stories

— JANUARY 5th, 2007: EFREM

Lu Cafausu, San Cesario di Lecce, Italy. Ph. Luigi Negro

A while ago, before the summer, in the courtyard at Careof in Milan, Efrem, a guy with a beard, told me he came from San Cesario: «I live on the edge of town, at luca fausu», he said, with that sly Salento accent. I thought: «He lives in a false Luca, at Luca-the-fake… whatever.»

Over the next few days, for no apparent reason, I kept thinking about this fake Luca. A couple of months later we were driving through San Cesario, Alessandra had a blue wig, it was three in the morning and we were on our way home from a party. We had ingested red wine, rum and chinotto, and I had chewed some mint leaves. «I want to show you something – she said. Have you ever heard of the lu cafausu?» I couldn’t believe my ears. Around two bends and down two one-way streets (the wrong way, she was driving) and there was the fake Luca.

A dozen buildings surround what might almost be called a piazza. At its center stands a strange structure (more of an “object”) in crumbly masonry, a weird sort of pagoda with a Middle Eastern air (a crescent moon on the roof), fragile, almost an eyesore.
Efrem’s neighborhood doesn’t take its name from some dishonest Luca, but from a “coffee house” (twisted by local dialect into “lu cafe-haus-u”) that has been many little things for many long decades: a gathering place for peasants, a gazebo that provided shade for noblemen and English officers as they sipped tea, a dwelling for a young orphan and his white horse, a henhouse, a toilet, a garage for a Lambretta, a sexual trysting place, a farmer’s tool shed, an illegal gambling joint, a dream object and, last but not least, the site of performances by four artists.

It was and is an inadmissible spot, a territory of accumulation and absence of meaning. A metaphor, perhaps, of what we might become.

* * *

— JANUARY 12th, 2007: THE SECRET OF CATHERINE

The Cafausu will seem useless, the villa it belongs to will vanish in the contortions of the complex, chaotic logic of real estate speculation. In a few decades we’ll be in the suburbs and none of the people who live in the rows of condos will remember the villa.

The plots of the peasants of the Arneo, after years of suffering and squatting, have been sorted out thanks to a series of government concessions. The land no longer belongs to the English family. They had already abandoned it anyway, years ago.

I know the secret of Catherine, the daughter of the owners of the villa. She fell in love with Uccio, a youth “dark of skin and hair”, from a humble family, proud leader of struggling workers and, by the way, the father of yours truly. They would meet, in secret, at the gazebo, a romantic, fragrant place, near the wall of the estate.

Catherine died very young, a few months after giving me birth. But before dying she made Uccio, who had become the designated owner of the land, promise that even if he had to demolish the crumbling villa, even if he had to sell everything, he would never let the gazebo, the place of their lovemaking, be destroyed.

* * *

— JANUARY 19th, 2007: THE VIGIL

Maria Concetta is 65 years old. She’s a dressmaker. We’re shut away in a room and she’s washing me with care, using a sponge soaked in water and vinegar. As she washes me, my friend… I see the Cafausu, the sun, the linen curtains shifting in the early summer breeze. Outside, all around, there are grapevines and, above all, olive trees. She stops washing and shows me an old photograph stuck on the mirror over the dresser. She says it’s the first picture that was ever taken in the villa.

Catherine was a little girl, she’s running, out of focus; some women are standing around her, they stop and look rather bashfully towards the photographer. In the gazebo you can sense the presence of someone who’s about to serve coffee. The women, all quite tall, have very short, very light dresses, floral prints (pastel colors, I would guess). They are all barefoot.

Maria Concetta points to one, the chubbiest, wearing schoolmarm spectacles. «This one was my friend – she says – Valentina Scorrano was her name, she came from Presicce, but then she went to Germany.»

In the background, away from the others, a very young, skinny girl looks sad, struggling with the breeze as it tries to raise her skirt. «Little one got no panties, would’ja say?» Maria Concetta chuckles, enjoying her vulgar joke, her smile revealing gold teeth.

She’s a chiangimuerti (a paid mourner), and they say she got rich fixing up the corpses. In the emotional atmosphere of a wake jewelry has a way of getting lost, especially when the vigil is conducted by a chiangimuerti, closed up with you in a room.

