Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Italy - Another day in Siena

Dedicated to Tabbi for that excellent Saddam Hussein forward!

If you also want it, you'll have to email me. Anonymous comments to this blog get to me, but unfortunately I can't reply to them if I don't know who you are or haven't got your email address.

Today started as another misty morning, surprised by the unanticipated arrival of a German cyclist in my room late last night.

I set out early-ish to do the things I hadn't achieved yesterday. Now the day is almost over and there's still a couple of things left, but I think I really should try to see more of Italy in the next three weeks.

There was a hefty Tuscan brunch in the Piazza del Campo, then a long trawl through the National Art Gallery of Siena (which sounds strange to Australians, but here if a collection housed is of national significance, it apparently becomes a National gallery). I have now seen the world's best collection of Sienese 13-14-15th century gold-backed religious artworks. And How. It took several stories of a converted palace to display them all, and I didn't find myself getting bored until the display changed into Mannerist wall panels. Beautiful pieces. If the catalogue reproductions had been as good as the originals I might have bought one.

This was followed by caffe latte and a very brief foray into the Torture Museum. (For a change of scenery, following all those saints getting mangled upon golden altarpieces...) I didn't get much further than the foyer, where they had a few gruesome objects and a comphrehensive catalogue. I read the book extensively, and although impressed by the pleas from various NGOs for the elimination of torture globally, I found myself trying to think of a reason to see the rest of the museum. I couldn't - knowing those contraptions existed was enough for me. Most of which, I was surprised to learn, I had never heard of before. Thus, I opted for the cheaper and infinately more comforting option of a gelati and long scenic walk.

It was a gorgeous walk, selected by combining a few tourist pamphlets. Orchards, castles, churches, fountains, alleys with archways, historic sites. Will get pictures online eventually.

The evening so far has been spent in the Siena Contemporary Art Gallery. The whole place is currently showing Guardami: Percezione del Video, a series of international video installations. It was my first shot of contemporary art for a while, since Istanbul I think, and I constantly found myself thinking "How would the people who painted those altarpieces react to these?".

I found it extremely stimulating to have experienced such a contrast over the course of the day, and that particular question was a good frame for approaching many works initially. Check out the website - there were some very well-known contributors too, like Bill Viola, William Kentridge and Bruce Nauman.

To do it justice I should describe several installations, but here, I'd like to just share one. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's Playhouse, 1997.

The set-up is for one person at a time. You collect a headset with earphones and enter a black-curtained room with a single seat. In front of you is a stage and red concert curtain, on the scale of a large dollhouse.

You hear the glossolalia of a audience shuffling and chatting, when a seductive woman's voice apologises for being late and invites you to sit. A spotlight appears on stage, and a tiny opera singer walks into view, projected upon a glass sheet using a technique that has been in use since the nineteenth century. It's very realistic.

She begins to sing...
The woman's voice appears in one ear, leaning over your shoulder,
"I love this song"
The song concludes to much laughter - it must have been a comic routine - and the audience begins slowly counting. The woman's voice joins in, getting louder.
At Ten! she begins a new song.
The audience murmurs, papers are being shuffled from the seats beneath you.
"What's she doing?", the unseen woman asks,
"That's not the right song".

There is a pause as we listen to the new song.

"There's a suitcase under your seat."
"It has everything you need."
The song continues...
"A car will meet you in the back alley."
More music...
"She knows there's not much time left", referring to the singer with an inaudible tilt of her head.
The song stops, there is a brief pause with applause before a new one begins.

"I'm going to go now, before the police arrive."
"Remember to return your headset."
More singing...
"I won't see you again. Good luck."
She leaves her seat, as a disembodied voice, and the singer concludes with flair. The entire audience bursts into wholehearted applause. Even I join in.

Without warning, the sound cuts off, while the opera singer continues to bow. An interrogating, almost nostalgic man's voice appears from your other side.
"Remember this theatre? When you came back here, the roof was leaking, and rats were crawling through the ruins. You sat in this box and watched her peform.
Right before everything went wrong that night."
The applause of the audience returns, and the singer leaves the stage.


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