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The evolution of the idea for “Palimsesto”

The idea for this exhibition was shaped by recent coincidences and convergence of various creative efforts. It began with a concept of layering, one that in and of itself seemed a rich treasure trove of possibilities. It turned out to be that and more. The “more“ came from what was already under my nose but largely unnoticed, or if noticed, only subliminally. On the first take, the idea of “palimpsest “or “palimsesto” in Italian, has always touched me. It is a rich and poignant metaphor for life lived and then “lived upon“ by yet more life. The root of the word comes from the Greek “palin” which means “again” and “psēstos” which means “rubbed smooth”. It refers to the ancient writing tablets, parchment or papyrus, which were used repeatedly, the previous text being rubbed clean to make a new surface to be written upon again. The actual affect of this process is to realize that the previous writing is never completely removed, traces of it inevitably remain and, however faintly, exist and push through into the new text. The metaphor can be used in urban archaeology, for example, seeing the remnants of ancient Roman streets breaking through the asphalt of modern Rome. Combined with this idea/metaphor was the wish to try collage and painting together, something I’ve never done before. So I began cutting up pictures and pasting them together, one on top of the other with no real sense of where it might lead. Wanting to again focus on this ancient town, all the imagery came from photos I had taken of Cortona or images found on the web.

The results varied considerably, but a few were interesting, promising enough to continue but not quite enough to do, say the 40 or so necessary for the exhibition. What happened next seems obvious in retrospect but it was a surprise at the time. Another track I was pursuing was writing a book: How We Are Matters. I had largely put it aside in the anxiety of not having anything to show in Cortona as it was six months away and I had very little to show. But in the fall, I had gotten a book on writing by Natalie Goldberg entitled: Writing Down the Bones, a 30+ year old classic on how to write. One exercise she suggested she likened to stretching before running: set a time every day, 10 minutes or more, and simply begin to write, doesn’t matter what, just keep going. Trying this exercise opened up realms of not only writing but subject matter that lurked beneath the surface of previous writing for this book. I worried that my original premise for the book was being sabotaged. I had thought of writing short pieces profiling a single individual around a simple idea about how their way of being in life contributed to creativity and the creative lives it others. This writing exercise blew that up. An intended short piece on my sculpture professor became a journey into our very complex and troubled relationship and went way beyond a simple homily. Indeed, I am still digging deeper.

Where this all came together was one evening where I took stock of where I was. Having taken on this theme of palimpsest, I didn’t see it very clearly in what I was actually doing. Yes, there were layers, but they seemed too equivalent, not really one being covered or erased by the other. So it occurred to me to actually write on the painting and then erase parts of it. The inner resistance to this idea was surprisingly powerful: I didn’t want to ruin a perfectly nice painting I had worked on. I then remembered seeing a video of Gerhard Richter while he was painting, how he didn’t let his positive appreciation of a paining stop his continuing search for something deeper. So, as I heard a voice in my head screaming “Don’t do it!“, I took a black pen and began writing. Because of these exercises I’d been doing, I had no problem simply beginning. That broke the ice and I began writing these stories that were evoked by the images I was using. Then I would write a story and find the images. And then I would erase the stories. This required yet another struggle to get past wanting to keep the stories. So I decided to do a transcription of them before “destroying” them. This worked only marginally well, as I would get carried away and erased before transcribing, this necessitating a kind of desperate search for what I had written. Those I talked to about this thought it was important to know what was hidden by the erasures and images I put on top. I agreed with that until I had a conversation with a friend who didn’t like the idea of putting the transcription on the back, something I had thought would satisfy those who wanted to know the story. He said, “I don’t want to have to go back-and-forth looking at the back and then the front. I should have it right in front of me.“

Hearing that, something in me revolted. I realized these transcriptions were a betrayal of the very foundation and meaning of palimpsest. The fact is you don’t get to see what’s there. Instead you are left with a much more profound experience of not knowing, never knowing, but feeling the insistence of a faint voice which was not entirely silenced. This is the essential fact of palimpsest: it has been rubbed out, it’s gone and yet a piece remains. The metaphors of life and death and memory are offered in this confluence of the sense of something or someone having disappeared and yet the trace remains, however faint.

It became clear to me that our very natural instinct to know, to have all things revealed, can completely sabotage this much more subtle experience of loss and the passage of time, one story upon another, one life after another, dead but in some barely perceivable way still alive.

At first, I also thought the story itself should be profound in some way, or at least emotionally compelling. This too was a misplaced notion. The mundane, when written and then erased, is no less of a loss. Our habitual, every day experiences make up the vast majority of our lives. All these moments pass, are gone, and can be mourned while, at the same time, not be gone entirely. We remember them, but imperfectly, incompletely.

Here is the experience of palimpsest we might have:

  • To feel this desire to know and not be able to know.
  • To believe we endure, that life goes on, that we are somehow still here and see that we don’t and we are not.
  • To feel the wish to transcend our elimination in the face of this inevitable erasing of what is past, of ourselves now gone, in order to make a place for the new.
  • And then to truly feel the ache of loss made only more poignant by the trace that remains, that we cannot decipher, that we can never know, that is forever gone.