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Alberto Burri’s sculptural masterwork…


At a meeting of Gibellina City Council on the 25 of September 1979 it was resolved, following the advice of Mayor Ludovico Corrao, to issue an official invitation to Alberto Burri. The resolution read as follows: “The merit and  significance of your artistic message is considered to be human and poetically inspiring more than any other it is able to translate for the present generation and for future generations the tragedy, the  struggle, the hope and the faith in the land of the people of Gibellina”. They asked Burri to add one of his  works to the many artists’ contributions already scattered in the new town. As Burri did not react, the Mayor went to visit him at his home in Città di Castello and issued him a personal invitation to be a guest  at his home.

In a newspaper article of April 2006 calling for the completion of the monuments, known as the Cretto,  the now Senatore Ludovico Corrao recalls Burri’s first visit and the genesis of the Cretto as a  monument. A few days after the personal invitation was issued, Burri had relented and arrived in Sicily. He wanted to meet with the locals and was  taken through the elaborate, newly erected welcome gate, Stella, a sculpture by Pietro Consagra, into the  now mostly completed new city. Corrao does not elaborate on the visit to this location. We known that  Burri thought that “in this place for sure there is nothing for me to contribute as the place has plenty works  of art.” Alberto Zanmatti, the architect involved in the project, in his comment on this said that knowing  Burri, he would have never agreed to be one of many. At Burri’s request, Corrao took him to the site of  the destroyed old city. The sight of the devastation and ruins brought Burri close to tears, but Burri  remained silent. They continued and drove to Segesta to the ruins of an old Greek amphitheatre that Burri  wanted to photograph at dusk. There he told Corrao, “I have the project in mind” but did not elaborate.

The archaeology of the future.

Later that evening Burri told Corrao that while they were walking in Segesta and he saw how the shadows on the steps of the amphitheatre changed the appearance of the architecture from one minute to the other, giving it both life and immortality, he decided to create a large Cretto over the ruins of the destroyed city. “Above all” he said, “strength like history had to emerge from the comparison of the great civilizations of Segesta, Selinunte, Motia and the ruined world of the poor and the dead.” He defined his work as “the archaeology of the future” which would be a testimony to the continued presence of great civilizations in this land.

A Cretto resembles a dried up clay lake bed. Burri started incorporating craked surfaces into his work with other materials as early as 1951, turning the Cretto into a painting in the 70s. On the genesis of the Cretto, Burri says: “when I was in California, I often visited Death Valley. The idea came from there, but then in the painting it became something else. I only wanted to demonstrate the energy of the surface.”  The Cretto design had also been used by Burri in sculptures. In 1976 and 77 he created two ceramic sculpture walls (5 x  15m), one for the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden in UCLA, Los Angles, and the other is located at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Another sculpture based on the Cretto design is a metal Grande Ferro of 1980 (5.18 x 0.61m) located in Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri, in Città di Castello.

Burri produced his Cretto paintings in collaboration with the forces of nature, in this case, a chemical reaction that causes the surface of the material, when it dries up, to crack. It is a process of destruction/construction that also involves time. The eventual destruction of the surface becomes the construction of the work. The material he used to produce the Cretto was a mixture of wet kaolin, resin, pigment and polyvinyl acetate that was applied as a smooth layer on to a horizontal surface. By changing the composition of the chemicals, the concentration of the catalysts and the depth of the layers the artist was able to control the density of the cracking, but not the exact location of the cracks.

The enormity of the Gibellina project did not become apparent until 1981 when Burri presented the city with a model of the monument. In the model, Burri had recreated in plastic, an aerial view of the topography of Old Gibellina and its surroundings on which he had superimposed a Cretto that covered the side of the destroyed old city. The footprint of Old Gibellina’s main street and one other thoroughfare were incised into the work, while the rest of the Cretto cracks has been allowed to form spontaneously.

Alberto Burri and “The International Land Art Panorama”.

In his speech at a convention titled: Alberto Burri; nel Panorama della Land Art  Internazionale, help in Gibellina in October 1998, Zanmatti, the architect of the  project and a friend of Burri, said, that Burri, whose original profession was a Doctor, had arrived in Gibellina with the spirit of Asclepius, the Greek God of Medicine. As one who had taken the Hippocratic oath, Burri could not refuse a call for help, but had managed to wriggle his way out of contributing to the many works that had already been constructed in the new city, and came up with the idea of the Cretto. It was a  project so immense that even the Pharaohs would have been bewildered by it. Zanmatti was  faced with unstable ruins, a type of construction never attempted before, no funds, no materials  and no organized labour force. It looks two years to raise sufficient funds, mostly donated by  Italians and material donated by a cement factory in Palermo, for the experimental construction of the first irregular shaped block. At the same time a controversy was stirred by those who wanted the ruins left untouched. In an area filled with ruins of previous civilizations that are greatly admired and income-producing, it was a strong argument. Countering this argument, mayor Corrao likened the ruins to a corpse of a beloved that was left to rot, “It is unconceivable to allow the debris of the old city to rot as a testimony to death.” The need “to obliterate the ruins in order to commemorate them” was accepted.

