Immolation and Collapse in Campania

So far, 2012 has been a dramatic year for the loss of artworks, both in action and in commemoration. On Monday, the UK’s Tate launched the Gallery of Lost Art online. The site looks almost purposely like the set of a Lars von Trier movie, which seems appropriate, thematically. It presents a virtual warehouse, with lost artworks by 21 artists distributed across the floor according to the method or context of the loss. There are areas for “ephemeral,” “stolen,” “destroyed,” etc.

Emin tentThe stories behind the artworks include a variety of tragic, poignant, or playful events. In many cases, the stakes were surprisingly high. Bas Jan Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous was a 1975 performance-including the artist’s trans-Atlantic solo sailing voyage-during which Ader was lost at sea, killed. Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, was a camping tent painstakingly appliquéd with the (long) set of names the title implies. It was a high-profile artwork, one of Emin’s best-known works that helped establish her bad-girl fame; the tent was included in the Sensation exhibition which caused that silly uproar at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1999. The tent was destroyed in an accidental fire at an art-storage warehouse in 2004 (along with many other artworks).

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There are countless stories of absent artworks, gone for numerous reasons. We even learned of the happier fate of a (temporarily) stolen Dalí painting in the Clyde Fitch Report earlier this week.

In mid-April, Antonio Manfredi, the founder and director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) began burning artworks from the museum’s collection. Manfredi’s fiery protest was a cry for help from officials-local, Italian, European-to take seriously the support and (ironically) protection of the arts, from ancient cultural heritage to contemporary painting and sculpture. The museum is broke and desperately needs financial help from the government, which is a reasonable concept because Casoria is in Europe (Italy, near Naples). Yet cultural budgets have been continually cut. The global financial downturn and the debt crisis, not to mention Berlusconi, have been hard on the Italian government, and Manfredi charges Prime Minister Mario Monti with short-sighted failure to support the arts sufficiently. He clearly acknowledges that this is bigger than his single, provincial museum.

An artist himself, Manfredi began by burning his own work, but with the permission and often participation of other artists, expanded the protest, pledging to burn three artworks per week until he got the attention of the cultural minister. An impressive number of international artists have joined his “Art War.” The pictures and videos are painful to see. (It is unclear just how long the protest by fire lasted, but it seems to have been rather brief. No new reports or images of Manfredi continuing to make good on his pledge have emerged since April, as far as I have seen.)

Burning painting

Manfredi watches Promenade, 2008, by Séverine Bourguignon burn
Credit: Renato Esposito, NEWFOTOSUD

Without wading too far into the etymological weeds, some sources have referred to the protest as an auto-da-fé. That’s not strictly unreasonable, but the first thing that tends to bring to mind is an image of the Grand Inquisitor burning heretics. Which, shame on him. But that’s not really fair to Manfredi, who meticulously planned this protest as a well-executed, on-message media spectacle. While he’s definitely holding the flaming torch, he simply does not fit the role of Mr. Inquisitor.

What Manfredi is doing to the artworks is more properly, if figuratively, immolation. He is the grand immolator. Immolation implies a burned sacrifice, and that is the point of this protest. Extreme measures, measures neither he nor anyone else would want to take, were his sacrifice to the media for government attention. He did not burn artworks because they were degenerate, or vanities; he burned artworks he loved and would rather not have burned.

Manfredi is quite a character and can sometimes be hard to take. He has definitely been bold about putting himself forward as the media-friendly center of this protest, and his language-both about the protest and himself-is grandiose. But he has had phenomenal success catching the interest of world-wide media. CAM’s blog displays more than 80 news stories about the burned artworks (many including a picture featuring Manfredi alongside the pyres-this story is no exception…). Still, the protest has grown beyond just the one man. There are several unaffiliated artists around Europe who have taken up the cause and burned pieces of their own artwork, on video, in solidarity.

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At the beginning, Manfredi insisted that the protest wasn’t a performance art spectacle, but that was never very believable. One of the first elements of the protest was an out and out stunt. Last year, Manfredi sent a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel asking for asylum for himself and his museum in that country, away from neglectful and corrupt Italian politicians and intimidation by the powerful mafia that controls Casoria. (Merkel did not respond; asylum was not granted.)

Quickly, he has dropped the straight-protest pose and embraced the protest-art performance elements of the action. He has written a manifesto and declared his cause to be and Art War. In April, he told a French web site, “We want to show, in an artistic way, the destruction toward which Italian politicians are driving their own culture.”

Later this month, Manfredi will participate in an actual work of performance art as a next step in the protest. He will produce a video featuring a pile of ashes and other remains of the burned artworks (he will also appear in the video, natch). It is a collaboration with a performer and a musician to create a free speech-themed event under the umbrella of a series that the art collective Critical Art Ensemble is arranging for dOCUMENTA (13), the influential international art exhibition taking place in Kassel, Germany, all summer.

Pompeii collapseAt just the time Manfredi was burning his museum’s artworks in protest of Italy’s lack of respect for its arts, culture and heritage, a completely separate event, but nearby, punctuated his action in a sad and shocking way. A 2,000-year-old wall surrounding a villa at Pompeii collapsed.

It survived Vesuvius, the passage of two millennia, and more than 250 years of archaeologists, but (literally) fell victim to government cutbacks. Furthermore, there have been several such collapses at Pompeii over recent years. In the wake of those earlier collapses, Italy and the EU finally pledged ‚Ǩ105 million just weeks before the latest disaster this past April. Alas, too late. But it makes Manfredi’s protest significantly more sympathetic, no?

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