carte blanche (white marble mistakes)
chan teck guan jee and stefan pente
at the art-space carico massimo
former general warehouses, via della cinta esterna 48/50 in livorno (it)
if the how of the story changes, can the what of the story remain the same?
what have the romans ever done for us?
who knew that smoking could increase the risk of lung cancer?
where is my vote?
am I supposed to think that they were telling me the truth?
how do you solve a problem like maria?
is the sky blue?
are you really going to do that?
is the pope catholic?
how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
(is this supposed to be some kind of joke?)
am I really supposed to think that they were telling me the truth?
the activity of collective remembering—inseparable from power relations—is a claim of the importance of one narrative over another. I understand it as a hegemonic discourse that is used in relation to certain historic events. individual memory is the only type of memory there is. collective memory is a type of oxymoron, a contradiction in itself. collective memory can, however, be used to provide an understanding of its constructed character.
and … the symbolic invitation of a ghost into a space, a mimetic appearance mirroring the manifestation of power, can undermine and impair it by denying its singularity.
florence, 21 april 2019 / we are in the piazza della signora. hub of government and politics during the reign of the medici in florence. today, it stands as an open air gallery of numerous sculptures, primarily made of white marble. the first thing we see is a sculpture depicting a rape scene, with the title of the work being 'the rape of polyxena'. images of murder follow—rooted in greek mythology—depicting naked muscular men cast in white marble killing and subjugating women or other men. hercules about to bludgeon cacus, a gigantic neptune presiding over his nymph servants. this sickness runs deep. we talk about how white marble as a material has the power to conceal and even absolve what would otherwise be horrific crimes, to invent these representation as beautiful, as high art in the minds of the masses. tourists throng all around us taking selfies with these sculptures. we sit and watch these performances of collective blindness.
"it turns out that vision is heavily subjective [...] you need to transform your eye into an objective tool in order to overcome this powerful imprint, a tendency to equate whiteness with beauty, taste, and classical ideals. westerners are engaged in an act of perpetuating collective blindness."
(vinzenz brinkmann, archeologist and director of the department for ancient sculpture at liebighaus, frankfurt, germany)
"it is possible to consume somebody's spirit, somebody's past or history or somebody's art and to do so in such a way that the act of consumption appears beautiful and heroic. the sites where this consumption takes place can be some of the most cherished institutions in western culture: art galleries, libraries, museums, archives, universities."
(deborah root, cannibal culture, westview press, 1996)
tracing lineages of the white marble sculpture from antiquity to the renaissance, we observe white marble´s influence on representations of whiteness, idealized (white, male) bodies, as well as the facilitation of contemporary white supremacist thought. we navigate questions surrounding bodies which sit heroized in the collective consciousness—the youthful, heteronormative, cisgender, white—and individual bodies with their limitations, sensualities, capabilities, etc. shaped and determined by the subject.
if I am white
what I see is a white marble sculpture from the late sixteenth century depicting ferdinand I de’ medici standing over his four prisoners (the bronze elements of the sculpture). these four sculptures are depictions of people of color from all the four winds of the earth who we are told to understand as barbaric corsairs or mediterranean pirates. ferdinand I is holding what looks like an erect phallus in his right hand, seemingly masturbating over the prisoners’ naked bodies to humiliate and emasculate them in preparation of their rape and enslavement.
this monument, like most other monuments, was put up for the specific purpose of keeping particular propositions for human deeds, positions or destinies present in the consciousness of future generations. it was commissioned, financed, sculpted and erected by white men.
this monument attests to me (if I am white) that it is ok to dominate people of color because to do so allows me to experience the illusion of power and freedom. it also tells me that the consumption of human and other bodies is agreeable and that handling other bodies—and by extension the land and the sea itself—as I please is my inherited right.
this monument advocate sexualized violence as a means to establish and maintain my social position and privilege (if I am white and male).
what I see is a monument testifying to my right to take materially and appropriate culturally whatever I want from whomever I want it free of consequences (if I am white). to the opposite, I will be congratulated and decorated for my adventurous spirit and entrepreneurship. it is with the medicis’ money and the support from the catholic church that italian “explorers” and merchants like niccolò de' conti, andrea corsali, alessandro malaspina and countless others, including christopher columbus and amerigo vespucci have traveled the seas east south north and west to steal and rape and murder as much as they could. it is thanks to their celebrated enterprises, and the unchecked will to consume, that is at the heart of western society, that the foundations to most of my privileges were established.
it is said that from a particular spot in the square the nose of all the four moors can be seen at the same time and, according to popular tradition, finding this spot is supposed to bring good luck (for those of us who are white).
what I understand is that the monument known as the monument of the quattro mori was restored in 2014 by the banking foundation fondazione cassa di risparmi di livorno (currently the fondazione livorno.) it was preserved for the specific purpose of keeping particular narratives of privileges and supremacy present in the consciousness of future generations (for those of us who are white).
we visited florence (and pisa and livorno) the first time early spring 2019. "located in the central italian region of tuscany, florence is one of the most breathtaking cities in europe. celebrated as the birthplace of the renaissance, the city is home to many of its most famous artistic treasures." this is how the webpage Italian Legacy starts their short history of florence. the city is indeed packed with these artistic treasures, sculptures, architectures, gardens etc. apart from being the birthplace of the renaissance and playing a key role in the development of the central perspective, it was also home to the medici, the italian banking family and political dynasty that first began to gather prominence during the first half of the 15th century. it facilitated the medici’s rise to political power in florence and its influence in italy and the world.
florence as one of the historical european nuclei of conjunct powers of state / church / conquest and international trade, celebrates its grandness, old money and past prevalence without visible critical introspectiveness so it seems. in the cities we visited we could find little to no official markers in public spaces reflecting the consequences renaissance accumulations of wealth, cultural assets and power had on other people. until today the italian renaissance serves to a great extend as a tool for national, european and international white identity.
