We – Mike Goldmark, Ian Wilkinson (Goldmark Atelier’s master printmaker) and I – are looking at Wilkinson’s A Final Supper. Thirteen mummified figures, photographed in the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo in varying states of decay, have by means of a well-known editing suite digitally convened for a familiar BYOB (‘Bring Your Own Body’) evening meal. Wilkinson points to the metal cage on the long table in front of them, within it a tiny skeleton bird: ‘I think I spent something like 24 hours stripping out the space between the bars. So it’s been, at times, a labour of love.’
Supper is spread before us over the front cover of a pre-pub proof of Our Late Familiars, Goldmark’s latest, and certainly strangest, publication to date. Within its satin black jackets are some 60 odd photographic images made by Wilkinson of the catacombed remains: saints and sinners, skin and bones, all still dressed in their finery. Joining them are a host of portentous birds, equally dequipped of mortal flesh, who hang over them like spiritual messengers, bearers of tidings good and ill, or bound in saturnine cages. Over a long period of gestation, what began as a private project, reanimating Palermo’s eternally interred, has slowly morphed into something far larger. Acclaimed writer Iain Sinclair (made ‘the kind of Sicilian offer one cannot refuse’) was invited to provide commentary; and unwilling to contend with the unshakeable power of Wilkinson’s work, yet wholly seduced by the plural connections of Palermo – to people, place, and texts – he quickly turned what was to be an attending essay into a five-part, fever-dream immersion in a web of tales and a vacation of his own, all within the setting of the 17th century necropolis.
But it is the prints we are here to discuss today, and their unanticipated beginning in an otherwise spur-of-the-moment visitation to Palermo’s underworld city.
Some 400 years past, the local Capuchin brotherhood found its cemetery was at full capacity. New crypts were excavated beneath the existing graves, and its first member experimentally embalmed and vinegared in his Franciscan habit. With time, the practice began to appeal to wealthy families, and an honour once reserved for members of the order was licensed out first to noble Sicilians, then less prosperous applicants.
Like medieval Catholic ‘indulgences’, donations for a relative’s upkeep were to be kept frequent and punctual as the friars capitalised on this steady stream of income (when payments were missed, bodies were withdrawn to backroom shelves until the deposits returned). Depending partly on the age of the entombed (among the thousands of remains within the catacombs, they range from infant children to elderly dowagers) and the skill of the embalmer, the skin would tend to leather and last longer than their dress. Families would pay not only to keep their remains there, but to visit and to re-clothe them as their garments frayed and disintegrated. The collection today remains a fascinating insight into historical fashion and a spectrum of society ranging from the privileged to the impecunious: from plum-stockinged children in neat leather heels, to bodies with feet bandaged in rustic wraps.
For Wilkinson, his first visit prompted a visceral awakening. As a child, he had suffered a recurring nightmare: descending a darkened staircase, he would enter a corridor where, unseen in the shadows, unknown figures whispered about him. From within the crypts, apparently, one can hear the muffled voices of visitors directly overhead and above ground; one of the altogether more haunting features of the place. The association of these two katabases – one real and one imagined – proved too strong to ignore. Resolved on a new project, Wilkinson bought himself a camera and over five years returned, sometimes multiple times within one year, to document the subterranean population of the crypts.
This was his first foray into photography, he tells me – ‘And probably my last, too.’ He doubts he will have the tolerance, or the patience, for so long a project again, and the work called for the camera, at a time when in print and paint he was increasingly less satisfied: ‘I didn’t want to lose anything in the translation, or the reconfiguration into paint. It had to be real.’ Photography was the chosen medium; to take up the camera again, he remarks, would dilute what has been a profoundly unique and personal endeavour.
The purism of Wilkinson’s approach, however, posed problems of a more practical kind. Casual snapping aside, he had never used a camera professionally. More importantly, the potency of his first dream association had to be united with a second – another childhood nightmare of a blackbird alighting on the windowsill, to tell him (without words) that it was ‘time to go’. You will often find birds performing the same rites in these images: conveyors of souls from one life to another, in private communion with their owners about the spiritual journey ahead.
Wilkinson felt instinctively that these two visions, of equal intensity, should be joined. He tried in vain to photograph birds from life in the wild (‘but could I, fuck!’); but, by lucky happenstance, like the catacombs, life delivered them to him dead in the collapsed chimney breast of a dilapidated farmhouse in the outskirts of Northampton: ‘The chimney was cracked, and behind the hearth you could see hundreds of tiny claws and beaks poking round the edges. Bizarrely, they seem to have built their nests in stacks of straw, one upon the other after the previous lot had died. Pulling away the brickwork, we found them beautifully preserved – perhaps 100 or 200 of them, all on top of each other, and in different poses. Those at the bottom could have been a hundred years old.’
