Upon the Primacy of the Greeks

Project in progress

The Tale of The Banyan Tree

Galleria Studio, Palermo

February 14th - March 14th 2015

In India, a huge tree, with large, heart-shaped leaves, grew near the temple of Mahabodhi. It was an old specimen of Ficus religiosa; in Sanskrit, its name — Ashwattha — means ‘that which changes’. According to legends, under that tree Siddharta Gautama sat a long time in meditation, until he got the Bodhi, that is the awakening. For this reason,…

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In India, a huge tree, with large, heart-shaped leaves, grew near the temple of Mahabodhi. It was an old specimen of Ficus religiosa; in Sanskrit, its name — Ashwattha — means ‘that which changes’. According to legends, under that tree Siddharta Gautama sat a long time in meditation, until he got the Bodhi, that is the awakening. For this reason, that banyan tree is known as the Sri Maha Bodhi, or the Bodhi Tree. Still today, in that place there is a great banyan tree, which is said to descend from that under which the Buddha was enlightened. It is considered a sacred tree, and therefore the name of Ficus religiosa was given to its species. Believers of many religions go on pilgrimage there. Gentle and mighty, generous in affording a shelter to wayfarers caught short by rainstorms or exhausted by the summer heat, its name recurs often in old sacred Indian books and in Buddhist legends. In the Chandogya Upanisad, Svetaketu learns from his father how such a gigantic tree can come from a tiny seed, and how in that Nothing the essence of every thing is hidden. Another species — the Ficus benghalensis — in Sanskrit is called Nyagrodha, which means ‘that which grows downwards’. What makes these trees so monumental and moving is the framework of aerial roots, which, reaching the ground, become ancillary trunks, and help to support the weight of the foliage. If one agrees that these trees could have a symbolical value, and that their marvellous shapes could be a teaching to men, then one will understand how the issue that the banyan tree raises is that of rooting. It is not just a matter of the strength of the roots, but rather of the will to connect the top with the bottom. The strength of the result depends on this will. Leaves and roots depend on each other: without the latter, the former would die, and vice versa. It is essential that there is an effective connection so that this mutual function can take place. Without a good link, sap could not rise to the top, and, conversely, the energy synthesized by the leaves could not come back to the ground. For these reasons, banyan trees recur in many religions’ symbology, with the name of Tree of the World, with the celestial specularly superimposed to the mundane. It reminds wayfarers that the Top and the Bottom belong to each other.

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Scuderie di Palazzo Sambuca, Palermo

June, 14th - 23rd 2013

The oldest settlements in the area of Petra were inhabited by the Edomites – who were mentioned in the Book of Exodus – between the end of the VIII century and the beginning of the VII century BC. The town flourished a little later on thanks to the Nabataeans, an Arab nomadic tribe. In the…

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The oldest settlements in the area of Petra were inhabited by the Edomites – who were mentioned in the Book of Exodus – between the end of the VIII century and the beginning of the VII century BC. The town flourished a little later on thanks to the Nabataeans, an Arab nomadic tribe. In the first half of the II century BC the Nabataeans gave life to their kingdom, establishing in Petra their capital. Its ascent was mainly due to three different factors: the orography, which made it unconquerable, the abundance of water, and, most of all, the location. For several centuries Petra was the crossroads of the caravan routes from Aqaba and Yemen to Damascus and to Constantinople, which is to say, to all of the trade routes leading to a variety of goods – spices, incense, perfumes, and tar – from India to the Mediterranean countries and from Egypt to Persia.

The first king of the Nabataeans of whom we have recorded evidence was ‘Ubayda I (known also as Obodas I), who ruled from 96 BC to 85 BC. After his death, he was worshiped as a god, and the most sumptuous grave in Petra was very likely dedicated to him, the so called al-Deir (the Monastery). Around 80 BC, the Nabataeans conquered the Seleucid territories, extending their domain northward as far as the Euphrates river and Palmyra. The son of ‘Ubayda I, al-Harith III (Areta III), expanded their kingdom further, all the way to Damascus. The other famous grave in Petra, al-Khazneh (the Treasury), which owes its name to the mistaken belief that the treasure of an Egyptian Pharaoh was hidden in it, is most likely dedicated to al-Harith III. Al-Harith’s greatest success was the agreement he negotiated with the Romans: by paying a huge toll in silver, the Nabataean kingdom ensured its substantial independence. Petra grew in power and wealth from 9 BC to 40 AD under king al-Harith IV, when its population reached about 30,000 people. Toward the end of the I century AD, the Romans shifted their trade routes to Egypt and along the Nile river; new towns became pivotal along the caravan routes, such as Bosra and Palmyra in Syria. In 106 AD the Nabataean kingdom was peacefully taken over by Rome. Bosra became the new capital of the Roman province called Arabia Petræa and from then on, Petra’s slow decline began.

