Marlene Dumas and Marijke Van Warmerdam Con Vista al Celestiale (With a View from Heaven), June 6-July 15, 2004 at Galleria Civica darte contemporanea Via S. Lucia alla Badia, 196100 Siracusa - Italy
Hanging in an old castle on the ancient island of Siracusa is a badly weathered Caravaggio being manned by two guards under cautiously dim light. At the center of the painting lies the murdered body of the Italian martyred virgin Santa Lucia. According to apocryphal texts, the beautiful Lucia was a highborn girl from Syracuse, on the island of Sicily. She rejected her appointed fianc in order to devote herself to good works and commit her life to God but her spurned suitor denounced her as a Christian to the local Roman authorities and she was sentenced to being removed to a brothel and forced into prostitution. According to legend, Lucia became immobile and could not be dragged away. Unable to sully her, the soldiers decapitated the virgin and cut out her eyes. In Caravaggios painting, she lies supine with her angelic face upturned to the sky, as a celestial light descends upon her.
Six months ago, the South African artist Marlene Dumas and the Dutch artist Marijke Van Warmerdam stood transfixed before Caravaggios painting and were inspired to craft the theme of thier dual show at Syracuses only contemporary art exhibition space, Montevergini, run by Salvatore Lacagnina, around the image of Santa Lucia, also know as Saint Lucy.
At Montevergini, where Lacagnina has been the curator and director since 2001, he requires all exhibiting artists to produce shows inspired by some aspect of Syracuse, an island off of Sicily that was once inhabited by the Greeks. Van Warmerdam and Dumas, who were last seen side-by-side at the Dutch Pavilion in the 1995 Venice Bienni, were invited almost a year ago by Lacagnina to collaborate on a theme . Instead of collaborating on works together, the two artists decided to work independently on pieces that would support their theme, but had never been to the small island before, it was only when they made the trek several months ago to seek out a point of inspiration for their exhibition, that they saw the Caravaggio.
In many ways, it was a natural attraction for both Van Warmerdam and Dumas because Saint Lucy was the perfect subject matter for Caravaggio. Caravaggio had painted The Burial of Santa Lucia (Il Seppellimento di Santa Lucia) while he was in refuge after fleeing jail in Malta, only two years before his death in 1608. The painting was a commission for a speedily encroaching Feast of Santa Lucia Day, which occurs every December 13th in Syracuse, where Saint Lucy is the patron saint. The iconography of Saint Lucy was particularly well-suited for Caravaggio. She was often depicted by Medieval artists, because of the method of her murder, carrying her gorged eyes on a silver dish, an image which fit with Caravaggios penchant for gore. Saint Lucy was also the patron saint of light because of the halo of candles she was said to have worn when entering dark places where needy Christians where hiding away from Roman persecution. Caravaggio, the master of manipulating light, was a perfect match for this myth, which is why Dumas, Lacagnina and Van Warmerdam named their exhibition Con Vista al Celestiale (With a View from Heaven).
The logic behind Dumass interest in the painting is clear. She frequently works with the female body as her subject matter and often paints her friends, herself, fashion models, porn stars or strippers and therefore Saint Lucy was an intriguing combination of her interest in the female form and her current creative fixation on images of death. Dumas is extremely erudite and is always with her finger on the pulse of current affairs. Much of her inspiration is taken directly from images she finds in newspapers, so sadly death, particularly violent death, is a main topic for her during these days.
The connection between Saint Lucy and Van Warmerdam is less overt. Van Warmerdam often uses the landscape as her starting point and while Dumas is a painter, Van Warmerdam produces sculpture, installation and paintings but predominantly works with 16mm film. Her art is typically clean and simple, and the works created for this show are playful with a light, childlike perspective on issues of life and death.
Van Warmerdam embraces the idea of transcendence and the passage from one place to another. Her works evoke heavenly, spiritual imagery.
In the photo on canvas piece, My God, Saint Lucy is transformed by Van Warmerdam into a golden ray of light. In her sculptures, she often employs metallic or crystal-like materials that have the tendency to dissolve and fragment, so that a figure thrown onto its reflective surface becomes an absolution of form. In one such sculpture she has placed a butterfly behind a glass as if to say, in death we take flight, we are free to fly.
In contrast, Dumas depicts us as the bloated, polluted, gangrenous mass of flesh we will all inevitably become. In one of Dumass works on paper, United Europe, the face, with two haunting eyes aglow, looks halfway decomposed. It is a dark and intense image, but an excellent example of why Dumass works are becoming more and more popular as we as a culture are increasingly connecting with harsh images of death. Marlene Dumas is on the brink of iconic and her view of humanity is not pleasant one but more and more we seem to lust after it as evidenced by the fact that Charles Saatchi bought one of her paintings, Young Boys sold for $993,600 dollars at the Phillips, de Pury & Company Contemporary auction in May. She deals with a mortal coil we cannot shove off.
Dumass painterly quality is so sensuous that it furthers the hunger for her images. She is a self proclaimed Abstract Expressionist Painter working very quickly by moving the viscous mixture of paint and thinner across the canvas creating an almost blurred and diaphanous sensation, reminiscent of Michaux and Richter. Caravaggio often comes to mind when seeing her intense surfaces offset by blinding luminosity and inky darkness. And his feel for the grotesque can be seen in Dumass faces, which have alabaster skin whose tone is often hovering on the brink of jaundice. This visual trick is accentuated by the green aura-like outlining her figures faces.
Dumas researched historical martyrs for the three monumental pieces she created for the show. These relatively large canvases hang in a row as if they were the isolated parts of a triptych or a trinity. Each painting is of a disembodied head and all of them are female. They might have been severed or merely cropped by Dumass composition but since she often recreates works by artists in history, then these could be references to Gericaults studies of severed heads. And as always she provides her strikingly individual visual language. The first of the three heads, Lucia is her rendering of Caravaggios Santa Lucia but the second head is closer to Richter, who is a reoccurring influence for her. And the title for Stern was taken from the name of the 1977 issue of the German magazine, Stern (Star), from which the image a murdered leader of what was once a highly feared and condemned terrorist group derived.
Once Dumas placed the head of the female terrorist next to the image of Saint Lucy, then the woman is given automatic martyr status. Complicating matters is the fact that the third head Alfa, is a portrait of a woman from Chechnya who was killed for voicing the ideals of her people. She is arguably a contemporary saint and similarly Dumas painting The Prophet, which was taken from a newspaper photograph of one of the liberated patients of an Iraqi insane asylum shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein depicts another martyr of contemporary political conflict.
Dumas states in the exhibition press release, Looking at images does not lead us to the truth. It leads us into temptation. Now that we know that images can mean whatever, whoever wants them to mean, we dont trust anyone anymore, especially ourselves. What Dumas and Van Warmerdam force us to do is ask, now that there are no more myths of divine intervention, what will become of todays martyrs?
NICOLE DAVIS is a writer and filmmaker living in Miami..