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In The Beginning Was The Gesture: Marcello Maloberti

by Pierre Bal-Blanc

 

In the beginning was the gesture, and the gesture was with society, and the gesture was society. It was in the beginning with society. All things come into being by way of a gesture; and without it no one thing came into being. I have chosen to write these lines on the work of Marcello Maloberti exhibited at the Raffaella Cortese Gallery in Milan at the end of the exhibition rather than at the beginning, as is customary practice for a curator in charge of an exhibition. This inversion seeks to assert an alternative order without, however, establishing a new hierarchy—or, rather, seeks to assert a disorder, since it consists of questioning the place of language in the field of artistic practice. Indeed, artistic experience encourages us to grant no one discursive practice a privileged role, but rather to encourage an incessant metamorphosis. This theoretical paucity is precisely that which Maloberti grasps in conceiving his practice as the moment of a reassessment of artistic truth, renewed from the viewpoint of praxis, as a test of life. “It all begins with insult”; so reads the first sentence of Didier Eribon’s Insult and the Making of the Gay Self.1 Eribon shows us, by way of public gibes or words carved on school desktops, that we speak language to the same extent that we are spoken by it. Gays, along with women and people of color, live in a world of insults: “The words of day-to-day life as well as of psychiatric, political, and juridical discourse assign each of them individually and all of them collectively to an inferior place within the social order.” Such language precedes them. Following the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Eribon reminds us that the dominant are those who impose their mode of perception on others, while the dominated are those who are represented by the other’s language or who fail to convince the other of their own perception of themselves. Who defines perception? Eribon explains that “[i]t is only by being aware of the determinisms that shape conscious and unconscious minds that individuals can come to constitute themselves as ‘subjects,’ as their own subjects.”2 For Michel Foucault, the care of the self, the way in which individuals question who they are and the relations they have with themselves, refers to Greek thought, without, as such, returning to it—but rather as a means to think of self-invention (the production of subjectivity) as a form of creativity.

