Romeo Castellucci‘s enigmatic scenic installation at Art Basel 2015 brought together philosophical ideas of the ancient world and modern hyperrealism. The audience found itself in a cold and empty hall and like in an antique frieze, one emergency situation follows the other, six altogether. Every single incident was accompanied by a new riddle, projected onto the wall of the building.
Mara Sartore sat down with Castellucci to discuss the project.
I resemble the night, although my colour is not black,
And carry the darkness in myself even in the heart of day.
Neither stars nor sun shed light on me.
The sun, when it reaches its greatest height, kills me,
But when I live at the peak of my greatness, it is him who dies.
Night only allows me to imitate it only during the day.
But if I want to imitate night during the night, it kills me.
Who am I?
Mara Sartore: There is a widespread belief that life is divided into phases, steps, moments, epochs. You have made many things so far; you are someone who never wants to repeat himself, who does not love talking about his own style, and who hates to be recognisable. Given that I think you have made an incredible effort to renew yourself, in what phase do you feel you are in now?
Romeo Castellucci: You’ve put it well because it is an effort to forget what one has done. I do not believe in the idea of mastery: personally I have never had masters. Such an attitude puts you in a crisis position; in a certain sense if there is an enemy in your work, that enemy is yourself.
There are no phases in my work. Life is a continuum in which I cannot manage to see separations and sections, as with the parts of the body of an insect. I feel I have been thrown into this form of life, one which I did not look for, that I have never calculated or planned. I just happened to end up doing what I do, in this guise, with this name and surname, but I do not feel I have control of who I am and what I do at all. I am experiencing inertia – and this magnificent inertia is something I respect.
MS: What you are saying reminds me of a phrase by Henry Miller: “A free man never ever chooses”. Do you recognise yourself in this statement?
RC: Yes, it seems quite right. The word “freedom” is a very heavy for me, for you, for all of us. It is an extremely complicated word, but it is what it is. Perhaps it is a question of abandoning yourself like a tree trunk left to the currents of a river, to be transported by something that is certainly bigger and vaster than any individual, who has an origin and an end we do not know. It is a question of letting yourself go, and perhaps it would have been the same thing had I been a butcher or barista; I can’t bring myself to give absolute value to the word art.
MS: Starting with this absolute word that does not exist – ART – another question I would like to ask you is about the difference between theatre and performance. Do they have points in common? What is the difference? In some of your interviews you speak about the crisis of the theatre, yet at the same time there is a great request in contemporary art for performances, even though there is no specific place set aside for these performances.
RC: The theatrical venue is a problem in and of itself, and its “schematic nature” is extremely tiring. On the other hand, performances have the possibility of bringing alive the place in which a certain action takes place, and they are also able to reawaken the action of seeing and observing. In the theatre, unfortunately, all this corresponds to a mechanism, a tired and tiresome habit. Whoever wants to make theatre interesting must, first of all, break down this mechanism and, perhaps, abandon the venue of the theatre.
MS: So can a performance be a stimulus in this sense?
RC: It can be a stimulus for the public because it is a radically different technique from that of the theatre. The theatre is based on fiction, on the power of narration; deep down it is based on the invention of time, of a form of time. In performances, instead, this kind of research does not exist because the time is that of the “here and now”.
Performance means the presence of an artist and it allows a relationship with gestures that is quite different from that of the theatre. The theatre is corrupt in its basic elements; it brings corruption with it; it is not a gesture of truth, unlike performances claim to be (I am here referring to historical performances, those of the 1970s, Behaviour Art etcetera) because it has taken on theatrical aspects and seems to be going in that direction.
MS: In fact when you said that there is no “research” about time perhaps you were referring to the parallel time of fiction because, for example, Marina Abramović does many performances and all of her works are based on time, on experienced time.
RC: An experienced time in which she, the artist, is present in our own time. All of this has a social connotation of affirmation which, in the case of Marina Abramović, is also religious. The theatre, instead, always speaks about death, of a time that no longer exists; it tells ghost stories.
MS: The element of fiction and that of experience are certainly elements that bring together and, at the same time, differentiate theatre and performance. With regard to this, I would like to ask you why in your The Metopes of the Parthenon you decided to put real doctors on stage.
RC: Yes, there are real doctors, paramedics, and ambulances; there are also actors who have learnt, with the help of medical assistants, the behaviour of trauma victims after big accidents.
The actors recite a “script” that faithfully corresponds to typical states of traumatic shock. The aftermaths of six accidents are staged: for each of them a precise procedure is followed for the specific case. But then the doctors are unable to save their victims and all six cases end in death. As soon as the doctors confirm the death of a victim, a Classical riddle appears on the wall: the public has time to resolve it. At this point the victim gets up, pauses, and looks indifferently past the public and, at that very moment, the riddle is solved.
