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Gestus and the theatre of the 20th century 

Is it possible for an arm to grow into a tree? For a hardened pupil to turn into stone? 

It happened to me for a limited and intermittent time span. With respect to this, I could certainly say that in some cases, I was at the cinema and in others at the theatre, perhaps to attend a concert. And yet, when the human body mutates and takes in more natures, breaking down and re-articulating itself, it becomes capable of transcending the dimension of the individual, the comforting space-time delimitation we assign to it, in the total absence of psychological phenomena such as suggestion. Gestus’ relationship with the theater masters of the early 1900s starts precisely from these assumptions: redefining the body, its limits and its connections. The dialogue emerges from the persistent need to go beyond the boundaries of space and time, which we will try to describe here through photos and texts, not with the intention of exhausting research on the body, but to shed light on its character.

Gestus was born in a theatre, more precisely in the small theatre designed by the architect Tadao Ando in 2013, where artists are invited to mirror themselves with the great reformers of the last century’s theatre. A rhythmic space, rigorously geometric – inclined planes, stairs, elevated platforms – ready to enhance the actor’s body in movement.

Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, © ORCH orsenigo_chemollo
Adolph Appia, Espace rythmique 

The intention is to recover that transformative push  through the comédie du muscle (1), which is located precisely on the plane of muscular tension and which aims to bring the artist-actor closer to the visitor-actor.  

Recueil de photographies Ecole Etienne Decroux, Photos E.B. WEILL, Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Enrique Ramirez’s L’ homme sans image and Jacques Copeau’s Neutral Mask

Between 1921 and 1924, the use of the mask was at the centre of research into physical expression. At Jacques Copeau’s school, students, with their faces covered by an androgynous, unexpressive mask, would lie on the floor and try to get up, guided by their breath. As if newly born, the lying body looks at its surroundings and tries to imitate them: the movement of the moon becomes the rhythm that the muscles follow to re-learn how to stand up. Through this exercise, it was possible to eliminate bodily automatisms and learn to move in a totally new way.  

Neutral mask exercise. Gestus I act: Refashioning the Body, Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, 2021

In L’homme sans image we find an extraordinary experience of liberation keen to the one that Copeau’s exercise brings. A man, whose face can only be seen from time to time, is struggling in the sea wrapped in a sail. His frenetic yet sinuous movements seem to belong to seaweed, or a sea creature, rather than to a human figure. In the dark water illuminated by a single ray of light, the memories of the figure without an image blur. Everything speaks of a new birth, where the sea is like a mother’s womb and the faceless man changes his nature. As in a neutral mask exercise, the body draws from its surroundings, transforms itself by going beyond itself.

The gaze is the mask and the face is the whole body. When the actor takes off his mask, if he has worn it well, his face is relaxed. The mask has extracted something from him that has deprived him of all artifice: he then has a beautiful, available face. (2)

Enrique Ramirez, Performance El lamento del pàjaro y del bote invertido, video work L’homme sans image, 2020, courtesy of the artist and of the Gallery Michel Rein, Parigi/Bruxelles. Gestus I act: Refashioning the Body, at Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, 2021. Ph. Matteo De Fina © Palazzo Grassi

The extended body in Trevisani’s work and Artaud’s idea of a body without organs

Is it possible to imagine a body without hierarchies, where the brain, heart, or other elements do not play a privileged role? A horizontal space made up of stratifications, a place of continuous exchange in which the logics of power lose their primacy? The theatre director Antonin Artaud was the first to introduce the concept of the body without organs, as a set of elements that function in synergy. Deleuze and Guattari used the egg as an example to describe the body without organs, as its indistinct state of elements creates a cohesive and uniform dimension. 

Can the human body be a body without organs, or at least try to become one?