Each section of the Cretto, averaging 700 sq.m, had to be surrounded by reinforced concrete, with the rubble piled and compacted into it to a height of 1.6 m. and the whole covered by a layer of white cement. The gaps between the sections, the walkways, were paved in white cement; these gaps form gullies of varying width from 1.5m to 4m. The army was called in to assist with the clearing of the ruins. All the debris and everything found on site in the ruined buildings, included clothing, dolls, wine and olive oil bottles, farming implements and household items, were piled and buried in the confined perimeter of each section.

Fondazione Orestiadi, the new beginning.

Further funds were raised through a public lottery, the white cement continued to be donated and work on the project commenced in August 1985. Lack of funds stopped the work in December 1989. In 1997 a petition calling for the completion of the work was signed by prominent Italians, from art historian to politicians, authors and academics. This petition succeeded in raising further fund from institutions and another nine acres were added to the monument. As is evident from Senatore Corrao’s call in 2006 for the completion of the monument, it has yet to be completed. Now that the ravages of time and weather are evident, its fate is somewhat reminiscent of that Gaudi’s Sacred Family Church in Barcelona. The monument is no longer the pristine white it was, moss, weeds and trees have invaded it, the surrounding weeds are as tall as the sections themselves, and it is in need not only of completion but of restoration, a task Corrao, who now heads Fondazione Orestiadi, a Regional Art Institution, is still engaged in.

For the casual visitor guided to the place by the sign Gibellina Ruderi (Gibellina ruins), after expressing astonishment at this huge apparition of cracked off white cement in the middle of a rural setting, questions of – What is it? Why is it here? – come to mind. It is useless to look for an explanatory sign, as there is none there. There are a few signs honoring the latest financial donor that mention the earthquake, but these are incorporated into the cement walls and are hard to find. However a feeling that an event, that connects the structure to the site, had occurred there, soon creeps in.  The question of what the event was is answered by the few ruined structures that are still  standing, by the upturned land, and the abruptly ending roads that abound in the area and the  separation from the cultivated land. The scale of the event is transmitted, when wandering  through the cracks does not transmit a sensation of desperation such as being lost, on the  contrary, it transmits a sensation of adventure, as at no time, despite the silence within the structure, in the cultivated land surrounding it is obscured; it remains visible between the cracks and over the top of the structure, and completes the integration of the monument with the living landscape that surrounds it.



the short lived ’70s Japanese power trio of legend…


One of Japan’s most iconic purveyors of early-‘70s heavy/blues/psych rock, Speed, Glue & Shinki was composed of three uncommonly talented, freakishly tall (six-foot-plus!), and exceptionally wasted longhairs of mixed descent; Shinki was half Chinese, “Glue” half-French, “Speed” a Filipino, and, yes, their drugs of choice inspired the group’s moniker. As is often the case, the group’s legend was established primarily posthumously, but the improbable nature of their very existence and the retrospectively appreciated uniqueness of their spare musical output totally warrants it.

Speed, Glue & Shinki started out as the brainchild of Atlantic Records impresario Ikuzo Orita and guitar hero Shinki Chen, who was just 21 but already deemed the “Japanese Hendrix,” thanks to a résumé boasting stints with Brit-blues purveyors Powerhouse, Super Session emulators Foodbrain, and the house band for Japan’s own production of the musical Hair, to name just his most then-recent exploits. However, rather than settling on faceless no-names to support Shinki’s genius, the duo sought his instrumental and charismatic equals in highly respected bassist Masayoshi “Glue” Kabe — himself a veteran of Group Sounds staples the Golden Cups, among others, including Shinki’s first pro band years earlier — and the comparatively inexperienced, Filipino-born singing drummer Joey “Speed” Smith (aka Pepe), whose larger-than-life persona, pharmaceutical fixations, and songs to match helped define the group’s radical musical vision. Ironically, and despite its shared instrumental pedigree, when the band unveiled their 1971 debut album, Eve, it was distinguished by astonishingly raw, loose, and at times even clumsy extrapolations on the era’s reigning heavy blues and acid rock templates.

