Romeo Castellucci: In conversation at the Segal Center

spared parts.jpgThe director Romeo Castellucci is in Manhattan at last. The radically edited version of his Julius Caesar (a 45-minute version called Julius Caesar. Spared Parts.) will appear in the Crossing the Line festival—if you have a friend who’s a critic, she’s probably been badgering you to go for months. Last weekend (I couldn’t wait), I went to Philadelphia to see Caesar in the Fringe, and I can assure you that here’s yet another stunning work. Be warned, though, the apparent brevity’s a trick—this work lasts as long as you still have dreams about it.

Much has been made of Castellucci’s ability to create images that wait to ripen, like black seeds in your brain. In Spared. Parts., the tribunes’ furious opening speech is delivered by a man with a medical scope down his nasal passage—the video feed appears behind him, and his fury’s amplified by the glittering spasms of his uvula. A tracheotomized Antony orates through the hole in his throat (“speechless wounds that open their red lips”); a black horse—lame and blind but still beautiful—flicks his ears at a Julius Caesar roaring like a wind. The horse shits on the floor. Silent helpers bundle the murdered tyrant away in a red shroud. These things will reappear in your nightmares for days.

But wait! Friends, I come here not to review Castellucci but to record him. The CUNY Graduate Center’s Segal Center hosted Castellucci on Tuesday, September 27—the doughty Frank Hentschker interviewed him for an hour, while the audience sat rapt. For my own delight I took frantic notes. The wonderful Elisabeth Vincentelli interviewed Castellucci for the New York Times, and he says many tart and marvelous things there. But at the Segal, he was able to spend an hour going into depth on his methods, his metaphysics and even—thanks to Hentschker—a bit on his childhood. Here is my transcript of that event. (Note: He spoke in English except where noted. He apologized for his English, which was ridiculous, since he speaks here with clarity and poetry.)

Frank Hentschker: What are your first memories?

Romeo Castellucci: That is the first time I’ve been asked that question. I was three years old. If I am not wrong, I was carried by my father who by accident—burned me with a cigarette.

FH: Pain and parents! Ah!

RC: I remember also the sorrow of my father—that is my first memory of me.

FH: And your first memory of theater?

RC: In a convent of nuns when I was in [confers with translator] daycare. The nuns involved me in a show; I played the role of a mouse. In a costume—the fascination for me was to be in costume. I realized there was another world possible. As a spectator, at this time, I was obliged to see theater with my school. A Bertolt Brecht piece, though I forget the title. I remember a detail only, there was another mouse—an actor crossing the stage with a dead mouse.

FH: (murmuring) perhaps Mother Courage?

RC: Then I start to hate the theater for many years. And even now… When I was a student, my choice was towards the visual arts, the history of art. I was in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna. I discover the power of painting particularly—in a moment was all my life. The first encounter was through a book I discovered by chance—I was shocked completely. It was the History of Art, which I took from my sister. It changed my life, my school; I broke with my friends, my style of life. It was a dive in a swimming pool, an experience in any case.

Then the theater discovered me. I was 16 years old and I started in a public school in Italy. We used the rooms to make performance art, filled them with gestures and song. More and more the performance became theater—for me the surprise was the power of theater. Fiction is a power, a need we have as human beings—a way to break reality in order to make something real.

FH: So for you, what is theater?

RC: It is an impossible question—I don’t answer it. The question itself is more legitimate than any answer. It is a trip through the unknown—I am surprised by this word “theater” that can mean so many different things.

FH: In your work, though, there is mask, the body, animals, children…

RC: It’s quite simple, not a mystery. I work as a writer. Always in my pocket is a notebook, and I write notes about everything. Everything interests me. Put yourself in a state of listening and then surprise arrives. Reality on the street is like a garden where you can take fruits from the branches that surround you. My work is i; I don’t invent anything. Everything is already here…everything outside my skin is interesting.

