BY Barbara Casavecchia in Reviews | 01 SEP 10
Featured in
Issue 133

Strange Comfort (Afforded by the Profession)

Instituto Svizzero and other venues, Rome, Italy and Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Reviews | 01 SEP 10

Moyra Davey, The End, 2010. Series of twelve colour photographs, 30 x 45 cm. Courtesy: Murray Guy, New York, and the artist.

Severn – Lift me up for I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened, I thank God it has come,’ said John Keats before surrendering to tuberculosis, at the age of 26, in Rome. These last words were recorded by his friend Joseph Severn, in a letter now encased in a glass vitrine of the beautifully preserved Keats-Shelley House, overlooking Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. It is the same address where, in his 1953 story ‘Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession’, Malcolm Lowry portrays Sigbjørn Wilderness, a ‘writer in Rome on a Guggenheim Fellowship’. He wanders about scribbling remarks in his notebook, the starting point for a vertiginous trip around Flaubert, Gogol, Kafka, Nabokov, Poe and Shelley (as well as their oeuvres, houses, memorable deaths and relics), ending with ‘a prolonged – though on the whole relatively pleasurable – fit of coughing’.

‘Strange Comfort (Afforded by the Profession)’ is the (almost) identical title of a group show, curated by Salvatore Lacagnina and Adam Szymczyk, which ran in various locations in Rome and almost simultaneously at Kunsthalle Basel, in a different format with an expanded checklist of works. The opening in Rome was marked by an atmospheric live performance of a score composed by Ross Birrell, titled Lift me up (2010), played by a violist in the Protestant cemetery where Keats is buried, as per the poet’s wishes, under a tombstone with the bas-relief of a lyre designed by Severn – the same lyre copied by Wilderness at the beginning of Lowry’s story, as if to close the circle of cross-references.

Other sites of the exhibition in Rome included the antiquarian bookshop Rappaport at Via Sistina, the Church of S. Isidoro and the ground floor of the Istituto Svizzero – the only white cube of the lot. The fascination of this meta-fictional promenade, a ‘Romantic Tour in Roma’, at the very heart of etymology and the sepulchral myth of Keats, was undeniable, and yet the focus of the show didn’t seem to indulge in the guilty pleasures of looking as much as in those of reading. ‘Strange Comfort’ posed itself as a reflection upon the temporality of reading on at least two levels: first, as an individual experience and practice shared by many contemporary artists, who layer, edit, save or erase words and memories, finding in Lowry’s obsession for revision
and interdisciplinarity an exemplar paradigm.

It also worked as a litmus test for the diachronic reading of art works in different cities and under changing conditions. In Rome, the duality of ‘a thing of beauty’ to be experienced in multiple contexts was best embodied by Ross Birrell and David Harding’s two-channel video projection Guantanamera (2010), in which the famous patriotic song is played simultaneously in Cuba and Miami. A series of Duchampian photographic diptychs by Italian conceptualist Franco Vaccari includes the work Étants Donnés 1946–66 (2009), which couples two reproductions of the masterpiece taken from a recent swingers’ magazine. Cecile Hummel’s Voyage pittoresque (Picturesque Journey, 2010) comprises a travelogue of her journeys across Italy made by re-photographing illustrated books of the Grand Tour, while Danh Vo installed in the garden of the nearby Saint Isidore church, at Via degli Artisti (sic), his Oma Totem (2009), made of marble and bronze replicas of a television, fridge and washing machine, conceived as a tombstone for the artist’s grandmother.

At the Keats-Shelley House, Moyra Davey’s ‘The End’ (2010), a series of prints folded like envelopes and mailed to the museum, faced her video My Necropolis (2009), in which the artist wanders about nine cemeteries in Paris among famous and ordinary graves, discussing the subject of time and asking a number of friends to interpret a text by Walter Benjamin. Davey is also a writer; in 2003 she published a novel, The Problem of Reading, and she entitled her first European survey, which concurrently occupied the upper floor of the Kunsthalle Basel, ‘Speaker Receiver’, as an equivalent to the relation between writer and reader. To turn another page, one could add that Reader and Protagonist are the main characters of Reader’s Block (1996), an ‘obstinately cross-referential and cryptic interconnective syntax in any case’ novel by David Markson – who wrote his thesis on Lowry’s most famous novel, Under the Volcano (1947), and became his long-time friend. Among the hundreds of quotations and anecdotes forming the text (‘Roland Barthes died after being hit by a laundry truck’; ‘Joyces write, Readers read’), there is also: ‘Severn, lift me up, I am dying.’

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.