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A Bodily Relationship with Territory: End. Words from the Margins mines the wildness and emptiness of New York City’s coastal edges

New York City is often regarded as the most densely designed, overdetermined real estate on the planet. So it may seem unlikely that Milan-based artist Antonio Rovaldi would succeed in finding fresh views of the shorelines of the city’s five boroughs—the photographic project he undertook in the spring of 2016. But the project turned intriguing: Coastal access was often blocked by signs reading “End.” How could he experience a landscape that he could not traverse? How could he convey new dimensions of this fabled place? And how could his photographs transmit physical and psychological impressions?

Over two years, Rovaldi sought answers to these questions through photography. Then he teamed up with the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAMeC) in Bergamo and won a MiBACT grant—from Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism—which aims to bring contemporary Italian artists around the world. The grant made the rest of the project possible.

Rovaldi contacted his friend Francesca Benedetto, a design critic in Landscape Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and the result is End. Words from the Margins—New York City, an exhibition at the GSD (October 31–December 20, 2019). Rovaldi’s prints are shown in tandem with Benedetto’s interpretive maps of the city—and with installations in other media by teams of collaborators—to capture the terrain’s wildness, emptiness, beauty, and potential. And while this focus on coastal lands inevitably engages issues of climate change, the exhibition approaches that issue obliquely: The artistic inquiry into the manifest landscape ends up surprising Rovaldi (and viewers) with the untamed nature and persistent mystery of life along New York’s shorelines.

 

Rovaldi’s fascination with the New York landscape traces back to a day in 2007 when he walked the entire length of Broadway in Manhattan—from the island’s southern skyscrapers to the raw, northernmost parkland in Inwood still associated with the Native name, Shorakkopoch. A fellow artist came along, and another documented the adventure on video. At the end of that tiring marathon, the friends were surprised to hear the hollow tock-tock-tock of a woodpecker. The collaborative, multimedia adventure foreshadowed this new exhibition. In fact, the woodpeckers feature in the exhibition in recorded soundscapes, audible through headphones.

That knocking also inspired the title for Rovaldi’s forthcoming book, The Sound of the Woodpecker Bill: New York City (Humboldt Books, 2019). Copies will be open to GSD visitors on several bookstands at the exhibition. It contains 100 images from each of the five boroughs, taken over two years, as well as a purely visual preface of photographs from Manhattan’s interior, dozens of Benedetto’s illustrated maps dramatizing human impact on the land, and several impressionistic essays about the landscape. This multidisciplinary approach gives the reader “lots of windows,” observes Rovaldi, who is eager to preserve a diversity of perspectives on the land.

Responding to the terrain let a fresh way of shooting emerge, and this trained Rovaldi's eye on scenes he would not have captured otherwise. He sees this as a metaphor for a response to climate change: If we follow the land’s lead, who knows what the future may bring?

One essay is by Harvard’s visiting professor of ecology Steven Handel, who serves as a co-curator of the exhibition. Handel writes about his childhood on the outer banks of Far Rockaway, Queens, and about his current work advising New York on reintroducing native plants to refurbished parklands. Handel has also contributed tables of natural objects collected from New York shorelines to the exhibition. (The other co-curators are Benedetto and Lorenzo Giusti, the director of GAMeC; another iteration of the exhibition will open at GAMeC in February 2020. The MiBACT prize was not only for the book publication and the GAMeC and Harvard exhibitions, but also for related events at Magazzino Italian Art in Cold Spring, New York, and the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, in Switzerland.)

Framed prints of Rovaldi’s stark, startling images—selections from each borough—hang on the Frances Loeb Library’s long back wall; the rest are presented in a video nearby. Some highlight ephemeral tracks, baubles, bits of trash; others frame vernacular architecture against water or land. Very few include people; the landscape is the main character. Rovaldi used black-and-white film to match the city’s palette and personality, and the color scheme complements Benedetto’s black-and-white illustrated maps of the boroughs which also hang on this wall. In her pixelated renditions, which chart Rovaldi’s shooting locations against the terrain’s geology, the city’s familiar landforms look curiously primordial. Indeed, the friends consulted the book Mannahatta, about New York’s preindustrial and indigenous natural history, among many other sources. And Rovaldi’s photographs, like Benedetto’s maps, spotlight the interface of civilization and wildness; they show cracked pavement and intrepid weeds.

This wall forms one “coast” of the exhibition space; the other “shoreline” is the library’s wall of windows, which showcases more of Benedetto’s work. Her visual analyses of land use—which reinterpret Kevin Lynch’s classic maps—are printed on translucent films so sunlight can filter through. The landscape’s organic textures contrast with mechanical lines indicating transit pathways, buildings, or translations of birdsongs into visual forms. Also printed onto films to hang in the windows are typeset transcriptions of Rovaldi’s photographic journals, chronicling the times and locations of his photographs. So on both border walls, Rovaldi’s photographic odysseys are in conversation with Benedetto’s creative cartography. And the architectural space theatrically represents the island terrain that Rovaldi explored on foot.

 

The dialogue between the two walls and the performativity of the exhibition space express Rovaldi’s philosophy that the experience of a landscape is a kind of love affair. He has realized that “photography is boring if it’s not connected with a bodily relationship with the territory.” To express the character of the relationship, each location requires the invention of a unique photographic language. For a book of photographs about the coasts of Sardinia, for instance (Orizzonte in Italia, Humboldt Books, 2015), Rovaldi aimed his lens horizontally, pointing outward from his body into the distance. When he photographed the coastlines of New York, by contrast, the constraints on his sightlines forced him to focus his lens in a tight radius around his body. Responding to the terrain let the fresh way of shooting emerge, and this trained his eye on scenes he would not have captured otherwise. Rovaldi sees this as a metaphor for a response to climate change: If we follow the land’s lead, who knows what the future may bring?

The exhibition offers a surprising perspective on landscape: Instead of showing designed interventions into the natural world, here nature claims its own power to sculpt. And design elements aren’t only visual, they can include aroma (through flowers) and sound (via wind and birdsong). The installation process itself will inevitably bring more insights on the material, so Rovaldi will face revelations, too, when his exhibition brings him to the GSD for a panel discussion during the opening reception on November 12. Ideally, the exhibition will yield new views on the New York City landscape to which he is devoted, and from which will emerge ever more surprises.