Angelus Novus vis-à-vis the Ruins of History

Ólafur Gíslason
Curator/Art historian

It is not only a great honor for an Icelandic artist to be invited to exhibit her work in the Museum of the Trajan’s Market on the Imperial Fora in Rome. The entire context of this exhibition shows her work in a new light, and at the same time her objects shed a new and interesting light on the venue. Once the work of Rósa Gísladóttir has been placed within the context of Trajan’s Market and the Imperial Fora, it will no longer be viewed in isolation as an instance of late modern or minimalistic formalism. The discourse between the objects and the ruins on the Imperial Fora give them new meaning, making us consider their historical context.

Trajan’s forum was a turning point in the history of Roman architecture, in the sense that Trajan emphasized the public space, whereas, by contrast, the architecture of Nero, for example, had focused on the divine personality of the emperor. In an unprecedented way, Trajan was keen on creating an open space for the public, which would frame life in the city and emphasize its significance as the center of the empire and of civilization.

In the course of millennia, the preservation of the objects of the past is more or less coincidental; there is, however, no other city in the world which, despite all the upheavals of history, continues to a similar degree to “give shape to the desires and dreams of men”, as Italo Calvino said bout the city of Zenobia[1] in his book, Invisible Cities. Like all the classical architecture of the Imperial Fora, Trajan’s Forum is characterized by strict geometry, where symmetry, the square and the circle, formally emphasizes the thought that the city is not only the center of the empire, but that it mirrors the geocentric view of the world, in which the Earth is the center of the universe and the celestial sphere with its planets is its everlasting roof. This was an invariable and eternal image of world, and it was not within human abilities to change it; the firm human habitat on Earth, with Rome as its center.

Wherever we look on the Imperial Fora in Rome, we encounter the geometry of the center and the symmetry: be it in the columns, the arches, or the vaults, be it in the basic organization of the fora, or in the ornaments decorating the architecture and emphasizing its significance. But how can we understand the meaning of the ruins of the imperial era in Rome in its entirety?

Here it is appropriate to quote Emanuele Severino:

“In the tradition of the West, the city, the house, the temple, the theater, the stadium, the church, and the castle were not built to exist forever, and yet these structures reflect the Eternal Order of the World, and therefore they try to be as firm as possible, presenting themselves with a certain aura of timelessness. While they seek to reflect the Eternal World Order, they wish to be its symbol. Man finds shelter in these buildings, not because of a certain amount of comfort they provide, but because of this symbolic value of eternity inherent in them. Man feels at home in these houses because he has built them in such a way that they signify eternity.”[2]

Severino proposes that the role of architecture in Western history, like that of philosophy, is to be a refuge for man from the anguish of the future, from the transiency of human existence, from pain and death. By exposing the divine and eternal Rule, dominating and directing all creation and destruction, the basic knowledge, episteme, saves man from the anguish caused by the thought about one’s own caducity and the transience of the world. Severino says that all spatial design (Raumgestaltung) of the West is formed by this understanding, in the same way as the thought of caducity and the eternal values appears in the philosophical and theological episteme (epistemology) of the Graeco-Roman tradition, where geometry and philosophy play a similar role. As is well known, knowledge of geometry was a condition for being admitted to Plato’s Academy in Athens.

The spaces which currently provide the venue for Rósa Gísladóttir’s exhibition were not only the frame of a particular view of the world; they were also the frame of a particular social idea and order, where human conduct was dictated by the rules of geometry, in contrast to the practice initiated by the utilitarianism of the Industrial Revolution, according to which form is expected to be dominated by functionality, providing the scene for the freedom of man in his endeavor to deal with and subjugate the forces of nature. Symmetry does not fit contemporary city life for this purpose, because it subsumes human life into a universal rule and a totalitarian form of government, dedicated to the absolute powers.

Although symmetry may not be fashionable in contemporary architecture or formal and spatial design, except where it appears as a quotation from the past, or where it otherwise serves the function of the particular object which is formed independently of the whole, it has always characterized the formal design of Rósa Gísladóttir. In this regard her art is special, referring to tradition rather than innovation. Crucially, however, this does not mean that her work involves reconstruction or repetition; rather, it has never severed the ties with the classical tradition, even though the geometry which it is built on no longer has the function and meaning it had in the classical period. What, then, are the changes which geometry has undergone from classical times?

