A Tower of Babel for an Incomplete Italy.
We need more sacred images from our timeBill Viola.
Trapani is a small city on the Italian island of Sicily. Historically, its name demarcates a territory prone to conquest and upheaval as the nation’s most southerly and vulnerable point of entrance. From their Garibaldian cousins, to the Normans, the Greeks, and the Turks, such a geographical disposition to dispute created a place of cultural confluence between East and West, where Arab, Jewish and Christian heritages still live together. As in the rest of Italy, the archaeological ruins in Trapani are guidelines that trace its Imperial Roman past, its urbanity, and the lives of everyone who has ever lived there.
The patrimonial value given to the ruins and the subsequent international interest this generates have largely defined the relationship Italians have with their past. This innate interest in investigating the vestiges recently led researchers to even study the remains of modernity, namely the monumental constructions that blot the landscape, most prominently in Sicily, but across the nation, too. Once promises of a better future, they remained as unfinished edificial dreams that blotting the landscape; they never got to be concluded, were never occupied: were never played their structural-functionalist part in society.
Brutal Architectural Style: Incompiuto Siciliano.
That they seem to have been built with the intention of becoming contemporary ruins means these are considered symbols of what was never meant to be, or symbols of things nobody thought possible at the time. They are scattered throughout Italy; there are so many of them, they become known as an architectural style: Incompiuto Siciliano (Incomplete Sicilian). Half-built and never cared for, huge public works built between 1950 and 1980 have become the ethical and aesthetic emblem of a society, of an era—sports centres that could have provided recreation for 20,000 people were built in towns with just 25,000 inhabitants; roads were laid with complete sections missing; hospitals were erected in regions where there were no doctors. These unfinished structures represent the power struggles and battle lines drawn up between the mafia, the state and the dubious connections between these actors and private enterprise: a record of the past-present of Italy.
The Incompiuto Siciliano project has been dedicated to register the incomplete buildings or constructions, comprising more than 350 located to date, of which 160 are in Sicily, the capital of the Incompiuto Style, over the past forty years. Besides locating, registering, and studying examples of this style, the project has taken on the challenge of preserving them, treating the works as metaphors of an incomplete time by giving them an artistic use, without either demolishing or finishing them. Marc Augé maintains that it is the best way to preserve the memory of mistakes.
Injected into this context, Said Dokins was invited to intervene, conclude, or redefine one of these incomplete buildings. Dokins is a Mexican artist who stands out in the international public art scene because of his large-scale murals. We can find his interventions in cities around the world as Vienna, Austria; Dresden, Germany; Ibiza, Spain; or Queensland, Australia, to mention just a few, having recently painted a mural in Doha, Qatar, for the Pow Wow! International mural arts festival in 2021. His method combines deep documentary historical investigation with extensive conversations and interviews with local residents, who he incorporates in the artistic process—making them collaborators in the creation of the piece. He extracts key words, texts, or poetry from these experiences, to then translate them into calligraphy, a scriptural language that he has developed throughout his career and which is already a recognized signifier of his style and poetics.
The artist was assigned a brutalist concrete structure that was originally intended to be a water container. The building was constructed in the late 1970s to serve in the industrial development of the area, but, due to a miscalculation in the seal of the swampy land of via Libica, it was left unfinished. Approximately, 150 million lira (half a million euros) were invested in the Cassa del Mezzogiorno, to become little more than a huge waste of reinforced concrete. It is made up of four Kubrickian monoliths that form a cross, but that represent a trick, a whirlwind of power, money, and politics.
After forty years the structure located at the entrance to Trapani, rediscovered as being exemplary of a new international architectural style, known as Incompiuto Style, and remained standing, let’s say, to have its history rewritten by Said Dokins, who, through his unique writing style and focused artistic research, has made each elevation a reference of local history.
The Rose of Window
Said entitled this piece “Babel” in reference to the biblical story of the great tower built in the eponymous city, that never accomplished its intended purpose of reaching heaven. Babel has no beginning and no end, but let’s start with the wall that might be the most recognizable local motif: it now boasts the stylization of the Sant’Agostino church’s rose window, which, like the famous Trapani place of worship, faces west. The rose window, built by local workers from stone from the Pietretagliate quarries, is dominated by the symbols of the three main monotheistic religions: the typically Muslim pierced stone, the Jewish stars of David, and the agnus dei in the center.
