Strangeness is not so far away…
by Linda Marie Walker
“He was listening to the speech of the everyday, grave, idle, saying everything, holding up to each one what he would have liked to say, a speech unique, distant and always close, everyone’s speech, always already expressed and yet infinitely sweet to say, infinitely precious to hear – the speech of temporal eternity saying: now, now, now.”(1)
I’ve written about Aldo Iacobelli’s work several times and it always surprises me. Every time Aldo makes a body of work I find myself in a new conversation, or in an old conversation that’s changed tack; that is, different ideas and materials are investigated in relation to long-held concerns, everlasting issues and resonant memories. These concerns, issues and memories have been his focus throughout his long career and arise from his experience as an immigrant and his acute sensitivity to what it means to not/belong, to be un/welcome (2); they imbue his work with insistence, hope and resilience; and show that art can, without compromise, articulate social and political injustices both overt and covert.
Across the gallery from the doorway are three large square thick grey undulating paintings titled Triptych In Grisaille, With A Hanging Mechanism; each is held by two metal handmade hooks, like meat hooks, of differing sizes – they pierce the paintings.(3) To the left is a full-size wooden cart stacked high with lightly golden hay bales. To the right, high on the wall, is a roll of canvas cradled by two more handmade hooks, its edge exposed and draped for easy access. From here, on the threshold, a strange set of complex ‘events’ present themselves; they are calm and quiet, soft even; gentle definite things, three-dimensional and distinct from each other, and, in their own way, unexpected. The paintings are non-object paintings-with-pulp that are themselves objects, sculptures; each surface raised and hollowed here and there and speckled with minute fragments of colour – like land mass seen from the sky, or like topographic maps of tiny islands. The cart is an object and not a painting while being, in its cart-objectness, like a drawing. The canvas, not (yet) a painting, is a sculpture (and behind one, still unseen, are drawings that slightly unsettle this ‘canvas’: drawing #4 is a figure wrapped in what could be rolled canvas; drawing #5 is a figure rolled-up in a swag-like bundle; each figure has a number, 981, 982, not a name). The three works, triptych, cart, canvas, form a triangle of sorts, a lopsided triangular sight-line that requires one to hesitate; then the triangle melts, only to create another triangle, as if a side-kick, a little joke, reminding one to pay attention: upside-down, on a metal platform, against the wall, in a corner, close to the floor, between the triptych and the canvas, is a clay bucket, a useful ‘workshop’ vessel, or a piece of armour (Ned Kelly’s helmet, for instance): cart, bucket, canvas.
The gallery seems large as one enters, the floor gleaming; it’s been left free to walk across, clearly visible; one(self) is a moving (target) image amongst other images, as if one is in the mind of something. There is order, precision, and then one moves and disturbs the ‘imagined’ triangles. This is an exaggeration of the composed space, nevertheless space has been left (a murmuring emptiness) for me to disturb; and space is a troubling theme in the work: compressed (pulp); rolled (canvas/drawing); raised (cart/platform); covered (cart/trolleys/drawings): carried (cart/trolleys/boat); contained (head/drawings).
The cart fills the gaze, and dwarfs the body; it’s toward the far end and centred; the conversation with Bosch is initiated: The Haywain Triptych (c. 1512-1516), in the collection of the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.(4) Aldo has seen that painting often, as well as other Bosch works, during the years he lived in Spain. The laden cart has wooden wheels and a single long shaft. It’s a mute solid thing, exactly cart-like; it stands for the world, and it’s heading for hell. In Bosch’s painting there are people clambering around the cart, engaged in all sorts of sinful acts; on top of the hay there’s an angel praying to God who is looking down on the scene; there’s a ladder leaning against the hay, and someone’s about to climb it. That ladder finds itself leaning against a boat/canoe, its footing in murky darkness, in the painting, Cloud, on the wall behind the cart.
The title is a critical element of the exhibition, not a clue but a key: A Conversation With Jheronimus. The word ‘conversation’ is used easily everyday; its etymology though begins with ‘verse’, and immediately shifts to ‘to turn’, quickly followed by ‘vertiginous’, ‘vertigo’, ‘vortex’; and then comes ‘furrow’, a line of writing; and further, to be versed-in, engaged-with, and skilled-at. We never know how a conversation will progress, or where a conversation will end up – it can wildly twist, loop and wind. A conversation is not, therefore, simple; and, a conversation between friends can take forever.