After many centuries of oblivion, Petra was rediscovered in 1812 thanks to the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Born in Lausanne in 1784, forced to leave Switzerland to go to Germany and then to Great Britain, in 1809 he was employed by the African Association as a member of an expedition whose objective was to discover the source of the Niger river. For this reason, he spent time in Cambridge, studying medicine, surgery, chemistry, astronomy, mineralogy, Arabic, and training himself to endure long walks and rigid fasts. In order to improve his knowledge of Arabic language and culture he was sent to the Middle East. In Aleppo, in Syria, where he settled, he changed his identity, took the name of Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, and learnt to dress like a native, pretending to be an Hindustan merchant. His knowledge of the Arabic language was so fluent that he was able to translate Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. During his stay in Syria, he explored the region and its archaeological sites thoroughly – going to Damascus, to Baghdad, but also to Palmyra, and to Ba’albek in Lebanon. He wrote detailed reports in his daybooks about these travels, which were often very adventurous, and they were published after his death. He also reported about them in the letters he sent regularly to the African Association in London. In the summer of 1812 Burckhardt decided to go to Cairo along the Kings’ Road as far as Aqaba, heading to Timbuktu and to the source of the Niger river. With an excuse he convinced his guide to take him to Wadi Musa, a valley that the Bedouins guarded jealously as a secret. «It appears very probable that the ruins in Wadi Musa are those of the ancient Petra – he wrote in his journal – […]. At least I am persuaded, from all the information I procured, that there is no other ruin between the extremties of the Red Sea and the Dead Sea of sufficient importance to answer to that city. Whether or not I have discovered the remains of the Arabia Petræa, I leave to the decision of Greek scholars […]». (Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, Travels in Syria and the Holy Land. Description of a Journey from Damascus through the Mountains of Arabia Petræa and the Desert El Ty, to Cairo; in the Summer of 1812, London 1822).

Burckhardt was only twenty-eight when he rediscovered Petra. He died five years later, in 1817. The posthumous publication of his travel journals generated great interest and other travellers retraced his footsteps in the years to come. But at that time, Petra was extremely difficult to reach: the valley was off the ordinary routes taken by the archaeologists and artists who went to the Middle East and visitors were very likely to be robbed by the natives. It is therefore worth mentioning the journey of two young French men, Léon de Laborde and Louis Linant de Bellefonds, who reached Petra in 1828. They made a large number of sketches, which were widely circulated upon their return home, giving the Western public the first pictorial representations of the monuments of the Nabataean town. In particular, the book published by Léon de Laborde in 1836, Journey through Arabia Petræa to Mount Sinai, and the Excavated City of Petra, the Edom of the Prophecies, became a source of inspiration for David Roberts, a Sottish painter who in March 1839 travelled to Petra and to the Middle East with the precise purpose of painting a series of landscapes to sell on his return home. Thus Petra’s image began to take shape. Photographs, however, are much rarer evidence. One of the first known photographers was Louis Vignes, who arrived in Petra in 1864 with an expedition organized by the duke de Luynes, a collector, archaeologist and photographer himself, who between 1866 and 1874 would publish his account in a book illustrated with sixty-four photo-etchings and lithographs taken from photographs (Voyage of Exploration to the Dead Sea, and on the Left Bank of the Jordan, Paris 1874).

In 1985, Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then, it has been the subject of an infinite quantity of pictures, which unfailingly represent always the same views, from the same perspective, without contributing much to a profound understanding of the place. Like many other touristic attractions, Petra today coincides with its image. The emotion of the exploration and the discovery, which one can feel pulsating in XIXth-century travellers’ journals, has vanished; it has been substituted, in the pictures taken by modern tourists, by an automatic process of confirmation of something already known, by the simple repetition of stereotyped images which have already been seen thousands of times. The photographs here on display strive to shatter these clichés. By avoiding the postcard effects of the ‘Rose-Red-City’ they hope to rebuild a dialogue with the XIXth-century travellers’ perspective, while illuminating the relationship between nature, rocks and architecture.

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Masterworks of Italian Photography from the Collection of Paolo Morello

London, Christie’s South Kensington

12th June, 2012

Italian Realism. Masterpieces from the Collection of Paolo Morello

Moscow, Big Manezh

March, 18th - April, 24th 2011

La fotografia in Italia. Capolavori della fotografia italiana dalla collezione Paolo Morello

Milano, Fondazione Forma

February, 12th - June, 2th 2010

In the Beginning

«Verily at the first chaos came to be», writes Hesiod in the Theogony. For a Greek from the VIII century BC, chaos meant abyss: the chasm yawning from the surface down to the depths of its Origin. This image is, one might think, similar to that offered by the crater of any volcano that gapes hideously…

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«Verily at the first chaos came to be», writes Hesiod in the Theogony. For a Greek from the VIII century BC, chaos meant abyss: the chasm yawning from the surface down to the depths of its Origin. This image is, one might think, similar to that offered by the crater of any volcano that gapes hideously from the crust to the bowels of the Earth. However, in the story told by Hesiod, Gaia, the «wide-bosomed» Earth, does not yet exist: her time will come later. Chaos opens upon itself, it unfurls itself like an absolute. This is closer to what modern science would centuries later call a ‘black hole’: a lump of mass so dense that it draws in not only matter, but even light.

