SALA DELLE ASSE
Some time ago, from an old book on Leonardo Da Vinci’s work that belonged to my grandfather, an image caught my attention. I wanted to know about the picture, to understand its grammar and unearth the glow in the picture. I made a drawing that I considered to be an exact copy of this work from a page in the book. It was titled only as the Sala delle Asse and reproduced as a black and white photograph. I spent forever on this drawing, trying to understand the complex geometry of Da Vinci’s branching knot designs. I followed the line of rope with my pencil, weaving it between the foliage to discover that a single rope forms an elaborate system of interlacing. I imagined that, through fidelity to the reproduction, I would come to ‘know’ the work, assimilating it through verisimilitude and homage.
Such was the blinkering effect of the book’s apparent authority that I assumed that this work was a monochrome drawing roughly the size of the page. My Internet research revealed that the work is actually a coloured fresco painted in tempera that covers the ceiling and vault of a room in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. And the image I had made my drawing from was of an early, poor restoration that obscured Leonardo’s work. This initial restoration was now being removed in the current on-going restoration project.
Last year I went to Milan to visit the work in the Castello Sforzesco. Imagine me as I run through all of the rooms leading to Leonardo’s work. I felt that all of my days of drawing had been a preparation, a kind of virtuosity of aesthetic intention that had given me an intense understanding this work. I felt this in a similar way to how a person interested in music may attempt to ‘master’ an instrument, not as a secondary thing for relaxation, but as a meticulous study. I had waited so long to see it.
The Sforzesco’s long corridors shimmered in Quattrocento light. Following signposts led me into a dark and crowded room covered in tall scaffolding. The room was lit by projections that cascaded over the painted walls. A fifty-six minute lecture was delivered by the restoration team (complete with English translation) from high up on the scaffold. The room was full of tourists. You couldn’t really see the Sala but you could view some digital animations of Leonardo at work and you could find out quite a lot about the history of the restoration project. This work was hidden for centuries under plaster, opened up by an earlier restoration, and then obscured by an inept attempt at restoration. Now it was being over-shadowed by a multi-media presentation. Such a long history of obscurity, such a thin line between erasure and memorialisation. I was surprised that the lecture did not, with the permission of a new restoration to do so, allow the audience to spend time with the work itself. But they seemed happy enough. When the lights came on, the crowds left me alone in the Sala. For a four-minute gap in each hour I could see and touch Leonardo’s work. I stood in silence in the room. The daylight streamed in. I reached out my hand to touch the painted walls.
I returned to the work in the small gaps of time between presentations. It was always the same: lights up, interval, four minutes of quiet after the crowd filed out. I made a number of drawings after this visit. Sala Sketch is one of these.
Although I did not begin this project with any foreknowledge of a future position, it feels as if I am making a single work that is being released in parts. I keep returning to this project, zooming in on different aspects such as the lecture, the tour of culture, the museum, the restoration. I’ve become really curious about what seems to be an unbridgeable gap between what the art historical restoration wants to do and what it can actually do. This contradiction seems also to be part of art’s bitter logic – the artist’s dissatisfaction with representation. The artist attempts to move beyond representation to something transcendent, to reach beyond the human, beyond time. But art always fails because you can’t actualise that impulse without betraying it. So the art work is a record of some kind of failure to get beyond the irreducibly material nature of process. Yet these undertakings at least keep us in touch with imagining such possibilities- the desire for something beyond the frame.