A Film by Luca Veggetti
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A Film by Luca Veggetti
In my mind, the Piazza, Fiere di Bologna, the plaza designed by Isamu Noguchi for Kenzo Tange in Bologna—a place I’ve known since my childhood—is a tool for the imagination: a gigantic stage, a set, an archipelago of interrelated spaces and sculptural objects of metaphysical quality. By conjuring an inner aural dimension, it engenders an act of poetic creation in the viewer but also, from this perspective, embodies the paradox of a public space that functions better when it remains empty. Given the almost total absence of visitors, in this sense Isamu Noguchi might have achieved, voluntarily or not, one of his most grandiose and yet remote theatrical creations: for the eyes of the rare but happy ideal spectator.
The film, a drama of space of some sort, explores an imaginative dimension by bringing forth, in an interplay of visual, sonic and kinetic elements, an aesthetic observation of the effects of the earth’s rotation on the plaza. The text at the center of it, from the notes of Martha Graham for a dance never choreographed, serves—not without irony given its heightened language—as a counterweight to lift the imagination towards a region of myth.
After the film was finished, I found the actual unrealized scenario to which Graham’s notes refer.
She aimed for a work of universal nature and considerable expressive power. May I be allowed to dream that Isamu Noguchi would have designed the set? The dream is a posthumous collaboration I unknowingly strove to conjure.
From Martha Graham’s unrealized scenario for Tam Lin (1946):
Had the Italian modernist painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) lived to see the COVID pandemic of 2020–2X, which has so closely paralleled the flu epidemic of 1918–19 through which he lived, he might have experienced some grim satisfaction at the emptying out of the world’s public spaces. A century ago, an estimated 50 million people died of flu worldwide, following directly on the deaths of at least 20 million in World War I, significantly altering the human landscape of Europe. In the series of metaphysical paintings for which de Chirico is known (e.g. La matinée angoissante, 1912), which initially preceded and then became synonymous with the world’s coming apart, he tried, he said, to produce “the flat surface of a perfectly calm ocean,” which “disturbs us…by all the unknown that is hidden in the depth”1—much of what was hidden being various senses of loss. “Enigmas” he called these paintings, philosophical puzzle-scapes full, through literal emptying out, of inexorable ontological import.
Not since the cyclical bubonic plagues of the fourteenth century that killed 30–60% off the population of Europe had so many cities on the continent felt so deserted as in the winter of 1918–19. Between then and today, the world’s population has grown from fewer than two billion to more than seven billion. Making the widespread sense of desolation that followed the almost instantaneous, seeming disinhabitation of the Earth that we experienced with the first phase of COVID lockdown all the more destabilizing to the collective metaphysical imagination. Not for a century have de Chirico’s depopulated cityscapes—that in art history had seemed purely, or principally, symbolic as touchstones of alienation—made such sense.
Of those of us experiencing this pandemic—including informed admirers of de Chirico’s work—it is possible that the Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti (b. 1963) is the only person on Earth both inclined and qualified to find anything redeeming in the desolate civics lessons of Isamu Noguchi’s Piazza, Fiere di Bologna (1979–83). A globe-trotting artist-citizen of the world like Noguchi, Veggetti is a native of Bologna who found himself unexpectedly trapped in his home town for an extended period when the world suddenly stopped spinning in early 2020.
Piazza was commissioned by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange (1913–2005) as part of a large, multi-building complex for the regional government of Emilia-Romagna, itself part of Tange’s ambitious masterplan for the city of Bologna. As built, Piazza is a spatializing ensemble consisting of two large elements: a massive granite column turned on its side and raised on a truncated pyramid, which Noguchi called a gate, and a sunken octagonal amphitheater; and two more ambiguous ones: a sloping wedge cut into the plaza with a suggestion of seating and a small, raised circular dais. The latter two elements are so subtle that they might be mistaken for physical solutions to technical issues with the design of the plaza having nothing to do with Noguchi. In fact they are the budget versions of ideas that he proposed. Several other components of Noguchi’s original and subsequent design proposals were eliminated from the plan along the way: a tall pylon, a fountain (which was meant to be a cost-effective replacement for the pylon), and a bandstand. The additions that survived what turned out to be a very long and frustrating process, even by the low standards of public space making, were intended to transform the plaza from a void at the complex’s nominal heart into civic space.
