QUICQUID DEUS CREAVIT PURUM EST, it reads above the entrance to Tomba Emmanuelle, EVERYTHING CREATED BY GOD IS PURE, in what seems to be the perfect antithesis to the dark inferno of sex and death one enters seconds later. But only seems. For what, if not purity, is the very essence of VITA, with its never-ending cycle of birth, growth and death, purity of vision, and purity of form, all of mankind’s vitality and anxieties and unspeakable fears frozen in almost ornamental patterns of naked figures? The scenes are those of both productive and counterproductive human activity, men and women engaged in Kama-Sutra-like lovemaking side by side with skulls and bones and decomposing corpses, with the ultimate synthesis of life and death conjured up in what is perhaps the most extreme image of them all, that of two skeletons copulating at the base of a monolith of levitating infants.
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to call it a marriage between Heaven and Hell, the heavy lumps of struggling bodies on each wall transforming into lighter elusive shapes as they hit the ceiling, evaporating into some unknown realm. Yes, Vigeland’s VITA is Inferno and Paradiso combined, depicting raw nature with a sort of sublime dignity, the latter underlined by the fact that one has to lower one’s head when entering, bowing for what is slowly to become extinguishable in the semi-darkness of the crypt, placed in a small niche just above the entrance door, still, even after a while, only barely perceptible against the dark brown wall: a hollow stone—an urn—holding the artist’s ashes. It is as concrete—and as abstract—as it gets. And what a great metamorphosis as well: the artist’s studio turned into the artist’s tomb, the spirit of Emanuel Vigeland (1875-1948) forever contained within the walls of the magnificent brick building at Slemdal, with its legendary acoustics, creating droning dreamlike soundscapes out of the lightest footsteps, the slightest cough, a sigh or even a single breath (the reverb lasting up to twenty seconds, I’ve been told). Why the hell isn’t every artist buried where he or she worked?
Inspired, possibly, by the shape of the room, I always think of Jonah and the whale whenever I visit Tomba Emmanuelle, the ceiling curving like gigantic ribs above me. And given the two representations of the artist himself, both in the right corner of the entrance wall, one—alive, brush and palette in hand, in the act of painting (VITA)—above the other—dead, with the palette and brushes scattered on the ground, as if the work itself has first exhausted him, then killed him—I can’t help thinking that there is a third representation as well, which is the crypt itself, and that while Dante and Virgil had to climb over Satan’s hairy body to get to Purgatorio, the dead Vigeland has left his mouth open, in rigor mortis, for us to climb in, down the throat and into the holy chambers of his chest and stomach, the naked bodies crawling all around us playing the role of the mental intestines, so to speak, of his—literally—inner world.
To read the entirety of "Sacred Tears" as well as three other pieces by Stig Sæterbakken, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 5 . . .