Time Out of Joint: Larsen’s End of Dreams and Italy’s Colonial Unconscious

In June 2014, Danish sculptor and video artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen dropped forty-eight figures, evocative of human shapes and wrapped in concrete canvas resembling funerary sheets or body bags, into the Tyrrhenian Sea near the southern Italian port town of Pizzo Calabro (Calabria). The human forms were to mark the thousands of unidentified dead bodies washing up on Italy’s shores, as well as the Mediterranean’s transformation in recent years from a source of life to what some have dubbed a vast necroregion. Larsen’s figures deliberately recalled the now-ubiquitous media images of drowned people enshrouded in sheets by Italian authorities. The figures were affixed to a wooden platform with ropes and chains, hanging vertically like macabre pendulums.

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End of Dreams raft. Photo by Domenico Gallelli, used here courtesy of Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

Like ghosts, they occupied a liminal space between surface and depth, at once present and absent, material and fleeting, visible and invisible, fixed and mobile, past and present. The plan for the work, entitled End of Dreams, was to keep the forty-eight figures submerged in the sea for a number of months, allowing for erosion and, presumably, the growth of new subaqueous forms of life (a filmy coating of algae or other marine organisms). Larsen planned to remove the forms after several months and exhibit them publicly, as he had done in his earlier work on trans-Aegean migration Ode to the Perished, which premiered at the Thessaloniki Biennale in 2011.

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Ode to the Perished. Photo courtesy of Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

A violent storm interrupted his plan for the work. The platform was ripped asunder, reduced to shards, and most of the sculptures were detached from their anchors and cast further out to sea. The metaphorical implications of this chance meteorological event were not lost on Larsen. He tracked down a local art student and diver, Giuseppe Politi, who went in search of the figures with an underwater HD camera. End of Dreams is a haunting work, indelibly inscribed with the perilous conditions it seeks to reveal and denounce. Less than half of the original sculptures were recovered, and the remaining thirty or so, like the human bodies they were meant to memorialize, likely lie in obscurity somewhere on the sea floor.

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Still from End of Dreams video. Photo courtesy of Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

For Larsen, cinema intervenes to trace the search for the spectral vestiges, the ruins of a commemorative project, something like the afterlife of memory. That chance and contingency facilitated his cinematic intervention adds another layer of ghostliness to the work, particularly given the connections between photographic media and the spectral as “time out of joint,” in the words of Jacques Derrida (1994, 75). Larsen’s foregrounding of haunting to address the contemporary Mediterranean migration scenario compellingly evokes another related site of haunting in contemporary Italy: the subtle endurance of its colonial past in Eritrea, Libya, Somalia and Ethiopia. This period reached its apex during the Fascist dictatorship’s bombastic proclamation of empire in 1936, although it marked Italian nation-state building from shortly after political unification in 1861 through the end of World War II.

In recent years, scholars have referred to contemporary Italy as haunted by its colonial past (Ponzanesi 2000; Lombardi-Diop and Romeo 2014). The persistence of Italy’s collective colonial unconscious—a diffuse memory of its experience of colonialism at once present and latent—is often explained as follows: while other imperial nation-states such as France and Britain have gone through more extended processes of postcolonial reckoning, public and academic discourse about colonialism and race only began to take off in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, with the publication of groundbreaking histories of Italian colonialism by Giorgio Rochat (1973) and Angelo Del Boca (1976). In the years that followed, Italy saw the unprecedented immigration of increasing numbers of racially marked peoples. The Eritreans and sub-Saharan Africans attempting to cross Libya and board boats to cross the Mediterranean are among the most recent reminders of colonialism’s ambivalent place in the Italian imaginary. Indeed, the Italian navy’s revered search and rescue program Mare Nostrum brings this memory starkly to the fore: the ancient Roman phrase for “our sea” was popularized by liberal Italy’s preeminent poet and political provocateur Gabriele D’Annunzio during Italy’s first scramble for Africa, half a decade before Mussolini would rehearse it again as a justification for his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Still, relatively few international commentators on the crisis have drawn such connections, as Larsen’s piece invites us to do.

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End of Dreams bathers. Photo by Domenico Gallelli, used here courtesy of Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

Rather than an attempt to reconstruct or capture unique, individual experiences, as Larsen had in previous works like his 2009 video piece Rendezvous, the commemoration of the dead in End of Dreams is collective and anonymous. The work can be read as a commemoration of the dead as well as a condemnation of the would-be host country, its politics of colonial oblivion and its postcolonial exclusion and rejection of refugees. The figures’ only vague resemblance to human shapes and their ultimate anonymity are thus critical elements of Larsen’s ethical project. These figures demand to be heeded, listened to—they signify an ethical and political potential. Like the memories of Italian colonialism that they evoke through the figure of the drowned, they are temporarily submerged only to resurface later in uncanny form. As haunting figures, they produce, in Avery Gordon’s (2011, 2) words, “a something-to-be-done.”

Note

1. The resulting installation, including five-channel video and twelve-channel audio and featuring a number of the recovered sculptures, premiered at SALT Galata in Istanbul in February 2015. A fourteen-minute single-channel version of the video was exhibited along with two “portraits” of the recovered sculptures at the Pratt Gallery in Manhattan (July–September 2015) and at Rutgers University’s “Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean Migration Crisis” symposium (October 2015).

References

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Spectres of Marx. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Gordon, Avery F. 2011. “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity.” borderlands 10, no.  2: 1–21.

Lombardi-Diop, Cristina, and Caterina Romeo. 2014. “The Italian Postcolonial: A Manifesto.” Italian Studies 69, no. 3: 425–33.

Ponzanesi, Sandra. 2000. “Fragments of a Nation: Italian Cultural Studies from Colonial Legacy to Global Perspective.” Leggendaria 23: xxiv–xxvi.