Excerpts from the monograph
Enrico Corte - Spectrospective
Text by Gianluca Marziani. Damiani, Bologna, 2008
About the CutOuts Portraits series, 1980 onwards:
[Recording date: August 12, 2002 – excerpt]
In 1980 there I was, looking around and asking myself the usual adolescent questions, such as: how could I portray the total mental degradation, the disorientation in a life without reference-points, the dizzying effect of social hypocrisy, the annihilation of the dignity of man and the artist, the catastrophe of art, and the implosion of civilization that surrounded me? And how could I do so without falling into some figurative commonplace, into vain images of denunciation, or over-ambitious paintings of the wild or expressionist type that were so fashionable at the time? I had to be sharper and more subtle. First of all, I used masks to put people off the track and invent a visual paradox which was apparently quite distant from the nightmare that I wished to portray. I decided that I needed a mimetic figurative element that would camouflage, but at the same time concentrate everything into one single stylistic element, which would be fruitful and effective, just because of its concision, its absence of waste, visual overburdening, involvement and passion.
With all the grace and elegance of my youth and without the slightest effort, I immediately found what I was looking for. If I was interested in fragility, the inevitability of fracture, the crumbling of reality and psychic collapse, then I must use tissue-paper. And it must be in bright colors. If I was fascinated by the dizziness of the abyss, the thrill of disorientation, the lack of any foothold or reference point whatsoever, then I must create a whirling arabesque of holes and little bottomless ravines on paper; a decoration that would be neat and dainty. I observed people, as well: the flow, even more disorientating to my eyes, of masses of people, young and old. Recognizing that there was a distance, perceiving them as elusive, I sought to decipher the reason for their presence, to find a collocation, a logic in the interchangeability of their roles. I had to sketch their features, fleetingly describe the profiles of each of these figures who were otherwise unfathomable, opaque, distant: the holes in the paper had to be cutouts of people’s profiles. By folding tissue-paper over and over, a cutout profile would effortlessly become a thousand profiles; I didn’t care if they were the same or different, as long as they were lost among the shards of life’s mirror.
It was even possible that a kind of map of the human genetic code would emerge, manipulated by Aliens: an algebraic theorem of reproduction based on leveling-out and undifferentiation, on multiples, clones, biological robots… visions of this kind. All born from the simple line of a profile. People who were friends or just passers-by on the street – I used everybody’s features. The first subjects of these cutout-portraits were the schoolmates of my adolescent years. More often, I used the profiles of those who helped me in producing a work – for example the photographer I used for a photographic work – or people who were around as I worked on it.
It was just one of the ways, basically, in which a painter creates his portraits and relates to the world around him. And by relating in that way, with such simple means, using a game of paper cuttings repeated ad infinitum which may be acceptable in a child but inappropriate and idiotic in an adult, in the long run I touched the true crux of the matter. Which was? Obviously to praise the multicolored elegy of childhood regression and the compulsion to repeat – repeated gestures which produce an even greater repetition of figures – like the unstoppable explosion of a grandiose death wish, of the deepest black. I find all this fantastic. Everything comes together, everything is therefore expressed with ease and expressive synthesis, masked to the right degree and ready to begin its game of hidden persuasion around the world. I was sixteen: I had removed the cornerstone.
Various considerations of a moral kind arose. For example, given that these pictures with their tissue-paper cutout-portraits had no inner figurative factor which could act as a point of reference, apart from minimal formal variations in their backgrounds, they could be hung indiscriminately, upright or upside down, without much changing the result. So that was one less worry… The next move was to further emphasize this characteristic by inserting little hooks at unlikely points on the frames, thereby also giving the future purchaser of the piece yet another possibility when choosing how to hang it. You get the best results when you manage to hang the picture upright on the wall, but with the hook and nail in the lower part of the frame, so that the work seems to defy the force of gravity, and appears to be about to fly away, held down by a mere nail in the wall.
I am told that I have a gloomy kind of sensitivity, and in fact I am at once attracted by the obscure side of a picture. In the sense that my eye always falls on the part in shadow, that part which the lighting in the gallery, museum or collector’s house throws on the wall to the side of the frame. In my opinion, paintings must throw a shadow. When you are an object, a strong shadow is a sign of character. In this sense, I understand the critics and art connoisseurs who look for depth and substance in works. With greater “depth” you will have, of course, more shadow on the wall. Merely thinking of pictures which have the hook and nail at the bottom instead of the top, and thus tend to fly upwards, implies that the picture will come away from the wall and throw a beautiful clear shadow on it.
About Cheese, 1981, and Cheese Symphony, 1981-1984:
[Recording date: January 30, 2003]
A strange conception of art is the title of this little article which appeared in Tutto, a provincial daily paper published when I was a boy – in particular on page 3 in the issue of 4/2/1981. An ex-girlfriend of mine had saved this clip for twenty years; she recently sent it to me in Rome, thinking I’d enjoy it. The article is signed C. De. and I seem to remember that this corresponds to the name of a certain Carlo Devoto – or perhaps Corrado, and possibly Devoti – a freelance writer I met once and haven’t seen since, and who even at that time didn’t seem all that young to me. The text is embellished with a little photograph, grainy in its rough printed version which, after twenty years, has grown even paler. The caption states: «The student Enrico Corte». In that photograph, I appear in the foreground while a movement of my hand in part obscures my face. The photo was taken in haste, without me knowing it, and for that reason I don’t remember the precise moment. I do, however, remember all too well the rest of the story described in this newspaper article, which I’ll now re-read to you.