The primary function of chaos is, like that of a black hole, to engulf. The abyss implies a drop, a vertical motion from above to below towards dark Tartarus, towards an infinitely distant point. Tartarus is also in the West where the ocean and the sky meet at the horizon, where the darkness swallows the sun: «And there, all in their order, are the sources and ends of gloomy earth and misty Tartarus and the unfruitful sea and starry heaven, loathsome and dank, which even the gods abhor. It is a great gulf». Chaos, the primordial void, is first and foremost an absence: it is a chasm, an absence of matter and form, but it is also darkness, an absence of light. Moreover, Hesiod says that «From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night»: two figures of shadow. Erebus, the personification of the darkness of the underworld, and Night gave birth to Death, Sleep and the brood of Dreams, Blame and painful Misfortune, Hesperides, the Moirai, the Keres, also Nemesis, and «Deceit and Friendship and hateful Age and hard-hearted Strife». In turn, Strife will bear «painful Toil and Forgetfulness and Famine and tearful Sorrows, Fightings also, Battles, Murders, Manslaughters, Quarrels, Lying Words, Disputes, Lawlessness and Ruin whose ways are all alike». The entire genealogy of evil begins with Chaos. However, from Erebus and Night came forth also their respective complementary opposites: Ether and Day. The figure of Day stands opposite Night. Ether is the personification of that part of the heaven which shines upon the highest, purest part of the atmosphere. The word from which it derives, aitho — to burn — conveys the notion of light and splendour. Aristophanes will use Ether as a synonym with the sun.

Thus Hesiod’s chaos, symbol of primordial darkness, is capable of creating its opposites. Even as a figure of void, it can transform itself into a symbol of overflowing plenitude. As the Earth falls away at the mouths of volcanoes, from these same chasms comes forth magma, and it is from this outpouring that the Earth is formed. This reversal of chaos, from a figure of void to a symbol of overflowing, is not expressed in the Theogony. However, after Chaos and Gaia, Hesiod introduces a third beginning principle, Eros. Unlike the others, it does not bear any descendants: it is a daimon. It is the figure of the impulse to procreate, of the divine breath, of the spit, and the whisper, which recur in other cosmogonies. The effect of its action is an overflow. Eros is therefore the agent, the cause which allows the reversal of chaos from the emblem of primordial void to a symbol of brimming over. It is by the power of Eros, that from the chasm of chaos can pour forth Light. Now, the absolute engulfing power of the black hole is reversed, transforming itself into the burst of the originary Big Bang.

«In the beginning god created the heaven and the earth». Thus begins the first book of the Pentateuch, the book which Christians call Genesis, and Jews Bere’shît, which means precisely ‘in the beginning’. Here one reads the famous passage about the creation of Man: «and the Lord God formed Man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul». In different guises, this image of Man moulded from the mud is found in the creation myths of many other cultures. Sumerian mythology, where the model for the Judaeo-Christian tradition should be traced, tells of Enki, god of wisdom, who taught his mother Nammu how to create men and women from moulding the clay of the abyss; and of Ninmah, goddess of childbirth, who by moulding the earth gave the first human beings form. The photographs collected in this volume come out of a meditation on a few recurrent motifs in myths of creation: chaos, the abyss, the primordial chasm, the origins of Man, the alitus which gives life, the flatus, vibration, and the myth of Eden.

The paradisaical garden, where every plant grows and every species of fruit ripens spontaneously, does not simply represent the place of abundance. It does not come about solely as a response to famine or deprivation, as a reward for a virtuous life, or in order to justify the necessity of hardship and everyday work by Man so as to procure food necessary for his survival and that of his offspring. In a wider mythographical perspective, the myth of Eden refashions the oldest, most profound anxieties that are linked to the flowering of vegetation. The utopia of the locus amœnus takes shapes in order to exorcise the threat of unexplored and wild Nature that is not yet under the control of Man. A reassuring and pleasant place par excellence, the garden of Eden rescues «Nature, on which as yet no knowledge has been at work, which maintains unbroken barriers to culture», to use the words Nietzsche coins in The Birth of Tragedy. The paradisaical garden sublimates the nightmare of the virgin forest; with it, Man elaborates and redeems what is most uncanny in his encounter with Nature: the terror of the unknown, and more, the fear evoked by the discovery of his own instincts. It is the terror which envelopes every human being when confronting the most basic and bestial part of his or her own psyche; the panic fear which paralyses and freezes every creature that hears the terrifying cry of Pan, the god who is half man and half animal, rising up from the depths of the wood. When Pan draws close, when his voice thunders, and when primordial Nature resurfaces from the depth of consciousness, it is then that every image of the world is transformed, that a new vision irrupts, that the boundaries of the field of awareness are torn apart and reconstructed. Savage Nature is the image of the unconscious self.

