I believe the only noble path is one of selflessness.
Nobility exists not through what you become but in who you are:
how you listen, how you prepare.
The rest is utterly elusive
Richard Maxwell, Theatre For Beginners
From the earliest days of the calotype, the curious tripod, with its mysterious chamber and mouth of brass, taught the natives of this country that their conquerors were the inventors of other instruments beside the formidable guns of their artillery, which, though as suspicious perhaps in appearance, attained their object with less noise and smoke.
Samuel Bourne, Photography in the East, 1863
L’homme armé doibt on doubter
The armed man should be feared
Anonymous 15th century French chanson
But beneath this decorative crust there lies a ‘morbidly naturalistic art’, which enabled Ruskin to interpret the ‘tender red flowers tossing above the helmets and glowing beneath the lowered lances’ in The Rout of San Romano as a symbol of ‘neglect of the perfectness of the Earth’s beauty by reason of the passions of men’.
John Pope-Hennessy, Uccello: The Complete Work of the Great Florentine Painter
Engaging with artworks in their optimum conditions is a trickier proposition than it sounds. Because artworks have a specificity of scale and medium, the conditions of their display can work very much for or against their appreciation. At one extreme is the tough love that assumes that if an artwork is any good, it will survive the conditions of its display (the overhung artist survey is one current tendency of this leap of faith). At the opposite extreme is the increasing drift of many galleries and museums to overly theatricalise the setting in which artworks are presented, resulting in their diminution to the status of décor. In neither case has a rigorous examination of the nature of the artwork appeared to have determined the best context for its display.
When it was common to make artworks that were placed in semi-permanent settings, such as an altarpiece, fresco cycle, or monumental sculpture, the specific conditions of the intended site were paramount for the planning and realisation of the work. These conditions could include the availability and direction of light, the position the artwork could best be viewed from, and the intended use of the site. Yes, most contemporary artists aren’t so involved with making altarpieces, frescoes, or monumental sculptures, but these conditions still apply when engaging with any artwork.
For three two-week periods in the twelve months preceding the exhibition Two Shores at ReadingRoom in May–June 2019, the Melbourne artist Christian Capurro lodged himself in the gallery on a daily basis, and looked. What Capurro was intent on studying was the nature of the light entering the two gallery spaces through large north and east windows throughout the course of the day, trying to assess which time of the year would present the optimal conditions for a durational exhibition that would become Two Shores.
The exhibition was to be durational in two senses. Firstly, an ongoing series of painted works initially begun in 2008–09 titled work for tired eyes would form the basis of the exhibition, and these works would be viewed exclusively with the available – and ever-changing – natural light (to reinforce this, Capurro removed all of the gallery’s fluorescent lighting for the entirety of the subsequent exhibition). And durational also, as the exhibition would be totally reconfigured at the end of each week of its three week run, each week being titled as Act One, Two or Three, just like a dramatic performance.
Throughout this preparatory period, Capurro began introducing samples of his work into the space, testing the many options for their placement, always working exclusively with the available light. The monochromatic work for tired eyes are very effective when the correct angle of light hits their irregular surfaces to produce myriad reflections. This effect is minimised when hung too high or too low, manifesting as uninflected dark shapes. At some point during this period, Capurro also trialled a new sculptural project constructed of photographic tripods – many of them ingeniously co-joined to form aggregate entities. These would become the Disport works in the final exhibition.
Capurro’s lengthy and involved preparation is unusual for a visual artist. He used this six-week period not to make the works for the exhibition, but to investigate how to install them. An obvious parallel is an actor rehearsing for a performance, or an athlete practising for a competitive event…or, a soldier training for battle.
As exhibited in Two Shores, the objects titled individually and collectively as work for tired eyes all have painted surfaces, but are they paintings? My first impressions were of something like wax-coated etching plates, and not paper at all. Aligned sharply with the angles of the walls/floors and windows/doorways, they anchor and frame the lively behaviour of the Disport works. Capurro’s paper supports are derived from common printed material, such as magazine pages and posters. A high sheen black synthetic polymer paint is applied to one side. This treatment, in concert with the relative quality of paper – and the distribution of ink – causes the support to tension and buckle in unpredictable ways: a true example of the informe?