«Cagliari – In the afternoon of the 30th March, a group of passers-by who were crossing Costituzione Square in the heart of the city stared from below at the figure of an individual who, having climbed the parapet along the edge of the panoramic terrace of the Saint Rémy bastion, seemed to be walking along, maintaining a precarious balance on the outside edge of the cornice which overlooks Queen Helen Boulevard. The group of people, alarmed by a situation which they, of course, considered to be extremely dangerous, notified the Carabinieri police who arrived on the scene and immediately raced up to the top of the monumental bastion where this disturbing event was taking place.
The perpetrator of this balancing act was thus discovered to be the student Enrico Corte of Cagliari, seventeen years old, who is in his last year at the Artistic High School in the city. With the help of a group of friends, among whom G.F (26 years old), a professional photographer and assistant teacher at the same school, the youth had organized a sort of photographic session which was intended to portray him in various poses, including this very risky one on the edge of the bastion’s marble cornice, a mere 50 centimeters wide.»
It’s so strange to have a “past” – it’s like dreaming. There were eight of us that afternoon on the terrace. I and another seven willing friends whose aim was partly to stick their nose into this event – which I had proposed some days earlier – but also to keep numerous small details under control, one of which was to keep an eye on that wide open and crowded place so that we could shield the event from the indiscreet eyes of inevitable shit-stirring passers-by.
Old schoolmates and friends from my adolescence seemed already old, as I observed them at twenty-four, twenty-five and twenty-six with the eyes of a seventeen-year-old who assumed that they had greater maturity and more life experience. Perhaps they really did have such experience: that of a generation totally adrift after having passed through the so-called ‘77 Movement in Italy, for whom any gesture or event whatsoever that had even the slightest hint of illegality / clandestinity / challenge / risk / alteration of consciousness / psychic perversion / necrophilia, gained their allegiance and enthusiasm, however weakened by heroin abuse. I just love that sort of thing… In their particular condition, in that brief season of theirs, in their own way I thought they were splendid.
In fact, one could do absolutely anything with those people. I, who was still a youngster, but well understood their “historical” weaknesses, could seduce them and manipulate them by playing on their worst frustrations, counting just on the fact that my rashness and delirious delight in deviance was, in their eyes, one of the very few alternatives to the monotony of provincial life. And I did manipulate them extremely well… at least for a couple of years, before their vague desire for revolt was swept away during the Eighties. Some were lost in the hellish rounds of drug addiction, others – worse still – in those of matrimony; some took to reading the sporting newspapers, others became bald, and some – even worse – grew mustaches. And some even did all these things at once.
But on that day they were still a group of stray dogs, casually gathered together in an empty space in the damp breezes of March. On that afternoon, I was the glue that bound them together in their boredom, their uneasiness and their anguish. I’m not sure that there wasn’t also a certain unconfessed attraction on the part of those lads towards me, an attraction of the most morbid type, even erotic one might say, which created a certain softness of character on their part, and a willingness towards me and my unfledged charms, that I might almost term servile. I can still see them buzzing around me and watching me as if to say “I mean, do you seriously want to do this? But what is it you want to do, exactly?”
To do what I had to do, I needed to wait for the right moment: the time immediately after lunch when the number of people strolling along the streets was reduced to a minimum. «Hey, you lot! – I said to my friends – As a true artist, while we’re waiting I’ll do your portraits: or rather, portraits of your profiles. The silhouettes of your faces will be the real profiles of your character which will appear as holes on paper multiplied into all the labyrinthine aspects of the mind».
I showed them the process, tracing a little schematic drawing in pencil of their profile on a square piece of tissue-paper which I then folded over several times. Next, with a small pair of nail-scissors I carefully cut out the outlines of the profile until I had made a hole in the paper, and when I unfolded it, there emerged a “snowflake” with a series of holes, of little empty chasms, whose arabesque was formed by the profile of the person portrayed, multiplied over the entire surface.
My friends stared at the brightly colored pieces of tissue-paper, mesmerized; they were at the height of compliance, drowning in an enchanted slow-wittedness. They certainly knew this trick from childhood, but I had touched the hidden chords of their regression, titillated their slumbering death-wish… Now it was time to get to work.
«….the bastion’s marble cornice, a mere 50 centimeters wide. We should remember that the distance from the ground at that point is equivalent to that of a six-story building. The bastion of St. Rémy has long been known as a place which is sadly favored by those attempting suicide, with a notable case history of tragic leaps into the void, which unfortunately show no sign of diminishing. Hence the need for a professional photographer to immortalize the terrifying moment: an “accomplice” in a seemingly innocent and passive role. But Enrico Corte’s so-called ‘artistic project’ had not counted on the indiscreet eye of a chance public of alarmed passers-by who would interrupt the event, even though the artist had been careful to choose the early afternoon in which to carry out his dangerous photographic poses, just because of the reduced number of strollers in the old town center compared to other times of the day. G.F’s role. in all this was not entirely clear at the outset: the photographer, who among other things was already known to the forces of law and order because of his past as a drug addict and small-time pusher, seemed to be carrying all his photographic equipment, and was anyway held by the Carabinieri and questioned together with Corte, with the precise aim of clearing up some of the more obscure points.»
