SCARLETT’S LETTERS: Have Broom, Will Travel
Dear James —
I’ve recently parked my meandering caravan in Torino, Italia, and transformed it, with a quick wiggle of my exceptional nose, into a glass-enclosed nest surrounded by woods and autumn leaves. Between the chirps and trees, I’m finally at home, or close to it. Who would have thought it was in Pino Torinese, or Turinese Pine, that I would find my comfort zone? But perhaps the reasoning is not so obscure: A childhood fantasy was being a tree fairy, living among mossy evergreens, luminous enchantments crackling from my fingertips. It’s a fantasy that lingers yet.
Nestled by white-covered Alps, Torino not only lavishes my need for nature, she also delivers a little city filled to the brim with old culture and experimental industry. To its credit: it is the cradle of arte povera; it houses a crowded museum of Egyptian artifacts; it is the home to many maestros, artists like myself who are dancing to an off-beat tune: Mario and Marisa Merz, Carol Rama, Penone and Carlo Mollion are but a few names I can drop.
As Maurizio Cattelan said in an interview about his non-curator exhibition ‘Shit and Die’, which opened during the last Artissima,
I think what makes the city such a great experimental place is the fact that its personalities have always taken their ideas very seriously, and did realize what they designed, no matter how crazy the ideas were. Sometimes you’d better ask yourself “why not?” instead of “why?” and that’s a very preponderant element in the Torinese culture.
Today the city is to me a new Detroit, or Berlin, marked by a heavy industrial past, with a very peculiar inner life and creativity sleeping under a declining empire.”
This is the third year in a row I find myself attracted to the Piemonte region. In 2012, I was housed at a summer castle tucked away in a forest-enclosed village called Cumiana. Only thirty minutes from the city’s center — the time it takes many fervent Los Angelenos to reach their favorite yoga local — I moved from rural to urban. The day of our arrival I made the mistake of taking my trusty beagle, Eating Disorder, for a walk without a leash, unaware that this was the realm of hunters. Within five minutes he was on the hot trail of a rodent. He eventually found his way home in the wee hours of the morning, happy with blood-covered lips. Unfortunately the adventure entailed several visits to the vet from poisoning, but that’s another story.
That year, I was invited to present a sculpture in the gardens of la Reggia della Venaria, the Versailles of this city. Later, I returned to produce a large installation for the Paratissima Art fair. In 2013, I was invited to do a collaborative project again for Paratissima, and a solo painting show in Ghost Space Gallery.
Torino clicks with my art: magic and mythical symbolism, religion and the politics of belief systems, are the underlying themes in all my work. This is the home of the Shroud of Turin, after all, a masterpiece among religious hoaxes, a great work of art both conceptual and figurative.
Today E.D. and I strut our stuff in the truffle-filled forest or along the three-hundred-year-old trunks planted where the Po and Dora rivers meet. I’ve learned it’s easier to call him by his initials than his full name; shouting it across the dog run in Griffith Park in L.A. can rattle some people — who doesn’t have an eating disorder in L.A.? One has to know when to be subversive, and when one is just being plain disturbing.
A new admirer grazes in a field next door. He’s covered with a coat of blue gray hairs, has charming brown eyes feathered with lush black lashes. Every morning he hails me over, and we share a moment while I brush my teeth. I don’t know his real name, but my first instinct was he’s Eeyore, so E.R. he remains. The fairy witch in me wants to traipse across the pastures and recite lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the truth is I’m not used to farm animals. I am still working up the courage to jump over the fences that separate us and scratch the furry chin that E.R. longingly cocks at me. He’s so Italian with his head gestures.
They say Turin is where black and white magic unite, where triangles of light and dark fuse. I perceive the other points of the white triangle as Prague and Lyon, France, where I spent my teenage years, knowledgeably unaware and intuitively drawn by its magical lineage. Lyon is where I initialed myself as a witch. I found solace in its ruins, namely in the hilltop Roman amphitheater, the place of so many ancient theatrics. The dark points of the magic triangle are London, where I’m paranoid that the dragon lady is watching my every move. Or maybe that’s the CCTVs? The last point is San Francisco. How this geometry manages to project so far west is never made clear to my spiritual sense; that TV show Charmed took place there . It could be that; again, theatrics orient me.
A well-aged story, lost in the pious lines of Catholic devotion and buckets of Dionysian wine: Half of the city dwellers I’ve asked won’t divulge where this magic claim is coming from, while eagerly maintaining that Turin is indeed magical. You cannot wave a wand in Italy without hitting the supernatural in some form or other. The other half of Turin is more fervent in its declaration of the city’s mysticism, though they still can’t give you a straight answer or point out its original source. I do wonder if it is because they truly don’t know, or if they’re just trying to humor me, la strega straniera, the foreign witch.