Hieronymous/Jheronimus (van Aken) Bosch was a Dutch painter and draughtsman, c1450 – 1516. His works are filled with desire and distress; they are epic paintings of strange hybrid people, animals, machines and monsters in existential, arduous, struggles (and getting their ‘just desserts’). Looking at a Bosch painting, in a book or on a website, one wonders how to converse with it – not analyse or mythologise it, but talk with it, say to it what one hears in one’s own mind while soaking up the scene of it, and each of the small individual scenes it’s made of – and slowly relinquish one’s detachment from the turmoil there so as to catch sight of the world (‘then’ and ‘now’). If the cart-of-hay is the world heading for hell, then we, who stand (still) before the cart, are specks of transient life, grasping at straws.
Way down in the back corner, behind the cart, is the painting, Cloud. It’s a beautiful ethereal painting, where everything is not where it usually is. There’s a big white cloud (dispersing); there’s darkness that lets the shape of ladders through; it’s difficult darkness, not the absence of light so much as depth, underworld. There’s a big, old, empty boat. There’s a man floating in the dark; the stars don’t quite reach him. This is an agitated, stirred-up place of suffering, visible and invisible; a lonely place of objects and atmospheres and ‘being’ where at any moment an intimacy (conversation) could arise (or detention). Faint screaming leaks across the surface, like a veil, and gathers in the corner where the cloud edges off the canvas.
An exhibition can lead to further inquiry, about for instance: the intricacies of conversation; the making of laws and social policies; ‘immigration malpractice’; ‘border continuum’: “We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating nation states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border – border continuum … To protect the safety, security and commercial interests of Australia, we are working with our partner agencies to develop intelligence-based profiles of risk across each dimension of the border continuum.”(5) A Conversation … looks at issues and decisions that affect our lives and mould our nation’s ethical framework (as have other bodies of work by Aldo); in the central panel of Bosch’s triptych “… daily life is seen taking place in the foreground, from women looking after their children and going about their daily tasks to the tooth-puller. In contrast, the figures trying to get on to the wagon by whatever means fail to notice the devilish figures driving it who are leading them straight to hell. Even less aware is the crowd following the haywain, led by the powerful of the earth riding on horseback …” (6)
We talk constantly, internally and externally, and often fail to say what we mean (even to ourselves). With faith though in the ‘idea’ of conversation – including interruption, delay and improvisation – the cart, a 500-year-old object in a painting, manifests, in its own way, as an absurd thought; that is, the artist lets the cart arrive and be ‘conversation’. Two old men, friends for as long as they can recall, come together to talk: “And softly … he asks: ‘But tell me, what has happened?’ and in the same way receives the response: ‘what had to happen, something that does not concern me.’ At once he is struck by the manner in which this statement remains at a distance; it is not solemn, it makes hardly any call upon him; it does not change the late morning light. He knows that it is, after all, only a sentence, and that it would be better not to translate it into this other that nevertheless he cannot refrain from offering: ‘Do you want me to understand that this might concern me?’ ‘It concerns neither one of us.’ The silence has a character to which he does not attend …” (7)
Conversation rocks back and forth; slowly it comes, bits and pieces, relays, refrains, returns; it comes as images and objects, holders for other images and objects (tangible and intangible); a story evokes more stories; a shape (like the hybrid bird/frog drawing on the trolley) develops and then unexpectedly, having gained access to vision, stops midway between ‘resemblance’ and ‘non-resemblance’ – remains vibrating, evasive: “When it is ‘true’, the image in the painting varies as fundamentally between empty and full as the world varies between appearance-disappearance, emergence-submersion, manifestation and withdrawal.”(8) And the black-covered clay frog’s ‘inside’ spurts out in such a fine black stream that the ‘outside’ would barely notice; when the artist was very young in Naples his Uncle died and he was told that his death was caused by water in his stomach; memories stick fast and over time become subtle ongoing renewals of themselves.
Remembering and forgetting are active processes; they (can) involve great effort and result from circumstance and legislation. Aldo remembers seeing footage of a metal cage-like structure placed over a number of people in the ocean and from a boat other people prodded and pushed them with long poles; soon (he’s sure) they drowned. There’s a cage (or trap) on one of the trolleys, covered in bitumen, and on another trolley there’s a drawing of two feet poking up from a surface, probably the ocean. This cruelty is breath-taking, unfathomable; Bosch’s paintings show the unfathomable – the endless horrors of the mind.