As an artist, Maloberti applies the technique of the self as Foucault defines it. When used, the words “technique,” “art,” or “production” are equivalent for Foucault, in that each implies a relation to the self that is reflected in various practices: that is, in ways of living or leading one’s own existence. In his work, Maloberti might be seen as re-creating his own personal identity from a preexisting identity. Yet, in so doing, he holds up a mirror to visitors to his exhibitions in order for them to perceive the construction of their own subjectivity. This autopsy of movement—the equivalent of the philosopher’s “archeology of knowledge”3—takes the form of a performance. To demonstrate his position, Maloberti chose to stand in the middle of Via Stradella, at the centre of the triangle that the three spaces of Galleria Raffaella Cortese forms—a dangerous act that underscored the fact that he was out of place on the pavement. He did so, moreover, in the street along which his gallery’s three exhibition spaces are located. The exhibition of his body of work, divided across these three spaces, merged briefly in the pose he adopted. The resulting photograph merely testifies to the furtive reality of the experience. This was already the case during a prior collective exhibition that took place in Giorgio de Chirico’s former apartment in Rome: a photograph testifies to the fact that, a posteriori, Maloberti lay in the artist’s bed in order to immerse himself in de Chirico’s dreams. Another, older pose immediately adds to these to form a set; in this instance, the artist is shown hanging from the signpost of the Italian comune Casalpusterlengo, where he was born. Identity returned to its origins is reified and suspended as a commodity. The artist posing as Superman in the Lisbon Metro, which completes this group of images [ninna nanna (2012), Kasalpusterlengo (2006) Superman (2007)], testifies to both the metamorphosis to which he aspires and the stereotype to which he is, nonetheless, subjected by society. In the self-portrait, included in the exhibition that is now ending, and which appeared on the invitation card (the other images were shown in the gallery’s storage space, open to visitors during the exhibition, as we will see later), Maloberti posed in the center of the via Alessandro Stradella in Milan like an écorché from the sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s famous treatise De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). In his book The Development of the Study of Anatomy from the Renaissance to Cartesianism, Raphaël Cuir analyzes the passage between humanism’s “finalistic” anatomy and the “mechanistic” anatomy specific to the Cartesian age. The former is represented by living beings in a pastoral landscape engaged in anatomical self-demonstration and auto-dissection in order to embody, as an image, a finalistic rhetoric. Dismembered, these discursive figures express a vitality in a landscape inhabited by rural life. If the anatomist thus seeks to make us forget the macabre origin of dissected bodies taken from the gallows of justice, he also seeks, according to Cuir, to distance himself from the executioner with whom he risks being associated. Yet the author goes further: “The anatomist who opens the rib cage of a body-sculpture is himself dissected. With a tautological emphasis that confuses subject and predicate, this image expresses, more than any other, the universal character of the injunction ‘Know thyself,’ in an anatomical sense, as it applies to everyone. It is a revelation of the self and God in oneself, in the human being’s organic interior, which is why the anatomist lifts his head and eyes towards the sky.”4 Indeed, the iconography of the écorché expresses a continuum between nature and man of which God is sole creator. In the case of Cartesian anatomy, however, the body is no longer the lived body of everyday experience. Rather, the écorché gradually leaves the landscape in order to inhabit the “objective” abstraction of the empty page. For Descartes, the body both isolates itself and starts to multiply: “With the advent of Cartesianism, the anatomical knowledge of the self no longer entails the identification of the knowing subject with the image of a living being in the process of dissecting itself, but rather the study of representations of a body-object, for the most part fragmentary and detached from lived experience, an abstraction of the body.”5 In adopting the posture of Vesalius’s écorché in the city center of Milan, Maloberti shifts the accent toward artifice. The city as a human construction contrasts with the natural landscape of the original. If, moreover, he raises his eyes to the sky, he does so in order to discreetly include the inverted gesture that portrays ecstasy rather than reverence. To complete the reenactment of the pose, he dressed in an evening suit in broad daylight, which placed him in an anachronistic relation to the present, or otherwise denoted his belonging to the social class of service workers. He chose to wear a similar suit to that of Roberto Carozzi, a professional guide at the Suardi Oratory whom he hired to perform as cicerone during the opening. It is, therefore, not the network of muscles and veins that is subject to autopsy but rather that of the different social classes, in which the various characters that appear in the artist’s works, himself included, intersect. Maloberti’s work is populated by an urban fauna and flora that flourish in a hostile environment. In these works, he summons marginal figures who assert their rootlessness and, at the same time, express their life force. The sanitized gallery is thus the luxurious receptacle that ennobles daily impoverishment. The abstraction of the body-fruit of Cartesian analysis—of which the service society is the last avatar—is restored by way of its fragmentation throughout the various exhibition spaces at street level; from this perspective, the gallery’s floor plan also offers a coherent image of the écorché. To underscore this skin-deep sensibility, Maloberti removed the wall that separates the gallery’s storage space from the exhibition space.

In so doing, he reestablished a continuum between states of art that are normally kept apart, thus inviting us to experience them in an uninterrupted continuum. The series of Marmellate collages presented in plastic sleeves and rigid folders, the administrative connotation of which is underscored by the folders’ style and color, brings about the meeting of body-objects, organs and gestures within a macabre symphony in which the materials sing. At the same time, they evoke the raised level of friezes illustrating passages from the Old Testament that decorate churches and impose a reading of the world divided between heaven and earth; the alignment of the binders that merge the lofty exhibition space with the “undistinguished” storage space offers an alternative experience in the meeting of these specialized spaces. This merging of categories and genres, of which the collages are the joyous medium, reflects the undoing of stereotypes and canons, of which the cutouts made by teenagers are the subject matter.

Having retraced the history of the antitheatrical tradition theorized by Denis Diderot in his eighteenth-century Salons, the work of the art historian Michael Fried has consequently sought to update Diderot’s antitheatrical interpretation for contemporary art practices. In Diderot’s time, antitheatricality was seen as a means for French painters to counter the falsity of representation and the theatricality of pictorial art. According to the author of the Encyclopedia, there are two means to achieve this result: firstly, a dramatic conception of painting that seeks to exclude the spectator from representation by establishing the fiction of his or her nonpresence; and, secondly, a pastoral conception that seeks, as Fried explains, to establish “the opposite but in important respects equivalent fiction, of the beholder’s physical presence within the painting.”The eighteenth-century painter Jean-Siméon Chardin revived the first tradition, already established by old-master paintings, by secularizing it. He situated the experience of absorption in an everyday environment. In his paintings of games and amusements, it is possible to admire Chardin’s power to evoke the actual duration of absorptive states and activities. If, on the one hand, Chardin separates the axis of absorption from that of the gaze in paintings like The House of Cards (ca. 1736), Gustave Courbet, on the other hand, merges the two by representing one or more figures shown with their backs to the viewer. Courbet also renews the older pastoral conception, such as that found in Jacques-Louis David’s Homer Reciting His Verses to the Greeks (1794), which shows an audience—from which the viewer experiences his or her exclusion—as they listen to and are absorbed by the philosopher’s oration. This principle of exclusion favors, in actual fact, the inclusion of the viewer, yet as a voyeur of a scene that, as such, acquires a heightened reality.