Journalistic discretion and legal caution here make my friend, the photographer Gismondo, aka “Mondo Gehenna”, appear with the mere initials GF. He was a talented visionary, then at least: very clever at masking his secret identity beneath the anonymous garb of an assistant at a high school; just as clever some years later at fleshing out in his own person the fact that he had no “second identity” at all… showing great mastery in producing a work which would magnify nothing other than his own unproductiveness. He was the true personification of what was known then in Italy as “going back to the Private”: private, here, in the sense of privation, lacking, wanting, void.
Is he still mad at me, G.F., for the fact that he never made a cent out of the photos he took while I made millions? The money… I didn’t go looking for it… nobody even thought about it. I was just a boy then, and not even all that ambitious. And after all, I had planned those photos in every detail, I posed for them, and afterwards I packaged them as artistic artifacts, and found a way to exhibit them. No small matter. He had just pressed a button, but then he sued me when I sold the photographs. However, by that time he’d changed his whole life-style, and already subscribed to a sports paper. (In fact, the pictures taken during that photographic session were exhibited in 1982, during my first solo exhibition and immediately sold for a million lire: reprinted throughout the following twenty years, they were bought for much higher sums. The photographer was paid with only a Cutout-Portrait on tissue paper measuring 15 x 15 cm). But let’s read on:
«…more obscure points. Corte, a self-declared visual artist, with a few public exhibitions of his own paintings to his name, immediately proclaimed himself sole deviser of this scenario and responsible for everything: in practice the project involved the creation of a “photographic picture” portraying the young artist in wind-cheater and flat-top haircut, as he calmly walked along the outer edge of the highest cornice of the Saint Rémy bastion, even whistling a little tune which he also recorded live on a portable tape-recorder, challenging vertigo and the danger of sliding down (as well as good taste in art, one might add).»
I like that reference to my wind-cheater (actually, it was a heavy jacket), and above all to my haircut. After all, clothing had a specific role in the general economy of the photograph. I’d chosen to appear “nice” on purpose, even wearing trousers with a well-ironed crease: I did think, however, that a tie aged me too much, perhaps making me look like a twenty-year-old and no longer the budding adolescent that I was. I’d tried to put my hair in some sort of order, but an unexpected puff of wind at the moment the picture was taken, as well as adding to the rapid increase in my heartbeat, had totally ruined all attempts to smooth my abundant hair.
I was carrying the tape-recorder, even though you can’t see it in the photo. While I was standing on the cornice, and as I moved about looking for the right place to pose for the shot, I actually recorded a meaningless little prattling and whistling tune on the tape, improvising there and then in the midst of the noise made by the traffic below, the crunching of syringes under the soles of my Clark’s (typical casual shoes for a “young man” at that time), the chirruping of birds and the rustle of wind on the mike. By backing the visual image with this live soundtrack, I wanted to strengthen the impression of total mad irresponsibility and fascination with the abysses of the mind.
Cheese is the title of the photographic image printed and then packaged as a picture, and Cheese Symphony will be the name of the recording, edited in a loop (7’ for a total of 20’ in all) and reproduced on an audiocassette in fifty copies which were put together by hand like little sculptures – numbered and signed – then exhibited and sold as multiples, separate from the photographic work. Three years later, in 1984, I managed to reprint the photograph Cheese in 36 x 36 cm format, covered with a vinyl film on which there was the clear side of a 45-rpm EP record, with the 7′ of recorded sounds from the original tape. The object can be played on the turntable of a stereo like any normal vinyl record.
«…good taste in art, one might add). It would appear that the apparent irresponsibility of the gesture hid a certain irrefutable “logic”.»
The work entitled Cheese – from the word that one says when posing for a photo, fixing the mouth in a smile which is supposedly unforced – all in all portrays a large corner section of the upper part of the so-called Saint Rémy bastion, a monumental marble commemorative complex, restructured over the years stretching from the 1800s to the fascist era, which was situated in the heart of the city where I was born and spent my adolescence: Cagliari.
In the beginning, the building was made up of concert halls, exhibition rooms, places for refreshment, terraces, underground crypts, gardens, finely staged stairways and, at the highest point, an elegant walkway with a panoramic view and benches shaded by palms. After the Second World War, this elephantiac complex suffered a rapid decline, despite occasional renovations and attempts to revive it, and is today remembered as being a favored place for loitering, drug dealing and committing suicide. I actually saw one of these not infrequent suicides when I was a boy.
The image in the photo is reproduced in slightly over-exposed black and white, cut into a square shape. Apart from the right hand side of the bastion, it also shows a view taken from above of the tree-lined avenues below, with a few parked cars and the façade of a 19th century building onto which the bastion throws a contrasting shadow. At the top of the photo there also is a large stretch of sky. In the center of the picture, at the point where the perspective frames the sharp edge of the bastion’s façade with its flat cornice that juts out into the void, the eye falls on a small distant figure, a little out of focus because of the limited range of the camera. Smiling mischievously with hands in pockets, that figure is me at seventeen: I’m standing upright on the extreme edge of the cornice overlooking the abyss, beyond the parapet that runs around the terrace, right on the brink. I’m not holding on to anything, and I wouldn’t have been able to do so: I am surrounded by emptiness. Behind me, the view of roof tops fades into the spring haze. At the moment the picture was taken, by means of a vocal agreement with the far-off photographer, I was even trying to position my leg as though I were taking a step into space, though of course trying to keep my balance steady. But a sudden gust of wind took me by surprise at that precise instant, and I stiffened under the influence of a heavy rush of adrenaline.