Luca Trevisani in the series (Don’t) try this at home and Daniel Day Lewis explores the body in its extension. (Don’t) try this at home uses bio-plastics made from jacaranda flowers, corn, potatoes, and other materials, mixed with clothing. Daniel Day Lewis’s body of sculptures consists of shoes made of bread with a wooden extension, where the trace of the human journey has been imprinted in the shape of the soles. Both are shown as extensions of a body that is not limited to its own physicality, but also includes the elements that are part of its life journey: shirts, food, and other organic materials. There is a layering of heterogeneous components that creates a unity, even if only temporary: a body without organs. There is no hierarchy, but an aptitude for plasticity and contamination that governs being in every state. Trevisani, like Artaud, discovers an individual who goes beyond himself, intrinsically connected to what surrounds him.

Luca Trevisani, (Don’t )Try This at Home, 2021, Courtesy of the artist and of the Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin e Pinksummer contemporary art, Genova. Installation view, Gestus I act: Refashioning the Body, at Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, 2021. Ph. Matteo De Fina © Palazzo Grassi
Luca Trevisani, Daniel Day Lewis, 2021, Courtesy of the artist and of the Galerie Mehdi Chouakri, Berlin e Pinksummer contemporary art, Genova. Installation view, Gestus I act: Refashioning the Body, at Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi, 2021. Ph. Matteo De Fina © Palazzo Grassi

It is only through the skin that the metaphysics of the spirits can be brought in.(3)

Moving it is not sufficient. It is a research based on physical actions that Artaud invokes in his Theatre of Cruelty. It is necessary to remake the body in order to achieve its true freedom, to make it capable of building new connections. The actor must be able to reshape his own nature, striking the spectator’s senses in order to bring them to life again.

If music affects snakes, it is not because of the spiritual notions it offers them, but because snakes are long, they unravel their whole length on the earth, and touch the ground with almost the whole of their bodies; so that the musical vibrations that are transmitted to the ground reach them with a very delicate and very long massage; well, I propose to act on the spectators like the enchanters on snakes and to make them rediscover through their organism the most subtle sensations. I therefore propose a theatre in which violent physical images shatter and hypnotise the spectator’s sensitivity, overwhelmed by the theatre as if by a whirlwind of superior forces. (4)

Luca Trevisani, L 38° 11’ 13.32’ N 13° 21’ 4.44’ E, 2k video, 9’25”, stereo, color, 2018

Marco De Marinis (5), a theatre historian, points out a maturing process in Artaud’s research, namely the passage from the perceptive manipulation of the spectator to the lasting transformation of the human being. Artaud abandons the idea of representation in favour of a creation capable of producing effective signs. 

What then is our key to the magic generative trance? How can we aspire to the wisdom of the shaman actor, in a culture of complacency, of spectacle, where art lives under the influence of the compulsion to consume? 

Byung – Chul Han, one of the most important philosophers and thinkers of our time, tackles one of the fractures in today’s society by analysing the function of art. Artists, in an era of economic culturalization, are put under pressure to conform to the market.

Gestus identifies an answer in those practices oriented towards self-reflection, towards attention to the process. Each work induces on the visitor’s body imperceptible but fundamental breaks in  the physical automatisms, with the aim of questioning the perception of one’s own body and of the mental and spiritual dimension. In this way, artistic practice seeks to free itself from the mediation imposed by market logic, in order to rediscover a poetic and essential dimension. A dialogue that goes beyond space and time, which is transmitted from one body to another. 

1. E. Decroux, Paroles sur le mime, Librairie théâtrale, 1994, pad 80
2. Lecoq J., Il corpo poetico, Ubulibri, Milano, 2000, pp 52
3. Artaud, Basta con i capolavori, in il Teatro e il suo doppio con altri scritti teatrali, cit. pp. 214
4. Artaud, Basta con i capolavori, in il Teatro e il suo doppio, cit. pp.197 -199
5. De Marinis, In cerca dell’attore, Bulzoni Editore

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15 October 2021
15 January 2022

Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi

Curated by
Video Sound Art

Laura Lamonea
Chief curator

Thomas Ba
Junior curator

Daniela Amandolese

Francesca Mainardi

Lino Palena

Davide Francalanci
Editorial insights