In both The Birth of Tragedy and Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Friedrich Nietzsche argues that the ancient Greeks were able to elaborate a mythological transfiguration of life’s pains. Mythopoiesis — the tendency of the human spirit to think or interpret reality in mythological terms — stood as an aesthetic transcription of the real. In this sense, tragedy had the capacity to translate traces of life from the plane of existence to that of art, acting in the “alternative reality” of the theatrical moment, which in its hic et nunccoincides with life, establishing the balance of an absolute present.
In the classical world, the constant tension between the Apollonian, pertaining to the rational sphere, and the Dionysian element of tragedy, emerged as the evident substance of the variety of the real, standing as the only framework for understanding the world. Today more than ever, art cannot do without this symbolic balance, which is simultaneously both tortuous and sublime. Aristotle in his Poetics some 2,300 years earlier had not spoken of Dionysian and Apollonian, but analysed tragedy through two concepts: mìmesis (imitation) and kátharsis (purification). He anticipated Nietzsche’s discourse in an articulation of philosophical thought that long proved to be an ideal narrative structure for the artistic fact. The imitation to which the Greek philosopher refers is the Dionysian element which Nietzsche looks to, which becomes poetry through the tragic transformative act. The sublimation involved in the translation of the present widens reflection on the fundamental aspects of human experience, in its reference to the relationship of sensitivity and undertstanding correlated to the perception of the contradictions, paradoxes and conflicts that the mind grasps in the dimensions of existence.
If we consider the theatre of ancient Greece as a synthesis of the arts that later developed in modernity, we realise how the mechanisms proper to the tragic spill over into the many conjugations of contemporary creativity. To grasp this, it is worth taking as an example the work of three visual artists from three different countries, belonging to two distinct, albeit successive, generations. These are authors capable of bringing tragic sentiment up to date by making it concrete and pungent, livid and full of anguish, charged with raw realism and emotion: Thomas Hirschhorn, Teresa Margolles and Andrea Mastrovito, listed here in order of age. They count as some among the many names which we could possibly cite. But we shall speak of these three, considering that the first two have had major solo exhibitions in as many Italian institutions in recent months, whereas we began to deal with the third in the previous issue of this magazine, and we have an interest in advancing a coherent discourse that serves steadily more in-depth investigations of Italian artists.
Readers will probably remember Hirschhorn’s The Purple Line, installed until a few months ago at Rome’s MAXXI, while Margolles’s Peripheria dell’agonia is still on view (until 19 June) at the Mattatoio, also in the Italian capital. The third artist, the only Italian in this hypothetical trinity of the tragic, has been missing from Rome for a few years. However, in 2021 he created a masterful inlay work in the abbey of Fontevraud, France, which given its intensity and brazen truthfulness ought to be included in this reflection on how the tragic is handled in contemporary art, being as it is a cornerstone for a generation of Italian artists.
So, we have a Swiss, a Mexican, and an Italian. Three different sensibilities, given their cultural substrata of reference, yet united by an aesthetics of the tragic that makes them witnesses of their time and authors “obliged” to narrate the laceration of our days, the decline of contemporary society.
Through different mediums and specific backgrounds, Hirschhorn, Margolles and Mastrovito tackle visual research by grasping the violent deformities of our time from the bag of reality with both hands, assaulting the viewer with brutal, fierce imaginaries. While the first two often work with materials taken directly from reality — shocking, Dionysian in their human essence and for this very reason destabilising — Mastrovito always adopts the tool of translation, sublimating the real in a form that aspires to classicism, to a biting Apollonian purity.
We saw Hirschhorn’s tragic hand in the wide-ranging exhibition The Purple Line mentioned above, which collected works from the Pixel-Collageproject, to which he devoted himself between 2015 and 2017. Monumental reproductions of photographs taken in places of war, depicting the rawness of a violent death, are juxtaposed with images from the glossy press, which he intervenes on by denying the vision of the posing models, blurring and pixelating them to the point of unrecognisability. Yet what do remain clearly visible are the scenes that never make it to the press, portraying defenceless, lifeless, mutilated men, often if not always surrounded by a pool of blood which belongs to their bodies. Putting the one next to the other triggers a surreal and excruciating dynamic, overturning the rationales of ethics and aesthetics in the context of information and its relationship to present-day society. The juxtaposition of the eccentric images of luxury with the lifeless bodies of men, women and children generates a political — as well as visual — tension, short-circuiting our relationship between truth and modesty, the necessity of the image and its excessiveness. From the black-out that stemps from this, from the deafness that follows the detonation of an image that calls us into question both as witnesses and as accomplices, we arrive at the tragic silence in which Hirschhorn shows us the bodies of the heroes, or anti-heroes. We do not know any of their stories. As with Orestes, we do not know whether their remains are innocent or guilty ones. Like the remains of Polynices, they are there, beyond good and evil, caught in the open wound between law and justice, suspended from judgement by the veil of death. These are the same scenarios which we imagine when we read The Trojan Women. And in them we are still not able even to condemn even the executioners, because we — we who tell, we who write this story — are the Achaeans, we are the Greeks, we are the living and thus, probably, the victors. It is we who prudishly hide our armour of glamour, faced with the four funerary rags that cover, like sacred vestiges, the bodies of those who pay with their lives, their misery, their lack of prospects, our true colonialism, which is always and only economic. But Hirschhorn does not tell us this story. He unveils it. Which is to say, he removes a veil from it. This is his tragic gesture, or perhaps the gesture that breaks through the tragedy. Hirschhorn shows us the obscene, what finds no place on stage, what should be hidden from view and revealed only through the poetic veil of words. And he does so because nothing is more political in this historical time than the image. The tragic narrative is ripped by the tear that each of these works seems to produce on the walls on which it hangs; it is almost as if it is opening a window through these walls, pitching us not to where the scene takes place — an elsewhere of which no coordinates are provided — but rather to an inner dimension, in which it is clear indeed what burdens are weighing on our desires, what shadows gather beyond the Western garden that we have sealed off with high walls. So, after twenty-five centuries, here we are again in Thebes. Here we are again, in the ancient relationship between the city and the elsewhere, between what we are willing to be and what we reject. Hirschhorn once again proposes the siege from outside the city, the siege by the obscene against a dimension of being that denies itself to the whole, guilty for the deepest fracture in human history, from which the other’s funeral mask is born.
