Turtle eclipse of the art


In June 2014 I left Australia for the first time and visited Italy. The thing I was most excited about seeing was art by each of the Ninja Turtles: Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo.

In preparation for the trip I made ceramic sculptures of each of the turtles modeled from the action figures I still have from when I was a kid. My hope was to try and document a reunion of the turtles with their most famous artwork.

The photographs presented are Michelangelo with David (at the Accademia, in Florence), Donatello with his David (at the Bargello, in Florence), Raphael with Madonna and Child (at the Uffizi, in Florence), and Leonardo with The Last Supper, (at the Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan).

Each photograph was taken in a gallery with a strict policy of “no photography”. When a security guard catches anyone taking a photo they make them delete it and ask them to leave. What made getting the photos especially difficult is that the angle I wanted to take them from meant I had to be lying down on the gallery floor.

Michelangelo was first and I figured out that a good way to be on the floor without being told off was to sit down and draw the artwork. I kept drawing until I felt that the guards had stopped watching me and at this point I pulled the turtle out of my pocket and took a photo on my phone.

The Italian summer was hot so originally I was wearing shorts and a singlet, but immediately I realized that this attracts the attention of security, so before next heading to Donatello’s David I went to a H&M store and for €45 I bought the most inconspicuous pants, shoes and polo shirt I could find.

Michelangelo’s David depicts David determined and on his way to face Goliath, whereas Donatello’s David portrays David smiling with his foot on Goliath’s severed head, so it made sense for me to visit them in this order.

Raphael’s Madonna and Child was in an empty room with just me and one guard. This was a very different kind of intensity from the crowded David rooms. I sat on the floor drawing Madonna and thinking about her hit song “Like A Virgin” for at least forty five minutes as the guard and I pretended not to watch each other. Finally the guard received a text message and was distracted long enough for me to take the shot.

Maybe the most unexpected thing about all this was just how positive and enthusiastic strangers seemed to respond. Tourists, cleaners, café staff, even the guards that x-ray you as you enter the museums, all seemed to light up and request photos when they noticed one of the turtles and clicked to what I was I doing. It was totally overwhelming because I was mostly traveling alone and couldn’t speak Italian so it was really only through the Ninja Turtles that I was able to get around the language barrier and share with people these amazing little moments.

Getting dragged across Italy, the turtles took a beating. Most of the damage happened inside my backpack, but also because a lot of the galleries have paintings on their ceilings and people walk around looking up at them, occasionally the turtles were kicked. I couldn’t find a store that sold good glue, so I would continuously mend the turtles in gallery bathrooms using chewing gum.

The last photo was The Last Supper. The only ticket I could get to see it was for an 8.45pm guided tour on a Friday night, the day before I left Italy. To get there I took a train to Milan and without making a seat reservation I had to stand up for the six-hour trip. As trains returning to Rome stopped at 8pm I had to book myself in to a backpackers in Milan, which meant I was paying for two rooms in separate cities. It was an expensive attempt at a photo. And because there was no chance of another attempt I felt so much pressure to not stuff it up.

The Santa Maria only allowed eight people at a time into the room with The Last Supper and only for fifteen minutes. There were five security guards with us and three of them directly behind me. The tour guide was directly in front. As well as the staff you have to be just as careful of the other tourists, you never know if they’ll have a Judas attitude of “If I can’t take photos then neither can you.” Almost every time though it was the exact opposite and often if people saw me taking a photo they handed me their camera and asked: “Can you please take one for me?” In all these rooms with famous works of art most people weren’t looking at the art at all, instead they’re watching the guards and scheming as to how they can get away with taking a photo.

I pretended to look at The Last Supper, but I was really watching the little boy sitting next to me; he made me nervous because what I’d learnt during the trip is that when kids see a ninja turtle they get excitedly loud and which could easily blow everything. Fortunately, with one minute left of the tour the little boy started talking with his Dad. From what I could hear behind me, the guards sounded relaxed and in a conversation, and the tour guide in front wasn’t focusing on me because I was drawing. At that moment I dropped to the floor with Leonardo and took the photo.

Skipping out of the Santa Maria having taken the last photo I felt like I was the happiest person in the world. I was proud to have done it but more than anything I was just relieved it was over. I felt just like Donatello’s David. In the lead up to the trip I’d thought that this was going to be a really fun thing to do but actually I think it just made the act of seeing some of the greatest artworks in history an experience of genuine anxiety.

(This piece was selected as a finalist in the 2014 Substation Art Prize.
And in January 2015 this piece was published in issue 3 of the Artbank publication Sturgeon, click here to find it on their website.)