In the eternal drama of death and grieving, flowers have been iconic totems since time immemorial. Archaeologists have found evidence that Neanderthals scattered wild blooms over their burial sites more than 64,000 years ago in what is today’s Iraqi Kurdistan. Across the vast stretch of human evolution, a profound affinity has resonated between the inevitable fate of all lives and the ephemeral beauty of flowers.
This is the subject of the Barga artist Keane’s latest exhibition at the Oxo Gallery. “Spiritum,” as its title suggests, is a painter’s essay on faith — and death. It is focused largely on mestaine, literally “small majesties,” the local dialect name for countless flower-draped mini-shrines that dot the rural crossroads, towns and villages of the Garfagnana. In most instances, they are memorials of family bereavement, but mestaine can also be dedicated to extraordinary (or for the faithful miraculous) events that have occurred nearby. Although the Latin word “spiritum” is commonly translated as “spirit,” Keane points out that it conjures a rich lode of associated meanings, notably air and breathing — “respiration” — the principal sign of life in the animal and plant kingdoms alike.
What he sets out to decode, in a variety of techniques and media, is a peculiar transition over recent decades in which breath has been altogether removed from this most ancient of all religious rituals. The living, ephemeral blooms that memorialised deaths and miracles for 600 centuries have gradually given way to synthetic bouquets of plastic. Like their fragile predecessors, they are interspersed with rosaries, crucifixes, and images of Christ and emblematic saints such as Therese of Lisieux, the Catholic Church’s patroness of florists, who is invariably pictured with an armful of red roses. But although the colors of plastic blooms tend to fade, unlike real flowers their petals refuse to wilt. As environmentalists lament, plastic is not biodegradable. In that sense, its nature is literally death-defying, a stark reversal of the symbolism that connected floral imagery to human destiny.
The idea behind the exhibition was seeded on Keane’s frequent motorcycle journeys through the mountainous hinterland of Barga. “At a bend in the main road near Acquabona,” he recalls, “I began noticing bundles of plastic flowers attached to the guardrail at a point where a young motorcyclist died in an accident seven years ago. Ever since then, he says, “more plastic flowers have been added periodically to the same de facto shrine.”
His musings on Acquabono led to an informal survey of mestaine all over the Province of Lucca, and eventually to a creative project that sounds familiar notes from Keane’s long and prolific career in Barga as a painter, sculptor and photographer. Like his earlier studies of the towns’ last nuns, and the enigmatic bas-relief medaillons on the facade of the Duomo, “Spiritum” explores the tension between venerable traditions and runaway change in the small Tuscan city he has called home for three decades.
At a brief first glance, the exhibition may seem limited in scope: an inventory of plastic curios, starkly lit and hung under arched ceilings on walls painted deep black to suggest silent, funereal crypts. But a formidable debate is raging here. These flowers have a lot to say — to their viewers and to each other — in a cacophonous shouting match of pictorial styles and allusions.
The subjects include plastic itself, in its contradictory absence of breath and defiance of mortality; the confrontation of spiritual experience and religious belief with modern secular values; the visual language of grief; the dance macabre of life and death.
One wing of the exhibition features boisterously gaudy floral arrangements that invoke the exotic religious mysticism of Mexico. They shout past a series of vaults at a Warholesque pop-art wall of crucifixes. Deeper in the crypt are competing portraits of Christ that run the gamut from a medieval crusader armoured in rosaries, to a 21st century matinee idol.
Put simply, and in its own eloquently definitive terms, “Spiritum” will leave its visitors breathless.
Article by the 8 times Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist/ best selling author and barganews staff reporter Frank Viviano