Review by Steve Harp •
obelisk: a tapering four-sided shaft of stone, usually monolithic and having a pyramidal apex;
SYN: column, daggar, mark, monolith, monument, needle, pillar, pylon, shaft, tower.
Gary Green’s 2021 monograph, Obelisk is a lovely book. Softcover, measuring 4 ½” x 9”, it fits comfortably in one hand, reminding me of nothing so much as a guidebook, those delightfully marked and annotated volumes tourists could be seen clutching (in the pre-digital age) while wandering through foreign spaces, desperately seeking understand of unfamiliar surroundings, or at the very least, to acquire some orientation to where they are. And, in a very real sense Obelisks is indeed a guidebook. But Green and his collaborator, poet Gianluca Rizzo, perform a deft shift in this book by foregrounding not only questions of space, but questions of time as well.
Green’s photographs offer some 26 views taken in 2016 of various monuments in Rome. Some of the photographs present entire monuments, such as Minerveo on Bernini’s elephant (p. 13) and Quirinale (p. 23), some offer details, such as the vertical triptych views of the Pantheon (p. 18) and some present visual traces of the obelisk ([Shadow of] Esquiline, p. 11 and [Reflection of] Minerveo, p. 12). But what is common to all the photographs of these memorials to myth, history and cultural memory is their visual rootedness in the present.
For me, the most compelling photographs herein trade on these over-lapping’s of the contemporary and the historic. The previously mentioned [Reflection of] Minerveo depicts a group of hazily seen historical paintings behind a shop window, most prominently a painting of Jesus carrying his cross with the reflection of the Minerveo monument overlaid upon it. In another photograph are what appear to be fashion images displayed on a transparent surface in front of the Sallustiano obelisk above the Spanish Steps. In these images most pointedly (but also in the images of pedestrians milling about in front of monuments, objects seen in shop windows and images on display for sale in souvenir stands) a sense of pentimento is conveyed, of one scene seen through another. As Lillian Hellman writes in the opening to her collection of memoirs of the same name:
Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.
The process of “seeing and then seeing again” is subtle yet at the same time pronounced in these images. Implicit in the notion of a monument is a desire for and attempt at preservation. Yet the preservation of an object (or a view, or an image) is inherently out of step with contemporary understandings and awareness, which are always in flux. (We need only consider current debates around monuments to historical figures of the Confederacy in the American South.) The dance between the mythologized historical moment and contemporary experience is always one of great complexity and nuance. Green’s delicate images speak to these displacements.
As does the suite of poems by Green’s collaborator, Gianluca Rizzo, which comprises the second section of the book. Rizzo’s poems are titled American Obelisk Nos. 1 – 9 (and a coda, American Bodies). Each of Rizzo’s American Obelisks is a reflection on a uniquely, historically American space and monument. The subjects of Rizzo’s poems range from the generally respected and admired – the Washington, Lincoln and Bunker Hill Monuments – to the more controversial – San Jacinto Monument, Cleopatra’s Needle, Trinity Site.
As I meandered through this lovely volume, letting its observations and questions resonate in my thinking, I was reminded of what might be considered a strange precursor to this project, that being Robert Smithson’s 1967 essay and portfolio of photographs, “The Monuments of Passaic.” Smithson’s consideration and investigation of the dystopic, industrial wasteland of New Jersey is usually read ironically, his use of the word “monuments” seen as caustic. But I think Smithson’s questions in this project are a subtle anticipation of the ideas Green and Rizzo are exploring. Is not post-WWII America no less an historical moment as those revisited by Green and Rizzo? In fact, although written and photographed more than 50 years earlier, Smithson seems to be lying in wait for Green and Rizzo when he writes, near the end of his short essay:
Has Passaic replaced Rome as The Eternal City? If certain cities of the world were placed end to end in a straight line according to size, starting with Rome, where would Passaic be in that impossible progression?
Obelisks opens with an epigraph: NEC VENTOS NEC HIEMEM (which is seen on the Base of Matteiano obelisk, p. 16). Translated from Latin as “neither wind nor winter,” the suggestion is of the permanence of the monument and, by extension, the view of history being commemorated. But every historical remembrance is also a place of contestation.
Green’s photographs and Rizzo’s poems suggest this unobtrusively and nondidactically. Obelisks, as an object (shaped itself tall and narrow, like a column, pillar, tower) may not carry the physical weight and solidity of the monuments depicted therein. But this beautiful little, physically unimposing volume functions as guidebook not so much to specific places or even eras, but as a guide to ways of thinking about and questioning history, the histories that surround us which we move through every day, whether in a foreign land or closer to home.
Gary Green has been featured previously on Photobook Journal: The River is Moving/The Blackbird Must be Flying
Steve Harp is a Contributing Editor and Associate Professor The Art School, DePaul University
Obelisks, Gary Green
Photographer: Gary Green, born New York, New York, resides Waterville, ME.
Publisher: Danilo Montanari Editore (Ravenna, Italy copyright 2021)
Poems: Gianluca Rizzo
Book description: softcover, sewn binding with folded dust jacket, 64 pages, printed and bound in Italy
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