‘Covering’ occurs throughout the exhibition; it’s not meant to hide or protect or preserve; rather, it’s that the ‘thing’ in its full-glory, in the light of day, is unseen (bitumen, or tar, erases detail, the complex ‘thing’ is rendered simple); the Australian Government’s off-shore processing is a method that ensures people seeking asylum are out-of-sight, out-of-mind, that is, ‘covered’ by distance and secrecy.(9) To see and know something, one looks beneath or behind or above, or right under one’s nose, there; a cart (conversation) is covered in hay/food, and disappears. In Bosch’s painting people are either adding to the over-full cart or taking from it. ‘Covering’ is death and death is unbalanced; the objects/stories here are unbalanced, unevenly distributed.(10) For instance, the bucket is no counter-balance to anything; it’s ‘ready’ though, in its clay-imagination, for use; it can carry liquid or shield/cover the head.
The pulp is a ‘covering’; it’s made of mashed and buried ‘news’ from the Adelaide daily, The Advertiser; the pulp-remains are now hung as three sculptural paintings; it’s not pulp’s materiality that strikes one, but its existence, its work-shopped plasticity, its divine (contemplative) agency as a living/dying collection of cells, of neural systems, from the world (plots, tactics, crimes, deaths, births, wins, losses, joys, wars, accidents); these systems are internal to our stories, they are forces, written or spoken, that have been crushed and re-formed into textual platforms.
There’s an issue at play in the installation, an issue-of-issues, an issue that conditions issues; it’s the issue of which pre-existing opinions or orders-of-thought (that is, sense(s)) are brought to bear upon images and objects. And further, there’s the issue of what is foregone or forgotten in-coming-to-our-sense(s). The issue-of-issues is one of remembering, of edging toward, or facing, the imagined realm of forgetting so as to glimpse (or speak), perhaps, the imperceptible or the escaped, to notice transitions leading to transformations and aberrations; thought-moving (whereby something – a bird/frog, a potato, a lily – finds itself on a trolley) can revive a moving-forsaken-thought. There are sixteen moveable trolleys, curled around one side of the cart; on these are offerings of ‘memories’ and ‘forgettings’; small gathered mysteries, temporary and adjustable: the stomach covered in bitumen contains, in reality, a second neural network that ‘speaks’ butterflies, knots, gurgles; the musicians, the Palestinian scarf, the nest, the girl (with a pierced leg), the fish head (on the blue trolley), the dunce eating and sitting in his own shit (drawing #7 is a figure covered by a dunce-like cone); standing apart, in-between the two paintings, Cloud and The Mirror, behind the cart, on a tall trolley, is the head of the artist accompanied by a stone; it’s a wax head, pliable too; it’s the head that remembered a stone instead of a lily (because the title said ‘stone’) in Bosch’s painting The Cure of Folly (or Extracting the Stone of Madness); which is a truly mad/funny painting; an extractor wears a large funnel (dunce) hat; a woman watching has a book on her head; the extractee, called Lubbert Das, is tied to a chair.
There’s a set of seven-framed Indian ink drawings facing the pulp-triptych across the empty space. (I’ve referred to these in other parts of this text too.) These drawings are, collectively, the epitome of covering; every figure in them is covered; only feet are visible. Over their bodies is a form, a trap, a casing, a sheath even; there’s no doubt, these people have been intentionally ‘extracted’ from our view (and we are not seen by them), and ‘extracted’ from any context, any signs of belonging. The ‘extractor’ in Bosch’s painting, above, wears his crazy hat; in other words, fraud-expertise (surgery in his case) ‘funnels’ into (and out of) his head, cutting (off) another’s brain to extract the flower/stone. The entire body of each figure in the drawings has been cut-off, and this is a grave ‘issue’.
The little black painting is titled The Mirror; it’s positioned on the wall more or less in line with the back-end of the cart, on the side without the trolleys; from a distance it’s a black hole. White words are painted on the bitumen surface from Bosch’s drawing The Trees Have Ears, The Fields Have Eyes: “It is characteristic of the most dismal of intelligence to always use clichés and never their own inventions”.(11) Aldo’s inventions arise from his ‘conversation’ with Bosch; the conversation brings the artist to the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ of his own life and work. Seven eyes and two ears appear in Bosch’s image, and one eye and one ear appear in Aldo’s; the text, with its wiped out mistake (‘clichés’), floats out from the glossy background. The Mirror mirrors what the artist needs to remember.