Rehomed in Wilkinson’s studio, these skeletal birds could be photographed at leisure, side-lit with a bright flash against a near-black background – and, with a little digital trickery and minimal hand-shadowing, interpolated into compositions with their human counterparts. Most appear exactly as they were uncovered, in their incongruous variety of postures – ‘They were quite stiff,’ he notes, ‘though occasionally I broke their necks to get the right angle’ – and all the birds in the series came from the chimney breast (‘Except one,’ he adds, ‘which I mummified myself, and just had to put in’).
The birds and the figures came together with comparative ease, balancing like configurations with like; sympathies in repose. Sometimes that was all it took: a limp, gloved hand and a curled crow’s foot; a supine figure and a bird collapsed in on itself; a nodding head, the folds of the neck still intact, gently depressed and pleated like vellum, and a young chick, its beak delicately, dolefully, downturned. Often he would have a composition in mind, and it was a matter of finding the right players to come together. Other times the portrait absolutely dictated the orchestration. In one, an otherwise well-composed Christ-like individual – bristles still stiff on the chin, eyes not yet completely putrefied – has a collapsed skull, the top of his head bizarrely exposed, where a tiny bird has taken to roost: a nesting animus, or a symbol of rebirth. Whatever the composition, it is always the relationship between the bird and the human worlds – between otherworlds and our mortal coil – that drives the series.
Birds, corvids especially, have long been associated with death, the soul, and spiritual realms beyond our own. In Wilkinson’s work they are like spiritual porters, sometimes polite and understanding of their hosts, assembling with mourning families about preparations for a lost one. Sometimes their insinuation is only very faint, overlaid with transparency, as if to suggest the thought, rather than the imminent presence of death itself. But always – and how could it not be? – death is there, pressing against the darkness through its catalogue of cadavered responses: anger, despair, acceptance, and black humour.
Where the birds fell, almost literally, into his lap, Wilkinson had to work for access to the catacombs. Photography in the crypts is strictly prohibited; so, in keeping with the Sicilian theme, it was through his daughter’s contact with ‘a friend of a friend’ that he was introduced to Fabrizio, his very own personal Charon, who, not for an obol in the mouth but a pretty sum, would usher him underground during siesta time (1-3pm) locking the door behind him and leaving Wilkinson alone for his conference with the dead. ‘There is natural light from above, and some floodlighting, so it’s not dark down there. But the idea of being trapped in there with them all just added to the whole experience. One time there was a power cut, and all the floodlights went out. I got some interesting photos in the process, but that was quite something.’
Significantly, Fabrizio was in possession of the catacomb master key. Some of the sections of the crypts are entirely open to tourists, but others, the rows of priests in particular, can be viewed only from a distance. These are some of the most powerful images in the series, if only for the instant recognition their vestments give: one, an important archbishop from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, his biretta cap, white collar and ruby shirt lovingly preserved and his eyes still largely intact, looks on in pained agony, his silent maw stretched wide, as he contemplates an avian crucifixion of the artist’s own making.
Wilkinson had access to all areas of the catacombs. At his request, an obliging Fabrizio furnished him with a step ladder in order to photograph the corpses on the second rows of alcoves above those at ground level. Even then, many of the figures are protected by metal bars (their shadows appear in some of the shots), some in a tightknit mesh, others a few inches apart, through which Wilkinson could just thread his lens to achieve the image he wanted.
But perhaps the strangest aspect of this project? Wilkinson does not find their company unsettling or disturbing; he takes no perverse joy in their macabre quality, feels no revulsion in their degeneration. ‘It’s like something I can’t switch off – or on. I talk to them while I’m down there. And I have this idea that they’re putting on a performance when the punters come round. When the doors shut, and the tourists go away, I like to think the party starts; they continue their conversations with a glass or two of vino rosso.’
A synchronised slackening of muscle and tautening of skin has pulled the mouths open on many of the faces, leaving them with cadaverous grins and grimaces, or faces held in mock awe and amazement. ‘There is also that thing of the human skull looking like it is smiling. I’m not sure what it is in us that sees that; perhaps just the bone structure, because of the way it underpins it all. But I’ve always thought they looked like they were smiling.’
For all their ghoulishness, he is right: arranged as they are, in nooks and niches opposite one another, many of them propped up rather than reclining, they do share a kind of macabre air of casual conviviality: like market stallholders, orators in a public gallery, or regulars at the local trattoria bickering over their afternoon libations.
But as I talk more with Wilkinson about the compositions, and as we go together through their reproductions in the book, it becomes clear he does not simply find these figures amusing, nor that he is insensitive to their gruesomeness; that he sees an extraordinary beauty in their textures, the various impresses and distresses of time, the gradual waning of colour and identity from body to body. Rather, they seem to him almost like they are alive. For every print, there is a story in his head; a little private vignette, between an imagined life and a spectre of death. He is the mediator, between their world and ours; salvaging their stories from evanescence.