In the Arms of Time
ILLE ARTS | JULY 14 – AUGUST 8, 2012
When you walked into the gallery—light, low, and airy—the first thing you saw were large color prints of Doric temples at once warring Sicilian towns, the single photo of the temple at Segesta made at a distance, possibly from a road leading down to the green valley and toward the tawny deserted ruin, and the photographs of the temple at Selinus relatively close up and ground level, with the building surrounded by a devout herd of foraging sheep. But I had come to the exhibit on the strength of a magazine spread of four reproductions of silver gelatin prints of the Roman ruins at Baalbek, and the color prints, their size and the colors themselves, were not where I wanted to start (never mind that I had started), though they did bring back clear and unanchored the first photograph by Bittencourt I ever saw reproduced, a color shot of a young boy climbing a tree, taken from below so that his face could hardly be seen.
Around the corner beyond the desk, against the second room’s longest wall, was a straight line of silver gelatin prints, white matted and framed in black, each about 14 inches wide and 11 inches high. After a quick survey of the Baalbek originals on the far right, I went to the other end of the wall to look at the sequence as I assume it was planned. The line of prints was divided into groups of four or five, and in the first group, you peered over the sunken ruins of Ostia Antica, the landlocked port of ancient Rome, toward a dark fan of sheltering umbrella pines in some photographs and, in others, over the same smooth sanded ridges of roofless walls snaking toward and away from and parallel to a disappearing and apparently treeless middle distance that, like the pines, was as far as you could go. In the second group, you were surrounded by the slender slanting branches of another set of umbrella pines, the upper reaches this time, possibly shot from below, the branches ending in leaves made crisply vague by their own shadows in high cool sunlight, in one of the unrulier garden parks of the Villa Doria Pamphili in Rome. The final group was the four photographs from Baalbek.
This group, I now saw, picked up the divisions of space in the first two groups with divided time: behind one of the more earthquake shattered areas of the ruins were several severely ordinary apartment buildings, recent vintage, while in front of the almost untouched temple to Bacchus or Demeter, the leaves of its Corinthian capitals still sharply edged, stood an electrical power relay of some kind, possibly coeval with the apartments, probably newer. Both apartments and power scaffold were accents on the subject of the pictures related to, but entirely different from, the herd of sheep around the temple at Selinus. While the sheep could have been there when the temple was a house of worship and place of business, the shiny fragile metal framework, strung with wire and buttoned with porcelain insulators, seemed, like the narrow faced apartments, to have landed in Baalbek from an aging and already threadbare future.
There were windows at both ends of the room, as well as skylights in the roof, so I turned to the shorter wall across from the black and white prints, ready for color—I’d seen it from the corners of my eyes as I went from one silver gelatin print to another. All the color prints in this room were head on views of vast lateral branches of ancient cedars and massive gnarled trunks of olive trees in Lebanon. Unlike the tall straight young cedars of Homer and the Bible, the old cedars seem to hug the ground almost, or seem to want to hug it, growing as much sideways, and spreading unevenly, as they grow upward, so that each tree becomes a small forest of its own, and living, some of them, said the gallerist, close to a thousand years. There were no people in these photographs, either, and because each trunk, whether horizontal cedar or vertical olive, occupied most of the visible space, which was two or three times larger than that of the black and white photographs, and because there were no cultural or architectural details to suggest either the cedars’ or the olive trees’ relative size—no roofless rooms, no trees in the distance or nearby, no apartment houses or temples—the immediate sensation, accurate or not, was of somersaulting into a much larger scale, one that took getting used to before I could gauge the depths of the cedar photos, in which the sideways trunks soaring at me were both close and far away, and see the intense articulation of the surfaces of the olive trunks, which seemed to be melting down and away from themselves. There was a bitter splendor to the concentration on the trunks of the trees, as if roots and branches didn’t matter, and not only because the roots may have been invisible and the branches hadn’t been around long enough to repay the kind of scrutiny invited by the aerodynamics of the reddish cedars and the rich gray and black motley of the twisted olive trunks. Roots and branches were simply out of the picture.
Going back to the front room, the color prints of the temples in Sicily, with sheep and without, now seemed a pastoral alternative to the conflict between big and small, human and inhuman, old and new, hidden and revealed. I say alternative because the Sicilian pictures resolved or synthesized nothing in the other room. But they did combine features of both the black and white series of ruins and umbrella pines and the color series of ancient Lebanese cedar and olive tree trunks. The Sicilian pictures were the same size as the prints of the olive trees and cedars, but the colors were softer and milder, lots of green grass and blue sky and the orange yellows of old marble and sheep’s wool at beginning and end of day. On the other hand, the temples themselves, including the sheep, easily could have been one of the black and white groups on the second room’s long wall. Could have been but weren’t: in this sense, too, the color prints of the temples in Sicily represented an alternative to the fastidious contrasts in the larger room.
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is a poet who lives in Beacon, New York. Recent titles include From Philip Drunk to Philip Sober (Color Treasury, 2014), Blind Date (Untitled, 2016), and Two Poems and a Letter (Untitled, 2017).