Silence Buried in White Cement. Petra Noordkamp, Il Grande Cretto di Gibellina, 2015
Il Grande Cretto di Gibellina, 2015
An interview with filmmaker Petra Noordkamp
Il Grande Cretto di Gibellina is a short documentary film about the monument Grande Cretto by Italian artist Alberto Burri. Gibellina is a small town located in central Sicily that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1968. A decade later, in 1979 Burri was commissioned by the mayor of the town to create a monument in memory of the town and its people lost in the tragic event. Instead of building a new structure, Burri decided to turn the ruins themselves into a monument by incorporating them into his large scale land art masterpiece. After a twenty-five-year-halt in construction, the monument was finally completed in 2015. The same year, the Dutch filmmaker Petra Noordkamp was commissioned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York to create a film about the monument.
Aniko Erdosi: I had the pleasure to see your film in the Alberto Burri exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last October. I found it captivating and watched it multiple times at one sitting. It captures the spirit and history of a place in not only a dignified and thoughtful but also in a spirited, and lyrical way. How did you come to make this film? Did the organizers of the exhibition know about your earlier films that connect to the town of Gibellina?
Petra Noordkamp: In the fall of 2013 I spent a 3-month long residency at the American Academy in Rome courtesy the Dutch Mondriaan Fund. There, I showed my first film La Madre, il Figlio e l’Architetto that I made about La Chiesa Madre in Gibellina Nuova, designed by architect Ludovico Quaroni. During the Open Studios, another fellow Lindsay Harris introduced me to Emily Braun, the curator of the Burri exhibition. Braun was looking for an artist who could make a film about the Cretto for the upcoming retrospective and Harris suggested that with my films on Gibellina, I might be a good candidate. I worked on the proposal the whole summer and in September I got the assignment.
AE: Filming a monument can be a challenge. Filming another artist’s work also. What I appreciated in your film in this regard is that you found a great equilibrium between channeling Burri’s vision and the final monument’s spirit as well as delivering an articulated and powerful cinematic language that is your own artistic voice. What was the most unexpected and the most rewarding challenge for you while making this film?
PN: I had seen photos of the Cretto which I thought were breathtaking so I definitely wanted to go and see it. But when friends from Gibellina took me there I wasn’t able to make photos of the Cretto that I liked. I didn’t even like the Cretto that much, to be honest.
When I was asked by the Guggenheim to make the film about it in 2014, I was still rather insecure if I would be able to create any beautiful images of it. So that was my biggest challenge, to create powerful images, images of the Cretto that I liked myself. This became even more difficult in a practical sense as when I started filming in November 2014 they were doing construction on the Cretto in order to finish the last part and I didn’t want to have cranes or workers in the images. I wanted the film to be about the work of Burri, about his ideas, and about form, space, and material. So I had to film around the construction work which was quite a challenge. Afterwards, I was very happy that I went there in November, because I really liked the colors at that time of the year. The brown, almost purple shades of the surrounding mountains, the color of the leaves, the grounds, the reflection of the light on the Cretto. For me those colors suited Burri’s work. In April, for example, the surrounding fields and mountains were light green, yellow, very fresh colors. Therefore, at that time I focused more on the white part of the Cretto.
AE: The film opens with the following sentences: “It is difficult to say how visions enter the mind. Who can tell? Perhaps they are already stored there somewhere, waiting for the right moment to appear in the mind’s eye.” Is this a quote or is it your own intro to the film?
PN: This was written by the Dutch author and artist Maria Barnas. I had asked her to write a poetic text to accompany the film—for a voice-over—about Burri and his work and also about some ideas behind the Cretto. I found it very interesting to discover that the noun ‘cretto’ —from the verb ‘crettare’ in rare old Tuscan Italian—refers to small cracks that appear in plaster walls. The word was originally used to describe the cracks that might appear in the intonaco1 of a fresco. The term is therefore not only descriptive but links Burri’s works to the mural traditions of his native Italy—and to Renaissance art making.’2 I liked the idea that one of Burri’s inspirations were the frescoes by Piero della Francesca and Giotto which I love too.
Maria Barnas wrote a text about cracks, burst and ruptures and it became a beautiful text but it didn’t work for the film. It somehow looked like it was said or thought by Burri and it didn’t feel right. In part because I had read that Burri preferred not to explain his own work. I also wanted the viewers to be able to experience the work themselves instead of giving them ideas as to how one should look at it. So in the end we decided to only write and use a few simple sentences about the origin of the work and we used them as intertitles. These first sentences about the vision were the only sentences we kept from the poetic text that Barnas wrote and I was very happy with them.
AE: What is the music you used in the film?
PN: It is made by the Dutch sound artist Nathalie Bruys. She visited the Cretto with me for a couple of days because I thought it was important for her to experience Burri’s work herself. She recorded various ambient sounds on location—such as sounds of the sheep, the wind, the birds – and she incorporated some of those sound fragments in the final soundscape of the film.
AE: Thinking of the film’s structure, I felt that while following a narrative lead—by outlining the story of first the monument followed by the story of the tragedy that called for it—you created a contemplative space where one can connect to the spirit of this artwork even when the viewer’s mind wonders and loses track of the storyline. This perceptual process was dominated by the third part of the film where you show various long takes of fragments of the monument. These carefully framed takes—that look like stills—show minimalist compositions in which only the light changes occasionally and subtly. For me, those frames created a space for contemplation and remembrance that became the key to the artwork and its history. The use of a profound and meaningful silence and the presence of a non-empirical void are characteristic in your other films as well. Is this a matter of conscious choice for you or more of a personal voice?