The most common ritual, out here in the farmlands hedged by Alps, is the worship of la terra madre. And there is definitely something pagan in that.
The more ancient the land, the slower the move to change. Italy is the birthplace of the slow-food movement, Torino the headquarters of Salone del Gusto, an international fair dedicated to artisanal, sustainable food and the small-scale producers that safeguard local traditions and high-quality products.
The center of Torino’s white-magic vortex is an unpretentiously small round church that looks more like a Greek temple. She is called la Gran’ Madre di Dio, the Great Mother of God. It is said that here, underneath her petticoats, is kept the legendary Holy Grail.
Across town, black-magic shadows loom Halloweenly across Piazza Statuto, built on a Roman necropolis. Prisoners used to be tried and executed here. Superstitions profess that the gates of hell can also be found beneath the car-congested roundabout. But to me it looks like what it is: A manhole leading to sewers. What is that joke about being in hell up to your chin in shit humming, “Don’t make waves”? In any case, I’m sure it smells like hell. I can hear the scurrying of the rat kings of the underworld. Not far from the manhole stands an obelisk faintly scribbled with 666 next to an upside-down cross.
Black and white energies converge in the heart of the city, at the gates of Palazzo Reale in the Piazza Castello, guarded by statues of knights on horses rearing to keep the dark powers at bay. Once home to the Savoy kings and the first senate of a united Italy, the palace’s structure is half medieval while the other half was rebuilt in a ‘modern’ style in the 1960s after a fire. I put quotation marks on modern because it still looks pretty damned Renaissance to me; but the Renaissance is still modern in this slow-cooked land.
One side of the palazzo is white and ornamented, while the other is oppressed by towers and brick red. Clearly the structure illustrates the meeting of two ages, the darkness of medieval times and a longing for light in the enlightened era. What could better describe magic than the willful summation of opposing forces into a balance manifested by a palazzo and its piazza?
Driven by the local’s reticence to breach their omertà about their magical places, I researched it; Google recognizes no vows of silence. In the process, I thought to detect a similar pattern of strong power lines running through the city of Paris. Far from undermining Turin’s claim to magic, they actually seem to make the architectural alchemy more credible. Paris also has a church named after the Great Mother, known as la Madeleine. Like her sister la Gran’ Madre, she also looks more like a temple referencing the Roman Pantheon than any other gaudy European cathedral. From her, a straight line runs to the famous obelisk of la Concorde and ends with the Romanesque structure of l’Assemblé nationale, where legislators meet and policies are made. Coincidence or construction, I believe Rulers know the power of aligning themselves with the talismanic.
Am I being too Dan Brown? Laugh not: It’s art history 101 that pre-modern European architecture, especially in Italy, is cloaked with hermeneutical symbols. From the ancients to the industrial age, the most steadfast spells were cast in stone.
I was born at the edge of the world, in the farthest west — to the west of Los Angeles is the East. So we often look eastward for answers. Californians being so young and wild, we felt our European heritage didn’t feed us the pathos we craved, a magic we could really believe — it couldn’t help us survive mentally in this lush desert, a sometimes toxic paradise.
The Taoist concept of embracing the constantly changing flow of a cosmic river rings more true than impossibly pure Christian ideals and fairytales. Taoism reminds us that there is nothing to grab on to when the earth is quaking and the hills are burning. So let go. Natives of this Californian land — some were my ancestors — knew no stable object and describe their world in constant action. Their definition of the Moon would have been something like, “glowing reflection watering darkness expansion.”
Skipping out of Turin for a break, I have a Room with a View moment in Florence. It’s a book that is always close to my bed for whenever I need a romantico pick-me-up. Invited by a friend who curates the art film festival lo Schermo dell’Arte, I was welcomed in an apartment on the banks of the Arno with a front-seat vista of the enchanting Ponte Vecchio. Yes: a red-curtained canopy princess bed, ceiling frescos, and all the trappings one anticipates from the enduring bounty of the Renaissance.
I attend a screening of Cutie and the Boxer, a tender, tearful and tragic tale of a Japanese artists couple struggling to leave their teeth marks on the Big Apple, then a seminar about the art collector and fashion monarch François-Henri Pinault’s film collection. It’s topped off with a power-gossip session with Manuela, my new favorite italiana and director of the Gucci Museum.
Then I wander the streets once ruled by the Medicis. Without any plans or map or GPS in hand, I strolled into churches. I willingly got lost. I climb over fortress walls where vandals carved messages through moss. Beyond are crumbling castles and overgrown gardens. In the shops, I hide my credit card from myself while pouring over vintage fashion gems. I drool with envy over abundant and expensive religious relics displayed in staggered rows of antiquaries, which to the unfamiliar seem endless. Earlier pilgrims once lavished churches with money for the sight and touch of what is now for sale on every street corner.
