I happened across this sculpture in the Orto de’Pecci in Siena. The Orto is a lush open field with a decent pizza restaurant, numerous orchards, stables for some twenty horses, and a motley zoo of peacocks, ducks, and—antelopes. There, off to the side of the open field of grass, is this colossal steel head, staring blankly across the scene.
The sculpture is entitled “Open Mind” by Justin Peyser, who is, incidentally, a Harvard grad in Visual and Environmental Studies currently working in Bologna.
Peyser welded together the head crudely, yet somehow delicately. The rivets and welding trails take on the character of the pterion and lambda lines where the bones of the skull fuse together. Peyser welded the crown into an elegant spiral, suggesting, I think, a certain inscrutability.
It is the size of a room; one can easily walk inside of it. In its colossal-ness, it evokes the Head of Constantine in Rome, as well as the severed head of the Iron Giant, or even the Machine Man from Lang’s Metropolis (1927). It is certainly an homage to Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” And it is very much part of a tradition I’ve noticed in Italian sculpture to construct huge limbs of giants (or whatever) and leave them lying about various public venues, like this work at Ca’ del Bosco near Brescia, or the Lorenzo Quinn’s enormous hands at Ca’ Segredo during the 2017 Venice Biennale or Igor Mitoraj’s well-ruined sculptures complementing Pompeii.* Open Mind, then, can safely be categorized as another among the genre of monumental Italian sculpture grappling with the legacy of Rome, that hulking mute carcass of history that perpetually haunts the peninsula.
One can step inside the skull of Open Mind. Peyser has cut free the pupils, so that visitors can literally see through the eyes of the giant. It is empty inside, except for tiny version of the head stashed away in the chin area.
Very uncanny indeed.
The proposition (along with the spiral formation), of having a head-within-a-head, evokes the old adage of “turtles all the way down.” What’s inside the little head? Why a littler head of course! Keep asking “why” and you’ll find yourself deeper in a nesting doll with no better answers than when you started.
The muteness of the head is perhaps its most important quality. Even if one crawls inside its skull and stares through its eyes, the visitor has no greater insight into the experience, knowledge, or purpose of the head. No words; just the physical evidence of something tremendously bigger than oneself, awesome, sublime, whose experience, whose history cannot ever be located or deciphered. It reminds me of Ahab soliloquizing to the severed head of a sperm whale:
“Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed — while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”—Moby-Dick, Chapter 70, “The Sphynx”
Needless to say, I liked it a lot.
*I am pretty sure the Ca’ del Bosco sculpture is also by Mitoraj.