A One Night Spontaneous Reaction
Towards the end of the summer of 1997, between August and September, Anna Boghiguian was in Pompeii, visiting the archaeological excavations of the ancient site. That day, she had decided to go to Naples to take a stroll, buy some art supplies, have dinner and then return to Pompeii. When she arrived at the train station in Naples, however, she discovered that the last train home was not in fact that same evening, but at dawn the next day and, since she had no proof of her identity – having left her documents at the hotel in Pompeii where she was staying – she realised that she would have to spend that night at the station, waiting for the next day’s train.
The station kiosk had some tourist guides and second-hand books on sale. Among them was a small volume on Pompeii, published in the 1960s by the Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato (Italian Polygraphic Institute) and edited by Amedeo Maiuri. The guidebook, which suggested itineraries in the midst of maps and historical notes, bore the title POMPEII in capital letters on its cover. The author, whom Rossellini had been set on having as an actor in Journey to Italy, in the scene where the casts of the two lovers were found, was an archaeologist, as well as being a fine scholar and a poet. He had been born at the end of the 19th century in Ciociaria, in the west of Lazio, and appointed, in 1924, Superintendent of Antiquities of Naples and the South and Director of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. He was credited with having brought to light almost two-thirds of the underground site of Pompeii together with nearby digs at The Phlegraean Fields, and in Herculaneum and Capri.
Born in Cairo in 1946 to a family of Armenian origin and brought up partly in Egypt and partly in Canada, the Egyptian artist was always on the move in the late 1990s. Interested in interpreting her travelling experiences, she had focused her approach on a combination of writing, expressionist drawing, casually travelling and concentrating on the perception of places, jotting down, especially in those years, drawings and notes with a cinematographic structure in notebooks, exercise books and makeshift materials such as recycled paper and second-hand books.
Having decided – or rather, being forced to – spend that night at the station, Anna had bought the book in English to pass the time while waiting for the train the following day. Suspended in that atmosphere, she had concentrated on life around her, on the spontaneous closing activities of the station, on the shadows that slowly came to inhabit it at night, on the vagrants propped up against the empty carriages, warmed by sleeping dogs. Boghiguian’s aim was to record the signs that seemed to express a curious continuity of thought between the imperturbably finite nature of the real world and the quest for a solution: that of the mystery of Pompeii and the enigma of eternity and sacrifice that had rendered it immortal.
In the pencil and watercolour drawings sketched on the pages of the book, a powerful flow of ghost-like empty shapes came to life: the ordinary human beings at the train station – reduced to abstract silhouettes and outlines – recalled the erased identities of the bodies turned to ash by the eruption of the volcano. In these sketched scenes, there was more than the human being: there was a progression of shapes that had lost substance. Human beings, animals, sheds, carriages, trains and then buildings: the station itself had become a mould, a cast, the remains of a real life, the story of a disappearance and reappearance, the evocation of an ambivalent reality that belonged to a system of signs that appeared both chaotic and generative, ordinary and allegorical, but above all circular.
Found twenty years later, unearthed from the piles of composting memories in Anna’s house, these images form a crescendo that contains all the mysterious poetic force of the history of Pompeii. Discovered during the ‘excavation’ of the artist’s memory, these drawings are the story of one night’s spontaneous reaction, a journey into the regeneration and survival of signs.