apparent rari nantes: The Atlas Group/Walid Raad’s SOS

In his essay about Cy Twombly, ‘The Wisdom of Art’, Roland Barthes introduces the Latin adjective rarus as a way of describing the dispersed elements of the artist’s canvases. In a lyrical moment in which Barthes recalls his own experience of the Mediterranean, Barthes pinpoints the sources for this Latin term in a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid : (1. 118):

I know the island of Procida, in the Bay of Naples, where Twombly has lived. I have spent a few days in the ancient house where Graziella, Lamartine’s heroine, spent her days. There, calmly united, are the light, the sky, the earth, the accent of a rock, an arch. It is Virgil and it is a Twombly paintings: there is none, in fact, where we don’t find this void of the sky, of water, and those very light marks indicating the earth (a boat, a promontory) which float in them (apparent rari nantes): the blue of the sky, the gray of the sea, the pink of sunrise.

In her recent study of Twombly and poetry, Mary Jacobus interprets this passage as follows:

Barthes’s euphoria is worth pausing over. Even as he specifies the recollected features of thus mythological, poetic, and geographical meeting-point – “this void of the sky, of water, and those very light marks indicating the earth (a boat, a promontory) which float in them” – he is immersed in the elements of quotation

Previously, as a way from transitioning from a reading of Twombly’s engagement with Raphael’s frescos in the Vatican,  Jacobus had quoted an earlier section of Barthes essay in which he compares the Twombly’s paintings to ‘big Mediterranean rooms, hot and luminous, with their elements looking lost (rari) and which the mind wants to populate’. Jacobus then quotes Barthes personal reflection as proof of this ‘populating’, as he fills ‘the empty spaces of Twombly’s paintings with the activity of his own imagination’ drifting ‘between desire and memory’ (here way hear Jacobus’ own echo of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland ‘mixing memory and desire’).

Yet the leap from Twombly’s rarus canvases to Barthes’ personal and poetic imagination too quickly passes over the context of the Virgil quotation. This is an episode early in the Aeneid, when we first encounter Aeneas as a shipwrecked sailor and whose men are scattered across the sea, but it is not just the Trojan men:

apparent rari nantes in gurgite vasto,
arma virum tabulaeque et Troia gaza per undas

Men appear here and there swimming on the vast seathe arms of men, and ship planks, and Trojan wealth are scattered on the waves

As Classicist Jay Reed has noted, ‘this is a scene of national devastation, containing the seeds of national reestablishment’ (Virgil’s Gaze, p. 174). While the past wealth of Troy is lost at sea, amid the storm-battered ships and even the weapons of the heroes, the Trojans themselves survive, swimming in the deep. In addition, with the phrase arma virum we are reminded of the very opening of the poem (arma virumque cano, ‘I sing of arms and the man’), where the contracted genitive plural (virorum = virum) here reflects the group compared to the singular hero Aeneas of the opening.

Virgil’s emphasis on human survival amid the of material wealth gained from past glories is apparent in Barthes reading of Twombly, in the form of the painter’s marks. However, the contrast is lost when the emphasis is too quickly placed on the imagination of the spectator rather than the survival of human subjects within the scene of the disaster.

A curious reversal of Barthes reading of Twombly and Virgil’s Aeneid is offered by The Atlas Group/Walid Raad’s work, dated 1994-2004, called Secret in the Open Sea. This work comprises 6 seemingly monochromatic blue pigmented inkjet prints, yet in the lower right corners there is found a tiny black and white group portraits of people. Here is how The Atlas Group/Walid Raad tell the tale of these works in their wall-text:

Secret in the Open Sea consists of 29 photographic prints that were found buried under the rubble during the 1992 demolition of Beirut’s war-ravaged commercial districts.

The prints were different shades of blue and each measured 110X175 cm.

The prints were entrusted to The Atlas Group in 1994 for preservation and analysis.

In 1996, The Atlas Group sent 6 of the prints to laboratories in France for technical analysis. Remarkably, the laboratories recovered small black and white latent images from the blue prints.

The small images represented group portraits of men and women.

The Atlas Group was able to identify all the individuals represented in the small black and white images, and it turned out that they were all individuals who drowned, died or were found dead in the Mediterranean between 1975 and 1991.

In this work, with its mix of fact and fiction, offers a closer analogy to Barthes’ Twombly and Virgil’s Aeneid. Unlike the Trojan survivors scattered on the sea, these people fleeing the civil war in Lebanon were less fortunate. At the same time, the story of the double recovery of both these works and the portraits of these people contrasts the loss of material and glory of Troy in the Aeneid passage. In this way, the figure of the artist – as collective and individual – is presented as responsible for ‘national reestablishment’ after a moment of ‘national devastation’.

Amid the current refugee crisis in the present day Mediterranean, the stories and art works that reflect on human life and its value are a telling reminder – an SOS – amid the sea of failure of international communities to pay attention.

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