"the equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe; it’s a dangerous construct that continues to influence white supremacist ideas today."
(sarah e. bond, assistant professor of classics at the university of iowa, usa)
this is a sculpture depicting a statue of a man standing on a pedestal. the man and the pedestal are made of white marble / at each corner of the pedestal, bronze statues depicting chained figures crouch below the man above / laughter is complex, because sometimes it’s a way to deal with trauma, and there’s also the kind of laughter that is painful, that gets stuck in the throat
the man on the pedestal looks out to sea / “these four men are moors” / I look out to the sea / I am with my parents in malacca / we stand in an antique shop where a table with a white marble top looks at us / I am ten years old / this is a sculpture depicting a statue of a man standing on a pedestal / florence 200419 / the man and the pedestal are made of white marble / I stand on a beach in pisa where the rocks around me are blazing, white marble / all of this formed about two hundred million years ago / no humans then / all of this / I see a face in one of the rocks / the renaissance is a period in european history spanning the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries / “man is the measure of all things”
the man on the pedestal has a name. his great-great grandfather also has a name. they share the same family name. this family were de facto rulers of florence throughout the renaissance, owned one of the most prosperous banks in europe and produced four popes. the great-great grandfather of this man also has a name (I do not write it here, however / naming holds strange power) and was patron of such ‘renaissance men’ the likes of da vinci, michaelangelo and galileo. he was also patron of columbus, vespucci and cabot. “many lands previously unknown to europeans were discovered by them during this period, though most were already inhabited.” / london 090918 / I am inside the british museum amongst a sea of stolen loot. I look around me and experience a deep sickness. I think of the complexity of colonisation and my place in all of this / my thoughts drip from me in english, this salty and stale language / this man and his family were central to implementing a threefold scheme of combating islam, spreading christianity, and securing a spice trade in asia / so it was to do our lord’s service that we were brought here; by taking malacca, we would close the straits so that never again would the muslims be able to bring their spices by this route / from the italians to the portuguese to the dutch to the english / here I stand, now
this man was made a cardinal in 1562 at the age of fourteen / I was made a roman catholic in 1994 at the age of zero / it was to do our lord’s service that we were brought here / my father converted from taoism when he was in high school / I just read that the marble staircase which jesus christ apparently walked upon on the day of his trial and death has just reopened to the public after three hundred years / pilgrims may only ascend the steps on their knees, praying along the way / saint helena brought the marble from jerusalem to rome / she was the mother of emperor constantine, the first roman emperor to convert to christianity
I am so tired of your history. I am so tired of your history /
the man and the pedestal are made of white marble /
at each corner of the pedestal, bronze statues depicting chained figures crouch below the man above. there are four of them. two of them have names.
there is nothing as invisible for white people as the public markers and omissions advocating their naturalized unmerited privilege and superiority.
one of the most influential early archeologists and art historians, johann joachim winckelmann, born 1716 in germany, produced two volumes recounting the history of ancient art, "geschichte der kunst des altertums" (1764), which were widely read and came to form a foundation for the modern field of art history. these books celebrate the whiteness of classical statuary and cast the apollo of the belvedere—a roman marble copy of a hellenistic bronze original—as the quintessence of male beauty. nell irvin painter, us-american historian and artist, notes that winckelmann was a euro-centrist who depreciated people of other nationalities and cultures. "color in sculpture came to mean barbarism, for they assumed that the lofty ancient greeks were too sophisticated to color their art," painter writes. "the ties between barbarism and color, civility and whiteness would endure. not to mention winckelmann’s pronounced preference for sculptures of gleaming white men over women. regardless of his own sexual orientation—which he expressed in this preference—winckelmann’s gender bias would go on to have an impact on white male supremacists who saw themselves as upholding an ideal". winckelmann was largely responsible for the image of a white antiquity. 2008, long after his death an expanded version of his comprehensive publication from 1764 came to light. one of its chapters is devoted to painted greek sculpture. although he observed traces of painting on ancient sculptures, he ascribed colored sculpture in "geschichte der kunst des altertums" to cultures older (more primitive) than those of greece or rome. winckelmann was proven wrong but his visual narrative continues to be told. he wasn’t the only man obsessed with the apollo belvedere. the dutch anatomist pieter camper, born 1722, believed that he could find the formula for perfect beauty through facial angles and used the statue as a standard to be attained. he began to measure human and animal facial features, particularly the lines running from the nose to the ear and the forehead to the jawbone. those ratios were later used by others to create the racist "cephalic index", which categorized human races and sex based on the width and length of their facial features.
the bare marble of ancient sculpture is romanticized until today. in the wake of and during the european renaissance artists began to engage with mathematics and anatomy and used classical sculpture as a means to address the question of replicable beauty through proportions.
renaissance sculptures made by donatello, michelangelo, giambolognia, ammannati, bandinelli or cellini as well as the later sculptures produced in mussolini's italy / in hitler’s germany along many others—much of them for public spaces—draw on the classical and in the case of later sculptures on the italian renaissance in search of paragons to idealize white bodies.
 "the history of white people", nell irvin painter, w. w. norton & company, 2010
 in spring 2017 flyers with heroic black-and-white close-ups of renaissance sculptures, including apollo and david accompanied by slogans like "serve your people" and "protect your heritage2 appeared at college campuses across the usa. they have been posted anonymously—targeting the office doors of faculty members of color or scholars of race and ethnicity—by "identity evropa2, a white supremacy group that is part of an international identitarian movement.