Written by Gülnaz Can
Visitors to the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii are meeting a surprise contemporary intervention. After a lengthy process of research and artistic creation, two houses in these cities, which are part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are now venues for the exhibition Expanded Interiors by Catrin Huber.
Huber, a German artist based in Newcastle, has always been inspired by Roman wall paintings. Her works have explored the visual illusions and fictional spaces created by artists from 2000 years ago. Huber is thrilled to finally be making works, which are site-specific and installed alongside these very inspirations of hers.
The exhibition in the House of the Cryptoporticus in Pompeii opened in July and the House of the Beautiful Courtyard in Herculaneum opened in May 2018. The two exhibitions, which together make Expanded Interiors make very different responses to and use of their spectacular venues.
It all started in 2008, when Huber came to Rome as a fellow. “I was totally blown away, how fresh the wall paintings in Rome were. My works had also dealt with similar issues, how fictional architectural spaces could be. That’s when I started really looking at the works in Roman buildings and making works in response to these. I’ve made contemporary work, but thinking about the complexity of the Roman wall paintings. What can they mean in a contemporary context.” In 2017 she got the funding and the team to start the AHRC supported project in these two houses.
Huber stresses that both of the venues are unusual houses with their architectural idiosyncrasies like the passageway in the Pompeii house and the big reception room in the house in Herculaneum. For the Herculaneum exhibition, she looked into the storerooms finding objects to explore what the wall decorations would relate to the moveable objects. Huber created her own selection for this exhibition, which is made of objects not normally shown. She worked with a team of archaeologists, research associates and experts in digital scanning.
“I tried to listen to the stories of the objects and assess their impact in this day. The house was used as a museum since 1956. Its founder brought objects from everywhere into this house. What caught my attention was typical to Herculaneum, the wooden female statues. Looking at them, doing the scanning, and talking to the archaeologists, I realised that I was very much interested in these statues. For me, there is almost a tension about them. Being anonymous, it is not quite clear what they are: are they furniture or ancestor statues?”
Visitors to the house in Herculaneum arrive at the reception room to find an installation of scanned objects from the storerooms, arranged in a dramatic way, using a Roman trick. There are letters which go with the objects. Huber says that Roman wall paintings often have hidden messages and she tried to build that into this installation. “The works of Roman wall paintings are quite political. They sometimes have messages by the householder. I sometimes think that the artists or the craftspeople played tricks that even the householders were not aware of. The message I put here is quite hidden, but in one way it’s obvious for the attentive viewer. The letters say ‘Bella Ciao’, which is the name of an Italian resistance song. I thought that it ties in with the predominantly female representations in the exhibition.”
Two of the statues are depictions of Livia, the wife of Augustus, and Isis Lactans, the Egyptian Godess. “These are both very powerful women. A fine thinly lined silver statue, Livia’s is almost propaganda representation. Then the statue is so damaged by what happened to it; I think there is such an incredible vulnerability. Despite all the damage, it is such a powerful and strong portrait.
In the House of the Cryptoporticus in Pompeii, Huber designed and installed wall paintings on the patches and walls where real Roman mosaics are now absent.
“For me this fictional and actual architecture talks about what’s beyond. Wall paintings can be seen as metaphysical passages, referring to the dead ancestors. They clearly play with the physical presence and non-presence. Because most of them were composed in a way that makes you feel that you are in them. If one spends time with them they are very complex visual things. But of course, I am seeing these things from my perspective from the 21st century, with the liberty of being an artist.”
Standing next to the old and new wall paintings in the house in Pompeii must give the visitors an unavoidable new vision of the space they are in. Huber says that in Roman architecture, the artist workshops worked wonderfully with the light changes, and colour differences from one room to the other. She describes her work as being quite cool in atmosphere but also kind of really intense. A room at the end is intensely red and warm; the big installations might feel overwhelming to some.
“I am interested in colour but with Romans, the meaning of colours is very interesting. They didn’t have the word black; they talked more about the surface quality. These wall paintings had a function. Householders would walk with their friends, socialize, talk about various topics, etc.; then go to the bath which had sort of illusionistic paintings, and they would stay there longer. So the installation would have a rhythm. I believe that Romans knew how perspective worked, but used the perspective to suit the situation and match different view points together to fit the space, and I was very interested in that.”
Huber’s walls look like they come towards you although they are completely flat. On one, there are some objects too, and they are quite hidden. The objects are 3D prints of Roman pottery, like faces on cups, facemasks or oil lamps. They are funny and beautiful.
Expanded Interiors will be open until 15 January 2019. Huber says that the subject for her will continue, of how to bring together different visual languages. “On the one hand Roman walls are very immersive. On the other, they have a lot of things they keep at a distance. As a viewer, you’ve been given this space: Distance and closeness.” Both of the exhibitions are amazing opportunities to look differently at such popular touristic sites for a highly international audience. Letting oneself go within the tricks and magic of the spaces, which have all of the glory and tragedy they have witnessed evident. They are also sites to see how the artistic dialogue still continues through thousands of years.