* * *

— MAY 2007: MOROLOJA, THE CHANT OF THE DEAD

Like a reawakening, as if the little space inside the Cafausu had expanded. I’m dressed up, in a shirt and tie I haven’t worn for ages, perfectly still. Maria Concetta slides eyeglasses into position on my head, then emits a long shout. At first I don’t understand that it is the prelude to a chant. A melodious lament that goes on for hours, hypnotic, anguishing: the Moroloja, the chant of the dead.

Somebody pays her to do it, I’m not sure whom, also because I’m not supposed to be dead and in any case I don’t even know what is supposed to have killed me. All I know is this lamentation, this woman who just a few minutes ago was stealing my gold and my watch. Now she’s crying (tearlessly) and singing my praises. She seems to know me, as if we’d met time and again for years.

I am on the ground in the Cafausu, surrounded by people I’ve never seen before. Maria Concetta wails and cries, shaking her head, mussing her hair, shaking. She holds a kerchief in one hand. Candles and rotting flowers waft a putrid odor of lavender and coffee. I feel like throwing up but I can’t. Evidently the dead are not allowed to vomit.

The “chiangimuerti” is sweating now, swimming toward a spoken tone, but then her inebriating sobs return, another spasm of grief. I can hear the way she avoids the pleasures of singing, out of respect, eschewing the harmony of the musical structure, keeping a perfect balance between groan and tune. I start to pay attention to the words. They express no Christian concepts of death or resurrection, no mention of Christ, Mary, saints.

After life there is only dissolution, “dark night”. I listen to an appeal to Thanatos, death personified, and to the fairy Fate, with her dramatic power of dominion and destiny. I think I can salvage a memory: my grandmother, Vicenzina, became senile when she was about eighty, and would often sing a song by Orietta Berti:

Stretti stretti nell’estasi d’amor la spagnola s’amar così bocca bocca la notte e il dì.

Then she would immediately cut it short, and lose herself in a wailed lament:
Ohimmè, Sorte noscia. (Oh my… such is our Fate)

* * *

— OCTOBER 11th, 2007: THE NANOCAFAUSU

Dusk. I knew my way around that suburb. Lu Cafausu was in the reflection on a puddle, together with a scrawny pink pepper tree. Surrounded by tract houses and condos that still emitted odors of construction dust and mortar. It looked like a Cyclops with a droopy single eyelid. The totally ungovernable nature of its beauty, and at the same time its complete autonomy with respect to my sentiments, had never been so clear before.

It had been raining for days, and a dark dog had taken shelter under the roof: from a distance the dog was just a blotch, like a little tar pit.

Two hours later I was in a room full of Canon printers: Professor C was seated in front of me, in his studio at the Nanotechnology Research Group. I had explained things to him openly: I felt a physical need to contain that place, to incorporate it in me. Lu Cafausu had to be able to travel thanks to my body, I wanted to become its vector, I felt an urgent need to hide it, wrapping it inside me like a fetus. To become its living frame.

I also told the professor that the first time I talked about this with Cesare (a mutual friend) he immediately urged me to swallow it. SWALLOW IT. I was fascinated by the word, more than the act in itself. Digestive processes exist to transform or to expel, but the nano-Cafausu would never have to be transformed.

Talinjit was from New Delhi and had been Professor C’s assistant for a couple of years. Together, with boundless patience, they tried to explain how I should guide the flywheel with which I could create, “freehand”, the nanosculpture of Lu Cafausu.

Later, though, we would have to come up with about 10,000 euros: the average cost of a hypothetical material with which to “work”. Otherwise, the use of the laboratories and the work of the team were free, because everyone seemed to like the idea. But something seriously bothered me; in that moment I tried out my sculpture using a material that was easy to shape, but toxic:

«It’s the most ductile and flexible of all elements, but it is not suitable. This is because we cannot know what will happen inside your body in ten years’ time. We can inject it into a muscle, under the skin, or if you prefer we can use a long needle to place it in the parenchyma of an organ. No one can tell you what will become of your little Cafausu if it starts to freely circulate inside your organism…»

The fact is that I continued to complicate matters. I thought about a material that would remain stable, in its shaped form, only inside a living human being. I imagined my death and Lu Cafausu as it came apart within me, with me.
I took some journals home with me that day: “Mechanical and Electrical Behavior of Carbon Nanotubes”, “Rivista italiana di compositi e nanotecnologie”.