The crucial theme of these photographs is therefore consciousness. They strive to show the essential analogy between Man taking shape out of the depth of the shadows and the amorphous mire, between the emergence of the Earth from the depths of the ocean and wild Nature’s disturbing coming to consciousness. Each and every case deals with a coming to the surface, a progressive taking shape, which firstly denotes an appropriation. As many commentators of the sacred Scriptures observe, God does not limit himself merely to separating the land from the waters, or breathing life into the nostrils of Man but bestows things with a name. The incipit of the book of Genesis resounds in the first verses of John’s Gospel: «in the beginning was the Lógos». Thus, in the beginning — Bere’shît — there was the breath of God which gave life, but there was also the thought, the word, and the name. It is the Lógos which announces and presupposes consciousness.

Myths of creation must not only be read as an attempt to understand and ‘explain in poetic words’ natural phenomena which current forms of knowledge cannot explain, but also as a representation of the emergence of consciousness. Behind the image of the Earth rising up from the depths of the ocean, or of Man taking form out of clay, it is Man’s becoming aware of himself, of the cosmos, and of creation, that is revealed. Even the gradual subjugation of the thick undergrowth, the subtraction of land from the tangle of plants, clearing, ploughing, cultivating, putting things to good use, all these are representations of the arduous erosion accomplished by the consciousness of that which is instinctual, compulsory, and irrational — or rather natural — in the darkest recesses of the unconscious psyche. Erich Neumann and Marie-Louise von Franz brilliantly observed that every cosmogony represents an effort to widen the boundaries of the field of consciousness, that exterior reality is created and exists as it flowers on the surface of consciousness, and as it is included in the field of consciousness, and that this process does not only concern the early stages of psychic development, but also the life of contemporary man. In dreams, cosmogonic myths recur whenever a leap forward in awareness is about to happen. The occurrence of symbols of birth or rebirth, like an egg, expresses a need for regeneration: it announces an illumination, an awakening. Photography should strive to force out the secret of these leaps forward: it must help this process.

The search for awareness and self-consciousness are the central theme of the Veda, the collection of sacred texts written in India between 2000 and 500 BC. For western culture it was necessary to wait until the second half of the XIX century and the converging efforts of philologists and anthropologists, historians of religion and of mythology, scholars of folklore and psychologists to recognise «that man was not only Western, modern, secular, civilized and sane, but also primitive, archaic, mythical, magical and mad», to quote a fitting expression by James Hillman. Today, it is commonly accepted that the key to understanding all that is human — in order to explain compulsions, choices, behaviour and instincts — lies in the continual conflict between one part already at the surface of consciousness, the knowing Ego, and a part still wrapped in the depths of the unconscious. Jung went further, claiming that the essence itself of the human being lies in its capacity to reflectere, that is to say, to quite literally bend inwardly, to elaborate his or her primary instinct to flee when presented with a fear-inducing stimulus, into another instinct, likewise innate: that is to turn inwards, working out a response in conscious meaning and thus transforming the instinctual reaction into the result of a conscious deliberation. It is through this reflexive instinct that man transform stimulus into experience and that instead of compulsion, freedom takes root.

What can photography add to this debate? In my opinion, not a minor contribution. Photography helps to reveal the dual nature of art better than any other type of representation. On the one hand, it performs an eminently mythopoetic function: it produces new myths. It nourishes the universe of the imaginal, using Henry Corbin’s meaning of the term, offering new material for reflection and analysis. On the other hand, photography itself constitutes an instrument of analysis. Insofar as it compels us to see, it induces and entails an act of consciousness regarding the subject which it represents. Photography forces us to reflect upon the external, contingent reality which appears before the lens; moreover, it forces the photographer to continually question himself about the meaning of seeing itself and the possibilities and limits of knowledge. (Not by accident do I use the verbs see and know synonymously: in Sanskrit, they have the same root). Only this search for consciousness can restore the dignity of an intellectual activity to photography, too often associated, in common opinion, with instantaneousness and automatism. Each click presupposes a raising of attention: it induces a different, more profound awareness of the subject in front of us. At the same time, each click redefines the aims and the limits, the functions and the meaning of taking photographs. Every new picture not only helps us to extend our knowledge of the world; it also forces us to become conscious that we are human beings inasmuch as we are capable of awareness.

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Petrodvorec, Marly Pavillion

August 2014