The symbols coexist in the Pisces visual motif and are decorated with phytoform elements that recall the earthly paradise, typically Christian symbols. Said Dokins renews it by stylizing its structure through the writing of a sentence: “Every place where I write is a sacred place.” A mantra, an invocation, a secular prayer. This gesture disrupts the separation between spiritual and earthly matters, and gives the ruin and wasted space a sacred character. Devotion to the practice and act of writing and to the metamorphosis of a place intertwines the dialogue between religions. It is as if the reinforced concrete were wearing a cassock, a holy man ready to receive the writer, accept he who is responsible for the resignification and who is prepared to be heard.
The dialectical poet of Trapani
Facing south, the red side welcomes inventive way to combat bad politics by poet Giuseppe Marco Calvino in the local Trapani dialect. Written 200 years ago, his poem “U seculu decimu nonu” can now read as an x-ray into Italian abuse of power and political speculation since the post-war years to the present day. Dokins relocates the poem on a square grid, echoing the historical disputes for political and religious control.
Philosophical century! …
Century of this fucking …
Foolish! pork! He is crazy!
Just define this century
The man who wants to fuck
he is called a villain.
Steal with politics
it’s not a sin at all:
It is a social agreement:
Killing for arrogance
Reason for status, glory!
Things that honor!
Plunder even the poor,
To fool a simpleton
Genius of truth.
This is just piccatu …
Times of cocks in the ass!
Giuseppe Marco Calvino
Facing to the north, toward Trapani, the unfinished edifice turns blue and the writing becomes an abyss made out of rhomboidal figures composed with names taken from an inventory of slaves based on a series of 17th century documents which describes, in detail, people who were the “property” of the wealthy Trapani families of the period. Said gives them their own space on the wall—writing their names in silver and gold, making them appear in monumental dimensions—a space that only the poetics of art could grant them, an attempt to restore some justice and dignity to their lives.
The last wall, defined by the artist as a tache (crossing out) of the “incompletedness” that these buildings represent, also alludes to a pair of historical documents, part of several treasures kept in the Fardelliana Library. One of them is a manifesto written by Trapani’s communists, in which they describe workers’ rights. Being an island means Sicilia has been forgotten by the center of power, the north of Italy, on many occasions, pushing revolutionary demands has always been one of its benchmarks. Here we find the heartfelt appeal of a prisoner from Trapani to Tunis. Alberto Gaetani’s last letter to his sister is dated 1776. Said Dokins immortalizes it, as calligraphy in gold and silver, an art form in which he is a master, the letter takes the shape of a cross written on a green background.
Unfortunate sister and niece, Friday 14th of the present month, on the 13th we were attacked by four galleys and a war ship, and we called padron Vito Bonanno and padron Giuseppe Garofalo to show his hand. They fell upon deaf ears while the large ships were fighting, and I was on this vessel to assist the sick . . to the end. After a long fight we were forced to surrender without any misfortune. Only one Maltese was killed.
Sister, I do not know what to write, I can only tell you that if you want to see me, just go to the church of San Michele, watch from there the “scourging” and you will see me: naked wearing only the alone shirt, shivering with cold and almost close to death. My poor dear. I can only add that they left us alone to die.
Goodbye, sister, goodbye. Your unfortunate brother and poor slave,
Alberto Gaetani. Tunis, June 17, 1776
The other document is the heartfelt call for help of a prisoner from Trapani in Tunisia, who asks his family to intercede for his release, saving him from the death penalty. The dark side of the Saint Augustine rose window and the utopia of a peaceful dialogue between different cultures and religions, adjacent to two forms of abuse of power (slavery and embezzlement).
According to the biblical legend of the Tower of Babel, God, realizing that if humans were united they would be able to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven, gave them all different languages, so they can no longer understand each other. Each language would mean not just a different way of expression, but also a different way of understanding the world, family, love . . . and religion. Due to the impossibility of communication, the humans abandoned the work, leaving the tower in ruins. Babel is the reflection of the impossibility of monumental projects guided by interests of power, but it is also the reflection of how, through art, spaces can be rebuilt to recognize difference.