Over the next few days the attempts to construct a form similar to the Cafausu failed repeatedly. The scientists who were helping me thought it was excellent news and tried to convince me to abandon my sculptural compulsion, saying I would not be able to achieve much more, even after a full year of trying.

I remember that during the first days they kept urging me to make a computer-aided construction, based on a photograph but the results seemed cold, impersonal, like an architectural model. It wasn’t the work I wanted to contain, to carry, to feel, to frame. The sculpture had to be less like a caption, it should have been more symbolic, more emotional. At a certain point Talinjit, without taking his eyes off the monitor, said that I was building myself a non-functional organ.

* * *

— OCTOBER 18th, 2007: DOROTHEA

The Clay Club, circa 1940. Photographer unknown

In front of me is the face of Annie L.; in her early 60s, she died of a heart attack. Her face is like a ball of paper, crushed in a fist. Her mouth is a box for rings, opened and emptied. “Theft”, I think… then I hear a voice softly say “It won’t be easy, Dee”.

Working for the MacAllister School of Embalming hadn’t seemed like such an outlandish idea. My father was an illustrator and had a strange passion for anatomy. Knowing the human body gave him confidence; for him it was a sort of guarantee, the way people carry an amulet in their pocket.

Who knows if his real desire was to shape bodies rather than draw them. His passion was contagious and anatomy became a path leading to art for me as well. So when I looked at or touched a skull, I began to feel I was simply shaping what was latent in a face; I felt like someone making a portrait, but my action was clearly sculptural. I wanted to create forms.

Here at the Embalming School, I handle a material that is not clay. I touch the lips, smooth the forehead, comb the hair, touch up the eyebrows, imagine the movements of that face, its character, its tics, all its expressions. Over time I have developed a technique for reshaping the faces of corpses. Slender but strong elastic threads stitched inside the cheeks make it possible to restore the skin’s tension, to keep the mixture of wax, parafin and cornstarch in place, which I have always used to fill the oral cavity and, where necessary, to restore the smooth firmness of the face.

I feel that working on the head of a dead person is much more than making a sculpture: of course the sculptor’s challenge has always been that of giving life to his creation, but those faces grant me an emotion that is hard to describe. It’s not so much in the idea of imagining the person alive, or coming back to life, and it’s not the thrill of creating an illusion, or having a feeling of power over life or over bodies.

Maybe it is simply a state similar to the one certain dreams confusedly leave behind them. I’ve always known that no one would come back to life, that my hands could not restore life, but lately I have felt that the face of the deceased, in my hands, takes on a particular power, very great and very fragile at the same time; something that calls forth an idea of life as potential, an instant in which time inexplicably loses its dimension and its very reason for existing, and goes back to being absence.

The thrill of this suspended moment in which I feel like something could happen, like something is about to happen.

Inspired by the life and work of Dorothea Denslow (1900-1971), sculptor, founder of the Clay Club (1928), later re-named SculptureCenter. Denslow taught anatomy at an embalming school from 1946 to 1951.

* * *

— OCTOBER 25th, 2007: MODIGLIANI’S HEADS

Try to imagine the rediscovery of several previously unknown pieces by Modigliani during an exhibition of his works, along with the din of attributions, statements, expert opinions, proclamations and critical hairsplitting that cannot help but follow in its wake.

Now try to imagine four high-school students in a garden, armed with hammer and chisel, working on a stone and savoring, in advance, the surprised expression of those who will find it. At least for a few minutes, because the experts will undoubtedly realize soon enough that the statue is a fake. Now try to imagine the faces of the students when they find out that the statue has fooled everybody. At this point, it is up to them to admit to their practical joke.

Twenty-three years have passed since the perpetration of one of the greatest hoaxes in the history of Italian art. Four kids from Leghorn did their part, as citizens, to make a contribution to the loopy adventure of the salvaging of the lost sculptures of Modigliani.