Carefully positioned to catch the light, each individual work for tired eyes beckons us to simply look. And once you take the time to look, you start to see things. Notable are the outlines of printed images that remain just visible under the layer of black paint – visible, but not always readily decipherable. And the shiny curdled surfaces play on the imagination (well, my imagination), conjuring dense tangles of figures and landscapes. In particular, given their quasi-metallic sheen, I think of bronze narrative reliefs, such as those fashioned by the great fifteenth century Florentine sculptors Andrea Pisano, Ghiberti, and Donatello, especially when Capurro hangs them as diptychs or triptychs, giving the impression of presenting a story.
What is achieved here is a figurative art without overt figuration. Whereas elsewhere in Capurro’s practice, a trace of the figurative endures even in the action of its erasure, here the process of concealment by paint also produces spectral images from the printed support. I wonder whether the use of photographic tripods in the Disport works also shapes our reading of the work for tired eyes, rendering their light-receptive surfaces inherently photographic.
Let us recall that Two Shores was presented in three Acts, and that in each week of the exhibition Capurro installed different configurations of the work for tired eyes and the Disport sculptures. Each of the configurations was quite unlike the others in terms of spatial organisation and mood. Although I have characterised Capurro’s extended preparatory period prior to the exhibition as a prologue, the formal Prologue was really Act One, where all of the elements were presented for the first time, introducing us to the dramatis personae. In Act One, each individual work for tired eyes did its job (at this stage, anyway) of “holding the wall”, whereas the Disport sculptures filled the space with dynamic, held gestures.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers as some of the meanings of the word “disport” …recreation …entertainment …amusement. This matches the antic effect of Capurro’s re-purposed tripods, a large specimen being the first object to be encountered in Act One of Two Shores. Secured upside-down to the floor, it towered up on a slight incline, as if to greet us.
The anthropomorphic character of the tripods is impossible to miss, but just in case you did, Capurro included a helpful guide in the room sheet that clearly designated the sections of the tripods as head, body, arse, and feet (or, h, b, a, f ). These are not the technical names for the different sections, but are the names used familiarly by the artist over many years of working professionally with this same equipment. Their articulated forms are indeed human-like, and function as a pseudo-prosthetic, enabling a photographer to multitask whilst keeping the camera securely balanced.
The “proxy-figures” that Capurro’s Disport works imply are progenies of the work of artists such as Picabia and Duchamp, De Chirico and Wyndham Lewis: quasi-sentient mechanisms, and mechanically-fitted bodies. Their animated poses also suggest figures engaged in combat. I’m thinking specifically of men in armour: noisy, robotic death machines with a sword and club in each hand, scaring the shit out of the pre-modern world. The two pairs of Disports in the second room of Act One, locked head to head, with one tripod of each set being lifted high off the floor by the other, functioned as schematic figures of two armoured humans in mortal combat.
As with the series of work for tired eyes, the deployment of figuration in the Disport works is highly mediated. Although it never disappeared entirely, the depiction of the body in Late Modernism was problematic. Often represented by indexical strategies, or via secondary images (many of them photographic), the body as manifested in the art of the post-war period was commonly represented as a series of secondary traces. Capurro employs many of these same strategies, resulting in the materialisation of bodily presence: his own, and that of others.
What these presences might signify is another question altogether.
What is meant by the use of Two Shores as Capurro’s exhibition title? Does it refer to the presentation of the three week-long configurations, and therefore the name of the work being “enacted”? Is it the name of the composite work installed as a combination of the work for tired eyes and Disport, creating a third distinct entity? Or is the title inherently Duchampian, adding a gnomic ingredient to the proceedings? Seeking precedents from the distant past, my own reading of Two Shores relates it to the subterranean topography of Hades, encircled by six vast rivers. The Ancient Greek underworld was the shadowy antipode of the celestial home of the gods, Olympus. Hades’ watery thresholds – the only route by which the underworld could be reached – were sites of interrogation, judgement, and danger.