Margolles becomes the artifice of these masks, these shrouds. She takes us back by hand along the roads that the Swiss artist had cast before our eyes, manfully, with his cargo of dead bodies. Margolles is less brutal. Her tragedy has never been sung. It is tragedy written by a woman.
She has reassembled all the bodies. She has lifted them up and removed them from the street. She has washed their skins and wiped the asphalt clean of blood. We seem to see the streets of which she speaks to us through her works. With the same vividness with which we observed those shown by Hirschhorn. But hers are empty. Like morgues. The obscene has been removed, it returns under its veil, its sheet, it lingers as latency, it looms. As in the legendary Mexican pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, where the floor of a Venetian palazzo was polished with the water used to wash the corpses of the perpetual civil war being fought in Ciudad Juárez, another war that has no flags, another war of money and thus another irresistible war between man and his work. But, indeed, Margolles’s tragedy is once again a tragedy of language, of storytelling, written in blood, which however becomes colour, form, code, perhaps unrolled by a hyperbolic sheet as in the exhibition at the Mattatoio in Rome, a sort of Torah in which we read the name of each dynasty because none of the men which it covered has a name.
It is precisely the void, the missing, the taken away, that is the disturbing element in his work. If Hirschhorn’s tragedy, then, is the tragedy of continental Europe, the Europe of German philosophy, of unveiling, of rawness, Margolles’ is the tragedy of piety, which takes the path of pagan prayer, of lamentation, perhaps the true great female tragic form of the Latin peoples of the South.
But Margolles’s red frieze — constituting the plot of a tale in which what remains truly legible is the archetype that does not abandon us, clinging to us with its teeth, to retell us what we are — is but an American form of another classical form, in which all wars were recounted, one just like another, throughout ancient times.
A contemporary version can be seen in Mastrovito’s Le Jardin des Histoires du Monde, an inlaid frieze from 2018. It is the ancestor of his research which has in subsequent years also reconquered the sacred space of the church, as in the Fontevraud abbey in 2021.
Sticking with the frieze, metre after metre, here too it is blood that guides the narrative. The same blind violence. The same faces rendered as masks, so that they can look more like us. But in the Italian artist’s work, it is not the evidence of death that drives the tragedy, so much as its evocation. There is no flesh but there is the portrait. In a meeting on the subject of beauty at the Hermann Nitsch Museum in Naples in 2013, Mastrovito introduced the topic by talking about how he had tried to type the word “beauty” into Google, in many languages, before talking about it. In all of them, except in Italian, the image search resulted in photographs of models. Only searching in our language did images of the great modern pictorial tradition come up. So, Mastrovito does not need reality to write his tragedy. His tradition is not that of the purity of Germanic evidence or of raw Latin American piety. For him, what activates the tragic mechanism is sublimation, and the column that holds up his discourse is Apollonian. A moon hanged by a herd of men with pyramid-shaped heads, another clutch of figures mounting the assault against the sun with spears, others who tear the stars from the sky. There is, in this series of images that follow one another like a genome of the soul, spread in sections along metres and metres of inlaid wood, the whole code of the human. There are the black slaves hung from trees by their masters on the American plantations, some deciding how much sky can stand on the heads of others, the bodies left on the pyramid after the passing of a violence that has no eyes or ears, but only arms to mutilate and mouths to rip apart. All this detaches itself from the ground, from the ground on which Margolles stood kneeling like a contemporary Antigone, or on which Hirschhorn stood with his hands full of his impossible newspaper clippings. Everything rises above reality. Blood ceases to have the colour of blood, and the smell, too. In the sensibility of an Italian artist it becomes form, genetic code without being chemical. The relationship between Dionysian and Apollonian is inverted as compared to the other authors, in whose works, after the horizontal storm of the senses, the sense of the sacred stands up vertically. In Mastrovito there is an inverse catharsis. A catharsis that from the height of the sublimated form plunges us into the mire of what we are and always will be. It takes us back exactly where the other two artists, by now disarmed of tears, look at reality with dry, livid eyes, the eyes of witnesses aware of the original task that Grotowski assigns to the tragic spectator: do not forget, do not forget at any cost.