More recently, Fried has renewed his work on absorption by way of Foucault’s study of surveillance, the “embodiment” of power, and the exercise of social control. He thus extends his analysis to the ways in which the physical body is invested by techniques of power, as well as the ways in which those very techniques are symbolically resisted in the photographic works of Jeff Wall or the video works of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno. Yet he does not, however, go so far as to analyze the ways in which such techniques are deployed and resisted in the field of performance as such—no doubt out of a fear of being confronted with an unyielding theatricality. Yet performance, like painting in its time—or, more recently, photography and video—also seeks to distance itself from a theatricality otherwise perverted by the normative powers of capitalism and, in so doing, deploys antitheatrical strategies in ways not dissimilar to the other arts.

In 2003 Maloberti produced un certo presentimento at the Museion in Bolzano, a work that employed the concept of absorption (as analyzed above in the case of Chardin) by updating it, in the form of a performance, with the Foucauldian principle of the care of the self. A child undertook a task, indifferent to those around him, for a fixed period of time. In the presence of visitors to the exhibition, the scene nevertheless contrasted with its surroundings, which obeyed a different temporality—that of the inanimate works exhibited in the museum. The child and the visitors shared the same lived duration but not on the same temporal axis. The audience’s gaze appeared to be diverted by the boy’s activity, while the boy did not conform to any theatrical norms but was, rather, merely compelled to accomplish his task by himself.

Maloberti added a further displacement that consisted of having the child sit on the floor and engage in the pastime—familiar to generations of consumer society—of cutting out pictures, which gradually invaded the surrounding space. Since then, the artist has organized several performances in different countries, each time varying the subject matter rendered with scissors, yet always reducing it to a specific theme (knives, mountains, antique sculptures, monochromes, etc.) in order to reveal the obsessive, repetitive, or even perverse character of the gesture thus exhibited.

An enlarged photograph showing the slightly low-angle shot of a viewer of the action encapsulates the vocabulary of the artist’s works. Returning to the context of his paper cutouts—as is the case in the most recent version of a young Nigerian refugee and the painted skies of Italian baroque churches—the photograph places the visitor, in this instance, on an equal footing, and yet at an irremediable distance. Just as the reversal of gravity in placing the ceilings on the ground appears to suspend the beholder, so too the contemplation of the image of the young man’s absorption suspends all temporality, only to exist as mere duration. As Fried points out in reference to Foucault, the body is the object and pivot, the target and relay of historical forces: “which is to say it must be culturally coded, even culturally produced, in the most intimate recesses of its ‘primordialness.’” 7 The adolescent, absorbed in his intimidating task of cutting out images, regains control of these feelings, as he transforms, in the words of Didier Eribon, shame into pride—a pride that “is political through and through because it defies the deepest workings of normality and of normativity.”8

The work Il mio Lavoro nasce da uno spavento (My work stems from a fright) seeks to make its title tangible by engraving its words on a copper plaque, shown in the storage space where the exhibition audaciously unfolds. The meaning of the title of the exhibition, Sbandata (to be in a state of shock), is, in light of the above description, merely the repetition of this initial terrifying event that the artist seeks to re-create at every opportunity to exhibit his work. It is this very gesture that represents the artist’s primal scene, which no text can restore without being awkward or ineffectual, including this one.

 

Athens, March 2019

 

[1] Didier Eribon, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self, Michael Lucey trans. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 15.
[2] ivi, 69.
[3] The Archaeology of Knowledge (L’archéologie du savoir) is the title of Michel Foucault’s 1969 methodological and historiographical treatise, first published in English in 1972 by Tavistock Publications Inc, in a translation by A. M. Sheridan Smith.
[4] Raphaël Cuir, The Development of the Study of Anatomy from the Renaissance to Cartesianism (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), 197.
[5] ivi, 207.
[6] Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 132.
[7] Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 50.
[8] Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2013), 222.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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