Malibu Vesuvius

As you curve around the road from LA towards Malibu, before you get to Kanye West’s Tadao Ando designed beach house, before you roll past the parking lot for Nobu, way before any of that… turn your head up and to the right, and you’ll spy, high on the hill, the Getty Villa.

This is not the famous Getty Museum, the one known in LA simply as “The Getty” even though it is part of the same foundation. This is its much stranger, cooler, cousin, where the museum itself is an artwork. It’s no modern piece of statement architecture. Instead, it’s designed to look like a style from a very specific slice of time—one year, in fact—precisely 79 AD, the year Mt. Vesuvius erupted.

The Getty website explains: “The Getty Villa Museum modeled after the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, Italy. The Villa dei Papiri (“Villa of the Papyruses”) was rediscovered in the 1750s. The excavation recovered bronze and marble sculptures, wall paintings, colorful stone pavements, and over a thousand papyrus scrolls — hence the name.

Wandering around the Villa, my mind was filled with thoughts of decay. Unlike the sculptures that were unearthed at the site, the Papiri scrolls were cooked and charred into what look like burnt cigars or lumps of coal. Past attempts to open them physically has resulted in their destruction. New approaches have emerged recently to scan them and piece them back together with machine learning and X-ray fluorescence. Until that process (or another) is perfected, we have only a handful of ashes and hope (and a few fragments pieced together from the shards of the destroyed scrolls).

The poignancy of holding a charred cigar that could contain epic adventures, ancient wisdom, or a new account of history is intense. Story ignites hope, no matter how distant.

Inside the museum is a sculpture from roughly 2172 years ago, a bust carved in marble of a man’s head. The bust features realistic-yet-idealized beauty—where just enough specific personal details (the bent nose, the wrinkles) keep it from feeling generic. The style rose during the Hellenistic period, and flourished another several hundred years after Alexander the Great came to power. Those in power realized that the this type of style was helpful for people to cope with the complexities of its heroes. Like today’s zoom, instagram, or snap filters, society warmed to just a little polishing to be able to accept the flaws.

The statue of realistic-yet-idealized beauty is not of Alexander the Great, but the need for this visual style arose in part from his exploits.

Alexander the Great was the G.O.A.T.—his military tactics are still taught. His reach was vast. More than 20 cities today still wear the mark of his name. He unified one of the largest empires ever—from Greece to India. His tale continues to be told via the same template of the heroic arc as seen in Achilles or Ethan Hunt.

Yet even our epic heroes are human. Trying to make sense of the good and the bad in our heroes—their flaws, not just their strengths—can be tricky. We want to believe in their eventual goodness, however, because deep down we secretly hope our own virtues outweigh our mistakes.

We judge ourselves, just as St. Peter might one day judge you at the Pearly Gates, or your balance of good and evil might be weighed in the swinging scales of Ethan Hawke’s cane as he channels the power of Ammit as depicted in the new Disney+ series Moon Knight.

We hope that on average, when everything is added up, that we are more good than bad. It’s not too far of a stretch to see this in the real-yet-idealized beauty of Hellenistic sculpture. We know not everything our leaders do is right, but we hope (at least for our own sakes) that our leaders are more good than evil, even if at times this hope is in vain.

The sculpture of the man’s head likely belonged to a slightly larger than life memorial that depicted his full body. The museum’s best guess is that he might have been a member an important family, possibly the royal family of Pergamon.

I lingered at his likeness, not because of his importance, but because of the damage to the bust. It was busted down the middle. Giant cleaved sections have fallen away. The face almost seems to lift off from the head like the robot faces of the original 1973 Westworld film, or the 1997 John Woo classic, Face Off.

The decay filled me with a pang of poignancy, a feeling Roland Barthes called “the punctum” or that which pricks you. Instead of looking at the amazing carving on the nose, eyebrows or beard, I stubbornly looked at the edge of the crack where his head nearly splits in two.

Janus—the two-faced god—looks forward and back. It’s why we named the start of the calendar year January. It’s also how we see the world, looking to our own past to make sense of the present and what’s coming next.

The decay, in the papyrus, in the sculpture, in ourselves, seemed to be everywhere. Decay, not just in the facade of our heroes, but in all of life, this felt like a lasting theme.

Shakespeare penned it as such: “And so from hour to hour we ripe and ripe, And then from hour to hour we rot and rot; And thereby hangs a tale.”

All this had me thinking of the best works by artists that might circle the topic of decay. I started to imagine who might curate an exhibit on Decay. Maybe Andras Szanto? Maybe Anne Pasternak? Maybe they could do it together as a Brooklyn Museum pop-up at the Getty Villa and then travel it to all 28 museums in Szanto’s marvelous book…

So, who would the artists be?

My first though was Felix Gonzales Torres’s candy works—where the weight of his lost lover is measured out in candy for us to participate in a ritual of remembrance and decay. Or Janine Antoni’s Gnaw, where she carves away at a block of chocolate with her teeth. Or Mark Bradford’s paintings that only look like layers of paint, but are actually many layers of paper that are glued and sanded in a process of self-excavation. Daniel Arsham takes on the project of decay directly, with sculptures created under a narrative fiction of being artifacts from a thousand years in the future, crystalized and damaged. How about some works that never meant to talk about decay, but have—such as works that are in dire need of conservation. Or playful works—like the Duchamp v. Man Ray collab, Dust Breading. How about the ice skates in a block of melting ice from Laurie Anderson’s Self-Playing Violin? Surely there are more. For instance, how would Nixon’s 40 years of portraits of the Brown Sisters feel in this context? Would it be too on the nose to include Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca? How about Hans Haacke’s Blue Sail? Could we use AR to create a new Gordon Matta-Clark? and cut virtual holes in whatever museum housed the show? How about that marvelous still life by Clara Peeters from 1612 in the Met, where her flowers are wilting in front of us. There are artists who use mold directly in their work. Should the show include some, none, or all of these? How about Chris Burden’s Samson, which connected a 100-ton hydraulic jack to a turnstile, so that if enough people saw the show, the building would collapse. How about Cai Guo-Qiang’s painting with fire, where all we have are the remnants of the moment? How about Rauschenberg’s erased DeKooning? Or some updated version of the idea, such as an un-refrigerated Matthew Barney?

Back to our possible prince of Pergamon, the Head of Man, from the Getty Villa. I’ve painted it here twice, each from a slightly different angle to simulate a tiny movement in the head, almost as if it could turn to us to listen to what we have to say. I’ve turned the second angle to face the first, as if Janus was in conversation with himself.

And now, the real reason I painted it. For me, the split open head feels not from some royal of Pergamon, but from Zeus himself—at that moment when suffering from an unbearable headache, he asked Hephaistos to crack open his skull with an axe—and Athena leaped out! fully formed, ready to rule.

Athena—goddess of wisdom—leaping from the cracked skull of Zeus. The moment of insight for an artist. The thought moment. The birth. The flash. The logos, the telling. The moment when idea becomes art.

Painting the head of man, twice, looking forward, looking back, getting new ideas, thinking of the work of others, thinking about the future of art and museums, through all of this it’s Athena who is the real punctum. She is that which pricks me. Goddess of wisdom, help us find a way.

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Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB & d.school jamesbuckhouse.com

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James Buckhouse

James Buckhouse

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB & d.school jamesbuckhouse.com

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