Given that to find oneself between two shores is to be in a transitory and potentially hazardous state, the Ancient Greek religious belief of the soul’s traversal of Styx, Acheron, Lethe, Phlegethon, Cocytus, and Oceanus, may be distant historically, but still a close match to Capurro’s evocative exhibition title.
The tripod form of the Disport works extends my eschatological reading. Tripods were essential ancient cooking implements, and were also used in religious sacrifice and divination – practices associated with the afterlife. The small grooved hexagonal plates that Capurro detached from the head of his own tripods, fixing them to the walls, ceilings and floor of the gallery, looked to my museologically-driven eye like the Ancient Greek practice of using anklebones of cattle (or, astragali ) to cast oracles. Similar in procedure to the Chinese I Ching, five of these “knucklebones” were thrown, resulting in a numerical tally of their four distinct faces. Having the appearance of being thrown aloft – like astragali in the air – Capurro’s plates enacted something provisional or indeterminate in his otherwise immaculately planned installation. Their dispersed placement may actually have been systematic, but then chance is in its own way, a type of system.
Artworks need not have a specifically durational format, such as a video work or performance, to be durational. All artworks endure throughout time, and alter at some level of their materiality and meaning at every moment. Like every other object in our rapidly altering world, they are never the same work twice. Two Shores was announced as durational exhibition in Three Acts, and the invitation was to experience it, just like a performance, in each of its evolving sequences. Anyone seeing it each week was rewarded with numerous dramatic personae, and a shifting mise-en-scène.
My first experience of the work was in the early afternoon in the company of friends. Although I loved the reflected light bouncing off the warm coloured stone of the cathedral opposite, I preferred visiting after sunset by myself for the other two Acts. There was something very singular about being there alone in the quiet, darkened rooms, high above the busy city. Still quite visible, Capurro’s artworks were beautifully suspended as if by the penumbra, perhaps soliciting greater attention than when encountered in full daylight.
Movement in the near dark also required thoughtful negotiation. By the second week, Capurro had created a series of hazards, with one of the small work for tired eyes installed at an angle from the wall, with another larger one placed directly on the floor. By this stage, it was clear that the Disport works were sited to direct circulation, creating obstructions, but also leading to preferred viewpoints in the space.
Given its complex genesis, and the singular demands that the three-part presentation placed on its audience, how was Capurro going to bring his project to a resolution? A play, unless interrupted by some catastrophe, requires a conclusion. One option was to keep the work at ReadingRoom as a permanent ongoing installation, particularly as the exhibition layout was so closely tailored to the specific conditions of the gallery. This unrealisable outcome raises the same questions about the enduring integrity of artworks that I opened this writing with.
Capurro’s project also indirectly posed another, famous art historical question. What are the specific qualities that are distinct to both painting and sculpture, and which of these two mediums is more successful at realising artistic intent? In the first half of the fifteenth century, these were issues that were publicly debated in the form of the Paragone (or “competition”) between painting and sculpture. Leading artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo, and many others, responded with written statements arguing the efficacy of one medium over the other. By exhibiting both paintings and sculptures in the one project, Capurro presents an agon between two competing protagonists, perhaps suggesting one theme of the dramatic scenario framing Two Shores.
So, the culmination effected in Act Three was immediately apparent when entering the first room as one of maximum tension and release. A large single tripod not only had its legs fully extended, but also fully splayed, almost completely filling the modest space. It was attached to a ceiling beam as if it had been lynched, and one of the legs had kicked open a window, filling the gallery with chilly air. Pins that had previously held the prone work for tired eyes from the previous week remained in place, as if it had been ripped from the wall. This work was re-positioned in the doorway between the two rooms, but newly bent by some violent force. A further small painting had sought refuge directly on one of the windows.
In the second room, everything was now over. A single tripod was laid out flat, hovering just above the floor, and another higher up, was in rigid suspension, horizontally out from the wall. The rest of the space was filled with a large Disport made of five “head-to-arse” units, trailing awkwardly along the floor, looking like the scene of a massacre.
After this high drama, the final act was the melancholy task of removal and dispersal, leaving the myriad and impassive effects of the incoming light to fill the now-emptied rooms.