A new feeling, that of being in exile, pervaded me while I watched the stream brushing the wild watercress, like the opening scene of Solaris by Tarkovsky. The wind was strong up high in the tree tops. I then remembered that I still had with me the key to the sculpture courtyard, right in my pocket, and, although the day was almost over, I decided to drag myself there together with the Dance Macabre maquette. The yard was looking very metaphysical with its dusty stools and huge wooden benches. After installing the maquette on a table, I grabbed a sheet of paper and sat staring at the sunset, totally empty. Some dark red apples were hanging from a young tree in front of me.
Almost automatically, I found a pencil, and while I sat drawing it, I had with the apple tree the following imaginary dialogue:
APPLE TREE - Isn’t it nice, up here, in the sculpture yard, when the sun goes down?
VIVIANA ROSSI-CAFFELL - Oh yes. The wind seems to have calmed down a bit.
A.T. - Still, I wouldn’t trust it, with your delicate sculptures. Look at what it’s done to my apples, here on the ground!
Are you… are you drawing me? I didn’t know you could draw. Isn’t your work abstract?
V.R.C. - You can say that, yes. My thing with abstraction must relate to the way I absorb information and I store my memory. Apart from some rare occasions, most of the experience that I’m exposed to only leaves a very abstract imprint on me, as if, in order to be assimilated, it had to be translated with the help of a code.
It’s a sort of simplification, a distortion, although very precise, into a language that is acceptable for me to retain. It may sound very clever, and I’d have no issues with that if it wasn’t for the fact that, when I am wanting to convert those imprints back into practical terms, or when I need to recall a memory, the code doesn’t work, and there is no way to revert to the original.
A.T. – Oh dear. Never had such a problem. By the way, don’t mind me asking, but why are you so late?
V.R.C. - Late? Well, I’ve spent the week in the metal workshop, making my pieces, I’ve run what’s called a Masterclass for the students, I’ve been through the archives and the collection…
A.T. - No, no, I didn’t mean that. I meant in your life. How comes you only got to call yourself a sculptor at nearly forty?
V.R.C. - (with a pause, to recompose after the surprise of such bluntness coming from an apple tree) Well, tree… I guess I’ve spent a long time busy with my own windmills, to use an image from Don Quixote. Have you read Cervantes?
A.T. - (rather annoyed) No.
V.R.C. - What I mean is that we all get to ripen our fruits in different ways. Think of the agave. All those years preparing, preparing, only to flower once, and then die. When you compare it to the woodland strawberry that doesn’t even need a seed necessarily to be born - it just hops to the ground and sets roots from one of its mum’s runners - and bears fruits in matter of months, really, they couldn’t be more different, and yet they are both plants.
I’m going to tell you something very personal now, that I’ve never shared with anyone else.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve spoken to an apple tree.
When I was living in my parents’ home, in Italy, there was this apple tree that we used to call “duo melo”, because it had been grafted in order to produce two varieties of fruits. It had been a very productive tree from the day we got it, rather young, just like you are, and its apples had the sweetest and juiciest crunch I’ve ever found. It was planted right by the steps that led to my home, so I would walk through it every day. And every day it grew, and prepared for more and more fruit.
I remember once, it was this time of year, and it was raining.
The leaves had mostly all gone and the red apples were shimmering heavily - where I come from, when it rains, it really rains - glowing in the dark grey sky. I rushed with my camera (I was dreaming of being a photographer in those days) to capture this image of bountiful burden, that related so closely to how I felt: the strenuous effort of this small tree to keep hold of all his fruits, each one so round and beautiful, each one carrying the sweetest promise, the promise of creation, of pleasure and, ultimately, through the seed, the promise of eternal life.
That’s exactly how I felt. I was cultivating the arts then, superficially I must say, but pretty much every single one of them: from ballet to calligraphy, without neglecting archery, rock music, martial arts and screenwriting, to name some. I felt just like that “duo melo”. And that’s when I realised that I was going to need to cut a few branches if I wanted any of my fruit to get to maturity.
That’s what I’ve been doing in these years, tree. Pruning, basically.
So, don’t be cross with the wind, because it’s actually helping you to lighten your load.
By that time, it was dark, and the pencil was just following the memory of the tree’s outline on the paper.
I found my way to the College, feeling much, much lighter.
The day after, I started making the Little Theatre for Edward James, the piece I would have never conceived if it hadn’t been for West Dean College: a flamboyant celebration of its Founder in his polyhedric complexity, represented here by a polished cube, placed in the middle of the stage like a chess piece; a reference to the College’s orthogonal solid architecture.
One after the other, day after day, the elements that had been accumulating on my bench and in my mind started to take their place in the Little Theatre, with no real distinction between performers and set design. Thanks to Eric Nordgren’s precious technical support, the piece came together just in time for my talk to the Fine Art students. Green snakes from Las Pozas framed the stage, waves of burned metal emerged from the ground to remind us of the power of Nature, and the copper lips of Mae West appeared above everything else, floating like an apparition that’s about to vanish.