Rome is a palimpsest of ideas accumulated through millennia of victories, defeats, and the passage of countless lives played out within the city’s walls. Since April 2016, this coexistence of past and present has been physically manifest in Rome’s public space. William Kentridge’s five hundred-metre frieze recreates iconic and iconoclastic images of the city’s past by selectively erasing the patina from the travertine banks of the Tiber River. Inhabiting the intersections of familiar/unfamiliar, tangible/intangible, and authored/collective knowledge, Triumphs and Laments: A Project for Rome invites us to question our ideas of the city.
Kentridge positions the archive of Rome’s history not as a source of knowledge, but as an impetus to its discovery. Through his procession of silhouettes the artist has subtly disrupted iconic figures. Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg embrace in a diminutive bath-cum-shower instead of frolicking in the Trevi Fountain, while a murdered Aldo Moro slumps alongside an ecstatic Saint Teresa. Kentridge has elsewhere explored twentieth-century Italy, and cites La Dolce Vita as an influential vision of Italy. His reconfigured images appear to be claiming artistic authority. Yet these public works reside between the familiar and the alien, and are presented without the institutional trappings of wall text to inform their meaning. They are emphatically open to interpretation. Kentridge’s invitation to find “a sense of history from fragments” places knowledge within the hands of his transient, anonymous viewers.