There’s no place like Rome
Written by Elin Howe
In There’s no place like Rome, Todd Fuller takes us to the city within the city, the Vatican. At its centre is Fuller’s pope. Burdened with the overwhelming responsibility of the papal office, he is the anxious protagonist in this exhibition which comprises a suite of drawings, installation, sculpture and two short animated films. The exhibition represents the fruits of Fuller’s recent stay in Rome. Awarded the 2013 William Fletcher Travelling Fellowship Residency to the British School at Rome, Fuller has steeped himself in the history and culture of the city, leading him eventually to focus on its most powerful living symbol – the pope.
Fuller, clearly inspired by William Kentridge’s hand-drawn animated films, has emulated his technique. Like Kentridge, Fuller is a strong draughtsman and uses this skill to unfold his narrative. From what appears to be a large body of work, Fuller has chosen eight drawings of different sizes to frame and exhibit. This selection establishes the context, mood and introduces key moments in the overall narrative, which is subtly revealed as one encounters the complete suite of work.
On entry the viewer is confronted with Untitled 7, one of the larger-scale drawings which immediately establishes a context for the story Fuller is about to unfold. Featuring a massive Roman head and the smaller figure of a seated pope, this image also introduces a mood of anxiety – the Roman head, albeit wearing cardinal-red robes, invokes its visual source, a well-known antique sculpture of Constantine from Capitoline Hill. Despite its massive power, it is sightless; and the much smaller seated, but leaning figure of the pope in the background turns to look warily out at us. Opposite this image is Untitled 1, another large scale drawing, this time featuring multiple images of a fleeing pope as he descends the Vatican spiral staircase. This image conjures a filmic reference: Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather III – the murder scene of the corrupt cardinal as he fearfully descends that same staircase. Fuller’s decision to leave, rather than erase, his multiple images of the pope as he makes his way down the stairs lends the drawing an appropriate cinematic quality, but it also invokes the medieval tradition of multiple images of the Christ figure, at different stages of the biblical story, but all within the one frame. Both of these drawings, speaking to one another across the gallery space, clearly locate the action in its context and set up narrative tension for the rest of the show.
The other drawings address key moments in the story – a pope busy at his desk dealing with the hundreds of prayers which arrive on postcards; the Vatican dome; a pope leaving his seclusion to venture into the outdoor precincts of the Vatican; and a poignant image, Untitled 2, of a pope overwhelmed by his responsibilities. In its economy and style, this drawing is reminiscent of another artist known for her drawing skills, Joy Hester. In her 1955 ink drawing, Mother, she conveys the same sense of vulnerability with the same pared-back style.
The central space of the gallery is populated with small terracotta figures on plinths – a curious pilgrim and a pair of conspiring cardinals whispering together – and a terracotta camera, Relic culture, from which one of the short films, Papal Pardon, plays. At the rear of the gallery, behind a black screen, Fuller has assembled a small dimly lit monastic cell featuring a simple timber table functioning as a desk for an antique typewriter, a chair and a spiral-bound church wall calendar. The sheet in the typewriter cleverly operates as the screen onto which Fuller projects his longer film,Postcards to the Pope.
It is in these two short films that we come to meet Fuller’s pope and start to understand his dilemma. In Postcards to the Pope, we see a pope isolated and alone, but nevertheless valiantly attempting to deal with the pressures of office. Prayer-postcards become Fuller’s visual device for conveying the weight of responsibility building on the papal shoulders. Prayers arrive, at first from one of his red-robed cardinals praying serenely in a chapel nearby to the accompaniment of a divine soprano voice. Then after the pope blesses the multitudes from the balcony in St Peter’s Square, their prayer-postcards fill the skies over the Vatican dome before floating through his window and accumulating around him in great drifts. Seated at his desk, he types diligently, attempting to deal with them. There is a brief moment when one of his cardinals appears to recognise the load his brother is bearing, but then his eyes close – to become the sightless Roman statue in Untitled 7. Fuller’s pope is alone again. Gradually the task becomes overwhelming, impossible. We see him on his knees adding his prayer to the mounting piles of postcards. Finally he flees down the spiral staircase, and aided by the vacillating cardinal, slips out a side door to drive off in a little blue car.
In Papal Pardon, Fuller’s pope, digital camera dangling from his neck, has joined the queue of tourists waiting to enter St Peter’s. We see his slow progress up the long line before he’s finally in. Once inside, the space explodes with noise and camera flashes. Through the staccato soundtrack and visuals we get a sense of his horror at this scene. People are speaking loudly and laughing in this sacred place; and their casual holiday clothes seem inappropriate and disrespectful. Even the cardinals’ unbothered behaviour offends him. Then he’s face-to-face with Michelangelo’s Pieta and, for a fleeting moment, the noise is drowned out by the sheer force of this work. The clamour evaporates. The screen goes still. Then again, the unstoppable presence of the crowd reasserts itself. Fuller’s holy man is torn – he wants to erect No Photography signs, but he succumbs to temptation and makes a short video instead. In play-back mode on his camera he shows us his ‘selfie’. He’s morphed into one of the tourists, smiling and gesturing to the camera with the ubiquitous two-fingered V sign as he makes his way into the basilica. The drawn camera screening this transformation is a clever device to illustrate the way our behaviour changes in front of a lens. This pope, like those around him, has been corrupted by the tourist environment.
These short films flesh out a familiar theme in Fuller’s work – his pope is masculine, human, frail and fallible. This story unfolds irrespective of the order in which one encounters the work – the mark of an adroit story-teller. The framed drawings appear as scenes within the films, but function to deepen the exhibition experience by allowing time to focus on the impressive draughtsmanship and skilful use of visual devices; after a viewing of Papal Pardon, the noise inside St Peter’s easily transfers to the terracotta figures, who seem to fit right into that motley crowd of tourists and pragmatic cardinals; and Fuller’s monastic cell creates an evocative viewing space for his longer film, thereby encouraging a more empathetic reading of his vulnerable pope. This is a show which needs an investment of the viewer’s time, but it will reward the patient. It’s an impressive and unified body of work which represents a fresh step in Fuller’s oeuvre.