The difficult part is to organize this chaos. Chaos is the primal matter—but you can find lines. And here is a phase in which you must make a knot between the lines. You make lines, like in a constellation—the sky is a chaos of stars, but we make shapes. So my work is drawing shapes in the chaos. The most difficult part is the dramaturgy. It’s geometry. It’s order, an object has to be exact in some way.

And ideally, you reach the body of the spectator. Theater is the art of contact. We can imagine the stage like a black mirror. It is calling: I call you, I’m looking at you. It’s powerful. It’s disturbing. You the spectator feel yourself naked.

Theater is the entity, the contents are relative. We can change contents, change the meaning, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the Theater. As a common house, an empty home, a house on fire…

An empty stage is quite clean to me. You can see lines, though, the points of gravity. It’s like a tautological fire—it’s already so powerful itself that we just need to awake the theater through our content. You have to be able to awake this power that feels so strange—another world, one outside language. Theater represents a crisis of language, our idiosyncrasy with respect to language.

FH: What about your method?

RC: I work in loneliness…

FH: Solitude?

RC: Loneliness.

When I am absorbing images (I am not an artist), I’m like a sponge, stupid, without any choice. I want to receive; it’s a chaos. And then, suddenly, in the middle of this chaos a name appears, or a certain number of images, or a title, or something that belongs to the archive from the theatrical literature. This is the frame, like a door to another dimension. It’s also an excuse! I work a lot with images and sounds, but the most important feeling with the ultimate stage: the heart, the brain, the belly of the spectator.

I use many times the montage, two images in contrast that are able to create a third image that doesn’t exist. That third image is the most precious fruit—and it does not belong to me. No! It’s not mystical. I’m not mystical, not religious. I do use religion a lot because it’s a strength—a double mind. Theater is religion. Religion is theater. They were born in the same place of the same necessity. But Theater makes life a question. Religion tries to give an answer.

FH: You sometimes replace the actor with a machine?

RC: I’m really fascinated by actors’ courage. They are very brave, and I feel the stage is a danger. Nevertheless I use…all kinds of ghosts onstage. Machines, phantoms. Machines have ghosts, and animals—of course! You can make a piece of theater without any actor of flesh and bone because in any case the human being is there. Every element is a strategy. You have to be very precise.

The animals being onstage, you see the pure being, the anti-fiction. They make a collapse to the fiction—you throw onto the stage a disorder in the middle of your order. It’s like keeping the door open to fate. It’s the same with machines, animals, children—they are outside the language. It’s important to set language on fire. With them, I see them and I fold the show for them because they are already wonderful. I make the place for the diamond.

FH: Didn’t you make a piece in a basement with animals…?

RC: Yes, it was an occupation. We squatted in a basement space and we put 1,000 animals in it. It was a statement. Though—I don’t believe in politically engaged theater. For me, art is before politics. There is no action in art; it is a moment, suspended. So practically, it is completely un-useful.

FH: Your new work is called Democracy…?

RC: I believe in political engagement as a citizen of course. But art is a meeting with evil. I accept a certain dose of corruption, of prostitution. There is a side of prostitution in art. It is not mystical, it is not pure—but it is great.

I’m not so interesting, but even in the most holy piece of theater there is a bit of prostitution! That idea that art is the way to build “the new man” is bullshit, is dangerous, is fake. I prefer to be fake. That is the statement. Gorgias, the Greek sophist, has an image of tragedy—for him, tragedy is a type of deep knowledge, which came from the idea of knowing we will be tricked. Those who play tricks are fairer than those who don’t. So the spectators, those are are tricked, know more than those who are not tricked. [conversation here with the translator over whether he should use the word ‘tricked’ or ‘betrayed.’] Yes. Fiction is betrayal as a form of knowledge.

FH: What is your current work?

RC: I am working on a book by Alexis de Tocqueville called Democracy in America, the story of the newborn American democracy. He finds the American democracy totally different because it has no connection to ancient Greece. He found it exotic, a flower in the desert. For me it is a romance. But it is just a door, just a frame, just an excuse.