A powerful and acidulous poison, adrenaline surges within you, feeding on you, strengthening your muscles, tempering your nerves, reviving your sense of balance, dilating the pupils, steadying dizziness, clearing the mind. And it creates dependence. My terror of the drop below little by little became more bearable, less paralyzing, while I wavered on the cornice, whistling hysterically and trying to find the right pose for the photo: and at the moment when the camera clicked, my fear grew fainter thanks yet again to the magic of adrenaline, making me at the same time evanescent and immovable. How strange. Only later, when I clambered back over the parapet and down to the solid ground of the terrace, did I feel as if I were going to swoon. Then, pulling myself together with style, I burst out into a great whoop of adolescent laughter before the wide-eyed faces of my group of friends. It was only when I once again set foot on “terra firma” and saw myself mirrored in their eyes that, for the first time, I clearly sensed the danger that I had escaped. Before that, my head had been enveloped in a fog. After, I realized that, from that moment on, all the time that I still had left to live would be a gift. And since it was a gift, I could waste it however I wanted, in total freedom, thoughtlessly and without worrying about consequences, as indeed I have, right up to the present. Even today, my idea of Success, in life and art, is still: managing to stop just one step short of the final smash.
One moment later, we noticed two Carabinieri policemen coming towards us on the terrace.
«…a certain irrefutable “logic”. “I’ve always driven myself to think and act differently from what is expected of me. An artist is expected to make pictures, paint, ‘Trans-avantgarde’ (a new movement in painting, editor’s note) today in 1981. Or people demand that art show only the most attractive aspect of reality, that of the pleasantness of color and a subject that is recognizable”, Corte said when he was questioned about the event and its real aims and propositions. And he added: “without in any way denigrating those who have chosen different positions, art can and must, however, also show what one tends to eliminate from one’s own visual horizon, what one refuses to see. In fact there’s been a boom in suicides among Italian adolescents for the past two years now: I’m documenting this social situation by illustrating the death-wish in my own way, from the viewpoint of an adolescent. Rock and contemporary cinema portray these problems better, in a direct fashion and without censorship: visual art cannot lag behind”.»
«The aim of my work is to destroy the family», stated the youthful Fassbinder, as he responded to a fake interview in his film “Deutschland im Herbst”, which I saw when I was, I think, fifteen (if I remember well, I had gone to the cinema with some friends, but then we split up: they preferred “Grease”). «Great!», I thought, «if you want to reconstruct society, you obviously have to annihilate its first formative cell!» But how could I do that when my family had already been destroyed by destiny? But sure! The central point of the family is not the mother-father pole, as RWF seemed to believe, but rather the third pole: the child, the offspring. One can only really talk about a family when there is a child. So, the destruction of the boy had to be staged: my own self-destruction, adolescent suicide, the pulping of posterity. Well, one thing is sure: I was in good company in those years, with many of my contemporaries much more determined than me.
From that point onwards, my artistic activity has been the long, motionless funeral of the suicidal adolescent. Everyone grows older and passes on, I alone am still there on the brink, suspended over the emptiness below. The question is this: if an artist starts when he is very young to whistle as he walks along the precipice, and has someone piss in his face, and ends up by inserting a tube into his balls and blowing them up like a balloon, has he gone forward? No, of course not. There has never been any need to progress in the long motionless funeral of the suicidal adolescent. I live in an equilibrium without drastic fluctuations. For years I have not aged, which is why I’m fascinated and attracted by people who are representative of a certain sector – you know, like actors or musicians, writers, directors – who can say they are elderly, or at least in an advanced stage of their maturity. Who are clearly decaying, not only in their body, but also in their creative curve. They represent everything that I cannot be.
Over the years, I became so intoxicated with adrenaline, whose rushes I stimulated by seeking the most unlikely situations so as to immortalize them in photos, that a doctor who examined me when I was about twenty-one diagnosed me as having hypertrophy of the suprarenal glands, and an abnormal thickening of the cardiac muscles. He stated in no uncertain terms that a form of chemical dependence on adrenaline had set in, of the kind that usually occurs in those who practice extreme sports or who are subject to frequent physical or mental stress. This could cause me gastrointestinal or cardiac problems, blood platelet deficiency, damage to the central nervous system, and even glaucoma. Symptoms of premature aging and accelerated physical decay in the future.
That doctor really screwed up. In reality, from that moment onwards I’ve never aged physically. This could be my real contribution to Medicine… It’s evident if you compare photographs of my features then and now. My hair is still black, I have no wrinkles on my face, and the structure of my body is still identical to that of twenty years ago. And all this without gyms, dieting, face-lifting, hair dye or liposuction. I do think it’s due to all those powerful doses of adrenaline that I absorbed in my youth, which have acted as a sort of homeopathic cure against aging. The brain is the source. Which is why I now advise all young people to follow this prescription of mine: begin as soon as you can to get yourselves into the most dangerous and complicated situations possible, invent new ones, look for trouble and shady sexual encounters, balance along the balcony railings outside your little room… and when you get the chance, smash lots of bank windows. Store up your adrenaline for the worst years of your life.
