I got an email last month from a former student who has lived in places all over the world since leaving school. She was writing from Tasmania where she was attending a workshop. The title and topic of this workshop, she wrote, was “Unsettlement” – a condition experienced by people who are subject to war, forced economic migration, or climate change, as well as Western conditions like divorce, serious illness, unemployment, etc. My first thought was, here’s another word for what we’re expressing in our installation, and a new one to me.
When you choose as we have done, to re-imagine a 2000 year old event - the catastrophic collapse of a community - you need to ask sooner or later, why is this so important now, important to us? What relevancy can it possibly have to our contemporary world? I wrote in an earlier post about the frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries being a touchstone for many artists, especially classically trained artists like myself. These reasonably intact paintings are rich in color, drawing, and composition. Thematically they smolder with psychosexual overtones. I also wrote about what aspect of the Villa of the Mysteries we wanted to focus on in our installation. For us the connection was seeing ourselves in the past, seeing the familiar in the foreign. I didn’t know it at the time but those thoughts and words were just the very outer layers of the proverbial onion that got peeled away as we worked for the past year on the installation.
As I painted the murals and Katha built her figures and other structures, we continued our dialogue, parsing all the possible implications of everything we created, and asking ourselves, is this what we want to express, is this getting us closer to what we want to say? Engaging in this constant exchange and dialogue, verbalizing to each other as well as writing about what we were doing proved invaluable. At some point we peeled away enough of the layers to see a truth - Pompeii, a 1st century coastal community, maybe a lot like our own, suffered a cataclysmic collapse, and life stopped in the blink of an eye.
In Tasmania today they may call similar seismic events and their aftermath “unsettlement”. Somewhere else in the world “disruption” and “massive migration” are the words used. Whatever name we give it, we recognize it in our contemporary lives.