A Conversation … is ‘complex’, but saying that is insufficient; language fails to unravel even one memory or one forgetting – as Freud tried to teach us (12); and to compound matters, writing is often tasked to simplify complexity, which then misses (covers) complexity altogether; it raises again the issue-of-issues because both (issue and issues) are maskings of one sort or another: mis/re-readings, re-interpretations or re-visionings (as well as errors and denials); as ideas manifest – and are transformed and solidified by form, size, substance and arrangement, becoming objects and/or images in an exhibition, complexity multiplies; as weavings of the personal and the historical they open onto the disasters/consequences of “now now now”, and onto our own traumatised ‘being’. Here in the writing, brackets, dashes and slashes reveal crinkles and digressions in writing’s attempt to acknowledge the indeterminate and the alternative (or other) inherent in words and meanings as they reach out to be with the interdependent and intersecting artworks.
This is a significant and compelling (13) installation-exhibition of 30 pieces (or maybe 22). It’s a body of work from the painter/sculptor Aldo Iacobelli, ‘TALLER A. IACOBELLI’; one walks into a WORKSHOP and becomes part of the ‘work’, of the conversation. The two sides of the conversation are quite different, and each added voice is different again, and this is vital, as it is for the two old men: “‘Is it something that happened to you?’ – ‘Did I say that?’ And he adds almost immediately, with a force of decision that might justly be termed moving, so much does it seem to exceed his resources of energy: ‘Nothing that has happened,’ yet along with it this reservation: ‘Nothing that has happened to me.’ – ‘Then in my eyes it’s nothing serious.’ – ‘I didn’t say that it was serious.’ He continues to meditate on this, resuming: ‘No, it’s not serious,’ as if he perceived at that instant that what is not serious is much more so.”(14)
— July, 2018
- Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Howard, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 1993, xxiii
- See: John Neylon, I [love] Painting, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2006
- See: Maria Zagala, Aldo Iacobelli – A Conversation with Jheronimus, Samstag Museum: “… Iacobelli is inspired by Bosch’s technique of painting in shades of grey, particularly on the closed side of a triptych. … The grey utilitarian appearance of Iacobelli’s triptych belies the surprising quality of its surface, which carries the imprints of his fingers and palms. In fact, these similar yet distinct panels are made from pulp … Iacobelli’s works can be understood as a lament for what has been lost during the recent past (media independence, reliable news) and as an expression of nostalgia for an age when history could be set down in newspapers, which served as records of the day.”
- The Haywain Triptych has two hinged sides that close to show a pedlar with a basket on his back about to cross a rough bridge; to the left of him three robbers tie a man to a tree, to the right people are dancing, and in the distance is the gallows with a tall ladder against it; in the foreground there’s a dog and skeletal remains; then you open the sides and see the (greedy) world: “… [people] jostle around the haywain, trying to grab handfuls of hay for themselves, which leads to blood and mayhem. Although the hay is worth little or nothing, they all pursue it as if it were gold. Hay is also a symbol of transience: the grass dries up and withers to nothing.” (Matthijs Ilskink and Jos Koldeweij, Hieronymus Bosch, Visions of Genius, Mercatorfonds, Brussels, 2016, 28)
- See: Department of Home Affairs, ‘Protecting our borders’, homeaffairs.gov.au
- The Haywain Triptych, museodelprado.es
- Blanchot, ibid., xvi,
- François Jullien, The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject Through Painting, trans. Jane Marie Todd, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2009, 230
- See: refugeecouncil.org.au
- In Bosch’s painting everything is morphing; amongst others there’s a tree/man, a deer-man, a mouse-woman, a fish-man/woman, a bird-man, and monsters, all transforming beings; everything is simultaneously living and dying, shifting from one realm of existence to another, from here to the hereafter. Transformation is not balanced across the painting, it’s happening overtly here-and-there, and it’s about to happen (a knife raised), and it’s completely happened (the creatures in the sky).
- The drawing has an owl at its centre sitting in the hollow of a tree; it’s a two-sided drawing with many little sketches on the reverse.
- See Sigmund Freud, ‘Childhood Memories and Screen Memories’, in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. Alan Tyson, Ernest Benn Limited, London, 1966, 43-52
- Another word here could be ‘marvellous’, with its root-sense coming from the Latin ‘mīrări’ – to wonder at; things worth wondering at.
- Blanchot, ibid., xv
Linda Marie Walker is an Adelaide-based writer, artist and independent curator.
Aldo Iacobelli: A Conversation with Jheronimus is a Samstag Museum of Art exhibition for the 2018 SALA Festival.