Even more astonishing was how its abject commercial failure to chart on Japan’s still very buttoned up hit parade actually surprised all involved, expediting Speed, Glue & Shinki’s dissolution when the easily distracted Kabe took to vanishing after just a few scattered public band performances. The far more driven Joey did manage to coax a chronically unmotivated Shinki back into the studio, alongside former Zero History bassist Mike Hanopol, but the band’s sprawling eponymous sophomore double album, literally lost the plot in a maze of proto-metal/art-rock chaos and indulgence. The LP was pretty much dead on arrival upon release in early 1972, and it wasn’t long before Joey and Hanopol both gave up the fight and moved back to Manilla, where they founded a new power trio named, oddly, Juan de la Cruz. Shinki Chen proceeded to squander his six-string gifts by forming an organ-dominated outfit named Orange before fading away into session work, while the free-spirited Kabe resumed his itinerant lifestyle, whereabouts unknown (just kidding: he settled down in old age, but where’s the romance in that?). Speed, Glue & Shinki duly graduated to cult band status, and yet, for a brief moment, in a flash of light, this ragged trio forced the rock & roll firmament to its bended knees and carved a monument to primal guitar rock for the ages.



interview with designer Bill Elkins…


Bill Elkins has been called “one of the true fathers of the space suit.” Within months of the Sputnik 1 launch in October 1957, he began working at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio on “restraint couches” for astronauts. In the late 1960s, as a chief engineer at Garrett AiResearch, his team outcompeted four established space suit manufacturers to win the NASA contract to build long-endurance lunar suits that were to have flown on Apollos 18, 19, and 20. His suit never made it to the moon, however, because NASA cancelled all landings after Apollo 17 in December 1972. Since then Elkins, who is in the U.S. Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame, has founded several companies. Today, at age 80, he lives outside Sacramento, California, and continues working, having founded bioCOOL Technologies in 2004 and the consulting firm, WElkins in 2007. He spoke recently with Air & Space Associate Editor Mike Klesius.

Air & Space: How did the first astronaut restraint systems compare to jet pilot systems already in use?

Elkins: A jet pilot restraint system has a hard backpan and seat. It mainly is trying to contain the pilot in the seat, in a sitting position. In an astronaut couch you’re lying on your back. [In the late 1950s] they were planning a cast, form-fitting, backpan restraint couch for the astronauts. But in tests at high G it was causing substernal pain, where the sternum of the occupant would compress into the chest. I designed a sophisticated hammock supported by a tubular steel frame. It left your body in a more normal, natural form at high G. The Mercury project was then transferred to NASA and I lost track of that research. In the end, they went with the harder, backpan restraint couch.

A&S: You once sustained 16.5 Gs, an apparent record for pulling Gs and remaining conscious.

Elkins: We were examining a worst-case G scenario for a Mercury launch. So they put me in the 20-foot-arm centrifuge at Wright-Pat. The G profile was based on the maximum G that could be experienced during the launch. If the escape rocket was fired at maximum dynamic pressure—Mach 1 at roughly 40,000 feet—then 15.5 G would be experienced by the astronaut. So we [added] one G…and “flew” it on the centrifuge. The whole run duration was about three minutes. I began to gray out a bit at 13 G. Then I was above 15.5 G for about six seconds. I “flew” a tracking task with my right hand, and I had a button I could press with my left hand to respond to peripheral lights. I recently discussed this matter with Jim Brinkley, who was contemporary with me at Wright-Patterson. He became the head of the Biodynamics Lab and is an internationally recognized biodynamicist. He confirmed, to the best of his knowledge, that the 16.5 sustained G remains a benchmark achievement. They shut down that centrifuge for good not long after we did those runs in December 1958. We burned it out, I guess.

A&S: How did you get into designing space suits?

Elkins: Those runs are what got me into the spacesuit world, first at Litton where I developed the RX (rigid experimental) series of suits, and then at AiResearch, where, in about two years, I became chief engineer and developed the EX-1A and the AES [Advanced Extravehicular Suit] that won the competition for the extended Apollo mission suit.

Early on, a physicist at Litton was developing a vacuum chamber pressure suit, but Litton thought they were causing permanent heart damage. I had miles of EKGs from my centrifuge runs, so I had a certified healthy heart and was chosen as the test subject to verify or deny the problem. The lab they brought me to was in Beverly Hills, California, of all places. For lunch that day, at a local deli, I made the mistake of ordering a corned beef sandwich with the hottest mustard they had, and shortly before the test began, I started getting some serious heartburn. Well, they put me in a pressure chamber and took me up to 400,000 feet equivalent. The doctor asked me how I was feeling, and I said,  “Fine, but I’m feeling a little heartburn.” He said, “Lay back!” and made me swallow a nitroglycerin pill. A subsequent conference of heart specialists determined there was no problem with the vacuum chamber suit.

A&S: What’s the biggest challenge in designing an effective space suit?

Elkins: Well, a big one is mobility, specifically the joints. If you look at the Apollo [suit] joints, the farther you bent them, the more effort it took and the harder it was to hold that position. Those suits were spring loaded to come back to the neutral position. So it took a constant force to keep them out of neutral, and that was very fatiguing. But when you move a constant volume joint to a new position, no further force is needed. When I left Litton and went to AiResearch, I invented the toroidal joint. Toroids maintain constant volume so long as the centerline remains constant. At AiResearch I designed the EX-1A [suit], the first prototype suit to use toroidal joints, in 1967. It was an outstanding suit.

