LEND ME­SITI YOUR EARS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - VISUAL ARTS - Christo­pher Allen

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

Tyrant

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

(2013), left

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