Monday, 25 July 2011

Bite 133: Mark Wallinger - Threshold to the Kingdom, 2000

Threshold to the Kingdom, 2000, (still), installation, video: 11min 12sec, Tate Britain
In a grand side-room, reminiscent of a chapel, in Tate Britain, a looped video is projected against one wall.

Accompanied by the haunting hymn Miserere Mei, Deus by Allegri, the single scene, is a pair of automatic double doors at London City Airport; this is the International Arrivals gate, the industrial threshold by which you enter the United Kingdom. Travellers walk toward the viewer, unaware they are being filmed. They stride with purpose, the video slowed down filling their every movement with significance, the door opening as if by the hand of God.

An employee runs across screen. A man stops with his trolley, looks around confused, then regards a scrap of paper and continues on. Three older women greet affectionately, probably after a long absence (above). At this point the video fades out, one of only two cuts. It comes back to the closed doors before further arrivals file through, continually piquing our interest, then looping through again in repetition.

The image fading reinforces the idea of heaven - Kingdom - coming through the work. Each arrival is also a departure, and vice versa.

In a surreal juxtaposition of spirituality/religiosity and the everyday, Wallinger presents a grand and intimate statement about the mundane, generic site airports are - liminal public spaces of boredom, transition and heightened experience.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Bite 132: Caravaggio - David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10

David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, oil on canvas, 125 × 101 cm, Galleria Borghese
In one of Caravaggio's last works before his mysterious disappearance and death, the artist paints himself as the dead Goliath, having been defeated by David. It is said that the young David was modelled on "his own little Caravaggio." This may refer to previous studio assistant - and lover - Cecco del Caravaggio. The diagonal sword - inscribed with an abbreviation of the phrase  "humility kills death" - mirrors David's gaze and has been seen as sexually suggestive. Or rather David may depict a younger version of the artist himself, who, in a double self-portrait, looks upon the head of his adult counterpart with sadness and compassion, in sharp contrast to the jubilant expression typical of other portrayals of this Biblical subject.

Carvaggio is on the run from the authorities, having murdered a man. He paints in desperation - his patron, Cardinal Borgese, maintained the power to grant him pardon. The result is a self-portrait alive with turmoil, his face contorted in hopelessness, mouth gaping as if about to utter his last words. 

A devastating explication on the human condition, the painting itself becomes the artist's own monumental elegy, the bold and mysterious Caravaggio having the final word.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Bite 131: Caravaggio - St. Jerome, 1605-06

St. Jerome, 1605-06, oil on canvas, 112 × 157 cm, Galleria Borghese
In the act of writing St. Jerome gives himself completely to his task. Pen and books become an extension of his body. Furrowed brow, head bowed, this is scholarship as an act of worship. 

The simplicity of the composition, as with the saint's attire, testify to Jerome's ascetic penance, seen as a requirement for an absolute dedication to study, writing and translation. A skull sits with him as a humble reminder of mortality and recognition of the greater purpose of his work.

St. Jerome is recognised as the patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopedists.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Bite 130: Caravaggio - Bacchus, c. 1595

Bacchus, c. 1595, oil on canvas, 95 x 85 cm, Uffizi, Florence
With the healthy glow of youth and the rosy cheeks of liquor, Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and ecstasy, garlanded with vine leaves, reclines before a still-life of fruit and wine. 

Endowed equally with mythical symbolism and realism, the adolescent Bacchus regards the viewer with a quizzical, tipsy expression. His fingers are dirty as one hand delicately holds a glass of wine out to us. 

Like many of Caravaggio's paintings it can be seen in overtly homoerotic terms, the other hand seeming about to invitingly pull the ribbon holding his robe closed. The passive tilt of the head and sideways glance appears equally inviting.

Yet the decision to include rotting fruit complicates this reading, hinting at themes of mortality and the inevitable loss of youthful vigour. With this in mind Bacchus' look takes on an altered significance, simultaneously teasing, and mournful.

Sunday, 3 July 2011


My apologies for the lack of recent posts. I am on a two week trip around France, Italy and Croatia. I am currently in Rome marvelling at the works of Caravaggio and Bernini. Florence, on Friday, Saturday, was equally significant. It will take time to adequately respond to the justifiably renowned David by Michelangelo.

For more on the trip see my partner's travel blog at The Antipodean.