Rumor had it that the artist, in a moment of discouraged despondency, convinced that his sculptures would never be as good as his paintings, had tossed them into the Fosso Mediceo (a canal). After having dredged up all kinds of stuff, but no sculptures, people began to make jokes about the entire operation: «Look, they just found Modigliani’s bicycle!», «There is one of Amedeo’s shoes!»…

One night Pietro Luridiana, Pierfrancesco Ferrucci, Michele Ghelarducci and Michele Genovesi, after having sculpted a stone with a Black&Decker drill, stealthily threw it into the canal. The next day, as the dredging continued, the workers did indeed find a sculpted head in the style of Modigliani. But when they saw it the boys were amazed… it wasn’t the head they had made!

Its real author was Angelo Froglia, a dockworker and artist, who later declared that his action could be seen as a work of conceptual art, unmasking the faulty mechanisms of the art world. But the joke got the better of the concept, and as the entire tale emerged the media turned all their spotlights onto the four boys.

The head made by the students was the second to be discovered. Immediately afterwards, the leading experts expressed pompous opinions regarding the artworks and the episode, confirming the authenticity of the sculptures (though we should recall that unlike all his colleagues, Federico Zeri said the sculptures were so “immature” that even if they were authentic, Modigliani had been right about throwing them away).

The four friends, heirs to Buffalmacco and Calandrino, must have had a good laugh, though at a certain point the event took on such importance that it would be hard to resolve matters just by saying: «Hey, it was just a joke». But fortune smiles on the daring, and our practical jokers—who, after all, had committed no crime—demonstrated the truth with photos taken at pertinent moments. In the end, at prime time, they made a replica of the work (with the usual tools) for the television cameras: a perfect Modigliani, in just 45 minutes.

Michele told me he started to make sculptures again, a few years ago, and I immediately understood that the spirit of Modì, together with that of Angelo Froglia, who passed away a few years ago, were still in town, spreading the virus of sculpture.

* * *

— NOVEMBER 1st, 2007: A BLIND SCULPTOR

Istituto Nazionale dei Ciechi di Guerra, Rome. On the floor, two bronzes by Filippo Bausola (Vittorio Emanuele III and Benito Mussolini), circa 1934

The last image is a hailstorm of little black stones against the leaden gray field of the sky. Then an awful burning sensation all over my face, stabbing pain in the eye sockets. I was lying in a bed, voices whispered so softly that the words were almost incomprehensible, though they seemed to be talking about me. I thought I heard the word “extraction”. The smell of chloroform and, in the distance, moaning.

Five years ago, when I delivered my work to the Head of State, Benito Mussolini, he was very surprised and pleased. He told me he had rarely seen portraits of such accuracy, and when he found out that I had made the work only from memory, and by touching some other sculptures, like that of Selva, he allowed me to touch his face so I would know what a good job I had done.

For the regime I was some kind of hero: blinded by a grenade near the end of the war, I had begun to sculpt: I shaped clay, sculpted stone, received dozens of commissions, and today my sculptures are found in many public buildings in Rome, the great home of the invalids, the ministry, the headquarters of the blind veterans.

Over time, though, I seemed to understand that another possibility existed, apart from that of trying to reproduce the forms of a face, the proportions of a body as accurately as I could. It was Zighina, daughter of the sun.

She agreed to be the model of a blind sculptor, and she let me touch not only her face but also her whole body. I understand almost nothing of her language, and she cannot speak mine, but she guides my hands, and with hers she helps me to know her in the only way I can. With an ingenuousness (or indifference?) that to me seems like naturalness and complicity, she let me be free to feel pleasure when I touch her.

Since I became blind I have always said that sounds seem almost like an intrusion, that the sense of smell is useless, and that eating serves only to fill the stomach. I said that the blind have eyes in their fingertips.

But since Zighina arrived touch gives me a pleasure that I had never imagined. Today I think my art can go beyond color and figure. I want to be able to make sculpture that reproduces the sensuality of a smooth surface, not the form of an arm or a thigh; the pleasure of caressing a throbbing breast, not its perfect roundness. I would like to be a pioneer, to make sculpture something it has never been: an art of the touch.

Freely adapted from the story of Filippo Bausola (1893-1952), who became a sculptor after losing his sight in World War I, and from the film Môjuu (English title: Blind Beast) by Masumura Yasuzo (1969).

(translated by Steve Piccolo)

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