Essays > "Revenants" by Paul Bright
I have witnessed most of the process of creating the Revenants, from an improbable early phase when the individual head-forms were carved from laminated Styrofoam blocks, to their subsequent casting in iron, to the dyeing and knotting of the jute. They became known to us as “the heads”, and their creation was as erratic and drawn-out as their subsequent journey would be arduous. Because I have been very close to this process, at times participating in minor aspects of it, and also so close to their creator, Leigh Ann Hallberg, maintaining an ongoing discussion about the ideas driving them and technical challenges they posed, what follows cannot be a critical text in any real way. Rather, it will have to stand as an appreciation and an attempt to situate the work, from my point of view and however suggestively.
The Revenants have begun a journey, still incomplete, to return near where the idea for them emerged, when Leigh Ann saw the Roman busts at the Museo Chiaramonti in the Vatican. (I recall a similar experience I had years before at the Cluny Museum in Paris; a long hallway with sculpted heads on one side and headless figures on the other, apparently mismatched and irreconcilable.) Who were these presences – a little stylized but still individual – and why did they engage her long after the visit ended? What did they evoke for Leigh Ann? The work Revenants is in part an effort to answer that question.
Once fabricated, their relationships worked out and unified by the jute netting, they were carefully loaded into a sturdy case as into a sarcophagus, and handed, like a leap of faith, to shippers and handlers and sent on their way. They passed easily into Germany, and initially, into Italy. Then the gates closed; further transit was denied in Bologna. A convoluted, 4-way miscommunication ensued between shippers, the artist, civic officials, and the recipient in Bondeno. They were released mysteriously only after Leigh Ann and I arrived in Italy, even though we offered nothing more in documentation or payment than we had been asked for and previously provided. None of this would have surprised the Revenants (we have even accused them of being difficult, of somehow complicating things); they are back in town, as if they’d never been away.
They were intended to be exhibited first at the Rocca Possente di Stellata in August of 2012. But Gaia had other ideas, and their inhabiting that space will have to wait, perhaps for some time. The Rocca did indeed prove strong enough to largely withstand the earthquake of May 20, but not entirely. Leigh Ann and myself, along with the ever-generous and available Gianni Cestari, spent a couple of days just prior to that event, envisioning the work in the space, and imagining a sound collage I was to create as a companion piece on the main floor. The Revenants were to be grouped, implacably or generously it’s hard to say, in front of a grated doorway one level below, with their netting spilling to the floor and embracing, enclosing the viewer, not unlike the arms of St Peter’s in Rome. This will have to wait; but the Revenants are more patient than we are.
Gates and Keepers
Leigh Ann conceived of the Revenants as a metaphor for porosity and occlusion; they were seen by her as evoking the function of a cell membrane, an integument, semi- or selectively permeable, like the Porta S. Sebastiano of the Aurelian walls at the head of the Via Appia in Rome, a visit to which further focused her initial ideas for the work. (Much of her other recent work, mostly drawings, also addresses entangled interconnection, interstitial spaces, and transparency.) Access permitted or denied by some seemingly arbitrary electro-chemical signal, some digital or protein match or mismatch, paperwork in order, a bribe paid, a royal seal. Rocca di Stellata, like other fortresses and portals in walls, was a gatekeeper (for the Estensi of Ferrara), chains like tentacles stretched across the Po to stop down-stream traffic. Blocky crenellations, slits for archers or primitive fire-arms, walls in shallow Vs to enfilade the foolhardy attacker, squat and obdurate enough to handle the earliest cannon shots; it was an antibody of a sort, at the ready.
La Linea Gialla
The yellow line has become nearly universal, functioning both as a real demarcation and as a metaphor itself, indicating a kind of frontier of the bureaucratically acceptable, circumscribing a zone of waiting, a quotidian purgatory between red and green. Please wait behind the yellow line, please do not cross the yellow line, no passing when solid yellow line is on your side…It highlights the paradox of an increasingly sclerotic world with ever more travelers, in which even the gateways to countries formed and fed by immigration have narrowed considerably and often arbitrarily.
But the Revenants have seen it all before, this deployment and then failure or decay of selective membranes: someone slips into Homs or out of East Berlin in the reconfigured trunk of a car, hacks into code revealing dubious actions at high levels (or just cardholder information), at a president’s desk where a clear warning goes unheeded and two towers fall, at Hadrian’s wall at the upper edge of the “civilized” world, at the bridges of the Seine, at the Arno with an invading army in retreat and a wayward angel refusing to detonate the Ponte Vecchio, in stunned giddiness after a bureaucratic slip on a November evening at the Berliner Mauer, not unlike a mad spring day along the Theodosian walls with the gate left ajar at the Kerkoporta; Byzantium becoming Istanbul. In the end, what remain most impenetrable are the labyrinthine systems behind those walls and membranes.
Lines do a tedious, halting conga at passport control and customs in Moscow, Beijing, FCO, Kennedy, LAX, or Dulles. Implacable officials, interconnected, their shared webbing linking them but limiting their agility and movement, their ability to respond reasonably, enveloping some of those waiting to pass, or almost whimsically, relenting, letting you enter a place for an enjoyable vacation or a new life, to allow you to run to your plane just before your visa expires and the unrest begins. Regimes and governments, codified organizations, are more alike than different. Like cells or very simple organisms – like hydras – they react to stimuli at a level below rationality. They exist mostly to keep existing. And the Revenants, as perpetuators, potential intruders, protectively grouped, benign, anti-bodian, or malign, know this, too. They are helpful and opportunistic, waiting for a slippage in their favor, or simply a change of disposition. They are the passport holders and the border controllers, the Chinese dissident and his interrogators; also the protesters and the riot police. They are Wall Street and the Occupiers; they are our shadow selves, returned from a past we think we know or from a future we can’t imagine.
Trying to depart Rome on the one possible flight, but, like the tag on our luggage, “status pending” for “space available,” – epitomizing the Revenants’ mission and meaning. This stand-by process always seems barely legitimate to me, potentially getting something for (almost) nothing, waiting, anxiously and with schadenfreud-ic hope, that someone will not show up for their full-price ticket, to then be slipped onto the plane at the last minute, through the last membrane of maniacally beeping acceptance, down the ramp, doors sealed, electronics off; another escape made. But not this time; status resolved – access denied. And so by another, more protracted passage, to Verona and through the Tyrol, wakening to see the Alps’ indifferent grandeur in the strange pre-dawn light, and just ahead of Gaia’s irritated shrug, like the involuntary wrinkling twitch of an animal’s skin, toppling the cupola and rupturing the stony integument of the Rocca di Stellata.
My effort to position the Revenants in relation to places with which they seem so consonant may seem narcissistic in the light of recent events. But the terremoti of late May, while merely an inconvenience for us, deeply affected places and people we have come to know and love. Events like this remind us that humans are small, soft things, the connections between which should be our foremost concern. We hope the Revenants can make their appearance in a robustly recovering Emilia-Romagna, in this instance as harbingers of renewal.
Director, Hanes Gallery, Wake Forest University
May 26, 2012