LEND MESITI YOUR EARS
WE were in the Mediterranean in these pages last week, and we are figuratively speaking there again with the work of Angelica Mesiti, whose own family originates from southern Italy, a place where Greek and Italiot traditions mingled in antiquity and assimilated other more exotic influences over subsequent centuries. We are also, unusually, in both Sydney and Melbourne, for Mesiti has a fine work in each city: one as part of the Biennale of Sydney at the Art Gallery of NSW, and the other, the inaugural Ian Potter Moving Image Commission, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne.
The two pieces are at first sight rather different, but each constitutes in its way a meditation on the human voice in a natural setting — one in a place that amplifies the voice and the other in environments in which it is lost or has difficulty carrying through the extent of space and over the competing noises of nature or of other human activities.
The Biennale work, In the Ear of the Tyrant, is set in a location that will be familiar to anyone who has been to Syracuse, on the east coast of Sicily. All tourists visit the latomie, the famous quarries which today combine massive cliff faces with a fragrant orange grove, but which 2500 years ago were used as a hellish concentration camp for the Athenian soldiers and sailors taken prisoner after their disastrous attempt to conquer the city.
Within the quarry is a cave that once served as a water cistern and has a distinctive shape like the ear of a faun; it is said to have been given the name by which it is now known — the Ear of Dionysius — by Caravaggio, who was in Syracuse for a time in 1609, on the run from his various enemies, including the family of a youth he had murdered and the Knights of Malta. The Dionysius he meant was the ancient tyrant of Syracuse, and perhaps the connection of his name to that of the god Dionysus, lord of fauns and satyrs, explains the conflation of these various elements.
The real reason for naming the cave, how-
May 17-18, 2014 Angelica Mesiti, The Calling Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, to July 13 In the Ear of the Tyrant Art Gallery of NSW (Biennale of Sydney) to June 9 ever, was not simply its unusual size and shape, but its peculiar acoustic properties. The shape of the curved walls acts as a kind of amplifier as well as an echo-chamber. So the story that came to be associated with this place was that Dionysius had kept his political enemies locked up here and could eavesdrop on their conversations, as though in a giant ear-trumpet, from a point above.
The local tour guides not only recount these picturesque legends but, as part of the demonstration of the cave’s acoustics, quite often sing for the group they are leading. Angelica Mesiti has adapted this custom but employed a gifted Italian singer, Enza Pagliara, who sings not snatches of opera or popular melodies but Greek ritual lament, traditionally sung over the dead from time immemorial, but like all such traditions gradually failing in the bland and amnesic environment of contemporary culture.
The lament thus takes on a new meaning here, like a memorial for the loss of folk traditions everywhere, the gradual extinction of popular cultures in a world dominated by the irresistible tide of industrially-made cultural products, whether film, music, computer games or even clothing. Cultural traditions developed and produced by the people themselves to give their own lives shape, ornament and meaning, are replaced by meaningless kitsch designed by members of the so-called creative class and sold to a populace now reduced to the passive status of mass consumers.
Ritual lamentation is in itself not merely an archaic survival of peasant life but an important category of verbal performance. Some scholars indeed consider the art of poetry itself to have originated in words spoken or sung over the dead, just as, in a wider sense, all art is a resistance to the entropy of mortality. Rhythm, repetition, the use of a conventional vocabulary that may be remote from current colloquial usage, all of these are also intrinsic to the language used in ritual and sacred contexts, something too often forgotten by modern churches, in their headlong rush to align their language with that of the supermarket and the television news bulletin.
The logic of poetic language is contrary to
In the Ear of the such utility. The language of everyday exchange unfolds in time, delivering information that is understood by the listener or reader, while the message itself, once decoded, is discarded. In poetry, metrical or stanzaic structure, and when present the echo of rhyme, give language a recursive, repetitive, essentially nonlinear form, even when other aspects of the work do develop sequentially. The words are not discarded once understood, but continue to resonate in the mind, and the directionless flow of ordinary conversational speech is gathered into a cyclical movement: like the difference between people walking across a square and dancing in a circle.
This is why poetry and music, though existing in a temporal mode, give us the paradoxical sense that time has stopped, as in John Dowland’s song Time Stands Still. And this is what happens with the singing in the cave too. As the ancient lament echoes through the curved hollow of the walls, we find ourselves neither in the past nor the future, but in the stillness of the present; we become acutely aware of our surroundings, of the texture of stone, the light and the dark, ultimately glimpsing a timelessness beyond the temporality whose most brutal work is the fact of death.
Mesiti’s other piece, The Calling, is also concerned with language, but, ostensibly at least, in a far more utilitarian manifestation. The work is a kind of poetic documentary on the whistling languages or communication systems that survive around the Mediterranean and, what is particularly intriguing, among peoples whose natural languages and even ethnic backgrounds are very diverse. Mesiti has looked at three communities in particular, one in the northern Turkish village of Kuskoy, another on the Greek island of Euboea (sometimes written as Evia in the Latin alphabet, because of changes in the pronunciation of modern Greek), and the third on La Gomera in the Canary Islands.
The difference between Mesiti’s work and a documentary in the ordinary sense of the word is that the former would explain the history, possible origins, motivations and present state of the practice, while she simply shows us its reality without commentary, but employing selection, juxtaposition and editing to guide us towards an understanding of the phenomenon. The use of three projection screens allows for a variety of effects: we can be shown either different things taking place at some distance from each other or the continuity of a vast panorama, both of which can serve the artist’s purposes.
The three communities are dealt with in successive sections, shown on a loop with no beginning or end; I happened to come in at the beginning of the Turkish one, and this is in perhaps the most logical episode to start with, because it is the most mysterious and suggestive, while the themes become clearer in the Greek episode that follows and more explicit in the Spanish one that comes after that.
The Turkish section begins with a man standing on a rooftop overlooking Istanbul, at the traditional boundary of Europe and Asia, and calling out or rather whistling to the unresponsive, uncomprehending modern city. Then suddenly we are in a remote peasant community and immediately we are aware that this is a work as much about sound as about visual impressions. There is the gushing of water from a mill, the grinding of the mill itself, the rustle of the wind blowing through leaves and bushes, and later the rattle of an old sewing machine.
And then we have the first instance of the whistling language, as the miller calls to a boy sitting on the bank to go and fetch more grain. Here and in later episodes it becomes clear that one of the main functions of the whistling language is simply to be heard above competing
Video stills from Angelica Mesiti’s