PN: Yes, especially in the case of the Cretto work, it’s a very conscious choice because I wanted people to see and to experience the beauty and power of the artwork itself first before they are confronted with the tragic history behind it. The story of Gibellina is of course very important for the understanding and impact of the artwork and once you know the story behind it your view on it will be inevitably affected. But for me the most important thing was to show the poetics of the place. That is what I try to do in all of my films: To show how one can experience a certain place, the impact of a building or a site by focusing on form, details, material, the changing light and what it does to a place. And yes, I hope that by doing this I create a space for contemplation and remembrance.
EA: Lately, I am becoming more and more interested in situations when there is a fine line between great storytelling and a meaningful silence. In a recent documentary about him John Berger says “If I am a good storyteller it is because I listen.” From your handling of the narrative behind the Grande Cretto I have a feeling that you are a great listener. Do you ever think about this in relation to your artistic practice?
PN: I am very much influenced by the ideas of the Finish architect Juhani Pallasmaa about silence. During my fellowship at the American Academy Pallasmaa held a beautiful lecture at the Villa Aurelia in Rome with the title Voices of Tranquility. Silence in Art and Architecture. In his lecture Pallasmaa talked about “the loss of silence in our world and that this loss of silence and benevolent darkness reflects the disastrous secularization and materialization of life. The world is loosing its mystery and poetry as well as its sensuous appeal.” In his view “the grand task of art is to re-create and maintain this mythical, poetic and sensuous reality” and “a true silence reveals the essence of things, as if they were perceived by the human senses for the first time.” These notions resonate strongly in me and I try to incorporate them into my work.
AE: Another subtle but powerful cinematographic gesture in the film is how you juxtapose the elements of the living and the non-living through multiple sequences. Your camera often focuses on the presence of life in an inanimate context. Watching those sequences, one wonders how it would feel exactly to stand between those white cement blocks that spread out 8,000 square meters in the living landscape. One can almost feel the wind on ones skin. Do you remember your personal experience when you first visited the site and how did it shape your approach in the film?
PN: For me, the most important part of the work was being able to walk through the paths and to experience the stillness of the Cretto. I have seen many photos and footages shot from above showing it as a monolith. That is very interesting too—and I think was a key idea for Burri—but I wanted to create a somatic sense of being present on the site. Giving the viewer the impression of experiencing the place and thinking about what happened there by walking through it. This is the atmosphere I wanted to re-create in my film.
AE: The first time the viewer has a chance to grasp the scale of Burri’s Land Art work is during a sequence of black and white archival photographs showing arial views of the monument. This is the moment when one recognizes that this Land Art piece is actually a monumental Burri painting with its signature cracks on monochromatic surfaces. For the everyday viewer, this view is only available through the camera’s lens, reminding us of abstraction and distance that are both inevitable and necessary in the processing of a trauma. Soon after, a sequence of long static takes of stretches or corners of the carved pathways alternating with frames from archival footage showing the town residents’ daily life offers a closer and perhaps more human means of remembrance. What is your relation to trauma and how did it factor into your approach when creating the film?
PN: What I liked about the archival photographs and the arial views of the Cretto – while still unfinished – was that in these images you can see very well how the cement is covering the actual ruins of the old town of Gibellina. I found that very moving. But I also wanted to do justice to the idea of Burri to create a white monolith in the landscape and therefore only used these old archival photos because when you film or photograph the Cretto from above now, it is partly white – for the newer parts – and partly grey/brown – for the older parts.
As for the archival footage, at first, I didn’t dare using the footage of the daily life in Gibellina Vecchia5. I thought it would be too intense and sentimental so I opted to use only the old photographs. But my editor, the artist and filmmaker Reynold Reynolds convinced me to use the footage and in hindsight I am very happy that we did. Especially because in the past years I got to know quite a few people from Gibellina and we talked a lot about the earthquake and the new Gibellina. I found this footage very touching because it looks like the old Gibellina was such a lively town, very different compared to the new Gibellina. This footage became also a kind of homage to my friends and the inhabitants of Gibellina. For example, I used a scene featuring the father and brother of Nicolo Stabilè who became one of my best friends from there.
Il Grande Cretto di Gibellina will be screened till the 6th of January at the Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri in Città di Castello (Umbrie) and from January 28 – April 30 together with the two other films about Gibellina in the exhibition “DueSouth” curated by Marianne Bernstein at The Delaware Contemporary in Wilmington, Delaware.
1 Intonaco is the top thin layer of the plaster which is wet while paint is being applied on it – ed.
2 Lisa Melandri, ‘Finding Alberto Burri’s Place in America’ in Combustione: Alberto Burri and America, 2010, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA
3 Carthusian Monks, Grand Chartreuse, quoted from a letter by Nic Baker III to J. Pallasmaa, October 2013
4 Max Picard, The World of Silence (1948). Gateway Editions, Washington 1988, quoted by J. Pallasmaa in his lecture ‘Voices of Tranquility. Silence in Art and Architecture’
5 Old Gibellina in Italian