[First published in Retrofuturism #16, March, 1992.]
When the volcano exploded at ancient Pompeii, it did more than destroy a city and 2,000 of its inhabitants. It created a huge outdoor sculpture display unmatched anywhere in the world.
On August 24, 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried Pompeii in twelve feet of rock and ash. So gentle was the fall of deadly material that even loaves of bread, fruit, fish and eggs were preserved within its casing. The city's inhabitants were likewise preserved. Bodies were found where they fell in the street. Others were found crouched fearfully in corners or rooms. A chained dog, unable to escape the hot ash, was forever preserved in a frantic effort to free himself from his chain.
The bodies were preserved as hollows within the layers of fallen ash. Archaeologists poured liquid plaster into the hollows to create casts of the bodies. Even small details--the hair, facial expressions, clothing--can be seen in these casts.
Just as a photograph captures for eternity a moment of time, so the volcanic eruption captures the last desperate moments of Pompeii's inhabitants. In a brief flash of spontaneous creation, life was turned into art, whether it wanted to be or not.
Think of the lives at Pompeii as so much found art. Marcel Duchamp took a common urinal, labeled it art, and it became art. It became art because an artist said it was art. In like manner, Mount Vesuvius took human beings and, through a similar act of creative will, made art from the common.
Ashes to ashes, indeed.
Pompeii teaches us an important lesson: All of us are raw material for the artists around us, all of them waiting to pounce upon us, fashion us, transform us into something greater than we are.
At any moment we may be called upon to serve the noble cause.