With no Baedeker to guide me, the steps of my witch’s intuition lead me to Santa Maria Novella. I have been to Florence before, but this was my first encounter with the famous basilica. Standing beneath its respected arches, I replayed E.M. Forster’s story, the part where the father and son blatantly challenge dogmatic tradition with common sense. Like a pop song by the Beatles or the venerated words of Jesus, the seed of their truth is this: All you need is Love.
The exquisite architecture of this place of worship is mainly devoted to images of death. Two open caskets reveal plaster renderings of a dead nun and a lifeless Jesus. There are several paintings of suffering angels and countless crucifixions, and my favorite, a painting of a woman with a dagger protruding from her neck. And all of it enclosed by flat marble-carved headstones of dead nobles. So what is it going to be, a worship of death as a celebration of life, or is it the other way round? Here we worship the living moment and celebrate it when it’s gone.
Longing to conclude as I began, with a sweep of a magic wand, these thoughts and gesticulations become distilled in an alchemical golden stone. I cannot seem to find the right turn of phrase that perfectly describes the slow nature and magical sedateness that delights me.
I should borrow from a performance I am currently scheming together with fashion journalist Anja Cronberg. The theme we are working with is slowness versus busyness, mainly derived from an idea formed by Milan Kundera and his booked fittingly titled Slowness.
There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.”
With this contemplation in mind, I begin to recollect the first time I visited this old country. When was it? Eight, ten… Oh dear, in fact, it’s almost fifteen years ago! Time flies faster than a witch’s broom.
I’m taken back to then, to a warm and cherished summer on the Eurorail. Traveling with my friend Mr. T, we haphazardly hopped from one night train to another with no determined destination. Those were the days when idleness was not only a virtue but a state of being. I can’t recall what triggered the desire or design for the trip, or the planning and airfare purchasing that lead to it. I can’t even remember how Mr. T became my partner in crime to break free from the prison of purpose, and yet we went forward on an adventure with those irrational conclusions we call experience.
Though the Internet did exist, it was not available at our fingertips as it is now, so we traveled without access to immediate information. Our gaze wasn’t pointed downward as it is now with the ever-so-handy smartphone. Yet, somehow, we always found places to stay, be it the comfort of a small hotel, a secluded hostel hidden in enchanted hills, or in the safety of a public landscape. We knew no boundaries and gave into our ever-whimsical moods and fancies.
After a long sleepless night talking to strangers, many of them young ministering Mormons, and endless stops in the middle of nowhere, we disembarked in Milano Centrale. The morning was overcast, as we reviewed the vistas beyond the station’s doors, we instantly decided this city was not for us. The grey industry highlighted by the grey skyline, we uniformly agreed even the pigeons looked ugly and unhappy. Back into the station for a quick espresso and nicking the table ashtray label with the words Yoga Magic — which gave me a chuckling scream, being a yogi who enjoys a smoke — we inspected the trains departure board. Pisa or Firenze ? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe … Firenze it was to be.
By the time we arrived, night had fallen and so had the aches in our stomachs. In the purest sense of wanderlust, we let an invisible force lead our fool’s path, and suddenly, like a miraculous apparition, was the famous Duomo elevated in black and white bricks. Now that was something to behold, a grandeur that regally heralds your arrival. For a breathless moment we gapped in awe. The next thing I recall was gobbling trays of grilled Tuscan vegetables and river fish, doused by copious glasses of delicious wine — well maybe it was shit wine, but what did we know? We were such unrefined backpacking Americans; any touch of Italy, no matter how crappy, was a magical spell.
The train tracks eventually led us to the mysterious city of Venice. We didn’t fall into the expensive tourist trap of a senselessly romantic gondola. We found ecstatic pleasure in each architectural fixture and cheaply scared each other by reenacting scenes from Don’t Look Now while getting lost in city’s labyrinth of alleys.
On our last night, to commemorate the decadent slowness of a crumbling age, and wishing to postpone the return to the rash rapidness that awaited us back home, we downed a couple of bottles of second-rate wine. Feet dangling into the Grand Canal, the sunset over San Marco’s tower, our love of nutritious nothingness disappeared into slow waves of the Adriatic Sea.
Today these sceneries have become familiar and routine, though I refuse to become blasé. Like Proust, I willfully stray to the romantic, casting as a spell his famous phrase, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
So onward to new adventures. With many baci from Turin, I leave you to seek magic in the seemingly mundane and the occult of synchronicity.
Until we meet again, love always,
P.S.: Here is the link to lo Schermo dell’ Arte