Public Art in Rome: William Kentridge's "Triumphs and Laments"


by Rebecca Clayman

On the night of Friday April 22nd crowds gathered along the banks of the Tiber River in anticipation of the evenings performance. While on a typical Friday night the surrounding neighborhood would be filled with pedestrians filtering their way to and from popular bars in the lively neighborhood Trastevere, but on that particular night crowds gathered waiting to witness the unassuming walls of the Tiber River transform into a once in a life time theatrical experience.

The public event marked the opening of William Kentridge's new public mural, "Triumphs and Laments". Kentridge is an acclaimed South African artist who has established a long career through a variety of mediums including film, animation, sculpture, and drawing. His work uses a theatrical approach and combines themes from European classical art and contemporary African art, which produces a unique interplay of visual citations, playing a role in the South African Renaissance in the late 1980s. His work gained international recognition in the late 1990s and since then has been featured in cities all over the world. "Triumphs and Laments" is Kentridge's latest addition to his impressive career, featuring a 1,645 foot long mural that depicts over 80 figures relating to the history of Rome formed through a manipulation of the natural discoloration on the travertine stone that comprises the embankment walls of the river. Using a graffiti stencil approach, the artist creates large-scale figural representations of symbols from Rome's history, unveiled to commemorate the anniversary of Rome's founding.

On a normal night, a pedestrian might never notice this part of Rome's public space, but on that night, the wall was illuminated with bright spotlights highlighting the massive mural. The energy of the crowd was one of inclusivity, the solidarity of anticipation bringing together tourists and locals, families and groups of teenagers. The performance consisted of a procession of actors dressed in renaissance costumes carrying large shadow puppets. The actors walked to an operatic soundtrack created by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi. As described by the artist statement, the music derived inspiration from the Italian Renaissance composer Salamone Rossi, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, traditional Southern Italian music as well as fragments of text taken from the preexisting graffiti on the embankment walls.

The variety of sources used for the performance's music echoes the artistic goals of Kentridge himself. Rather than appearing stuck in one historical time period, the diversity of influences for the performance created a dynamic sound and visual experience. As the actors marched down the riverbank with the shadow puppets, the shadows blended with the backdrop of the Frieze creating a beautiful complex layered imagery. As an observer of the public performance, I appreciated how the layered elements of the piece reflected the surrounding city. While walking through the streets of Rome one can observe the relationship between historic and contemporary visual sources, and in this sense Kentridge's work seems natural in its environment.

Even to an outsider like myself, the symbols used in Kentridge's mural tell a deep story of Rome's history using recognizable imagery such as the She Wolf who raised Romulus and Remus, the mythical twins who became icons of Rome's foundation. While the performance was a unique and special moment, the piece remains for the public eye. As I pass the river each day, I can see how the mural opened up the banks of the Tiber to the public, as if putting an art piece on display gave permission to climb down the stairs and explore the quiet shady path along the river. Public art has the power to reshape how we interact with space and Kentridge's "Triumphs and Laments" is a beautiful tribute to the influence art can have outside the traditional structure of a museum or gallery.

 

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