The Ancient Greeks and Romans understood numbers as representing visible entities. Being invisible, zero, negative numbers and irrational numbers did not have a place within this way of thinking. The change happened when the numbers stopped referring to the visible entity and became the function or the relation of other numbers, which opened up the possibility of a mathematical interpretation of infinity and other invisible entities. The definitive confirmation of this change was instantiated by the scientism of Descartes.

Defining numbers in relation to visible phenomena means that they measure a world which is finite and places insurmountable boundaries around man. This changed when nature became the object of investigation, in particular on the basis of measurement founded upon abstract mathematics and quantity rather than physical quality. At this point a fundamental change occurred in the history of Western culture, namely that “nature was no longer the rule which man has to use as his frame of reference; rather, human knowledge became the rule which nature had to provide answers to,”[3] as Umberto Galimberti put it in his book Psiche e tecne. Thus the geometrical rule stopped being the ideal and the paradigm, becoming instead a tool to change space and create new space and a new reality on the basis of the new forms of measurement which people had acquired. Nowhere does this manifest itself better than in the baroque art of Rome, where the spatial design no longer aims at imitating the “proper” space of geometry, but has become a venue for creating new reality and new space by means of the new technology. This was what the revolution of Bernini and Borromini in Rome was about. Ever since this time, architecture has reflected a view of the world which is conditioned by man and his technology, but not by absolute cosmic laws of eternal and invariable entities. The baroque domes of Rome thus instantiate a typical virtual reality based on technical illusions, while the domes of classical Rome manifest a similarity to the cosmos which no human power could alter.

From the beginning of her carrier, Rósa Gísladóttir has been adhering strictly to the laws of symmetry in her art. The aim is not to glorify or revive the eternal and imperishable truth of a view of the world which has now disappeared; rather the aim is to make us aware of the genealogy of the forms and the change which their meaning has undergone in the course of history.

How can we understand the difference between the world of the classical forms characterizing the Imperial Fora in Rome and the forms created by Rósa Gísladóttir?

Observing Rósa’s oversized golden icosahedron under the Roman vault of Trajan, we are not experiencing the revival or the elevation of tradition, but rather a kind of a short circuit of history, where we are made aware of the fact that the universal laws which the so-called Platonic polyhedra were based on are no longer so universal: they do not reflect the order of the Universe and the Elements anymore, as stated by the Platonic doctrine. The interaction of Rósa’s polyhedron and its classical frame suddenly becomes filled with tension due to the loss of something vital: Rósa’s polyhedron in fact only reflects itself in its own glory, while the reference to the absolute and eternal truth has evaporated.

The world of Rósa’s forms is thus not a direct imitation of ancient models, and it therefore no longer has the original meaning on which the geometry of the Roman fora was based: that world is long gone, and with it its particular view of the world has also disappeared. The rules of geometry no longer reflect an absolute truth and the insurmountable boundaries imposed on man by nature. On the contrary, with the advent of the technological revolution of the past hundred years or so, we have experienced the loss of those boundaries, and the work of Rósa Gísladóttir reflects our times and not the ancient world: it opens our eyes for the ideas which have disappeared rather for those which are perennial and eternal. They are an admonition of a lost world, like a memory of art as “the perceptible appearance of the Idea” in the sense of Hegel. Here the idea has vanished and the form alone remains, just like Hegel said in the early 19th century. According to this philosopher, the Idea no longer needs its perceptible appearance because it emerged already and was realized in the language of philosophy. But why does Rósa’s polyhedron not reveal to us the eternal and unchangeable truth which people had seen in this form all the way from Plato to Luca Pacioli and Leonardo?

It is already a common knowledge that modern astronomy and space science have established that the Universe is not a constant, but quite the opposite – an incessant change is ongoing where everything moves at a high speed. The celestial sphere is not an unbreakable crystal vault, but filthy atmosphere, full of holes, and the sun is not the primal emitter of light to all things, as people used to believe, but more like a gliding power plant which has its predictable life span like all other existing objects. The rule of the polyhedron certainly continues to be self-consistent, but it does not involve the exocentric reference, as Plato and Leonardo thought. Here the idea of the absolute and eternal cosmic values has been separated from its appearance, but the image is nevertheless present in front of us in all its glory and does not refer to anything but itself – or does it?

