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A Promise of Love and Madness: Leila Hekmat, “CROCOPAZZO!” at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin

by Gabriela Acha

 

A poster recalling 1970s giallo film aesthetics heralds the play CROCOPAZZO! by Leila Hekmat at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, but upon crossing the gallery’s threshold one realizes that the actual play was already performed in petit comité and what remains comprises the exhibition. CROCOPAZZO!’s structure is complex, as it includes a number of discrete elements: the play, an edited film of the play, the original set and props, and the handmade garments the performers wore. The narrative of the work raises questions relating to accessibility, caring structures, and mental health. 

 

Isabella Bortolozzi’s central room served as the stage for CROCOPAZZO!. This set, with its walls fully covered by black silk-rayon velvet curtains and dim lighting remains intact throughout the length of the show. An inert mannequin dressed in a choral robe and a day-chair inhabit the space, as well as a line of grotesque characters digitally printed on the silk-rayon velvet curtains. Their bloody faces and historical outfits seem to belong to another dimension. This uncanny crew, along with a few invited guests, were the only witnessers of the original multi-take play, produced in the fashion of a tabloid-TV talk show. 

The play is initiated by the blue-haired figure dressed in the choral robes now seen on the impassive mannequin. The actor introduces himself as the Host, and invites each incoming character to manifest. One by one, members of a presumed family—Felvis, Lemon Drop, Aphasia, and Flip Flop—make their appearances, and each are briefly interviewed. They perform in turns under the spotlight, alternating between spoken and musical acts. At the climax of the play, the long heralded Mother makes her appearance to the sound of a country music track. Once she appears, the stage is overtaken by actors who have been previously seated among the audience. These new characters—Tutte, Harpy and Toto—enter the spotlight and perform in later acts. 

Inspired by 1950s and 1960s television shows, all characters are dressed in green. Their velvet and satin garments marry the attire of the medieval jongleur, the cleric, and the cowboy, all topped off with eighteenth century style hairdos—though not necessarily all together at once. These textile chimeras are specially tailored for the occasion and are worn by the selected cast, which includes the dancer M.J. Harper, the performer Cassie Augusta Jørgenson, and the musician Nicki Fehr. Tuning into different stylistic frequencies, the cast keeps the musical entertainment going through the tragicomic journey. Their ginger hair and infantile attitudes are a product of either their shared genes or their family-cult’s dress code but, whether it is their blood or their mental condition that unites them, they devote all of their love and hatred towards the loving (if mentally unstable) Mother. Her witty and manipulative persona seems to tame their otherwise uncontrolled antic behaviour. Nevertheless, as in any good family gathering, events take a turn for the dramatic. An exalted denouément, unravelled by means of honky tonk and cabaret dance steps, is followed by gunshots and the lonely Host’s concluding speech. 

The tragedy’s colophon seems to generate more questions that it dispels, however. What do the mother figure and her clan represent? She is a reproductive force, a fearless leader who can charmingly persuade, recruit, and expand the clan. Perhaps the clan represents an urge to implement alternative notions of family and caring structures. Regarding mental health, there is no clear delimitation in the work of where sanity ends and alienation starts. Often alienation begins with the defiance of the norm, but what if the structures that dictate norms are the sickest ones? It is difficult to find reason in a system that commodifies healing and in which popular culture turns troubled individuals into fodder for baying audiences. Moreover, at a time when supermarket shelves are suddenly emptied by the spread of apocalyptic alarmism, it might be true that “equilibrium is lunacy and self-betterment is a curse of capitalism.” Perhaps what Mother ultimately represents is the possibility of breaking with this curse (or any other) and becoming free.

Between the invited guests at the original performance and the cast, the distance was minimal and the intimacy degree high; they hold a central place in the play. For the general public coming to the gallery, the play is available as an eighty-minute-long edited loop in the last room of the gallery. In the remaining room, an ensemble of found mannequins have replaced the cast and are now, literally, “for sale and on display.” The inanimate objects preserve the characters’ spirit by wearing the same garments as the performers. The actors’ faces, however, are replaced by grimacing fabric masks. Even in mannequin form, Mother is still governing the crew from a central spot, seated on a chair and surrounded by the rest. Some of the mannequins stand, others sit on the floor. Among them is Toto, whose contorted body has crystalized, as though being possessed by some malevolent force.

CROCOPAZZO! is a work meant to be experienced at close range, even though this was only possible for a vanishingly small amount of people. For the rest, the aftermath of the play’s individual components are left as clues to be puzzled together in order to reconstruct the narrative. The props, the mannequins, and the film are each presented separately, disrupting the traditional temporalism of the exhibition. They invite the public to imagine how being at the play felt. This might reveal certain power structures—not only within the play, as with Mother and the family, but also external ones between the artist and spectator. Like a vague remembrance of a dream, CROCOPAZZO! the exhibition feels fragmented and surreal. Its component elements hardly make sense by themselves, but assembled in their totality these aspects of the work gain a rather holistic, layered, and complex meaning as the after-images of a very peculiar TV show. 

 

Gabriela Acha is a writer based in Berlin.

 

at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin
until 2 April 2020

 

 

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