«The incident ended without particular consequences for all those involved. We, the uninitiated, can only hope that young Enrico Corte’s “rulings”, tinged as they are with a streak of pretentiousness, will moderate, in time, their eagerness to express tensions and problems greater than themselves. Unfortunately, as we have seen it too often in the sensational news pages, the fine line between an intellectual position of a student and a teenage “bravado” is quite blurry.
That is how the snapshot by Carlo, or Corrado, Devoto or Devoti, concludes. With a somewhat paternalistic observation by a gentleman who, in theory, might still be alive, though getting older. I’ll probably never hear about him again; his newspaper folded shortly after the publication of this article about me, and all traces of him have been lost. With the confused but not unpleasant memory that I have of this man whom I knew only for a fleeting moment, I must say one thing in his favor: despite the sour final conclusions, his article is still, two decades later, the best thing written about my work. No critical art text about me has ever paid that same attention to detail, that loving description, step by step, of the chronological development of an action, that care in specifying the thought underlying the artistic gesture, and above all that deep respect for the words and declarations of an artist. The fact that I was a mere boy at the time, might perhaps have required a tone of greater condescension or reproof, less space, and greater rapidity in condemning and shelving the affair.
No, none of the sensational news articles that C. De. predicted were ever dedicated to me, just a few in the rather less interesting culture pages. Apart from the one concerning the episode of a controversial exhibition that I had in 1987, entitled Cleptoscopica, which closed the day after it was inaugurated, and consequently led to my brief arrest and also the obligatory decision to abandon my city. It’s true, too, that on 18th November 1994, who knows how, the police discovered a certain quantity of explosive material in the abandoned courtyard of a ruined building next door to my studio in via Bertola in Rome, together with sketches of graphic projects and the page of a newspaper with an article and photograph of Silvio Berlusconi, the then Italian Prime Minister, all in a red satchel with 1994 written on it in felt pen. It is just that courtyard, still abandoned, which you can see on the other side of my garden wall. All the findings were seized and taken away by a robot of the bomb disposal squad. Several articles were in fact written about this in the national press, but I am not named in any of them.
They were, in reality, sketches and materials for a sculpture on which I was working at the time, on the theme of state terrorism and the right-wing’s seizure of power in Italy, and it should in fact have been entitled 1994. It all started with the interesting idea of modeling plastic explosive like a sculptor models clay, and so I had met some members of the emerging Black Bloc groups in Rome, to see whether they could find some for me. Unfortunately, the only thing I could get was TNT, a fuse and some detonators, given that plastic explosive couldn’t be found on the black market at that time. I bought the materials loose, so to say, intending to handle and set up the explosives myself in a somewhat intuitive, fanciful way, but also with the help of a military manual. I kept everything in my studio, and was working on this project in those days.
Then someone informed the police, who carried out a blitz on via Bertola, searching with great care my home too, as well as my studio adjacent to the courtyard where they had found the explosives. But you know… they have their own informants, of course – even though I’m not quite sure who tipped them off – but I also had mine, who were on the ball enough to allow me to take action at the last minute. Just that morning I had in fact received an unexpected phone-call from an acquaintance who, in a very roundabout way, warned me that the police knew of the contraband dealings in explosives and the involvement of some not more specifically identified resident in via Bertola in the Torpignattara area. This acquaintance advised me to move fast because the police were on their way. As soon as I put the phone down, I threw right away all the compromising material that I kept in a red satchel – the explosives, the detonators, the graphic designs of the work in progress, the page of the newspaper with Berlusconi’s photo that I was using as reference for the sculpture – into that abandoned property on the other side of my garden wall, just a few seconds before the Forces of Law and Order burst into my studio. By doing this, I shook off all responsibility in the eyes of the law; there was no longer anything suspicious in my studio. The explosives landed without exploding on the rubbish and ruins of the abandoned courtyard which softened their fall: the idea of Success in life and art is, yet again, that of managing to stop just one step short of the final smash…
Law enforcement officers still have some doubts about me… in fact, given my difficult-to-classify status as an “artist”, I was investigated for two whole years for suspected involvement in a plot against Berlusconi, and my studio was searched on numerous occasions over the following years with one excuse or another, by the regular and fiscal police forces. Then the inquiry was closed, without any outcome. Who knows where the remains of my unfinished sculpture now repose, in which police archive lie those sketches which were drawn by hand with so much care and then mistaken for plans to build a bomb… Of course, by losing a work I managed to save my ass from the police; unfortunately on that occasion there was no time to load a film and immortalize the lightning-quick toss over the wall in yet another photographic work of art, but… man, what a rush of adrenaline I had…
About The Film of Life, 1984:
[Recording date: June 19, 2003]
Round about 1983 I began to ask myself whether the so-called “film of life” – as we like to term that rapid flow of images showing all the events of our existence condensed in one single instant, which apparently occurs at the final moment of death – unwound in a linear fashion following a chronological and narrative scheme of the “beginning-development-end” type, that ran with coherence from birth to death. Or if, as seems to me more likely, it went the other way, “rewinding”, and started not from the first image of life, but rather from the moment of death experienced by the subject in that precise moment, and then went bit by bit backwards, at supersonic speed, back to the very moment of birth, back to the darkness of pre-birth, the blank screen on which one crosses the threshold into death, the blank screen on which Life and Death come to terms.
