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Itamar Gov: Of Phantom-Limbs and Rejected Citrons, 2023

Published by backbone books, 264 pages, English


Excerpt from "The brightest shadows of hidden memories: Expanding histories, rethinking narratives. A conversation between Itamar Gov and Caterina Taurelli Salimbeni"

CTS: Your interdisciplinary work is a vast inquiry into memory and history. It is as if you implicitly ask us that we look at it and be part of this investigation, stimulating an awakening of consciousness. There is a sort of archeological approach towards history in the search for trauma that has led to oblivion, where, to a certain extent, the remains could be interpreted as traces, clues to this research. I would like to start our conversation with the poem Epitaph written by Bertolt Brecht in memory of Rosa Luxemburg. You made a work on her – A Garden for Rosa (2021) – in which you collected the flowers she gathered during her imprisonment in Berlin and planted them on the banks of the river into which her body was thrown by the policemen. "And now red Rosa has disappeared, / Where she lies nobody knows. / To the poor the truth she taught / The rich hunted and out of this world she was brought. " To me, this is very emblematic of a deep search for truth, which you carry out as a process of excavation, of pulling what is precious out of the ordinary. Could you tell me about your practice and how you started approaching it?

IG: Thank you for this introduction. It’s a great beginning for our conversation, and it really brings together many different elements that I am excited about. I like your point about archeology and holding on to traces in search of the bigger picture. My projects usually begin with identifying a small detail that I find interesting, imagining where it can lead me, and digging carefully around it without knowing what to expect.

This forgotten collection of flowers and plants is one example. It's a sort of recording of an intimate moment from about a hundred years ago. By following these seemingly minor details, I am trying to reach something that wasn’t accessible to me before, a way of discovering more aspects of the complex socio-political reality in which they came to be. I first learned about this kind of delicate digging into details a couple of years ago in the writings of historian Carlo Ginzburg, who defines and uses “microhistories" as a method to approach historical narratives. He examines little and particular moments or elements through which he achieves far-reaching understandings about everything around us, really, with respect to time, geography, relations, and society.

To me, this method is an amazing key to approach history in an emotional, intimate way, something that doesn’t always happen when speaking about or trying to study it. It goes beyond knowing that Rosa Luxemburg was a fierce revolutionary or that she was killed by a policeman, for example. The fact that she collected flowers in prison, that she neatly pressed them in her notebook with descriptions in Latin and German, mentioning the people who brought the flowers to her, all these bits and pieces actually feel very close to me, almost physically close. Focusing on these details allows me to go beyond a cold observation of history. By doing this, I feel I can subvert history's linearity, the perception that it is a sequence of causes and effects that started and ended while bringing parts of it – different realities and narratives – closer to me, to us, while asking ourselves where we are in this story.


CTS: Since you mostly work with the space – meaning not only the exhibition location but rather the socio-cultural and historical context – how do you engage with the investigative process, especially when you are participating in a residency? Maybe you could mention your time at In-ruins, during which you developed The Mausoleum of Rejected Citrons (2021).

IG: I delve into archives, photographs, documents, and I listen to stories about other people. Everything can be a trigger for the whole process. There isn’t one specific method. I enjoy working on projects in places where I can spend some time and react to the context in which the work is shown. To me, it is essential to perceive the space as part of the final work. Usually, in situations such as residencies, I look for spaces that enthral me and that I can integrate into my ideas. Then it really changes a bit based on the context.

In the studio, I have piles and piles of images and documents that I collect from everywhere, and that I don’t necessarily know how to use, but at a certain point, things match in my mind. In-ruins – a residency dedicated to archeological ruins in the south of Italy – is a good example of an associative process that ended up in a completely unexpected work. Before getting there, I was reading a bit and discovered that citron trees had been cultivated for many centuries in the region of Calabria. This is one of the most significant agricultural points of pride in the area. Being such a specific fruit that I have never encountered except in the context of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in which a perfect citron is needed for the ritual of the holiday, I had a small hunch that there might be some sort of a connection between the two. Reading a bit more, I discovered that for almost a millennium, rabbis from around the world go to Calabria every summer in order to find and take the perfect citron with them to be used during the holiday. So generations and generations of farmers know to expect these rabbis every summer, aware of what exactly makes a citron perfect, according to the biblical criteria that, obviously, are completely irrelevant to the farmers.

I decided to make a work dedicated to the imperfect citrons, the ones that are rejected and left behind. Many of the farmers I contacted didn’t agree to selling these citrons because the rabbis hadn’t arrived yet that year. They knew that they could make good deals with them and didn’t want to risk losing the opportunities.

So, going back to Ginzburg’s microhistories we discussed before, for me, this small reality, this small exchange that has been happening for centuries, entails a rich mesh of rituals, traditions, and everyday life. Everything is here, really everything. In the end, this work doesn’t try to portray this intricate mesh, but there exists within it a manner that doesn’t need to necessarily make sense or have a pragmatic essence.

The installation involves 1,000 imperfect citrons neatly placed on the floor of a small desecrated gothic church, appearing like some sort of a peculiar military cemetery. If you look at the citrons from afar, they seem similar in shape, but when you get closer, you notice the differences. And if you don’t know anything about the background of the work except for the title, you might ask yourself why they were rejected. You are invited to look really closely to uncover the answer to what is actually happening. This process, again, doesn’t lead to one single and correct answer, but rather it’s more about dealing with the citrons. For me, at least, as I focus on them and realise that each of them has something that makes them imperfect – a scratch, their strange form, stains, and so on – I actually develop empathy for them, I perceive their peculiarities as virtues.

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