Genital-Yanking Performance Art Is the Best
I’d normally rather donate my eyes to an amateur Gumtree scientist than expose them to performance art, because privileged arty people pretentiously prancing around, hoping to make a statement about the shackles of consumerist society – or whatever – makes my bones recoil. However, when photographer and DOP Beniamino Barrese sent us his depictions of Italian performing arts ensemble Ricci/Forte’s new play Imitation of Death, our jaws dropped in drooly laughter and our eyes nearly fell out of their comfort holes. I invited Beniamino to the office to interrogate him about this getting-butt-naked-and-pulling-at-each-other’s-genitals "performance" business.
VICE: Hi Beniamino. Is this play just an excuse for these actors to sexually assault each other?
Beniamino Barrese: I think the pictures make it appear more shocking than it is in the play. It looks violent, but apparently it’s not painful and it only goes on for maybe three minutes. The play is meant to be a reflection on – or critique of – how today’s world is saturated with sex and violence and how the audience likes it and enjoys it. You know, how desensitised we’ve become.
Are they Catholics?
[Laughs] On a superficial level, it might sound like it’s preaching about the wrongs of young people’s experience of sex and violence, but it’s not about moralising, it digs much deeper than that. It reflects on the psychological effect of being able to access whatever the fuck we want on the internet and how our communication being increasingly mediated by social media results in less and less real connection between people. I guess it’s about the devaluation of intimacy and privacy, or at least that’s what I’m getting from Ricci/Forte’s shows.
Did it surprise you when they got completely naked and started touching each other up?
No, because I knew nudity was a part of their shows. But the only hint I got about the “touching each other up” bit was when they told me to be prepared with the camera because, “This is going to be a good moment.”
I’m attracted to bodies and always strive to make the natural element of nudity, as opposed to erotic nudity, a part of my photographic work. But, in this case, there was so much tension that I didn’t pay attention to details, and when they put their clothes back on I was like, “Man, I wish I could remember what that person looks like without his underwear on.”
When they performed on stage, I couldn’t help but check the changing faces of the audience, which consisted of a lot of middle class 65-year-olds. I think there’s some sort of secret pleasure for them in having this experience, but I overheard one of them say, “We already did these things in the 70s and we did them better. This is ridiculous!” That may be, but in Italy a lot of people still think abortion is wrong and still don’t accept homosexuality, so we probably need these kinds of performances.
How did you first hear about Ricci/Forte?
This is really personal, but the first person I fell in love with is now part of the company and told me about it, and then the director saw my pictures and suggested we work together. So I decided to spend some days with them while they rehearsed in Rome this past September.
What shocked me most was not the nudity – that’s something I find natural – but the part when one actor at a time is beaten with a pair of jeans and, after each strike, has to talk into a microphone about a sexual experience. It’s horrible. Some of them talk about abuse and other tragic experiences like abortion. But this exploitative element – how their lives are on show for everybody – is what makes the play strong, what shocks the audience and leaves them with food for thought. So it works. It’s interesting how the actors’ lives fit into the theatre and, you know, how the theatre fucks up their lives.
Are they real sexual experiences or fictional ones?
I think a lot of the stuff is real. When I arrived they were all, “Beniamino, we know you.” Because I had slept with one of them who had probably brought it up in a confession. It’s embarrassing because they have to say, like, “15th July 2002, Beniamino,” and then the place, what happened, how long it lasted and so on. It was quite embarrassing because I didn't know anybody else in the company, but they all knew intimate details about one of my sexual experiences.
Was it a good or bad experience?
Well, we had a very romantic thing, but then it became really sexual and the sex was amazing, but, you know, I was so young, so nothing really came of it.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on two different things: one is an ongoing project about identity that I’m doing with 16 other artists spread around the world, the other is a socio-political series about Athens. I’m really interested in politics and how Europe is getting fucked up.
Aside from this rather raunchy art series, Beniamino takes really pretty pictures, which you can check out here.
Follow Milene on Twitter: @Milenelarsson
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