It seemed to me that the problems connected to this matter were fascinating, and before dealing with the complicated possibility that a visual sequence broad enough to incorporate the time span of a human existence could be synthesized into one single moment (while maintaining a perceptive “legibility” without sinking into indeterminate chaos), I began to think of how I could somehow verify the sequential development of such a phenomenon, which was anyway considered by some to be nothing more than idle talk or legend. Of course, I could not undergo the experience directly and by myself; I had to find at least one person who was on the point of experiencing the condition, both special and very common, of “being about to die”. And above all, someone who would have the willingness of soul, as well as the remaining physical energy, to communicate to me before passing away, in a flash, the details about the clockwise or anti-clockwise direction of the images of his/her own past existence.
One might, for instance, consider a potential suicide victim: hear of the self-destructive aspirations of some acquaintance, or the friend of a friend. Talk about it, convince him or her, involve them in collaborating. Seduce them with the idea of the doubly useful aspect of their proposed final gesture: should they support my fervent desire for knowledge, then their suicide would certainly become useful for Humanity, unveiling the mysteries of the Unfathomable, or those of physiological and neural chemistry; as well as that type of individual usefulness, conviction of which arises in the aspirant at the moment they decide to actually commit suicide, based on considerations that are totally variable, subjective, and therefore secondary in this context.
The fact is that, objectively, I didn’t find it easy to meet people with those personality traits and plans of action. Not that there weren’t people around with sufficiently self-destructive urges, no: I’ve always met people who had only and exclusively self-destructive aspirations. And rightly so. What they lacked was a method which would lead to a practical and punctual organization of the extreme gesture: a praxis and even a choreography that could be established well beforehand, which I could take part in with my project of recording a testimony from the edge of the Abyss. The psychological marginalization of these freaks caused them to be just as isolated from others, but they faced this alienation in a naïve, amateurish and unreliable way.
Look, despite a certain unconscious humor in my telling you this “with hindsight”, at twenty I handled the whole issue with the seriousness and commitment that a situation like this demanded. And it wasn’t as if I had nothing else to do… Anyway, my curiosity wasn’t merely idle: my real aim was to create a work of art, a painting, let’s say, or a film or something similar, based on the order in which a series of images from the “film of life” proceeded. The idea was to have the largest possible number of images live together harmoniously – in the sense of a fluid progression which would amalgamate figures that were different from each other and not necessarily in harmony: images that would be the bearers of a meaning, and of their own intrinsic inevitability, in the least possible material space. But first I had to discover the temporal logic, the priority in the development of the sequences of the metaphysical “film of life”! Come to think of it, even today I don’t think I’m all that far from this kind of intention when I start a new painting… but now I no longer have that fervent desire, that frenzy for knowledge. Now I have Experience, the lack of which burned me up in those days.
In theory, it seems that the “film of life” appears more frequently to people who die a violent death, such as an accident or even suicide, or so it seems from the accounts of those who have miraculously escaped from such situations. Other rumors have it that it is not unusual for those who are dying of illness to experience this psycho-optical phenomenon. So I began to visit hospitals and the wards for the terminally ill. This is the period I remember with most difficulty, but it was completely useless and not only because I did not achieve my aims – due to the restrictions on visiting hours, the disapproving presence of relatives or nurses, and the contrast and obvious lack of dialogue between the apparent or real futility of my needs and the destiny of all those unknown faces: hordes, heaps of faces – but useless, above all, because I already had personal knowledge of that image of hospital grief: I had carried it with me since childhood, and to renew the experience – what can I say? – well, it certainly didn’t broaden my vision of the world. However, time passed and I still hadn’t managed to solve my problem. It was then that I discovered how little it pays to rely on others, even if only in part or for practical purposes, when creating your own works of art… I always paint my pictures by myself.
Then, at a certain point, something happened. I find out that Roberto, an old school friend of mine who I hadn’t seen for a while, was totally fucked. They told me he’d caught the “plague of the 20th century” as it was called in the early 1980s. The news doesn’t surprise me all that much, knowing as I did of his promiscuous sexual habits and abundant use of heroin: but since he was still quite young, I was anyway struck by hearing this news.
Certainly, throughout my life I’ve had to find solutions to some very peculiar problems. How have I managed? I’ve left home looking for them and… well, as you can see, in one way or another I’ve always managed to find them.
So I get in touch with Roberto. First of all, I talk to his family, who he still lived with, and they tell me at once that he is in a critical state. Then I meet him at his home. He is in bed, and clearly in very bad shape. His physical appearance had changed a great deal since the last time I’d chanced to meet him, about two years earlier: he is no longer handsome, his bones and skull now stick out, and he has almost no hair. His character, however, even though in the grip of that devastating disease, seems to have maintained certain aspects which I was happy to rediscover during those first few moments in his company. It is as though we’d seen each other just the day before. He is pleased to see me, he treats me with affection but also with a certain nonchalance, recalling that vague and distant coolness which was already one of his characteristics when I met him at the end of the ’70s when he was 18 and I was just 15. In part he still has that attitude of affected cynicism common to the first New Wave generation. Understandably, there is a slight dimming of his aesthetically-inclined taste for the idea of decadence, now no longer merely hinted at but tragically experienced in the first person.
