósa, but the content of her works had nevertheless been separated from their origin: the architects and the artists who shaped the Imperial Fora in Rome made use of a highly advanced geometry, where each piece was a part of the general idea which regarded the City and the Empire as a reflection of a complex rule on the structure of the universe; an all-comprising rule which not only shaped the appearance and the form of the city, but also the community which had built it and the Empire as a whole.

In the ruins of the Imperial Fora we find the roots of the classical tradition: the idea of the center, the symmetry, the circle, the vault, the right-angled point of view and the perspective – all fundamental factors reflecting eternal values and an unbreakable rule. Rósa Gísladóttir has shown us how the forms of the classical tradition live in the present like ancient remnants of a lost religion, while simultaneously being recycled in a new function as wrappings of the new and universal laws of consumerism and the philosophy of economic growth characteristic of our times.

When the idea was born to set up the exhibition in Iceland, it in fact demanded the converse of the classical and historical frame of Trajan’s Market. As a comparable frame does not exist in Iceland, we sought the complete opposite as a counterbalance to Rósa’s works in order to continue the dialogue on the history and the content of the forms, although this time from a reverse premise. We could not imagine a better venue for this enterprise than precisely the magnificent exhibition area of Harpa – Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Center, which in its forms and spatial construction is as far from the classical tradition as one can imagine.

The classical tradition of Western formation of space which we can trace back to the Ancient Greeks is founded on the general idea that the building and the urban space is a permanent shelter for man which reflects universal rules of mathematics and geometry and the unshakeable structure of the Universe. The urban space was a shelter for man in the existential turmoil, while also forming a frame around the relatively firm structure of society, be it the Greek city-state, the Roman Empire or the Judeo-Christian notion of Holy Jerusalem as the ideal of an earthly Paradise. In this respect there is no basic distinction between the Greek temple, the Roman basilica, the medieval cathedrals and the secular palaces of the Renaissance and the Baroque era. All these traditions are founded on a single invariable religious and epistemological truth, which not only gave meaning to the space, but also formed a social frame around those aspects of existence that are permanent and safe.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and Modernity the idea emerged that space should not be transformed on the basis of universal aesthetic laws about proportions and dimensions; rather, space should function as a venue for the development of new technology and for new types of democracy: the form was supposed to be intertwined with its function, and all the ornaments which had earlier emphasized the eternal values of every building were now written off as characteristics of reaction and suppression, or decadence. Even beauty was no longer the main objective of formation of space, but rather its function and practicality. Mobility and movement take over from the stability of the fixed frame. This history is familiar to us in the modernist architecture which, for example, distinguishes the largest part of 20th century Reykjavík.

In this entire history Harpa marks a certain watershed, reflecting an idea that surpasses the utilitarian program of Functionalism as we know it. It is not the classical rock in the cityscape which we see for example in The Culture House – National Centre for Cultural Heritage, nor is it the fixed frame of reference of the utilitarianism manifested in the University of Iceland Main Building.

Harpa reflects a new idea of the cityscape, where the glass veil plays a pivotal role, but besides being an art work it forms new and transparent division between the outer and the inner space, where the inner space does not only incorporate the urban image but almost becomes the substitute for public space as a square for everyone where various trends come together in the diverse selection of shops and restaurants, alongside the concert rooms forming the core of the building.

Simultaneously, the veil of the building shifts from the traditional fixed point to an ever-changing flow of light and colors, intensified by the irregular fishing-net pattern without any fixed point or center and no clear or finite lines. Harpa signals a new understanding of the urban space where the closed city gives way to the multi-cultural flow of information and ideas dominating our times and ways of communication. A society where the walls fall and power becomes invisible, at the same time as it becomes an all-encompassing surveillance machine.

Into this space Rósa Gísladóttir places her formal sculptures, which are founded on the classical geometry of the Platonic polyhedron, on the symmetry, the circle and the ellipsis; the forms of these sculptures refer to the fixed and the unshakeable. However, it is the texture of the material which transposes us from the classical space to the contemporary techno-society: instead of marble and granite found in the ruins of the Imperial Fora in Rome we encounter the industrial material Jesmonite, with an alabaster texture or a golden cosmetics, leaving us up in the air vis-à-vis the fixed and the unshakeable norms.

The ambiguous meaning of Rósa’s works is further emphasized by her sculptures of light, made from plastic bottles of the industrial society and filled with colored water. The light sculptures also refer to the classical form of the column, the amphora and the plate; moreover, one of the light sculptures depicts the mirror image of Medusa’s mask, the sign of the imminent death in classical mythology, which is here given a metaphorical meaning in the guise of the wrapping society.

The wall photographs of the colorful light sculptures bring us even closer to the ephemeral volatility of contemporary advertizing imagery, but on the top floor of Harpa the Panopticon dominates, a mirror reflecting the transient world, which the surroundings of Harpa and the cityscape gather into its fugitive core, with the reflection of the viewer as its moveable center.

Rósa Gísladóttir’s exhibition invites us to consider our environment and our spatial experience. The cityscape is a reflection of our ideas and thoughts, it is never neutral and never self-evident. With the displacement of her exhibition from Trajan’s Market in Rome to Harpa in Reykjavík, Rósa has created a new work which relates to the former and connects the unshakeable and firm background of the classical tradition to the liquid flow of the information society, beyond all boundaries.

Ólafur Gíslason

English translation: Thorhallur Eythorsson

2013 - 32Rósa Gísladóttir: Kantharos, 2012 – from a relief found on Traian’s Forum 2nd century AD. Jesmonite, 170x240x170 cm.