I am also working on Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil with Willem Dafoe. So the two productions are related in a certain way. De Tocqueville saw the Puritan foundation. And of course Hawthorne… I am interested in the Puritan aesthetic. So severe, this right wing of Calvinism.

FH: Recently there have been new doses of realism in your work [he refers to Go Down, Moses as an instance]. Is that a new direction for you?

RC: I hope to have many strategies against me. I don’t want to be folded—myself is a trap. It is not easy to escape; I want to put myself in a difficult condition. I don’t want to be free. All my life I hate narrative theater and then! I found it was very interesting, narrative theater! I fought against words onstage; now I work with words! You can’t be self-indulgent. Of all things, I can not forgive naïveté. It is the first sin. You are naïve when you want to be strong and radical and avant-garde! It’s something for me—it’s like a prayer against me. For instance, I love black and white. Yet color—it’s a difficult discipline. According to Mark Rothko, colors are characters that come from a tragedy. So how to deal with these characters? Nothing’s automatism, no? Every time you find your vocabulary.

To be new is a condemnation. In Western culture, you have to give new things. It’s different in Japan or Bali or Java. They have the luxury to be the same because their gods are alive. Our gods are dead, so we are forced to be new.

If you have a confident view of your tools, you’re fucked.

Question from the audience: You say that you’re interested in everything outside of your skin. What about you? What about what’s inside your skin?

RC: We can call everything outside our skin—the reality. Inside the little veil of our skin—is the real. There is no light in the real. It’s confusing in the real. Theater is the contact between the reals, and to make that contact, we use reality. So: objects, fabrics. I don’t like the word ‘communication’ because I don’t trust it. I prefer ‘contact.’ A response between the world that is inside us…Lacan talked about the real. You cannot reach the real with language, with a phrase. Yet our ‘reals’ are very similar. We are brothers in the real.

Question from the audience: Can you talk about your opinion of Andy Warhol? He shows up in Inferno [one of Castellucci’s pieces].

RC: Andy Warhol is a prophet. His idea of surface is a wonderful, existential discovery. He discovered in the surface, the abyss. He is the most scary artist. He came up in the bulimic age of images. Rothko refused the bulimia of images; he killed himself. It’s not a coincidence he took his paintings from the restaurant. But Warhol made the homeopathic choice—to take a bit of the poison as a cure. For me he is a very deep artist.

Question from the audience (Claire Bishop, professor of performance art/contemporary art at the CUNY Graduate Center): Can you talk about the screens across the front of the stage [scrims] that are in so many of your pieces? What’s the function there?

RC: Yes, you are right–it could be an unconscious reference to the painting because the screen catches the image. But it’s also a veil, a cold frozen glance. Icy. It’s a paradox: it’s annoying because you can’t see clearly, but at the same time, there is a real meeting between the element on stage and the seeing of the audience. It’s an element itself that represents this frozen dream: every image at every level is veiled. Even if I put a glass of water into the space, it is veiled by what you build around it. Every image is an image, not just a picture. It’s an image because it is veiled. You can’t see all the sides of an image (which makes it different from an object). So the veil of the theater, like Moses’ veil [before the Burning Bush], it protects you—because the burning image is too much.

Question from the audience: Can you talk about finding the avant-garde naive?

RC: I believe in a certain avant-garde that is historical—futurism, cubism. The word avant-garde for them was perfect. It was absolutely necessary to break, to crack the past. But it is not necessary to have another one. And it is just a label! It’ unimportant. We’re outside any sense of history now—for me Andy Warhol is a classical painter. It wasn’t an effort to break, it was an attempt to capture what is.

If you’re a young artist who wants to be an avant-gardist—sorry, something is wrong! When I was young I was shocked by body art…Vito Acconci, the Vienna School, early Abramovich. Radicalism was full of meaning. But now? What does it mean? The naked body, the real blood—it’s naive.