By the time of the project’s design, Tange’s international modernism had itself become something of an empty shell, producing a series of wan, hollow, generic environments of the sort seen in movie sets representing futures we should all hope never come to pass. The metaphysical poverty of these environments reflects the limits of vision of a single human being working with pencil and paper at a drafting table while failing to recognize the limitations of a heroic individual model of urban planning. In the case of Bologna, Tange’s plan is an excellent example of a type of architecture that gets built without ever really leaving the schematic design phase.
It is true that a relative indifference to local conditions is a feature of international modernism. At its best, this architecture produced some truly ennobling statements of universality, or at least an impression of it. So in Bologna, this alien quality was at least in part by design. The existence of something vaguely resembling a public square at the complex’s center does appear to have been an attempt to engage Italian civic architectural traditions and to inspire a simulacrum of public life. But the conceit of the plaza was insufficient on its own, and engaging Noguchi to address the problem seems to have been an admission that nothing like public space had been achieved. Yet, even with Noguchi’s contributions, the whole effort feels almost self-ridiculing in its insincerity. The plaza is grandiose and sterile, uniquely bereft of human scale in that way that is both depressingly common and weirdly particular to large government projects. The whole environment, with its relentless hardscape and impenetrable concrete facades, suggests that Tange mistook everything that is wrong with the kind of public housing that can be found all over the overbuilt world for the sublime achievements of the Athenian Acropolis and then set out to emulate it.
What person, or combination of persons, anywhere—because of course Tange was not the only architect transforming the world in this way—could ever have believed that an instant, made-to-order “city,” springing fully formed from a single mind, no matter how extraordinary, would ever live in the way that cities should? In the way that an actual city, evolved over time and teeming with the contributions of multitudes, comes naturally to collectively express community? Surprisingly, no matter how obvious the failures of such Olympian planners—and we live with their failures everywhere—it happens again and again. Motivated by myths of rationality, coherence, and efficiency, as well as by impatience, those with power continue turning to single geniuses looking for simple solutions to impossibly complex communal dreams.
Enter Veggetti, the landscape of whose own mind tends towards vast expressions of existential angst. Long given to constructions of remoteness in his choreography, and naturally drawn to sources such as the forbidding archaicism of Martha Graham’s Greek works (with sets by Noguchi), and unexpectedly confined alongside a spectacularly deracinated space (its desolation further enhanced by government decree) under the most surreal of circumstances, and finding himself unoccupied for the first time in a long time, it is not surprising that Veggetti would turn his gaze inward, and then locally outward, looking for ways to get back to the business of exploring and expressing his interior states. And having found a stage that not only resonates with his nature but with the world’s state of mind, he may be forgiven for finding himself creatively simulated by this sterile behemoth, so distant from the ideal on which it is based. So it was that the spring of 2020, Veggetti—coincidentally a longtime fan of Noguchi’s, who was already working on a project with the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum—just happened to be the right captive in the ideal solitary confinement at the right time to make something out of a somewhere that feels like nothing.
Noguchi would have found this all quite paradoxical, and probably mostly not in a good way. Not only had he not set out to make a satire of public space and civic life but precisely the opposite. He revered the Italian piazza. “What interests me in Italy more than gardens are the Piazi (sic),” he wrote in a reflection on the sculpture of spaces, “and the centering function they play in the city together with the cathedral. ‘Piaza du Duomo’ (sic) constitutes a unit. A common ground of gathering, the place of leisure and prayer. This is the true space of the mind, the consciousness of an opening outward. To heaven or the world beyond.”2 Along with the Japanese garden, the piazza was one of a small group of models of public space that Noguchi identified as representing what he hoped to achieve in a new discipline of social sculpture. His commitment to shaping what he called the environment of our awareness in a humanist manner was anything but insincere or perfunctory.