It doesn’t take long to re-establish the former complicity between one-time adolescents. Even in this strange moment, desperate as it was for him, Roberto still remains attached enough to his former artistic aspirations as to understand the peculiar reasons for my research, and to support my aim. I explain to him in detail that I need him to give me a clear vision of how the sequence of images of his not very long life rolled past at the moment of death, if he were able to perceive them as, in a mix of legend and reality, it is said. We also need to organize things so that this would happen despite the many predictable obstacles: above all I would have to live by his bedside and look after him while awaiting the moment of his departure, rather like a vulture. And on his part, there must be a commitment to preserve sufficient energy and lucidity, even during the final spasm, to give me the response to my problem with his last surge of life. I also get a cassette tape recorder, since it was quite probable that I would need to re-hear or de-codify the words that he gasped out with his last breath.
The beauty of it was that the whole situation was not as melodramatic as it might seem. I settled down well enough in their big, rich people’s house, with the sick man constantly under morphine in a state of stultified stupor in which, however, his detached New Wave dignity still managed to survive. Roberto’s parents and brothers were almost always absent, busy with work, and perhaps exhausted and resigned after too many months of their loved one’s illness. Actually I got the feeling that, since at that time it was not clear how the new virus was transmitted, his relatives and other friends preferred to keep as far away from him as possible.
I entertain Roberto during the day, putting on all his favorite records, and the rest of the time, since the musical therapy presumably had a psychological effect on the patient but could not slow his physical decline, I watch him deteriorate in his bed. Moreover, given the amount of morphine available in that household, I stealthily take advantage of it myself. In a moment of gratitude for my “affectionate company” Roberto give me the whole series of tapes with music that he had composed and performed on synth. I formally accept the gift out of formality, knowing full well that all that material would very soon find its way to the bottom of my trash can.
My condition was undoubtedly bizarre, and in my memory it seems to occupy an indefinite time: today I need to look up the exact dates on an old calendar in order to form a precise picture of those days. After all, I didn’t even know this guy particularly well and all of a sudden I found myself in a situation of tragic intimacy, even further complicated by the possible contagiousness of a disease which no-one yet knew anything about. Roberto, as a serious New-waver, had always admired those who initiated new fashions and generational trends in clothing, music and social behavior, and now he found himself among the first to inaugurate one: the trend in dying of Aids.
A few days pass and, just think, the situation suddenly come to a head. The illness worsens, he has a permanent temperature and constant pain and the morphia is no longer effective. One morning we were alone, Roberto, myself and a young nurse. It was clear to all three of us that the curtain was coming down… right now. Roberto, who is dripping wet, whispers to me: «I’ve never felt like this before. I’m on the brink, there’s no turning back». OK, I get ready, pull a chair up close to his bed-side, switch on the recorder, and try to hold his attention with vague sentences and small talk so that his last glimmers of lucidity would not be blanked out, and he would not lose consciousness. He let out a rattle, a shudder, his eyelids closed over the dispirited orbits; I put the palms of my hands over his face to stop the trembling and, using both thumbs, delicately try to lift the eyelids so that I can check his glassy gaze and make sure he was still aware… Christ, it felt like I’m touching damp tissue-paper: his eyebrows slide away like the skin of boiled beans, and then my friend looks at me… he is still there, still lucid.
Watched with some disgust by the nurse I say: «Robbie, be careful. You know you’ve got to tell me what I asked. We’re about to part and as you go you’ll probably have a last vision when all your life passes before you in a flash». Roberto nods, with another rattle. «You’ve got to be ready like we agreed», I added, «and as soon as it happens try to tell me as clearly as you can, and quickly, because this will be the last moment of your life, the answer to what is indispensable for me to know». Everything that happened between Roberto and me from that moment on, as well as being absolutely true, can anyway be directly verified by the personal testimony of Ms. Sandra Martino, a district nurse who is still working today. The sequence of events that I experienced as they occurred, second by second, is told just as it is impressed upon my indelible memory, lucid and clear, even if some have insinuated that there was a possible distortion in my perceptions owing to long term lack of sleep and the continual consumption of morphine – all of which has yet to be proved. But let’s go on.
