Triumphs and Laments

Photos by Zoe Trischka
Article by Zoe Trischka

William Kentridge, a world-renowned South African artist, has recently constructed a colossal and ephemeral homage to the glories and tragedies of Rome. A 500 meter-long frieze along the embankment walls of the Tiber River (Fiume Tevere) has become one of Rome’s most alluring attractions, for both tourists and locals. Spanning from Ponte Sisto to Ponte Mazzini, this grand masterpiece, entitled “Triumphs and Laments,” encompasses a vast range of historical events, yet also creates a new conversation on modernity and what it means to be a contemporary artist in an ancient setting.

One of the most unique elements of the project is his process. Kentridge created the frieze by utilizing all organic elements, save for stencils. He started with the river’s embankment walls that are blanketed with patina, a dark film of organic build-up. Then against the massive stencils, his team washed the walls with a power-hose, so that once the stencils were removed, the original white travertine stone was unveiled.

The art is complex, yet the style suggests a privative, archaic origin. With unpolished edges and a rough, sketch-like style, they almost seem like cave paintings. If the symbolism did not depict modern events nor include bits of modern humor, one could easily confuse the frieze for an ancient work. This distinct style is a platform for the other ways he brings the past into the present.

In total, there are 80 images, all vignettes and symbols of religion, politics, and the arts. Images include Adam and Eve, Napoleon, the assassination of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the refugees in Lampedusa, the Roman she-wolf. The she-wolf is presented as gaunt and skeletal, channeling the inevitable ageing of Rome, stressing the dramatic effects of time. He also gives a nod to the lost memories, the events and heroes that were misplaced over time. A simple blank canvas, with the erasure reading “Quello che non ricordo” (That which I do not remember). Kentridge even includes the iconic Trevi Fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, yet he twists it so that the lovers are not in the fountain, but rather in a bathtub. This is just one example of the playfulness he injects into tradition. Kentridge balances humor with pain, pride with fear, beauty with brutality. There is also no order to the images, not time-wise nor plot-wise. This amplifies the perspective that “history” is just a giant flood of events and moments, where order does not necessarily matter.

To expand on this hurricane of emotions and images, he formats the piece so that the viewer must travel with him. Visitors must stroll along the Piazza Tevere, a walkway beside the river, in a procession-like structure in order to see and almost mirror the art. This sense of motion is characteristic of Kentridge’s work. He is most famous for his animated films, in which he draws an image, films it, makes an adjustment, films again, and so on until he has a full project. The procession of Triumphs and Laments mimics this flow, but in a more immersive way.

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Kentridge takes not only preexisting stories, but also preexisting resources to create the art, such as the ancient embankment walls used as his canvas. On canvas, he illustrates both the velocity of time and the quantity of how much has already been lost. He makes the audience recognize how much bacteria has accumulated on the walls, and how different it once was. By erasing the patina, like an archeologist, he shows the world the beauty of the original stone.

In a way, he is a graffiti artist, tagging walls with his visions. Simultaneously, he shows a great respect for the original construction. He does not paint, does not chisel, does not utilize any method that would directly alter the stone. He does not attempt to change history. Not in his method, nor in his illustration. He simply deconstructs it, then rearranges it through his creative lens.

Kentridge presents a new force and energy for the Tiber. An energy which forces people to confront the damage that has been inflicted on the river; where not only are they greeted with a rotten stench upon entry, but also the infestation of bottles and cans floating downstream. The conversation starts here — before the art begins. Kentridge forces the audience to acknowledge that this is the modern era of the Tiber River.

The project is partly presented by Tevereterno, a multidisciplinary non-profit organization for the revival of the Tiber. Their goal is to cultivate public interest and blend nature and culture in a central part of Rome. They aim to achieve this through three focus areas: infrastructure, maintenance, and cultural programming. Kentridge embodies Tevereterno’s mission by making the Tiber a part of the art. He stresses the significance of nature in art even just in that his only visible materials consist of stone, patina, and water.

The frieze not only depicts life and death, but also the integration of past and present that Rome offers. Rome, the city of odd juxtaposition, where an H&M can live five meters away from an ancient site. Florence is the same in this way — where old and new coexist, mingle, breathe together in one space, especially in regards to art.  

Here in Florence too, there is an organization such as Tevereterno called Riqualificazione Dell’Arno (Redevelopment of the Arno River, or RIVA). RIVA aims to revive the discussion on the Arno’s reappropriation by creating and fostering both environmental and artistic projects. Most of the action happens on the Arno banks themselves, similarly to “Triumphs and Laments,” to emphasize the integration of nature and art, but mostly to spark conversation about reviving the river. These types of projects are becoming popular throughout Italy, exposing people to the harm and neglect the rivers are facing. Both Tevereterno and RIVA make most events and installations free of charge, which thus makes the conversation accessible and deliberately open to the public.

Today, the exploitation of rivers is something the public needs to consciously witness, discuss, and stop. Through a single art piece such as “Triumphs and Laments,” this process can begin.