In his multifaceted lecture on the vestige of art, Jean-Luc Nancy has discussed this problem, which Hegel defined as the end of art, the latter being, as already mentioned, “the perceptible appearance of the Idea.” Among the things Nancy has to say about these prophetic words of Hegel is the following:

“To the extent that art perceives its limits, in regard to its realization and/or its end, in spite of still being understood as the ‘perceptible appearance of the Idea,’ it stops and is immobilized like the last glow of the Idea in its pure but darkened sediment. At the limits only the idea of art itself lives, like a pure virtual act, locked in itself. But such residue still functions as an Idea, even as a pure idea of the pure sense, or as an exalted visibility with no other content than the light itself: like a darkened core of an absolute reference to itself.”[4]

According to this statement, Nancy is of the opinion that Hegel was right in this respect: art stopped being the manifestation of unchangeable and everlasting truth very early on, even before the time of Christianity. Nancy, however, claims that this does not mean the end of art as such, and that Hegel did not think of it like that; rather, it bodes a new role for art in the process leading to the emergence of truth, in accordance with Hegel’s view that truth is a dialectic process in constant motion, and that there is not only one absolute truth, established once and for all. Nancy revisits Hegel’s brilliant metaphor of the dried and cut-off fruit of art which the heir of the Muses brings as an offering to the gods: these cut-off fruit are certainly disconnected from the tree that bore them, the soil that nourished them, and the moral climate which brought them to maturity, but nevertheless the heir of the Muses manages to give us a premonition of all of this, as if in a flash of vision, where the offering becomes a testimony of the things of the past, like the footprints from a journey where art has been the companion of religion and the imperishable values, without ever adhering to them, but only following their beaten track.

It is quite natural to regard the forms which Rósa Gísladóttir has created as such cut off-fruit of the trees, the soil and the climate which gave rise to the absolute geometry of the universe. As such they are above all a testimony to themselves, but beyond the radiance which mirrors their own surface and not the universe, we nevertheless perceive the view of the world which the ruins of the Imperial Fora attest to. We perceive this in the journey of history and time which connects these two worlds in a single work. Thus, Rósa’s forms appear as footprints in the sand, a testimony to the journey of history all the way to our time.

In addition to the large symmetrical forms, in this exhibition we also encounter works which are made of contemporary plastic wrappings; these wrappings have their own history of formal symmetry and perfect form, but in the modern consumer society they have the function of preserving consumer goods rather than ideas. The plastic bottle is “a visible appearance of the consumer society” and not the ideas, and as such it has also become the image of the threat inherent in today’s consumer habits against the ecology of our planet. The plastic wrappings of the consumer society are thus in stark contrast to the appearance of the eternal values and the unshakeable view of the world manifested by the ruins of the Imperial Fora. Formally, these plastic wrappings preserve in themselves the durability of symmetry, but while their durability can no longer give man any protection, it presents a tangible threat to our ecology. Rósa emphasizes the genealogy of the forms we find in these plastic wrappings by using them to create radiantly beautiful installations where the column and the circle form play a key role. Esthetically, these works shine in their own colorful brightness like the billboards of the consumer society; as soon as we realize the context, however, viz. the genealogy, on the one hand, and the loss of the Idea, on the other, we realize the tragic vision of history described by Walter Benjamin in his Angelus Novus:

“There is a painting by Klee which is entitled Angelus Novus. In it an angel appears to be about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide open, as is his mouth, and his wings are stretched out. The angel of history must look like this. His face is turned to the past. Since a chain of events seems to be unfolding, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage up at his feet. He would like to stay, awaken the dead, and put the fragments of the ruins in order. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, affecting his wingspan with such force that he cannot flap his wings. This storm inevitably drives him into the future, to which his back is turned, while ruins pile up to the sky right before his eyes. This storm is what we call progress.”

English translation: Thórhallur Eythórsson

[1] Italo Calvino: Città invisibile.

[2] Emanuele Severino: Tecnica e architectura, Milano 2003, p. 89.

[3] Umberto Galimberti: Psiche e tecne, Milano 1999, p. 313.

[4] Jean-Luc Nancy: Il vestigio dell‘arte, a lecture at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume 1994, published in Le Muse, Reggio Emilia 2006, pp. 125-6.