In Bologna, however, as a result of cost cutting and insufficient understanding and support on the part of the client, there is no question that the project never escaped the opaqueness of an incomplete thought.3 As late as 1986—with his exhibition in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale providing him a public platform—Noguchi was still trying to convince the government authorities in Bologna to find the resources to add another element to the design.4 That didn’t happen. In the catalogue for his museum (opened 1985, with the catalogue following in 1987), which included an image of the gate from Piazza Fiere, the short entry he wrote concludes with the sentence fragment: “Still unfinished after seven years.”5
How serendipitous then that Veggetti would be stranded at just the right time to harness this inchoate, vacant quality—which he rightly relates to Noguchi’s work for Graham in the artificial void of theatrical space—to produce an interpretation that achieves a genuinely Noguchian result. The film is harsh and foreboding, but it is also a pure and distilled expression of Noguchi’s love of environments that transmit a desire to be one with the universe and generate the broader awareness that suggests. As Noguchi wrote in his autobiography, “I am excited by the idea that sculpture creates space, that shapes intended for this purpose, properly scaled in a space, actually create a greater space. There is a difference between actual cubic feet of space and the additional space that the imagination supplies. One is measure, the other an awareness of the void—of our existence in this passing world.”6
In Noguchi’s conception of ecology, sculpture is a system in which space, objects, and a human presence create a circuit of perception and experience that produces collective understanding and civic behavior. Employing the principal features of Noguchi’s Piazza, Fiere di Bologna as tools for measuring the passage of time—as indexed by the sun’s seeming transit across the sky, which is of course actually the rotation of the Earth—Veggetti may not have discovered how to make Tange’s complex civic, but he has managed, against all odds, to fill it with Noguchi’s horizonless hopes for humanity.
Born in Bologna, Italy, in 1963 and trained at La Scala in Milan, Luca Veggetti began his career as a choreographer and stage director in 1990. Turning his interests toward contemporary music and experimental forms, he has collaborated with some of today’s most important ensembles and composers. His work has been produced and presented by leading theaters, companies, and museums around the world including The Drawing Center, Works & Process at the Guggenheim, The Martha Graham Dance Company, BAM, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, La Cité de la Musique in Paris and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. Notable productions include Iannis Xenakis’ Oresteia at the Miller Theater in co-production with the Guggenheim’s Works & Process, Kaija Saariaho’s Maa at La Cité de la Musique in Paris, NOTATIONOTATIONS for The Drawing Center in collaboration with artist Susan Hefuna, the world premiere of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Vivo e Coscienza at Mittelfest in Italy, Toshio Hosokawa’s operas Hanjo at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, The Raven for Gotham Chamber Opera at the first New York Philharmonic New Music Biennial and Vision of Lear in Hiroshima, Kaija Saariaho’s operatic work The Tempest Songbook for Gotham Chamber Opera with the Martha Graham Dance Company at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Scenario, a performance/video installation conceived for the spaces of MART in Italy. Recent productions include Left-Right-Left, a co-production by the Japan Society in New York and the Yokohama Noh Theater, Iannis Xenakis’ Kraanerg for the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Watermill, a new vision of Jerome Robbins’ iconic theater piece for the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Infinito Nero, an operatic work by Salvatore Sciarrino in Bologna, Anatomy of the Dream: Shojo Midare, a performance of a Noh play conceived and directed for the spaces of the Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo.
Transcripts of archival materials are available by request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Giorgio de Chirico, “On Metaphysical Art,” trans. Joshua C. Taylor, in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 451. Originally published as “Sull’arte metafisica,” Valori Plastici (Rome) 1, no. 4–5 (April–May 1919), 15–18.
2 Isamu Noguchi, “1949,” unpublished manuscript. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_BOL_022_001.
3 Some other spaces designed around the same time, California Scenario (1980–82) in an office park in Costa Mesa, California, and Japanese-American Cultural and Community Center Plaza (1980–83) in Los Angeles, California, do succeed in producing or supporting something that feels like civic life.
4 Isamu Noguchi, letter to Gabor Arcs, August 1, 1986. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_PROJ_192_058.
5 Isamu Noguchi, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (New York, Harry M. Abrams, 1987), 186.
6 Isamu Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968; Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2015), 160.