I kept holding my hands over his face. «Tell me, Roberto, my friend, is my hypothesis correct: that at the moment of death, the sequential images of one’s life do not follow a linear pattern from beginning to end, like a real film, but go backwards like a tape as it mechanically rewinds, returning to the moment of birth and even beyond?» At this point, the temperature of Roberto’s skull, which I held gently between the palms of my hands and could feel was burning with fever, drops by almost twenty degrees, while all the blood which filled the myriads of tiny veins in his eyeballs is instantaneously sucked away, and they now seem totally white, empty of traces… even his irises are affected by this rapid mutation, and from hazel become almost green; it’s inexplicable: I’d never seen anything like it! But his pupils… God, his pupils!… In the space of a second I see them contract and dilate, contract and dilate at least a thousand times, like a crazy electric crackling. His pupils are seeing something at extraordinary speed… In a moment, his minute pupils rapidly change shape a thousand times, one after another: I see them become pinheads, then great black circles set to capture as much light as possible, then once again invisible pinheads, again and again, with hundreds of untidy intermediate variations in size, opening and contraction…. And all this in a split second! Well, in that second, Roberto’s face no longer shivered with fever: as I said, I feel his skin suddenly freeze and then, a second after, his mouth opens to emit the most pestilential breath you can imagine, real fumes from hell, the like of which I’ve never smelt in all my life, together with the sound of a sentence which is his legacy to me, i.e. my answer. The recorder had already been on for several minutes, so I’ve been able to listen to that last sentence many times over the years, a phrase which was in any case quite clear to my ears from the outset, in its brevity and concision, despite Robbie’s voice being broken by spasms, and my jumping backwards as I smelt that breath of mephitic wind.
«The opposite – Is true». That is the phrase. The opposite is true, and Robbie “leaves the building”, as Americans say. It is definitely an answer, and the most one could offer at the point of death. But I still don’t know how to interpret it. Whether the truth is the opposite of what I had been asking Roberto at that moment – i.e. if the sequence of images goes backwards, as I’d imagined – and that phrase then means that the images do not run backwards but instead go from birth to death just as life has been lived by the dying person. But «The opposite: is true» could also mean that the images seen at the moment of death really do describe the story of one’s life by rewinding, backwards, like a video-cassette, just as I had cleverly intuited from the start… this, in the end, is my modest contribution to the Knowledge of Humanity.
Of course, I consider the second theory much more rewarding. In any case, I suggested to Roberto’s family that they should carve his last words on a tombstone, since he told me he would have been pleased with that (I lied): words that were rendered even more sibylline when taken out of context. I even offered to design the gravestone with a drawing of my own, and to carefully follow each stage of its creation in the stone-carver’s workshop. His parents had no difficulty in accepting my proposal: I had been one of Roberto’s best friends and I’d been with him right to the end – and, moreover, I was Enrico Corte: a young artist but already active and promising, with a lot of press coverage at local level. My offer seemed generous to them and, to their eyes, that tombstone/work of art might one day have had a certain value. And anyway, they were well-off, cultured and refined, and thus can “shell out” money without any problem. I watched them as I gave my spiel and grinned to myself, thinking: rich people… I’ve never felt so sorry for them.
So Roberto’s parents bought a burial recess in a newly constructed, evocative structure in the cemetery, designed to contain the new coffins of the future dearly departed of the city, in a multiple series of niches. The structure, six meters high and thirty meters long, in brick and mortar covered with various rows of marble slabs which were little by little removed and replaced by proper tombstones, originally had an even more imposing and metaphysical aspect because it was completely new, virginal. Since it had only recently been finished, no other body before Roberto’s had yet been put there, and there were no other tombstones apart from the one I had designed for him. We were, so to speak, the first on the scene. In the impenetrable glow of that enormous, immaculate magic wall lined with marble, the shiny reflecting black of “my” tombstone with its white high-relief and an ambiguous inscription, stood out, at least then in 1984, and attracted so much attention that it made the smallest commemorative flower superfluous. Even today Roberto’s grave with its original 1984 tombstone can be seen, now surrounded and concealed among the others which have accumulated over time, in Area C / Lot 45 of the Saint Michael Cemetery in Castellani Square, Cagliari, Italy.
But there was yet another problem to solve – less pressing than the first, but that still intrigued me, mostly for creating a future work of art. How could all the images of a life exist in one second? A life, however brief, is nevertheless long. Perhaps it was possible to condense time through a system of double or triple exposures which overlaid several sequences together, like in the experimental films of the 1960s? Or eliminate dead time by selecting the less significant data and then canceling it, i.e. the opposite of the 1960s films? And if the latter, how could one establish the criteria by which the importance of one image was given priority over another? And who, indeed, was to establish it?
Throughout my life, I’ve had to find solutions to some very peculiar problems. How? I’ve left home looking for them and… well, I’ve always managed to find them.
About the Double-Face series, 1983-1986, and the Destruction of a Home exhibition in Naples, 1986:
[Recording date: June, 19, 2003 – excerpt]
The situation was this: a sizeable group of double-faced works hanging from the ceiling at eye-level, almost entirely occupied the center of the exhibition room, like a multicolored fecaloma in the intestine. The spaces between the pictures were narrow and the public could at best peer into them, but couldn’t get inside the block, the “labyrinth”. Quite the reverse, in fact – people could barely move across the room because the space in the center was crammed with pictures hanging from the ceiling. They could just get in through the door and then slide along the walls, peeking with difficulty along the narrow passages in the mass of panels suspended in the void. Since I had been shrewd enough as to put a series of almost invisible little nails into the walls, as the people slid over them, in the limited space, they got hooked to the wall by their jackets, pullovers or silk blouses. And that was just what I wanted to achieve: the members of the public attached to the wall like objects, while the pictures in the center of the room observed them.
All the writings are excerpts from the monograph by Gianluca Marziani Enrico Corte – Spectrospective. ©Damiani publisher, 2007