The public is witness to the infinite forms of death; all of this, through the conceptual friction of the riddle, is projected in very large letters behind each accident. The appearance of this riddle becomes a moment for meditation and rupture.
At this point the public, mostly, has a curious attitude.
MS: What do you mean by curious?
RC: It is like an anthropological experiment to see how the public behaves in the face of these accidents, which are obviously fictitious – there is a make-up team that “prepares” the scenes as though there were a cinematic call for action. Everything is artificial and fictitious: there are plastic tanks for the blood to be poured from, silicone prostheses, glue, and greasepaint. But at the very moment when an actor is alone and begins to recite his or her pain, something is sparked off in the public.
MS: But is there a catharsis at the end? And if not, what is the effect of what you have defined as a “sting”, an unexpected shock, if not cathartic?
RC: There is no catharsis and this, as far as I am concerned, is the beautiful thing about it. There are dozens of theories about catharsis: the first, original one (if we can say this) is the most challenged one: that of Aristotle.
In fact no one knows precisely what it refers to. I think that among the most interesting theories is that of Walter Benjamin who held that catharsis is a discharge of nervous energy, but where, in fact, there is no liberation. Benjamin spoke of the non liquet, of what is left unresolved, and this non-resolution is freed in a discharge of nervous energy that can be identified with the laughter found in the fourth part of the tetralogies: satirical drama. This is catharsis: the liberation from a weight in a hysterical form. There can be no salvation in tragedy because it is an experience of the abyss.
At the same time this corresponds to the pleasure of pain. It is pain that is the protagonist of Western art history, from tragedy until today. This is an obscure pleasure: all theatre is based on a certain anthropological pessimism.
MS: In your show there are film- or television-like scenes, with real elements and a title, The Metopes of the Parthenon, which refers back to quite a distant moment in time, to the Gigantomachy, to its struggles and conflict. This title is quite different from what the viewer actually sees. What are the parallels and links between the two things?
RC: In fact there are numerous connections and there is an interpretive link available to each viewer. For the link you have to start with the Parthenon, which is the home of all Western beauty, where every form of harmony was invented and where every aesthetic form was founded. It is the basis of all Western aesthetics: you cannot leave this building out of account in terms of harmony, rhythm, and spirit. However, its frieze represented the battle between life and death, the representation of chaos.
Parthenos also means “façade”. The metopes, with their bas-reliefs of fights and battle, are the band that girds the immense façade of this building: a band of chaos that represents life in the eternal battle with death.
But quite apart from this, the scenes that I make use of are also extremely banal; they are a summing up of the worst kind of television, the worst cinema and news programmes, because blood is – as Céline says – at the heart of a show.
The classicism, harmony, and beauty that are suggested by the title, are tempered by a brutally spectacular element: the vulgarity of blood. During the scene the public is allowed to take photos. And, of course, the public does take photos.
MS: Above all in this particular historical moment in which we look at the world through the screens of our devices.
RC: It is an experiment on the gaze, on what looking means today, which is quite different to what it was twenty years ago.
MS: Other shows of yours are of great impact and certainly provoke reactions; the “sting” is a constant aspect of your works. But you have said that you were struck by the public’s reaction. Why?
RC: Given that the spectators are free to move about (there are no chairs after all) they are free to do what they like. So you happen to see the spontaneous formation of geometric shapes: occasionally a line, sometimes gathered in a perfect circle around the victim, at other times distant, or in groups. It is as though people were attracted or repelled by a magnet that functions in alternate phases, or as though they were an organism that from time to time reacts to a wound, and they immediately become a social body.
MS: So in point of actual fact the public is an integral part of the show; is it like a road accident, where people stop to gawk at what has happened?
RC: This is also part of the mechanism, except that they are then faced with a riddle. There is the primary element of a violent fact, and then there is a cerebral element where the mind is preoccupied with a problem, a riddle that is the quintessence of a conceptual elaboration – enigmas, by the way, are another invention of the ancient Greeks – and the viewer is caught between two events: on the one hand there is blood, victims, and ambulances; on the other a problem or riddle that questions the rational aspect of one’s own thinking. There is a problem that has to be solved and, as is demonstrated by the Sphinx, the answer is a question of life or death.
Two apparently different events that are brought together when the riddle is solved. There is a moment when everything coincides.
MS: But should we really consider the moment when the enigma is solved the solution?
RC: The enigma has a definitive and irrefutable solution, but each and every spectator can mull this over almost indefinitely.