A&S: What were the advantages of the hard suit versus the soft suit? Why two totally different kinds?

Elkins: There are some advantages of the hard suit, although I did not remain a proponent of it. The hard suit had value for being able to go to much higher pressures. The higher you go, the less likely you are to have the bends when exiting a higher-pressure space vehicle. So if you were wearing one, you could scramble to do an emergency [spacewalk] because you didn’t have to pre-breathe for four hours. It’s a very mobile little spaceship, if you will. Vic Vykukal, a NASA Ames engineer, also did pioneering work on the hard suit. Although it demonstrated excellent mobility, it was heavier because of the hard structural components, and the joints did not exhibit the long-life capability of the toroidal joint.

The soft suit came from a line of pressure suits used by the Air Force and Navy. BF Goodrich’s soft suits for the Mercury project were evolved from a Navy pressure suit. David Clark made soft suits for Gemini. Then ILC came into the Apollo program. They all came from that same soft emergency pressure suit lineage. It was a question of cultures and politics within the R&D labs. There was the West Coast technology such as Litton, and NASA’s Ames Research lab; but then the older timers from the East who knew soft suits. Ultimately, soft suits won out.

A&S: It’s often pointed out that the moon suits were so heavy. What was the single heaviest element?

Elkins: I think it was the PLSS, portable life support system [backpack]. The suit by itself would weigh about 60 pounds.

A&S: What was driving the desire for design changes in lunar suits for the extended Apollo missions?

Elkins: They had to be different from the earlier Apollo suits because the lunar rovers would carry astronauts some distance away from the lunar lander. They wanted to explore interesting geological features on the moon. NASA wanted a suit that, should the rover fail, had the mobility for the astronaut to quickly traverse back to the lunar module.

Apollo 16 and 17 used the ILC A7L suit that was not much of an improvement over the previous Apollo suit. In the competition for the extended Apollo missions, the AES was the first truly high mobility suit. It had about 95 percent of nude mobility range. It had significantly greater lifecycle capability. I don’t remember, but I believe the [target length for a lunar stay] was about eight days.

A&S: It’s interesting to see that so much of Constellation, such as the shape of the crew capsule, the composition of the heat shield, the launch abort system, etc., is almost identical in their general design to what was used on Apollo. It appears we figured a lot out the first time around. Will the same be true of the suits?

Elkins: Well I’m hoping to influence that. I hope to work with Oceaneering International [a NASA contractor for the Constellation lunar suits]. I have a concept for an EVA [extravehicular activity] suit with some pneumatic restraints. I think elements might apply to Constellation. It’s already applied to a host of applications in the medical field in liquid cooling and pressurization for MS and epilepsy and head trauma patients.

A&S: How will the new suits handle the damaging lunar dust?

Elkins: Good question. I have some concepts. I’m in the beginning stages of some ideas on electrostatic solutions to dust. One of the suits I studied for Lockheed was for doing polar [Earth] orbits, in which you’re introduced to more radiation than with east-west orbits. I came up with the idea of using high density tungsten fabric to increase radiation protection. Tungsten is highly conductive electrically, but still flexible. That high conductivity woven fabric with an electrostatic charge might repel lunar dust.

A&S: What do you think of the proposed suit that would attach its back entry to the outside of a moon base? After a moonwalk, the astronaut exits the suit to enter the base.

Elkins: I’m not a great proponent of the rear entry arrangement. It’s heavy, and uses valuable real estate that interferes with full mobility. My philosophy is to allow the human to operate as the magnificent machine it is. Back door entry does not easily allow for a two-axis waist joint, and that’s especially risky in unprepared terrain. Almost any maneuver you do, you’re unconsciously using your waist. I doubt that you can make the back door entry suit with the waist joint. Furthermore, there would be maintenance issues. Eventually you’ll need to replace components. So you’ll need access to the suits. For me, the human body is an engineering marvel that took several million years to develop. I want the pressure envelope over that body to exhibit the same mobility. That would minimize learning time in using the suit, and allow rapid solutions to problems during [spacewalks].

A&S: The old Apollo suits were used for one mission and retired. How will the new suit be built to handle repeated use?

Elkins: It will have to have a three-million-cycle life, minimum. One bend in one direction, and returning to neutral, that’s one cycle. The Apollo suit joints, and the latest shuttle suit joints, are not much good above 60,000 cycles.

A&S: What drives you to continue your work?

Elkins: I’m 80, and I’m still pretty much working around the clock. If I can contribute to mankind, space, medicine, and other-life hazardous protective applications, it keeps me young.

photos courtesy Bill Elkins

(AIR & SPACE  6.10.09)


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