When I visited Stromboli myself in 2002 at the beginning of the project Iddu, I was moved not only by the amazing spectacle of this ever-erupting volcano but by James P Graham’s passionate quest – that rare spark of wonderment, which, when coupled with obsession, can transform into inspiration. Some five years later after intensive filming, editing and planning, Graham completed the definitive version of Iddu,a remarkable synthesis of film and installation art skillfully choreographed using his film crew, a local guide, a sound artist, a seismologist and an architect. The film has been conceived and is projected in 360-degree panorama using a specially designed circular projection enclosure. This is a totally immersive audiovisual experience, where the spectator becomes the centre of the work. In contrast to the singular viewing position assumed by conventional artists’ film and video works, Iddu offers an unending simultaneity of viewpoints, apanoramic sense of space with the illusion of a rolling horizon line, blurring the relationship between screen and audience.
The 360-degree viewing experience has an interesting precedent in the painted panoramas of the early 1800s that relied on illusion created through the skillful manipulation of perspective, trompe l’oeil painting and dramatic lighting. Presented in purpose-built circular rotundas, they were extremely popular as spectacular representations of exotic natural locations and included depictions of dramatic activity like naval battles or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The paintings displayed were enormous and the largest panorama circle at Leicester Square was around 90ft in diameter, which could be viewed from different levels. By the late 19thcentury, 360-degree screens were standard exhibits at the Crystal Palace in London, and the Universal Expositions in Paris. Anticipating the subsequent development of the all-enveloping experience of widescreen formats like IMAX format they were essentially early attempts at virtual reality, where the viewer becomes part of the world of the screen. Yet illusionism is not the primary goal of Iddu, which retains a narrative quality and even though there is no story being told one becomes aware of Graham’s carefully orchestrated sequence of images that unfold before our eyes. His choice of the old 8mm format may have helped him to achieve this and he feels it provides a more ‘objective’ viewpoint than digital video.
The subject matter and dynamic presentation invites comparisons with giant screen National Geographic style films about the forces of nature. Yet Iddu’spoetic sequence of imagery with its ‘organic’ ever-evolving soundtrack transcends their rather predictable cinematography and melodramatic musical score. Graham built up an extensive archive of the island’s evocative natural sounds to use in this work and captured the volcano’s characteristic rushing, hissing, coughing and puffing.He also collaborated with the sound artist Akio Suzuki who plays self-made instruments, using echo to invoke nature and encapsulate an appropriately primordial atmosphere. Graham’s creative orchestration of the extensive footage and sound recording of the volcanic activity blurs the boundaries between art and documentary. Before film and photography, painting and drawing were the only mediums available for recording volcano eruption. PerhapsIdducould be viewed as a contemporary successor to the art historical legacy of the 18thcentury Naples School of topographical paintings that depict Vesuviuserupting. At that time, Sir William Hamilton, the British Envoy to Naples who was also one of the earliest volcanologists, employed the Neapolitan artist, Pietro Fabris, to meticulously record the volcanic activity of Vesuvius. It also became an essential stop on the European Grand Tour so there was an active souvenir trade in paintings and prints showing the dramatic eruptions, by some accomplished artists. These tend to focus on dramatic depictions of the volcano’s impending destructive threat with the mesmerized onlookers witnessing this thrilling and awe inspiring spectacle.
In contrast there are no images of human beings in the film, which instead conveys the aura of an omnipotent presence beyond the force of the erupting volcano, namely Iddu (meaning ‘Him’ in Sicilian dialect). Graham relates his inspiration and mission to make Idduto a unique experience he had the second time he ascended Stromboli with a local guide in 2002. On spending a night at the top beside the volcano’s craters, the sensation of natural phenomena created a momentary experience of what he can only describe as an ‘illumination’. Triggered by the powerful conjugation of elements on Stromboli, he was made aware of his own relative position, size, and relationship with the wider cosmos. Research into this metaphysical experience led him to discover the notion of ‘scientia sacra’ or sacred science. Its pure meaning though difficult to grasp is eloquently described by the contemporary Iranian philosopher Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his book Knowledge and the Sacred“…sacred knowledge lies at the heart of every revelation which is at the centre of that circle encompassing and defining tradition…the source of this knowledge is intellectual intuition which involves the illumination of the heart and the mind of man.” Professor Nasr proposes that man is able to perceive the Source of knowledge, which many would define as ‘God’. Historically, ‘scientia sacra’ or ‘sacred science’ was widely understood by religious savants such as St.Thomas Aquinas, and indeed, was the binding factor between theology and science prior to the Renaissance.
Like Mt. Vesuvius and Mt. Fuji, Stromboli, is a ‘sacred’ place, its volcano represents a unique natural phenomenon since it displays the ultimate union and discord of the elements. The great paradox that underpins our existence is that the very forces that make life possible also threaten it. Idduserves as a quintessential metaphor for the contrast between violence and peace, bearing witness to an equilibrium over which humanity has no control; an equilibrium which is experienced from the centre of Graham’s final installation, providing positional awareness in the face of nature and beyond. He merges cinematography, natural science documentary and installation art to create an extraordinary sensory experience where perception itself becomes the object of inquiry. While Graham concentrates on the relationship between the artwork and the viewer he is not interested in merely creating an illusionof natural phenomena, but intends that the mesmerizing experience of watching Idduwill help to generate a spiritual experience of the everyday. Challenging the passive nature of traditional art-viewing, Idduengages the observer as an active participant, enveloping them within its womb-like installation that can spark a profound reflection on the very nature of being.
London – September 2007