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Carin Goldberg Curates the Vernacular Ephemera of Rome

August 4, 2015
Carin Goldberg at Cinque Mostre.
All photography by Davide Franceschini.
Goldberg's work in progress.
All photography by Davide Franceschini.
Display table from Goldberg's Fellowship project.
All photography by Davide Franceschini.
Sponges and other objects collected in Goldberg's Fellowship project.
All photography by Davide Franceschini.
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What defines the experience of a city? What codes and idioms—verbal and other—do you need to know to feel truly at home? Carin Goldberg, 2014 recipient of the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Rome Prize, spent her fellowship months mining the streetscapes and shops of the Eternal City to find the vernacular objects that are banal to anyone familiar with them, but exotic and poignant to a foreigner. She then curated these pieces of the city into a display of objects and photographs that captures a sort of infra-ordinary essence of Rome, and which simultaneously shows her own process of getting to know the city. Goldberg reflects on belonging, citizenship, and the symbolism of the fountains of Rome.

Where in the US did you come from?

New York City.

What led you to apply for the Rome Prize?

My husband, an architect, told me about the Rome Prize years ago, but it was not until recently that I learned that the Academy offered fellowships in design. It never occurred to me to apply until my friend Nicholas Blechman, a graphic designer and illustrator, applied and received the fellowship in design just a few years ago. Apparently, it’s a relatively new fellowship, and one that few (graphic) designers are aware of. But now that Nicholas and I have won the prize the word is out and more designers will most likely apply. Many designers, like architects, have limitations on how long they can be away from their practices, so it’s a bit tricky for them to commit to applying for the prize. But it’s absolutely worth it to figure out how to make it work.

Your project explores “the transformation from visitor to resident; from strange to familiar.” Coming to Rome, in what ways did you feel most foreign? And in what ways did you not?

Winning the prize, moving to Rome, and immersing myself in life at the Academy was like landing on the moon. But what became immediately apparent was that I was living, mostly, with English-speaking, like-minded Americans on top of the hill in a sequestered palace where I was catered to like a princess. Therefore, I only felt like a foreigner or a stranger when I ventured out into the city – something I did daily.

Rome is a very “extroverted” city and filled with tourists, who are also strangers. I have been living in Milan for the last three months, now with a bit more Italian under my belt, and I feel more like a stranger here than I did in Rome. Milan is an “introverted” city that demands more from the visitor. Rome has no inhibitions, and seemingly, few secrets. But, I feel like a stranger when I go to Westchester.

You point out in your project description that you are unable to claim citizenship in Italy. How central is citizenship to feeling at home in a place?

Although I’ve had the opportunity to travel abroad many times, I have never before had the chance to stay in one place for a long stretch. Living in Rome for six months and now living in Milan for the past three months has illuminated the definition of citizenship when spending time in another country than my own. Devoid of citizenship, both literally and metaphorically, I am released, temporarily, from commitment and familiarity. This newly acquired anonymity gives me the opportunity for personal reinvention and reflection. Tutto bene, for now. But even if I mastered the language and were able to work and live here indefinitely, I doubt I would ever truly feel at home or feel unconditionally welcomed, in spite of the warm hospitality I have received in both Rome and Milan. I’m an American, a New Yorker, and a Jew. Finito.

How have you gone about finding and approaching the subcultures on which this projects centers?

I walked for miles, daily, and looked for the micro of Rome. The vernacular. I wasn’t particularly interested in the scholarly approach, via the obvious antiquity and other history that Rome generously offers – instead, I was trying to “find” Rome by mining the small and underappreciated stuff: the clichés, the utilitarian objects, the everyday.

My first project centered on the fountains of Rome. The waters of Rome are replete with metaphor and meaning – the water is not specifically Roman, so in essence it, too, is a stranger. But yet, it travels to the city and finds a home there. Sometimes this home is a utilitarian nasoni, the ubiquitous public water fountains that offer potable water to all. Very democratic. Other times the water, sometimes non-potable, finds its way to Rome’s majestic symbols of prosperity and artistry; the Trevi Fountain, a well-known tourist attraction, is one obvious example. And then there are so many fountains-in-between that combine artistry, history, and utility. Discovering and befriending each fountain was my way of connecting to the city. It was personal, and sometimes quite emotional. During these sojourns, I would take zillions of photographs, pick up crap I found on the streets, and schlep 10-pound sanpietrini – pavement stones – up steep hills back to my studio. I would collect pieces of broken bark or scour the markets for utilitarian objects. All good exercise for the body, the brain, and the heart.

To what extent, if at all, did your proposed project change over the course of your stay?

I had no idea I would be exploring the fountains when I arrived. In fact, I had no specific subject in mind, I just assumed that I would find something once I arrived. The fountains were the perfect catalyst and a way for me to explore Rome, with a specific mission, on a daily basis. It grounded me, and once I began to immerse myself in exploring the fountains, several other projects, ideas, and experiments emerged.

What were some of the challenges you came upon, and how did you resolve them?

Frankly, I didn’t experience too many negative challenges. I was at the Academy by myself. My husband was very busy with his practice and traveling from New York to Milan regularly. My son is grown and independent. I was given the gifts of time, space, camaraderie, and nourishment. To squander any of these gifts would have been a crime, and I was always hyper-aware of my good fortune. The entire experience is a challenge but in the best possible sense of the word. And every Fellow has their own unique set of challenges depending on their individual circumstances. That’s what makes it interesting.

Did you have any “eureka!” moments or instants of particular insights since arriving?

Every day. I learned how to say no when I didn’t want to participate in something. I tend to be a ‘good citizen’ and too often try to be accommodating at my own expense. During my stay, I learned to do what was best for me at the time. That was a challenge, but a good lesson, too. Something I know will be difficult to sustain. But this was just one of many moments.

Many who come out of their period of residence at the Academy speak about the interdisciplinary exchange that takes place on the regular. Is there any interaction or moment of shared knowledge that stands out to you in particular?

It happens daily, in every conversation. And it’s cumulative. It’s impossible to not learn something new if you are listening and open to it. But it’s also very humbling to be around such a high level of scholarship and expertise. What I learned was that we were all there for a reason and we all have something unique to offer. No one moment or interaction stands out.

What’s your favorite spot at the Academy, or in Rome?

The Philip Guston Studio, “my studio” is my favorite. The bar. The Bass Garden and eating meals outside in the cortile must be mentioned as well.

How do you anticipate that your Rome Prize Fellowship will influence future work?

If it doesn’t influence me and my future work, then I’m an idiot who slept through my fellowship. During my six months at the Academy I generated hundreds of photographs, collages, drawings, paintings, and films. These images reflect six months of daily experimentation and the freedom to generate work separate from my design practice. I expect to continue with this work going forward.