“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It sounds like good advice, but Romans seem largely to ignore William Kentridge’s Triumphs and Laments, sprawling for half a kilometer along the Tiber embankment, between the Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. For the most part, it serves as backdrop for joggers and cyclists in their bright attire, melting into daily life, visited by the odd group of students from the Accademia di Belle Arti a few bridges north, and tourists like us. “All too often we’re the ones who decide what time holds,” writes Javiar Marias, the great Spanish novelist. Or so says the narrator in Thus Bad Begins. In Kentridge’s case, this is nothing to lament; the choices of what to include, what to exclude are made so well. But the ability to choose what time holds is, in the end, illusory. There’s no way to keep Kentridge’s long frieze from itself becoming entangled with other times, with other works, especially here in this jumble, this Rome. Things force their way in.
The long frieze, finished in April 2016, collects (and alters) a procession of images from different periods of Roman history: the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius around which Michelangelo designed the Campidoglio; the famed Roman wolf; Aldo Moro, kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades, his body in the trunk of the car; Michelangelo’s Pieta with Madonna (now jumbled together with other desolated figures); the Trevi fountain scene from La Dolce Vita; the famed image of Anna Magnani in Rome, Open City, lying dead in the street, shot by the Nazis; a blank section, perhaps the base for some statue, that reads “Quello che non ricordo” (What I don’t remember); a hurrying Pope; Pasolini, murdered, or as many believe, assassinated; an espresso coffee maker; Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo; the sacking of Jerusalem as depicted on the Arch of Titus, a looted menorah held high in triumph; and repeatedly, images of boats overloaded with refugees, straining to cross the Mediterranean.
Several are repeated and transformed: Marcus Aurelius’s horse gradually becomes more and more skeletal, as though starving; the Roman wolf becomes increasingly deathly, as though stalking or haunting the pictures. Other images are quietly tweaked: the Roman wolf no longer feeds Romulus and Remus. Instead she pours her milk into amphora. Some are transposed: where Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg once waded into the Trevi fountain to embrace and grope one another, now they stand in a bathtub mounted on wheels like a cart. The Bernini, too, sits on wheels. Everywhere figures march or go wheeled along – except the punctuating dead, who lie frozen and discarded. The constant marching, trundling, dragging seems like a counter-image to our viewing. We walk along the Tiber, dwarfed by huge images, enjoying ourselves while the pictures decompose or haunt the city. No viewer is likely to recall or name every narrative. The effect is one of familiarity, of having seen it before, of knowing that one, vaguely recalling another, as though wandering through some great archive.
Walking beside them, in contrary motion, is lovely – especially walking north as the figures pass, facing south. This seems to animate things, the frieze scrolling past. Up close, the figures, though enormous, seem hardly to exist, less something declarative than like towering shadows, cast perhaps by history, lengthening as some crucial light slowly declines. Huge stencils blown-up from Kentridge’s original drawings protected areas of the surface from pressure-washing. Once the stencils were removed, these towering figures-in-grime remained, evidence of a reversed graffiti, of subtraction rather than addition. (Is this what history is – a long subtraction of persons, events, places, thoughts, and feelings?) At first the scrubbed-clean marble was striking, oddly bright in the weathered city. Now, only two years later, the procession of images begins to merge with the slowly-discoloring walls while plants grow through the figures.
But it’s foolish to treat any work as though it stands alone; every work is contaminated by its larger context, and this is especially true in a city of so many jumbled times and objects, where works and times pile up like the garbage overflowing its bins on every street. I found myself imagining that Triumphs and Laments might be the counterpart of Augustus’s Great Altar of Peace a few bridges north. On the sides of the altar Augustus and Livia appear, Agrippa, even children – the imperial family in procession, as though they were just citizens, mere persons, and at the same time, they display aspects of gods of plants and sun. Below the human figures is a vegetal procession organized around the scrolling acanthus (the thistle that stubbornly endures baking heat) and the aquiline fern (which propagates after fire.) A masterpiece of propaganda or rhetoric, it played a crucial role in Augustus’s political program, and yet it was, and is, a promise of peace after years of civil war. Perhaps Kentridge’s frieze is the altar’s dark opposite, a warning of what Hito Steyerl and Franco Bifo Berardi will call the coming Global Civil War. (“History invades the hypercontemporary,” writes Steyerl, “it is not a noble endeavor.”) Like Virgil’s Georgics, the altar spoke of peace that could prevail, of agricultural knowledge that could be passed on, of farms that could prosper, of a city where people could pass settled lives. The altar has survived two thousand years to address us now. In itself this seems so poignant, standing in sunlight beside the scrolling plants, the processing figures. Kentridge’s haunted figures will fade within a few years into the grime from which they emerged. This is no less poignant, and somehow indicative of our moment, in which the future once so cherished, after years of civil war, seems impossible to us now, or so readily eclipsed.