Rome is coming apart. All around us concrete crumbles and paint flakes, tree roots upend stone while car exhaust fouls buildings and toxic rain eats at their ornament. The monuments that have come to define Rome seem increasingly precarious, mocking the vision of eternity that allowed them to be built in the first place.
Although morphing and accelerating in the era of the Anthropocene, decay is an ever-present force and the “ruins” it produces are long-standing ciphers for western attitudes toward the passage of time. Paradoxically, the representation of ruins, whether stemming from nostalgia or anxiety, gives fixity to objects that are powerful precisely because they are undergoing change. Such representations assume the ruin to be a thing when it might better be understood as a process.
Regeneration draws inspiration from Caitlin de Silvey’s description of cultural objects as “provisional gatherings of matter.” This may seem a cold definition of art, but it is also a reminder of how art can help us make sense of transience in an epoch when change has taken on existential urgency. For the artists included in this exhibition, decadence, or the physical undoing of bodies, is the seed and substance of creative expression rather than its sentimental, regrettable endpoint.
This particular view of art is necessarily global. It imagines a continual making and remaking of the world that is beyond human measure, reaching back to the very formation of the marble that the Romans later quarried for their monuments. Similarly, it envelops oceans and landmasses, regardless of the peoples who have traversed and occupied them. In its concern with the literal force of matter, it also makes way for varied cultural interpretations of the elements we all share.
The resulting discourse is thus an ethical one. Beyond the equalizing factor of sheer materiality—that we and the world are dust—is the question of how to mark, make note of, intervene in, and perhaps forestall these natural processes. On the one hand lies the matter of resources: who has the means to decide which buildings will collapse while others are rebuilt, which landscapes merit intervention and which should be left “to nature”? On the other hand are more nuanced questions concerning cultural attitudes toward permanence, value, and beauty.
Roman monuments were by definition intended to outlive all else. But other traditions find potential elsewhere, including in the fragment and in materials that are taken back into the earth. The artists included in Regeneration explore these aspects of materiality, alongside the power of absence, silence, the shadow, and the trace. They refuse to place art on a timeline of judgment that sees the whole as the apex of achievement and degradation as decline, preferring to situate creative expression along a continuum of ongoing, elemental reinvention.
Elizabeth Rodini is AAR’s interim Director. As Andrew Heiskell Arts Director from 2019 to 2021, she organized several major projects: Cinque Mostre 2020: Convergence, featuring the work of Academy Fellows; the multisite, open-air exhibition Streetscapes; an evening of musical performances and installations entitled Aluminum Forest; and Reading the City, a gathering of Italian authors presenting new texts on the urban environment. Rodini’s research centers on the mobility of objects and histories of material displacement, with a particular focus on early modern Venice and its relationships with the eastern Mediterranean. She is the author of Gentile Bellini’s Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II: Lives and Afterlives of an Iconic Image (2020).